Categories
Blogging

FTC Disclosure Guidelines for Bloggers, Affiliates, and Social Media Influencers

In 2009, the FTC updated their Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, which had not been changed since 1980. The updates affected bloggers and affiliate marketers at the time, as the guidelines required disclosure for any recommendation of a product or service when a blogger had received payment for an advertisement or endorsement.

Of course, blogging did not exist in 1980, so the original guidelines were written with traditional advertising in mind and were well overdue for an update.

Now, over a decade later, the world of marketing has continued to evolve. It’s not just website owners and bloggers who need to make sure they’re staying on the right side of the law.

The FTC has required individuals to disclose when they’re receiving payment for online endorsements since the 2009 update. An “endorsement” could be something as small as mentioning a product in a blog post and linking to it with an affiliate link. But social media influencers have been getting away without disclosing their ads for years.

The FTC is now cracking down on online influencers on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, and released an additional document: Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers at the end of 2019.

If you’re monetizing your blog or any of your social media accounts, it’s important to fully understand the latest FTC guidelines and how they affect you.

Who Do the FTC Rules Apply to?

The FTC, or Federal Trade Commission, is an American governmental organization, so you may think that these guidelines don’t apply to you if you live outside the USA.

In fact, this isn’t true. The FTC rules also apply to you if a significant proportion of your audience is in the US or if you’re posting about products sold in the US. This applies to both bloggers and social media influencers.

The FTC confirmed this in their official guide for social media influencers, saying:

“If posting from abroad, U.S. law applies if it’s reasonably foreseeable that the post will affect U.S. consumers. Foreign laws might also apply.”

FTC Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers

The country you’re living or posting in may have their own guidelines and laws regarding product endorsements and affiliate marketing online, so make sure to do your research. For example, bloggers and influencers in the UK must abide by rules set by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA).

FTC Guidelines for Bloggers and Affiliates

The FTC guides state that a blogger who receives “cash or in-kind payment” to review a product is considered an endorsement.

These guidelines only apply when you’re receiving some kind of compensation for endorsing a product (either directly, or in the form of an affiliate commission.)

You’re considered to be “endorsing a product” if:

  • You receive payment for a review or mentioning a product
  • You receive a free or discounted product
  • You receive a commission if someone buys the product via your website

If you buy a product with your own money and recommend it without any compensation from the brand, this is not considered an endorsement.

An example given in the official FTC guidelines is a blogger who tries a new dog food and writes in her blog that the change in diet has improved the condition of her dog’s coat. This would not be considered an endorsement because it’s her true opinion and she wasn’t paid to write about it.

However, if you are offered payment or free products for writing a review, for example, this would be considered an endorsement, and you’d have to provide a clear statement disclosing your relationship with the brand.

If the above blogger was offered a free bag of dog food in exchange for writing a review of it on her blog, this would be considered an endorsement.

In this case, bloggers must “clearly and conspicuously” disclose that they received a free product in exchange for a review

Additionally, your endorsement must reflect your “honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience” and that “the endorser must have been a bona fide user of it at the time the endorsement was given.” This means that you can’t recommend a product if you haven’t tried it.

Affiliate marketers take note: Even just affiliate linking to a product in a blog post without any specific recommendation also counts as an endorsement. So you need to include a disclosure on every page you’ve included affiliate links, even if you’re not reviewing or recommending products.

How to Add an FTC Disclosure to Your Blog

The FTC guidelines require “clear and conspicuous disclosure”, but what does that actually mean?

Here’s the bad news: if you’ve been hiding your disclosure away on a separate page that’s linked in the footer of your blog, this isn’t clear or conspicuous enough.

I’ve included some additional information below, but let’s cut to the chase: For most bloggers, including a disclosure statement at the top of each blog post that includes endorsements should be sufficient. If necessary, you can link from this statement to a separate page that explains how you’re compensated for your endorsement in more detail.

The wording for this disclosure could be something like “Disclaimer: I received this product for free in exchange for my honest review” or “This page includes affiliate links, which means I will receive a commission if you buy the products mentioned in this post. Read my full affiliate disclosure for more information.” There’s no set phrase that you have to stick to, but your disclosure should be written in plain language and easy to understand.

Screenshot of blog post with affiliate disclosure
An example of FTC disclosure for affiliate links at the top of a blog post on happytowander.com

To help bloggers and website owners to write appropriate disclosures, the FTC has published a guide, How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising. It’s well worth reading the whole document (and viewing the examples at the end) to make sure you understand the guidelines if you’re making money on your blog from sponsored posts, paid reviews, or affiliate marketing.

However, I’ve summarized the recommendations for you below.

  • Place your disclosure as close as possible to your endorsement
  • Make sure your disclosure is clear and visible on different devices
  • Links to disclosures should be clear and close to your endorsement
  • Needing to scroll to find a disclosure is discouraged
  • Repeat disclosures if necessary on lengthy websites
  • Don’t hide your disclosures in your “terms of use” or other legal pages
  • Explain your disclosure in clear and plain language
  • Links that simply say “disclosure” or “terms and conditions” are not sufficient.

