20 Questions: Is your WOMM campaign ethical?

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If you have been reading the BrandBuilder blog for any amount of time, you know that I am a big fan of word-of-mouth (WOM) initiatives when it comes to helping a product or brand flourish. (Who are you more likely to believe when it comes to making a purchasing decision: An advertisement, or a recommendation from someone you know and trust? Duh.) By default, I also find myself drawn to word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) initiatives. (I don't like to call them "campaigns" because the kind of thinking associated with the terminology can get you into hot water, but that'll have to be a topic for another post.)

Anyway. That's precisely the rub: Just like The Force, WOMM has a dark side... and for a lot of people whose first encounter with WOMM "campaigns" turns out to be an encouter with shill marketing disguised as WOMM, the very essence of word-of-mouth marketing can be soiled forever.

Not good.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be invited to blog at WOMMA's second basic-training conference (WOMBAT 2) in San Francisco. The skinny: Great event, great people, and lots of "I can't wait to go to the next one." For details, go check out WOMMA's website and dig around a bit.

Unfortunately, I also ran into a few companies who were there to... well, pose as players in the WOMM world without really espousing its precepts of transparency and authenticity. To be fair, they were a very small minority, and their unethical practices will eventually do them in, but there were a few rotten apples in the cart right from the start, and it is worth noting.

The lesson here, or rather, the word of caution is this: WOMM works. WOMM rocks. WOMM works because WOM works, and both are far more effective in a product, brand or company's success than advertising, promotions, giveaways and cool POP displays... But precisely because it works so well, unscrupulous marketers will try to fake it... and abuse it... and in doing so, will give WOMM a bad name.

It's easy to get lured by the Dark Side of WOMM. Once you're there, once you've lost your credibility (and your client's), good luck getting it back. It's one thing to bend the truth when it comes to advertising (hey, metaphors can be stretched pretty far), but when it comes to something as genuine as WOM, the slightest lie or misrepresentation is simply unacceptable.

And unforgivable.

WOMMA has been aware of this since its inception, and has been working to help companies and marketing professionals stay on the path of WOMM righteousness. Their latest tool is a 20-question ethics gut check that every marketer and business exec should read.

I won't cut-and-paste the list, but you can browse it here. And don't forget to also read this, which explains the purpose of the document, and why it concerns you directly.

Now that you've read it, copy it and print it.

Once that is done, share it with your staff and your agency of record. Then incorporate it into your marketing and communications procedures.

Before any marketing or sales campaign, review these questions with everyone involved. Not just your project teams, but your agents out in the field (salesmen, buzz agents, and all other human touchpoints).

Trust me on this: WOMM can't be soiled by even a sliver of underhandedness. In order to be effective and ethical, it must be 100% transparent and genuine. Period. End of story. So do yourself a huge favor and use the list as a tool. I mean really use it. It's there. It's free. There is absolutely no reason in the world not to.

From this point on, if you engage in unethical practices when it comes to WOMM initiatives, you won't be able to defend your decison, or hide behind excuses like "we didn't know."

And some of us will make a point of exposing you.

Choose to be one of the good guys. There's just no upside to being a shill marketer anymore (as if there ever was...). Whether you join WOMMA or not is your choice, but you owe it to yourself to understand the stakes and make a choice for yourself, your client, and your company: Do you wnat to be one of the good guys? Do you want to become a market leader and write your own success stories in the world of WOMM? Or would you rather be singled out as one of the black hats who give our industry a bad name... and end up hurting their clients instead of helping them?

The choice is yours.

Disclosure: Though I blogged the WOMBAT2 conference for WOMMA, I am not associated with or remunerated by WOMMA in any way. I am just a fan, student, and practitioner of genuine, ethical WOMM.

And to Andy Sernovitz (WOMMA's President and fearless leader), thanks for sending me an advance copy of his book "Word Of Mouth Marketing" earlier this month. The bag of popcorn that came with it was delicious.

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