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Interview: Tom Cherniak of Cmp.ly Talks About FTC Guidelines For Bloggers

cmplyWe know that there has been a lot of conversation over the past few weeks about the revised guidelines released by the Federal Trade Commission with regard to reviews and paid posts.  The FTC guidelines take effect December 31, 2009 and there is a lot of confusion over what needs to be disclosed, who needs to disclose it, where that disclosure should be placed and how we should disclose.  Today I am talking to Tom Cherniak, co-founder of Cmp.ly, about the impacts these new revisions and for some simple rules of thumb to follow in your post-Thanksgiving posts and podcasts.  Please note that this is not legal advice and that each disclosure situation may be unique.

AH: Can you explain what the changes to the guidelines are?

TC: Sure, the FTC guidelines relate specifically to endorsements in advertising.  These guidelines were put into effect in 1980 and they have been unchanged for almost 30 years.  In the years since 1980, things have clearly changed in the way that we communicate through the internet, email, wireless devices and other digital communications.  The FTC understood that the guides needed to be updated and they studied the commercial uses of blogs and of services like social networks (MySpace, Facebook )and microblogging (Twitter, FriendFeed).  What they saw was that advertisers were using these tools to reach their customers and that, in some cases, they were not disclosing their material connections to content that was being posted on the web. The new guidelines expand the 1980 guides to include blogs, Tweets and communications that are considered to be commercial endorsements.  Really, the FTC wants it to be clear to the reader if there are any connections between the author of that content and the product that might influence their review or endorsement.

AH: OK, how would this affect our readers?

TC: Everyone who is reviewing or recommending products in their blog or podcast should think about their policy on disclosure.  In the case where someone in paid to post, it is clear that a disclosure should be included.  That payment can be any amount and can be cash or other compensation (dinner, drinks, tickets).  If a reviewer is given a review copy of a book, CD or product, they should include a disclosure in a post about that item.  Even more so, if your spouse writes a book and you review it or you review a product of a company that you work for, own shares in or have a material connection to, you should disclose that information too.  Also, a big area to remember is affiliate marketing links.  Many bloggers and reviewers sign up for affiliate programs and receive commissions based upon links from their site.  The FTC has made it clear that this connection needs to be made clear and will need to be disclosed.

AH: So what does a disclosure need to include?

TC: It depends on what someone is disclosing.  Transparency is the key and it doesn’t need to be written in legalese, but it should be clearly displayed and it must be honest. If you review products on a regular basis, you might want to write a simple statement that makes it clear to your readers what your relationship is to the products you are reviewing.  The more complex the relationship is, the more that you will need to clarify the connection.  It should be clear to a reader if there are any connections that might influence your reviews and opinions, or if those opinions are entirely your own.  While most people think of disclosures in terms of showing that a relationship exists, it can be equally important to tell your audience that one doesn’t.  It can be just as important to point out when connections do not exist.  For example, if a blogger’s passion is food and they they write a personal blog about great food products, but they also work at a gourmet store or a food brand, they might want to indicate that the opinions on their blog are their own and are not related to other work that they do.  On the other hand, if they are reviewing their Aunt Suzie’s new line of holiday cookies that for sale, a disclosure is required.  Remember that it should be clear to the reader if there is a connection that might change your opinions or influence your review.  If you have a doubt as to whether you should disclose or if a reader might be surprised by something that shapes your opinions, you probably should.  If you have a question or concern about specific disclosures or your responsibilities, you should refer to the information that is posted at www.ftc.gov.

AH: Where do disclosures need to be placed?

TC: It isn’t clear yet.  The best way to think about this is to be as clear as possible to your audience that you have connections to the topics and products that you write about.  If you are paid to post, receive review copies/gifts/samples or you blog on behalf of a company or brand, you will need to start disclosing after December 1.  In the coming weeks and months, there will be further clarification on what proper disclosures are and where they should be placed.  We have developed a series of short codes that can be linked to either standard or customized disclosures.  We recommend that these disclosures be placed in the body of a post or tweet so that they are clear and so they appear wherever that content gets syndicated.  Remember that a site disclosure on your about page can be great, but if people aren’t reading your post on your site, they won’t be able to see it.  In a podcast, a mention can be added that reviews are based upon review copies.

AH: Should the bloggers and podcasters in our community be panicking about this?

TC: There is no reason to panic about this.  For posts and content that is created after 12/1/09 disclosures may be required.  The FTC has publicly stated that they are not looking to fine bloggers and that it is the responsibility of an advertiser to make sure that they lead the discussion about disclosures when they send products or conduct word-of-mouth marketing campaigns.  Therefore, it is likely that bloggers and podcasters will start to hear more about disclosures from PR people and marketers who are talking to them about products.  At the same time, anyone who is blogging about products, creating reviews, or providing affiliate links needs to stop and think about what, if anything, they need to disclose.  At Cmp.ly we have created a simple set of short disclosures that can be used in blog posts, tweets, podcasts or videos.  People are welcome to use Cmp.ly public standard disclosures for free. More information is available at http://cmp.ly. We are developing out unique and custom disclosure options and we will be working with agencies and brands to streamline their disclosure efforts too.  Regardless of how you disclose, it must be clear to the reader and honest about your connections.

Disclosure of Material Connection – http://cmp.ly/4 – Ariel and Tom are friends and work together on a number of projects.

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