Dec 15, 2011

Social Endorsements: The Truth Will Out

Advertising’s self-regulatory arm – the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (the “NAD”) recently reviewed promotions and endorsements in social networks, paying particular attention to Facebook “likes” and what it means when a company uses that metric in its promotions.  While from my experience managing Facebook for PR Newswire leads me to believe that other metrics – such as interactions – are more important when it comes to measuring Facebook’s value to a brand, there’s no getting around the fact that some organizations are focused primarily on building the size of their fan base.

The practice at the heart of the review (and many fan-base building tactics) is something called “like-gating,” – in which Facebook users have to “like” a page in order to gain access to content, enter a contest or take advantage of a special offer.

The case the NAD considered was a challenge against a company called Costal Contacts, Inc., issued by one of its competitors, 1-800-Contacts.

In a nutshell, Costal Contact ran a variety of like-gated promotions offering free glasses giveaways across several Facebook pages.  1-800-Contacts asserts that Costal Contact should have more clearly disclosed to Facebookers the terms and conditions of the offer, namely, the shipping and handling charges associated with the offer, and the fact that the offer was for limited styles of glasses.  In addition – and here’s where things get interesting – 1-800-Contacts argued that statements by Coastal Contacts about how many people “liked” their products were fraudulent, because those “likes” were generated in order to qualify for a promotion.

The NAD agreed with 1-800-Contacts agreeing that the terms and conditions of the giveaway promotions should have been disclosed up front.  However, when it came to the question of whether or not (and to what degree) a “like” on Facebook is an endorsement, things were murkier.

The NAD wound up determining that statements about the numbers of people who “like” something on Facebook can be interpreted a variety of ways by consumers, concluding that the total number of “likes” on Facebook constitutes “general social endorsement,” and furthermore, they concluded that in this case, Coastal Contacts did in fact have that general social endorsement conveyed by their Facebook fans.

However, the NAD did caution brands that in order to represent “likes” metrics and the general social endorsement that it implies, companies need to be absolutely sure to fulfill the terms of like-gated promotions, and to stringently avoid using misleading means to artificially inflate their number of “likes” on Facebook, including the practice of aggregating the number of “likes” from a variety of different pages worldwide.

I’m going to interject another personal opinion here.   Facebook “likes” are ephemeral, episodic, of a moment.   When I hear someone talk about how many “likes” a campaign generated, I automatically start to assume that their social programs are on thin ice.  A “like” is not a terribly robust outcome.  The strategy can’t end there.   Done well, the “like” is the permission a person grants your brand to come join them in their personal social network.  It opens the doors to an ongoing conversation.  A “like” should never be the goal. IMHO.

As a rule of thumb, the practices (and laws) governing advertising apply to social networks.  Given the transparency of social networks, and the speed with which people communicate, it’s wise to look at potential promotional tactics and messages from every angle.  If a particular approach has some buried “gotchas” or angles that your brand wouldn’t want to see amplified across the web, then that approach should probably be deep-sixed.   As Shakespeare said, “The truth will out.”  Today’s addendum is “…and will it will be aided by social media.”

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

Related reading:

NAD Reviews Social Media Endorsements

Loeb & Loeb: Advanced Media & Technology Law Blog

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