We have a mission statement at Bazaarvoice: “Changing the world one authentic conversation at a time.” Authenticity is the cornerstone of our business—we believe that consumers have a right to trust the word of mouth content that they encounter every day. Of course, we’re not alone in this belief. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as part of its efforts to help protect against unfair or deceptive product endorsements and testimonials, has issued guidelines for disclosures in online advertising. In March of this year, the FTC released a paper entitled “.com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising,” which has spurred a number of questions from companies who are unclear about how the new guidance affects social media users engaged in writing product reviews.

The FTC’s guidance aligns with a critical component of true authenticity, which is that reviews are transparent. By this, I not only mean that the direct solicitation of positive reviews is prohibited, but also that if consumers are incented via monetary or other means such as discounts or coupons, the reviews must disclose that the consumer was given something of value in return for providing the unbiased review. Further, employees and vendors of the organization may not submit content without disclosing their relationship to the product or service.

According to the FTC’s guidelines, disclosure can be in the form of text or a badge. However, the most important aspect is it is displayed clear and concise for the reader interacting with this content so he or she can make an objective and unbiased opinion of the product and service. To meet these requirements, Bazaarvoice recommends three best practices for companies who capture and display reviews on their website:

  • Identify the need for disclosure before a review is submitted. The review submission form should ask: Did you receive a discount or other incentive in exchange for providing this review? Are you an employee or shareholder of the company who provides the product or service you are reviewing? Require that these questions are answered—via a yes/no checkbox or other simple mechanism—before the review can be successfully submitted.
  • Encourage the reviewer to write a specific disclosure in the body of the review. Even if you use a badge to individually identify incentivized reviews, it’s best that the disclosure is contained in the post itself. Ask the reviewer to write something as simple as, “Company ABC gave me a 10% discount on shipping” or “I work in marketing at Company ABC” to help ensure reader can clearly identify the material connection between the reviewer and your brand.
  • Include disclosure instructions as part of your company’s social media or compliance policies. Hopefully your organization already has a social media policy that includes a healthy section on authenticity. If you don’t already have rules regarding disclosure, it’s easy to insert language that requires employees who write reviews of your company’s products or services (and those of your close partners, if it’s warranted) to include their name, title, and your company name in the text of their review.

The FTC’s disclosure guidelines, and the steps you can take to comply with them, are relatively simple. More important, these guidelines and best practices exist to protect consumers as well as brands and retailers. When implemented correctly, disclosures are just one more element that helps readers decide how much weight to give a particular review, which increases both the reviewer’s credibility and the authenticity of the content on your company’s site.