“Disclosure: Not A Dirty Word” – Blognix Presentation

blognix-presentation

On Saturday, I headed up to Birmingham at a painfully early hour for the amazing Blognix. I am so honoured to have been asked to speak, and my talk went down pretty well (at least that’s what I’ve been told – it’s all a bit of a blur now!)

I thought it might be useful to post the script of my talk here – it’s obviously not word for word as I tried not to read from the iPad too much!

Slide 1: Disclosure: Not A Dirty Word

Hi everyone! My name’s Hayley, and I’m here to talk about disclosure, why it’s so important and what your legal requirements are. In case you don’t know me, hi! I’ve been blogging since 2001 so it’s probably pretty obvious that a lot has changed in that time. Way back when, there was no need for disclosure, because there was nothing to disclose! Around 2008, 2009, we started to see companies reaching out to bloggers to work with them, and since then, it’s developed further than any of us oldies could have imagined

The problem with blog disclosure in the UK is that no one really knows what we’re supposed to be doing! In the US, they have the FTC telling them exactly what they should and shouldn’t be doing. There’s a 53 page document available called “.com Disclosures: How To Make Effective Disclosures In Digital Marketing” which explains how to disclose over various types of media it’s actually pretty useful if you’re looking after a brand, for example, or if you wanted to be extra vigilant in disclosing things, but it’s not legally binding for the UK.

The ASA picked up on blog disclosure last November, and that’s a good start, but it’s still incredibly vague. When they released the blog post on their site, I phoned them up to ask them a few questions so I could put together a post on Bonjour Blogger, and while they managed to answer most of my questions, they were still unsure about the others, as if they weren’t really sure what a blog was!

Slide 2: What Is Disclosure?

So lets start at the beginning. What is disclosure? One definition I read called it the act of making something obvious, which is a pretty good description! Disclosure is important to your readers because it allows them to make the decision whether your opinion is trustworthy and worth paying attention to. If readers decide that they’re not interested in your opinion, they’ll stop reading, and less readers means less opportunities for you.

Disclosure is important for the reader because they can feel misled otherwise. Think about the last time you read a blog post wondering why they were writing about this topic, only to find at the end that the blogger has forgotten to change a tense so the blog post reads “don’t forget to tell us about a change in driver status because it can affect your car insurance”. Us? Why would I tell a blogger about a change in status? Wasn’t this just a nice blog post about mixes for car journeys?

It’s confusing enough when you read a post like this, and then you read a disclosure statement saying why that post was written, but when there’s no disclosure at all, or a vague symbol? The reader may feel a little annoyed at this.

Slide 3: What Needs To Be Disclosed

You may have heard about the ASA ­- they’re the Advertising Standards Authority and they’re a self-­regulatory organisation who keep an eye on the advertising industry in the UK. They’re a non­statutory organisation, so they can’t actually prosecute people, but if there was a severe breach of their guidelines, then they can pass the details on to the CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) who can then talk to bodies like OFCOM and Trading Standards.

The ASA’s stance on disclosure is that if a payment is received by a blogger, then it needs to be clearly disclosed to the reader. Their actual phrasing is:

Put simply, a blogger who is given money to promote a product or service has to ensure readers are aware they’re being advertised to

As well as this statement, the ASA also say that you shouldn’t falsely present yourself as a consumer -­ that is where you are giving a view that looks like your opinion, but has been paid for. The ASA would look into this, not just because it’s a misleading practice, but it’s actually prohibited under consumer protection laws. Break this, and you might find yourself talking to the Trading Standards people! This is especially important for bloggers to pay careful attention to ­ there was one blogging agency that would get bloggers to post about a new brand launch and would rave about it without apparently trying the product. If those posts were not disclosed when posted, then that blogger would be falsely presenting themselves as a consumer.

Google isn’t really that bothered if you disclose the link or not, but what they do
care about is that if a link is included in a blog post, that it should be marked as being placed there on purpose. You’ve probably heard of no­follow links, but if you haven’t, it’s a way to mark a link in a blog post for search engines so they understand that this wasn’t just you including the link because you wanted to, but because you have received payment or guidance for it.

