If you’re a brand working with bloggers, the connection should be as transparent as possible.
That was the message attendees at BlogHer 10 in New York got last week during a panel discussion on the FTC’s endorsement guidelines.
“Make sure your audience understands your connection to a brand, if you have one,” said Stacey Ferguson, senior attorney in the FTC’s division of advertising practices. ” Personal endorsements carry a lot of weight.”
The government guides were updated last December to include examples explaining how they apply to social media. And they’re just that, Ferguson stressed, guidelines. They are not laws and there are no fines for violations. Still, panelists were adamant that bloggers keep their ties to brands clear to readers.
“It’s not about your ethics, its about the consumer’s understanding of what you are saying,” said Susan Getgood, author of “Professional Blogging for Dummies” and a blogger at MarketingRoadmaps.com. “Transparency is the best practice anyway, and we should be doing it regardless of what the FTC says.”
The FTC doesn’t specify exactly how a blogger should disclose their relationship with a brand that may have provided them products for review or other swag. But disclosure must be within the post mentioning the brand or product itself; putting disclosure elsewhere such as your “about me” page isn’t adequate, said Ferguson.
Bloggers should keep their disclosures natural sounding, she added, noting that it doesn’t have to be lengthy or in legalese. ” You don’t need to over disclose, just make it integral to the message.”
The dollar amount of a product provided to a blogger doesn’t generally make a difference in whether or not the relationship should be disclosed. But even if you’re returning a product after you review it, you probably should disclose that the company provided it to you gratis, especially if it is something significant, like the use of a new car for a month.
Make the Readers Understand
It often comes down to what a “reasonable consumer” would understand about how a blogger portrays their relationship with a brand, Ferguson noted. For example, an 85-year-old grandmother with little experience online might approach a post differently from a young woman who routinely reads a number of product review blogs.
Indeed, Kimberly Coleman, lead blogger at MomInTheCity.com, noted that while her “core readers” know where she’s coming from, someone who just came in over the transom from Google might not. “It’s a challenge if you’re a product reviewer, because you have relationships with everybody.”
But just because someone got something in swag bag at a conference doesn’t mean they have a personal relationship with the brand. If everyone attending an event got something, that doesn’t necessarily mean the blogger suddenly has a deep connection to a marketer, said Getgood. “Still, it is a best practice to thank a corporation that gave you something nice.”
That goes both ways, she added. Brands who have been positively reviewed either by folks who they sent products to or who found their wares on their own can put a thank you roll call on their site. This serves to both showcase positive PR and help drive traffic back to those bloggers.
Celebrities aren’t immune to these rules, Ferguson said. Typically, when a celebrity speaks about a product there is an understanding that they are likely getting paid. But they need to keep it clear whether they are speaking on behalf of the brand or merely as a consumer.
For example, on Twitter Kim Kardashian—a paid spokesperson for Carl’s Jr.— wrote that she was so hungry she was going to run out and get a salad at the fast food chain. It raised some red flags, and when questioned by the FTC, she was able to produce documentation that her agreement with Carl’s Jr. didn’t include twitter and that she was speaking as “Kim Kardashian” and not “Kim Kardashian for Carl’s Jr.”
Keep It Clear
One panel attendee noted that she had received a product for review from a brand and put it up for sale on eBay after giving it a positive write-up. The company got wind of it and wanted her to try and get it back from the buyer and return it to them.
The blogger did nothing wrong if she didn’t have a “no resale” agreement in place with the company, noted the FTC’s Ferguson. It’s up for the company to make any restrictions clear up front.
Likewise, said Getgood, if a company wants to control the way a blogger writes about their product or, say, the way they word the terms of a giveaway of the company’s product on a blog, they might want to rethink the relationship.
“If you want to control a blogger, that’s advertising,” said Getgood. “If you don’t want their organic voice, buy an ad.”
Panel moderator Lisa Stone, the CEO of BlogHer, asked if there was room for satire and fun in product reviews. For example, she asked, could you jokingly say that a couch was so comfortable it cured your migraines forever?
“Sure,” said Ferguson with a laugh. ” Just don’t say it cures cancer or makes you lose weight” —two of the FTC’s biggest false claims headaches.
Getgood concurred, noting that bloggers should watch their wording. Saying “this hand cream made my eczema go away” is different from “this hand cream cures eczema.”