Online marketing comms – rules tighten. Let the seller beware

From March 1, any communication on your website that sets out to tell users about goods, services, opportunities, freebies… but where the primary or ultimate  aim is to sell something, will be regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The ASA is the UK’s independent advertising watchdog, responsible for controlling marketing communications in all media in the UK. (They work with statutory partners such as Trading Standards, the Office of Fair Trading and the communications regulator Ofcom.)

The March 1 changes cover the marketing communications of all organisations operating from the UK on their own websites and in other non-paid for space online under their control eg Facebook.

The ASA talks about copy a great deal in its guidance but their remit could easily extend to any type of content, for example a home page video or a viral campaign on YouTube.


The ASA’s extended remit may come as a surprise to a lot of organisations (the ASA’s own cross-media advertising campaign was only launched at the weekend). As always the big question is who’ll get their knuckles slapped first, for what and how hard?

The ASA’s punitive powers already include obliging broadcasters to comply with ASA rulings but  it’s also brought in some new sanctions from March 1 including “an enhanced” name and shame policy. And paid-for search advertising that links to non-compliant marketing communications may be removed with the agreement of the search engines.

It’s also important to keep in mind that marketing content that falls under the scope of the ASA’s remit may not necessarily include a price or seek an immediate financial transaction. Let the seller beware.

The change falls under the scope of UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (the Committee of Advertising Practice / CAP) Code.

CAP decided to extend the digital remit of the ASA in response to formal recommendations from a cross-section of UK industry, including the Internet Advertising Bureau. Nick Stringer, director of regulatory affairs for the IAB stresses that self-regulation must maintain pace with today’s fast-moving digital environment and changing consumer behaviour. “The ASA’s extended digital media remit aims to protect internet users and enhance their trust, as well as industry and political confidence, in the medium.”

What’s covered:

  • advertisers’ own marketing messages on their own websites, regardless of sector, type of businesses or size of organisation
  • marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under the advertiser’s control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

What’s not covered:

  • classified private advertisements
  • press releases and other public relations material
  • editorial content
  • political advertisements
  • corporate reports and investor relations.

User generated content?

ASA points out that generated content (UGC) that has been adopted and incorporated within an organisation’s own marketing communications could be covered. This will be considered on a case by case basis.

For example: “ASA is likely to take a very different view of a consumer’s positive comment that has been posted, by the website owner, in a prominent way on the front page of its website, than if that same comment appeared within the context of a consumer message board moderated for harmful and offensive language or images only”.

How to make sure you comply

CAP is offering guidance and courses. The IAB has also including some useful FAQs on its website. From a content strategy (CS) perspective the key thing is to make sure that all your content is fit for purpose and doesn’t fall shy of any regulation.

While the March 1 changes are the latest, many websites fall short of what’s required elsewhere – for example Part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act which covers access and came into force back in 2004. Ringing any bells? It means your website must be accessible to blind and disabled users and this should be influencing everything from colour choices to meta data.

Content audits and the use of copydecks are just two of the CS tools where regulatory or legislative requirements could be captured and verified. Even without the weight of law, large organisations need to be running tight ships – eg who wrote it, when, who signed it off? Clearly defined and maintained internal content creation processes are a must. And let’s not forget content training that not only improves content creation skills but raises general organisational awareness of why all content, on’ and offline is so important.

Apart from anything else, if you can demonstrate you did your best to comply with this law or that regulation, the punitive response maybe be less harsh than in organisations where content is chaos rather than king.

Useful links

» More about the CAP guidance
» IAB Extending the digital media remit of the Advertising Standards Authority FAQs PDF

Those who can teach

Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious because so often the obvious gets overlooked, particularly in the current climate.

We’re all off looking for the cash cow, the life raft, the new horizon, the thing that’s going to get us through the rough times. If what you’re seeking is the Holy Grail you may miss the paper cup and plastic spoon that are just under your nose. But they’ll help feed you just the same.

