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New FCA guidelines on social media marketing highlights the need for effective planning

07 August 2014 | 05:17 am

In a recent Guardian article, the reporter expressed surprise that at a Social Media Leadership Forum she had attended  “… all but a handful of attendees admitted they were afraid of using social media,” a point she rightly saw as somewhat surprising  given how pervasive social media marketing has become for marketers across most industries. But should we be that surprised?

Only yesterday the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issued its guidance on the use of social media for the financial services sector.  Their advice highlights the fact that for organisations who operate in a compliance-led environment , the use (or more specifically the misuse) of social media marketing can throw up some potential pitfalls.  And whilst some financial institutions are ahead of the game having already sought out third party expertise with regard to their social media compliance, indications seem to suggest that many others are holding back on investing more heavily in social media for fear of falling foul of the new rules.

But for those of us who work in the arena of social media compliance, the FCA guidelines merely highlight what we have been saying for quite some time; that organisations who use social media as part of their marketing – regardless of sector, need to be aware of its implications. For every positive this ever-evolving platform can bring to an organisation’s marketing strategy, there are potential issues that need to be recognised  - and  appropriately planned for.

Interestingly, although they have been long anticipated in the sector, the FCA guidelines in essence reflect the Advertising Standards Authority’s stance taken in 2010 when it decided to give the same consideration to social media as it does to more traditional forms of advertising media, in that: “Marcoms must obviously not be misleading or offensive and should allow consumers to make an informed decision regarding the product.” Even though it was only four years ago, social media has certainly moved on apace since the ASA’s ruling , but for organisations who are reticent about using social media, those underlying principles still offer a good place to start.

Perhaps one of the reasons for such reticence is the potential damage a misplaced tweet, or Facebook post can do to an organisation. Breaching the new FCA rulings may result in a hefty fine, but even in the commercial world beyond the reach of regulatory bodies, the potential cost of a social media mistake can be high. Earlier in the year we highlighted the incredible reputational damage incurred by US Airways after a pornographic image was mistakenly included in a tweet to a customer, and McDonald’s world-renowned PR disaster when a planned Twitter campaign using #mcdstories gave disgruntled customers the ideal platform to post their McDonalds’s related horror stories, is still held up as a lesson on how not to use social media . But such mistakes can be avoided, and any organisation should see compliance management as an inherent part of any social media campaign if it wants to fully exploit the undoubted benefits on offer.

Social media has the potential to reach a global audience – instantly. This is something marketers even ten years ago could not have dreamed of, but as in the examples highlighted earlier, the responsibility on organisations to ensure everything they issue is ’on message’, and even more importantly does not have the potential to be ‘hijacked’ by others who could place their brand in jeopardy, is key.  Furthermore social media is no respecter of national barriers and once a message is out there, an organisation may have little or not control over where it travels, so marcomms that were deemed appropriate for one audience may have an altogether different interpretation elsewhere.

This sense of a ‘lack of control’ has resulted in the reticence reported in the Guardian and other similar articles, and by boardrooms across the country. Such issues should not deter organisations from exploiting this exciting new world of social media marketing however.  The potential pitfalls of social media represent the flip side of a coin which in turn offers benefits such as global reach, immediacy, flexibility and massive cost effectiveness compared to traditional forms of marketing.

The key for organisations is effective planning and advice. As a (relatively) new offering, social media is still evolving and marketers, however adept cannot be expected to be aware of all the nuances and potential issues of each and every platform. That is why, when it comes to social media, it can be best to seek advice from the experts, just as you would when it comes to any other highly specialised area of business.

It is too early to tell what the impact of the new FCA rules will be for those looking for guidance on social media within the financial services sector, or indeed beyond it. But for any organisation looking to fully exploit the opportunities open to them via social media marketing, then one thing is for sure; clear, expert advice is a must.