7 Tips to Avoid the Pitfalls on the Path to Marketing Success

Marketing in the 21st century encompasses a variety of printed marketing materials, online websites, blogs, case studies, text marketing, digital advertising, social media, and other digital, print and audiovisual materials. Its purpose includes providing information to current and potential customers, investors, and the public about your company, its vision, its goals, and its products/services; demonstrating thought leadership; building goodwill, credibility and trust with your target markets; and driving interest in your company and its offerings. It is a critical channel for generating new customers/clients, new revenue, and new value for investors and shareholders. Companies have a natural propensity to tout themselves and their products in the best possible light in their marketing, accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. However, there are a number of common mistakes companies make in their marketing that inadvertently land them in hot water.

Think of the execution of your marketing strategies as walking a path on a mountain ridge. To the left are the legal and regulatory pitfalls. These include deceptive, unfair or unlawful advertising practices under federal and state law; native advertising issues; false advertising, trademark, and unfair competition claims by competitors; and the like. To the right are the contractual and customer relationship pitfalls. These include claims for fraudulent inducement to contract or material misrepresentation in your marketing materials, and clients/customers asserting a right to rescind their contract or commence legal proceedings against you, affecting your company’s revenue and reputation.

There are ways to navigate this path safely. Here are 7 key tips to help stay on the path to happy clients/customers and increased revenue.

1) Be transparent, truthful, and clear.

The easiest way for a company to get into trouble over its marketing practices is to be untruthful, unclear and/or misleading. The FTC and state attorneys general rely heavily on federal and state laws prohibiting deceptive and unfair trade practices as their “multi-tool” for cracking down on companies for marketing violations. According to the FTC, an act or practice is considered “deceptive” if it contains a material misrepresentation or an omission of information that is likely to mislead a reasonable customer.

To avoid transparency issues, make sure your marketing collateral and messaging includes all material facts and disclosures that a reasonable person would expect to see. For example, there are disclosures required under federal and state laws around “negative options” such as an auto-renewing subscription offer; there are opt-out and other disclosures needed for certain commercial email messages; if there are dependencies for your call to action (e.g., you must purchase a support package if you purchase a license to your company’s software), disclose them.

To avoid truthfulness issues, verify or qualify any facts or assertions you are using in your marketing. Keep a folder with documentation backing up your marketing facts and assertions. If you don’t have or can’t find the supporting facts, consider adding qualifications to your marketing statement.

To avoid clarity issues, marketing should be well-organized and well-formatted, written in short sentences with simple words and an appropriate level of detail, so that the information you are trying to convey is easily understood. Write from the perspective of the reader – is your marketing message(s) clear to someone who does not know much (if anything) about your company and its products/services?

2) Ensure your marketing meets design and functionality requirements.

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is assuming they know how their target audience will respond to their marketing, or worse, not thinking about it in advance at all. Proactive testing of marketing strategies before launch has parallels to performing user acceptance testing (UAT) in the software world. UAT is the process by which a deliverable is tested by actual or simulated users to validate that the deliverable meets its design and functionality requirements. Just like software UAT, before releasing marketing collateral and messaging it is important to validate that (a) it includes all important details, meets all legal requirements, and contains all legally required disclosures (the “design requirements” equivalent), and (b) it clearly and effectively delivers the marketing message such as a value proposition and/or call to action to its intended audience, and generates the target return on investment (ROI) or return on ad spend (ROAS) (i.e., “functionality requirements” equivalent). Investing time and energy to test your marketing, and incorporating feedback to ensure it meets its design and functionality requirements, will help it deliver the best possible ROI/ROAS.

3) Be careful using images of people or copyrighted works of others.

It’s often easy to grab a picture from Google Images or other online websites for use in marketing and social media. But remember, just because something is available online does not mean it is in the public domain, free to use. Even if you were not the person who originally posted a picture or other copyrighted content online, you could be liable for your use of it. (Even if you have an “innocent infringer” defense, you may still have to prove that in court, costing you and your company time and money.) Consider acquiring images for marketing use from a reputable stock photo company such as Getty Images, and ensure people whose images you capture for marketing use have given you a signed release and right to use the image. In general, you can’t use someone’s name or likeness to state or imply they are endorsing or promoting a product without their permission. Also, remember that images you use should not imply endorsement of your company’s products or services by a person without that person’s consent. Duane Reade, a drugstore chain, learned this lesson the hard way recently when they were sued by Katherine Heigl for $6 million after they used an image of her in a tweet without her permission.

