Such peer-to-peer marketing is more important than ever because consumers are much savvier than they used to be, says Paull Young, a new-media strategist with Converseon, a media marketing firm in New York. Businesses have to be much more sophisticated to speak to a generation that has learned to tune out traditional advertising messages. It's harder than ever to get past the "sniff test" of today's consumers, says Mr. Young. That, he says, can put companies in a danger zone.
"Businesses have to be very careful, because the line between a creative ad campaign and unethical manipulation can be very fine," he adds. Many companies have found this out – sometimes the hard way.
Dan Gillmor, director of the New Knight Digital Media Center at Arizona State University, points to the incident with the CEO of Whole Foods. In the summer of 2007, the company was interested in acquiring rival grocer Wild Oats. CEO John Mackey appeared anonymously in an online chat forum and delivered extremely negative information about the rival. It was perceived as an effort to suppress the company stock price in advance of the Whole Foods takeover.
When his identity was unmasked, Mr. Mackey was taken to court for unethical market manipulation. Mr. Gillmor suggests that while legal action is one way to deal with deceptive behavior, the court of public opinion may be more effective.
"Reputation is so much more important to a public company," he says. "I'm a Whole Foods customer but now, after I know what the company tried to do, I would think twice about shopping there again."
The WOMMA guidelines address the core concerns for the Digital Age – transparency and trust, says strategist Young. And the three key words for any online marketer these days are relationship, opinion, and identity. Companies must disclose the relationship they have to the message, whose opinion they're actually voicing, and their real identity.