In the early days of the World Wide Web, legal experts compared this new electronic frontier to the Wild Wild West because there were so many unknown dangers. Well, with Web 2.0 technologies and social media proliferating at break-neck speed, it’s like the Wild Wild West all over again.
You’ll find virtual shoot outs on blogs among people who don’t agree, brand wars between modern-day Hatfield and McCoys on social networking sites, and a few love stories featuring consumers following their favorite company’s updates on Twitter.
As you launch your social media strategy—and even after you begin executing it on your favorite platforms—you need to keep all that in mind. But you also need to be sure you abide by the laws of the land. Indeed, if you aren’t careful, you could be breaking the law with your social media marketing efforts.
For starters, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced final revisions to advertiser guidelines. The rules aim to keep endorsement and testimonial ads in line with the Federal Trade Commission Act.
What do the rules mean for you? If your social media marketing relies on endorsements and testimonies, you have to reveal any payments or other connections between your blog and the advertiser. On the flip side, it also means that if you pay a blogger to run a story about your company, that blogger has to reveal the fact. If you don’t fess up about paid endorsements and the FTC catches you, you’ll have to ante up an $11,000 fine.
Beyond the new FTC rules, there are age-old copyright and trademark infringement issues to avoid. It’s awfully tempting to cut and paste a great article, photo or image from a valuable resource and paste it into your blog or your Facebook page. But, contrary to popular belief, content posted on the Internet may be free to read but it’s not free to redistribute without permission from the copyright holder. Some people point to what’s called a legal provision called “Fair Use,” but these are muddy waters. The bottom line: copyright violations could land you in court.
Are your social media marketing efforts infringing on a corporate trademark? The name of your blog, your screen name, or a URL you choose to host your blog could be trampling on an existing trademark. Just because someone didn’t claim their trademark in the realm of social media doesn’t mean you have free reign over it. Before you settle on a URL or screen name, take a few minutes to make sure someone else hasn’t trademarked that name. It’s better to choose a different moniker now than to be forced to change your online branding later when the trademark holder decides to get on board with social media.
Another potential legal pitfall is defamation. It’s easy to get carried away with conversational language and wind up distorting the facts enough to meet with objection from a brand or person you’ve mentioned in your social media marketing. Defamation is typically associated with negative comments, because if you make positive comments that aren’t true few will seek to sue you for them.
Let’s not forget privacy laws. There are several organizations dedicated to fighting for the privacy rights of Netizens. When it comes to social media marketing, you need to be careful not to disclose the names of your clients, or photos of them or their homes, without express written permission. If your clients happen to see snippets of a letter they wrote you used as a testimonial or photos of their home with their child playing on the front lawn, they could launch a legal complaint for privacy violations.
This is just the tip of the social media marketing iceberg. There are plenty of other perils in the new Wild Wild West, from tax issues to linking practices to ownership of user-generated content and even blog monitoring liabilities. Getting savvy before you get social is a good idea. The good news is you have the opportunity to tap into the power of word-of-mouth marketing the legal way by following social media marketing guidelines—and sticking to them.