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Oct. 10, 2005
The Advertising Age Web site last week ran an article with the headline "Is Buzz Marketing Illegal" that touches on a valid issue -- the need for disclosure in word of mouth marketing and
That headline received widespread pickup around the Web, which is unfortunate because it had nothing to do with the content of the article. It misstates what word of mouth marketing is, and smears honest marketers.
The headline did not distinguish between those using word of mouth in an open, honest way and those who use deception. Smearing an entire industry with the sins of a few does no one any good, most especially consumers who can benefit from honest marketing.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) was founded to promote the open, honest use of word of mouth marketing. From our creation, our goal has been to bring honesty to marketing. We oppose deception in any and all forms. We are the good guys in the marketing world.
So let's set the record straight. Word-of-mouth marketing is about getting consumers to talk to consumers. It starts with a product or service that consumers like enough to talk about.
Word-of-mouth marketing is about honest discussions -- even to the point where a consumer can tell a company about a problem enabling the company to respond quickly and honestly at the same time it addresses the problem.
Word-of-mouth marketing, done properly, encourages all marketing to become more honest because it puts the voice of the consumer front and center in the marketing mix.
Word of mouth is not about paying people to pretend they like something. Has that practice, known in the business as stealth marketing, happened in the past? Yes. Should it be done in the future? WOMMA emphatically says no.
WOMMA's ethics code specifically addresses the issue. It states: "We practice openness about the relationship between consumers, advocates, and marketers. We encourage word of mouth advocates to disclose their relationship with marketers in their communications with other consumers. We don't tell them specifically what to say, but we do instruct them to be open and honest about any relationship with a marketer and about any products or incentives that they may have received."
The code also contains what we call the "Honesty ROI: Honesty of Relationship, Honesty of Opinion, and Honesty of Identity." When you're doing word-of-mouth marketing, you say who you're speaking for, you say what you believe, and you never obscure your identity.
Word-of-mouth marketing is a new profession; we are still in the formative stages of this new relationship with consumers. The environment is changing rapidly, but our stand on ethics is clear and was clear long before this headline appeared.
Headlines or articles that lump the good and the bad together can have a chilling impact on such a new field, frightening off honest practitioners who otherwise could keep the dishonest ones out. That's what happened with e-mail marketing. Articles called every e-mail from any marketer "spam" -- and reputable marketers were scared to be associated with the issue. Instead of joining the fight, they left the field to the real spammers.
We do not want to see that pattern repeat itself in word of mouth.
The future of marketing is word of mouth; the tremendous growth of our organization in less than a year is proof that marketers are getting that message. And the message they're getting is one of openness and honesty.
The world has become too transparent for any other kind of marketing to succeed. Word of mouth forces companies to be honest because it gives tools to consumers to call out companies for their mistakes. All marketing should be held to the same high standards.