Direct Selling Social Media Policies and Procedures: What’s Fair?

legal_docsRecently, a direct sales company (that I am not going to name…one I have not worked with on their social media strategy) issued a rather sweeping set of new policies and procedures for their consultants, related to social media, that has upset the field a great deal.  While I would have advised against some of the mandates set forth in this particular set of policies, there are a couple of issues I would like to discuss here.

  1. For Independent Consultants: Direct sales companies are still trying to figure out this whole social media thing, and sometimes they make mistakes.  For the future health of your business, and the company as a whole, it is recommended that you address your concerns to the company FIRST, before taking it online.  I’ve noticed that this company has already made changes in response to consultant concerns, yet there is still a great deal of “trashing” going on.  Remember that stuff goes far online, and can be read by the prospects whose business you’re trying to win.  Even if you don’t care for yourself and plan to leave the company, what you say will affect every single consultant in the company.  There are ways to address and escalate issues, and taking it public first is not the right way to handle things if you really want to effect change.
  2. For Direct Sales Companies: Do you have a monitoring and escalation procedures strategy in place?  I have seen a GREAT deal of trashing of this particular company going on in online forums, and have not seen any corporate response.  (If I’m wrong, please enlighten me.  I may just not have seen it.)  But this begs the question…does the company know what’s being said?  Do they have a strategy in place to deal with it?  In this social media age, companies MUST be prepared to respond quickly to a flurry of negative publicity.  You may not be able to stop people from saying bad things about you, but the only way your side of the story will be heard is if you share it.  Make sure you know who within your company is authorized to respond, and get those issues to those people quickly, so that you don’t find situations escalating for days without an official response.  At least look like you’re paying attention.
  3. For Independent Consultants: I find this issue very interesting.  Part of the problem consultants have been facing is the lack of specific policies and procedures related to social media.  And without these clear guidelines, people have done whatever they want, often with poor results that reflect badly on the entire industry.  I think it is important to have specific guidelines in place, and I think consultants need to be prepared for the fact that they may need to make some changes for the good of everyone.  Yet at the same time, there is a fine line between guidelines and control.  Companies need to be sure they are still allowing their consultants to be independent.I’m very interested to read below what you feel are FAIR policies and procedures related to social media, keeping in mind that the company needs to be able to very clearly be the corporate voice, the consultants need to clearly present themselves as independent, there are certain ways that logos and trademarks must be used to protect brand integrity for everyone, honesty and integrity are important, etc.  I VERY much hope you’ll be willing to share your thoughts around what you think are FAIR policies for independent consultants.
  4. For Direct Sales Companies: How do you deal with the fact that social media and an independent sales force imply a certain lack of control?  Ironically, we as direct sellers should be among the BEST at realizing we don’t control the message, as we’ve had independent sellers sharing our message forever.  Yet policies that seek to control every single thing that’s said and done online seem to imply that we somehow don’t get it.  That we don’t realize that our folks can be our best evangelists, yet they’re still independent.  Where is the line?

I am very much looking forward to reading your thoughts on this issue below.  I do ask that you refrain from naming the company involved in this issue.  They have enough to deal with right now without us adding to it.  Instead, let’s talk about how this issue affects the entire industry.  What would you say are FAIR ways to deal with policies and procedures related to social media?  Let’s have a conversation.

Photo Credit: ifindkarma

32 Responses to Direct Selling Social Media Policies and Procedures: What’s Fair?
  1. Rob
    September 16, 2009 | 9:27 am

    Thank you Jennifer for this post. I’ve found it to contain the most constructive discussion about this DS’s situation. My wife is a demonstrator for the DS and we’re trying to work through the issues from both the corporate side and the demonstrator’s side.

    I read somewhere that all policies have a cost, both present and future and sometimes the cost of the cure outweighs the cost of the issue the policy was created to deal with.

    You mentioned above about the cost of monitoring and enforcement. I think this DS is lucky that many (my assumption) of their current demonstrators have not embraced the internet/social media. While that may be the case today what effect will their policy have on future recruitment when the demographic they’re trying to recruit has been brought up to use social media as a part of their everyday lives.

