Influencers and brands alike should be aware of the FTC’s guidelines for making necessary disclosures in sponsored content. The guidelines have been in place since 2000, but were updated in March of 2013.
I’ll give you the short version: if bloggers receive anything of value (free samples, payment, sponsored trips, etc.), this needs to be made clear to the reader up front. Like this. (Nice job, Chris Brogan!)
Disclosure rules apply to your social networks, too. If you’re tweeting about how great the new Mercedes-Benz is, and you received a week-long test drive of the car for free, you need to disclose that in the tweet. Like Steve Garfield does:
Yes, 140 characters doesn’t give you much space. No, the FTC doesn’t care. Disclose. If necessary, use a short URL that clearly indicates important disclosure information is available, and when using hashtags, use #ad or #sponsored. Readers don’t all understand what #spon means.
That said, adding a hashtag doesn’t necessarily make or break your disclosure. After all, when was the last time you searched Twitter for #SPON or #AD? Save the space and just say “Ad” or “Sponsored.” Most people will understand that you’ve received something in exchange for the post, or at least that you received something for free that might make you more favorably disposed towards the product or company mentioned.
Make sure that disclosures display properly on mobile, as well.
Responsive design is an amazing thing, but it’s your responsibility to ensure that site visitors see the any required disclosures without having to scroll.
Realistically, you can’t know how your site will display on every browser and device, so you’ll want to present the disclosure and acknowledgement as an obstacle for site visitors: don’t let them proceed to make a purchase or visit the sponsor’s site until they acknowledge having seen the disclosure.
When disclosing, pay attention to the 4Ps:
- Placement (Put disclosures close to the claim they qualify.)
- Proximity (Don’t make users scroll or zoom to see disclosure)
- Prominence (Make it stand out on the page.)
- Presentation Order (Make it “unavoidable” that consumers see disclosure before they can proceed.)
Even 140-character tweets must comply with FTC guidelines. The FTC has made it clear that if you can’t fit your disclosure on a platform because of limited space, then you shouldn’t use that platform. Sending a series of tweets (with the disclosure in one of them) is not sufficient, because people most likely won’t read every tweet in succession.
Also be aware that it’s your responsibility to monitor your website’s analytics and confirm that site visitors are seeing your disclosures. If there’s any reason to suspect they’re not, you need to correct it by adjusting the placement, proximity, prominence, and presentation order of the disclosures until everyone sees them before proceeding. If you don’t correct the problem, you’ll run into trouble if someone files a complaint with the FTC.
Blogger outreach and influence marketing are great additions to a company’s marketing mix, but everyone (influencers and brands alike) needs to ensure that any content they create complies with consumer protection laws and truth in advertising laws.
And don’t think you’re off the hook if it’s just your employees tweeting on behalf of the brand: the FTC recently settled a lawsuit against Sony and agency Deutsch LA for encouraging Deutsch LA employees to promote the Sony PS Vita on their personal social media accounts without also telling them to disclose their connection with Sony.
Err on the side of caution and disclose. “So excited my employer, Sony, is rolling out the PS Vita!” Incidentally, phrasing disclosures in natural language also makes you more human to readers, which is always a good thing.
For more information, visit FTC.gov.
UPDATE: In June 2015, the FTC updated its “What People Are Asking” guide to clarify their answers to common questions that arose after the 2013 revision to their Dot Com Disclosures. I’ve provided my analysis of the changes here.