Blogger’s Guide to FTC Disclosure and Brand Partnerships
I’ve seen a lot of FTC nightmares in my time as a blogger. In fact, I bet you’ve seen some FTC problems as well. From poorly disclosed #ads to confusing freebie deals, we could all stand to learn more about the FTC’s guidelines for bloggers and influencers. That’s why I’ve made this blogger’s guide to FTC disclosure specifically with blogger-brand partnerships in mind.
There are a lot of misconceptions amongst bloggers about the proper way to disclose a brand relationship. Here are some of the most common things I notice going wrong:
- Not disclosing free products
- Using #Ambassador and other confusing disclosures
- Hiding the disclosure after a long list of hashtags
- Hard to see disclosures (‘m looking at you, Instagram Stories)
So what exactly is an FTC disclosure? In case you’re confusing, the FTC stands for the Federal Trade Commission, and that’s the regulatory agency in charge of making sure consumers are protected in the United States. An FTC disclosure is when you disclose your relationship with a brand in a sponsored post on your website or social media.
If you’ve ever wondered about how to disclose your ads properly, you’re not alone. There’s a ton of grey area here, and it’s often confusing to know that you’re following the rules up to FTC’s standard. Let’s jump into the blogger’s guide to FTC disclosure and brand partners.
BONUS: Listen to this article in podcast form! I did an episode of Offbeat Grad all about FTC disclosure for bloggers.
What is the FTC?
First, let’s quickly talk about what the FTC is. The FTC stands for the Federal Trade Commission. The Federal Trade Commission has been around since the 1910s, and its mission is to protect consumers and competition.
Basically, it’s their job to stop deceptive business practices. As you probably know, a lot of bloggers can be deceptive when it comes to their sponsorships and partnerships. The FTC’s job is to make sure bloggers are clear about their brand relationships, but they’re not always clear about the best way to do so. That’s where this blogger’s guide to FTC disclosure comes in!
Is the FTC out to get bloggers?
I hear a lot that people think the FTC is “out to get” bloggers. In reality, this isn’t true. They’ve actually come out with their own statement on this question:
“Generally not, but if concerns about possible violations of the FTC Act come to our attention, we evaluate them case by case. If law enforcement becomes necessary, our focus will usually be on advertisers or their ad agencies and public relations firms. Action against an individual endorser, however, might be appropriate in certain circumstances, such as if the endorser has continued to fail to make required disclosures despite warnings.”— FTC
What does all of that even mean? It means that, in most cases, the FTC won’t crack down on bloggers if they don’t have probable cause. In fact, smaller bloggers likely will never be targeted. It’s usually the advertisers or agencies that will be focused on, not the bloggers.
Does that mean you can just ignore FTC disclosure entirely? Nope. It’s mainly a morality and trust issue. You know the FTC sets clear guidelines, and if you want to be taken seriously as a blogger, you need to follow them. You want brands to know you follow the rules, and you want your audience to trust you. That comes with disclosure.
FTC Disclosure by the Numbers
I wanted to ask my audience a bit about their understanding and perception of disclosure. These stats were really eye-opening to me, and they show the importance of being clear with your disclosure.
When bloggers disclose an ad, 90% of my followers say this makes them trust them more. See what I mean by saying that disclosures help you build trust? It’s true.
94% of bloggers say you need to disclose attending an event as a sponsorship. This is good since this is true according to the FTC’s regulations.
78% of users see bloggers as different from the traditional “press.” This is a complex issue, and one that doesn’t have a clear answer. Most users seem to see bloggers as different from journalists and other publications.
83% of users believe receiving a product discount should still be disclosed as an ad. This is a tricky grey area for the FTC as well! It comes down to just how much that discount would sway your opinion, but it’s interesting to see that the majority of users think this counts as an ad.
38% of users think it’s up to brands to make sure bloggers follow the FTC rules. Most users agree that bloggers need to take responsibility as well as brands and advertisers.
81% of users feel like not disclosing what appears to be a sponsorship is misleading. Users don’t like feeling manipulated, so be clear with your disclosures.
