Keeping social media ethical

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if everything we read online was true? Every review we turned to, every recommendation we read and every suggestion that was shared our way. Call me a sceptic, but I’m not sure this Utopian aspiration matches today’s reality.

A decade ago, life was simpler. Reviews, recommendations and endorsements came in just three forms: advertising, where we knew who footed the bill; press, where we could judge the relative positions of red-tops versus broadsheets; and friends and family, who looked you in the eye as they told you of the merits of one product over another.

Fast forward to 2014 and the average consumer faces a barrage of complex messages from multiple directions and, typically, across multiple devices. Today, Facebook tells you what your friends like before they do. Brands claim pole position on your Twitter feed and Tesco gives you coupons in exchange for comments. What’s more, your opinion is more likely to be swayed by a well-crafted review on Amazon or TripAdvisor from someone you’ve never met, than by a close friend, family member or colleague.

This revolution in how we consume, interpret and share information is, in itself, not a problem. Social media has proved to be empowering and liberating, quite literally. The issue is that, as one fifth of the world’s population piled on to Facebook, brands and businesses saw the emergence of a new battlefield in the fight for our affection, our advocacy and, ultimately, our money.

To understand how to maintain the integrity of social media for consumers, and the effectiveness of these platforms for brands and businesses, The Chartered Institute of Marketing undertook a major and unique research study during March and April 2014. We commissioned leading independent market research firm YouGov to conduct a nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 UK consumers, alongside an industry survey of more than 1,000 UK marketers, giving us perspectives from both sides of the equation.

The challenge for consumers is knowing what’s genuine peer-content and what’s been created or incentivised by a brand

Our first learning is that today’s consumer is savvy to the marketing motives of businesses, but sceptical as to their methods. Only 20 per cent of consumers report high levels of trust and confidence in the information they see on social media, and 62 per cent say it’s difficult to know if brands are using questionable methods on these platforms.

When asked if they had seen brands behaving dishonestly and unethically on social media, less than 20 per cent of consumers admitted they had come across specific examples of questionable activities, such as fake reviews or inflated fan-bases, in the last six months. What this tells us is that consumers are aware of the potential for bad behaviours on social media, and generally assume that brands and businesses are unethical, even though they’re unsure if they’ve actually come across it themselves.

Critically, 47 per cent of consumers said that, if they found out a brand or business had been manipulating social media to appear more popular than it is, they’d be very likely to change their purchase behaviour and boycott that brand or organisation.

Reassuringly, marketers aren’t ignorant to these concerns. In our industry survey, 57 per cent of marketers felt strongly that “bad behaviour” by brands on social media is frustrating consumers and eroding their trust in content, and 51 per cent conceded they themselves as consumers had seen questionable content on social media in the recent past.

This leads us to conclude that brands and consumers can co-exist on social media – it’s just about how. Indeed, the majority of consumers acknowledge having interacted with a brand or business on social media within the last three months and on the whole they see value in the role they play: 60 per cent of consumers believe advertising through social media increases brand visibility and 52 per cent think companies can increase sales through social media.

Relevance becomes key when we further consider that 61 per cent of consumers find advertising on social media irritating, 58 per cent admit to regularly hiding branded content and just 18 per cent say they find advertising on social media even fairly relevant to them.

Beyond relevance, at the heart of the assumed mistrust by the majority of consumers is clarity. A primary difference between traditional media and social media lies in its anonymity. The virtual nature of an online review or a social share means the consumer is at more of a distance from the source and must therefore take what they read on faith.

The challenge for consumers, however, is knowing what’s genuine peer-content and what’s been created or incentivised by a brand. In our industry survey of marketers, 54 per cent said they thought the average online user is capable of distinguishing marketing communications, advertising and branded content from non-commercial content on social media without needing the assistance of signposts or labels to do so. But, when we put the same question to consumers, only 38 per cent agreed.

This suggests that not only is there more to be done to support informed consumer choice, but the views of industry and consumers aren’t fully aligned.

Further examples of contrasting opinions emerge when we questioned both consumers and marketers on what they believed to be ethically questionable or misleading activities on social media.

We asked whether businesses encouraging their employees to share branded content on social media was an acceptable activity – 70 per cent of marketers felt it was, but only 27 per cent of consumers shared this view. We asked whether its right to use techniques to hide negative content within search results – just 38 per cent of marketers felt this was questionable and misleading, compared with 64 per cent of consumers. And we asked whether giving products away for free to encourage positive online reviews is right – 66 per cent of marketers agree, significantly more than the 46 per cent of consumers sharing this view.

Taking steps to improve interactions between businesses and consumers on social media is a win-win endeavour. Consumers want relevant, interesting and useful content that improves their lives, no matter in how small a way. Marketers want an effective and efficient means of delivering the commercial outcomes they need. Failing to address this will only lead to a weaker experience for the user and an ineffective channel for businesses.

That’s why this week we have unveiled a voluntary set of standards for businesses to help “keep social honest”. We’re encouraging professionals to visit and adopt the standards as a means of giving consumers confidence in the information they see on social media, and maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of social media for users and businesses alike.