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The value of disclosure in social media: keep your readers from second-guessing the source

Blogs used to be a place to go for an honest, unbridled opinion – be it on a product, current event or campaign. Now, whenever I see a cool product on a blog or read a review, I find myself second-guessing the source. Each post begs the question: would I even be reading about this product, business or event if money hadn’t exchanged hands?

Stephanie Fusco, Let’s talk about disclosure, baby

When I first started blogging in 2006, we were all learning to navigate this new world together. Social media culture was in its infancy. There were few rules and we were a long way from any talk about government regulation. Best practices started evolving and were ever changing. Words like transparency, trust, authenticity, credibility and disclosure were mentioned often. Many of us “early adopters” felt adhering to those principles helped us maintain our integrity and build our reputations online. Things aren’t any different today, if you want to build your online reputation or increase your “social capital”, you’ll need to earn and maintain the trust of your readers and of your community.

 What Price Integrity?

That’s the name of the panel Gini Dietrich, Danny Brown and I were on at PodCamp Toronto2011, and referenced in Stephanie Fusco’s blog post quoted above. Our focus was on the importance of disclosure and transparency for both bloggers and brands. It was shortly after the United States’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) updated their Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

As part of those guidelines, the FTC mandated brands and the agencies representing them, with ensuring the bloggers they work with disclose their material relationships with brands to their readers. In Canada, although we’re legally responsible for what we share about products and services, we don’t have similar guidelines that address social media or blogs specifically. However, that doesn’t mean we’re exempt, especially not if we’re working with marketers in the U.S. Similar regulation may come to Canada and when it does, regulators will play close attention to our neighbours south of the border.

Disclosure is not limited to blogs

Disclosure isn’t limited to blogs, it extends to paid engagements, product or recipe sampling, event attendance and anything else directly from or on behalf of the brand that has the potential to influence content published on blogs and other social media. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has clear guidelines pertaining to disclosure in social media. WOMMA outlines the responsibilities of both “Marketers” and “Advocates”. “Advocate” refers to a blogger or anyone else sharing content in social media as a result of their relationship with a brand.

With so many product ambassadors, perks and sponsored blog posts, it’s becoming more difficult for readers to distinguish a blogger’s organic content from a sponsored post. Whether true or not, there’s an underlying feeling that bloggers who are compensated may not be objective in their writing. Smart bloggers know either way, the value they bring both to brands and their readers is when they’re sharing honest accounts about their personal experiences.

Sponsored posts can and should be honest and objective in order to build trust, even if they’re not always favourable to the brand. Think about it for a minute. When you search for product reviews, are you more likely to purchase something that only has favourable reviews? Generally, people have more confidence in product reviews that appear balanced, clearly identifying pros and cons.

Disclosing your affiliation with a brand is simple. First, add a disclosure statement on your blog that outlines how you work with brands, particularly if you have a review site.

Disclosure guidelines

Here are some examples from WOMMA’s Social Media Disclosure Guide* you can adapt for personal use:

Personal and Editorial Blogs

  • I received product/sample/information from company name, or
  • Company name sent me product/sample/information

Product Review Blogs

  • I received product/sample/information from company name to review, or
  • I was paid by company name to review

Providing Comments in Online Discussions and/or Reviews

  • I received product/sample/information from company name, or
  • I was paid by company name, or I am an employee [or representative] of company name

Microblogs

Include a notation that reasonably discloses any material connection, such as:

  • A short phrase indicating that a specific type of “material connection” exists
  • URLs indicating that a specific type of material connection exists and directing people to a “Disclosure and Relationships Statement.”
  • Any of the following hashtags:
    • #spon
    • #paid
    • #samp

Status Updates on Social Networks

  • I received product/sample/information from company name, or
  • I was paid by company name

*Posted with permission from WOMMA

The best way to ensure your reputation remains intact is to write honestly, objectively and clearly disclose any relationship(s) you have that may influence your writing. Nothing is more valuable that the trust you build with your readers and once you’ve lost that you’ve got nothing. It’s near impossible to gain it back.

What about you – do you feel you gain more credibility and trust with you readers when you disclose relationships you have with brands? Why or why not?

Eden Spodek is a digital communications strategist with a unique perspective on emerging media. Client-side, agency-side and high profile blogger and community builder, she’s seen the digital world from all sides. She’s happiest helping colleagues and clients to be a little disruptive, challenging the status quo and how people think about brands. Eden is also outspoken about the importance of building online engagement and targeted relationships, one influencer at a time. Eden is based in Toronto and can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where she loves sharing photos of her adventures in food.

 

 

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18 Responses to The value of disclosure in social media: keep your readers from second-guessing the source

  1. At Home with Kim Vallee October 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    Well-written piece, Eden. A disclosure doesn’t have to be long (keep it simple) but it needs to be there.

    As a blogger who talks a lot about products, I also mentioned to my readers when I bought something. I do it to differentiate these products from the things I like.

  2. Melissa October 24, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Thanks for the great post Eden. It’s a topic that generates a lot of heated debate. I think a lot of people just aren’t aware of what full disclosure is, or how to go about it. And then I think there are others who don’t feel they need to do it, for whatever reason. I feel it’s always better to err on the side of caution but even so, I’ll admit there’s probably been a couple of occasions where it seemed so small or insignificant that I just didn’t think to!

