Blogging, Disclosure and the FTC

blogging disclosure ftc

A lot has changed in the blogging/social media space in the past year or so, mostly due to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) getting involved. You may notice more mentions of sponsors and affiliate links in my posts and perhaps in posts on other blogs. For those of you who are not bloggers, that may be confusing and even annoying. You may assume that I am suddenly changing the focus of my blog or trying to take advantage of my audience. Or maybe you don’t even notice since it doesn’t mean anything to you. Either way, I wanted to write this post in the interest of authenticity and transparency.

So in case you were wondering . . .

Are you changing the direction of your blog?

Nope! I’ve accepted sponsored posts and used affiliate links and had advertising for many years, and none of that has changed lately. But the FTC has been cracking down on bloggers and requiring “clear and conspicuous disclosure statements” in order to make sure that all bloggers are being transparent about our relationships with brands. So it might appear that I’m being more blatant about it.

I have always been transparent with my audience. When I get a product for free, I tell you that I did. When a post is sponsored by a brand, I say so. Plus I have a disclosure statement visible on my sidebar at all times that explains my policies, and I think that is sufficient.

But the FTC is now requiring that bloggers actually state early-on in a post if it is sponsored, and if we are using an affiliate or referral link, that disclosure needs to be in close proximity to the link.

We bloggers find this a little bit frustrating. I don’t mind disclosing my relationships with brands. In fact, I think it is very important to be open and honest about that. I’m not trying to hide anything from you because I want you to know that you can trust me. But I do find it annoying that I have to wave a big red flag in front of every sponsored post or affiliate link because I feel that it interrupts the flow of my writing. I prefer to disclose in my own natural language when it makes sense within the post.

So, how DO you make money blogging, and what the heck is an affiliate link?

I wrote a post a few years ago about how I make money on my blog, and I listed the various ways to make money blogging. I was going to simply link to that post and call it a day, and then I realized that I didn’t really explain each component very well, if at all. So let’s break it down.

Sponsored Posts

A sponsored post means that a brand is paying me for that post. They may want me to share about their product or service, more more often, they may have a writing prompt or topic they’d like me to discuss. There may be a due date or other requirements that I agree to because I am being paid, and it is a business transaction.

I like sponsored posts because I enjoy having writing prompts to work from, and I only accept the ones that I believe are a good fit for you AND for me, and ones for which I have a relatable story to tell. I can assure you that I put every bit of heart and soul into sponsored posts that I do in my non-sponsored posts.

I try to keep my regular to sponsored post ratio at about 4:1. That means if I take on more sponsored posts one week, I will write more non-sponsored posts. I always have topics on my mind and ideas I want to share. The challenge is finding time to write them, not coming up with topics.

Product Reviews

I am not paid for product reviews. Product reviews are supposed to be my honest opinion about a product or experience, and I’m not paid to say I love it or even required to write about it at all. I’m always very up front with the brand when accepting a product to review that it is for consideration, and if I love it, I may write about it.

Even though I’m not paid for a product review, I am expected to claim the value of the product on my taxes, which does make them a form of compensation. But if you think about it, it’s not so much a freebie when I have to pay 30-40% of the retail value back to Uncle Sam. For that reason, I only accept products for review that I truly want to try and that I think I will like.

I am often asked, what happens if I don’t like a product I’m sent to review? If I don’t like it, I will tell the brand why, and I usually don’t bother writing about it at all. The purpose of my blog isn’t to share the good and the bad about anything I try, rather, it is to bring you the best of food and fashion and fitness and travel. That said, I don’t write only the positives about a product in a review. If there are ways I think it could be improved, I try to point that out so that my review is candid and authentic and because I know you trust me and I value that.

Affiliate Links and Referral Codes

This might be the most nebulous of all the types of revenue a blogger generates, so let me explain. I partner with various brands that I use often (such as Nordstrom and LOFT) as an affiliate. They provide me with a personal code that is inserted in the hyperlink that I use to link to products on their site that I am writing about; that is called an affiliate link. I earn a small commission (a percentage) when someone clicks on one of my affiliate links and makes a purchase. We’re talking a few cents on a dollar, but it adds up.  When I use affiliate links, I will say that compensated affiliate links are used in my post, and I may even put (affiliate) beside the link to the item, per the FTC.

THIS IS WHAT I WANT YOU TO KNOW: You are not being charged more for that product when I use an affiliate link. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it definitely helps me offset the costs of running this site.

Referral codes are a bit different. Some sites (such as Zulily) give you a code that you can use to share about them with your friend and readers, and you get a flat rate for each referral who makes a purchase. Anyone who signs up with Zulily (and other similar sites) gets a referral code to use — you don’t have to be a blogger or publisher.

Again, I only sign up to be an affiliate when I love the brand, and it is usually a brand I link to often. If I am recommending something with an affiliate link, you know that it has my stamp of approval.

