ASA serious about social media. Are you?

If ever proof was needed that social media was a legitimate marketing channel, the Advertising Standards Authority just delivered. Their intention is to regulate social media.

This is big news, because not only does this justify the efforts of many businesses like Octane that are banging the big social media drum, but it also helps clarify what is and what is not acceptable, in terms of a marketing messages and adverts. What the ASA is proposing is simply an extension of existing regulations:

“The proposed amendment to the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code — expected to be in force by September — will extend the regulatory framework currently in place for paid online ads to all other online marketing communications. As a result, claims from marketers on their own Web sites and third-party sites like social networks will now be subject to ASA scrutiny, as they are in TV, print, and other forms of online advertising.”

However, the introduction of any new legislation brings with it the specter of ambiguity; do we comply? To some, this will be a challenge, while to others, this will be an opportunity. As a business that sells information, a lot of what I and Octane do is educate people as to the possibilities and the potential of their business on the web.

As a pre-qualifier, if I feel that a prospective client has questionable intentions, I make my polite excuses and leave. I have no intention of ruining my hard-earned 10 year old reputation for a project I’m not happy with.

So how do these planned regulatory powers affect businesses using social media marketing?

Dispelling the social media myth — size isn’t everything

The biggest problem I have when explaining social media to someone is the very thing that makes it such a compelling channel to promote a business — it’s size. Because social media marketing is so relatively new — certainly for the vast majority of businesses out there — the prospect of a free way of marketing their business is just too tempting to pass up on.

There’s so many ways to use social media, and so many different ways to enter it, it can be overwhelming. The myth that social media is mostly free doesn’t help, either. Yes, most of the tools and websites out there are free to use and join, but it’s still your time spent learning these things, which is where the cost comes in. And it’s often an unrecoverable loss of time (and ultimately money) if you can’t make good of your efforts.

Avoid anti-social networking

So if you now overlay social media with the extended laws, enactable by the ASA, and then add in the aforementioned ambiguity of compliance amongst those businesses new to social media who have probably never done any advertising or marketing before, there’s a potential for inadvertent illegality.

Because the web is such an open venue, your business has the potential of reaching out to far more people than any regular marketing channel, such as mail shot, or a telesales campaign. Many of these people will not be native to Britain. So that tongue-in-cheek joke on your home page or a recent blog article could be hugely offensive to some.

I don’t want this to sound like a scare story, or to look like a cattle prod to marshal you, the reader, towards Octane. I just hope that, between now and September, the government and the Advertising Standards Authority do a good enough job of educating businesses.

Limiting your liability

There is always risk. That’s life. As a business owner, I create risk every time I engage in a client project. If I can limit the liability of a client in some way, averting an advertising snafu, or a marketing mishap, that’s a job well done.

Caught on camera

So you want an example? Photography. This is one of the most misunderstood areas in design. Photography can be a machine-like process, such a product photography. But it can also be an art form. It is often in the case of the latter that a photograph is used without permission and without a royalty payment to the copyright owner.

It’s a huge problem, but it’s so huge, people often feel it’s not like breaking a real law. And because it’s such a huge problem, it’s only those who make the mistake of infringing copyright in huge way (like in a TV or magazine advert, a poster campaign, or from September, if in a social media marketing campaign) that get caught.

The advise I give to my clients is simple; buy the photograph that you like. Once they do that, we’re all covered.

Demonstrate your difference

James Good, a design and illustrator uses the slogan: demonstrate your difference. It’s as succinct a question anyone could ask of a business. In this sense, it’s perfectly applicable, because it demands that we demonstrate not just how good we are, but how much trust our clients have in our abilities.

By working within the remit of legislation, and making this clear to my clients, I would be demonstrating a level of knowledge that instills a sense of trust — I would be, in effect, protecting my client (and myself) from possible prosecution.

Of course, I’ve yet to encounter a situation where I was asked to do anything that was offensive or misleading. But a knowledge of the law hints at a greater understanding.

So what do we take away from this new regulatory extension? First of all, we work within those regulations. Secondly, we use our knowledge of not just advertising standards but of any other law that our clients would benefit from. And thirdly, we keep on teaching as good as we learn.


Trust in a little business education

“I’d like a car!” The woman announces confidently to the young salesman. He raises a quizzical brow as he nervously scans around the vast showroom of motor cars all around, in gleaming neat lines, not quite sure how to reply to such a broad and breathtakingly naive question.

You wouldn’t, would you? Yet I still get people asking me questions like: “I’d like a website that lets me advertise jobs. How much would that cost?” The feint of heart would feel that thump in the pit of their stomach, like the sales man, not sure what to say, or even how.

“I want my company website to be number one on Google” Oh yes! Less of pit-of-stomach moment and more of an angry-fist-in-the-air episode.

“We want to tell everyone about our new product. How much will that cost?” You want to tell everyone? Assuming you can really afford that, could your sales team even cope with the response? And do you even have a sales team?

But the fact of the matter is, we cannot in all fairness expect the average business person to know what we know. They have needs and expectations — sometimes naive, sometimes unrealistic — and it’s our job to meet them.

Of course, there are those amongst us who will happily say “Yes!” to all of the aforementioned, much to the detriment of our industry, and to the dismay of the client when in time, they realize they’ve been sold a lemon.

So what’s the solution? We educate. But that takes time, surely? Yes, but it’s all part of the added-value service and controlled experience we all really should be offering.

When a prospective client comes along, we inevitably invest an element of our time. How long is up to you and how much value you place in the potential for a lucrative contract. But if you’re able to demonstrate the value of your knowledge, that time can become an investment, because through education comes insight and understanding, out of which trust often emerges.

And before people buy from you, they must first buy into you. And trust is the one thing you can’t buy.