There are three primary factors bloggers should consider with respect to disclosures and transparency. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them the 3 Cs: Compliance, Credibility and Clarity. Although FTC compliance represents an important aspect of why you should disclose, considerations with respect to your credibility as a resource and the experience of your readers when you discuss your brand partners or engage your reader on their behalf can result in additional, more tangible benefits. Below is a review of the 3 Cs of blogger disclosures.
As a blogger, it is necessary to be aware of and in compliance with the FTC Guides for Testimonials and Endorsements updated in October 2009.
Whether or not you actually read all 81 pages, it is important to understand your disclosure requirement as well as what is being asked of the advertisers you work with. There are two key aspects of compliance that bloggers should be aware of. The first is that disclosures need to be clear and conspicuous within each of your posts. While it is good to have a disclosure policy that is available and posted on your blog, it alone is not sufficient. The second is to understand when a disclosure is required. The FTC guides state:
When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed. 16 C.F.R. § 255.5.
“Reasonably expected” is easy to understand. If a reader of your post could be unaware of a connection you have to the brand/product you are talking about, then you need to disclose. The difficult word here is “connection”. In a closing letter regarding a Hyundai investigation issued last November, the FTC clarifies what they mean by connection to include non-monetary compensation and incentives:
An advertiser’s provision of a gift to a blogger for posting specific content promoting the advertiser’s products or services is likely to constitute a material connection that would not be reasonably expected by readers of the blog.
In short, as a blogger you need to clearly and conspicuously disclose your material connections that would not be obvious to your readers in each of your posts.
In addition to understanding your responsibilities it is important to also understand the additional responsibilities that your advertiser partners have. The FTC has made it clear that they place disclosure responsibility on the advertiser and that if you do not disclose it will be the advertiser that the FTC will focus on. Not only are advertisers required to inform you, the blogger, of your responsibility to disclose, they are responsible for having a documented disclosure policy and making sure that you are aware of it. Finally, advertisers are responsible for compliance monitoring, for following up with you if you do not make required disclosures, and for removing you from future programs if compliance is an ongoing issue. If advertisers you work with are not fully implementing FTC requirements then you should make disclosures on your own. If they are, then be aware of the greater burden for advertisers. Ask to review their disclosure policies and cooperate fully to ensure FTC compliance. Most importantly for you, keep in mind that if you are singled out in a FTC investigation, that it could be detrimental to your reputation.
The following excerpts from the FTC Guides further clarify some of these responsibilities:
If the relationship between a blogger or affiliate and an advertiser is not inherently obvious (e.g., where a company sends products, free of charge, to bloggers to review), the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the product for free. With respect to affiliate marketers, the affiliate should disclose that it will receive a commission if the advertisement is paired with the affiliates endorsement of the product. The company should advise its bloggers and affiliates that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor postings for compliance.
This is probably the most important reason to disclose. There is a growing sense of mistrust by consumers of digital and social content and being transparent can go a long way to establishing yourself as a credible and trusted source. After all, these brands have chosen to work with you because they find you credible! Consumers are not likely to discount their opinion of you if you disclose that you received an incentive from a brand – but they might if they suspect you have a material connection that you aren’t disclosing. You will earn more trust with your readers not by hiding the fact that brands engage with you, but by sharing quality content.
It is easy to forget about the reader as we look to find new and interesting ways to engage our audience and promote our advertising partners. Contests, promotions and sweepstakes are an increasingly popular way for brands and bloggers to engage a wider audience. Disclosures, in this context can play an important role in ensuring that promotions you host on your blog result in a positive experience and achieve a desirable result. If you are giving something away, or hosting a contest or promotion, make sure you disclosure the rules/terms and conditions clearly. Doing so will ensure your readers know how to participate and what to expect. Not doing so can result in angry participants, headaches and PR nightmares.
Although advertisers have greater accountability with respect to FTC regulations, you are on the front lines of their campaigns. Be transparent with your readers because being proactive and responsible disclosing your connections is about much more than FTC compliance. Being clear with your audience will reinforce your credibility, will enhance your engagement, and ultimately will help retain the integrity of the social web for us all.