    Rob

  2. Audrey
    September 6, 2009 | 8:47 pm

    Following this thread, I think I am a consultant with the DS in question. A forum I have been following did not trash the DS company but voiced disappointment with the inflexibility and unilateral way in which the DS company responded to its consultants on the use of social media. Many of the posts called for the DS company to issue appropriate guidelines so that consultants could compete more effectively with other companies in the same field. Ways that other consultants have found to work around the restrictive social media policies include creating their own website that bears indirect reference to the products of the DS company by use of generic terms. These happen to be among the more senior and successful of this DS companies consultants. In fact, the DS company I work with has a presence on Twitter.

    Customers have many choices for the product I sell. It is not a consumable like food, makeup or cleaning products. The only way to compete effectively is to differentiate your product from your competitors since many compete well on price and this economy has made this product line more difficult to focus on a particular market segment. Product differentiation is the major strength of this DS company. We are not able to compete on our strength.

    There is no known way that consultants can provide suggestions to this DS company and feel that they have been considered. Perhaps this is why some consultants might have gone a little to far due to their frustration. The company should realize that the consultants want to use all tools available to make more sales and attract more recruits. Social media is one tool to use for doing so.

    Social media is only going to be more prevalent in direct sales. Maybe this is a wake up call for all DS companies to review these policies to ensure that they are flexible enough to allow their consultants to compete effectively while still maintaining the standards that will not detract from branding efforts. Providing some text, graphics, or other tools to use in social media marketing would go a long way toward protecting DS companies images.

  3. A hobby demo
    September 4, 2009 | 3:30 pm

    I’m one who’s directly involved in this debate. What I would add is that there’s a third interest group here: hobbyists.

    I second, third and fourth the idea of moving hobby consultants into a different area, such as “preferred customers”. Right now, the message is really confused: “Yes we love hobby demos, but we love it even more when you start acting like a business demo, and by the way, even though you don’t make money off this, you have to consider our concerns first before you do anything.”

    If recruiting counts don’t really distinguish between a hobby representative and a career rep, the confusion will continue–and the strongest case against the new policies are those of people who just want the discount and now are being asked to give up their Facebook friends and craft message boards.

    More important, the proponents’ “employment-based” arguments just don’t hold up for hobbyists. It’s one thing to tell a career rep where the lines are–she’s making an income and has a stake in the process. But where’s the consideration for invasion of personal blogs and e-mail if all you get is a discount on the products you buy? Just doesn’t add up.

    Meanwhile. online comments pro-and-con reveal the tension when careerists disparage “people only in it for the discount”. Yet the official recruiting line is that we LOVE those people.

    Uh-uh. Do they really? I just can’t understand if this is a move to toss them out or whether the DS simply didn’t get it.

  4. Jennifer
    September 4, 2009 | 2:19 pm

    Another thought…do you think some of this could have been avoided if the company had a backend system that allowed folks to submit their comments/thoughts/ideas for corporate review (and they were actually read?) Might be a different way for folks to feel as though they were heard, without causing so much damage. What do you think?

    Jennifer

    • A hobby demo
      September 4, 2009 | 3:38 pm

      I need to speak to this one. When the company’s response to any contact is an autoresponder and two days later, a form letter saying nothing, it’s completely inadequate to the need, especially when you break the news of a change like this.

      I’m affected, fired off questions for clarification three days ago, and still haven’t heard one word.

      If you’re going to ask people to keep it within the company, the company has to take part in a conversation. Simple as that.

      • Jennifer
        September 4, 2009 | 6:00 pm

        Thanks for your comment! You are right, a form letter can be a tough pill to swallow. I wonder how a company can best address issues when so many are coming at one time, and still ensure that everyone feels heard. Do you think a general response to a topic on an internal message-board type system would have been a better response than a form letter?

        Truly just brainstorming here. I don’t know anything that is going on at the company in question. My goal is to find best practices for the industry. I think we can all learn from this experience.

