WOMMA constituents discuss ethics code

WASHINGTON: The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has some words of advice for its industry: a new ethics code to dispel some of the negative stigma surrounding its practices.

WASHINGTON: The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has some words of advice for its industry: a new ethics code to dispel some of the negative stigma surrounding its practices.

The fast-growing industry, populated by firms that practice buzz, viral, and other similar types of marketing, has had to deal with criticism lately over deceptive practices, such as shilling, where people (sometimes actors) are paid to talk about a product without disclosing they work for a certain company.

The code seeks to avoid this, stating, "Clear disclosure of identity is vital to establish trust and credibility. We do not blur identification in a manner that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individual with whom they are communicating or instruct or imply that others should do so."

What the code does not include is a means of enforcement.

Andy Sernovitz, WOMMA's CEO, said it's too early to discuss enforcement as the code is only first draft in "what will be a long and complicated process." He added that the association is allowing people to comment, and the feedback will be used in the code's final version.

The code itself came under attack recently from another trade group.

On February 16, the Viral + Buzz Market Association (VBMA), which bills itself as an international trade organization for the industry, issued a press release with the headline, "Viral + Buzz Marketing Association Questions Ethics Behind WOMMA's 'Ethics Code.'"

The release also accuses WOMMA of declining to work with the VBMA in December on a joint ethics commission--an allegation Sernovitz dismisses.

"We invited them months ago, and they chose not to participate," he said.

Dave Balter, president of BzzAgent, a word of mouth marketer, said the code is important for the health of the industry as continuation of bad marketing practices could have ominous results.

"Companies that practice stealth initiatives, or ones focusing on deceiving the consumer, are causing skepticism and distrust," said Balter, co-chair of WOMMA's Ethics Council. "If this practice goes unchecked, it will be the downfall of the industry."

The code came about as both a pre-emptive way to head-off further problems as well as stand up for legitimate e-mail marketers who have been getting a bad name courtesy of spammers, according to Sernovitz.

"This is about getting out there first, before there are severe problems," Sernovitz said. "The code is built on solid, fundamental principles."

Those principles are what the association is calling "Honesty ROI," which stands for honest disclosure of relationship, opinion, and identity.

Currently, WOMMA has about 50 members, including several large PR firms, including Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, and Fleishman-Hillard.

Edelman EVP Rick Murray, also a co-chair of WOMMA's Ethics Council, said that the code was created not to avoid bad PR for the industry, but to avoid bad practice.

"I think it important [for word of mouth marketers] to band together as a collective body to put a stake in the sand in a new and engaging area," he said.

"We want to avoid what happened in the e-mail industry with spam."

Murray added that word of mouth marketing is a critical part of the communications mix and could mark a fundamental shift in how marketing is conducted.

"The person on the other end of the conversation is dictating" the conversation, he said. "That's who we have to be listening to."

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