Are You Adhering to the FTC’s New Social Media Guidelines?

This month, the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) updated the “What People Are Asking” section of its guidelines on social media usage and online endorsements.

Over the past five years – the length of time since the last update – the FTC has issued warnings, but has not taken any real action against brands that have violated their guidelines.

This update, however, may be an indication that they’re going to stop simply slapping wrists and start truly cracking down. And an ominous statement issued by the FTC may confirm this suspicion: “We have given guidance. You are all on notice.”

So how can you ensure you are fully adhering to their guidelines? I would encourage you to read the full text to be absolutely sure (I’m no lawyer and don’t play one in any medium). Then you’ll want to pay attention to the following seven key aspects, which are part of the clarified FAQ section:

1. Contests and Sweepstakes

If you run a contest or sweeps on social media channels, the official rules must require some type of disclosure in each entry. It is the responsibility of the brand, not the entrants, to ensure that this disclosure is being used. The FTC also indicated that the hashtag #sweeps is not clear enough. You must use #contest or #sweepstakes.

2. Character Limits

The FTC won’t hear arguments about character limits preventing you from using appropriate disclosures or hashtags. The new guidelines state, “The words ‘Sponsored’ and ‘Promotion’ use only nine characters. ‘Paid ad’ only uses seven characters. Starting a tweet with ‘Ad:’ or ‘#ad’ – which takes only three characters – would likely be effective.”

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They are not mandating these specific hashtags or words; they’re simply requiring some type of obvious disclosure. So make your best effort to be transparent if character limits are a concern, and you should fall within the guidelines.

3. Facebook Like Buttons

Purchasing Likes on Facebook from people that are not familiar with your business’ products or services or non-existent people (think robots) is strictly prohibited. The FTC states that this practice is deceptive, and both the buyers and sellers of Likes may face enforcement action.

4. Employee Endorsements

Any employee of a brand, or employee of an agency promoting content on behalf of a brand, must clearly state their affiliation in every social media post. This disclosure must go beyond their Twitter bio, Google+ description or other ‘About’ section copy. It must appear in all posts promoting the products or services of their employer and/or their clients.

Additionally, the FTC has stated that employers are forbidden from asking or incentivizing employees to post anything on social media that is untrue, that is not that employee’s valid opinion, or to endorse a product or service they are unfamiliar with.

5. Online Reviews

The FTC has indicated that businesses can incentivize customers to write online reviews of their business or products/services. However, they cannot require that the review be positive, and the reviewer must clearly state their relationship with the brand and any compensation or free product they may have received.

6. Video Endorsements

Including a disclosure in a video description is simply not enough. The FTC is requiring videos to contain “clear and conspicuous” disclosures, which means they must be made at the beginning of the video, must be repeated multiple times throughout for longer videos, and must be on the screen long enough to be noticed, read and understood.

7. Image Endorsements

Sharing images via social media, even if you don’t use any text, can be considered an endorsement, and thus requires a disclosure. According to the FTC’s guidelines, “You don’t necessarily have to use words to convey a positive message. If your audience thinks that what you say or otherwise communicate about a product reflects your opinions or beliefs about the product, and you have a relationship with the company marketing the product, it’s an endorsement subject to the FTC Act.”

This applies more to users than to brands. However, if you create a photo-sharing promotion – let’s say a contest where sharing an image counts as an entry – make sure you require users to include some type of disclosure along with the image.

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When reading through the guidelines and updated FAQs, you’ll notice quite a few vague terms such as “could,” “may,” “can,” and “should” (modal verbs, for all my English nerds). The FTC is still not being explicit and that could lead to accidental violations. Play it safe by including disclosures and disclaimers obviously and often. Squeeze in appropriate hashtags for contests, ads and other promotions, even if you aren’t sure if you need them. Make sure employees and endorsers are being transparent about their relationship to your brand and products/services.

The FTC is likely to start making examples of brands to prove they mean business, and that’s the type attention and awareness you don’t want for your brand.

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