        Jennifer

  5. Melissa Laverty
    September 4, 2009 | 12:34 pm

    What great and insightful comments you have received, Jennifer! Loved reading through them.
    I think that what this DS company failed to recognize was the nature of the product they are selling and the people who are signing up to be consultants. For a good many of them, this is a way to get a great discount on a product that they use for a hobby they love. That said, I am sure that many of them do not exclusively use this company’s product for their hobby. It just seems to be a strange business move to basically remove this entire class of consultant from your business. Certainly, if being a Consultant for this company is your career and you are actively building a business with them, the policies stated shouldn’t change the way you do business. But for many of the hobbyists, I am sure that it presents a real problem.
    As I am a consultant for one of this company’s competitors, I keep up with their posts on Twitter. This company’s consultants were very active on Twitter (more so than mine). And I have noticed that since this announcement came out, the activity has virtually stopped. And many of their consultants have had to shut down their blogs for fear of being in violation. I can’t imagine that this is a good marketing strategy.
    My company does have certain guidelines that they expect of their consultants in terms of social media. And those parameters allow us to be “independent” in our postings while maintaining the integrity of the company. They understand the nature of the industry we are in, and allow flexiblity. And if we ever step outside those guidelines, we are gently reminded to make adjustments.
    Finally, I loved what you wrote about how a DS company reacts to this sort of “negative” PR. I am sure that most current consultants will weather this and move forward. But those that may have been considering signing up with this company will be made to think twice.

    • Jennifer
      September 4, 2009 | 1:39 pm

      Melissa,
      I appreciate you taking the time to comment! It’s interesting to look at it from a competitive company’s point of view. Do you think this will help your business? I find it very interesting that most of these consultants have gone silent on Twitter and the blogs. Perhaps this type of consultant communication is no longer part of the brand marketing strategy? I wonder if this is the intended result or not.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!
      Jennifer

      • Melissa Laverty
        September 4, 2009 | 2:31 pm

        First let me say that, while I am an active business builder with my DS company, I do not at all like to see our competitors suffer. It’s just not good for the industry as a whole. That said, my company certainly provides an attractive alternative and I have already heard from other consultants that they are in talks with this company’s demonstrators to join their teams.
        In regards to removing social media from their marketing strategy, well now, this is a huge shot in the foot. You tell me, but I think that our particular DS niche, is RIPE for blogs. In fact, I would bet that we have more consultants blogging than most other DS categories. This HAS to be good for business. I know that my company has basically ceased all print advertising in favor of internet advertising.

    • Dawnmarie
      September 4, 2009 | 3:28 pm

      It’s interesting that twitter has been quieter – I know I haven’t been out there – not because I’m worried about violating the policy – I wasn’t tweeting competitve info to start with so it’s not a change for me – but just because I’ve been consumed with the entire issue and helping my fellow consultants understand the misinformation that’s out there. I wonder if that’s not why a lot of blogs and twitter accounts are quieter than normal.

  6. Lauri Ingram
    September 4, 2009 | 8:25 am

    Jen! I am so glad I found you. This is a very important topic, and goes beyond even the independent consultant/direct sales world. I work for a large insurance company that is dealing head on with how to incorporate social media into policies for their employees. While the issues of being an independent consultant versus an employee are different, the questions and concerns are the same! For example, if I post an opinion on my blog, FB, whatever with my personal opinion on a hot topic in the insurance industry, and that personal opinion happens to be in conflict with the the policy of the company I work for….can I do that? Is it an issue only if I say I am an employee? Just because I may not show my employer in my profile, is it okay? A very very interesting dilemma! I am interested in following this dialogue!

    • Jennifer
      September 4, 2009 | 12:49 pm

      Lauri,
      You’re right, it IS a very interesting issue that corporate America is wrestling with now. Where is the line between free speech and employee responsibility. Is it enough to say that these are your personal opinions, and they don’t necessarily reflect those of your employer? It will be very interesting to see how all this plays out.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Cheers!

      Jennifer

  7. Dawnmarie
    September 4, 2009 | 7:23 am

    Being a part of the DS in question – I’d like to say that this company is not opposed to Social Media – what they are opposed to is their reps promoting competitve product through Social Media. Or being fans of competing companies on Facebook, providing information that guides a customer to buy a competing product.

    Most of the current debate has indeed centered around the issue of personal vs business. My own experience is that I’ve never been in any sales role, employee or ic, where it would be okay to tell potential customers “Hey , did you hear that Store X has a sale on these really awesome widgets?” when we sell the widgets cousin or to say “Oh, I buy my nails from store Y because their cheaper there” when I sell nails. It sounds ludicrous when I put it in this context, but that’s exactly what is being argued by upset reps. When I worked for M&M/Mars, I didn’t consume Reece’s in front of customers. It’s the same thing.

