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April 25, 2008

Word of Mouth Marketing - Dangers & Rules to Consider

Encouraging deceptive or misleading word of mouth advertising may damage your reputation more than enhance and lawyers are not immune.

There is a great post by Andy Sernovitz on Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMMA) which discusses the laws governing word of mouth marketing and how it can impact the company (read lawyer) and those who create buzz deceptively (read other lawyers gaming a rating system or lending false testimonial.)

Honest word of mouth marketing is when you inspire your fans to talk about you. It is about earning their respect and recommendation. It always requires full disclosure and total openness, as defined by the WOMMA Ethics Code.

It is always safe and legal ... and more honest than most forms of traditional marketing. Why? Because if you can't earn a recommendation with a great product or service, the word of mouth stops. Traditional advertising runs as long as you pay for it, even if the message is less than true. Real word of mouth depends on honest customer love.

Any form of deceptive word of mouth campaigns are illegal. This include any program where you are:

  1. Asking buzzers to recommend your product without disclosing that they are part of a campaign or received and incentive.
  2. Falsely representing your employees/agents as consumers.
  3. Asking buzzers to claim they like your product when they don't, or never tried it.

The FTC in the US has made this very clear. (please read)

The reason I bring this up with solo lawyers is because the internet has made it very easy for anxious attorneys to participate in ratings gaming on lawyer rating systems such as AVVO in order to up their 'rating' which in turn could appear as deceptive if the referring attorney does not acknowledge they received incentive to do so...such as a reciprocal recommendation.

Secondly, if a potential consumer of a lawyer contacts the referring attorney and asks how the referring attorney knows the referred attorney, have they ever used the referred attorney, what will they say?

What can appear as quite innocent or harmless can in fact be damaging to your reputation.  A lawyer's reputation is the most valuable professional posession they have.  It should be guarded jealously.

And for the record, I'm not posting this because I am the Word of Mouth Marketing Police. It's just a note of caution and some information as maybe some are not thinking about this when they participate in professional ratings gaming.


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Tomasz Stasiuk

Great points. It is very tempting to "hire out" SEP (without even getting into the topic of fake referrals) since it is so much hard work trying to get people to notice your site. /sigh

Still, I guess nothing worth having comes easily.

Kevin OKeefe

Spot on Susan. When lawyers bid each other up on Avvo though the lawyers know little of each other it is pretty sickening to me.

I don't blame Avvo. Lawyers have an obligation to act ethically. Using misleading information or testimonials to get higher rankings, no matter whether you believe in the merits of the rankings or not, is unethical.

Carolyn Elefant

I agree with Susan's and Kevin's comments - acting ethically goes with the territory of being a lawyer. At the same time, I have happily given testimonials to lawyers whom I've never worked with personally, but who have impressed me with their blogs and listserve comments. I'm happy to lend my professional reputation (such as it is) to help newer or less visible lawyers gain whatever edge they need to succeed.

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