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Don't underestimate the power of Social Media - the need to "tweet" our views regularly; the importance of being "Llinkedin" to our contacts; the desirability of sharing our news and activities via "Facebook"; the joy of posting our pictures on Pinterest; and many other forums too numerous to mention.
But what may seem like a free for all opportunity to share, inform and mould, is in fact surrounded by rules and regulations to which respectable businesses must adhere. Each site or forum will have its own rules, usually designed to deter offensive posts, but there are many laws and guidelines which also apply.
The EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, incorporated into the UK Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 lists in a schedule various activities which are considered to be unfair to consumers, including undisclosed paid blogging and false representation as a consumer. This would catch a business bidding on eBay to deliberately push up the price and positive blogs by a business pretending to be its customer.
The UK Code on Non-Broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion & Direct Marketing (otherwise known as the CAP Code) also aims to protect the consumer and, amongst other things, requires posts to make it clear when an item is marketing and therefore not necessarily objective and requires evidence to support testimonials. TripAdvisor fell foul of this requirement in 2012, and the ASA reiterated that it was important to know the identity of someone who posts a testimonial or review, verify the comments and ensure that statements can substantiated. In addition, it is important to know the identity of the originator before re-tweeting a comment.
The IBA/IBS Guidelines state it is important to make it quite clear when an advert is an advert so as not to mislead customers, as well as imposing a requirement to disclose where payments are made in return for comments. The use of "#ad" or "#spon" is highly advisable to comply with the guidelines. The ASA has had a number of complaints referred to it where an advert is not specifically highlighted as an advert. It confirmed in the matter of Gemma Collins' tweets relating to Toni & Guy hairdressers in July 2012 that where the "#ad" or similar was not used, the post must make it "obviously identifiable" as an advert to avoid ASA intervention.
The CAP Rules of Social Engagement Advice issued in June 2013 suggest that where a business is inviting people to send things in for publishing on its website or social media site, the business ensures that it monitors the post to ensure they are appropriate to the target audience - this is especially important where the target audience is or includes children. The ASA took action against Antica Sambuca in January 2013 following a complaint that photos of drunk party goers posted by the public onto Antica Sambuca's site were promoting excessive drinking. The ASA message was very much that Antica Sambuca was responsible for the photos which the public uploaded to its site, so take care when inviting the public to contribute to your website.
There are also CAP guidelines to ensure that T&Cs and promotional rules are clear for competitions.
Sites also have their own rules; Twitter has issued Guidelines for contests on Twitter which include disqualification for entrants using multiple accounts, discouraging re-tweets and asking for an @reply to be added so that monitoring can take place. Facebook also has its own rules for promotions on its site, which include the requirement to make it clear that the promotion is not sponsored or endorsed by Facebook.
So once you have decided to embrace social media for your business, found the great taglines and photos to include, determined the branding and message to be portrayed and obtained the buy-in of the occasionally cynical CEO, the sometimes technophobic finance director and often over enthusiastic marketing department, don't forget to consider the generally perceived dry but essential legal and regulatory requirements; that way your business will not be highlighted as a test case for the ASA or higher authority.
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