59% of users say the disclosure #gifted is clear. Once again, this is a tricky area. The FTC says #gifted is not enough on its own, but more than half of users claim to understand what this means.
FTC Recommendations for Bloggers
Now let’s talk about what the FTC actually does recommend for bloggers. This is the blogger’s guide to FTC disclosure after all. I read through the FTC’s guidelines for influencers and bloggers so you don’t have to. Here’s what you need to know.
#1 Clearly disclose any financial or family relationship with a brand.
First, if you have any financial or family relationship with a brand, you need to disclose that as an advertisement. Even if you’re just getting “paid” in free product or a free meal/event, this counts. It’s interesting to note that the FTC also sees family relationships as a sponsorship.
#2 Don’t assume your followers know about your brand relationships.
Often, bloggers will do a long-term sponsorship assuming their users know all about this deal. In reality, you shouldn’t ever assume your users understand your relationships with brands, which is why you should always disclose, even if you’ve worked with that brand in the past.
#3 Ensure your disclosure is hard to miss.
We’ve all seen “hidden” disclosures. They’re either buried at the end of a long list of hashtags or on a hard-to-see section of an Instagram story. This isn’t the place for hide-and-seek. Your disclosure should be “above the fold,” meaning nobody needs to click “read more” to see your disclosure.
#4 Don’t be ambiguous with your disclosure.
I’ve seen a lot of ambiguous disclosures in my day, and they’re not cute. The FTC has said that the following disclosures are NOT good enough: Sp, Spons, Collaboration, Ambassador, and Thanks. When in doubt, use clear disclosure like Ad and Sponsored.
#5 Disclose Instagram Stories and Snapchat clearly.
A lot of bloggers are confused about how to disclose their sponsorship in Instagram Stories and on Snapchat since these are videos. The right thing to do is to include your disclosure (#ad) in a VISIBLE, CLEAR area of the screen. This disclosure needs to be on every slide of your story.
#6 Put your disclosure at the beginning of any hashtag chain.
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t hide your disclosure in a list of hashtags. The FTC says if you use several hashtags, you need to include your disclosure at the beginning whenever possible. The same goes for sponsored links.
#7 You can be clear with what’s in it for you.
If you’re gifted a product, it’s fine to say “XX gifted me this product so I could review it” or “XX invited me to this event for free.” While you don’t have to explain what’s in it for you every time, this is a great way to be clear with your followers if you’re not sure the best way to disclose.
Blogger’s FTC Disclosure FAQ
Now that we’ve covered all of the must-dos when disclosing your brand relationships, let’s address some frequently asked questions.
What if all I get from a company is a discount?
If all you get is a discount, it’s up to you whether you disclose depending on the size of the discount. According to the FTC, you need to ask whether knowing about that incentive will affect the credibility your readers give to your recommendation. If it could, you should disclose this relationship. One way to handle this is to say “I received a discount from XX for this product.”
Should free meals or events be disclosed?
This answer is short and sweet: yes. Once again, it’s enough to say “XX offered a free meal” or “I got a free ticket from XX for this event.” This should be disclosed as a sponsorship if you got anything for free, including free airfare or travel accommodations.
Is tagging sponsored brands in photos enough?
If you tag sponsored brands, you need to make it clear there is a brand relationship here. Using something like “Tagged brands are sponsored” in your description is a way to do this.
Is it okay to say “XX company asked me to try their product?”
This isn’t usually clear enough, especially if you’re keeping the product for free after trying it. Be clear with your relationship, saying something like “XX brand gave me this product for free to try.” When in doubt, just say sponsored.
Final Thoughts: How to Disclose Sponsorships
At the end of the day, it’s about being clear with your followers. You want these users to trust you, so you should be as clear as possible. Working with brands is a great way to make money as a blogger, but you need to play by the rules at the same time.
If you still need to start a blog, check out my guide here to get started with a self-hosted blog in just a few clicks. Otherwise, be careful when working with brands. You have a responsibility as an influencer to be honest with your followers, so make sure you’re following through on that promise.
If you want more information about this topic, check out my podcast about FTC disclosure. What are your biggest disclosure questions?