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