Thursday, January 07, 2010

Transparency in Social Media: Ethical Considerations in Marketing

Update 2/3/10: Toby Bloomberg and John Cass have completed their survey--see the results here: Where Does "Transparency" Fit in the New Social Media Marketing Model

As I see more and more consultants, marketers and web design firms offer social media services to their clients, I begin to wonder what, exactly are they offering? Most of their sites don't say exactly the kind of social media consulting they offer, but from the scuttlebutt I've gathered from here and there, what is being offered is more like social media copywriting for a blog or Twitter or Facebook. While this may be what the client wants, or is willing to accept if the only thing offered, how transparent are professionals being with their clients? And what about the customers who may come to a company's various social media pages believing they are getting in touch with a company, only to find their comments neglected and their concerns unanswered? Where, then, should transparency begin with social media marketing efforts?

Vendor to Client Transparency If you are offering social media services, be clear in the kind of services you offer. If you outsource portions of your social media, say that this is what you do. If what you are offering is a blog copywriting service, then say that's what it is. If the company is not directly writing the blog, and there are no comments, then what is being done is strictly content creation/copywriting because there is no intention to engage with anyone who comes in contact with the content.

It is the intent to engage--whether or not that engagement happens--that turns straight content into "social media" and not the platform where it is published. The platform, if it is a blog platform, is only a simple to use content management system. Content production on a simple content management system isn't necessarily "blogging." It's essentially copywriting if there is no intent to engage.

Client to Customer Transparency With the new FTC Endorsement Guides, we know that, basically, if someone takes payment to write on a blog about a product/service, he/she must have something that says they were paid. This is a great first step in transparency and truthfulness in social media! But there's one more step: when someone is hired to blog for a company, it should be disclosed that the content produced is coming from someone outside of the company.

Why might this seem like it needs to be stated? The assumption among consumers is that if they are going to a company-created social media site--whether that be a blog, Facebook page, or Twitter stream--that they are in some way interacting directly with the company. This is a specific need of customers who engage with companies online (see Deloitte/Beeline Labs "Tribalization of Business")--a need for community and communication with the company.

The customer's expectation for social media is different than for advertising or marketing materials--where it is assumed that those materials may be written by outsiders. The assumption regarding social media is that the company--directly and without reservation--wants to be social with their customers.

Therefore, it would follow that if a company is outsourcing its social media to a consultant, who is then creating copy for them via a social media platform of some kind, then it should be clearly disclosed that the
person is an outside representative of, and not an employee of, said company.

Currently, this is not the case for those who hire others to do their social media work. So, by subcontracting or outsourcing the work of social media, and not disclosing, a company is, technically, misleading its customers into believing that someone within the company will be there for them if they try to interact with the company.

How would you feel if you were that company's customer? Think about it. Wouldn't you feel betrayed? Or do you simply not expect a company to ever engage you via social media? That might be your particular thinking, but it just might not be the thinking of your customers.

Recently, I have heard some scuttlebutt along the lines of "Comcast really *doesn't care," as someone tried to get in touch with Comcast via social media, and no one was there for them.

Zappos however, still gets consistently high marks for the ways that they interact with their customers though their many social media and website endeavors.

If you can create a whole new customer base by using social media (like Zappos has done) doesn't it stand that you would want to keep that customer base happy by interacting with them through social media--if they choose to contact you through social media? (Here I am assuming that the intention to engage is there in the first place.)

So, to recap: there is a first level of transparency: vendor to client, where it is disclosed that some parts of social media are outsourced or written by the consultant. It is then ethical and fair to say that the client is not contracting for social media per se, but is contracting for regularly produced content writing services that may be published on one of the many simple to use CMS's that are usually for blogging (because a blog isn't being created either) or for publication on other social media platforms.

The second level of transparency is from client to customer, where it is fully disclosed that the content is being created not by someone who is directly affiliated with the company, but by a representative or contractor for the client. This keeps the customer from assuming that he/she is engaging directly with the company through social media channels (because they aren't.) The customer can then choose whether to continue to consume the content of this company or go to a place where the content is being produced by someone who is an employee of the company.

Now, there are a whole lot of people who believe that the Internet is the Wild West, and that anyone can do whatever they want within its confines to make a buck. But that's not the case. The Internet is, in many respect a very large community of people, and those people are looking to interact with companies in ways that have been unavailable to them in the analog world. If the only desire of companies is to repeat their analog ways in the digital realm, they are, in some respects, misleading their customers--because the core belief of customers is that they will get better customer service and have their voices heard if they connect via social media.

Are you willing to risk the customer relationships you could be cultivating through social media, and perhaps risk your company's reputation, by sacrificing transparency with both your clients and their customers?

Think about it.

Note: This post was inspired by "What does an agency owe a client in terms of content transparency?" and the survey being conducted by Toby Bloomberg and John Cass on the issue of transparency with clients.


Toby said...

Tish - Your post reinforces that although social media grows more complex to be considered credible transparency and ethics are still critical .. and hopefully will remain so. Thanks for your kind words; I believe we inspire each other!

John_Cass said...

Great post Trish, like the way you discussed all of the issues, we will be sure to reference in our round up.

Tish Grier said...

Thanks Toby and John! I'm really looking forward to reading on your blogs what others have to say about the issue. Eventually, the ethics are going to shake out in all of this--it'll come out in regulations probably, like the FTC stuff.

and yes, Toby, we do indeed inspire each other--and it's been wonderful knowing you for these past 4 years. you've given me so much to think about :)