Even long-time veterans in our industry are left scratching their heads over where things are with the FTC. New Media Expo’s CEO and Co-Founder Rick Calvert is one of the thought leaders in our industry who I thought really understood this issue from both the perspective of the marketer and the consumer, and who was also willing to come out on the record over what has been a highly sensitive subject.
Grant: What do you think of the FTC’s requirements for disclosure of material relationships for guest bloggers and other outside content contributors?
Rick: I do think they are appropriate, I think disclosure is good. I think that as a publisher, and any type of content creator, you should always disclose if there is some potential conflict of interest with any type of relationship with somebody who is posting content; and so that definitely applies to guest bloggers.
For example, we’ll let people who exhibit at our show post a guest blog on our blog. But, we disclose that they are an exhibitor, we tell you who they are, and we also require that their post not be commercial – so it’s not promoting their product.
Now other people could have a different standard than that. It depends on what the audience that post is meant for. Some people want those types of product presentations, since that’s what that audience is looking for. But again, if somebody paid for that, or there is some sort of business transaction happening, you definitely should be disclosing that relationship.
Grant: Or, if it’s something someone received for free (or at a significantly discounted rate wouldn’t normally be made available to them?)
Rick: Oh sure, something for free – free travel, a gift card to Starbucks or an Amazon, that sort of thing.
Grant: Many of the most widely read and subscribed to blogs in online marketing, like New Media Expo, will naturally feature guest bloggers as speakers at their events. The FTC’s Press Officer informed me that those are also likely fall under business relationships, which should be clearly disclosed.
Rick: I really thought that was interesting to learn about, since I don’t think the FTC has ever actually included that information anywhere before that you need to disclose if somebody is speaking at your conference. Again, we have no problem with that and we do anyway, but that just seemed a little strange that the FTC would even think that far, and that deep.
Grant: Do you think the FTC has some issues with how they communicate their regulations to the online marketing industry?
Rick: I think the answer to that is, does the average blogger know about these regulations?
Grant: How about even veteran thought leaders in this space? Take the example of Search Engine Land’s Editor-in-Chief, Danny Sullivan. He himself has reported on the FTC’s activities for the search space for over a decade, and recently published an open letter to the FTC on search engine disclosure compliance – and even he was completely unaware (mistaken, even) on the FTC’s guest blogger disclosure guidelines.
Rick: It’s pretty indicative that if Danny Sullivan doesn’t know what these regulations are, I think it’s pretty safe to say that overwhelming majority, the vast overwhelming majority, doesn’t either. I don’t know how to describe the significance of that any stronger. The vast majority of people in our industry – social media, blogging – have no clue what these FTC regulations are and how they apply to us.
Grant: Do you think that most people who are entrenched in the online media and marketing ecosystem, who’ve started out in it and have been in it for so long – may not have the same understanding of FTC compliance laws versus the more traditional media industries?
Rick: I would assume that people like Huffington Post, AOL, Forbes – traditional media companies that are involved in social media – should know what those regulations are because they comply with those things in their normal, traditional media business. But I would bet you the average blogger wouldn’t. I could name dozens and dozens and dozens of conferences in our space – technology conferences, online marketing conferences, search conferences, social media conferences – they probably have no idea of those regulations or how they apply to them.
Grant: From my experiences as a long time blogger who’s been a freelancer or done guest posts for many different online marketing publications, I can say there’s so much confusion with publishers on what they believe the FTC disclosure guidelines are. You could even get completely opposite opinions from one publisher or another on why they think they don’t apply to them.
Rick: I wouldn’t fault any of those people either; it’s the FTC who has done this horrible job of making people aware of these regulations.
Here’s just for an example: There are 3.9 million active mom blogs in the United States alone. That’s one of these spaces where this is prevalent, where people are concerned about disclosure. It’s where a lot of people write posts either as guest blogger or on their own blog; or they will let a company write a guest post; or they will ghostwrite a guest post. What they don’t always disclose is if there is some sort of business relationship going on. A lot of times it’s just for free products, or a nice free trip for the blogger. But a lot of them are not disclosed. As big as that space is, it’s only just one example of how prevalent this is across our industry, where people need to be concerned about disclosure.
Grant: The FTC says the larger issue here is consumer transparency and building trust, so consumers can feel as though they can safely do business online, and so businesses can play fairly. I think most people who follow these guidelines can agree that the FTC isn’t intentionally trying to cause confusion, although there are certainly unscrupulous people in our industry who will try to take advantage of that confusion.
Rick: Right, because people who are doing things like that, don’t care. They either are knowingly violating those guidelines or they don’t care what those guidelines are and nothing the FTC does is going to change what they do.
Grant: How much of the problem do you think is how the FTC can do a better job of catching criminals, versus better educating the public?
Rick: If the FTC finds out about somebody who is breaking the rules – maybe blatantly breaking the rules with forethought and doesn’t care and so they prosecute them, and it ends up with a fine most likely, that gets in the news, but that doesn’t really educate anybody. It might scare a couple people, probably not, but it doesn’t really do anything to address the problem.
Grant: Clearly the FTC doesn’t have the resources to monitor the entire Web, with millions of bloggers and publisher sites. Where do you think the maturity of our industry is today to support independent watchdog groups – across social, search, blogging, etcetera – that can do the kind of monitoring with the expertise behind it that is trusted by both the industry and consumers alike for what they find and report – and can have the ear of both mainstream media and government?
Rick: I think there could be a place and it’s probably a good business opportunity for somebody. That’s probably the best solution, but New Media already has its own solution. Someone can start a watchdog blog where people can report something that they think might be a violation, and then you could review it and say, “Well to us, this is in compliance or this is not in compliance, and this is exactly what wasn’t and this is what they have to do to make it in compliance…” and if the FTC wanted to weigh in on that – it would be amazing if the FTC did that, but I doubt they every would.
Grant: So some people reading this are going to ask, why hasn’t there been some kind of watchdog association yet?
Rick: Well, there have been several people who tried a blogging association. We tried when we started BlogWorld and realized pretty quickly there is no critical mass to support that. For video, you know any type of video association there is, is only going to deal with traditional media entities, not independent publishers in any way.
This is something we always have to remind ourselves being inside the bubble of new media, is this space is still so new, and we really are still in the Wild West. We are, I think, years away from any sort of association type of governing body to lay down ethical practices and standards that anybody is going to agree on.
Grant: The FTC says in their documents that they apply the same legal standard for online media and offline media, or new media and traditional media.
Rick: But do they really? If that was the case, then people should be able to do things just like infomercials on television or on radio. I believe in having high standards for disclosure and transparency, but what I don’t want to have happen is the government impose that standard on us in New Media and not impose it on traditional media, and end up creating an unfair playing field.
Grant: What do you think that those of us can do in the New Media industry for improving trust and consumer transparency?
Rick: I think it is important for us as digital content creators to try and set a higher standard for ourselves; We have to remember why we came to the Web in the first place, I think it is incumbent upon us to create that higher standard and support it – however we do it is up to all of us.