FTC Guidelines: What You Need To Know For Influencer Marketing

One of the main reasons influencer marketing has skyrocketed in popularity is because people trust bloggers (and trust is everything in marketing). Bloggers are transparent with their readers and offer personal advice on new ideas, trends, and what to buy. If they stopped being authentic, their readers would flee faster than lightning. In fact, good bloggers make it a habit to turn down brands they wouldn’t talk about organically. When it comes to the blogger-brand relationship though, transparency is equally important on both sides of the equation.

How The FTC Guidelines Affect Influencer Marketing

 

We’ve noticed that when brands are completely new to influencer marketing, they get a nasty shock when their first post goes up, and they see the words "This post was sponsored by [brand name]" written across the top of their post.  They feel like the post that they painstakingly planned with this blogger over the last month was marred by this declaration, announcing to the world that they (the brand), bought her endorsement.  Does this disclaimer make the post now seem disingenuous...when in the first place this brand chose to market through the blogger in order to GAIN trust?

The brands and PR agencies that are familiar with influencer marketing and have run campaigns in the past are a little more at peace with these disclaimers. They even go out of their way to enforce them, as they should, but it's totally understandable that if you’re newer to the influencer marketing game, they can come as a real shock.

So, why do bloggers do this? Hopefully we can shed some light on the whole situation and make it a lot easier for you!

 

A little background on the FTC guidelines

First, let’s get the nitty-gritty details out of the way. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) exists to improve consumer trust in online marketing. Their guidelines ensure businesses can compete fairly in the online market by preventing deceptive advertising from competitors. Through their disclosure guidelines they ensure readers and viewers know when a brand has been endorsed. For our sake, those endorsers are mostly bloggers and other online influencers. Because endorsements factor into our purchasing decisions, the FTC mandates that all endorsed content should include a disclosure of any relationships with the brand. This allows the reader or viewer to decide how much weight to give the endorsement. If you’re interested in taking a deeper look, the latest guidelines that were released in 2013 are meant to bring bloggers and brands up-to-date for the social media era.

 
 

The controversy of FTC guidelines for brands and bloggers

There's no arguing with the law, so make sure you familiarize yourself with the rules.  

Even though these laws are put in place to protect consumers, it's still really hard for brands to get past the feeling that the disclaimer cheapens things.  The bloggers who endorse their product actually LIKE the product, so why tarnish it with a disclosure statement. Brands worry that the blogger’s audience will then realize that she didn’t just spontaneously write about their product because of its sheer awesomeness. Instead, that audience knows the coverage was bought.

If you are one of these miffed brands, and you’ve recently discovered the infamous disclaimer… you should calm down.  It seems bad, but it’s not the end of the world.  You notice a disclaimer on one of YOUR sponsored posts because its yours.  But once you look around, paying closer attention to the blog posts that you read, you will start to see TONS of these disclosure statements. You probably just overlooked them in the past; in fact, that’s what most people actually do as well.

And even if you disagree with my above opinion, to put it bluntly, it’s better to just get over it if you plan to do influencer-led campaigns, as the rules aren’t going to change anytime soon.

The fact of the matter is, the FTC has always stated that the burden is on brands to ensure their endorsers are in compliance with the disclosure guidelines. So, if you’re working with a blogger who doesn’t follow the FTC guidelines, you should let them know to make the changes ASAP because it’s in YOUR best interest.  You will be the one in trouble, not them.

Now let’s make sure everyone is on the same page about what these guidelines actually are.

 

The FTC guideline rules

  • There must be a disclosure statement for all content that is endorsed. The disclosure needs to travel with the content. For example, if a blogger is endorsing your content through a social post or video it needs to be disclosed there as well.
  • For short-form environments like Twitter, #ad is sufficiently clear as long as it’s in a prominent place. It’s strongly suggested not to use the hashtag after a URL or shortlink as it can be easily overlooked.
  • “Umbrella” tweets or posts that explain the sponsored content are recommended.
  • There must be a “clear and conspicuous” text description for all disclosures.
  • While many bloggers include disclosure statements at the bottom of their posts, it’s recommended to include them at the top and if necessary, provide additional details at the bottom.
  • The exact words you use to disclose are still up to you!
  • It’s ok to get creative with your disclosures as long as you’re following the rules. There are ways to make endorsements friendlier and ways you can work with bloggers to ensure the disclaimers are unobtrusive. But since the onus is on the brand, you should ensure that all of your endorsers are following the rules. You might even give them some disclosure statement suggestions for different scenarios that sound friendly, not robotic. (We’ll give you some ideas to get the ball rolling later on in the post.)
 

What happens if you don’t follow the rules

Back in 2010, LOFT invited fashion bloggers to an exclusive preview of their summer collection. The promotion promised a $50+ gift card to all attendees, plus entry into a mystery gift draw worth up to $500 at LOFT. It was revealed in the fine print that each blogger would have to send event coverage back to their publicist within 24 hours and then they would reveal what value of gift card they had won. While a gift card might not be the most liquid form of currency, it does indeed have monetary value. In fact, any writer who fails to mention that they’ve received free items that might sway their coverage is liable for up to an $11,000 fine. And while some bloggers mentioned the gift card, many others did not. There was a lot of media questioning if LOFT was crossing a few lines with the FTC or if they were playing by the rules. The whole thing definitely could have been avoided if the brand took a few more precautions to ensure their endorsers were disclosing more information about the promotion.   

