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Consumers want more regulation, legislation and governance on social media to tackle the unethical behaviour of brands online, according to a major study commissioned by The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and carried out by YouGov.

Despite acknowledging the value of social media to businesses, more than half (54%) of consumers don’t think there is enough regulation governing communications, advertising and branded content across these platforms, and only one in five report having high levels of confidence in what they read on social media. In addition, a greater proportion of marketers (64%) questioned the relevance of ‘old media’ regulations in relation to the prevalence of the new world of social media today.

The research questioned a representative sample of more than 3,000 UK consumers and 1,000 UK marketers, and uncovered significant differences in what the two groups perceive as acceptable or questionable practices.

The creation of fake accounts for leaving positive reviews or comments was considered the most ethically questionable for users, with nine out of ten marketers (91%) and seven out of ten consumers (71%) considering this practice misleading.

The use of techniques to hide negative content within search results emerged as an additional concern, with two-thirds (67%) of consumers viewing this as unethical, significantly more than marketers, of whom just over a third (38%) share this view.

Two thirds (66%) of marketers think it’s acceptable to give products away for free to encourage positive reviews online, but less than half (48%) of consumers agree. Over a third (41%) of consumers said they find it misleading for businesses to encourage their employees to like and share positive brand messages on social media, whereas only 15% of marketers share the same opinion.

More critically, 47% of consumers said if they found out a brand or business had been manipulating social media to appear more popular than they are that they’d be very likely to change their purchase behaviour and boycott that brand or organisation.

Encouragingly, businesses aren’t ignorant to consumers’ concerns: more than half of marketers (52%) felt that dishonest or unethical behaviour by brands is putting the value of social media as a marketing tool at risk, and an overwhelming four out of five (82%) agreed that without the threat of punitive fines or legal action, there will always be businesses employing questionable tactics on social media.

Overall, consumers recognise the role that brands play on social media, with over half (59%) saying they agree that advertising increases brand visibility, and 52% agreeing that companies increase their sales by using social media for marketing.

Despite this recognition, however, many consumers cited commercial content as a deterrent in their use of social media, with 64% saying they are likely to stop using a site if it becomes too heavily overloaded with advertising, and 61% agreeing that advertising and marketing content irritates them.

Thomas Brown, Director, Strategy and Insights, CIM comments: “We’re all aware of the dramatic adoption of social media and its profound impact on how we connect, communicate and collaborate, but what’s unclear – as our research has proven – is how brands and consumers can co-exist in these digital spaces.

In putting our research to both consumers and industry, we’ve developed a unique and in-depth understanding of quite how different the views of these audiences can be. It’s positive to see broad recognition by the UK public that businesses indeed have a value-adding role to play within social media, but it’s concerning how much consumers’ confidence has been shaken.

Of particular concern are the wide differences in opinion as to the sorts of activities considered ethically questionable and misleading, as opposed to acceptable and of no detriment to users. This means it’s not just those businesses intentionally misleading consumers that are the problem – even the most well-meaning brands might be pursuing activities on social media without realising they’re building concern amongst consumers.

It’s for these reasons we’ve created a voluntary set of standards for business, to help reduce the need for a restrictive or costly legislative response and maintain the integrity and value of social media for consumers and businesses alike. We’re calling on all brands and businesses to step up to their responsibilities to ‘keep social honest’, and have provided our ‘Ten Commandments of Keeping Social Honest’ to help them understand how.”

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