    The issue with DS is that so often our family and friends are our customers. So the issue becomes more emotional. I know for a fact, that if I’m not my own customer, I can’t expect someone else to be my customer. The comment I hear regularly is “why can’t I tell my sister in an email that store y is having a great sale on widgets? I want her to get the best deal – that’s what friends do.” I guess I keep asking why would you? If we sell widgets, or even their cousins, don’t you want her to buy yours? I’ve never been in a DS company where this is common practice. It seems foreign to me. I’ve always known that people bought elsewhere, but I’ve never felt that they had an expectation that I would be the “expert” leading them to all the great deals. I only lead them to my product. And that is the crux of this matter, more than personal vs business. It’s consultant vs industry expert. Unfortunately, people will have to decide which one they want to be.

    You are right when you say that in the absence of guidelines, people will do whatever. And they have, and that’s the problem. They are in the habit of promoting product other than what they sell. The bigger problem is that they don’t seem to understand that in the rest of the business world, an ic selling for a company can’t promote competing product. I can’t think of any company that would allow this. And in this case, that is exactly what’s been happening.

    I will agree that the first version of the new agreement went to far. The revisions have greatly helped. I think the Facebook and twitter guidelines need to be clarified. I can see a benefit to following a competitor. I’ve done it regularly in my sales career. I can also see, my customers wondering why I’m a fan of company Y if I’m selling for Company X

    • Jennifer
      September 4, 2009 | 12:45 pm

      Dawnmarie,
      Thanks so much for weighing in here.

      On the surface, I agree with you here. If you represent company x, why would you send them to company y for something that you sell? However when you begin to discuss consultant vs industry expert, that gives me pause. I believe that the BEST way to use social media marketing to market your business is to become an expert for your readers. By providing a blog that gives valuable information your customers can use right now, often without spending a dime, they become raving fans that want to come back, and share you with others.

      So how does this fit in? Obviously, you can be an expert without sending people to other companies. I’m interested to hear your take on it.

      Again I will say, if the main point for these hobbyists is to consume product at a discount, wouldn’t a preferred customer program fit the bill better? Then they wouldn’t be representing the company, and those that want to work the business can do so well.

      Just sayin.

      Thanks again for your reply!

      Jennifer

      • Dawnmarie
        September 4, 2009 | 3:35 pm

        It’s an excellent point – and actually, from reading our agreement, I can still be an expert – I just can’t link to a site that provides ordering capability for a competitve product. A lot of people have misunderstood that point. I don’t have to provide a link to a competitor to be an expert.

        If I read our agreement, I can discuss other product – as long as it’s casual and incidental and “doesn’t drive the reader to the competitive product” so to speak. I shouldn’t be gushing about how great someone else’s product is if I’m representing this company.

        And to your last point – you’re right, if I’m a hobbyist that really just wants a discount and wants to experience all things crafty – then maybe a preferred customer program is a better idea. Unfortunately, we don’t have that option. In the company’s eyes, we’re all selling their product. There is no distinction. That’s part of what makes this entire discussion so incredibly hard. Is that in our own minds, we’ve made that distinction and because we have, we want the rules to reflect that distinction. But to the company, we are all the same.

        Thanks for starting a great discussion by the way.

  8. James
    September 4, 2009 | 12:14 am

    Great article Jenn, however, I should throw out there that social media is a whole new world for most companies and ones that have been around for some time are all going to have to deal with these types of issues and sometimes that’s not going to be popular.

    However, in this instance I don’t believe that it’s entirely a lack of understanding of social media or the internet (although that certainly is part of it). I believe in this case social media is the bane that has caused the necessary change, and yes it was necessary. It’s extremely difficult to protect a brand in any online space today. People will say what they want on the internet without regard to who might read it.