4) Avoid unsubstantiated superlatives and figures.

Companies sometimes fall off the marketing path by using superlatives and figures that they can’t substantiate. One of the bedrocks of FTC policy is the FTC Policy Statement Regarding Advertising Substantiation. Under this policy, objective product/service claims “represent explicitly or by implication that the advertiser has a reasonable basis supporting these claims.” A “reasonable basis” depends on factors including the product which is the subject of the claim, the type of advertising claim, the consequences of a false claim, and the benefits of a truthful claim. Failing to have support for your claims is a deceptive and unfair trade practice under §5 of the FTC Act. Watch out for figures and superlatives such as “the best,” “the quickest,” etc. Make sure you have a reasonable basis for your superlative and data to back up your figures. For superlatives you cannot back up with documented facts (e.g., “a leading” vs. “the leading”), consider whether a comparative would work better (e.g., “easier” vs. “easy”, “more cost-effectively” vs. “cost-effectively,” etc.) As noted earlier, if a specific number is cited, ensure you have documentation for that specific number. If not, qualify it or generalize it (e.g., “approximately X,” “more than Y,” “less than Z,” “A to B”).

5) Avoid quoting quotes.

Just like images, it can be easy to find great quotes, facts and figures through an Internet search. If you are under a deadline or have a limited marketing budget, it might be tempting to find an article which cited the study and then cite to that article. However, beware of “quoting the quoter.” Quotes and cited facts/figures should be substantiated by the source material, not an article quoting the source material. If you quote a quote and not the source material, you run the risk that the author of the quote changed or misquoted the source material in their article. For example, suppose you’re looking for a statistic that at least half of participants in a study believe that the demand for products in your market segment will double in the next two years. You find and quote an online article citing research that 50% of respondents stated exactly that. What you didn’t know is that the number is really 46%, and the author of the article you cited decided to round up to 50%.  This inaccurate quote could cause significant headaches if the inaccuracy proves material to your marketing message or value proposition.

6) Tread carefully when using product endorsers and native advertising.

Native advertising, as defined by the FTC, is “content that bears a similarity to the news, feature articles, product reviews, entertainment and other material that surrounds it online.” For example, a featured article on a website that looks like an objective article, but is in fact an advertisement for a product or service written by or for the product or service provider, is native advertising. Native advertising uses the appearance of authenticity to drive interest in a product or service. This is also its Achilles’ heel. If it is too difficult to distinguish native advertising from surrounding content, it may be considered deceptive; the FTC looks at the “net impression [an] ad conveys to consumers” in determining deceptiveness. If an ad misleads a consumer by stating or implying that it’s not advertising, it’s likely deceptive. Native advertising must be accompanied by clear and prominent disclosures as to the source and/or sponsorship of the advertising to avoid misleading consumers, such as “paid content” or “advertisement” or “sponsored” disclaimers next to native advertising content or links. The FTC’s Native Advertising Guide for Business contains clear guidance on how to avoid running afoul of native advertising traps.

Similar issues have arisen with respect to “product endorsers,” people who endorse a product, brand or company. While paid celebrity endorsements (think Michael Jordan for Nike and Hanes, William Shatner for Priceline) are clearly paid to do so, companies also use employees, and non-employees such as bloggers and online personalities, to promote and drive interest in their products. Companies also run contests and sweepstakes through social media to drive awareness and increase buzz for their products. But content posted by employee brand ambassadors, compensated non-employee endorsers, and participants in a promotion who fail to identify their content as sponsored or paid may be deceptive and misleading in the eyes of the FTC (as Cole Haan discovered when they ran a Pinterest campaign to drive interest in their Wandering Sole product) and state attorneys general. The FTC stated that a “material connection” between a marketer and an endorser must be disclosed “if the relationship is not otherwise apparent from the context of the communication that contains the endorsement.”

7) Avoid statements that are forward-looking or may trigger a Regulation FD disclosure requirement.

