Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Just talk your way out of jail

A lack of communication between teams running social media can have serious legal consequences.

Here's a question for you: 'Who would like to go to prison for this?' If nothing else, that'll get their attention at the next weekly team meeting.

Such questions rarely come up at marketing meetings, but every now and then perhaps they should. The global reach of the internet has led to some advertisers creating complex webs of responsibility for different aspects of their marketing activity: offline media and online display might be run locally, but site-side work handled centrally. Dozens of agencies handle a variety of assignments globally, regionally or locally, and co-ordination sits between the lead agency and the marketing department.

From an organisational perspective, this can make sense. If the agency with responsibility for site-build and maintenance is based in Atlanta, for instance, it might also run the plan's social and SEO components. The fact that a great deal of interaction is needed between the SEO and social teams with the web-build team, means that short lines of communication are beneficial to all.

A typical architecture might involve a global template, with localised content being slotted in by a central team working hand-in-hand with the local marketing team. This keeps costs down, enables branding to be managed coherently and reduces the duplication of skills. Mapped against this, agencies will be retained by the global team and will execute against specialist briefs, such as social media activation.

This was the situation I heard about last week, at a company where a new digital director for EMEA attended her first global team meeting. It was there that 'The Question' was asked.

The team had heard a presentation by the US agency that made much of the integration achieved between SEO and social media. They observed that SEO has two key components, on-site and off-site: things you do with the content and coding of your website, and things you do to increase the number of inbound links, both of which influence Google rankings.

They had also rightly observed that these techniques should be applied to social media activity, both to drive traffic to the Facebook page, and to harness the power of blogs, forums and tweets, thereby driving traffic to the product site while boosting reputation.

So far so good, but the new director's antennae were twitching. 'Very interesting,' she said. 'How do you do this?'

'We have an active seeding programme in place,' came the response. 'Posting to forums, etc, including links to our site.' The results were impressive. Rankings on Google had jumped and site traffic was up significantly.

The problem was that all this activity had been conducted anonymously. Posting had been done without any disclosure of the poster's relationship with Brand X, and, in the UK at least, this is illegal.

Under The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, it is an offence not to identify the commercial intent of a practice, outlawing the practice of 'flogs' - blogs designed to sell but disguised as comment. Yahoo! and Wal-Mart were both rumbled doing this in the US, and the PR fallout from that alone should have been enough to discourage this practice by the agency.

To focus the mind, the UK regulations provide a maximum penalty of two years at Her Majesty's pleasure.

However, this isn't common knowledge in Atlanta. Moreover, Brand X's UK marketing department was unaware it had been going on for the past two years, and wouldn't necessarily have known of its illegality anyway.

'Social search agency, meet the UK PR team. You guys need to spend some time together.'

Ask one simple question, and how remarkable the sudden enthusiasm with which everyone embraces integration.

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... Fake blogs

- Marketingor PR-oriented fake blogs, or flogs, appear to have been more prevalent in the US than anywhere else, but have been used globally. They are an online parallel to 'astroturfing' - fake grass-roots campaigns backed by particular industries or firms.

- By 'cloaking' the real origins and purpose of the blog, the creators seek to invoke a sense of credibility and a lack of bias while marketing a product or service to generate interest and web traffic.

- The practice still arises, despite being against the code of ethics of PR and marketing industry associations around the world.

- One serial offender in the 2000s was PR firm Edelman, which created several blogs promoting client Wal-Mart without stating the retailer's backing for them.

- In the most notorious case, in 2006 Edelman was behind 'Wal-Marting Across America', a blog ostensibly created by a couple of Wal-Mart fans who drove across the US in a mobile home, staying over in the supermarkets' parking lots.

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