WOMMA Puts Forth Ethical Guidelines

  |  February 9, 2005   |  Comments

Practitioners of word-of-mouth marketing make a foray into self-regulation.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is expected Wednesday to set forth a code of ethics for marketers deploying word-of-mouth campaigns. The group hopes self-regulation will head off criticism of the industry and keep it out of legislators' crosshairs.

The organization is expected to post the proposed guidelines on its Web site and will solicit public comments for a one-month period, after which it will adopt a final code. In October, the Viral + Buzz Marketing Association (VBMA), a group similar to WOMMA in mission and membership, set forth its own ethical guidelines. WOMMA hasn't yet determined how it will enforce the code or whether it will require members to abide by it.

"We've stepped up to start the conversation," said Andy Sernovitz, CEO of WOMMA. "This is definitely a work in progress. This is way too complicated a topic to have a final code already. This is being released as a draft for comment."

The guidelines state consumer protection and respect are paramount and word-of-mouth campaigns should practice honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity. This means consumer advocates are encouraged to disclose their relationship with marketers. Consumers should only be asked to share their honest opinions, and no one involved in the campaign should hide his identity. An exception would be if an obviously fictional character were portrayed in a campaign.

Further, WOMMA says, marketers should respect the rules of the venue, whether it's a Web site, blog, discussion forum, or live setting.

The group also says it opposes involving children under the age of 13 in word-of-mouth efforts and abides by all legal restrictions on marketing to minors.

WOMMA will promote honest downstream communications, encouraging consumer advocates to abide by the guidelines.

The code says word-of-mouth programs should use opt-in and permission standards, and any personally identifiable information gathered in the course of a campaign should not be used in any other context.

"This starts the conversation," said Sernovitz. "Most of the scandals that have happened so far have happened because marketers didn't have a place to turn to. There are no guideposts out there right now. This presents the first clear guidance to the basic fundamentals."

VBMA founder Justin Kirby says he hasn't yet seen the WOMMA document but is critical of the process by which it was forged. Kirby claims WOMMA wasn't responsive to his desire to get involved in the debate.

"I don't think it's been done with the representation of the broader stakeholders in this arena," said Kirby. "It's a really top-down way of doing things in an industry that's predicated on its bottom-up approach."

The ethics document was the work of WOMMA's ethics council, whose members include employees of companies such as BzzAgent, Edelman, DEI Worldwide, Electric Artists, Intelliseek, Intuit, and Fleishman.

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Pamela Parker

Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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