Finally, if you work for a public company, SEC laws and regulations impose additional restrictions on what you can and cannot say in your marketing communications. Watch out for “forward-looking statements,” statements of potential or projected future events as expectations or possibilities. Saying “we plan on adding a European office in 2019” or “we expect to double our manufacturing capacity in the next six months” are likely forward-looking statements. Forward looking statements can lead to securities litigation unless accompanied by cautionary language required by the statutory “safe harbor” for forward-looking statements by public companies. Additionally, it’s important to ensure any targeted marketing or social media posts do not inadvertently selectively disclose material, non-public information about your publicly-traded company, which is prohibited by SEC Regulation FD (Fair Disclosure). For example, if an employee posts a picture while on-site at a prospective major new client, and the client’s identity can be determined by a logo in the background the employee did not see, the potential relationship inadvertently disclosed by the social media post may trigger the need for a Regulation FD disclosure.

Eric Lambert is Assistant General Counsel and Privacy Officer atCommerceHub, a leading cloud services provider helping retailers and brands increase sales and delight shoppers by expanding product assortment, promoting and selling products on the channels that perform, and enabling rapid, on-time customer delivery. Any opinions in this post are his own. This post does not constitute, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Eric works primarily from his home office outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a technophile and Internet evangelist/enthusiast. In his spare time, Eric dabbles invoice-over work and implementing and integrating connected home technologies.

The Fourth Age of the Internet – the Internet of Things

We are now in what I call the “Fourth Age” of the Internet.  The First Age was the original interconnected network (or “Internet”) of computers using the TCP/IP protocol, with “killer apps” such as e-mail, telnet, FTP, and Gopher mostly used by the US government and educational organizations. The Second Age began with the creation of the HTTP protocol in 1990 and the original static World Wide Web (Web 1.0). The birth of the consumer internet, the advent of e-commerce, and 90’s dot-com boom (and bust in the early 2000’s) occurred during the Second Age. The Third Age began in the 2000’s with the rise of user-generated content, dynamic web pages, and web-based applications (Web 2.0). The Third Age has seen the advent of cloud computing, mobile and embedded commerce, complex e-marketing, viral online content, real-time Internet communication, and Internet and Web access through smartphones and tablets. The Fourth Age is the explosion of Internet-connected devices, and the corresponding explosion of data generated by these devices – the “Internet of Things” through which the Internet further moves from something we use actively to something our devices use actively, and we use passively. The Internet of Things has the potential to dramatically alter how we live and work.

As we move deeper into the Fourth Age, there are three things which need to be considered and addressed by businesses, consumers and others invested in the consumer Internet of Things:

  • The terms consumers associate with the Internet of Things, e.g., “smart devices,” should be defined before “smart device” and “Internet of Things device” become synonymous in the minds of consumers.  As more companies, retailers, manufacturers, and others jump on the “connected world” bandwagon, more and more devices are being labeled as “smart devices.”  We have smart TVs, smart toasters, smart fitness trackers, smart watches, smart luggage tags, and more (computers, smartphones and tables belong in a separate category). But what does “smart” mean?  To me, a “smart device” is one that has the ability not only to collect and process data and take general actions based on the data (e.g., sound an alarm), but can be configured to take user-configured actions (e.g., send a text alert to a specified email address) and/or can share information with another device (e.g., a monitoring unit which connects wirelessly to a base station). But does a “smart device” automatically mean one connected to the Internet of Things?  I would argue that it does not.

Throughout its Ages, the Internet has connected different types of devices using a common protocol, e.g., TCP/IP for computers and servers, HTTP for web-enabled devices. A smart device must do something similar to be connected to the Internet of Things. However, there is no single standard communications protocol or method for IoT devices. If a smart device uses one of the emerging IoT communications protocols such as Zigbee or Z-Wave (“IoT Protocols”), or has an open API to allow other devices and device ecosystems such as SmartThings, Wink or IFTTT to connect to it (“IoT APIs”), it’s an IoT-connected smart device, or “IoT device.” If a device doesn’t use IoT Protocols or support IoT APIs, it may be a smart device, but it’s not an IoT device. For example, a water leak monitor that sounds a loud alarm if it detects water is a device.  A water leak monitor that sends an alert to a smartphone app via a central hub, but cannot connect to other devices or device ecosystems, is a smart device.  Only if that device uses an IoT Protocol or support IoT APIs to allow it to interconnect with other devices or device ecosystems is an IoT device.

