Earlier this year, the FTC released an update to its .Com Disclosure Guidelines. The document expanded the applicability of the original guidelines to new marketing channels such as blogs and social media, and has some interesting implications for the affiliate marketing industry. We interviewed Eric Goldman about these implications. And more recently, industry veteran Tricia Meyer wrote a piece in ReveNews where she identified affiliate managers as the party that's primarily responsible for affiliate disclosure.
Curious about how merchants and affiliates were responding to the guidelines, we decided to check Twitter for affiliate activity and disclosure. We monitored for a specific set of Tweets that mentioned the term "coupon" somewhere in their content, included an affiliate link (for any of a handful of top-selling merchants), and that were not Retweets. Tweets needed to meet all three of these criteria in order to be counted.
Our monitoring ran from November 15th through December 5th, covering Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Once we collected our data set, we combed through it for any Tweets that included some form of disclosure. For example, hashtags such as #ad or #afflink are appropriate methods of disclosure. So is the string "Ad:" at the beginning of a Tweet. The following sample Tweet illustrates affiliate disclosure quite well:
— Dannielle Cresp (@danniellecresp) November 26, 2013
Results: How Common Was Affiliate Disclosure?
So, how well are affiliates keeping up with affiliate disclosure on Twitter? While our study cast a wide net by looking for Tweets with the term "coupon", our other criteria filtered down the results very significantly. Ultimately, we were left with a pool of 449 Tweets that directly linked to merchant's websites through affiliate links.
And of those 449 total affiliate Tweets, zero included any sort of disclosure at all. Not a single Tweet included "Ad:", #ad, #afflink, or any other obvious variations. None of the Tweets even included #spon, a hashtag shorthand for "sponsored" that has been deprecated by the FTC.
Time to Get Proactive about the FTC's Guidelines
While our study may not have been exhaustive, it doesn't reflect well on the industry's FTC compliance. The FTC is reasonable, as Tricia Meyer points out in her post—if you have a few low-volume affiliates who occasionally fail to make the appropriate disclosure, you may not end up getting investigated. But if your affiliates are consistently avoiding disclosure in social media, you may be exposing your company to a significant risk.
And as more time passes following the release of the FTC's latest .Com Disclosures, there may be less leeway for brands. The FTC may soon expect brands to have established some standards and protocols. And at that point, a 0% disclosure rate on Twitter may prove that a brand has not taken reasonable measures to ensure compliance. Therefore, it would probably be beneficial for brands to take a proactive approach sooner rather than later.