An example included in the guidelines that’s relevant to bloggers is this case of a blogger who received free paint to review.

screenshot of a blog with links to products

In this example, the blogger had included her disclosure at the end of the post. This is not sufficient because readers may click the links to the product before seeing the disclosure.

FTC Guidelines for Social Media Influencers

If you work with brands or endorse products in exchange for payment on social media, it’s also important to disclose your relationship with the brand. However, the limited space on social media platforms means that you might have to write or link to this disclosure in a different way than you might do on your website or blog.

You must disclose your relationship with a brand on social media if you:

  • Received payment or anything of value to discuss a product.
  • Get free or discounted products from a brand, even if they didn’t ask you to post about it.
  • You have a family relationship with the brand (for example, you’re endorsing a product from your sister’s company, even if she’s not giving you anything in exchange).
  • You must disclose, even if you think your followers already know about your relationship with the brand.

Just as when you’re writing a blog post, your disclosure must be clear and easy to understand. This means:

  • You must include the disclosure in the post where you endorse a product, and it must be at the beginning of a post
  • Posting disclosures at the end of posts or videos, in your profile page, or requiring your audience to click to see your disclosure is not sufficient.
  • Your disclosure shouldn’t be hidden in hashtags
  • Disclosures should be repeated regularly during live streams
  • Hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored can be used, but you must include a disclosure such as “thanks to X brand for the free product” as well as the hashtags. The only exception to this is Twitter, which has limited characters in which you can include the disclosure. The FTC has confirmed that AD, #ad or #brandpartner is acceptable disclosure for Twitter as long as it’s at the beginning of the tweet or easy to notice.
  • Terms and hashtags such as #sp, #spon, #ambassador, and “collab” are not acceptable disclosure as they’re not clear. #affiliate is not sufficient, as many people won’t understand what this means. Saying “thanks to brand x” is also not sufficient, as it’s not clear that you have a relationship with this brand.
  • Using only the built-in disclosure tools that come with platforms like YouTube and Instagram are not sufficient. You must include your own disclosure too.
  • On image-only platforms like Snapchat, your disclosure should be superimposed over your image.
  • Disclosures in videos must actually be in the video, not just the description.
Example of an acceptable endorsement disclosure in Twitter
Example of endorsement disclosure on Instagram
Dos and Don't for social media influencers

What Happens if You Don’t Disclose a Brand Relationship?

The FTC takes a dim view of anyone trying to deceive the public, and if you don’t disclose a brand relationship as a blogger or social media influencer, both you and the brand may be liable for fines and potential legal action.

In 2016, retailer Lord & Taylor was charged by the FTC for deceiving consumers when it paid 50 online influencers to post Instagram photos of themselves wearing clothing from the brand without disclosure.

More recently, the FTC took legal action against a detox tea company using influencers to market its products. The charge was that the company was making unsubstantiated health claims and paying influencers including Cardi B to post about their products without disclosure. The company agreed on a settlement of $1 million, to be returned to customers.

Despite these high profile cases, there are still lots of people not disclosing their ads. Research by Instagram printing company Infinki found that only 25% of Instagram influencers disclosed their ads in a way that was fully compliant with FTC guidelines.

infographic showing 71.5% of accounts clearly disclosed but only 25% did so in a way compliant with FTC guidelines.
Source: https://inkifi.com/state-of-disclosure/

Why? Well, there are probably several reasons. Some users simply might not be aware of the rules. But others are aware of the rules and most likely don’t disclose because they know there’s very little risk of consequences right now.

The FTC has been clear that at the moment they’re more concerned about large advertisers flouting the guidelines than individual influencers. The FTC trade commissioner said in a statement:

“When individual influencers are able to post about their interests to earn extra money on the side, this is not a cause for major concern.”

Rohit Chopra

While individuals might not be on the FTC’s radar right now, it’s certainly a good idea to stick to the guidelines from the start to avoid any potential problems in the future.

Affiliate marketers, in particular, should note that affiliate networks may require compliance with FTC guidelines as part of their terms and conditions. If you don’t disclose your affiliate links properly, you may be at risk of losing your account and having access to any commissions you’ve earned frozen.

Conclusion

When in doubt, disclose everything!

This is an area of the law that’s rapidly changing and has also been under strict scrutiny in recent years. If your blog or social media accounts are monetized with affiliate links or product endorsements, it would be wise to keep up to date with all the latest updates and guidelines to avoid risking this losing this source of income.

Honesty is always the best policy. If you’re creating great content and linking out to products that you genuinely recommend, you shouldn’t worry about appearing less “authentic” by including affiliate links or sponsored posts in your blog or social accounts. If you have any specific questions about disclosure or endorsements, you can contact the FTC directly by emailing endorsements@FTC.gov

By Rachel Adnyana

Rachel is a former web developer and freelance writer specializing in WordPress and digital marketing.