I’ve had this subject in my head for quite sometime and it is time to put pen to paper (keyboard to screen?). But first, a little bit about myself so you can understand my background and experience with this topic. I am currently the back-end administrator for SahmReviews.com and a few other non-blog internet properties. But before that I was a partner in a manufacturing company in California that made plastic cards. You know those little pieces of plastic you carry in your wallet? Odds are my company made a couple of them. Hotel key cards, casino VIP cards, library cards, membership cards and most importantly, ATM and gift cards. These last two are where my experience comes into play.
Financial transactions are covered by the FTC. Daily I dealt with banks, credit unions, financial companies such as GE Capital and small and large retailers like K-Mart and Amazon.com. We were one of the companies that provided gift card manufacturing services, producing over 100 million finished cards per year. As head of Sales & Marketing, part of my job was to make sure the jobs ran smoothly, the artwork on the front of the card was perfect and the verbiage on the back was correct.
Banks were also issuing ATM cards like there was no tomorrow, and this is where I saw changes being made regularly to the ‘rules and regulations’ regarding fees, replacement, etc. Every time there was a new regulation put into place by the FTC, the banks would have to reissue all of their card. Not just when issuing new ones, but reissue them to EVERYONE. Great for our business, not so much for the bank.
But what does this have to do with blogs and FTC disclosure? My experiences give me a unique insight into the mindset of FTC policymakers and I have to say that I feel that most companies (I’m looking at you Collective Bias, Tomoson, Mom Central, BlogHer, Influenster, BzzAgent, etc., etc.) are doing it wrong by not allowing us to do it right. And the way they are handling the disclosure issue is putting us as small business owners in jeopardy of being in violation of the current FTC guidelines.
Notice I have linked to the ACTUAL guidelines, not some company’s interpretation or their own policies. These are the most recent iteration, dated March 2013. No doubt there will be future revisions, and that is the point of my post today. Not only is the way the above mentioned companies are requiring us to disclose creating a conflict with these guidelines, it will cause a LOT of work in the future when (not if) there are revisions.
Consistency is Key
If you take the time to read the FTC guidelines you’ll probably end up more confused than before. You’ll hear these agents tell you that ‘in order to comply with FTC guidelines’ blah blah blah, but the real fact is that the guidelines are just that. Guidelines and not a direct order. The FTC doesn’t tell you exactly what to say, they don’t tell you to put “In accordance with FTC Regulation number XXX…” and they certainly don’t make it easy to find out what works and what doesn’t. But one theme throughout the entire PDF file is consistent, and that is that consistency is key.
The FTC wants your readers to be able to find disclosure information in the same place every time. Not at the top of the post sometimes, not at the bottom of the post other times, not in an image one time and text another time. It must be consistent from article to article. They specifically mention the example of one page having the disclosure link underlined on one page and then italicized on another page would confuse the reader and might make them miss the disclosure.
The majority of agencies are in agreement on one thing – that the disclosure should be at the top of the post before any written content. But there are a few that still have the information at the bottom of the post or allow it to be hidden. Yes, you need to use the same font every time. Yes, it has to be the same font size as the rest of your article. But the real problem is this – you put it at the top of your post and guess what Google/Bing/etc. indexes? Not a snippet from your post, but the disclosure appears as your 156 character description in search results. Yuck. (Yes, you should be setting your own Meta Description as part of your post-writing procedures, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
One solution? Make a custom image like the one above that the spiders will ignore, will be consistent, and will satisfy some of the agencies. I say some, because many use systems that crawl your site to verify you have the disclosure in place and those will not see your images, just like Google. This forces you to take the time to put in the disclosure temporarily, submit it to your agency, and then try to remember to remove the text part before Google gets to it.
But even this solution has the same disadvantage that agencies are not taking into consideration, and that is that their disclosures vary greatly from each other. What this creates is a website that is inconsistent among all articles, but consistent only among those posts from the same agency. This is NOT what the FTC wants.
As I mentioned earlier, I dealt with the FTC for over a decade in regards to the financial industry. One thing I can say with 99% certainty is that when they change rules, they do not care what it costs businesses, only that the consumer is protected (and rightly so). Just like with the ATM cards, when new guidelines are issued, I believe that there will be no “Grandfather Clause”, just like there wasn’t when this current version went into effect. Web pages are not static, they are generated dynamically by software, whether it is WordPress, hosted on Blogger or Tumblr or even a Pinterest photo. If drastic changes are put into place, I feel strongly that the FTC will not care that although an article is 3 years old, they will want the disclosures to be in compliance with the current guidelines, not the old ones.
Do you really want to go back to every article and post you’ve written and manually change all the text or images? I didn’t think so, and neither do we. So when SahmReviews.com redesigned in late 2013, we implemented what we hope is a future-proof system of disclosures.
In the current version of the FTC document, hyperlinks to disclosures are allowed. Item #4 of the overview simplifies their current policy:
When using a hyperlink to lead to a disclosure,
– make the link obvious;
– label the hyperlink appropriately to convey the importance, nature, and
relevance of the information it leads to;
– use hyperlink styles consistently, so consumers know when a link is
– place the hyperlink as close as possible to the relevant information it qualifies
and make it noticeable;
– take consumers directly to the disclosure on the click-through page;
– assess the effectiveness of the hyperlink by monitoring click-through rates
and other information about consumer use and make changes accordingly.
So, we created a button (could also be a static image) that says “Disclosure” and put it in the same place of every sponsored or compensated post. It is always in the upper right, same size, same color, same everything and linked to a custom disclosure page for an agency or to one of our standard disclosures. Here are examples:
Non-monetary compensation (e.g. product in exchange for review) – Disclosure
Monetary compensation – Disclosure
Custom for Linqia – Disclosure
This creates consistency for the reader. Most don’t care to see the details of the disclosure, they only want to know where it is when they need it. That’s the main reason behind the guidelines, to make it easier for the consumer to make a decision about the product knowing how the writer was compensated. Our readers know where the disclosure is, except when we’re forced to deviate from our procedures and use an agency’s custom disclosure.
Those of you who have worked with Collective Bias know they have changed their disclosure a couple times over the past year. Each time we had to make a new image.
If we had used our disclosure button, we would have had to only go in and change the text on the linked page. But every agency has their own legal counsel that interprets the FTC’s policy differently. Again, in the agency’s best interest, since that’s who’s paying them. So when the policy changes (and as we believe will be retro-active), we’ll have to change all of these images one-by-one. Fortunately for our non-agency projects, we’ll only have to edit one or two pages.
In a perfect world the FTC would have issued clear instructions and maybe even given actual code so every site would be consistent. Instead it is open to interpretation by anyone, including us. Like I said, my experience in dealing with the FTC in the past leads me to believe that we have found the best solution, we just can’t get the agencies out there to agree. Their attorneys don’t even agree with each other on the proper way to disclose, but we believe the answer is in plain sight. (see page ii of the FTC document for a summary).
I’m opening up this post for comments and would love to hear of your own disclosure solutions that comply with the current FTC guidelines.