  3. ceecee October 24, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    I agree with Melissa – I err on the side of caution and try to make disclosures whenever appropriate. I just think it’s being honest with everyone involved -readers, companies and myself!

    Ceecee

  4. Carolyn Nesbitt-Larking October 24, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    What a wonderful (and timely) post, Eden. As a food and travel journalist I fully endorse the concept of full disclosure. Let’s face it, we are individual “brands” whether we like that term or not, and we’re only as good as people are willing to trust information we provide.

  5. Gini Dietrich October 24, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    We even require our team to write (client) when they’re distributing a client’s content on the social networks. It doesn’t get as many clicks because of it, but we know we’re not going to get into any trouble by disclosing it.

  6. Eden Spodek October 24, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    Kim and Gini, thank you for sharing other examples of when you or your companies use disclosure in social media.

    Melissa and ceecee, thanks for your feedback. I hope this post has made others who don’t currently disclose material relationships think differently next time they’re posting content as a result of their work with a brand.

    Caroline, thanks for your comment. You hit the nail right on the head.

  7. A Canadian Foodie October 25, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    Great piece. Important topic! I don’t take money for anything, but I will take a sample only IF I already love the product or am aligned with the philosophy of the company or author etc… I don’t like negative energy and can’t be bothered spending my time writing negatively – however, I am always careful to be accurate and honest. Usually, I avoid this kind of thing, completely, as that is not why I started my site in the first place. I offer tons of completely free and unencumbered endorsements for farmers, products and places I love anyway. That is the old fashioned blogging approach (did I just say that?)!
    :)
    V

  8. Eden Spodek October 25, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    Valerie, I’m glad you enjoyed this post and thank you for sharing your experience and perspective. I think we’re entirely on the same page with respect to our personal blogs. When I began blogging, there were very few if any brands in North America reaching out to bloggers who wrote for a consumer-facing audience. For the first 18 months or so, my posts were entirely organic. Eventually, some were the result of pitches and money didn’t exchange hands. Regardless, relationships were clearly disclosed.

  9. Leona Hobbs October 26, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Eden, sorry I’m late to the game on this one. Nice post.

    Its good to see such a shared perspective about quality and disclosure.

    I’ve done my share of blogger relations work with clients in the U.S. We included disclosure in our pitches and agreements, monitored for compliance, and kept an archive of all correspondence.

    In a lot of ways, the FTC guides made working with influencers easier. The guides codified the relationship between brands and word-of-mouth marketers and established a standard. I only wish the mainstream media had to follow the same standard (but that’s a rant for another post).

    Also — +1 to Gini Dietrich for her policy about staff disclosing client relationships when posting online. Maintaining credibility is so key for marketers working in this space.

  10. Eden Spodek October 26, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    Leona, your comments are always welcome. Thanks!

    I’m not sure why more people on the consulting side don’t include disclosure notices and/or reminders to the influencers they work with in Canada too. In fact, I prefer to work with people who will disclose whether or not they have a material relationship regardless of their role.

    As for Gini’s policy, it’s something I wish more agencies and consultants would adopt. It has always been one of my pet peeves. Sometimes companies have similar policies but they aren’t enforced.

  11. Jay Baer October 29, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    Good post, and a massively under-discussed topic. I use http://cmp.ly for my disclosure stuff, because it’s easy and organized and trackable. I’m an investor in the company. Yes, it’s meta that I just disclosed about disclosure.

  12. Eden Spodek October 29, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    Jay, thanks for your meta contribution, http://cmp.ly is definitely worth sharing. There are some great resources on the website as well as the disclosure tool.

  13. elissaPR October 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Great ‘how to’ post, Eden. As someone who reads alot of reviews, I’m always suspect when there is no disclosure. Plus, I also don’t like it when someone tweets about a product/issue, when I know darn well it’s on behalf of a client, and they don’t disclose. In some cases, I’ve gently mentioned to that person they should hashtag #client, or something to that effect. Best to be upfront…

  14. Rob S April 2, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    If it’s not clearly stated or recognizable elsewhere, I add a sentence or 2 mentioning that a link in a blog leads to a page I have an affiliate relationship with and say “thanks in advance if you choose to buy the product via my affiliate link” or words to that effect. I also don’t have affiliate relationships with any product or service I haven’t personally used. This gets annoying sometimes, because there are a few I know are great, but either don’t personally need or can’t afford.

  15. Christopher Pires April 11, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    As a new food blogger and executive caterer – foodinspires.com (shameless self promotion), I make it clear when I get a recipe from somewhere else. Problem is I’ve been collecting recipes for so many years – and because I wanted to build my own – for internal use, book, I used to re-write or type them into a word document with my notes ingrained in them – never thinking of the source or that I’d ever do a blog (some are 30+ years old). I only recently started using the line – “I ran across this recipe, not sure where…”, to ensure the reader knows it’s not my creation (and to avoid any legal wrangling). I’m not making money from them however my blog is attached to my business site so technically I could be. My very first blog (2 months ago), says this. I know we are talking two different things but really, integrity should cover all aspects of blogging, not just product endorsement. I’d like to see more of this. Kudos to the creators for thinking up molecular techniques for serving food, so let’s give them credit for it.

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