What about a moral compass in social media marketing? | 社会化媒体营销道德

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I was fortunate to participate in a panel discussion recently at a conference discussing measurement | ROI for social media activity and dropped in to witness a couple of the prior performances as it helps you to get a feel for the audience and the kind of issues that came up.

One issue that seemed to strike a chord with the audience was one of acceptable behaviour by brands on social media.

A case study was presented about the way a prominent brand used social media. I have deliberately not named the brand as I don’t want to single them out, it wouldn’t be fair because it is a microcosm of activity being done by brands at large.

A way that measurement and monitoring tools were used included not only following conversations for issues and sentiment analysis; but as a way of scraping different social media channels, in particular Twitter and transposing positive comments into a Facebook tab featuring product testimonials. The question-and-answer session post-presentation quickly focused on the ethics surrounding this testimonial programme, from my point-of-view this is where things got interesting.

The question was answered thus: we discussed it internally and besides its legal. There was then a back-and-forth between the audience questioning this, eventually a lawyer in the audience chimed in and pointed out that at a 140-characters isn’t considered to have creative value in itself so it is fair game. Throwing the audience a bone, the presenter said that the content was public so people should expect to be used, but if the person complained, it could be taken down.

So what is wrong with this picture?


Firstly, let’s substitute a real-world scenario as a thought experiment to help illustrate a point. The presenter used the well-worn analogy of social media platforms being like a pub so that’s where I would start. Imagine that you are in a pub, not the vertical drinking establishments a la AllBarOne with no seats and loud music that limit conversations, but one with booths were you and your community of friends can sit together and have a conversation that whilst public isn’t necessarily all for consumption by everyone-at-large.

Now imagine there were people in the pub who were eavesdropping on your conversation and putting the best / juiciest bits – along with your name and a way of identifying you as an individual on the ticker-tape running across the bottom of a popular TV station, say Sky1, and the first you know of it is when you see it or other people reach out to you and tell you that they’ve seen it.

Your comments have no context wrapped around them, you have not authorised them and there was no prior indication by the TV station that they were eavesdropping on you. You may feel uncomfortable, you may feel that you were misrepresented and you may feel angry. The TV station can’t rewind time and make it right for you.

Isn’t this precisely why tabloid journalists and paparazzi photographers are often viewed by the public as scum, only slightly higher up the social food-chain than corrupt politicians, paedophiles and war criminals?

It’s about social norms. This blog post you are reading has a BSD usage licence. The reason why that is specifically because it provides a clause that deals with endorsements or testimonials in my name:

…may not be used to endorse or promote products derived from this software without specific prior written permission.

I wanted to be open with my content, but prevent my identity being used out of context.

This echoed through into my PR career. I started off agency-side in business-to-business technology and a major concern was permission-based disclosure of our client’s customers as endorsements. We spent a lot of time on the process of writing case studies that customers were happy to sign off. There were a number of challenges:

  • Salespeople wanted case studies, they didn’t necessarily want to have their clients as the case studies for a few reasons. Primarily because customers realised the value of endorsements and would look to reflect this in revised contracts, negotiations would slow down as the contract would take in a wider sway of people including legal and communications staff.
  • Challenges in messaging. When I worked in-house, it was a matter of policy from the communications team that we would not approve endorsements or case studies from suppliers – despite the fact that Rackable Systems build their business on promoting the fact that their servers were at the heart of our data centres. Our attitude was similar to attitudes that I met from a number of client’s customers including financial institutions and Fortune 500 companies who didn’t want their brand sullied by association with an upstart technology brand, or a brand that didn’t add anything by association
  • Challenges in information flow. Part of the reason why spokespeople were media trained and media briefings were produced was to try and reduce the risk of spokespeople alienating their customers by name dropping them without authorisation during journalist interviews. Spokespeople would name-drop organisations that they’d had conversations with as prospective customers without any ink being committed to contracts. It wasn’t about controlling news flows, it was trying to stop people talking out of their hat – it wasn’t deliberate lies, but a combination of failure to connect their mouth and their brain and internal miscommunication

How is it ok to ask rational decision-makers: organisations for permission to use their testimonials, but it isn’t required for consumers? I don’t think it is.

This reminded me of the early days of email marketing with the opt-in versus opt-out debate where digital marketers didn’t want to give customers the choice of opting in as:

  • What we’re doing is already legal. But that didn’t make it right and in some countries marketers were forced by legal pressures to respect customers and develop opt-in email marketing registration
  • We wouldn’t get the positive responses. There would be lower audience reach as consumers wouldn’t like to opt into advertising
  • It is too expensive. Opting in would lower revenues as there would be less opportunity to present offers to them
  • Process complexity. The email marketing process was too complex already

Yet, despite all the hoopla about search and social media marketing, email marketing is still with us and there are still a number of successful businesses out there like Amazon and Play.com.

So why is being legal, not being right?

As I talked about earlier it is about context. This context is partly provided by the community as well as the individual. Communities are made up of people who share trust, values, passions and a common etiquette made up of both formal and unwritten rules. Where this community goes into new areas, the community will quickly come up with an acceptable social norm with regards this new area.

For example, I have participated on the Flickr photo-sharing community since 2004 and now have thousands of pictures online offered with a creative commons licence that gives people free rein to use them. But I still get people dropping me a mail on a regular basis asking if they can use this picture for a project or an article: from a Japanese product design consultancy who wanted to use my pictures in a survey to a French journalist looking to write a piece about retro gadgets.

These permission emails are part of the unwritten community rules of Flickr. But communities don’t just exist online, we belong to a number of them. Chances are if you are reading this post you are in employment or work – one community, your friends and family make up a number of other communities that you participate in. So instead of asking what is the minimum that we should do as social marketers we should be asking why shouldn’t we be civil in how we conduct ourselves?

In this particular case:

  • Are we taking the original content out of its context?
  • Is there any reason why we can’t ask for permission?

If we don’t have enough resources to ask for permission, we don’t have enough budget to conduct social media marketing.

A few years ago, I thought about the hierarchy of values that a brand should progress through in its social media interactions, this was based on ideas that  James Warren and Jonathan Hopkins had put out online: being nice and being human. I added on being useful as I felt organisations like banks, insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry wouldn’t necessarily be able to reach those values, but could at least be useful.
Hierarchy of corporate brand values
But my hierarchy has proved flawed, as I wrongly assumed that being civil was the baseline for discourse and a hygiene factor that didn’t need to be mentioned. Given my concern about the apparent lack of a moral compass in social media marketing,  I have revised my hierarchy below:
Being civil
Feel free to incorporate this into your own presentations by downloading and beautifying this PowerPoint slide.

This isn’t only an issue that brands face, Facebook is currently investigation by the Irish government for breaches of EU law related to consumer privacy and data retention. This is a pattern of behaviour at Facebook that has gone for years; for instance Facebook Beacon a few years ago. Of course, just because Facebook does it doesn’t make it right.

I am concerned that despite codes of ethics, as an industry we are putting what is legal before what is right as a key component of our considerations. As an industry we lack civility, sufficient good manners to remember the ‘Golden Rule’ and are exhibiting sociopathy rather than sociability.

In the words of the rap poet Ice Cube:

You better check yo self before you wreck yo self

My notes
Social ethics
More information:
Facebook could face €100,000 fine for holding data that users have deleted | The Guardian
WOMMA – Ethics – guide and tools to ethical behaviour