    In this particular case the brouhaha that’s erupted isn’t due entirely to the changes in the consultant agreement. It’s primarily due to the fact that some, lets call them upper echelon consultants, took it upon themselves to react without making any attempt at understanding the reasoning. They made assumptions, which as we all know are the mother of all f’ups. They then used their blogs as weapons to attack the company. Because this vocal minority commands a rather large consultant following, the things they were saying on their blogs, on Twitter and forums was purely speculative, and based solely on their own misguided interpretations. In this instance social media allowed them to run amok and spread inaccurate or misguided information unchecked that quickly got out of hand.

    Did the company in question underestimate the backlash? Absolutely. Would you, myself or anyone that spent any time in the web marketing arena have advised against a number of things in the new agreement. Absolutely. However, they didn’t, and most companies wouldn’t. They just don’t get the whole of this medium.

    As for the absurd notion that personal blogs are off limits to companies and that individuals have a right to say what they want without penalty… well that’s just absurd. I don’t care who you are or where you work, if you go on your personal blog and start flaming the company you work for you’re gonna get canned. Most companies ethics policies today do indeed cover an employees conduct when not at work. What you do on your own time can very much get you fired from virtually any company that wanted to execute that right. Pick up the paper, there’s a new case almost everyday.

    Any independent consultant for any company signs a contract. In this case the consultant agreed to sell for the company and the company agreed to compensate and provide product. At what point did contracts and legal bindings become irrelevant? Sorry, I just can’t justify some of the actions a select few have chosen to make in this. I don’t mean to put social media at fault for it, my point is in this case it’s been a major catalyst for some irresponsible individuals.

    Even right this moment, a popular consultant with a large Twitter following is tweeting opinions that are inaccurate. This has been a common problem for this company and I’m sure many others. In order to be able to take a firmer stand changes were required. They were made.

    Now, let’s look at it like this. IF these changes had been made under the existing agreement which stated the company could change/amend the policies at any time for any reason, had this just been done and published very little of this drama would be going on. It’s because the company chose to require a resigning of the agreement that’s sent people into a tailspin.

    Anyway, sorry to eat up your comments here. I would however like to see more of the online experts like yourself promote responsible social media behavior. Freedom of speech doesn’t give someone the right to slander another individual, neither does it give an individual the right to slander a company.

    Oh and I should add. As you noted said company quickly amended some of the policies and they have made numerous clarifications. Yet I have not seen one of these whiners update their own blogs with that information. Most are still crying over milk that was spilled and since cleaned up. They’re pissed off the floor got wet and they have to walk on it.

    Anyway, thanks for the article and the perspective on the situation.

    -james

    • Lauri Ingram
      September 4, 2009 | 8:30 am

      James, thank you! I am sorry I did not read all the comments before I commented. Interesting times…and they are a-changing.

    • Jennifer
      September 4, 2009 | 11:51 am

      James,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, and I absolutely love that both sides of this issue are being presented via thoughtful discourse.

      One thing you said I must comment on:
      “Did the company in question underestimate the backlash? Absolutely. Would you, myself or anyone that spent any time in the web marketing arena have advised against a number of things in the new agreement. Absolutely. However, they didn’t, and most companies wouldn’t. They just don’t get the whole of this medium.”

      I am going to go out on a limb here and say that companies MUST be more aware of the social medium if they’re going to create policies around them. I don’t believe that “most companies wouldn’t.” I am working with a company right now that has come to me, as a social media expert in our industry, to help them create fair policies. If you don’t know web marketing, you MUST bring in someone who does. That’s the only smart way to do business, especially with something as viral as the internet (as this company is learning to its detriment.)

      I think you’re discussing two issues here: if the issue is slandering the company, the company by all means has the right to terminate that consultant agreement. However if, on a PERSONAL blog, I talk about more than one company’s products, does the company have the right to tell me not to do that? If I’m using the trademarks of the company I represent on that site, I DO believe the company has the right to involve itself on what else is there. But if the blog is purely personal, I believe that person has the right to put anything she/he wants on that blog (not slander, but content).

      I also think the company in question needs to state its official position on a corporate blog. They do not need to get “into the weeds” and respond on every single blog/forum. But people need to know where to go to get the official position. And that should be on the corporate blog.

      I agree with you on the resigning bit causing the problem. I think this company should seriously consider a preferred customer program. I think this would resolve a lot of the issues “hobbyists” have.