If you’ve done a sponsored post before, or you’ve been sent something to review, then you may have been asked to include a specific link with specific wording in your post. Legally, the ASA would want you to disclose that because the brand is controlling editorial content by requiring the link and phrasing. Google would want that marked as a nofollow because it’s not a natural link ­ let’s face it, these links are never usually something you would actually write! For best practice purposes, it’s best to do both things.

What you might not realise, and what I’ve noticed with recent Instagram campaigns, is that you still need to disclose if the brand has specifically asked you to take photos of the challenge with hashtags, etc. You can do something as simple as #sp, but you can’t assume that other people will know that the hashtag that the brand is asking for means that viewers will understand that this has been received for review

However, if you’re just Instagramming when you’ve received a parcel from a brand then that’s fine as long as they haven’t required you to do that ­ I know some bloggers use the hashtag #bloggermail, which at least allows people to mute it if they’re not into seeing that sort of thing.

Slide 4: Why Disclose?

So why would you want to disclose? Disclosing when something has been received for free or you’ve received a payment is a good thing because it’s giving your readers the full picture. A reader is going to be less annoyed about blog posts that are clearly disclosed as a sponsored one if they know before ­ it gives them the choice whether to skip it or not. If I’m going through my bloglovin, and you’ve written about how to get a mortgage on your blog that’s usually just outfit posts without any disclosure or with a vague disclosure ­ you’re going to get some side eye there. Keep doing it, and I’ll just unsubscribe.

Disclosing is a good idea for future collaborations as well. Brands and PR’s are becoming more aware of the rules ­ although you shouldn’t really depend on them to be guiding you to do the right thing! I always use this as an example, but does anyone remember when the agency for Interflora were panicked about all the blog posts they had done with people? Google deranked Interflora so they barely came up in searches for their own name, which wasn’t actually to do with the blog posts, but with advertorials on local newspaper websites. Brands know this now, and they should also be aware of the ASA’s guidelines. If you show that you are compliant with Google and the ASA, then a brand that wants you to do those things is probably going to want to work with you more. When I’m replying to a email about a potential collaboration, I specifically say about nofollow links and the amount of replies that come back saying “Of course! That’s what we want too!” is great. And if they specifically want follow links? That’s fine, but I don’t want that on my site, so bye!

And of course, as previously mentioned, there’s the legal requirement of disclosing. Don’t disclose, and you could potentially be prosecuted ­ lets face it, it’s unlikely that things would get that far, but it is worth paying attention to! You don’t want to be the test case that they go after to prove a point! While browsing Facebook this week, I saw that a UK blogger in one of the Facebook groups I’m in said that the ASA had had a complaint about how a post had been disclosed at the end.

How do most of you disclose sponsored posts? What about items that are sent to you? I’ve seen everything from full descriptions (I think that the Collective Bias team do this really well ­ there’s no doubting what has happened with a post ­ and that makes me more likely to want to read. They disclose at the top of the post usually, and it’s very straight forward) to a random symbol at the end of a post to show that it could be sponsored, there could be a paid for link, a product could have been received for review…that’s not good enough! The ASA say that it needs to be clear to anyone reading your blog. Imagine that your nana is reading your blog (does anyones nana read their blog?) Would she understand what “In collaboration with this brand” means?

Slide 5: Disclosure Statements

Disclosure statements seem to be appearing on more blogs ­ how many of you have one?
I think a disclosure statement is really useful, because it’s a place where you can specify exactly what you do and what you don’t do. On my personal site, I’ve combined my statement with details of blog series I write, and other stuff that might be useful to someone wanting to work with me. I’ve found it useful when people get in touch about potential collaborations ­ I have a standard email reply set up that says “Sounds interesting ­ what are you looking to do, and by the way, I don’t do this, here’s more details”. I use canned responses in Gmail to reply to emails like this ­ two clicks and it’s done! It’s a little lazy, but it’s a great way to weed out the stuff I would never want to do from the amazing opportunities out there. It also makes sure that people see what you do, and if they’re an agency, they can see if they can work with you in the future – although this opportunity might require a follow link when you only do nofollow links, other campaigns might be a better fit.

