By Thomas Brown, Director of Strategy and Insights, CIM

With over 1.4 billion people subscribed to Facebook worldwide, it’s clear to see that the internet and digital engagement has become ingrained in our everyday personal and working lives. The emergence of the Internet and ever-evolving introduction of new social media platforms has transformed how we as consumers share, interpret and gather information.

Businesses too are increasingly recognising the potential and benefits of social media; not least as a cost-effective channel for reaching important audiences and communicating their content, but also as a way of gathering important data, engaging in ‘real-time’ dialogue with customers and improving their customer experience.

How can we be sure then that what we see and read online from businesses is true? High profile incidents in the past such as the discovery of fake reviews on Amazon and TripAdvisor and David Cameron found to be ‘buying’ likes on Facebook, has thrown into question, the reliability and obligation from businesses when it comes to responsible social media use.

More worryingly, new tactics are emerging by brands to manipulate social media in order to influence consumers or inflate their online presence. One of which is ‘click-farms’; a technique whereby poorly paid workers in developing countries are paid to repeatedly ‘click’ likes or promote content, resulting in a distorted perception of the popularity of a brand or product.

Earlier this year, The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) in partnership with YouGov launched a new campaign called ‘Keep Social Honest’ to promote responsible and ethical use of social media in business. Our study revealed that nearly half of consumers would either boycott a brand or change their purchasing behaviour if they discovered the brand was found to be manipulating or behaving dishonestly or unethically through their social media engagement.

This highlights the risks for businesses around behaving unethically online, and how it is becoming increasingly significant to ensure that the integrity of social media is maintained so that it can continue to be a vital tool for both consumers and businesses alike.

Being compliant and ensuring adequate training is in place for employees is crucial, and as part of our Keep Social Honest campaign, we have developed a bespoke e-learning tutorial providing important recommendations and a range of courses which inform employees how to use digital marketing responsibly. We have also developed ‘Ten Commandments’ of social media use – designed to help businesses get the best from social media in a responsible way:

1. Create a social media policy – Evaluate the kind of behaviours on social media that reflect your organisation and your values – and capture it in writing to be shared and adopted company-wide

2. Appoint an ambassador – Identify an employee in your business who can be a champion of social media compliance with a view to extending this into a bigger network

3. Embed your policies internally – Social media representation extends company-wide, so ensure your policies are shared with everyone in a meeting or official communication

4. Signpost employee affiliation – Employees contributing to your brand’s voice on social media should have their employment clearly identified in their profile – their voice should be ‘encouraged’ but not ‘forced’

5. Promote shared ‘good behaviours’ – Social targets and metrics can lead to bad behaviour so ensure that your marketers and any third parties know your standards and balance their activity with a ‘responsibility contract’

6. Join the debate – Social media is always evolving so help shape the right regulatory and responsibility frameworks

7. Review policies regularly – The dynamic nature of social media must be reflected in how policies and standards are agreed. Be sure to formally review and iterate policies and standards at least annually

8. Abolish bad practice – There will always be some bad players that are intent to mislead the customer or consumer through social media. Ensure that their business does not commit to these practices so that digital marketing remains an ethical marketing tool.

9. Share your social media code of practice – Once you’ve articulated a ‘code’ for your business – make it available externally so important audiences can see what you are committed to

10. Adopt compliance as a professional development priority – Regulations change all the time, so ensure that your business has a person who keeps up to date with latest changes and requirements accordingly