I stumbled into blogging eleven years ago, which in blog years makes me about 99. When starting out, I had no idea about ANYTHING. I definitely knew nothing about disclosure or the FTC. Because back then, the FTC had not given standards for disclosure to bloggers. We are in different times, people.
My blog about life with our dog morphed into a blog about life with kids morphed into more of a lifestyle blog. When people got sick of me talking about writing and social media, I started this site.
Now blogging is so far from online journaling (did you know blog came from "web log"?) and there are a lot more moving parts. People make real, substantial incomes from blogging. Which means there are best practices, blog etiquette, and even actual RULES. Rules like: don't use fonts on a for-profit blog without a commercial license. Or, don't take images you find in a Google search and put them on your blog without actual permission.
The Federal Trade Commission (aka FTC) started regulating blogging a few years ago. They say that bloggers must let readers know if they received free product or will receive payment for a post. This included free product for review, sponsored posts where you receive money, or affiliate links where you get a commission for recommending a product. The overall rule of thumb is: don't be deceptive. Where there is money being made, consumers must be made aware, even if you're Beyonce. (Thanks to Julie from Girl on the Move Blog for that link!)
Most bloggers that make money are aware of this. Because bloggers making money are connected to other bloggers and learning the business of blogging, they know. I hear it at conferences, in blog groups, and on blog posts. It's really hard to MISS it if you've been blogging for a while. But I've run across a slew of people not disclosing and it prompted me to write this post.
I want to point you in the direction of a GREAT and very thorough podcast episode from Taylor over at Boss Girl Creative to walk you through the basic ins and outs of disclosure. She and Jenn from Busy Being Jennifer hash out most of the things you need to know about disclosure. Rather than going through what she did such a great job of covering, I want to cover something different that is running rampant right now.
A lot of content creators are using free things like webinars, video series, summits, and ebooks to promote paid content. This is nothing new. But I've seen a rash of people promoting these as affiliates without disclosure. You get an email sharing a free opportunity, but what you don't see is the lifetime (or longtime) cookie attached to your email when you sign up for the free thing. If you do buy a paid thing, the person who referred you gets paid.
I think that this has been a gray area because the first link is to something free. Creators are simply sending you free content. Right?
Wrong. The FTC is clear on deception. That's the POINT of disclosure. And what I see very few people disclosing in these free content emails is the fact that if you buy something after watching or downloading the free thing, they will get paid. There are also sometimes incentives on the back end for affiliates to get the most signups. The person with the most signups often gets a cash prize.
Why does this matter?
Some of you probably don't care at all about this. Some of you may be getting irked because you realize that you received a whole bunch of these emails this week. Maybe you got asked to join a Facebook group that was built around a particular launch...but not by the person launching the course or program. (You can bet the group was set up by an affiliate of the program.) Maybe you received free video training or someone emailed you a really great bonus to a course that was not theirs. All of those scream: AFFILIATE LINKS.
This matters, ultimately, not simply because of the FTC. I'm way less concerned about the FTC coming after little old me and way MORE concerned about not breaking your trust, reader.
Disclosure is about integrity.
Disclosure is about saying, "Maybe I'll make fewer sales if I disclose, but I'm disclosing anyway."
(PS- Pat Flynn believes that disclosing can make MORE sales.)
Disclosure is about being up front with your people.
Disclosure is about trust.
This is why it matters so much to me and why I hope it matters to you. Do you care more about keeping your readers' trust or about (potentially) making an affiliate sale? I feel like trust is at stake and your integrity is at stake when you do not disclose to your readers.
If you are reading this and you realize that you haven't properly disclosed in the past, it's okay! You can start now. You can promote products well and make money as an affiliate while disclosing properly.
If there is a cookie involved and a potential commission for you if someone buys through a link, disclose. A general rule of thumb: when in doubt, DISCLOSE.
If you are reading this and you realize that you are getting pitched a lot of affiliate links that are not disclosed, consider hitting reply and kindly asking if the links are affiliate links. I'd like to give marketers the benefit of the doubt on this one...though I'm also a pessimist. If it bothers you, ask. If it doesn't, no biggie.
Once again, check out Taylor's podcast episode to get the nitty gritty on disclosure. But I hope to leave you with this one thing: When in doubt, disclose.
Hold your integrity and the trust of your readers over everything else. Don't be smarmy. Not disclosing affiliate links is like the essence of smarm.
I'd love to know YOUR thoughts! Have you accidentally messed up disclosure in the past? Have you gotten a slew of emails that were clearly affiliate links?