When I started my career as a professional journalist, I learned quickly about the “separation of church and state” in print media. The rules were clear: State (ad sales) must have no influence on the church (editorial). Sales reps didn’t always appreciate this delineation, and some tried hard to sway us, insisting one little product placement would help them seal a major deal. But that was their problem. Ad revenue be damned, our journalistic integrity could not be bought.
Ten years later, in a digital world where some brands have larger audiences than national media outlets, marketing ethics have become murky and the line between church and state has all but disappeared. As a freelance writer who now creates branded content for companies, I suppose you could argue that I have compromised my journalistic integrity or sold my soul. But I don’t see it that way.
Done right, content marketing isn’t deceitful or dishonest. It’s a way for companies to tell engaging stories, share expertise, and provide information that helps consumers make informed decisions. Besides, consumers don’t expect brands to be impartial. Branded content only becomes problematic when companies get sneaky about it—when they try to pass off sponsored content and paid endorsements as unbiased, third-party editorial. That’s when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) steps in, and customers sign off.
Until recently, online marketing has been a bit of a free-for-all. As everyone grappled to understand what advertising would look like in the digital world, many brands, bloggers, and media outlets have been less than forthright about company-sponsored ads and editorial.
The FTC hopes to change that. In 2013, the organization amended the rules it set forth for print publishing and early Internet users to include guidelines for social, mobile, and native advertising. In a nutshell, the law states that sponsored content and paid endorsements must be clearly labeled as such when they appear on websites and social pages not belonging to the brand. These disclosures can’t be buried at the bottom of the page or noted with a hyperlink. The affiliation must be “clear and conspicuous.”
In other words, if a publisher, blogger, or social media user promotes your brand in exchange for some monetary gain, then you both have to disclose the arrangement. This includes freebies and contest prizes.
Several retailers have already come under fire as the FTC cracks down on marketing ethics. Last year, Lord & Taylor got a slap on the wrist after paying 50 popular style bloggers to take pictures of themselves wearing a paisley printed dress from the 2015 Design Lab line, and then post the photo on Instagram using the hashtag #DesignLab. The marketing campaign was a big hit, and the dress sold out almost immediately. But since none of the bloggers mentioned being paid for promoting the product, the FTC issued Lord & Taylor a stern warning.
Cole Haan got a similar warning when the company offered a $1,000 shopping spree to whomever could make the most creative Pinterest board featuring Cole Haan shoes, using #WanderingSole. These were regular users, not professional writers, and only one person actually got a free gift. But the same rules apply.
Thus far, the FTC has given most companies the benefit of a doubt and the chance to redeem themselves. But earlier this year, the organization filed a lawsuit against Lunada Biomedical for making false claims about its weight loss supplement for women over 40. Along with posting online ads, the company paid a popular menopause blogger thousands of dollars each month to praise the product and spread the false claims, a fact neither the brand nor the blogger disclosed to readers.
Even if FTC action against your brand doesn’t land you in court, it could land you in hot water with your audience. And that’s almost as bad.
Most people understand how business works; companies must advertise products and market ideas in order to engage customers. We’re okay with TV commercials and with product placement in movies because these tactics have been used for decades and everyone is in on it. But consumers are not okay with being misled by online advertisers.
Recent studies have shown that when sponsored content appears on social media and in other digital publications, consumers often fail to realize it’s not pure editorial. But when they do figure it out, they feel deceived. This is not only bad for your reputation, it’s also pointless, because consumers now trust forthright brands more than traditional media.
According to a 2014 Gallup survey, only 40 percent of Americans trust mass media. Yet Nielsen found that 69 percent of global consumers trust content from brand websites. In fact owned advertising ranked second on Nielsen’s list of most trusted marketing sources, following word of mouth from friends and family.
If you have a trustworthy brand with compelling stories, customers want to hear from you. So give it to them straight.
When it comes to content marketing, native advertising, and social marketing, where are the ethical lines and how can you stay on the right side?
1. Claim your content. If you pay another company or writer to publish your content, make that fact as clear as possible. You put a lot of time and money into creating it. So why wouldn’t you want to take credit?
Better yet, forget the affiliates and post your content on your own website. Just consider the following from the Content Marketing Institute:
Brand storytelling with rich content is powerful because audiences—the people formerly known merely as “consumers”—pay attention to valuable content and reward brand-authors by sharing such content with friends and strangers on social platforms. This social sharing increases impact (by two to four times, studies show) and reach (up to nine times, mathematical models show), reducing media spend and boosting efficiency (by as much as 100 times). A story good enough to accomplish all that is actually rendered less effective (from the advertisers’ viewpoint) by appearing to be part of a publisher’s site. Brand-told stories work harder for a brand when they appear on neutral platforms.
2. Note your native ads. If you post ads on social media or other third-party sites, don’t try to fool your audience into thinking they’re reading anything other than advertising. Even if the FTC doesn’t catch you, your customers will. In fact, they’re already onto you.
According to a MediaBrix/Harris Interactive survey, most adults who have seen advertising appearing as content on social media say the ads either did not affect their perception of the brands being advertised, or that the ads gave them a negative impression.
Don’t insult your customers’ intelligence, and definitely don’t spend big bucks to do it.
3. School your social media advocates. With the new FTC guidelines in place, social media endorsements seems to be where most brands run into trouble. Part of the problem is that brands are putting power into the hands of users, freelance writers, and other people who don’t work for their companies and who don’t know much about trade laws. Whether you’re paying freelance content marketers to promote articles they’ve written for your company, or you’re enticing users to brag about your brand in exchange for swag, create clear guidelines to ensure their posts don’t do your company more harm than good.
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