You’ve worked hard and your popularity has grown accordingly — you’re even starting to get free products from companies to review and incorporate into your videos. But when a company has given you anything for free, you need to tread carefully when talking about those products, or you could end up in hot legal water. Today, we’re focusing on the biggest issue here: disclosure.
What are disclosures and why do I need to use them?
A disclosure is a statement saying that a specific post or video was sponsored by a company, and/or that certain products were provided for free. The idea behind disclosing free product or paid product placement is similar to the reasoning behind clearly identifying an ad or advertorial in a magazine.
These rules are in place to protect the consumer, and are created/enforced by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). Similar rules have been in place for industries like radio and print magazine for decades now — rules for blogs and social media were created in 2009 and updated in 2013.
Aside from staying within the boundaries of the law, it’s also worth noting that including disclosures can actually increase your followers’ level of trust in you. If you universally give positive reviews to products from a certain brand, or suddenly have a lot of products from one brand or another showing up in your posts, people become suspicious and might start to assume that you’re being paid or receiving free products without mentioning it.
What happens if you don’t disclose? At one point, it was being reported that bloggers could be fined $11,000 — but it turns out, those reports were mostly false. From Richard Cleland, assistant director of the division of advertising practices at the FTC:
Worst-case scenario, someone receives a warning, refuses to comply, followed by a serious product defect; we would institute a proceeding with a cease-and-desist order and mandate compliance with the law. ... There's no monetary penalty, in terms of the first violation, even in the worst case.
Even without large fines on the table, it’s better to avoid going through that process. With that in mind...
Here’s what you should do:
Mention up-front that you use disclosures. Most brands are aware of the FTC guidelines and willing to work within them, but the last thing you want is someone emailing you after a post or video has gone live and saying that they want you to take the disclosure off or refund their money. A situation like that is fairly unlikely, but you can avoid it by mentioning up-front that all sponsored posts and reviews or mentions of free product follow FTC guidelines.
If a brand is giving you pushback about including a disclosure in your post, it’s worth reminding them that the FTC guidelines actually put the onus on them to make sure endorsers are following all the rules. In other words, it’s in their best interest for you to include those disclosures.
Have a disclosure page on your site. This makes it even easier to mention up-front that you follow FTC guidelines. If you create a page on your site that covers frequently asked questions about sponsored posts and reviews, your guidelines in regards to those (for example, that a free product doesn't guarantee a positive review from you), and your disclosure policies, then you can link to that post on your contact page and send it to anyone who asks about sending you review goods or doing a sponsored post. (If you don’t have a site, head here to find out how to set one up and what your site should include.)
Once you have a disclosure page, you can create a short link for it using a service like bit.ly, and then include a link to that page in a card or annotation on your YouTube videos, when you say that the video was sponsored or the product was free.
When it comes to the disclosure itself...
- In a blog post, the FTC takes into account proximity and prominence. The disclosure should be close to the endorsement, viewable on any device (including a phone), and not buried in smaller or lighter text. Generally, a good practice is to include a softer disclosure early on in the post (a statement like, “When Company XYZ sent me Product ABC to try...,”), and then more details on your disclosure, review, and sponsored post policies at the bottom of the post (with a link back to your disclosure page).
- In a video, disclosure is still required — the FTC makes clear that multimedia endorsements follow the same requirements as text posts, in regards to proximity and prominence. The disclosure should be mentioned at the beginning of the video, and/or throughout the video for a streaming video or for longer videos. Like we suggested above, you can also include a link to your disclosure page/FAQ via an annotation on the video, to make it extra clear.
- On Instagram (or other social networks), you need to make it clear that a post was paid for, even if it just means including a hashtag like #ad or #sponsored. One thing the FTC is very clear on is that the hashtag needs to be understandable to everyone, so using something like #spon or #spons isn’t following their guidelines. And the disclosure needs to be in the same post as the endorsement — doing one tweet endorsing a product and a follow-up tweet saying that the product was given to you for free wouldn’t cut it.
- When it comes to affiliate links, there needs to be a disclosure then, too. Typically, this will be a statement in the post or somewhere near the affiliate link that states you receive commissions for sales made from the links in the post.
This is enough to cover your basis, but if you have any more questions about what constitutes a disclosure or how to include it, this FAQ at the FTC’s site should answer them.
It’s a little tedious until you get used to it, but following these rules ensures that brands see you as a fellow professional brand when working together, and keeps you in the clear legally. The first step is to set up your disclosures policy page today, and start including it in all future posts.
Good luck! And of course, to keep getting tips on how to grow your audience and build your influencer business, subscribe to the blog for updates.