Training is a case in point. So many organisations are sitting on their budgets and trying to figure out whether they can spend a little money on a bit of website tinkering, or a pared-to-the-bone email campaign, when what they should be doing is growing their own skill base. If they do it right, they may be surprised to find how much they can do without throwing money at new projects.

Don’t just take my word for it. The European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA), Europe’s main advertising lobbying group,  is launching an initiative aimed at raising skills.

The main thrust seems to be aimed (Can you accurately aim a thrust?) at Central and Eastern Europe, where the skills gap is seen as more pronounced. But EACA International School of Advertising and Communications courses will also dovetail with UK schemes run by the IPA.

But it was the final paragraph of the story about this in a Brand Republic news bulletin that made me all warm and fuzzy inside. I quote:

Gary Leih, the Ogilvy Group UK chief executive and EACA president, said: “We’re very aware of the harsh economic climate facing agencies today, but research and experience has consistently shown that those who invest in training during an economic recession are those best placed not only to survive, but also to recover fastest.”

Well hello Mrs.Obvious and how beautifully you’re stated for us all to see.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking a pop at Gary Leih – far from it. He’s so on the money that I wish I could place a bet on him at Goodwood.

But I suspect the ‘swishing’ sound that keeps me awake at night is the sound of training budgets being slashed along with everything else. What a waste.

The really great thing about training (apart from the fact that your organisation ends up with people with more knowledge and a greater capacity to ‘do’) is the way it meshes with all elements of an organisation’s culture.

It raises self worth and self esteem, it supports a myriad of professional qualifications and continuous professional development (CPD) that, in turn, may be the stepping stones to career advancement. Yes, trained staff may eventually leave you (but that’s what they’re supposed to do). Plus you get a more skilled workforce in the process. People who are trained regularly and who work in organisations where the acquisition of knowledge is encouraged, tend to exhibit greater loyalty. Bring an employee on (grow your own) and the chances are their skills will always be one step ahead of their current pay level but their lifetime earning potential is enhanced. You win. They win. Everybody’s happy.

Having recently stepped down as a non-executive director of a NHS organisation I remain highly envious of the priority given to training and knowedge advancement that can be found in the public sector. I’m now a visiting lecturer in communication for our local medical school; medical and social care professionals appear ravenously hungry for a huge range of communication skills.

Training is organisational yeast. Companies with a culture of training and learning just tend to grow (even when the global economy is, apparently, going to hell in a hand cart). I say ‘apparently’ so I don’t get pilloried for using Armageddon language on my own blog.

Perhaps part of the problem is that people taking the term ‘training’ too literally.

Alot of CDA business activity centres around training. What’s the point of having the lab rats working on stuff and coming up with new ideas if all you do is sit back and feel smug. You have to set a good idea free.

Training can take a mutitude of forms. We often talk about workshops. When we ‘train’ attendees seem to get through an awful lot of colour tape and balls of string (email me and I’ll explain, because we hate to see people trying to Hoover up knowledge whilst stuck behind desks pushing bits of paper about.

Training can go hand in hand with a project being progressed by taking an approach I like to call Tada! (It’s kind of a fanfare sound if you say it right.) Tada! stands for Train. Apply. Develop. Apply.

We’ve used Tada! to get a massive new website project off the ground, breathe new live into email newsletter programmes, underpin style guides and CMS systems, or just give an overworked, under-resourced marketing department some renewed fizz and enthusiasm (plus some energy conserving processes).

And then it suddenly struck me. We can just be a little iffy about the whole training thing. Consider the phrase: those who can do, those who can’t teach. What an upside down, crazy concept is that? Teaching, training, passing down knowledge… that’s a really serious project and it’s worth throwing money at. Those that can teach. Those that want to survive – learn.

Are we grunting online?

Reading University researchers have developed a computer programme that has identified the words “I”, “we”, and the numbers “1”, “2” and “3” as some of the oldest still in use.

