Social Word of Mouth Marketing

As social networking explodes on the scene I’m wondering about legitimate vs questionable marketing tactics that involve one’s social network.   Here at the JoeDuck blog I’ve avoided advertising (though I have taken a few liberties with posts that help rank other sites or promote friends, etc).

At my commercial sites I’m more aggressive with advertising and find it’s very hard to decide what levels of advertising are best suited to all the factors that come into play such as generating revenue, being honest,  keeping Google happy, etc.    Although I increasingly buy into the idea that “user friendliness” is a good guideline I don’t think it’s the best one from a revenue standpoint.   Even Google, which I think built a grand online empire partly on the basis of limiting the advertisements around search,  has very gradually increased the aggressiveness of their advertising at some “user centric” expense such as the ads that appear on top of the organic listings.    Although Google insists they are clear about identifying advertising the proof is in the perception and many people still do not understand the difference between clicks when Google is getting paid and when they are not.

I don’t object to Google’s current standards which I think are more than reasonable, though it’s always annoying to hear them pretend (or think delusionally) that their only consideration is optimizing the *user experience* without regard to revenues.   That would not be good business and arguably would deprive them of revenue they can use to provide the raft of great free services we enjoy from Google like blogger, search, mail, maps, and more.

But the real point here is to find a balance between social networking and marketing.    I certainly don’t want to pester people with advertising after they have nicely  come to Twitter or the blog to “interact” about politics, technology, or travel.     But are there appropriate advertisements that do not offend people?

More importantly, how should one handle paid or unpaid endorsements of businesses?     Over at Technology-Report we are now sponsored by Ipswitch Imail  Server, an Enterprise email system.   What’s really intriguing me is at what point one crosses the line between using and abusing the relationship you have with people to promote your business “allies”.  The link I just provided helps them.  I think that’s fine but some might say it’s using the blog inappropriately. Adding “nofollow” to the link would tell Google not to consider the link as an endorsement of the company but I’m happy to endorse them – they are smart enough to sponsor our Tech blog so they must be good, right?

I think the best working rule here at the blog is transparency, where people know the money relationships between you and those you talk about.   For stocks I use a disclosure blip, for companies an explanation of the relationship.  However for websites I’m not as transparent and I think I need to reconsider that and provide more disclosure than I have in the past to help combat the growing “economy of lies” that is far more pervasive than we tend to think.

From bank lending and “promotional offers” with fine print that traps even savvy borrowers to blatant phone credit card ripoffs that prey on the gullible to the Madoff stock scandal to bogus “get rich quick” training programs, the “economy of lies” is everywhere.    Online, it becomes even more difficult to check credentials and make sure an offer is real.

Then there are the “somewhat misleading special offers” which I think may be impossible or even undesirable to combat.    For example I’m shopping for Las Vegas hotels, flights, and show tickets and notice there are often dozens of offers for the same rooms, each with different rates.  Although the conditions vary a bit, basically these are marketing experiments designed to optimize revenues and collect information for the future.   Not perfectly “honest”, but not scams.   I’ll talk about this more at my Las Vegas Travel blog.   Hey, see, there’s a tiny SEO helpful pitch for my own site – is that legitimate?

An interesting idea – though bureaucracy alerts are kind of sounding for me now – might be to create some sort of volunteer disclosure standard that was monitored by a third party.    For example no site could endorse more than one product of the same kind.    Sites that abided by those rules would be listed and allowed to slap up a logo, those that did not would not.   Policing this probably could be done via an online “complaint” system, and the neat part would be to help screen out the huge number of junky sales sites that have no content of value and offer dubious offers.

Still, that option does not really seem workable on a grand scale because too few would participate.