Transparency is one of the words that has become a victim of Web 2.0.  Everyone has their own idea of what transparency means in social media, and what constitutes embracing transparency.  A good example: the recent MobileCrunch expose on Reverb Communications and the Apple App Store.

The plot is simple enough:  an integrated PR-marketing agency has paid staff (whether employees or interns) purchase its client’s applications and then write reviews on the Apple App store.  MobileCrunch’s Gagan Biyani raised the flag because the reviewers do not include a disclaimer in each review that they work for an agency being paid to promote the application.  In other words, not enough transparency. Reader responses to the article — from Reverb Communications and 150+ others — reflect the opposing views on what constitutes transparency and acceptable standards of ethics on UGC sites.

This sort of thing is hardly news.  It’s been going on for years at “reader” product reviews at media sites.  Companies and their agencies have been planting positive reviews for as long as we’ve been reading them.  We — the audience — all knew that this was going on.  The only thing that has changed is the type of site where it appears. Few of us are surprised this practice is cropping up in social media and user-generated content sites.

So, what’s the moral of this story for marketers?

It demonstrates that marketers need to get past the notion that it’s OK to each craft our own definitions of transparency.  We need to come together, as the marketing industry, to agree on a shared definition and best practices for transparency.  The definition needs to span all the marketing silos — PR, advertising, marketing communications and every other marketing discipline — using social media as a communications channel.

Until then, all marketers are at risk of being viewed as little more than carpetbaggers intent on plundering social media sites for personal gain.

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