Do You Disclose Relevant Info in Your Blog Posts?

If you’re an American blogger, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) might be watching you, to see if you’re disclosing any information in your blog posts that suggest you received some benefit, whenever you mention some product, service or company. That’s due to their blogging and new media disclosure guidelines that went into effect last year. Yes, it’s more work for a fast-paced workflow, but it simple once you get into the habit. The basic rule of thumb: don’t keep secrets if you’re trying to influence readers.

Now by disclosure, I don’t mean things like, “I had sauerkraut on a hot dog today. With lots of French’s Dijon mustard. And liked it.” Well, actually, if your blog is about food, for example, and you regularly mention a particular brand, the FCC maybe analyzing what you write. Presumably they’re wondering, “Is French’s giving this blogger freebies?” If you only mention a brand in passing here and there, no sweat — unless all the brands are from one company. But if you do a full on review of a brand, or write about them so often that you raise a red flag, they might want to talk to you. Then, if they find out you indeed received a lifetime shipment of free mustard in return for occasionally or regularly blogging about their product, you had better have disclosed this information to readers at some point.

How to Disclose Relevant Info in Blog Posts

Disclosure can be awkward, but you do have a few fairly simple choices. Now the following tips are only suggestions, based on my common sense, and what I’d want other bloggers to disclose to me on their blog. I haven’t read the reportedly ambiguous FTC disclosure rules that have been in effect for bloggers since Dec 1, 2009.

1. Disclose relevant info.

Disclose only what is relevant to the post in question. If you own shares in multiple companies but only mention one, what does it matter? If you received free products from different companies, no one cares unless you’re mentioning the products in a blog post.

2. Disclose information when necessary.

Disclose even if it means repeating yourself from post-to-post. If you’re always writing about a company, product or service in every single post and have received some benefit in consideration, then find a better way to disclose such info, such as prominently in a sidebar. Or you could create a Disclosures page for your blog and link to it either from your sidebar or from relevant posts.

Keep it simple.

Try to summarize your benefits, not go into great detail. For example, I spent a few months being lead blogger and inbound marketing manager at YourVersion, a real-time Web discovery engine that I think is a great tool for bloggers trying to find the latest references for one or more topics. My work with YourVersion was unpaid but I’m entitled to some share options, though I don’t get any extra benefits in continuing to promote the company — unless of course the company goes public in a few years and I’ve exercised my share options. If I do additional work for the company, outside of tech evangelizing, I could be eligible for additional share options.

Sounds pretty complicated, right? Since it’s awkward to disclose the exact details of this info without rambling, I usually just say, “Disclosure: I’m an unpaid tech evangelist for YourVersion and have share options.” (While we’re on the topic of shares, I should note that PF — aka Personal Finance — bloggers have the tendency to disclose most often. If they talk about a stock, they’ll mention ownership of shares. Some even mention lack of ownership in companies mentioned, just to be above board.)

Separate disclosure text.

For one-off disclosures (even if they’re a repeat), you have a couple of options:

  1. Place the disclosure in brackets, close after the mention of a product, service or company.
  2. Place the disclosure at the bottom of your post.

Disclose on your personal blog.

Sometimes clients don’t want disclosures of other products, or at least not on a repeated basis. What I’ve done in the past is published a disclosure within a review on my own blog, which I use to write about my clients and topics relevant to the Web and Mobile blogging and consulting work I do.

For example, I bought a copy of Mindjet‘s MindManager 6 mind mapping software back around early 2007. Mindjet loved the fact that I loved MindManager and wrote about the software extensively. In spring 2007 and late 2008, they gave me free copies of V7 and V8, respectively. I disclosed this in two reviews of MindManager published on my personal site, and on select client blog posts where I was reviewing the produt positively. If I simply mention Mindjet or MindManager in passing, I don’t disclose the freebies.

Note: I will be writing an upcoming Performancing post on using mind mapping for writing, but will only disclose the freebies if I’m overly favoring MindManager.

Where and When Should You Disclose

Yes, disclosure can be a PITA, but even if wasn’t an FTC requirement, doing so builds trust with your readers. Now, sometimes it’s pretty obvious when you’re getting freebies. Back in the early to mid-90s, when I was publishing a printed monthly entertainment review magazine in and around Toronto, we were getting as many as 30 music CDs a week and all were freebies. There was no issue about disclosure in those days, and thank goodness because we’d have run out of print space.

If a music reviewer bought a CD, they might say something like, “I love this band so much, I ran out and bought their new CD.” On the other hand, we never received movie passes; that came out of the operating budget, and as result we covered less of them. My film writers were hardcore film fanatics and just reviewed films for me because they wanted the experience, and to share.

Of course, when it comes to blogs, display space isn’t as much of an issue as for print. You’ll have to decide on your own if and when you should disclose some benefit you’ve received. (Or maybe read the FTC guidelines; BuzzMachine has a post on how the FTC is regulating our speech, and has a link to the 81-page PDF document.) By the way, the rules also apply to new media, so you’ll want to disclose relevant benefits in podcasts and video blogs. Ultimately, use your common sense and be on the up and up about any benefits you’ve received from a person or company, if it’s relevant to a blog post.

Disclosure: I like long walks on the beach, with the sand squishing beneath my feet. And French’s has never given me free mustard, let alone contacted me about any of my cooking blogs.

Image: Flickr.