In 2014, the FTC knocked down Cole Haan’s Pinterest promotion because they too weren’t playing by the rules. In the Contest, Cole Haan offered the winner a $1,000 shopping spree. Contestants were required to create Pinterest boards with the hashtag, #WanderingSole, displaying five images of the contestants favorite places to wander. They were also asked to pin five shoe images from Cole Haan’s Wandering Sole Pinterest board. The FTC flagged this campaign for violating Section 5 of the FTC Act, which requires advertisers to clearly and conspicuously disclose a material connection between the advertiser and endorser when their relationship is not otherwise apparent. Since the pins were essentially endorsements of Cole Haan’s products and were also incentivized, consumers would not readily know that they were endorsed. This therefore could be misleading.

Those are two instances of large brands running into trouble with the FTC, and we’re using them to illustrate the point that this can happen to anyone…And you really can’t plead ignorance.  Most bloggers are on top of these disclosure statements (because they also don’t want to find themselves in the cross-hairs of the FTC), so keeping within the rules is generally pretty easy. Just make sure to discuss this with any blogger that you might work with to make sure you’re on the same page.

Now, on to more cheery topics.  

 
 

How to get creative with FTC disclosures

There are ways to make your disclosures sound super cool, instead of cheap and infomercial-esque.  The key is to make sure that they fit within the context of a post.

One option is a disclaimer that makes it obvious that the blogger was approached by your brand, but said in a way that implies exclusivity. You handpicked this blogger to be a partner of your brand.

“I was over the moon when [brand name] reached out to me about presenting their newest collection…” or “[brand name] gave me the opportunity to try out [product] and I’m beyond excited to share it with you.”

If you want to go with short and sweet, something like this can get the point across without being obtrusive:

“Thanks to [brand name] for partnering with me for this post!”
“This post was brought to you by [brand name], but opinions are all my own.”

Some bloggers keep it very simple if an item was gifted to them and in this case, they will connote the item with c/o, which stands for ‘courtesy of.’  

 


Some endorsers have a way of making their disclosures feel exclusive, not obtrusive because the brand and endorser are presenting this cool, edgy or fun piece of content together.

“Brought to you by [brand name] + [endorser]”
“[endorser] + [brand name] present”

Some bloggers have disclaimer pages that give a little more information on their content. Just remember, disclaimer pages are great but if you’re creating sponsored content, the disclaimer still needs to follow within the post itself. Here’s a little snippet from Fashion Rocks My Socks’ disclaimer page:

“My role as a blogger is to not only show you my favourites products and hand down my own tips and knowledge related to fashion and beauty, but it's to introduce my readers to new and exciting brands, therefore if a company contacts me asking if I would do a sponsored post, I only ever agree to it if I believe their product would be of an interest or benefit to my readers as well as being in keeping with the tone and content of my blog.”

Or Cupcakes and Cashmere sums it up pretty nice for her readers as well:

“What's your policy on working with brands? I'm extremely selective about the brands I work with and only partner with companies that are a natural fit for Cupcakes and Cashmere.[…]The same goes for accepting products (I decline about 95% of the offers that come my way), as I only showcase things on my site that I truly love and would normally buy on my own. In the case that something has been given to me, I always include that it's courtesy of that brand (c/o). Unless clearly marked as a "Sponsored" post, I am not compensated by any of the brands featured on the site. Additionally, you can read my site's "Privacy and Disclosure Policy" here.”

Lastly, check out how Steve Booker makes sense of it all for his reader on his disclaimer page. His rationale is really quite legit.  Running a blog is an enormous time commitment.  By accepting endorsements, he’s able spend more time producing awesome content.

“The adverts that are displayed on stevebooker.co.uk are provided through Glam Media to help me fund the daily running of this blog, therefore allowing me to dedicate more time to it.”
 

Tips and takeaways

  • Yes, disclaimers are kind of annoying but unfortunately they’re not up for debate. It’s better to accept them if you plan to run influencer marketing programs.
  • Some bloggers take the disclaimer to the extreme (e.g. loud blinking letters at the very top of the post announcing to the world that they just got paid for this post).  If you don’t like their style of disclaiming, simply don’t reach out to them.
  • To that end, look at the way bloggers disclaim and try to target ones that do it in a nice and unobtrusive way.
  • It doesn’t hurt to have a conversation with the blogger about how to do a proper disclaimer that still sounds friendly.
  • If a blogger isn’t properly disclaiming, you’re the one who will get in trouble so don’t encourage this behavior. In fact, if an endorser neglects to put one in, be sure to get in touch and then confirm that it gets added.
  • If a blogger has a huge following and has disclaimers in every post, it’s pretty safe to assume that her audience doesn’t care that the posts are sponsored.  Brands work with bloggers who are effective.  And if her disclaimers were getting in the way of being effective, then brands would not be sponsoring content.

Lastly, don’t stress about this.  It’s a total buzz-kill when you see the disclaimer, in-action, on your own sponsored content, but it’s really not that bad. No one seems to care.  In fact, I’m sure that you won’t find this very post (that you're reading right now), any less useful when I tell you that it was sponsored by the FTC.  (Just kidding!!)  But the point is still valid.  If the content is useful and marketed to an audience with whom it will resonate, then you’ve got nothing to worry about!

If you want to learn more, this post by the IFB gets into the nitty gritty and murky areas you might overlook with disclaimers.