The Terms of Your Terms of Service

Most of us have a terms of service document on our websites, even if they’re mostly contained within our privacy policies. We reference these documents in much of our correspondence, including our business and marketing emails. Your privacy policy or terms of service sets the expectations for what your customers will receive from you as a company

Most of us have a terms of service (TOS) document on our websites, even if they’re mostly contained within our privacy policies. We reference these documents in much of our correspondence, including our business and marketing emails. Your privacy policy or terms of service sets the expectations for what your customers will receive from you as a company.

Recently, Google upgraded its terms of service to explicitly inform its customers they have automated systems analyzing content in order to deliver relevant ads and provide customization and security. General Mills in a separate, yet oddly related move, has changed its terms of service to inform customers who “like” their products on Facebook that they have given up their right to take the company to court if there’s a problem with the product.

As mentioned in previous articles, Google is already camped out in courtrooms for these business practices, and I am confident that General Mills will find similar legal challenges over their new draconian policies, which potentially create an adversarial relationship with their customers.

In both of these scenarios, and for our company, when the need arises to make changes to our policies, the new language is probably more enlightening to current customers, followers and subscribers than it is giving future customers sufficient warning—after all, when was the last time you read the terms of service of a new company with whom you’ve chosen to follow or create an account? Most of us are good about sending notices when we have a change in policy, and our subscribers are much more likely to read that than the original TOS.

The Trust Factor
As marketers and builders of brands, we know honesty is paramount. Building credibility and trust sells, whether it’s product or service. It’s why many of us choose to include a link to our privacy policies in our emails. We want our subscribers and customers to know we value their information and will do our best to protect it. When our privacy policy changes in a way not congruent with the original version the client may—or may not—have read, we run the risk of damaging the credibility we’ve worked so hard to build.

Companies such as Google and General Mills have the means to defend their companies against customers who object to the TOS changes, but for those of us who represent small- to medium-size businesses, lawsuits challenging a policy change could easily bankrupt even the most successful. What’s more, negative policy changes put us at odds with the very persons with whom we are trying to build a trusting relationship; and that is likely to land us, like Google and General Mills, on the social-media hot seat.

While truthfulness in our policies is necessary, it’s also important to give consideration to the delivery. Of course there is a need to have a TOS that protects us when a beautiful relationship becomes discourse, but a candy coating can make it that much easier for our customers to swallow. For a great take on how to deliver your TOS or make changes or updates to it, Daily Conversions did a great piece on this topic a couple years ago.

Our marketing emails are difficult to deliver and getting more so. We need to consider each component of the email to ensure deliverability improves over time, and a friendly, yet firm, privacy policy most certainly will have a positive effect.

Treat your recipients with respect—and humor when you can—and you will continue to create a nurturing, healthy, trustful relationship.

UPDATE: After I completed this article, General Mills announced (due to the severe roasting they took in social-media platforms), they will reverse their new policy. You can now safely like General Mills and reserve your right to sue them—not as though there was a whisper of a chance they could have defended their position in court, IMO.

An Ill-Timed Folly for Facebook

Facebook has caused quite a stir lately. About two weeks ago, it revised its terms of use, but the change caused such a turbulence in the blogosphere that the social media pioneer backed off and reverted to its old terms — at least for now.

Facebook has caused quite a stir lately. About two weeks ago, it revised its terms of use, but the change caused such a turbulence in the blogosphere that the social media pioneer backed off and reverted to its old terms — at least for now.

What temporary revision caused the uproar? Basically, the terms said members own their information on the site and control who sees it. But when they’d go to delete their accounts, Facebook would retain the right to the information, so friends still would be able to access the shared information. Facebook sated that it would have an “irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid worldwide license” to material on the site, per the short-lived terms.

But after the new rules were posted, many people contacted Facebook with questions and comments about the changes and what they meant for people and their information. Many expressed distrust and aired suspicions that the site would sell or share their information with third parties. Users protested on the site, while external groups also took action. The Electronic Privacy Information Center threatened legal action.

Data-sharing issues have been dicey stuff among American consumers since well before the economy tanked. Facebook has become such an American icon that this revision was ill-timed. Facebook made a mistake and had best rectify it quickly before the site becomes just another fad.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained in a Feb. 16 blog post that the revised terms were intended to make the site’s policies clearer to users. “One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created — one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like e-mail work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear.”

“In reality,” Zuckerberg continued, “we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want … Our goal is to build great products and to communicate clearly to help people share more information in this trusted environment.”

Nevertheless, based on the feedback on his blog on Feb. 18, Zuckerberg said Facebook had decided to return to the previous terms of use while it resolves the issues people have raised.
But the matter isn’t resolved. The Harvard-schooled boy wonder of social media said Facebook is working on a new version of terms. The next version, he said, will be a substantial revision from where Facebook is now. It will reflect the principles of how people share and control their information, and it will be clearly written in language everyone can understand.

He also said Facebook has created a “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” and a forum where users can discuss the issues.

The incident marks the third time that Facebook has backed off changes after users voiced privacy concerns. The site’s news feed and its Beacon advertising program drew criticism, which prompted the social networking site to increase privacy protections.

So, what do you think? Is Facebook doing the right thing? Is the flip-flopping affecting your opinion of the site? Let us know.