      I believe this company could have had a more productive conversation about all this on a backoffice forum where consultants could have discussed the issue with the company, without airing all this to the public. The company seems to be paying attention, and making the changes it can. I do hope that the consultants who are currently upset will acknowledge the company’s response. Thoughtful discourse is the way to get things done.

      Thanks again for all your input! It is much appreciated!

      Jennifer

  9. Staci Miserlian
    September 3, 2009 | 11:07 pm

    As far as what would be a fair policy for electronic commuication and social media…would it be feasible to make a distinction between one-on-one communication and mass communication? What I mean is, in a private conversation email with one individual it would not be “regulated”, but in a mass media situation – e.g. email distribution list, FB post or following, Twitter, blog post – there would be restrictions as to what could be shared or promoted with regards to the company that you are a consultant for and their competitors. I don’t take offense to social media restrictions because I have avoided using them at this point and they aren’t vital to my life or my business…but I know many others who feel differently about them.

    • James
      September 4, 2009 | 12:19 am

      I think the problem with this approach is what happens when that one email someone sends to a buddy ends up in the hands of a reporter. There’s plenty of documented cases where employees where fired because of something written in a email they sent to a friend via their personal email that was disparaging against the company they worked for. Friend gets pissed over something trivial, sends email to persons boss. This is a touch issue and one that’s probably going to haunt corporate America for a long time.

    • Jennifer
      September 4, 2009 | 10:43 am

      I think this goes back to the issue of employee vs. independent contractor. If you are an independent contractor, your personal emails are just that…personal. Now I don’t believe that gives you the right to go out and bad mouth the company in any communication, but when it comes to discussing competitors’ products, it gets more tricky when we’re discussing PERSONAL communication. Every DS company has had the rule that you can’t display your product and a competitor’s product on the same table. Taking that online, it seems reasonable to me to state that you can’t link to a competitor’s website if you’re using a company’s trademarks on your site. You’ve been granted the right to use certain trademarks as an independent contractor within certain guidelines.

      I think what would have helped this company the most is a separate class of consultant that isn’t a consultant at all, but instead a preferred customer. You can still purchase at a discount, as many of these “hobby consultants” do, but you aren’t a representative of the company.

      We need to understand that the viral nature of the internet means EVERYTHING can go farther than we imagine. The question is how much control is reasonable?

      Thanks for commenting!
      Jennifer

  10. Mark Bosworth
    September 3, 2009 | 8:34 pm

    I’ll reply being blissfully ignorant about the DS company and policy in question with a couple of thoughts.

    1) Responding to on-line comments is a very dangerous and difficult business for a company. I was involved in a situation where a Consultant whose account was closed put up a site that was actively trashing the company. The company could not respond with any specifics, because the situation was confidential. So, what to say and where to say it was a difficult decision. We ended up by making general statements that we followed our policies and tried always to be fair. We were also fortunate enough to have our consultants defend us in on-line forums. The point here is that if someone really wants to say awful things about you on-line, there is very little anyone can do about it. So in responding, you need to ask yourself if more information will make the situation better or just extend the discussion.
    2) Policing on-line policies is an almost impossible task. At one point in time I had an employee whose full time job was to look for infractions and enforce policy. It did not help because the violations just continued but the violators just got more creative (he was very, very busy). To really police policies, it would take a massive amount of effort and cost. Most companies default to the tried and true “tattle on you neighbor” approach. This involves taking action when someone complains about a site or a post.

    Sadly enough, the easiest policy to enforce is “no to everything”. This does not end up generating more sales but it is fair!

    • Jennifer
      September 4, 2009 | 10:36 am

      Mark,
      I appreciate you taking the time to comment on these issues.

      While I don’t believe we need to get “into the weeds” when it comes to responding online, I think this is a GREAT place for a corporate blog to come into play. The corporate blog can state the company position. Then, as demonstrated right within the comments here, the consultant “evangelists” who agree with the company’s position can help address some of the issues out on the other blogs/forums. It’s that healthy debate and conversation that examines every side of an issue that’s productive. Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have done this very same thing…the official position comes through the company blog.

      While I agree that you can’t ENTIRELY catch every single infraction, for the field to infer that they don’t intend to police it AT ALL is counter-productive, in my mind. Tools such as Social Mention and Radian6 can all be used to monitor how the brand is represented, and in this “brave new world” of social media, I think it’s imperative that we have someone paying attention, along with escalation procedures in place to deal with issues.

