Why the ASA will suddenly become a very important watchman for law firms in March

Kate Adamson By Kate Adamson
from Starke Moore Macmillan

With the decorations packed away, and the scent of festive ‘Mulled Gusset’ air fresheners mercifully dissipating, the season of goodwill to all men is well and truly behind us. This reminds me of an old adage - the one about keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.

The ASA, as I’m assuming you’re aware, has been regulating advertising and marketing communications in almost every medium in the UK since 2004. Until now, one of those exceptions was a company’s own website. But, from 1 March, the ASA’s remit will widen to include marketing communications on a company’s own website if the ASA determines those comms are intended to sell something.

Without wanting to sound fatuous, if your website contains a lot of content which doesn’t expressly set out to sell you and your services then you may want to have a bit of a re-think. But the threat from the ASA's new powers doesn't just relate to what you say about your company and your products and services, it also relates to what your customers say about your products and services.

And here’s the killer: it isn’t just what's on your website - it’s on any digital communication controlled by your company, which includes Facebook, Twitter, your company blog, and so on.

Do I have your attention now? Thought so.

According to the Digital Remit Extension document, which is on the ASA website here (http://www.asa.org.uk/Media-Centre/2010/ASA-digital-remit-extension.aspx) - and I suggest that you take a minute to read it - user-generated content will be considered marketing communications if its submission has originally been solicited by the website owner and then adopted within their own marketing communications, and also when the material has been provided on an unsolicited basis and subsequently incorporated within their marketing communications. That’s pretty much any testimonial you’ve sought or unsolicited comment on a blog or Facebook page then.

This is probably the most significant and major change to marketing regulation in the UK ever. It even applies to marketing communications which ‘consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of fund-raising activities'. But very few people seem to know about it.

Just to get this into perspective, this massive extension of the ASA's powers is simply based on the fact that, over a two-year period between 2008-2009, the ASA received 3,500 complaints about websites that it couldn’t investigate. In 2009, ASA dealt with 28,929 complaints overall, so if you assume a similar number in 2008, that means that less than 6% of complaints related to websites and social media pages. This therefore seems to me like taking a sledgehammer to crack one of those mouldering walnuts left over from Christmas.

As the complaints couldn't be investigated, we have no idea if any of them actually had any merit. This brings me to why you should be keeping your friends close and your enemies closer: a very large number of complaints made to the ASA aren’t made by consumers or clients at all - they’re made by competitors.

Very soon, your competitors won’t just be other legal firms. Bearing in mind the massive number of complaints about solicitors in the UK each year, which you’d never know from reading the average solicitor’s website, that might be a future filled with a lot more complaints about law firms to the ASA.

Happy New Year…

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