“Organic” began as a term to define natural methods of farming.  However, over time it became overused and synonymous with “healthy.”  Players in the consumer IoT space should be careful not to let key IoT terminology suffer the same fate. Defining what makes a smart device part of the Internet of Things will be essential as smart devices continue to proliferate.

  • Smart devices and IoT devices exacerbate network and device security issues. Consumers embracing the Internet of Things and connected homes may not realize that adding smart devices and IoT devices to a home network can create new security issues and headaches. For example, a wearable device with a Bluetooth security vulnerability could be infected with malware while you’re using it, and infect your home network once you return and sync it with your home computer or device.  While there are proposals for a common set of security and privacy controls for IoT devices such as the IoT Trust Framework, nothing has been adopted by the industry as of yet.

Think of your home network, and your connected devices, like landscaping.  You can install a little or a lot, all at one or over time.  Often, you have a professional do it to ensure it is done right. Once it’s installed, you can’t just forget about it — you have to care for it, through watering, trimming, etc. Occasionally, you may need to apply treatments to avoid diseases. If you don’t care for your landscaping, it will get overgrown; weeds, invasive plants (some poisonous) and diseases may find their way in; and you ultimately have a bigger, harder, more expensive mess to clean up later on.

You need to tend your home network like landscaping, only if you don’t tend your home network the consequences can be much worse than overgrown shrubbery. Many consumers are less comfortable tinkering with computers than they are tinkering with landscaping.  Router and smart device manufacturers periodically update the embedded software (or “firmware”) that runs those devices to fix bugs and to address security vulnerabilities. Software and app developers similarly periodically release updated software. Consumers need to monitor for updates to firmware and software regularly, and apply them promptly once available.  If a device manufacturer goes out of business or stops supporting a device, consider replacing it as it will no longer receive security updates. Routers need to be properly configured, with usernames and strong passwords set, encryption enabled, network names (SSID) configured, etc.  Consumers with a connected home setup should consider a high-speed router with sufficient bandwidth such as 802.11ac or 802.11n.

The third party managed IT services industry has existed since the Second Age. As connected homes proliferate resulting in complex connected home infrastructure, there is an opportunity for “managed home IT” to become a viable business model.  I expect companies currently offering consumer-focused computer repair and home networking services will look hard at adding connected home management services (installation, monitoring, penetration testing, etc.) as a new subscription-based service.

  • Smart device companies need to think of what they can/can’t, and should/shouldn’t, do with data generated from their devices.  IoT devices and smart devices, and connected home technologies and gateways, generate a lot of data.  Smart/IoT device manufacturers and connected home providers need to think about how to store, process and dispose of this data.  Prior to the Internet of Things, behavioral data was gathered through the websites you viewed, the searches you ran, the links you clicked – “online behavioral data.”  The IoT is a game-changer. Now, what users do in the real world with their connected devices can translate to a new class of behavioral data – “device behavioral data.” Smart/IoT device manufacturers, and connected home providers, will need to understand what legal boundaries govern their use of device behavioral data, and how existing laws (e.g., COPPA) apply to the collection and use of data through new technologies. Additionally, companies must look at what industry best practices, industry guidelines and rules, consumer expectations and sentiment, and other non-legal contours shape what companies should and should not do with the data, even if the use is legal.  Companies must consider how long to keep data, and how to ensure it’s purged out of their systems once the retention period ends.

IoT and smart device companies, and connected home service and technology providers, should build privacy and data management compliance into the design of their devices and their systems by adopting a “security by design” and “privacy by design” mindset. Consumers expect that personal data about them will be kept secure and not misused. They must ensure their own privacy policies clearly say what they do with device behavioral data, and not do anything outside the boundaries of their privacy policy (“say what you do, do what you say”). Consider contextual disclosures making sure the consumer clearly understands what you do with device behavioral data.  Each new Age of the Internet has seen the FTC, state Attorneys General, and other consumer regulatory bodies look at how companies are using consumer data, and make examples of those they believe are misusing it. The Fourth Age will be no different. Companies seeking to monetize device behavioral data must make sure that they have a focus on data compliance.

