Blogola Mk II: Are We Still Doing Disclosure in Social Media Wrong?


Photo by Fabiano Campos on Flickr

A little more than a year ago (May 2013), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) updated its Online Advertising Disclosure Guidelines. It made a big stir in the social media marketing space, because we all now knew the FTC was paying attention, and that we most likely needed to change our behaviors in order to comply. Of course, we know there need to be rules: “Blogola” kerfuffles of recent years show that companies and the influencers they employ need to be accountable to showing to what extent influence is being compensated. These guidelines are the next step in bringing advertisers and marketers into line.

In practice, the groups and clients I have worked with have worked to understand and apply the new rules, but it certainly isn’t easy. There was confusion.

Apparently, there still is.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw a bunch of folks here in Boston posting from a series of events using the #TeamLumia hashtag on Twitter. What became apparent was that Nokia, the folks behind the Lumia phone (the fact I felt I had to spell out that branding connection is a separate issue) had given phones to a bunch of “influencers” – many of them friends of mine – and compensated them with tickets to events such as a comedy concert, dinner and a Red Sox game, presumably in the hopes and expectation they would post in social media about the events and the phone.

The problem is evident in my use of the terms “became apparent” and “presumably.” While there were disclosures by participants, particularly in blog posts and some Tweets, there were no such disclosures on every piece of content, as prescribed by the FTC- yes, that means every single Tweet. Anyone who didn’t know better might have thought #TeamLumia was some sort of enthusiast club, without any compensation made. How would we know unless we happened upon the pieces of content that actually carried the disclosure? For an example, see this Storify post (not to call out an individual); the Storify post itself is a good example of clear disclosure up front, but do the individual Tweets and other elements, separately-published outside of Storify, carry proper disclosure? Some folks may disagree on the answer, but I would say that it is, unfortunately, incomplete.

This is certainly not the only example, but it shows that there is a ways to go in understanding and implementing disclosures in social media. I see this broken out into four issues:

  • Education: It has been more than a year, but we still need to educate companies, agencies and influencers on disclosure rules. Each campaign needs an education component, and the companies running them need to take responsibility for making sire participants disclose any paid relationships- and how to do so. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) published their own guide to the FTC disclosure guidelines, and they can be found here.
  • Instilling Habits: From the agency side, I saw less resistance than laziness. Laziness isn’t a slur here, but the idea that one needs to make room in 140-character Tweets for clear disclosure is hard- but it still needs to be done. For example – at agencies, it is common for an agency (or individual consultants) to Tweet client news. Those Tweets need to be accompanied by “#client” or some similar signifier. It’s hard to instill those habits, but we need to- no excuses. I’m sure if you went through my history  you may see my own lapses in this regard- that’s how hard it is, but that’s too bad – even for me.
  • Setting the Example: In the #TeamLumia example, one thing that concerned me is that many of the people involved in the recent Boston events are involved professionally in social media in some fashion (I mentioned they are friends- that’s how I know most of them). Anyone who puts themselves forward as a social media professional/expert/guru/ninja should know these rules cold by now. While Nokia bears the ultimate responsibility, it should be reasonable to expect social media professionals to act – well, like social media professionals.
  • Enforcement: The best way to get all of us to comply is to see the rules enforced. I sense an underlying feeling in the marketing space that there are little or no consequences to ignoring social media disclosure guidelines. A quick Internet search shows a few enforcement examples that predate the updated guidelines, but I did not see anything since the update. If anyone reading this knows of some examples, please leave them in comments. Regardless, a high-profile rebuke by the FTC of an ethical scofflaw will go a long way towards changing habits towards disclosure.

It’s not that hard (or is it?) to follow FTC social media disclosure guidleines, but looking around the Internet I come to the conclusion that it must not to be as simple as we would like it to be.

When in doubt, disclose.

(Let’s not get started on Native Advertising – maybe some other time)

(This post has been edited to clarify the point on the Storify link)





  1. Craig McGill

    Totally agree. What potentially makes it worse is when someone goes back to a client and goes “Hey, look at your stats for the last month” and include their own tweets that they haven’t branded #client.

    But yeah, this is one of those things that should be an obvious no-brainer to most but sadly still needs explaining.

