Blogger Basics: Freebie Disclosure

In December 2009 new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines on the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising took effect. The revised guidelines concern blog posts and other social media word-of-mouth marketing. The purpose of these FTC guidelines is to help advertisers, and now bloggers, stay in compliance with the FTC act.

The FTC has long held that “material connections” between advertisers and endorsers must be disclosed. If a blogger receives cash or some other in-kind compensation, for example, free products or conference registration, in return for writing about a product or service, that is considered an endorsement and must be disclosed to the public. Porter Novelli published a helpful six-page summary that includes historical context and recommended best practices.

Why has the FTC cracked down? Companies know that word-of-mouth is the most effective marketing, particularly when it’s from someone you trust. A blogger with a large readership might receive a basket of products or an all-expense paid trip from a company looking to reach her audience. In return for these favors, the blogger might write glowingly about the company’s product. Her readers trust her and buy the product — win-win for the company and the blogger. However, many of these bloggers weren’t disclosing the payola. Their readers trusted their endorsements without knowing the whole story. That is deceptive advertising.

As with all regulations, the interpretation of these guidelines will likely evolve as the FTC decides to pursue some cases and not others. However, the most ethical (and legally prudent) thing for a blogger to do is to disclose any freebies, no matter the cost, whether it’s a car, conference registration or meal at a restaurant. We’re human. ‘Free’ puts us in a mood to be kind, but not necessarily credible; your readers deserve to know that. Don’t deceive anyone by telling less than the whole story.

If you receive free products or services, how do you handle it? I’ll let Mary from the FTC tell you.

click to go to FTC site to watch 17-second video

Porter Novelli also recommends that bloggers who work with marketers create a disclosure policy.

Associations who partner with bloggers on outreach campaigns should also read the Porter Novelli summary and Maggie McGary’s post on the “slippery slope” of blogger outreach. Bloggers can certainly provide access to target audiences that associations may not be able to reach on their own, but everyone should be up front about expectations and ethics.

I wonder, are print media reporters, columnists and reviewers also required to make such disclosures? Anyone know?

Blogger Basics: Copyright

The web was buzzing last week with news that a small freebie magazine, Cooks Source, had allegedly committed a copyright violation by publishing a writer’s apple pie recipe and article without asking her permission. Edward Champion provided a synopsis of the entire incident and discovered quite a few other possible violations.

The magazine’s dubious actions would have been bad enough, but the editor further inflamed the situation by her arrogant and clueless response to the original author. The editor wrote,

“I have been doing this for 3 decades,…I do know about copyright laws….But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!…” (excerpts)

She refused to apologize or compensate the author, instead saying,

“You as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio.… We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me!”

It’s too late for this editor, but we can learn some lessons from her disgrace.

Understand copyright.

The U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress has an easy-to-understand Frequently Asked Questions section that explains basic copyright principles:

  • The moment you create a work and fix it in tangible form, that is, perceptible directly or online, your work is under copyright protection.
  • Original writings, artwork, photographs and other forms of authorship on a website are protected upon creation.
  • Unpublished work is protected.
  • The © symbol is not required for copyright protection.
  • Although your work may be protected, you can only sue for copyright infringement if your work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • The web is NOT public domain. Public domain is not a place. Public domain applies to works with expired copyrights, generally 70 years after the author’s death, or work that fails to meet requirements for copyright protection, for example, facts, ideas or methods of operation.
  • Under the fair use doctrine, you can use limited portions of a work, including quotes, for commentary, criticism and news reporting. An example of commentary that falls under the fair use doctrine are the editor’s quotes that I use above. By linking back to Monica’s website, readers have access to the original work.

Additional copyright resources:

copyright basics blogger blogging
flickr photo by 5tein

Get to know Creative Commons.

I use Creative Commons licensed photographs on my two blogs. Before you use a Creative Commons licensed work, find out which type of license applies. All of them require that you give attribution to the original author. Some give permission to alter a work, some won’t. Some do not allow commercial publication, some do.

Find photos on Flickr by using their search tool for Creative Commons licensed photos.  Flickr provides an explanation of the different types of Creative Commons licenses used on their site. You can find out whether there are usage restrictions on a photo by clicking on “Some rights reserved” under License. The license will always require that you give credit to those who share their work freely with you, either with their real name or Flickr username. You may also be required to link back to the original photo; if not, it’s good social media karma to do so.

Use Google Alerts for monitoring.

Monica found out about her copyright infringement because a friend saw her article and congratulated her on the publication. She wasn’t the only one surprised; other authors were not aware that their work was being used by Cooks Source, even though it appeared online. If they had created Google Alerts and other alerts for their name, they would have found out much earlier.

My recent post, Social Media Monitoring, explains how to find out if your name or blog is mentioned online.

I’m not a copyright expert, like many of you, I continue to learn. The last thing I want to do is unfairly take advantage of someone else’s original work, time and energy.

UPDATE: Since we’re all following along, Cooks Source released a statement on what is left of their website. (4:55pm, November 9, 2010)

Blogger’s Block: What the Heck Will I Write About Today?

“Creativity is nothing but active listening,” says Scott Ginsburg in an interview with Susan Young. “I make observations, I listen, I write everything down. I’ll always have a full reservoir.”

How’s your reservoir? Is it at capacity or in a drought alert? Do you find yourself staring at the monitor, brain bereft of any inspiring thoughts and deadlines looming on the calendar? Judging by all the recent posts on blog content ideas, you are not alone. Here are a few that address the dreaded blogger’s block.