“Consumer Disclosure Icons” in Mobile and Social Marketing

The advent of mobile and social marketing has created a significant headache for attorneys and marketers alike.  The FTC has stated that consumer disclosure requirements to avoid deception (e.g., ensuring that disclosures are clear and conspicuous, are in close proximity to the statement requiring the disclosure, are sufficiently prominent, are in understandable language, are not hidden behind a non-descriptive hyperlink, etc.) apply to marketers regardless of the medium in which they are delivered.  Whether you’re delivering a marketing communication via email to a desktop computer, via social media, or to a mobile or wearable device, these rules apply.

The result is an understandable tension between attorneys trying to ensure that required disclosures are being made to control risk, and marketers seeking to deliver a compelling message and CTA (call to action) in a limited amount of space.  Attorneys need to partner with their marketing brethren to find creative solutions to achieve both goals.

One idea for common ground here from an industry perspective worth pitching is to develop a set of standard “consumer disclosure icons,” or CDIs, that use a single character to denote a standard marketing disclosure phrase, e.g., “additional purchase required,” “no purchase necessary,” “subscription required,” “terms and conditions apply,” “sponsored promotion,” “paid advertisement,” etc.  These could be something as simple as a set of initials in a box, such as the following for “no purchase necessary”:


Using these as a single character in a standard browser font would mean each CDI only takes up one character in a text-based communication, freeing up valuable real estate for the communication itself.  Each could be a hyperlink to a page with explanations of the meanings of standard CDIs.  Companies would want to use them consistently, e.g., at the end of each paragraph with claims triggering a disclosure.

CDIs would not work for non-standard disclosures, and companies would need to be careful not to improperly use CDIs where a custom disclosure is required.

Through efforts such as “Operation Full Disclosure” in September 2014, the FTC is looking to the industry to demonstrate their compliance with standard consumer marketing requirements even as the medium in which these messages are delivered continues to evolve (and shrink in size).  Devising a set of consumer disclosure icons for common disclosures in visual mobile and social marketing may be a solution embraceable by marketers, attorneys and regulators alike.

The Pros, Cons, Do’s and Don’ts of Competitor Keyword Bidding

Companies regularly bid on their own keywords, and generic terms related to their business, as part of their overall paid search strategy.  Bidding on competitors’ keywords (company name, brand names, product names, etc.) in paid search advertising is also a common practice. Google has allowed companies to bid on third party trademarked terms since 2008.  Plaintiffs have had an increasingly difficult time in recent years winning trademark infringement cases involving competitor keyword bidding.  Many companies appear to have adopted an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach.  So should your company be bidding on competitors’ keywords too?

The answer, as is often the case, is, “maybe.”  There are many pros and cons to bidding on competitors’ keywords, and do’s and don’ts, to keep in mind.

  • PRO:  Bidding on competitors’ keywords targets your company’s market and promotes brand awareness.  Companies can use competitor keyword bidding to advertise to persons looking for similar products and services, helping to ensure your products are reaching the broadest possible market.
  • PRO:  Bidding on competitors’ keywords presents alternatives in the marketplace. Competitor keyword bidding helps ensure your company’s name and brand is presented as an alternative to someone searching for a competitor’s products.  This provides consumers with choices on available products and levels the playing field (especially when your competitors are bigger than you).
  • PRO:  Bidding on competitors’ keywords is often less competitive.  Competitors’ keywords are generally less competitive than generic terms, as fewer companies bid on them.
  • CON:  Bidding on competitors’ keywords could trigger a bidding war.  If your competitor isn’t already bidding on your company’s keywords, it may take an “eye for an eye” approach and start bidding on your company’s keywords, driving up your own paid search listing fees.
  • CON:  Competitors’ keywords generally result in a low click-through rate, which can have consequences.  The click-through rate (CTR) for listings triggerest by a competitor keyword can be low.  For Google, failing to achieve a strong CTR on an ad campaign can affect your company’s AdWords Quality Score (QS), driving up the company’s overall Cost Per Click (CPC) for paid search listings.
  • CON:  While litigation over competitor keyword bidding is unusual these days, it’s not unheard of if you don’t carefully follow the rules.

