FTC Site Compliance – Blogger Disclosure Guidelines

New FTC Guidelines for bloggers - ftc site compliance
11 November 2009 Post Author:
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There’s a lot of talk in the blogosphere about the new FTC guidelines that are scheduled to go into effect on December 1st, 2009, and if my email is any indication, some confusion as well.

The new FTC guidelines are a revised set of rules established by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) that basically govern online marketers (which can and does include some bloggers), and spells out what they can, and cannot say, in the course of marketing or endorsing a product, or writing a blog post.

It’s intention is to protect consumers from claims or endorsements that may be exaggerated, ambiguous, or downright false. But it’s a broad umbrella and there is wording that will effect almost every blogger, including travel bloggers.

The new FTC Guidelines were updated to include the requirement that online marketers and bloggers disclose any “material connection” received in exchange for a product they endorse, a post that they publish, or from any links within that post.

So on Monday evening I attended Joel Comm’s Site Compliance webinar (Joel Comm is a well-known online marketer) that covered the new FTC guidelines, and also served as a launch for his new product, a certification of site compliance that involves paying a fee to display a badge on your site, and potentially paying a monthly fee for ongoing monitoring to help ensure that you stay in compliance. In exchange you receive an FTC Site Compliance checklist, and his service includes access to compliance documents as well as monthly updates (more on this below).

How does all of this effect Travel Bloggers?

The new FTC Guidelines will have the biggest impact on bloggers who participate in sponsored posts (where a blogger is compensated for writing a post about a specific topic or product, either in whole or in part), and/or those that either endorse or market products (neither of which is not typical of most travel bloggers), there ARE some cases where travel bloggers can get into trouble if they are not aware of the new requirements.

The key is in the FTC’s use of the phrase “material connection”, which basically means any remuneration or compensation, whether that is in the form of money, a product, or travel.

So while the new guidelines are primarily focused on endorsements and testimonials, the fact is that some of what you write could be considered an endorsement, and as such, if there is any compensation involved, it must be disclosed.

Under the new rules, you will be required to disclose any compensation you receive for writing a post or part of a post, regardless of what the compensation is, which includes (but is not limted to) the following:

  • Either the gift of, or the loan of, a product that you review in a post. You must disclose that you did not pay for the product, even if you had to return the product after testing it, as the review – if it’s a positive one – can be considered an endorsement, and in some cases a testimonial;
  • If you write a post and in the content of your post you have text that links to another website, and as a result of clicking on that link you earn some compensation (from either the click or the actions taken when they arrive at the other site such as buying a product), then you must disclose that the link earns you some income;
  • Any free travel arrangements you receive, such as a press trip (aka media trip) when you write a post that is a review of the destination you visited, because just as with a product review, a destination review can be considered an endorsement. However, if you’re writing a narrative essay about an experience you had while on a media trip, and the focus of your story is the experience rather than the destination, then the disclosure rule does NOT apply.

One thing you won’t need to worry about any disclosure for is the advertising on your site – as long as it’s clear that they are paid advertising. It’s already accepted that readers understand that you earn income from ads on your site.

What exactly is required?

As of December 1st, you’ll be expected to make clear to your readers that you received some material compensation (if you did) for any part of your blog post, or that you did not pay for your travel (if you didn’t).

But while the new FTC guidelines specify that you must make such a disclosure, exactly HOW you choose to word your disclosure is left up to the individual travel blogger — the rules simply state that it must be made “clear and conspicuous” to the reader.

Some travel bloggers suggested using the terminology “guest of” (as in “I was a guest of this resort”), however, as anyone in the travel industry knows, this is the same term used to refer to anyone staying at a hotel or resort, whether they paid for their room or not, so in my opinion this is not as clear as it could be. Personally I advocate clarity and brevity, and suggest using words such as “My stay was paid for by the Fairmont Hotels Group” or something to that effect.

Do I really need site compliance certification?

There are definitely some bloggers who would benefit from Joel Comm’s site compliance product and service. For example, if you’re a hardcore marketer who regularly sells or endorses affiliate products, I encourage you to look into it, as Joel Comm is a well-respected authority and the product is developed in association with attorney Kevin Houchin.

However, there are also definitely some bloggers who can safely skip it as well.

If you’re a travel blogger, and not a typical online marketer hawking a product, I doubt your readers will care whether or not you’re displaying a Site Compliant badge. And you really don’t need to pay for someone else to tell you what you now know – which is, be clear about disclosing any content that is compensated or sponsored.

However, all that being said, it’s possible that it may become important (or maybe just de rigeur) in the future. If that happens, I’ll let you know.

