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)