If you decide that the pros outweigh the cons and want to dive (or wade) into competitor keyword bidding, here are some Do’s and Don’ts to consider:

DOdifferentiate your company in the ad creative by including a clear offer or unique selling point to draw potential customers away from the company they were looking for.  Find a way to differentiate yourself and present a value proposition in your ad to get a potential competitor customer to look at you instead.

DOalways mention your company’s name advertisements served via competitor keyword bidding.

DOcheck competitors’ keywords for alternate meanings (e.g., through Google Suggest and Google Search).  Other meanings could mean serving ads to persons searching for an alternate meaning, resulting in a low CTR.

DON’T use dynamic keyword insertion for a campaign involving a competitor’s keywords.  Not only is it a violation of Google’s AdWords policy, it can potentially expose you to trademark infringement claims.

DON’T mention a competitor’s name in your own ad copy served through competitor keyword bidding, or use it in a way that could cause a consumer to think you’re somehow associated with or sponsored by your competitor.

DON’Tbe deceptive, confusing or misleading, or make unsubstantiated claims, in your advertising creative or design (it’s never a good idea to try to trick someone into clicking on your ad).

Finally, DON’T try to outbid your competitors for their keywords.  Try to be #2 or #3 on the search results page to avoid a higher bounce rate and Quality Score impact.  Avoid starting a keyword bidding war — there’s never a winner, and the 1982 movie WarGames said it best (“the only winning move is not to play.”)

Make Your Unsubscribe Process Work For You

When a consumer wants to no longer receive marketing communications from your company, both US anti-spam law (CAN-SPAM) and Canada anti-spam law (CASL) require you to provide a simple, easy-to-use unsubscribe mechanism.  No one these days questions the importance of offering an unsubscribe link to recipients of commercial emails – failing to do so is one of the easier ways to get in trouble for noncompliance.  However, I’ve seen many companies make the process too easy or unclear.  Some use a one-click unsubscribe; others don’t provide a good experience for those seeking to change their marketing preferences.

Here are some simple guidelines on good hygiene for your unsubscribe process:

  • Consider using an unsubscribe/manage preferences page, not a one-click unsubscribe. One-click unsubscribe means that as soon as a consumer clicks unsubscribe, it’s done and that consumer marketing record is off-limits.  As an alternative, consider a landing page through which a consumer can choose from “layers” of unsubscribe options (e.g., unsubscribe from emails about Product X, unsubscribe from emails from Product Division Alpha, unsubscribe from all emails from Company), and/or manage their communication preferences.  A person may initially think they want to unsubscribe, but on arriving at the page may instead realize he/she only wants to change or update their communication preferences to still receive some (but not all) communications.  The complexity of the page should be driven by the available “layered” choices (if simple, use radio buttons; if complex, use separate sections for each choice with sub-options).  You must allow the page visitor to take a final action from that page – you cannot use more than a single page plus the original click for unsubscribe requests.  (You can include a link to a separate “manage preferences” page if preferred.)
  • Design unsubscribe functionality to the principles of Simplicity, Clarity, Choice and Experience. Make it easy (but not too easy) for a consumer to opt out – you cannot make page visitors jump through hoops, and cannot ask them for additional personal information (other than email address) in order to unsubscribe.  Ensure disclosures and the unsubscribe process are clear to the reasonable consumer.  Provide alternatives to opting out (changes to frequency, content, or receipt point).  Provide a good experience and ensure they leave on good terms.
  • Clarify that they’ll still receive transactional emails. Where a page visitor can select to unsubscribe from all marketing emails, if appropriate consider language clarifying that they are unsubscribing from receiving all promotional emails, and that they’ll still receive transactional and relationship emails such as order confirmations and shipping notifications.
  • Humanize the unsubscribe notice. Use the unsubscribe process to remind the page visitor that they are working with a company, not an automated computer system.  Include your company’s branding on the unsubscribe/manage preferences page(s).
  • Ask for feedback after confirming the unsubscribe or change in preferences. Lastly, consider asking for feedback about why they are unsubscribing or changing their preferences, AFTER you have confirmed the unsubscribe or preference change.  This data can provide useful metrics to your organization to help shape your email and omni-channel marketing strategy.