  2. Couldn’t agree more.

    There are obviously logistical issues around people tweeting of their own volition, but in as far as they are being encouraged to do so (and to use a particular hashtag) the encouragement should at least include “please include #sponsored” or similar…

  3. Doug Haslam

    …and Craig, there is a whole other potential topic on agency Tweets, and whether or not they are relevant or helpful (are my Twitter followers – as a group – influential in enterprise tech? Hard to say, impossible to promise. Perhaps for another blog post.

  4. Doug, you know that I have tried to educate folks on this for the past 5 years.

    Hashtag disclosures only address part of the disclosure issue and the FTC has made it clear that brands are responsible for educating influencers and for reasonable monitoring to ensure that those disclosures are included.

    Recent investigations from the FTC (Cole Haan/Pinterest) and the NAD (General Mills) have made it clear that the disclosure is still very much on their radar. Unfortunately, these examples tend to get little attention as they are announced. Just today I saw your post and call outs over the Microsoft #IEBloggers program.

    In the meantime, the SEC and FDA have issued guidance for hyperlinked disclosures in recent weeks. Mark my words, we have not heard the end of this discussion…

  5. Doug Haslam


    Of course you have been involved in this for years. I remember (! (I received no compensation for posting that link).

    Thank you for the examples. You are correct they get little attention- those of us in the industry need to know that the government agencies are watching and we need to c(o)mply.

  6. I think that as more brands have started to turn to visual media like Instagram and Pinterest, disclosure has sort of gotten lost in translation. I never, ever see dislosures on Instagram, YouTube “haul” or review videos or Pins about products or campaigns I happen to know are sponsored. It’s especially ridiculous on Instagram, when photos are tagged with what are obvious campaign hashtags orchestrated by either agency or brand yet no disclosure on any of the posts.

  7. Excellent post, and a serious issue. Here’s a question, since you’ve now got a Scot and a Canadian in the comment stream — what is the responsibility of international bloggers? Do we risk running afoul of the FTC by not following their disclosure guidelines? What if we’re working for a multinational?

  8. @Bob – By my understanding, if you’re international and working for a US-based company, and you have international readers that may buy from that company, then yes, disclosure is needed. Especially given that Canada is covered by the Commissioner’s Office, and the UK by the ASA (Advertising Standards Association). Simple solution – always disclose. Otherwise, what are you hiding?

  9. What has to start happening is first warning letters then fines. That will change the culture of deceit. There is big money being made by folks like Collective Bias (and I forget their main competitor). Some bloggers have boilerplate notifications some do not. All are paid and given free stuff. What I found bizarre was checking case studies and seeing people respond just like it wasn’t a paid advertisement even with the boilerplate.

    BTW have you tried the new Raspberry Chipolte Asparagus Noodles we just launched. I see your Klout score is a 66 and that you are very influential about noodles. Do you want to be my friend?

    With Warmest Sincerity


  10. Jaime Punishill

    In case you were ever wondering why Financial Services firms have moved slower and more deliberately in social media, it’s because we deal with disclosure regulations far far more onerous and complicated than the FTC guidelines.

  11. @Jaime – Try working for a government agency… Truth of the matter is, orgs. that are slow and lumbering (regardless of industry) will always be slow and lumbering. Unless they’re brave enough to tackle head on, and that means adhering to regulations like those proposed by the FTC which, when you really look at them, make sense.

  12. I’ve always agreed with the “always disclose when in doubt” approach, which is why services like CMP.LY are great.

    This was an issue when I wrote about it back in 2009, and it’s still an issue today. Why is it that way? I don’t know.

  13. Doug Haslam

    The FTC disclosures generated a lot of discussion when they came out. I fear that instead of settling the matter, many professionals decided to just go on as they had and pretend they don’t have to do what the FTC is pretty clear about requiring.

    The regulated industries, particularly financial services and health, definitely have more onerous reg’s to follow, simply by the nature of their verticals. I would actually be more confident campaigns in those areas would be much less likely to have such sloppy non-disclosures, even if the industries move more slowly- but note, they are moving.

  14. Tinu

    This is exactly why I don’t tweet about stuff that I was sent gratis by companies- even the #client or #ad hashtag isn’t enough to me. If someone else tweets out my blog poss that’s one thing — because of course I’ll still write about it.

    I’d rather talk about someone else’s experiences with something than my own if I think the fact that I got it free will bias me.

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