With expert insights from Caroline Thompson, Manager of the Trademark, Domain and Infringement Group at leading global educational testing and assessment organization ETS, we explore the emerging threats on social media.
Alongside traditional risks posed on social media such as counterfeiting, brands face other forms of infringement such as false association and hashtag abuse. See the tools and best practices employed by ETS to prevent consumer confusion and brand dilution on social media — their key digital marketing channel.
Part 1: Social Media threats facing ETS
Social Media platforms are unique, powerful tools. They enable organizations and third parties to both represent and misrepresent a brand to consumers worldwide.
For ETS, a strong social media presence is critical to accomplish their mission of advancing quality and equity in education for people worldwide through online learning, tests, and qualifications.
Most of their test takers are elementary school through university aged, a demographic that makes up nearly 75% of social media users across all platforms. As such, ETS’ target audience are typically frequent users of social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube – giving the business an opportunity to organically engage with potential test takers worldwide.
However, counterfeiters also recognize that their target audience is on social media and use the same channels to try to drum up business. ETS’ main counterfeiting issue is fake test certificates and score reports sold to individuals. ETS tests have been developed through years of educational research and analyst – fake test results are therefore extremely damaging to their brand and fundamentally unfair to the students who put in the hard work to receive an authentic score.
Unlike phishing websites that are designed to look like ETS’ corporate website and trick consumers, counterfeit test certificates are sold to social media users that fully understand they are purchasing a fake. It is therefore unlikely that this type of consumer will be converted and take legitimate tests.
However, when ETS successfully prevents the access of these fake products through targeted enforcement, the business achieves its core goal of protecting well-intentioned consumers that take authentic tests and the equity of the brand.
Part 2: Tackling false association and other brand misuse
Counterfeiting is far from being the only threat facing brand owners on social media. Businesses must keep one eye on how bad actors are using brand names in damaging ways.
If your business owns unique trademarks and brand names, Caroline states that it’s important to monitor how they’re being used within social media handles and posts – consumers often assume that use of the mark in a handle suggests affiliation or endorsement by the brand owner.
Two of ETS’ flagship brands, TOEFL and TOEIC tests, aren’t words in the English language. Therefore, if a social media user sees “TOEFL” in a post, they are likely to immediately link this to ETS – even if the content of the account is unrelated to the brand.
While ETS mainly take down social accounts for impersonation or selling counterfeit items, they also prioritize removal of accounts with their brands in the handle or within hashtags posted alongside unrelated content. Platforms are generally responsive in having this type of content removed.
Brand owners should get familiarized with the social media landscape and learn how bad actors are using brand names in ways that are damaging. By collecting this data, you can home in on search keywords to ensure you’re detecting the right data and quickly removing damaging brand name use.
Part 3: Geotargeting as a successful strategy to defeat bad actors
Brands face threats from sales of unlicensed or suspicious goods on large marketplaces and websites around the globe. However, the ability to specifically target regions can prove extremely valuable.
“Our biggest win on social media has been geographic targeting.”– Caroline Thompson, ETS
Prior to social media becoming a key touchpoint to consumers, ETS was aware of cheat activity in China on websites (different postings and materials that assist test takers in cheating on ETS exams). Due to their rigorous enforcement in that region, the number of websites offering cheat services in China declined.
ETS then began to see a spike on social media instead both in China and in Arabic speaking countries (mainly United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia). ETS have focused on removal of the content in these geographic regions and as a result the number of posts from these regions has dropped to nearly zero.
ETS acknowledge that the bad actors have likely moved to new platforms, but these platforms are more obscure and less frequented by consumers, therefore reducing exposure and risk.
“I highly recommend geographic targeting as part of your social media and enforcement strategy. When our business leads mention they have plans to enter a new market, it’s also super helpful for us to be able to run a report of both the infringement landscape in that reason and also our enforcement successes to date as a data point for them to base their business decisions on.”– Caroline Thompson, ETS
Part 4: Ensuring cross-functional collaboration and communication to protect legitimate channels
It is critical that businesses can discern between authorized partners, and illegitimate third parties and communicate with the wider business to ensure effective enforcement.
ETS has a complex distribution and sales network, with a database of test centers, affiliate entities, and subsidiaries. Caroline’s team routinely ask for updated spreadsheets from the departments in charge of managing the different networks and they also keep a running list of authorized and ETS owned social media accounts. This is to ensure they do not inadvertently remove authentic accounts and to provide transparency on enforcement activity.
Caroline advises that caution is always the best policy. If a page looks and feels legitimate, further research will be needed before submitting a complaint against it. She also encourages brand owners to maintain contact cheat sheets so they can alert the relevant Brand Protection team to infringement of a specific brand.
It is important to note that things are rarely easy when a relationship ends with a distributor. Caroline cautions that distributors will usually drag their heals before giving up their rights to logo use, brand name use, domain names, etc. Those that are responsible for social media takedowns need to be notified when a relationship ends, and a compliance check of social media accounts is needed as part of the off-boarding process.
Multiple brands and business teams need to remain committed to a strategic Brand Protection program
All marketing material and social media content that is shared by ETS goes through Caroline’s department to ensure correct trademark and logo use. This is also the case for any marketing materials or social media accounts that ETS’ affiliates, subsidiaries and test centers put out there.
Having specific color schemes, type font and logo use guidelines seems trivial, but a unified brand presence across a network will help consumers spot legitimate content from fraudsters imitations. If a business models good Brand Protection strategy and the correct use of trademarks at the corporate level, affiliates and distributors will follow suit. And if they don’t, Caroline notes you can gently lead them in that direction through internal review of their marketing materials. ETS also have a 15 page “How-to” guide for their test center and distribution networks on correct use of their trademarks and logos and they host training sessions with new distributors.
Swift reporting is also critical. Caroline’s team creates brand enforcement reports quarterly that show what her department has done to protect the brand globally including trademark oppositions, social media takedowns, mobile app takedowns, website takedowns, and UDRP and other domain recovery efforts.
“Social media enforcement alone is not the answer to proving how valuable enforcement is to your company… but it is a huge piece of the puzzle.”– Caroline Thompson, ETS
Talk to an Expert
As social media usage continues its upward trajectory, businesses must take greater head of this key consumer touchpoint and move to protect their brand from opportunists and criminals.
You’ve heard the value of a strategic, targeted approach to Brand Protection on social media. Talk to one of our experts to find out we can enable you to enact these best practices on social media to prevent consumer confusion and brand dilution.
This blog was originally published on the Incopro website.