What happens when someone learns you’re a blogger and then offers you something to write about? What if that thing they offer has commercial value? What if they’re offering it to you for free, asking you (express or implied) for a favorable review on your blog? Would you do it? Does that act change you?
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission says that if you accept things of value (cash, goods, services), you must disclose it in your review. In a news release, FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials Changes Affect Testimonial Advertisements, Bloggers, Celebrity Endorsements, the FTC states, in part,
The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.
How does this work (or not) in real life?
There are two people I know who rarely blog or tweet about anything they haven’t benefited by (directly or indirectly). Their disclosures are hidden if included at all. Does that make them sneaky or dishonest? Not necessarily, but probably (according to the FTC statement above).
Compare: Someone who is very good at promotion, and who loves helping people and companies understand how to use different “social media” tools to help with their commercial outreach efforts. This is clear to everyone who meets her. She discloses her connections and endorsements, and is hired by companies wishing to learn how to be more social.
Current communication tools–including those referred to as “social media”–allow us to blur the lines between our opinions and reviews. When someone does something nice for us, we might spontaneously and publicly say thanks (via a wall post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter). If someone gives us something with a shared expectation that we’ll say something nice about them, that’s covered under FTC guidelines. “Oh, you’re blogging about our restaurant? The manager says the dessert is on the house.” Who will know? Maybe nobody, but it’s more than your reputation that you’re risking.
Coaching moment: Do you become a different person, all bubbly and joy, when someone does something nice for you? I bet; most of us do. What about when someone does something nice but then advises you how much it’s going to cost? (“Nothing is really free,” and all that.) Not so bubbly and joy, this more manipulative and generally undesirable.
So where’s the trade-off? What goods and services would you happily engage in a social conversation about–because you love the company or their stuff, with our without getting anything free in return? What goods, services, or companies would you feel like you’d be selling your soul to promote? How much are you willing to “leave out” of a review because of free stuff? Where is your bottom line?