OFFICIAL BLOGHER '10 LIVEBLOG: Professional: The FTC Guidelines After a Year. Has Anything Changed?

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer '10 panel: Professional: The FTC Guidelines: After A Year, Has Anything Changed? Click here for more info.

The speakers for this panel are:
BlogHer's co-founder and CEO, Lisa Stone
Marketer Susan Getgood
Blogger Kimberly Coleman
Stacey Ferguson from the FTC

Lisa Stone is welcoming the group to the FTC discussion. "This is the easiest thing we talk about," she says sarcastically.

One of the goals at the founding of BlogHer was to bring credibility to blogging.

Stacy Ferguson, FTC:

The FTC endorsement guides became final last December. Prior to that, we had a year period where we had draft guidelines out for public comment.

The point of the guides is to ensure that there is no deception in advertising, to provide transparency to consumers.

This is an update to exisiting guidelines. They provide new guidelines in regards to social media.

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 someone comes up to you and says, "Hey, I tried this really great yogurt, and you should try it," you're going to assume that her personal opinion. If you are being paid by the brand, that may not be as authentic. You need to be sure your readers understand your connection, so that they can decide what weight to give your endorsement.

Susan Getgood, Blog With Integrity:

When you think about the endorsement guidelines, it's not about you, the blogger, and your ethics. It's about what the consumer understands.

Transparency is the 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, more than, "I have to do it because the law says I do."

Kimberly

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.

I mention that I went to an event sponsored by a company, I don't feel like I need to disclose every item that was in the swag bag.

I used to think I disclosed all the time, now I realize when I look at old posts that I didn't always do it.

Stacy Ferguson:

A sitewide disclosure is not good enough; it has to be on the blog post. It doesn't have to be in a particular location; it doesn't have to be certain wording. We want it to be integrated in your voice. It doesn't have to be awkward.

I forgot to say at the beginning -- "The views expressed today are my own, they don't reflect the views of my employer."

Question from the audience (from Liz Gumbiner):

Is there any intent to regular print magazines and other traditional media?

Stacy:

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.

Question from the Audience:

What about product placement in stores. What if I go to a tire store and I don't know that employees are being paid on that particular day to push a certain brand of tires, even if it's not best for me?

Stacy:

I think consumers typically understand that.

Susan:

When you're going into a sale situation, it's your responsibility to be skeptic. The difference with bloggers is that these are people you feel you've gotten to know and trust. You don't have a relationship like that with the guy at the tire store.

Stacy:

An endorsement from our perspective is when someone is giving you a personal recommendation for a product and you need to disclose the relationship. When you go to a tire store, you know the employees have a connection to that store and that brand.

Question from the audience:

What about recommendations from an expert, like a physician? They may have a relationship with a certain drug company, etc.

Lisa Stone:

This is why our research shows that many women are going online to do their own research.

Question from the audience:

I don't understand a review for traditional media and a review from a blogger. How far do we need to go? Is the government making the assumption that people are stupid?

Stacy:

Our standard is the reasonable consumer. There's a lot of laughing internally about who the reasonable consumer is. We recently released FAQs for the guidelines. They can be found at ftc.gov.

That question is answered in the guidelines and I am going to read it:

My tip always is, "When in doubt, disclose."

Question from the audience (Sugar Jones):

I worked with HP and got a printer. I loved the printer and I disclosed it. But then I got nervous about saying anything else about HP. I really do love HP, do I have to disclose every time?

Susan:

I think it is important to disclose a previous relationship with HP.

Kimberly:

Lots of us have multiple companies that we work with. It's just impractical to do that constantly.

Susan:

The guidelines only apply to endorsements.

Question from the audience:

What about Twitter disclosure?

Stacy:

The FTC guidelines don't tell you how to make your disclosure. That is intentional. We want it to be in your voice.

Susan:

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.

Kimberly:

The thing about those hash tags is that most people don't understand them, so what's the point? How does someone know what #sp is?

Stacy:

3 rules of thumb - make it clear, make it prominent and make it unavoidable.

Question from the audience:

My question is about money. There's a difference between a $10 review, a $100 review or a $100,000 review. Is it your responsibility to disclose the dollar amount that you are being paid to endorse the product.

Stacy:

No. Your responsibility is to endorse the relationship, not how much you got. The IRS might care...

Question from the audience:

Why do celebrities get a free pass? They endorse on Twitter, too. Why are we in this room learning about this when Kim Kardashian is getting a free pass?

Stacy:

We called Kim Kardashian after she tweeted about the Carl's Jr. salad to ask if she was contracted to do those tweets. The answer was no. Celebrities are not getting a free pass.

Celebrities in certain context don't have to disclose certain things. For example, if they are on The Tonight Show wearing a Nike hat, it's assumed by the audience that they are probably paid.

Question from the audience:

I was curious about affiliate links. I know a lot of bloggers use them. What are the disclosure rules on those?

