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Should You Fear the FTC’s Sponsored Blogging Crackdown?

It appears the Federal Trade Commission is continuing its sloth-like race to enact new standards for bloggers that don’t currently disclose compensated endorsements.

The AP does its best to make bloggers out to be "quite different" from the "journalists" that work for mainstream media–and therefore must all be on the up-and-up, right? So, I’ll spare you the fluff and cut to the chase:

New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers — as well as the companies that compensate them — for any false claims or failure to disclose conflicts of interest.

It would be the first time the FTC tries to patrol systematically what bloggers say and do online. The common practice of posting a graphical ad or a link to an online retailer — and getting commissions for any sales from it — would be enough to trigger oversight.

Honestly, 99% of bloggers have nothing to worry about. If you forget to disclose that you used a 50 cent coupon on that hamburger you raved about, you’ll probably be just fine. Likewise, if you blog that your new Ford gets 33mpg but in reality only gets 31mpg, you won’t likely face the wrath of the FTC.

In fact, the only bloggers that need to be wary of any new FTC guidelines are the ones that have brought this on us all. They are the ones that accept gift cards, then rave about their shopping experience. They claim their acne cleared up overnight, while receiving a free monthly supply of the skin-care treatment. In other words, the FTC is going after the professional bloggers that make a living off of freebies and commissions–all without an ounce of disclosure.

So, how can you make sure you don’t ever hear from the FTC?

If in doubt, spell it out! Cheesy, I know, but it will help you. If you ever stop to ask yourself, "should I disclose this?" then the answer is probably "yes." The chances are that whatever is causing the guilt-trip isn’t worthy of the FTC’s attention, but you’ll feel better for disclosing it AND you’ll earn the trust of your readers!

Other tips that might help you sleep at night:

  • Create a page that lists all of your potential "conflict of interests" and simply link to it whenever your post includes mention of one of those relationships.
  • Tag any links with something visible and obvious. Such as (affiliate) or (sponsor).
  • You don’t have to publish the full terms of your compensation. Simply stating "Company X sponsored this post…") or ("We received free XXX as part of this review…") will likely be enough to satisfy the FTC.

My last piece of advice is to simply sit tight and see what happens. The FTC hasn’t actually enacted anything yet–and we have no guidelines from it on what we should or shouldn’t say. In addition, any guidelines could hurt the revenues of those companies that rely on affiliate marketers. If Amazon is being proactive about protecting its affiliate revenue stream in one state, you can bet it’s going to try and block any new standards from the FTC. ;-)