With them I could, apparently, communicate with a prehistoric ancester. I couldn’t discuss the current “global economic meltdown” (see my ealier post on Armegeddon language) but I could manage, maybe: “I hungry, need 3 helpings of roast Mastodon. We hunt now!”.

The researchers are also predicting which words are likely to become extinct, citing “squeeze”, “guts”, “stick” and “bad” as those most likely to become obsolete first (according to a BBC article on the project).

This means the sentence: “I had some bad sushi last night and I feel like my guts are being squeezed out through my bottom, so I’ll stick to dry toast for lunch” will, one day, have no meaning.

This story has thrown my morning out of wack because I’m now obsessing about what enables some words to thrive while others do not? I can see the importance of being able to identify myself (I), creating alliances (we) and basic numbers (1, 2, 3). Does that mean usefulness is the key to language longevity? If so, are the words which die out (or are on their last legs), words which are no longer useful?

Or is it to do with the fact that we have better / alternative words? Is ‘guts’ going because ‘stomach’ or ‘entrails’ are more accurate alternatives?

And what influence, if any, does the medium of delivery have on a word’s viability? Are some words less viable because they are open to misenterpretation when skimmed at speed online, for example? And are words liable to die out through overuse. (In which case, please let ‘Welcome’ go first. THE most overused word on the internet.)

According to the Reading researchers, the less frequently certain words are used, the more likely they are to be replaced.

Other simple rules have been uncovered – numerals evolve the slowest, then nouns, then verbs, then adjectives. Conjunctions and prepositions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’ , ‘on’, ‘over’ and ‘against’ evolve the fastest, some as much as 100 times faster than numerals.

The evolution of language interests CDA. It was one of the driving forces behind our recent language pathways white paper. I’m firmly convinced that the way we engage with language has been profoundly changed by screen-based media and this in turn is influencing language and its evolution.

Which all begs the question: have we reached a pivot point where the way we create language and meaning is changing and at an ever increasing speed? (Think about younger age groups and txt (sic) messaging and how quickly their new ‘rules’ were widely accepted.)

And what does this mean for people like me?

I think this Reading research is going to keep me awake tonight.

Eager to know more?

Reading University press release: Scientists discover oldest words in the English language and predict which ones are likely to disappear in the future

Radio 4 interview with Professor Mark Pagel about the research

CDA’s language pathways White Paper

Welcome to web content 101

They say that fish don’t know what water is because they swim in it. Content is the same. We swim in it and therefore don’t really think about it. After all, we all have reasonable writing skills, which we employ effortlessly in everything from writing a Post It note through to creating a huge website.

But how you employ content online is a very specific harnessing of your writing skills. Users don’t hold it at arm’s length and read it. They are immersed in it as part of a deeply personal, interactive experience. Online content  is the environment for web users. They may not even be aware of it – ‘Oooh look, there’s some content on that page!’ – but without it (just like the fish swimming in water) they couldn’t get where they want to go.

I recently gave an interview to Dave Chaffey about the essential issues a print copywriter has to consider when writing for the web. Dave is an author, consultant and trainer specialising in e-commerce and e-marketing education and guidance. The interview’s now up on his website. Take a look and come back to me with any comments.

Read Effective web copywriting – from copywriting 101 to the latest research (on / opens in new window)

If you’ve arrived at the CDA Content Lab from my interview on, please take a look around. You may find the links below particularly useful as they cover the topics mentioned in the interview:

Online language pathways (on main CDA site / opens in new window)

You can find the SMART web copy benchmarking tool in my post on ‘paper phrases’ (this blog / opens in same window)

More on personas and scenarios for web and email (this blog / opens in same window)

Can I also draw you attention to:

Auditing for websites and email (CDA main website / opens in new window)

Web copywriting workshops and training (CDA main website / opens in new window)

All of us here at the lab have a huge respect for Dave and his site is a valuable resource. If I was going to point you to one thing on it would be his e-business book, which will help you develop a robust strategy for improving e-business and IT activities.

Dave Chaffey’s e-business and e-commerce management book ( / opens in new window)