If you DO choose to sign up to display the Site Compliance badge, or for ongoing updates, you should be aware that Joel Comm does have an Affiliate Program you can join that will earn you some revenue if someone comes to your site, and signs up for the same through your badge. But you will have to disclose that. For the record, the link above to his site is NOT an affiliate link.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the FTC does not have any mechanism in place to enforce their new regulations, but I still strongly encourage everyone to comply. I suggest that you have an overall Disclosure Policy for your travel blog (see links below for help on writing a disclosure policy), and I also encourage you to use a disclosure statement in any post that falls under the new guidelines (those that contain paid text links, sponsored content, or reviews of products or destinations that you did not pay for).

As it stands now, there is little guidance as to wording, however that could change. Stricter rules and enforcement methods could well be forthcoming if bloggers fail to comply on their own.

~Trisha

Helpful links on the new FTC Guidelines:

FTC Guidelines – official site page about the new blogger rules

FTC Guidelines Video FAQs – good, short videos that answer basic questions.

Download the PDF (Short version) – Revised Endorsements and Testimonials Guide (12 pages – this has numerous clear examples)

Download the PDF (Full version) – Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (81 pages, but has good info on history and previous comments)

Generate a Disclose Policy for your site

Do you have an opinion on the new FTC rules? Share it here!

25 Responses to “FTC Site Compliance – Blogger Disclosure Guidelines”

  1. Shannon OD
    Twitter:
    says:

    Thanks for compiling this information Trish! I really hadn’t been specifically following this at all, so it is really nice to have it all outlined. I think I’ll have to tweak a couple of posts, but that should be enough to get me into compliance! For the record, I like these new rules, it’ll make the internet a lot more honest for consumers who may not know much about affiliate advertising and were taking recs on face value :-) Now it’ll be up to the trust factor of the blogger whether or not you believe them!

  2. GotPassport
    Twitter:
    says:

    Trish, very thorough and detailed post. I agree with Shannon– really nice to have the details outlined. I like it too as a rookie blogger just starting to blog and have done all our travels on our own dime out of passion for and the love of travel. However, as a new blogger it’s good to know the info for ethical reasons! Thanks again so much.

  3. Abbie
    Twitter:
    says:

    Thanks for sharing this info. – I had no idea!

  4. Isabelle
    Twitter:
    says:

    I’ve read already several articles on these rules, but still was confused. So, thank you very much, Trisha for putting all this information up here. I’ve bookmarked it!

  5. Steve Mirsky
    Twitter:
    says:

    Thanks so much for distilling this topic for us Trisha. I had heard about these upcoming FTC requirements but didn’t have the time to look into them. Your site has been indispensible in helping me keep on top of what is now a constant in the online world….relentless change!

  6. Thank you everyone, for your feedback and kind words! I’m glad that you’re all finding it helpful. :)

  7. Legit Travel Writer says:

    This is great news! I hope the FTC enforces these rules in the travel sphere. I’m so tired of listening to the preenings of folks who write about travel ONLY to get free travel (exhibit a: the shameful tweeting going on right now about that Princess Cruise). Travel writing, like other disciplines of journalism, should be impartial! But with so many people giving away their stories for the price of just one free trip, the folks who used to be able to make a living doing their jobs in an impartial and journalistic fashion are finding their jobs drying up. To me, these people are scabs, union busters and should be ashamed of the way they’re acting as shills for large corporations.

    • Interesting that you’d come share your opinion, but not your name or website. If you’re really “Legit”, be aboveboard and stand behind your opinion openly.

      You have a right to your opinion, and you’re right that many heretofore paying travel writing jobs have, and are still, drying up, but I don’t believe that trend has anything to do with press trips, which have been around for many years.

      Many long time, traditional travel journalists had their travel funded in one sense or another by various sources, and to be perfectly fair, many of them would not have been able to travel at all without such funding. It’s only recently that it seems to be stirring up noise, which I suspect has more to do with the fact that press trips are now being offered to Bloggers almost as frequently as to print writers. I’m guessing that may be part of what’s got you so ticked off.

      I’ve personally read a number of post-press trip articles that I felt were highly impartial, and would definitely NOT consider “shilling” for corporations. And I’ve read some truly great travel stories born from press trips that were anything BUT shilling, since they were decidedly NOT service pieces at all.

      Like my Dad used to say, if you don’t like the show, change the channel. No on forces you to “listen” to any preening or to read anything you don’t like or disagree with.

      I will ask that you refrain from any more vitriol or name-calling. It’s my blog and I reserve the right to remove your comments if they get any more hateful. Add to the conversation or go elsewhere.

