Bloggers, vloggers, and other social influencers frequently asked me about the rules regarding disclosure when partnering with companies and using affiliate links. With holidays (and therefore holiday gift guides) on the horizon, it seemed apropos to share some helpful reminder for how to comply with the FTC’s disclosure rules when you get free product or are compensated for providing a review.
It’s All About Transparency
The purpose of the FTC’s disclosure rules is transparency. When people consume content, they have a right to know whether the creator has a relationship with the company or product or whether it is 100% their independent opinion. Knowing that a person has a relationship with a company, which may or may not include financial compensation, will impact whether a person reads or view a post and how much weight or credibility to give it.
To comply with the transparency requirements of Federal law, social influencers must clearly and prominently label the content they were compensated to make as advertising to avoid misleading consumers.
Many influencers put their notice that they were compensated for doing a post or that a post has affiliate links at the end of the content. This is likely insufficient to comply with the rules because consumers need to be informed before they form an opinion about a product that they’re reading a sponsored post or an ad.
In general, you should make a disclosure in the post itself and shortly before the reader receives the advertising message. The FTC recommends putting it in front of or above the ad’s headline. Additionally, the notice need to be clear and unambiguous language. To determine whether your disclosure complies with the FTC, consider your notice from the perspective of the reasonable consumer who’s seeing your content for the first time. Will he/she notice the disclosure statement and understand that they’re reading or seeing an ad?
The FTC says terms like “ad,” “advertisement,” or “sponsored advertising content” are likely to be understood but terms like “promoted,” or “sponsored by [XYZ]” don’t comply with the disclosure requirement because they could be interpreted as merely underwriting the content without influencing the statements made in it.
So what does this mean? If you write a review of a product that you got for free or got paid for writing the post about it, you have to disclose at the top of the post that you have a relationship with the company. If you use affiliate links, you have to clearly disclose those relationships as well, prior to posting the link. (In some circumstances, using the term “affiliate link” may be insufficient if the average consumer doesn’t know the difference between links and affiliate links. Yes, this happens – I recently attend a blogging conference where an attendee assumed that the terms “link” and “affiliate link” were interchangeable.)
Every Post, Every Platform
When you have a relationship with a company or are compensated for writing about a product, you have to disclose it to your audience every time you write about it – regardless of the platform it’s on or what device people use to access it. Every single time. (Yes, I know this is annoying, but it’s what the FTC requires.)
Disclosure is Everyone’s Responsibility
Everyone who is involved in the creation or distribution of native advertising should review the content to ensure that the required disclosure is present and that the material does not mislead the audience about the product or the relationship between the writer and the company. This includes middle men like ad agencies. If anyone is found to be in violation of the FTC rules about native advertising, they could be fined by the FTC – the company that created the product or service, the writer, and anyone in between who was involved – up to $16,000. That’s a stiff penalty for forgetting or refusing to disclose a relationship.
If you want to learn more about this topic, I recommend the FTC’s article, Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses. If you want to chat with me about these issues, like how to incorporate these requirements into website terms of service or contracts with third party content creators, you can contact me directly or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.