Blogging Legal Work
Full disclosure: What to do about sponsored posts and affiliate links
June 20, 2015
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Disclosing sponsored blog posts and affiliate links

Many bloggers seek to use their platform as a way to make money, so these sponsored posts can be a good source of income. Additionally, it’s common for links in product reviews and other types of posts to be “affiliate links,” meaning that a portion of the sale proceeds are kicked back to the referring blogger.

I have been asked by bloggers and other content creators how to deal with these sponsored posts and affiliate links. The US government has laws that govern the disclosure of this financial relationship with these types of posts and links.

In this post I’ll cover what the US Federal Trade Commission has to say about disclosure in online advertising and how it affects bloggers.

Why do we need disclosure?

It’s important to note that not every blogger takes sponsorship or uses affiliate links. Because of this, it is not “expected” for posts and links to be sponsored or paid – the assumption in the consumer’s eyes would be that links and posts are not paid for.

This is why we need proper disclosures.

Think about it this way: if you read a review online, don’t you think that you should know that the reviewer was given a free copy of the product, a free hotel stay or was flat-out paid to write the post? This can help you, the reader, get the proper perspective as to the reviewer’s mindset.

It’s not an inherently bad thing that the reviewer gets these things for free, mind you. Not disclosing the financial relationship, however, could mean leaving out a fact that is important to the person being advertised to.

It’s not an inherently bad thing that the reviewer gets these things for free, mind you. Not disclosing the financial relationship…could mean leaving out a fact that is important to the person being advertised to.

Another example: Suppose that you purchase a product that has a free trial. That free trial becomes an ongoing paid subscription after that trial period ends.

If you get charged automatically at the end of the trial period, wouldn’t you want to know that it’s going to happen? That way you can set a reminder to cancel if you’re not satisfied with the product. Otherwise, you are being left in the dark about that upcoming charge.

(By the way, this is known as “negative option marketing,” and I’ll be writing up a post next week on specific tips for disclosing these types of deals.)

General disclosure tips

There are a few general suggestions regarding disclosure in online advertising, straight from the FTC. Each one involves numerous smaller suggestions, so I encourage anyone who engages in blogging or online advertising to read the full brochure here.

Some “big picture” tips include:

  • If there are any express claims, implied claims, or pertinent information that’s left out (such as sponsorship), this should be disclosed.
  • Look at the advertisement as a whole, rather than thinking just about any one piece. Treat the big picture as if you were the reader/viewer of the ad when determining whether or not your disclosure is sufficient.
  • When in doubt, disclose. What you think is meaningless could actually be pretty important in the eyes of the reader (or the FTC).

Additionally, pay attention to these specific concerns when designing the disclosure:

  • The disclosure needs to be clear and conspicuous! This means no tiny or light fonts, and unclear hyperlinks to the disclosures.
  • The disclosure needs to be close in proximity to the thing it is modifying. So if there is a claim that you could make a million dollars in a month, but a disclosure says that “results are not typical,” this disclosure needs to be right under the claim. Sticking it at the bottom with an asterisk is not enough.
  • The disclosure needs to be in the same manner as the advertisement – if it’s text-based, the disclosure should be text. If you’re doing a YouTube video starring you, you yourself should make the disclosure as part of the video. Don’t just stick it in as text at the bottom.

Again, I urge you to read the whole brochure from the FTC, along with their Endorsement guides, for more detailed info. When this is your source of income, you owe it to yourself to get the full picture of your responsibilities.

Sponsored blog posts

So you’ve been paid to write a blog post or given something for free in order to review a product. Whether it is a hotel room, a vacation or an ebook, this should be disclosed in the post.

Should you disclose at the beginning or the end of the post?

The beginning, of course. Think of it this way – if you put it at the end, a person could read half of the post and then make their purchase. They’re not going to know that it was a sponsored post. This is particularly problematic if there are multiple links to make the purchase prior to them getting to the disclosure.

So you’ve been paid to write a blog post, or given something for free in order to review it. Whether it is a hotel room, a vacation or an ebook, this should be disclosed in the post.

What should the disclosure look like? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – you could do any number of disclosure formats:

  • Company sponsored this post.
  • Company provided me with a free copy of Product to review.
  • I was happy when Company contacted me to offer me a free stay at their hotel in exchange for an honest review.
  • Company give me a pair of free tickets to check out Movie early. Here’s what I thought.

You get the idea. The important thing is that it is clear and conspicuous. Just don’t try to hide from it. Own the sponsorship – your readers will appreciate that.

Social Media - Twitter, Instagram, Facebook

What if you want to share that sponsored post on a social media site? Or maybe you’ve been paid by a company to tweet or Instagram some product or marketing campaign. How do you disclose that you’re being paid in that situation?

One solution is to use hashtags, such as #Ad or #Sponsored. The FTC points out that the hashtag #Spons is not sufficient – it could confuse readers and isn’t clear enough.

There’s a potential issue with sticking the hashtag at the end. Particularly when it is following a link, this could mean that the reader doesn’t get to the hashtag before clicking. They would never realize that they are reading a sponsored post. So the best practice is to put it at the beginning.

A non-hashtag version of this type of disclosure would be something like these:

  • Sponsored: I checked out Company’s new product, and it’s awesome! Read my review here – http://www.bit.ly/8f78f
  • Ad: Company just released a new product – check it out here!

Because of the brevity of Twitter posts, it’s necessary that the disclosures are short and sweet. I think that these hashtags and other examples get the job done.

The FTC points out that something like #Spons is not sufficient – it could confuse readers and isn’t clear enough.

As an aside, Lord and Taylor recently came under fire after an Instagram hashtag campaign that had no disclosure that it was sponsored. A simple #Ad at the beginning would most likely have avoided all of the trouble.

Affiliate links

When you’re using affiliate links, particularly when recommending products, a simple disclosure is also useful. A blanket disclaimer somewhere on the site isn’t going to be enough – remember that the disclosure needs to be near the link itself.

Putting it at the beginning of a post full of affiliate links so that the reader is on notice is fine. If you’re giving out a link on a podcast, make sure you note (in the same manner) that this is an affiliate link.

Basically, you can either label each affiliate link, or give a blanket disclosure at the top of the post:

  • Affiliate Link: [link here]
  • This post contains affiliate links. This means that when you click through to buy the product, a portion of the sale goes to me.

Something like that should be good.

More resources

There’s some more resources that are super helpful in trying to wrap your head around online disclosures. Check these out:

About author

Zachary Strebeck

I'm a solo practice lawyer and full-time digital nomad. I run my law practice at www.strebecklaw.com, representing Internet, mobile software and gaming entrepreneurs. I also blog about digital nomad travel at A Lawyer Abroad.

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