"Ethics are the bedrock of WOMMA," starts the web page promoting the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's contest to choose the most ethical word-of-mouth, or "WOM" marketing campaigns. I can't help but think that this is like a seance industry recognizing fair treatment of ghosts and phantasms.

No, it's worse than that. It's like the Oxygen Association honoring good breathing.

WOM isn't just a legitimate communications tool but rather the bedrock of the ways societies organize and function, so the idea that marketers should rely on such mechanisms to build interest and sales for their products isn't revolutionary. We've always relied on one another for information on things we don't know, and for affirmation for things that we do know. We reach consensus (or agree to disagree) based not only on what but how we communicate with each other. Advertising and other marketing communications were always intended to be inputs into these conversations. Consumers never obediently did what ads told them to do, however; they took that information -- which was "content" if not in name -- and shared, debated, vetted, and either used or discarded it.

I can't help but chuckle when folks run around today and claim something different. The prevailing presumption that prior generations of marketers failed to understand and exploit the reality of WOM is the result of naivete and pride (and a desire to sell social media technology campaigns). Those earlier generations just did it differently.

But none of them presumed that they could directly influence or manage conversations, let alone that they should try. Yet that's exactly what today's social media practitioners are trying to do, and doing so isn't particularly ethical, by definition.

Authentic conversation is driven by the needs and desires of the folks who are conversing. Any corporate attempt to directly affect that behavior -- to insert or change those needs and desires -- is unethical, isn't it? Contributing clearly identified stuff to conversations, so real people can discuss it, is fair, but it's also nothing new. Companies have been issuing statements and complying with public disclosure regulations for centuries. Marketing WOM is different, though. It's intended to influence those conversations without overtly appearing to do so. Only selling stuff to people without admitting that you're selling stuff to them is inherently unethical, so it's a lot harder to run afoul of the law than it ever was with traditional advertising.

It's not terribly surprising that there's no way of determining what even constitutes WOM ethics, since WOMMA's ethical guidelines are somewhat vague once they venture into areas beyond compliance with the law. The "we're looking for" descriptions on the campaign web page seem to rely on submitters' definitions of ethics, and the generic examples seem more about avoiding legal liability than embracing any quality you'd normally associate with honesty or truth. This reveals another funny and somewhat ugly reality of today's marketing WOM, which is that it's so insidious that everyone is trying to figure out how to monitor and regulate it.

Marketing WOM ethics are kind of like Third World factory policies: Attempts to wiggle around and through what everyone knows are business decisions that aren't terribly nice when exposed to the light of day.

Since nobody knows what constitutes an ethical WOM campaign, it makes sense that there's no disclosure of what will qualify winners from losers in the WOMMA contest (or who will do the judging). Who knows what qualities will distinguish the winners from losers? Again, there's no transparency, which isn't uncommon for things like the Academy Awards or Cannes Lions, but those awards shows make no assertions about improving the quality of their respective industries (do they?). They're insider baseball celebrations and expressions of self-love. Maybe that's what the WOMMA ethics promotion is about, too (and I have trouble thinking of it as an "industry" like moviemaking or advertising).

Perhaps the hardest thing for me to get my arms around is that if there's such a thing as an ethical WOM campaign, there must be examples of unethical ones. Are ethics a binary good/bad distinction or a sliding scale of moral turpitude? We'll never hear about bad campaigns from WOMMA, since its members are too busy funding and/or delivering programs irrespective of such distinctions. Every contest entry will just win differently.

It’s too bad, really. Advertisers spent decades trying to establish their credibility as oracles for brands, yet consumers abandoned their work output with not only disinterest but disdain and anger. The reality of technology-enabled WOM communication has made it the responsibility of businesses now to be more open, transparent, and above all honest; the challenge for them is to figure out how to empower consumers to talk about them, not with them. The former is the wet dream of marketing channels, while the latter is the true miracle of P2P networking.

Ethical WOM is an oxymoron, and the particulars of a WOMMA ethics contest or the association's general claims on the topic don't overcome the dissonance. I think consumers are going to figure it out, as some already have, and I have a nagging suspicion that they won't be as forgiving as they were (and still are, to some degree) of advertising.

Doesn't ethical marketing WOM mean no marketing at all?

(Image credit: WOMMA logo)

Original Post: http://www.dimbulb.net/my_weblog/2011/07/ethical-wom.html