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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.

Ready?

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

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