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Word-of-mouth ethics

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There is growing interest in word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing. Advertising agencies are promoting new WOM practices, creative WOM tactics have emerged online and a trade association, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), has grown to more than 300 member companies. Major news publications and blogs are reporting on WOM practices-the good and the bad.

Word-of-mouth marketing is not new; it is probably the oldest channel for communicating a seller's offering to a prospective buyer. What is new is how marketers are leveraging the trust in WOM and the power of the Internet to promote their products and services.

This is not a bad thing, by the way. A company creates WOM through superior products, services and customer trust that compel users to share their experiences with others. It is smart marketing to leverage these sources of referrals to a broader community. The Internet is an almost perfect medium to do this. However, not all WOM campaigns are viewed as ethical. A list of WOM practices considered unethical can be found on WOMMA's Web site (www.womma.org/ethics).

As WOM for our products can spread lightning fast across the globe through the Internet, so can opinion on our means and motives. In its annual review this year, DuPont stated the following:

"At a time when the external scrutiny and skepticism of all things related to `big business' is increasing, we believe we have a unique opportunity to differentiate DuPont ... because we will be driven by two things: values-based innovation and transparency."

Adherence to high ethical standards is a core value embraced by DuPont.

In April, DuPont became the first Fortune 100 company to publicly endorse WOMMA's Code of Ethics. An e-mail explaining the company's position on ethics for WOM marketing was sent to all DuPont sales and marketing employees, and new language in our contracts with WOM marketing agencies now requires them to adhere to the code if they want to do business with DuPont.

As marketers, we have the opportunity-and obligation-to protect this important marketing channel from abuse. Let us learn from the experience with e-mail marketing and start now with voluntary self-regulation of WOM marketing.

  • Join WOMMA.
  • Endorse its Code of Ethics.
  • Educate employees.
  • Hold marketing agencies accountable.

Actions such as these can build trust in WOM marketing practices and in the marketers that use them.

Gary Spangler is e-business leader, DuPont Electronic & Communication Technologies. He can be reached at Gary.Spangler@usa.dupont.com.

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