  8. Trisha – Fantastic summary of the impending FTC rulings. I’ve been disclosing information at the bottom of most posts and articles for some time now, even before learning of the new rules. I may need to get more specific to be in full compliance, but I love that you’ve laid things out so clearly. I’d rather be over compliant than under compliant and err on the side of caution.

    I’ll keep returning here for new information as the 12/1 date gets closer.

    Thank you for the rich content.

    Michele

  9. As a newbie blogger who blogs about Frequent Flyer and other loyalty programs, I have so far not been comped by any program. (I would like to be and would happily disclose if I am :) ).

    My question is this: If one is invited to participate in a survey by a company and compensated for ones time, does that fall into the FTC’s guidelines purview if one then happens to write an endorsement of the company that just compensated you for participating in the survey?

    Thanks,
    UnRoadWarrior

    • Hi UnRoadWarrior – thanks for stopping by!

      I believe that the answer to your question is “No”. In the situation you describe, you’re being compensated for the survey, not the post that you write later. I’m assuming that being paid for the survey is not influencing your opinion of the company, nor prompting the endorsement? If it were, then to be perfectly honest you should probably disclose that, but as long as the survey payment is unrelated to your endorsement, then there is nothing to disclose.

      I love your blog and you have a great (and valuable to readers) niche, but sadly the airlines are well-known for not handing out comps, the way PR firms and hotels/resorts do. Most of them do have leisure vacation departments, which you may be able to negotiate with, as well as with their loyalty program folks.

  10. Dave and Deb
    Twitter:
    says:

    Excellent Information. Thank you for letting us know about the new rules. I just started implementing the disclosure last week, thanks to you. I don’t sell a lot on my site, but have many times in the past sent people to Amazon on an item that I have talked about in my post. (ie: a good book, an item that I have used)I will make sure to go back to old posts and add the disclosure text to my older posts as well.
    Always the best information on this site!

  11. AdventureRob
    Twitter:
    says:

    Great round up Trisha. I have a question though…

    This is a USA thing from the looks of it. How does it effect people not from the USA but still sell items to Americans?

    E.G. I’m a Brit, living in Oz and sell stuff from Amazon.com? Do I HAVE to disclose it or is it at my discretion? I’m not affiliated with the country but I am with it’s consumers and producers.

    Not that anyone buys anything through my Amazon links anyway haha

    • Hi Rob – good question!

      The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is indeed simply a US Government body with no jurisdiction over companies or individuals outside of the US, so legally you are not required to disclose anything.

      What the new guidelines WILL do though, is ‘train’ readers to be aware of, and watch out for, such disclosure. Thus, it’s my personal opinion that voluntary disclosure can’t hurt, because it will let your readers know that you are not trying to do anything deceptive, and while we both know that promoting things on Amazon via an affiliate link is certainly NOT wrong, the perception by readers may vary.

      My gut tells me that the FTC is really aiming this new requirement squarely at the many websites that are selling ‘get-rich-on-the-internet’ schemes using unverifiable claims, fake testimonials, and paid endorsements, and will in all likelihood leave the average bloggers alone. But better safe than sorry! :)

  12. so now if I write (another) blog about my guidebooks for sale, with a link to GuideGecko where they’re for sale, I have to disclose that I will be paid money if they buy one. Or, on my website, I’ve set up an e-store on Amazon with links to books, music and videos on China that I like. So now I have to disclose that I’ll make a few cents if someone buys a recommended book? This rule just doesn’t make sense to me!

    • Hi Cheryl – I understand your confusion, because you promote and sell your own products, which is a little bit different from most travel bloggers.

      On your posts that you write about your own guidebooks, it’s a given that you earn money from the sale of them, so disclosure is not required.

      On the links to products on Amazon, it depends on where the link is and how unclear it might be to the reader whether or not it’s an affiliate link. Is it a text link in the content of a page or post? Then yes you should disclose that it earns you some revenue. If it’s on a page that is clearly labeled as your “Store” from which you encourage people to “purchase” using clear wording to that effect, then it’s clear to the reader that you will earn some revenue.

      The idea is that it should be clear to the reader that when they click on a link, you are being compensated.

  13. Sophie
    Twitter:
    says:

    I was just about to ask about non-US bloggers, but noticed Rob already had. So I’ll just say Good info, Trisha – and good advice – better safe than sorry.

  14. Candice
    Twitter:
    says:

    This is the only summary of the FTC Guidelines I’ve read that was clear and readable. Thanks so much!
    .-= Candice´s last blog post: Candice Does the World Goes Live =-.

  15. Maralyn D Hill
    Twitter:
    says:

    Great post Trisha. I had planned on having a disclosure page just to eliminate questions. Now, it is a priority.
    .-= Maralyn D Hill´s last blog post: Success Tip – Improving Performance =-.

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