Sponsored Posts, Ads, Reviews, the ASA and Your Blog

This week our twitter chat centred on the rules surrounding advertising and blogs. Following a post from the ASA seeking to clarify the position for bloggers we led a pop quiz discussion on everything you need to know.

We’ve rounded up the key points for bloggers here and you can also read the chat in full. Of course we are not legally qualified and all advice is our interpretation of the information available. If in doubt always consult a relevant professional.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

So what have the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) said? In brief they have written to confirm people’s understanding of the advertising rules. They say:

Ads must be clearly identifiable as such. Put simply, a blogger who is given money to promote a product or service has to ensure readers are aware they’re being advertised to.

This means that when reading a post (or tweet/pin/instagram/facebook update etc) that has a commercial relationship attached (you were paid to post it or part of it or you have a relationship with the company) the reader can see immediately that it is an advert. Think about ads in magazines that try to look like normal features – they are clearly marked as Advertorial.

If you present a post about a product without clearly disclosing that you have been paid to advertise it then it’s not only the ASA who will be in touch but you could also find yourself having to deal with your local Trading Standards officers.

They make it very clear that it is perfectly fine to have paid content on your site or to accept gifts from PRs hoping for good coverage so long as it is clearly marked as such. They say:

Signposting it as “ad” “advertorial” or “sponsored content” is a simple hassle free way to make it immediately clear to readers

As simple as that. They closed their article by saying that they aren’t overwhelmed with complaints but are finding that bloggers who know the rules are flagging up those who don’t.

The ASA said amongst the most effective sanctions in their armoury is to highlight bloggers who have failed to comply as it breaks the trust they had from their readership.

In a follow up article from Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) a couple of recent affiliate link and tweet cases were highlighted. They stressed that you can always seek guidence from Copy Advice.

Phew! It’s both simple and quite a bit all at once. We discussed some of the common concerns we hear on the twitter chat this week.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

First up – are reviews sponsored content?

It depends on whether you have been paid to post the review. All content which has been paid for is considered advertising. Ordinarily reviews aren’t paid content. If you have been sent a product to try and/or keep so long as you disclose this fact your post isn’t sponsored or an advert.

As the publisher you are responsible for ensuring any claims made about the product can be substantiated. For example, if your PR contact tells you a product has been proven to cure the common cold think twice before you repeat it. This year both Yakult and Flora, amongst others, have had adverts banned over unsubstantiated health claims.

Stick to the facts of your experience and opinion and you will be fine.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

So what is sponsored?

Sponsored content or advertising is anything you have been paid to publish. This isn’t limited to your activity on your blog but across all social media platforms.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

 

How should you (and how do you) disclose your posts so they are within ASA guidelines?

The ASA advise to keep it clear and suggest ad, advertorial or sponsored as words which will signpost the article. The advertising code states:

2.4    Marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications; for example, by heading them “advertisement feature”

One of the key words in there is heading – if the disclosure is at the foot of an article which may not be read then you could be in breach.

We asked how people felt as readers when disclosure wasn’t clear or at the end of the post:

 

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

The majority wanted to know up front so it’s not just the ASA who want it at the top but your readers probably do too!

We also discussed terms that SEO companies are asking bloggers to use instead of the more obvious terms laid out by the ASA. They range from PR Collaboration through Featured Post to Inspired by and beyond. There are probably teams of people trying to come up with new terms right now and why is that…

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

ASA Rules for bloggers - a must read post if you're blogging in the UK.

Yes, it’s because they don’t want to fall foul of Google and have their clients down-ranked for buying links which is against Google’s webmaster guidelines. Why yes, you are a Webmaster, have a cloak!

Here’s the deal: if you are paid for content or links Google wants you to add the code rel=”nofollow” to the link html so its algorithm know to ignore the link when ranking sites. The SEO companies buying guest posts or paying for links want you to leave out the code but also leave out the disclosure in the hopes that they sneak under Google’s radar.

You may choose to sell links or guest content and risk being penalised by Google, if you then you know what you are risking (being wiped off Google) – none of that is the law. But, if you do not comply with the ASA advertising rules then you’re going to be in more hot water than losing your page one for tomato soup.

Many of the bloggers on our chat said they just say no when a company starts making requests that flout the rules. Often bloggers have a terms and conditions agreement they send out with their price list when contacted then refer them back to this when they’re being held to ransom after publishing.

Here are some of the other questions which came out on the night:

Do I have to disclose affiliate links? The answer is yes and do it before the reader gets to the link. This ASA Adjudication against PlayPennies should give you an idea about what could get you in trouble – not disclosing a link AND making claims they could not prove about the product price.

Should my affiliate links be nofollow? This video of Google’s Matt Cutts from 2012 suggests you don’t have to although it is best practice to make them nofollow (thanks to Jax and Ruth for highlighting this).

If your blog is hosted in a different country, whose rules do you follow? It’s always wise to follow the UK rules if that’s where you are based but if your hosting is in the US, for example, you could come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Much like the UK, you’re expected to disclose clearly and at the outset of your post. Read the full .com Disclosures document here and if you want some blogger to blogger advice this article from BlogHer is a good place to begin.

What about HMRC? If you are earning money from your blog you’ll need to declare this in a tax return. You may be required to declare some products or gifts especially if you sell them on. To find out more either consult an accountant or contact HMRC for advice. Lucy wrote her views on bloggers and tax recently.

Thank you to everyone who joined us and if you haven’t joined a #blogtacular twitter chat yet we hold them every Wednesday at 9pm UK time. Grab some snacks and join the conversation!