I can’t think of anything unique to say.

Does that sound familiar? Get over it! My outline and notes for this post were sitting in draft for a few weeks; during that time, several posts were published about finding content ideas. However, I know this is a hot topic for many of us and no one has time to read everything, so it’s perfectly fine for me to share my take with my readers. Don’t let the unique excuse become a barrier to publishing.

Kick start your content creation.

What are some of the most frequently asked questions by your members, customers or attendees? What problems do they have? Create a system to keep track of the questions or concerns that come into your organization:

  • Phone calls to your main number, information or customer service desk
  • Emails to staff
  • Website form
  • Questions in blog comments

What are the common search terms or phrases leading folks to your website or used on your website search engine?

What are other industry blogs talking about? What’s your take on the issue? See if there are any new questions or ideas raised in the comments that you can write about.

Gather ideas by polling your members. Send out an email with a link to a survey. Create a quick poll for your home page. Distribute one-question survey cards at your events. Ask members directly while on the phone or in person.

  • What do your members, and particularly those new to your industry or profession, want to learn more about?
  • What issue confuses them?
  • What don’t they understand about your organization or its policies, your industry or profession?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • What are they curious about?
  • If they could ask one question to the CEO or another industry VIP, what would it be?

Review the tweets of those you follow for the kernel of an idea. Scan the hashtag stream from a conference or twitter chat. Don’t limit your review of conference hashtags to those related to your industry. I’ve seen many interesting ideas in tweets from the keynote speakers of the most random conferences. Read tweets from ongoing TEDx conferences for a diverse selection of thought-provoking ideas.

Is anyone doing something innovative or unusual in your industry or profession? Has anyone come up with a solution to a common problem? Write about the successes of your members if there are lessons to be learned from those stories. If members are willing to share, write about failures and lessons learned; provide the cloak of anonymity for those unwilling to be publicly forthcoming.

Review a blog, event, book, or resource that your audience would appreciate.

When all else fails, suggest some good reads from other blogs. Provide the author’s name and link to the post with a descriptive blurb. If you have enough to say about the post, turn it into a short post. Always give credit to the blogger by linking to the original post.

Build up a stable of guest bloggers. Or ask another industry blogger if you could publish an excerpt of one of her posts with a link back to her blog where your readers can read it in its entirety.

Have monthly blog brainstorming lunches with your colleagues. Capture all the ideas flying around the table. If an idea won’t work now, it may work in the future or with some tweaking.

Where do you get your blogging inspiration?

It’s Love a Lurker Day

Today, March 19 is Love a Lurker Day. Yes! I love lurkers! Many thanks to Kiki L’Italien who way back in December came up with the idea for Love a Lurker Day.

Anyone who blogs loves their readers. We love you truly deeply and ardently, those of you we know about and those we only know about because of blog stats. I know you’re out there. I love it when you comment because you make me think or just make me happy. And even if you don’t comment, I’m still happy you visited. You chose to come here and read. That’s really cool, and I am very grateful.

According to Forrester Research’s latest data, 70% of online adults are Spectators, aka Lurkers. When you think about your members, most of them are lurkers or “mailbox members.” They don’t actively participate or volunteer in any way. In ASAE’s Decision to Join we learn that those who don’t volunteer are much less likely to recommend membership than those who are involved, even those involved in an ad-hoc (or episodic) way — an hour here, an hour there. Why? When they stop lurking and start participating they have an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, use their skills or talents and belong to a community. That is the benefit of volunteering that we don’t always talk about, maybe because it’s too “woo woo.”

flickr: Theresa_Thompson

Most of us bloggers started out as lurkers. I was a lurker for a long long time. You could say that I wasn’t so much an Early Adopter as an Early Lurker. Way back in the 90’s I first discovered the web, courtesy of a Brazilian colleague at the World Bank who showed me this really cool thing called Mosaic. Then I discovered newsgroups, remember those? That’s where I got recipes and beer and restaurant recommendations for several trips to Europe. I was a lurker there.

In the early 2000’s I discovered Readerville, an online community for, yes, readers. Again, I was a lurker even though it was a really active community that provided me tons of good book recommendations. Newsgroups and Readerville — they were social media, way back then. Later I started reading blogs, again, as a lurker. I kept reading about this Twitter thing, thanks to my tweeps who attended ASAE’s San Diego meeting in 2008. Finally I created a Twitter profile and slowly came out of lurking mode.

I remember always thinking, what if what I say isn’t important, or it’s too shallow or even wrong. Then I realized many twitter users, none I knew personally of course, were offensive and obnoxious, so I couldn’t be any worse than that! I started participating in LinkedIn group discussions, then commenting on blogs, then tweeting more. One day last spring I took the biggest step and started this blog.

I write because I love the act of writing — finding just the right word or phrase, seeing the disheveled thoughts in my head somehow find clarity on my laptop screen. But I also write because I want to share, to help, to stimulate and to maybe spark a good thought in someone else’s head. I write because I want to be a positive giving part of the community that I found and love here online.

You’re part of that community too, whether you peep up or not. You might decide one day to stop lurking and write a comment or start tweeting, or you may keep on lurking. Either way, it’s okay. Your visits keep me going.

Thank you lurkers! Your presence always makes me smile. Cheers!

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