It was a calm, quiet morning. The sun was finally out after a week of snow unlike never before seen in Music City. A calm and quiet Friday, or so I thought.
As soon as I sat down and pulled my Facebook tab open, I was greeted with a fresh batch of planner “drama”. Sometimes planner drama is nothing more than two people who don’t like each other because someone accidentally laugh reacted at their dog photo. But, sometimes it brings forward an important subject or issue that has been brewing under the surface of the community. Today is the latter.
Scribbles that Matter, a notebook company released a LENGTHY statement/apology in regards to using user generated content without permission (or compensation) in a Facebook ad. A few points to note.
- Allegedly the ads have been running since September 2020.
- This official statement comes from the company founder, but is only in one semi/private Facebook group. Not on any official Scribbles that Matter (STM moving forward) property as of writing this blog.
When I’m not being snarky on the internet, I work in digital media and have for over a decade, primarily with varying degrees of entertainment based brands and companies. I have been on both sides of this issue, and have some insight on what is and isn’t professionally accepted.
I don’t have any direct involvement with STM other than the one notebook I bought from them. These are my semi-professional opinions and should be regarded as such. But, I am available for actual professional consultations so you can avoid these #cam-pains.
As I mentioned before as of me writing this, this statement/apology was NOT posted on any of STM official channels; it was posted in a Bullet Journaling Facebook group, that is public to join but not public to view. Since I’m not *in* the group that this apology was posted, I am having to go off of screenshots.
This brings up issue #1. If this is a situation that your brand feels strongly enough to write a multi-tiered statement addressing, why is it not on YOUR properties?
Thank you to a planner friend for allowing me to use these in this post.
Right. Let’s unpack.
Using User Generated Content As A Brand
From a brand perspective, User Generated Content is anything that someone else created on their own without being asked or compensated. A User generated it. Social Media people *love* UGC because it takes a weight off of us; we get an authentic look at how our product is being used by a real person, someone else has done the work of creating it, and often it’s done beautifully.
The two keys to this are PERMISSION and ATTRIBUTION.
In a perfect world, you should always ask whomever created the content you want to use if you can use it. This is not a perfect world, and sometimes brands will assume IMPLIED PERMISSION due to the fact they are tagged on a piece of public content. Often, when users do this, they’re doing so because they want to be seen by the brand. You see influencers doing this a lot. In this situation, it’s usually overlooked because A. you’re excited to be noticed by the brand, and B. they CREDIT back to your account, which is great for building your own branding.
Is it ethical or legal? Eh…. not really. But there is a certain level that is seen as acceptable, usually due to the goodwill between the brand and their community.
Giving the user something in return for use of their content is a really nice gesture, but is not typically a requirement. This is a “paid in exposure” situation. This is a big reason why you want to ask first; because if you don’t and someone with a large following sees this as a missed opportunity for revenue, you can get in some deep shit. #Foreshadowing
It is a gamble to assume implied permission. Clearly this gamble didn’t pay off for STM in this situation. This is a great case for having a PR Team (although I hate that name… that’s another blog for another day), Street Team, Design Team, or whatever you want to call a group of macro/micro influencers that you can rely on.
Hootsuite has a slightly older, but still relevant and much more in-depth guide to User Generated Content that I recommend reading for more info.
To cover your own ass, always ask permission and give credit. That’s not marketing advice, that’s life advice.
Advertising & Money
The real nut of the situation isn’t that STM used UGC, it’s that it was used in an advertising campaign without permission. That means there is now money involved, and when you fuck with people’s money things get ugly.
In this statement, STM seems to put the bulk of the blame on an “external marketing agency”. This could be on them due to the “implied consent” as discussed previously and them not knowing that the planner community has absolutely no chill when it comes to cannibalizing their own when they fuck up bad enough. Right, Erin Condren?
My thought is that the “external marketing agency” was either using a list of content provided by or, most likely, already shared by STM; assuming that all permissions had already been granted.
Regardless, in this situation there should have been another round of reaching out and confirming that users gave express permission for the use in a Facebook Ad. Honestly, if they had done that in the first place, it’s possible that users would have agreed to for free/not knowing they could ask for money, and we wouldn’t even need to be talking about the compensation side of things.