      And “no to everything” doesn’t make money! You’re right!

      Thanks again, Mark!
      Jennifer

  11. Lorian Rivers
    September 3, 2009 | 7:32 pm

    I don’t understand how direct sales companies tell us that we are not employees and are independent contractors, yet insist on telling us where and how and what we can talk about online when it comes to promoting the business.

    This is NOT the same day that made “in person” parties so easy….and there is a LOT of online business going on. They need to wise up and embrace it, or the companies that DO will wind up with all the great consultants!

    • Jennifer
      September 3, 2009 | 7:45 pm

      Lorian,
      Thank you for your comments! While there are things that an independent salesperson must agree to when becoming a consultant for a specific company in order to protect the brand for everyone, as I said in response to Boni’s comments as well, there is a fine line between what you can tell an independent contractor she can/cannot do, as opposed to an employee. Knowing that difference is critical.

      You are right that there is a lot of online business going on these days. It’s one of the reasons this blog exists…to help direct selling companies learn how to best integrate social media in a way that helps both consultants and companies. I think as time goes on we’re going to see even more business move online. It doesn’t replace book/sell/recruit, but it enhances these activities in a significant way.

      I think it will be interesting to see the impact that social media integration has on the retention of consultants in the field. I think you’re right…our next generation of leaders will naturally gravitate towards those companies that embrace social media as a natural way that people communicate today.

      Cheers!
      Jennifer

  12. Boni
    September 3, 2009 | 7:08 pm

    Hi Jennifer –
    This is one of those ground breaking areas that have been lingering in the background and are now gaining speed due to some of the new media source policy mandates. I do not think that the DS was well informed or that the policy was well researched before being instituted. It was also “dropped” like a time bomb with only 3 seconds before exploding. There had been much speculation on “the Net” regarding rumors about this policy but most were not aware that it was even being considered although claims have been made that it was well researched. We are in hard economic times and said DS prices continue to rise, contractors need sales to maintain quarterly minimums and the market is honestly saturated with contractors. Electronic media was a perfect avenue to get out there and be seen. I do not agree with company name bashing but I do however believe that you have to be able to win the loyalty of your customer especially in this day and economic time. Said DS has already begun rethinking and revising certain portions of mandated policy and I’m sure more are to come. My legal curiousity leads me down a different path and not being a DSA expert LOL leaves me asking this question: When do independent contractors and employees begin and end? If you are an independent contractor does a company have a right to tell you how you can interact with potential customer? AND it is now my understanding that they have no intention of policing said policy, that it is based on an honor system with no real penalty if you deviate from the policy. Which leads me back to the legality question – is this how they maintain that you are an independent contractor? It is all very confusing and as much as I respect said DS for their reputation, I have big issues with the fact that they feel they can manipulate and control how its contractors utilize all avenues of reaching out to customers.

    Does a DS have the right to tell you how you can use electronic communication? And if all it takes is a personal email to convey the same message you are trying to control – are you not fooling yourself into thinking you have controlled the market? So why the policy that isn’t being policed to begin with?

    And does said DS have the right to demand that its contractors not mention or list competitors when said DS owns competitive vendor companies? And when do you draw the line on how far is too far? I guess what I’m hearing and reading is that if you pretend that no one else exists, talk in riddles and be dishonest by way of omission and distraction that you can have a position with said DS.

    random thoughts, by an opinionated random thinker…….

    • Jennifer
      September 3, 2009 | 7:37 pm

      Boni,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment here. You raise a really important issue that all direct selling companies must consider when crafting policies and procedures…where does independent contractor end and employee begin. Companies that have mandated too far have found themselves in legal hot water, because there are certain advantages an independent sales force brings that an employee sales force does not. When pressed legally, companies that have gone too far have paid dearly.

      Not enforcing a policy does not negate that policy in the eyes of the law. When I help companies craft social media policies and procedures, I make sure that every policy written can be enforced. If there is no intention to enforce, the policy is meaningless, and there is a question as to how enforceable the entire document is.

