BlogHer’10: You and me and the FTC

I’ll warn you now – my BlogHer’10 experiences will, once again, be the subject of several posts. There are a couple of sessions I’d like to talk about in detail in addition to sharing my more general impressions.

The first session I attended at BlogHer’10 was on that topic so dear to the heart of any review blogger: “The FTC Guidelines: After a Year, Has Anything Changed?” (And yes, although you may not review anything other than books, that still makes you a “review blogger,” technically speaking.) The panelists were marketing blogger, author, and Blog With Integrity co-founder Susan Getgood, Kimberly Coleman of Mom in the City, and Stacey Ferguson, who blogs as Justice Fergie at Mamalaw and works as an attorney for the FTC, and the moderator was BlogHer co-founder Lisa Stone. The session was liveblogged, so I won’t give you a note-by-note cover version, but there are a few things that stuck out for me.

The FTC Guidelines pertaining to disclosure are just that – guidelines to assist in compliance with FTC regulations. They are NOT laws. Straight from the mouth of Justice Fergie:

“There are no fines for violating the guides. It is NOT true that bloggers can be fined. They are a guide to help consumers, endorsers and brands.
The main takeaway for bloggers is to be sure you’re being transparent. Be sure your readers understand your connection to the brand, if you have one.”

If you’re a book blogger, substitute “publishers” and “authors” for “brands” and “readers” for “consumers” (the blogger is the “endorser”) – it’s essentially the same message. (BTW, for the record, the current usage of “brands” in this context just bugs me. They’re manufacturers or providers of a product or service. They’re suppliers. They’re companies. They’re business entities. Why don’t we actually phrase it that way?)

Susan Getgood discussed disclosure’s place in the blogger/reader relationship:

“(T)he endorsement guidelines…(are) about what the consumer understands. Transparency is best practice anyway, we ought to be doing it regardless of anything the FTC has done.

It’s about your relationship with your readers. To me, that’s more important than what the law says. I would be standing here saying transparency is important, even if the FTC hadn’t revised their guidelines.

Think about it more as valuing your relationship with your readers.”

On a related note, Kimberly Coleman commented:

“The thing that helped me apply the guidelines practically was to think about people who come to your blog through a Google search, and they just see that one post. They don’t know you and don’t know about your relationships. It’s not just about your core readers, it’s about others who find just one post.”

That’s why a blanket disclosure in your About page or Review Policy is insufficient – the casual visitor or Google searcher may never see it, and so disclosure on each post where you review a product (including a book) that you were given for that purpose is required.

Many of us have been being over-cautious in disclosing that “I bought this myself” in our reviews, and Justice Fergie noted that this is not necessary or required. Blogging is considered personal-opinion writing, and it’s assumed that no outside influence is exerted on your opinion on an item or experience you bought yourself. However, when you receive it from an outside party, there’s a perception that they could have influenced your opinion, and so you need to make it clear that they gave the item to you…and didn’t influence your opinion on it. In response to a question concerning why this particular disclosure burden doesn’t seem to apply to traditional media, Stacey said:

“They always have been regulated by the guidelines. Traditional media always had to follow the same guidelines. The difference is it’s all about audience understanding. It is generally understood by the audience that traditional media is getting products to review for free. It’s generally understood that people covering the Oscars are getting in for free.”

Conversely, the general understanding is still that bloggers are sharing recommendations and opinions about their own personally-purchased experiences and products, so it’s not assumed by readers that they’re getting these things for free; if they are, there’s a relationship between the reviewer and the supplier, and it has to be stated. I tend to wonder if that understanding and perception will change during the next few years – if readers will just take for granted that we must get all those review books for free, too, just like the book columnists at the newspapers and magazines (assuming there still are any). Then we actually might have reason to use that “I bought this myself” disclosure after all.

But when you are required to make a disclosure of your relationship with a product, the FTC still doesn’t want to tell you exactly how to do it. From Stacey: “The FTC guidelines don’t tell you how to make your disclosure. That is intentional. We want it to be in your voice.” Susan added, specifically referring to brand/product mentions on Twitter, “The best disclosure is always in context. ‘I was hosted by x on a trip, had a great time.’ Using words to disclose is more natural than a hash tag. Using the characters for #ad or #sponsored, feel free. It’s just gotta be clear. The FTC doesn’t want to tell you how to do it because it ceases to be organic.” The panel clarified that “relationship” includes affiliate links, and therefore those must be disclosed as well. Kimberly keeps it simple: “If I use affiliate links in the post, I just say, ‘I used affiliate links.'” Susan’s suggestion:

“Best practice – disclose that you are using an affiliate link. You could use hover text that says affiliate link. Or you could say something simple such as, ‘You can get this product at my affiliate,…’ If it is an affiliate ad in your sidebar, it looks like an ad and you don’t have to do anything.”

This portion of the discussion has me re-thinking how I disclose in my own reviews, particularly in regard to the affiliate links (I am an Amazon Associate and an IndieBound Affiliate). I’ve used text links in the phrase “Buy (this book, link text) at (this affiliate retailer)” because they don’t look like ads, but now I’m thinking about using the more “ad-looking” graphic links so they make the affiliate relationship more obvious. But when it comes to book reviews themselves, I’m not sure there is a graceful way to work the disclosure into the review text, so unless I figure one out, I’ll probably stick with the upfront disclosure statement I currently use. However, I may drop it from reviews of books I bought for myself, since it’s apparently not necessary – besides, those will all be labeled for the “Read Your Own Books Challenge.”

Following the FTC’s disclosure guidelines is probably not as burdensome as it’s sometimes made out to be, and Stacey Ferguson reiterated that they FTC isn’t out to get bloggers. They actually place greater responsibility on the companies who work with bloggers to create guidelines for those relationships, including those related to disclosure. But ultimately, I agree that it comes down to this, as Susan stated at the conclusion of the panel:

“I don’t think it ever hurts the bloggers to publicly thank brands. You want to encourage them and other brands to talk to you. That gets back to the best practices – you want to disclose, you want to thank, you want to be open about your relationships.

Whenever you think about disclosure, think about how you would feel on the other side of the disclosure. What would you want to know if you? We are consumers, too. We are the audience for these disclosures, as well.”

Personally, I do tend to assume that unless a blogger tells me otherwise, she’s talking about a product or trip or event that she acquired on her own, and I’d feel fooled (and foolish) if I found out after the fact that she wasn’t – I’d have to question her honesty overall. Because I wouldn’t want to misunderstand that as a reader, I wouldn’t want my readers to misunderstand it either. Aside from the FTC guidelines, as a member of the BlogHer Publishing Network for over two years, I’m required to disclose the source for a product – in my case, usually a book – whenever I write a review of it, but I’d do it anyway. I agree with Susan that a public thanks to your source is truly a “best practice.”

If anyone came to this session wanting definitive directions about compliance with the FTC, they may have left disappointed, but I thought this was one of the most valuable sessions I went to at BlogHer’10. Like it or not, I’m quite sure it won’t be the last discussion about it, either.

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