Monday, November 02, 2009

New Rules: Endorsements, Testimonials, and Reviews

Web marketers have been reviewing products, getting their products reviewed, and gathering testimonials for many years, but the rules are changing.  The FTC recently announced new rules that apply to web marketers, bloggers, and social network users as well as more mainstream traditional advertising, like celebrity endorsements.

The basic gist of the new rules are that endorsements, reviews, and such are fine, so long as any benefit arrangements between the endorser and the company are disclosed.  For example, if a star quarterback endorses a sports/energy drink, they have to state in the ad that he's getting paid for saying so.  If a blogger reviews a product that the company provided him/her for free, he/she has got to say so.

Where before, to not say up front who's being paid for what was simply bad manners in the internet community, now it can actually result in lawsuits and fines.

Here are a few more articles you can read about it: "FTC Sets Endorsement Rules for Blogs", and "Bloggers Covered by Endorsement Rules, Says FTC".

So, how do you do it so as to not get into trouble?  Well, fortunately, the rules are really just saying what you should have been doing all along.  If someone sends you a product for you to review at your blog, and they expect you to keep it, say so.  If someone pays you for an endorsement, or for a review, post that. 

Unfortunately, it's a little unclear how the rules of affiliate links and other ads should be handled, according to the law. Do those fall under the "traditional advertising" stipulations?  Personally, if it were me, I would recommend noting the affiliate links as being such, even though savvy surfers should be able to recognize a link to as an affiliate.

A lot also depends, I think, on how you write your product reviews.  If your reviews are little more than thinly-veiled ads for the products, then few people will take them seriously anyway.  On the other hand, if you write your product reviews from a very balanced perspective and ask yourself, "What would my audience need to know about this product to make a good buying decision?" your reviews will come across as very useful and balanced anyway.  If you write to inform about the product, instead of just to praise it, you'll do better. 

"If you like such-and-such, and you're wanting to do this-other-thing, then this product will help you because it does this.  However, if you're not interested in this-other-thing, then you'll probably pass on buying this item."

Writing the disclosure can be done in several ways.  You could simply put a "disclosure statement" at the bottom of your review post:  "This product was provided to the author for free for purposes of this review."  Or: "The author was paid for this endorsement".

You could include the disclosure information directly in the review:  "My first impression of the product was that their packaging was great!  I opened up the box they sent me and saw that..."

Testimonials could be shown the same way, with a notice at the bottom saying, "Uncompensated opinions", or whatever you do.

Another thing that's unclear is how retroactive these new rules will be.  As a blogger, I've got hundreds of posts over years of blogging on 4-5 different blogs.  Those blog posts are still active on the web.  Do I need to go back and make sure that I've carefully attributed all of those posts?  A lot of these questions, it seems, still need to be sorted out.

And while it's also not clear how the FTC is going to go out and police the millions of blog and social network postings that happen daily across the net, they do have two very strong ally groups in the fight to keep you compliant with the rules:  one is your competition, and the other is any disgruntled clients/customers you might have.  It will help to dot your i's and cross your t's from here on out!

Mark is currently in the curriculum Department of an internet and SEO training company. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, and his MoBoy blog.

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