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Marketing Article:
FTC’s Newest Disclosure Rules & Marketing Online

April 1, 2013

The rules for marketing online are changing again…

Author: Tom Chernaik

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates advertising and marketing in an effort to protect consumers from being misled by advertisements or claims or deceived by the omission of necessary information.

Marketing claims, offers, and promotions often require certain disclosures to be in compliance with FTC regulations. To clarify when disclosures need to be made, the Commission released its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsement and Testimonials in Advertising in late 2009. These guides focused on emerging digital channels (social networks and blogs, in particular) being leveraged in word-of-mouth marketing campaigns and promotional programs. This directly affected blogger outreach, along with sponsored, employee, affiliate, advocate, and influencer programs run on every platform.

The Commission recently issued another round of revised guidance to content producers about when disclosures need to be made, as well as how they need to be made in the context of new digital communications platforms, where adding legal information can be particularly challenging to do in under 140 characters.

Personal and business communications have been greatly impacted by shifts in social and mobile channels since May, 2000, when the Commission released its first Dot Com Disclosures report to address specific marketing challenges and needs in these key areas. Given these colossal changes, those who produce marketing content now need to think about disclosure not only in the context of the post or web page that it is displayed on, but also in content-promotion messages posted on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Don’t worry…

…disclosure doesn’t need to be complicated or take away from your marketing message.

However, it does need to be clear, conspicuous, and unavoidable, so that the content you produce communicates transparently with your audience.

Read on for details on what you need to know about the latest disclosure rules.

What disclosure means for content producers 

As a content producer, you need to understand the nuances of every platform you’re using to engage consumers, which also means that you need to understand how to effectively disclose important information (such as partnerships, sponsored posts, etc.) with your readers on everything from Twitter and Facebook to Google+ and Pinterest. Disclosing information can be as simple as saying what you mean, clearly stating that a post is sponsored, or that affiliate links generate commission payments — so long as your statements are clear and you ensure that your readers will see them.

Now I know that disclosure is probably not the first thing you think about when publishing or sponsoring content, but I’m willing to bet that trust and transparency with your audience are things that you take seriously. If this is the case, the FTC’s update likely has a more significant impact on your business than you may realize.

What content marketers need to know about disclosure 

1. Disclosure standards:

The FTC has drawn a hard line, and it’s time for companies to get serious about disclosures. The overall rules are largely unchanged, but now they’ve been put in context of the modern marketing landscape, including social and mobile.

2. Say what you mean:

Marketers can no longer rely on hacks and ad-hoc solutions — such as generic links and vague hashtags like #SPON — to make disclosures. Disclosures need to be written in clear, plain language that consumers can easily understand and should be placed as close as possible to the claim they refer to in your content.

3. Space constraints:

Technological restrictions on space, the design of certain social media tools, or the size of a given advertisement in a small screen or window — none of these exempt advertisers from making required disclosures and notices on the platforms mentioned above.

For example, if a disclosure is required for a space-constrained ad — such as a tweet or status update — it should be made each time the ad is posted. Don’t assume that consumers will see your posts in sequential order. If the disclosure doesn’t fit, the FTC says the ad should be changed to include the disclosure, or that particular media platform should not be used. 

4. Hyperlink dos and don’ts:

Disclosures should not be buried behind a hyperlink when they can be written out and displayed in context. In situations where a hyperlink is unavoidable (such as in space-constrained formats like Twitter), it should be labeled as clearly as possible and used in such a way as to maximize the chance that the consumer will actually click through to the full disclosure information.

5. Design factors:

Disclosures must be responsive and account for device limitations (such as screen size), as well as for technological constraints (e.g., with mouse-overs, pop-ups, or PDFs that may not function as intended in all contexts).

6. Other considerations:

Disclosures have to be present across any device and platform (across all media) that a consumer may use to view a marketer’s ad or content marketing effort. Don’t forget that there are also other use cases (e.g., contests and promotions), requirements (e.g., reasonable monitoring), and challenges (e.g., cross-platform syndication) that must be taken into consideration when disclosing information via digital platforms.

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