Sometime this summer, according to trade press reports, there's a good chance the Federal Trade Commission will extend its rules concerning use of testimonials and endorsements in advertising. The change will have a direct impact on the blogosphere, which so far has been totally unregulated.
Blogger friend Scott Monty, manager of global digital communications at Ford, likens this space to the lawlessness of the old West. In the Ragan public relations newsletter, he says, "Since blogging is relatively new and because there's no editorial insight, it can seem like the Wild West, absent any guiding principles."
Since there's been no oversight, some companies look to pay or otherwise compensate bloggers to write positively about their products. In parts of the blogosphere, especially in the so-called mommy blogs, the combination of greed on the part of some bloggers and exploitation by marketers has gotten out of hand, to the point the FTC has been taking a closer look.
Stephanie Azzarone, who does p.r. for the toy industry, writes in MediaPost about how some of the mommy bloggers have become spoiled by all the freebies. "What was once a $20 freebie toy," she writes, "is now an appliance, an automobile on loan, an all-expenses paid trip to Disney World. Some will turn up their noses at anything less. Others will only comment on companies if paid to do so."
I remember a major uproar online about two years ago, when Nikon offered expensive cameras to a hundred or so "influential" bloggers. Some who wrote about the camera and displayed photos they'd taken were open about the relationship with Nikon. Others weren't, and got soundly criticized. Much of the criticism seemed to come from within the marketing part of the blogosphere, where many talk passionately about authenticity and ethics.
For most bloggers, the new FTC guidelines shouldn't make much of a difference, although if you do include endorsements or reviews on your blog, it'll be your responsibility to be aware of the rules. For most of us, it will simply mean continuing to be honest and open, disclosing when we've accepted a freebie or a sample that we're writing about.
For marketers who reach out to bloggers, it will be mandatory that they know the rules. Honesty and disclosure are crucial from this end too. You'll get best results if you allow bloggers to remain authentic and use their own words rather than pushing for them to be blatant shills for you.
Keep an eye on what bloggers are saying about your product and if you see something that's false or an overstatement, talk to that blogger and try to have it corrected.
Above all, avoid being sneaky in your dealings with bloggers. Chances are you'll be found out and both you and the offending blogger will be called out in an embarrassing way.
As with life in general, honesty, clarity and integrity are the best guidelines.
It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out as today's Wild West starts to get tamed.