In December of 2009, the new FTC policy on blog disclosure went into effect. Here we are well into 2010, and nothing much has changed. In fact, even the FTC has said it is unsure how it will actually enforce the new policy. Is this something publishers, bloggers, or social media consultants need to worry about, or will this turn out to be a paper tiger without any bite?
While the FTC doesn’t have a game plan yet, that doesn’t mean it’s something you can ignore, it’s something you are going to have to address sooner or later. First you should read and try and understand the original FTC document (PDF link) and not rely just on summaries from the web. One of the main complaints in the document, had to do with unsubstantiated claims, or claims that were not typical (IE lose 30 pounds in 5 days with XYZ herbal supplement).
If you publish a website that sells products that make claims like this, or are an affiliate who runs ads with claims like this, you will probably need to make some adjustments. Check your content and any user generated content to make sure you are in compliance.
The second part of the FTC guidelines, which deals with advertising in “non traditional contexts,” and is much more problematic. An example of a non traditional context would be blogging a statement like “I had a great time on my Caribbean Cruise last week” with any part of the sentence containing an affiliate, or otherwise incentivized link. There are several types of arrangements that would be affected by these guidelines:
The simplest and easiest to understand is where a person or organization pays you directly with cash for making a post, putting up a link, making a tweet, Facebook post or other social media engagement.
Cash in kind
A cash in kind arrangement can be a significantly less clear situation. Basically, a company or person will give you something that has a cash value in exchange for you making a post, putting up a link, making a tweet, Facebook post or other social media engagement. This can be something like a free hotel visit, free spa treatments, or free cell phone.*
This type of arrangement constitutes a cash or cash in kind payment at a later date for hitting traffic milestones, generating leads, generating sales, for making a post, putting up a link, making a tweet, Facebook post or other social media engagement.
The context of the action is what’s really important, accepting payment for a sidebar banner isn’t what the FTC is concerned with as they are almost always labeled as advertisements. It’s the links or tweets that are in areas that generally aren’t used for advertising and aren’t labeled as advertising, that will be most likely to cause problems.
If you are publisher or an affiliate, it’s probably a good idea to disclose anywhere you think there might be confusion. If this happens with any regularity on your website, you should also look into incorporating a disclosure policy into your website or creating a page that deals specifically with disclosure.
If you’re looking for an extremely in-depth example of a disclosure statement, you should look at Kara Swisher’s or Walt Mossberg’s from AllThingsD.com. If you are looking for an example of something more appropriate for an affiliate website, look at the disclosure policy for Shawn Collins on AffiliateTip.com.
At this point in the game, the rules are a bit fuzzy and enforcement is almost non-existent. However, that doesn’t mean should throw caution to the wind, and proceed ahead at full speed. Take this opportunity to get ahead of the curve and figure out how you are going to disclose. Don’t think approach disclosure from a negative position, look for ways you can turn disclosure into a selling point.
*Editor’s disclaimer: Search Engine Land’s coverage of the Nexus One phone launch would still have been published whether ‘free’ phones were given out or not.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.