Are comments on Facebook the same as advertising? Compulsory social media monitoring could be moving one step closer.

Are comments on Facebook the same as advertising? Compulsory social media monitoring could be moving one step closer.

If you were to comment on a brand’s Facebook page would that constitute advertising? Well, according to a new ruling made by Australia’s Advertising Standards Board last week – it does. And this could have huge implications in the way big brands use social media and how it is monitored.
This is not the first time that regulatory bodies have deliberated on how to define and interpret users comments on social media. 
Australia’s advertising watchdog effectively ruled that Facebook is an advertising medium and therefore brands will have a responsibility to examine the comments and posts of users before publishing, in order to comply with industry advertising codes.

The issue arose when comments on a Smirnoff Facebook page, generated complaints about their alleged sexist and abusive content. While investigating these complaints Australia’s Advertising Standards Board ruled that industry codes applied not just to brand generated content on a Facebook page, but also to any subsequent user-generated comments.

This could prove to be a potentially costly development for Australian advertisers who will now need to keep a watchful eye over any comments that could be deemed offensive or break industry advertising codes.

It seems that Australia has crossed the Rubicon, in defining that user generated content should be now held under the same scrutiny as brand generated content.

This is a demarcation that still carries weight with Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority. It stated that it has no plans to change the way it currently views user generated content (USG) on social networks. UGC only falls within the ASA’s remit if it considers an advertiser has incorporated that content into its own marketing communication.

Despite the stance by the ASA in Britain, lawyers are no doubt collectively rubbing their hands together in joyful anticipation of the potential lawsuits that may follow. Here are just some of the concerns for advertisers.

1) Global implications – will other countries follow Australia’s example and how will this be enforced?
2) Will the parameters be extended to more than just a brand’s Facebook page and cover broader areas of earned media?
3) Global advertisers’ Facebook pages are already viewable in Australia – how should they react to this?
4) Will the cost of monitoring and vetting UGC put advertisers off Facebook, or will this be an opportunity for the companies with the smartest web listening apparatus?
5) If advertisers move to other social media, will those media become subject to similar rulings regarding advertising content?

Obviously there is a long way to go with this, but it could prove to be the thin end of a very large wedge. Either way, questions need to be asked as to why it became an issue in the first place. Perhaps if Smirnoff had been more proactive in monitoring its social media assets, then the unsavoury comments could have been dealt with more quickly before complaints arose.

While, legally speaking, countries will have different stances in what constitutes advertising in social media, I would suggest that in the mind of the customer, brand and user generated content is increasingly being viewed as synonymous. If that is the case, then brands need to be more vigilant than ever in how they engage with their fans and critics.

Having highly proactive advocacy programmes in place is a good way to safeguard against this. Not only does it utilise web listening as an integral part of your social media engagement strategy, but through working with key influencers and fans they can help respond to potential problems on your behalf. Also identifying and recruiting the right people to online communities means that discussions are much more likely to be conducted in a positive manner, ensuring your brand values are upheld.

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