Brands recognize the need to engage influencers and advocates online to market their products. But fear of violating ofttimes cloudy FTC regulations makes some marketers hesitate.

Andy Sernovitz, teacher of word of mouth marketing, recently gave some guidance on engaging advocates while staying within FTC restrictions. Andy is the New York Times bestselling author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking and CEO of SocialMedia.org and WordofMouth.org. He is also on the Bazaarvoice Advisory Board. You can listen to Andy’s full comments in this webinar. And you can read part two of this interview here, in which Andy discusses encouraging employee advocacy while staying FTC compliant.

On Facebook, Twitter, etc., if there are disclosures in the “About” section of a page that you refer to in a post, is that enough to keep the post compliant?

Andy: The test is: Is it clear, conspicuous, and upfront. If [the link] has bit.ly slash something, and they have to click through to see the disclosure, that’s not good enough. You got them to click; they got tricked into clicking. Disclosure has to be the first thing they see upfront, so they know it is marketing before they act on the marketing.

Would it be easier to simply not have reviews or Q&A on your site, and thus avoid these regulations altogether?

No. Reviews are great. You should have reviews on your site. And, third parties coming to your website, that’s not the deception issue. They are real consumers posting real reviews about your products. You incentivizing people to go out to other websites and write reviews is where the deception would come in, especially if they’re not actually users of the product. So, reviews are great, and I love word of mouth. It’s the issue of trying to do fake reviews, or encouraging other people to do fake reviews, or compensating people for reviews and not revealing that you hired them or compensated them to review for you.

And again – these aren’t new regulations. These are hundred year old regulations that say you can’t have people writing fake testimonials. Nothing new here just because it’s online, it’s on social media, it’s on a product review; absolutely nothing new here.

If you’re sending samples to a blogger without paying them, is the blogger required to disclose that they got your product for free?

Yes. If you’re sending somebody something and saying, “We’d like you to blog about this,” that is a form of compensation, and they are required to disclose that they got it from you… That’s exactly the heart of what you’re required to disclose. Now, if you’re passing out samples – if Starbucks has samples out on the street that people can walk by and grab, and it’s not related to a marketing campaign – that general public kind of sample, there’s no disclosure required. But if it’s, “Take this stuff and write about it,” that absolutely has to be disclosed.

What about asking influencers for help, in exchange for a promotion or a coupon?

There’s two specific disclosure requirements that are hit here. You’re saying, “If you go talk about us, we’ll give you this coupon,” which means you are compensating them for promoting your business… The other thing is, if the influencer is part of a formal program – you’ve signed them up to represent your brand, and they’re an advocate or “buzzer” or influencer (or whatever you want to call it) – the fact that they’re participating in a marketing program means they are a marketing voice of your company… their opinions aren’t objective of your company, they’re marketing opinions, and they need to say it’s marketing.

If you tie all of these questions together, it’s really the same theme, which is: As a company, you can do whatever you want. But, if you’re trying to make advertising look like personal opinions, it has to be disclosed that it has a marketing objective.

On Twitter: Say a blogger doesn’t mention the brand in a tweet, but links back to a sponsored post. Where should the disclosure live?

For this one, there’s lots and lots of very specific screen shots and examples in the FTC rules, and you should download them. That’s exactly the kind of thing that’s most deceptive on Twitter. [The blogger has been] asked to tweet something, you think it’s their personal opinion, you click through and it’s sponsored – you’ve been tricked into reading marketing, because you didn’t know that the tweet was actually promoting a marketing message on the website. There has to be disclosure within that specific tweet, it has to be real disclosure – something obvious like #ad or #paid, or the link has to say “Click here to learn about this offer.” But if they have to click first and then find out it was advertising, the deception has already happened.

What rules apply to social contests? For example, “Tell us your story for a chance to win X product.”

Assuming that they’re telling the story on your website, and it’s real people, and they’re not being compensated, and the rules are clear and everybody sees that it’s a contest, that’s good disclosure that nicely meets the “clear and conspicuous” test.

Do the new FTC rules change the way brands can use customer reviews in marketing? Such as: When an ad for a product features a five-star rating, along with an excerpt from an actual review, from a real customer, who truly bought and used the product. 

I think you’re fine. It’s consumer opinion that looks like consumer opinion. If you’re trying to make your marketing look like “not marketing,” like regular people, that’s a problem. If it’s using regular people in your marketing, as long as they’re real people and those are real reviews, then you’re totally good.

In part two of this interview, available here, Andy discusses engaging employees internally as advocates while staying FTC compliant.