How FTC rules could rein in blog endorsements

July 20, 2009

For years, the blogosphere has been a wide-open range, full of possibility and marketing potential.

As Scott Monty puts it, “Since blogging is relatively new and because there’s no editorial oversight, it can seem like the Wild West, absent any guiding principles.” Monty is Ford Motor Co.’s manager of global digital and multimedia communications.

The lack of regulation has allowed companies to pay or otherwise compensate bloggers for promotional content, which bloggers have been free to pass off as personal opinion. Neither company nor blogger was held responsible for outlandish and unverifiable claims.

But the “Wild West” days may soon be over.

The Federal Trade Commission has proposed changes to its
Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising that directly address concerns about the lawlessness of the blogosphere. If the changes are approved this summer, bloggers would be forced to disclose any relationship they have with a sponsor, as well as any compensation they may receive for their posts. This would include free samples sent for review. Bloggers also would be held liable for making false or unsubstantiated claims about products.

More important, the changes would enable the FTC to prosecute not only the bloggers for their indiscretions, but also the companies that fund them.

Yes, that could mean you.

Business as usual?

Although there’s been a lot of buzz about the implications of these potential changes, some companies say that there wouldn’t be much impact to their marketing strategies.

Monty says that Ford’s Fiesta marketing campaign, which relies heavily on bloggers as well as influencers in other areas of social media, probably would not be affected.

“We already abide by such guidelines in all of our marketing, advertising, and communications activities,” he says. “We ask that our bloggers speak openly and honestly about their impressions… and we always encourage them to disclose that we are working with them.”

How to proceed

If you’re concerned that your blogging policy might not be as forthright or clearly articulated as Ford’s, take a look at the following suggestions for bringing law and order to your own practices.

1.Know the rules,” advises Sean Corcoran, an analyst for Forrester Research, which recently endorsed the use of blogs in marketing. Making sure everyone involved is on the same page, including your bloggers, is the best way to avoid trouble.

Before you engage with bloggers, make sure you’ve read through the FTC guidelines, old and new. If the rules still seem vague, there are plenty of other places to look for guidance. Corcoran suggests checking out the ethical guidelines set forth by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, or WOMMA, as well as looking into the policies that search engines such as Google have concerning the use of sponsored content.

2. Look to traditional standards. Brian Solis, principal of FutureWorks, suggests checking out how traditional endorsement deals are handled and using that as a guide.

“Essentially, hiring or recruiting influential Weblebrities and online experts is not unlike the model for linking real world celebrities to brands through commercials, events, appearances, or other dedicated vehicles to promote the alliance and the story,” he wrote in a May TechCrunch post.

One caveat: According to the FTC, consumers are less likely to assume a blogger is being compensated than a celebrity in a commercial, and therefore bloggers need to take special care to clarify their relationship with a company.

3. Require full disclosure. The new guidelines would mandate disclosure if your company provides any type of compensation to a blogger, including sending free product for review.

Transparency can not only help your company to avoid legal pitfalls, it could also protect against a potential PR nightmare. As Solis points out, “With or without the new FTC guidelines, the practice of disclosure is not an option when the potential for significantly damaging customer relationships in a very public spotlight is at stake.”

4. Preserve authenticity. This means allowing bloggers to say what they really think about your product or company, and allowing them to do so in their own voice. A lack of control over the review you’ll receive can seem daunting, but remember that it is the authenticity of blogs that makes them an attractive marketing tool in the first place.

“This is the power of working with bloggers – to get them to talk freely about your brand with their community, not to use them as a megaphone to spin your message,” Corcoran says.

There are ways to lessen the risk of bad press, however. Monty says, “While we as marketers can’t dictate what bloggers write (any more than we can dictate what journalists write), we can choose which of them we have relationships with, what kind of behavior we expect out of them, and how we share our policy at a broader level.”

5. Make a dedicated space. Solis recommends pulling sponsored content out of the blog itself and putting it “in a safe space, so that way it’s very clear that it’s an endorsement.” Although this has the obvious drawback of not being located where readers are already looking, it would alleviate any concerns about readers confusing sponsored content with organic content.

6. Monitor your bloggers. Many companies already check in with various bloggers to get a feel for how their company or product is being discussed online. If you have a relationship with any of these bloggers, it becomes doubly important to keep tabs on what they say and how they say it. Under the new guidelines, your company can be held liable for any unsubstantiated or false claims a blogger makes about your product, regardless of whether you authorized those claims.

If you do catch a mistake or a false claim on a post you sponsor, don’t panic. As long as you take appropriate steps to correct it, your company probably would avoid punitive action.

7. Keep talking. Although it seems likely that the new rules will be put into place, Solis says that it’s a good idea to keep the dialogue going about what is acceptable blogging behavior.

“I suggest that companies really take a look at discussing with the FTC ways to work together to establish guidelines that will be fair to all parties involved.”