But here we are, and these users now have every right to demand compensation, and compensation based on the amount that STM made on that ad campaign. And STM needs to take down that campaign ASAP, which they claim to be doing.
Why Does This Feel Familiar?
This feels like a story you’ve read before, right? That’s because this happens all. the. time. Usually with less scrupulous Amazon sellers and well known YouTubers. As much as I would love to write another dissertation style blog on that, I still have one more big point to hit. But, I can recommend this Wired article discussing this further.
Let’s talk about this apology real quick. Because I’m not sure it really is one.
STM does apologize using the words “we are deeply sorry that this happened” in the “What We Are Doing” section of the statement. Then there is bit of deflection and trying to spread the fault around, followed by a section called “Apologizing Clearly” which does not feature the words “sorry” or “apology” at all.
A company/brand apology needs to do a few things:
- Identify what went wrong
- Take responsibility for what went wrong
- State what changes will be made so this doesn’t go wrong again
- Show accountability
They have clearly identified what went wrong. Their ads used UGC without permission.
They don’t really take true responsibility for this. I mean, they totally try to pass the bulk of the blame on their “external marketing agency” even though STM uses a lot of credited UGC on their social pages anyway and I’m suspect if they’ve truly contacted every single one of those users. They also blame the pandemic for being hard, which like… yeah… we know. They do position themselves to look good for trying to make things right. But like… this is your company. You should be doing that. Don’t act like it’s a favor to the users.
According to this statement, they are reaching out to make it right financially per their legal team’s advice. On one hand, this is the technically correct way to do this. On the other, it concerns me because I don’t think most of the users involved in this are familiar with how FB ads work and the value that they’ve unknowingly provided STM. When a lawyer sends you a letter, it’s jarring even when you know you’re in the right. I *hope* that this legal team has more ethics than the “external marketing team” and isn’t going to offer a pittance in exchange to make this go away. Basically, if you’re impacted by this, don’t sign the first offer and seek your own legal advice; especially if you have a significant social media following of your own.
Nothing was really said about what will be done differently moving forward, which makes me think that there won’t be anything done differently moving forward. At the very least, STM needs to obtain permission before using UGC.
If they are smart, they will put together a macro/micro influencer team of their own to create this sort of content that they would have permission to use in exchange for goods/services and cross promotion. Did I mention I do digital consulting?
Given the fact that this statement was posted only in one Facebook Group, I don’t hold my breath on much accountability. This fact, and this fact alone makes the entire statement weak and worthless. Businesses fuck up, and that’s ok as long as you fix it and do better. By hiding this away in a small corner of the community, how do we know that you’re actually reaching out to everyone involved? If it happens again, how will people know this isn’t the first time it happened? There is zero accountability when you try to hide your mistakes.
The other issue with the low-key hard to find apology is that it doesn’t allow you, the brand, to control the narrative. You’re not talking about it, but you know who is? The people who are unhappy they got used in your ad. The snark groups on Facebook and Instagram. Local planner groups. Mediocre Bloggers who need to get out a blog post this month that isn’t just a list of what books she read.
Basically, I find this apology to be a fill in the blank form letter and halfassed. Put this statement on your Instagram Feed (not disappearing story) and change my mind.
What Happens Next?
Truthfully, this isn’t an insurmountable issue for STM unless they royally screw over the people they used content from. People who really like them will continue to like them and probably see nothing wrong with how this went down. But it didn’t win any goodwill from the non-fanatics. What has happened is that this has left a bad taste in the mouth of some planner-influential content creators.
Because, let’s be snarky planner people for a sec, STM product isn’t what it used to be and there are better bullet journals out there with better paper quality and better prices. They don’t have the marketshare they once did. And this whomp whomp of an “oops we got caught” apology isn’t really enough to keep their brand name in people’s mouths… especially since this all went on behind closed doors.
In conclusion, I leave you with the words of wisdom that can guide you no matter if you are a brand, “external marketing company”, or snarky internet commentator procrastinating on a Friday.