      As companies that I have worked with can tell you, I have very strong opinions on what should and should not be in a social media policy document. These are based on the separation between independent contractor and employee, how realistic those policies are, and how well they support the field in reaching the people that they need to reach. We also focus on how to protect the brand and copyrights, which benefit the company and the entire field as a whole. There is something to be said for consistency when it comes to a customer’s perception of a brand.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment. As an industry, it’s important for this conversation to happen, so we can learn how best to approach these issues, and how to benefit both the field, and the company.

      Cheers!
      Jennifer

  13. Helen Askins
    September 3, 2009 | 4:29 pm

    I for one am so grateful that the DS company that I currently work with, embraces social media! I have, however, worked with another DS company that did not. The former company would not allow us to even state that we were an Indpendent XYZ consultant. They did let us present the biz opp. on a blog, but we were not to try and sell anything or else our contracts would be terminated. This did not make any sense to me, especailly because the company was very well-known for its product. In the past month or so, I’ve heard from my friends in this company that they are now allowing them to place online parties and such. I think that is great!
    If the companies would get themselves educated on social media and see how it benefits them, then they can and should educate their consultants, too. It would be a win-win, as far as I can tell. Maybe then, all the bashing and such would be squashed? As far as policies and procedures go, yeah, they need to have certain guidelines. But they need to listen to the concerns and questions of their consultants and develop a team of people that can help with them. Oh, and they certainly need to read up on all the SPAM laws and stuff like that. I’m just an ordinary Mom and homemaker, so I don’t have much expertise and knowledge on how to run a corporation or anything like that. But, I do know that ignoring that social media exists or that it could benefit a DS company, is not a good way to handle it. So what is FAIR? EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION!!!! For everyone! Knowledge is power and in direct sales, it is vital.
    Where would they get this education? Well…….Jennifer Fong is a fantastic expert, for one!

    • Jennifer
      September 3, 2009 | 4:41 pm

      Awww Helen…thanks! 🙂

      I agree with you that the company has to provide guidelines around what is legal. I also think it’s important to make sure that a level playing field is maintained for all consultants, that ethics are considered, etc. And training is HUGE. I think that all social media policy updates should be released alongside training for the field. They go hand in hand.

      I also think consultant feedback on proposed policies is important. Companies may want to consider a cross-section of all consultant types and experience levels when contemplating social media policies, as different groups may have different needs when it comes to social media.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      Jennifer

  14. Cheri Semple
    September 3, 2009 | 2:08 pm

    Hi Jennifer – this is an interesting topic. I have also heard the DSA is trying to get involved on social media with recommended restrictions – not sure what progress has been made or what their exact thoughts are – I’ve just heard they are not fans of social media but I have not researched their position.

    Social media is a part of life now and will be more prevalent as time goes on. I think company policies should include provisions for “company or consultant bashing” but ruling out social media all together is not productive. There will always be “those few” who think they can say, do what they want and there should be policies in place to handle those situations. I know in the corporate world, many employees were fired over company-bashing when social media first got started. Now that it is evolving, I think it would be very hard to make it a policy against SM usage.

    If that is the case, then all the yahoo groups affiliated with a company would have to be removed too. Many of those are major hubs for bashing and that is a cancer the spreads across the field of that company’s consultants. I have not seen anything negative regarding my company or consultants on Facebook and think that the high visability might curtail not-so-nice behavior for the vast majority of users.

    I know there are also general policies that do not allow consultants to use the company name in a website which I agree with completely. We are allowed to have our own site and it can point to our Homemade Gourmet webpage but our website name can not say Homemade Gourmet, 4 Meals 4 Minutes, etc. I think that protects the company and support that decision completely.

    Interesting topic – thanks for posting it and all the wonderful work you do for us!

    • Jennifer
      September 3, 2009 | 2:41 pm

      Cheri,
      Thanks so much for your thoughts!!! Regarding the DSA, they are actually very supportive of social media. They run the Direct Selling 411 website, and this December their entire communications and marketing seminar is about social media (and I’ll be one of the presenters!) DSA doesn’t tell companies what they should and should not do with regards to policy, just so long as the companies maintain the DSA code of ethics.

      I agree that outlawing social media is not the way to go. Rather, guidelines and education will help us to keep up with the times in a productive way.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment! I am really looking forward to this discussion.

      Jennifer

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