Susan:

Best practices - 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, Amazon.com..." If it is an affiliate ad in your sidebar, it looks like an ad and you don't have to do anything.

Kimberly:

If I use affiliate links in the post, I just say, "I used affiliate links."

Stacy:

They are both right. This question is also addressed in our FAQs.

Question from the audience:

Regarding the celebrity twitter thing: I would think it's the brand's responsibility to be sure the celebrity is tweeting with endorser?

Stacy:

Absolutely, it is the brand's responsibility to be sure there is a policy in place and to monitor to be sure the celebrity is disclosing.

Question from the audience:

What about brands creating blogger guidelines? (This questioner is from Hershey's.) We don't want to turn off bloggers, but I have legal knocking on my door everyday.

Stacy:

I saw the s'mores blogger guidelines and they were great.

Susan:

You want to be working with brands that have their own guidelines. I think it is very important to have very clear, understandable, laid out relationships between brands and bloggers. And that needs to include what is expected as far as disclosure.

Kimberly:

There can be overkill and it is annoying. We won't want to work with you again if you're asking us to link to the brand, and the ad agency, and, and, and...

Susan:

But if there are a lot of expectations, that's a job. If they're telling you what days you should post and the like, you should probably suggest that they be paying you for this.

Question from the Audience:

I recently got into a fight with a company because they gave me two products to review and said they were mine to keep. I didn't need them so I posted them on eBay. They had a fit and said I didn't have a right to sell the products - they were demos. I told them they never told me that and they never had clear terms on what I could or could not do with the products.

Stacy:

That is on the company to make the relationship and their expectations clear.

Susan:

I won't speak to your specific situation, but I will give general advice: Always ask if you have any questions about your relationship with a company. The only stupid question is the one you didn't ask. We want to make sure everyone is getting what they need out of the relationship. The best way to do that is to have a clear understanding from the beginning.

Lisa:

There is no question that figuring out how to work on a longterm basis in this space is what's important. We need to have an open conversation, especially when working with a new brand.

Question from the audience:

What about giveaways? Occasionally we hear that we're all going to go to jail because we have to follow the laws on giveaways in all 50 states. Are we doing giveaways correctly?

Stacy:

Generally, if you're doing a giveaway and doing an endorsement, you need to disclose in order to comply with the FTC guidelines. As far as the states, yes, they probably all have their own laws. I will not speak to how you need to follow them all.

Comment from the audience:

I know there are a lot of people who are creating their disclaimers about the relationships. If you have the guidelines figured out and you work with a company that is trying to get you to disclose with specific wording, you can go back to the brand and say, "Well, this is the way I have been doing it and it fits with blog and complies."

Comment from the Audience:

If you come back to the brand and say you want to use your own wording, then the brand has to take that language back to legal, and you might lose out on some opportunities.

Kimberly:

If you are wanting to have specific wording, then you should buy an ad. The editorial is up to the blogger.

Comment from the audience:

I have seen so many contests that come from brands with specific wording that makes no sense. You need to listen to the blogger, and it will be more effective. If a brand asks you to write something specific for the brand that doesn't work with the blogger's voice, it just doesn't work.

Susan:

If you want to control the message, that is advertising. If you want to go through a blogger to reach out to customers, you want their organic voice. If you didn't want that, you should buy an ad.

Comment from the audience (lawyer from the privacy council):

Understand where the lawyers are coming from. Their job is to protect that brand. They have to think about how not to put the brand at risk or tarnish its image. Lawyers need to understand that it is OK to take that risk, set parameters and give some flexibility. It is a different way to work for lawyers than they have ever had to think about before.

Kimberly:

Every reader needs something different, so let the blogger talk about the product in their own voice.

Susan:

Part of the FTC guidelines is a requirement for accuracy. It is just as important as disclosure.

Stacy:

If you're not being accurate in your endorsement, you are not doing it right. It is the responsibility of the brand to make sure bloggers have all the info they need, and it is the responsibility of the blogger to ask if they don't have the information they need.

Susan:

Back to Twitter - There is a difference between a link on Twitter and an endorsement on Twitter. If your endorsement is on your blog and you link to it on Twitter, the disclosure only has to be on the blog. If the endorsement is on Twitter, you have to put the disclosure on Twitter.

Question from the audience:

There is so much misunderstanding out there, the FTC hasn't been doing a good job communicating it.

Lisa:

The amount of misinformation that came from the blogosphere about this issue is incredible. The FTC has done three panels on this issue.

Stacy:

I just found out from my boss that the FTC has not turned down a single request for a speaking engagement about this this year.

You are welcome to e-mail the FTC and ask questions about the guidelines. And you're welcome to come in to the FTC, as well. We have an open door, and you can have a meeting if you want.
Question from the audience:

That about a brand sending a thank-you gift? Like saying thank you for mentioning our brand?

Kimberly:

I think if you choose to write about it after it is sent, then you need to disclose.

Susan:

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.

Lisa:

That concludes this session.

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