Advertising

There are ad networks that a blogger can join, and those networks handle all the negotiation between the brands and the ads that are shown. The blogger simply places a code where we want the ad to appear and those ads run without our control. I’ve used several ad networks over the years, and they vary as far as how much control you have over the types of ads that are shown. I usually get frustrated with some of the ads I see on my site.

Right now I’m running Google Adsense, and I can opt out of certain types of ads (like fast food and pharmaceuticals) but the ads they are showing are largely based on what YOU are looking at on YOUR computer. Yes, Google is THAT smart. So I may not see the ads that you see, making it hard to vet them properly. I’m sure you’re seeing ads that contradict my content at times, although I work very hard to keep them consistent with my principles. (Feel free to email me if you see ads pop up that you think are inconsistent with my brand so I can opt out.)

I also sell private ads, where a brand will send me an image and I place it in my sidebar for a determined period of time with a link to the sponsor’s site. It stays there until I remove it. I often place ads for brands that I am working with on sponsored campaigns or for products that I  love. Sometimes those ads are affiliates too, so I’m not paid a flat rate for posting, but if the links are clicked and purchases are made, I make a small percentage of the sale.

Freelancing

In addition to the income methods mentioned above, I also accept freelance writing jobs (the cookbook and my ongoing gig at Smart Beauty Guide, for example) to help supplement the income I make blogging. I manage the Facebook and Twitter accounts for a small food company, Rose Romano’s Gourmet Italian Topping, and I’ve been known to do some consulting and blogger outreach but I don’t do much of that anymore. I have decided that as much as I can, I want to focus on growing my own brand, which is namely my blog and associated projects.

PHEW!!! Got all that??

So, um. Why should we support your fun hobby?

If anyone is thinking this, let me explain that for one thing, it costs me about $2500 a year to run this site. That doesn’t include design costs; that is simply my hosting service and general maintenance. The more I post, the more images I load, and the more traffic I generate, the more it costs to host and maintain the site. I see ads, sponsored posts and affiliate marketing as natural ways to offset the costs of running a large blog.

Then of course I have to pay taxes on all revenue generated from the blog PLUS on any products I receive for blogging. In other words, it takes a lot of well-paid sponsored posts and affiliate link purchases to actually make a decent income on a blog. This is why most bloggers make the majority of their income outside of their blog, such as freelance writing gigs, doing social media outreach for brands (finding bloggers to review their products or write sponsored posts), managing brands social media accounts such as Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest, planning and hosting events, writing books and ebooks, and consulting.

For me, simply put, there is no way I could put out the content I do if I wasn’t generating some sort of income, and I put my heart and soul into my little corner of the internet, and I work tirelessly to produce quality content that is not only entertaining but hopefully valuable and informative. I would have probably gone back to teaching if I hadn’t discovered social media, and this site would have surely fizzled into nothing… or maybe an occasional update about my kids or my stupid foot. LOL!!!

I feel that the focus of my blog hasn’t changed as much as it’s evolved into from a personal journal to more of an online magazine from my point of view. While some of you appreciate that, I realize that others have moved on to other blogs, and that is fine. I’m having a blast, and I’m just thrilled that so many of you have joined me for the ride.

I hope this post helps explain a little bit about how pro blogging works and why we do what we do. A few years ago, I only dreamed that blogging could one day be a full-time job, and I am so thankful for this opportunity to help support our family doing something I enjoy so much.

Comments

  1. says

    I love that you spoke about this so openly. It’s actually a great idea, and I might follow your lead and do something similar on my blog. I take for granted that readers understand my motives when really, many may not. Great post!

  2. says

    Thank you very much for this post. I am thinking of writing something similar for my readers. When I do, I think I will refer them to this blog post.

  3. says

    Hi Jo-Lynne, I have a link explaining my affiliate status and such that’s visible from every page of my site, but apparently that’s not enough. I HATE making affiliate links to obvious, yes they do make the reading experience awkward. Do you know any of these bloggers who have been contacted by the FTC? Is it a cease-and-desist type of thing, are they given time to comply, or what? Thanks!

  4. says

    Hi Jo-Lynne-
    I’m a brand new blogger, so obviously this doesn’t apply to me. However, you did such a great job of clearly explaining this issue, I linked it to my Google + page. Thanks.

  5. says

    I really think an affiliate type disclosure on the side of your blog should be plenty good. I think the FTC is taking things too far. I would find it very annoying, as a blog owner, to have to disclose every little thing, if I advertised on my blog.

    Nell

  6. says

    So very well written Jo-Lynne! And I completely agree with you that it breaks up the flow of my writing when I have to list (affiliate link) right in the middle of my post when I am explaining something… and I know that as a reader I would want to know where to buy this thing that I am talking about…. but the average person doesn’t necessarily understand “affiliate link” which means I always feel compelled to explain what that means…. and pretty soon I am 50 words past my subject and ruin the whole thread of my story!

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