This isn’t going to be an extensive list of everything you must must must have on a disclosure statement – it’s obviously dependent on what you do, and what you want to do, but a few things that you might want to include are:

  • Whether you will accept sponsored posts on the blog. If you do accept sponsored posts on your blog, you may want to make a note here whether links will be marked as no­follow. If there are specific things you never ever want to have links to on your blog, then you could include that here as well – I’m going to talk about that a little more in a moment.
  • Whether you will accept products to review – and what will happen. If you’re a beauty blogger, for example, then you will probably want to try out a product for a few weeks to see how it works for you. You could specify that here, so when whoever sent you a product starts chasing you the day after you confirm you’ve received it, you can point at this again! If you don’t guarantee a review for receiving a product, you might want to specify that as well. Making things as obvious as possible means you have a little more back up when someone tries to argue with you about a review.
  • Whether you are going to include affiliate links in your blog posts. I personally put a little icon next to any sort of affiliate link to let the reader know then in the footer of each page it explains what the symbol means, but I know some bloggers who will write “this blog post may contain affiliate links”. That’s up to you really how you do it but the ASA do require affiliate links to be disclosed. You don’t need to bother about marking affiliate links as no follow because Google already knows they are.
  • How you will disclose if something has been received for review or if you’ve been paid for the post. We’ve already gone through this, but you might want to say exactly how – so will the disclosure be at the top or bottom of the post, what kind of thing will it say, are you open to suggestion on that?

If you publish a disclosure statement then you can just link to back to that page at the end of any relevant posts, rather than writing everything out again.

Slide 6: Responsible Disclosure

Something that I brought up on Bonjour, Blogger! earlier this year was the idea of responsible sponsorship. I’m sure we’ve all seen the various sponsored blog posts where people talk about their day and then drop in how Ladbrokes have a fantastic new game on their website where you can win big big big! Wait, what? I’m not saying that you should decline sponsored posts ­ if you’re happy, and your readers are (mostly) happy (let’s face it, you’re never going to please everyone!) then go for it. But perhaps we should, as the larger blogging community, have guidelines about how we do these sort of posts.

In traditional advertising, there are certain rules that advertisers and publishers must adhere to. You’ve probably seen when there’s an alcohol advert on TV or in a magazine that they usually will remind you to drink responsibly. Gambling ads will show a link to the Gamble Aware sites. When I spoke to the ASA last year after they published their post about how bloggers should be disclosing, they said there was no need for anything like this ­ they would only talk about it if someone complained and even then, it would be more specific to the site (if a blog aimed at teenagers was suddenly talking about alcohol, then they’d do something about it, but for this sort of thing, they wouldn’t do much)

Gambling, drinking, smoking ­ they’re all addictive. If bloggers are going to link to them, then perhaps they should be putting some sort of disclaimer at the bottom ­ something like “This post contains a link to a gambling website ­ here’s how to get some help if you feel like you have a problem” You don’t know who is going to be reading your blog, and while you might not think that a link in a post is going to be a problem for someone, you can’t say that for everyone.

On the post that I wrote suggesting that bloggers included links to places that can help you with addictions, there was an anonymous comment left ­ I’m going to just read it out, because I think it’s important to take into consideration:

I have a mental illness that makes my impulse control virtually non­existent. I know full well that if I were to start gambling, I would not be able to stop.
I’m fully aware bloggers aren’t responsible for *my* – or anyone else’s but their own – health, but I also don’t think it’s that unfair for me to expect places I consider to be safe (beauty blogs and the like) to be… well, safe.
I cannot and will not support any blogger that actively promotes gambling in any fashion, whether they include ‘useful’ links, or hide them behind a ‘read more’ or not.
Fortunately there’s plenty more blogs that don’t promote gambling for me to read! ;)
I’m sure none of us want to lose readers ­ without readers, you’re not going to get offered sponsored posts!

Elizabeth also left a comment which is pretty close to how I feel ­ she said that ethics aside, these things just aren’t relevant to her blog. Is it really worth risking the integrity and reputation you’ve spent so long building up for the sake of £100? (And that’s being generous ­- last year I did a sponsored posts survey and it was surprising the amount of people who said they were charging less than £30.)

It would be nice if the people requesting these links in blog posts would be a bit more proactive in requesting links to charities and organisations for help but let’s face it ­ one of the reasons they advertise via blogs is probably to get round the restrictions they have advertising in other media forms.

Hayley Constantine

<p>Hayley has been blogging since before most people knew what a blog was! She started Bonjour, Blogger! in May 2013 as a way to share her knowledge and experiences – if you ever have a question, get in touch!</p>

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