Social media and the politics of disclosure: The Womma study

social media marketing

After the response to the “Social Media Rate card” of popular radio DJ Gareth Cliff, key questions have arisen about how people and companies disclose their advertising relationships on social network platforms.

Of course anyone, including Cliff, are in their rights to advertise products via “word-of-mouth” to their Twitter followers or Facebook friends, but there is a growing body of opinion on how social network-users should disclose this powerful type of advertising.

Social media has disrupted the world of marketing, blurring boundaries and upsetting traditional advertising and media channels. We see this all the time. Individuals who tweet or Facebook command audiences and are in fact “one man marketing armies”. Some celebrities and social media influencers have similar broadcasting power to that of major media companies.

This has blurred the rules around this form of marketing. In the face of this, what are the lessons humanity can learn about how to operate in the social media age, where potential customers are also potential publishers for marketing campaigns?

A recent survey found that when exposed to a positive endorsement of a product on social networks, 16 percent of people actually purchased that product. This is the power of word-of-mouth at work, and the model of paid-for social media endorsements tries to capture it.

Overt marketing in a social context is a turn-off by any measure. So how can marketers (or ordinary people behaving like marketers) capture the power of social media, that blurs business and personal, in a way that does not alienate?

Many look to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (Womma) which has developed a strict set of ethics guidelines that governs how people and companies market on social media platforms. Womma is a US non-profit organisation boasting an impressive membership of some of the world’s most recognisable brands including Coca-Cola and Honda.

Cliff, himself, may very well be following strict disclosure rules that have only recently evolved. But most tweeters and Facebookers have probably never heard of them.

Womma’s Code of Ethics covers best practices not only for marketers and companies, but “normal” people too. These are based on guidelines developed by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which in 2009 put out strict rules, banning the practice of non-disclosure of “paid product reviews” — be it via blog, Facebook post or tweet.

Marketers — be they brands directly or their advertising agencies — have to be open about the relationships they have with consumers when it comes to word-of-mouth initiatives. Womma advises ordinary people or consumers, whether in face-to-face discussions or on a social network, to always disclose “the material aspects of their commercial relationship with a marketer”.

Be clear and distinct about commercial relationships
Womma advises marketers to be “clear and distinct” when asking bloggers, tweeters or any social network users to disclose their relationships with brands and products. People should also be clear and distinct about any compensation they receive for participating in marketing initiatives.

Honest and genuine opinions
Of course, the natural inclination for some brands and marketers would be to expect those they have a relationship with to give glowing reviews. Womma, however, wants marketers to expect and encourage the “honest and genuine opinions” on whatever it is that is being reviewed.

Womma is of the belief that we must always disclose if we’ve been asked by a marketer “to be part of a consumer outreach programme”. They also advise to “be accurate and truthful in communicating your identity” and to “always provide your honest and genuine opinions”.

Full disclosure
Womma is very specific about disclosure. The body says “consumers have a right to know the sponsor behind advertising messages that could influence their purchasing decisions…” It emphasises that this includes consumers, experts, celebrities and organisations.

Womma notes that advertisers and bloggers should disclose all “material connections”, defining material connections as any connection between a blogger and an advertiser that could affect the credibility consumers give to that blogger’s statements.

For Womma “material connections” include:

  1. consideration (benefits or incentives such as monetary compensation, loaner products, free services, in-kind gifts, special access privileges) provided by an advertiser to a blogger,
  2. a relationship between an advertiser and a blogger (such as an employment relationship).

Clear and prominent disclosure message
Importantly, Womma says that no matter which platform is used, the disclosure message must be “clear and prominent”, easily understood and unambiguous.

Placement of the disclosure must be easily viewed and not hidden deep in the text or deep on the page. All disclosures should appear in a reasonable font size and color that is both readable and noticeable to consumers.

Disclosure language and hashtag usage
For personal and editorial blogs, Womma recommends the blogger use language such as:

“I received (product or sample) from (company name), or (company name) sent me (product or sample). ”

For platforms like Twitter, Womma recommends a sponsored or advertising tweet use the following hashtags:

#spon (sponsored), #paid (paid) and #samp (sample)

Booming and confusing
The detailed guidelines from Womma are proof that the world of marketing via social media, whilst confusing, is booming.

At a recent Social Media World Forum event we were warned that the basic rules of marketing should be followed religiously, regardless of context. Sifiso Mazibuko, Facebook National Account Manager at Habari Media, noted that “Social media may be new, but marketing is not. The rules that have applied for years are entirely applicable to the social-media environment”.

Equally the same would apply to the world of journalism and reporting. People, who are not professional journalists, that report via social media platforms to audiences, should upskill and follow the same ethics that media professional practice: Disclosure, source checking, the rules of “fair comment” and so on.

In the end though, it all boils down to two concepts: Honesty and transparency.

  • You can find Womma’s “Social Media Marketing Disclosure Guide” (PDF), here.

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