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The FTC Targets Social Media with Updated Guidelines: What Marketers Need to Know

In 2009, the FTC rolled out some guidelines to accommodate the world of new media. The online marketing sector raised many questions and concerns at the time but has learned to work with the recommendations. But, the FTC isn’t done with this area.

The commission recently updated its guidelines and now calls for “clearer” disclosure of influencer/brand relationships. To be fair, the primary message the FTC is trying to send hasn’t changed. The challenge is that, as the commission is being more specific, online marketing, and especially social media marketing, becomes a lot harder.

Understanding the Guidelines

This information can be a lot to digest and is already bringing anxiety to the marketing community. But, it’s important toBrian Clark understand, first of all, that these are guidelines. They aren’t rules or regulations. As Brian Clark, the CEO of Rainmaker Digital and founder of Copyblogger Media explained to us, endorsement guidelines were around even before the Internet existed. Yes, the Web and social media have complicated these areas since the online arena isn’t as clear as mediums such as radio and TV. But, the intent of the FTC to protect human interest still exists:

The Guides, at their core, reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading. An endorsement must reflect the honest opinion of the endorser and can’t be used to make a claim that the product’s marketer couldn’t legally make.

In addition, the Guides say if there’s a connection between an endorser and the marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed. For example, if an ad features an endorser who’s a relative or employee of the marketer, the ad is misleading unless the connection is made clear. The same is usually true if the endorser has been paid or given something of value to tout the product. The reason is obvious: Knowing about the connection is important information for anyone evaluating the endorsement.

Say you’re planning a vacation. You do some research and find a glowing review on someone’s blog that a particular resort is the most luxurious place he has ever stayed. If you knew the hotel had paid the blogger hundreds of dollars to say great things about it or that the blogger had stayed there for several days for free, it could affect how much weight you’d give the blogger’s endorsement. The blogger should, therefore, let his readers know about that relationship.

Another principle in the Guides applies to ads that feature endorsements from people who achieved exceptional, or even above average, results. An example is an endorser who says she lost 20 pounds in two months using the advertised product. If the advertiser doesn’t have proof that the endorser’s experience represents what people will generally achieve using the product as described in the ad (for example, by just taking a pill daily for two months), then an ad featuring that endorser must make clear to the audience what the generally expected results are.

The Enforcement Factor

This is the area that is of the biggest concern for many marketers. How will the FTC enforce these guidelines? Realistically, it would be next to impossible for the commission to monitor all this activity online. Still, this doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. While we may not agree with the guidelines, it is important that marketers take them seriously.

Rebecca Lieb “FTC or no FTC, disclosure is always important. It doesn’t help brands in the long run to be suspected of trying to trick or dupe consumers,” Rebecca Lieb, recognized marketing author, speaker and principal of Conglomotron LLC, explained to us.

“These new FTC guidelines could also be termed “best practices” for marketers to operate effectively, as well as transparently, on social media. Upfront disclosure is always preferable to accusations of intentionally trying to hoodwink an unsuspecting public.”

In the past, entities like the commission would focus on large brands to showcase their authority. Small businesses shouldn’t sit idly by though. Any business could fall under scrutiny.

The Threat to Social Media

Another extremely challenging area for marketers with this update to the guidelines is how the FTC is asking the disclosure take place. Twitter, for instance, has a strict character limit. Still, the guidelines say: “…a disclosure on a profile page isn’t sufficient because many people in your audience probably won’t see it.” As a result, the disclosure would need to happen within the 140-character limit tweet, which may take away from the message.

According to Clark, a corporate Twitter account can freely promote its own products and services. But, disclosure does need to be apparent when the promotion is coming from an employee.

Correct tweet: I’m so proud of all the new features in our <cool product>.

Incorrect tweet: Check out <cool product>.

“When you’re promoting a client, or a company you have an investment in, or a product you’ve been paid to pitch (even as an affiliate), you have to disclose, period,” he went on to explain. “That’s always been the law in earlier mediums, so it’s consistent. It’s just that we’re all the media now.” (Emphasis added.)

Despite the extra effort on the part of marketers, this update is not likely to impact social media adoption by businesses. Social media is simply a natural part of the marketing mix, and its benefits outweigh these additional challenges.

Takeaway

While these guidelines aren’t exactly welcome to the marketing community, the industry needs to be prepared to take these on just as it has other challenges. Lieb reminded us that there were similar outcries when the FTC challenged email marketing and search advertising. The FTC lays out these types of guidelines to encourage the industry to self-regulate. The changes aren’t wanted, but marketers will find a way to continue connecting with their target audience, even if it requires multiple tweets to get a message across.

Most importantly, marketers need to stay educated on these issues. Change often brings new challenges, but by staying informed, it’s possible to turn these challenges into opportunities for you and your client.

Getting on Board with the Future of Social Media, Mobile & Tech

 

What's the Future of Social Media and Tech?

During the holidays, Fisher-Price released a baby bouncy seat called the Newborn-to-Toddler Apptivity Seat for iPad that, yes, includes an iPad holder. Is this too much? Or, is it just a natural segue into where society is headed in terms of technology. Fisher Price has been widely scrutinized by children’s advocates amid cries of “babies need laps, not apps.”

Regardless about how you feel about this particular issue, the incident feeds to bigger speculation about where technology and social media will take the next generation. It’s an interesting thought to consider.

A recent study from Ooyala, a digital video provider, found that mobile and tablet video consumption grew 133 percent year-over-year. This is huge. We’ve known for a while now that “live” TV wasn’t what it once was with the ability to record shows for later viewing and download and watch them online. But, to see this kind of growth means that user behavior is changing rapidly.

The same is true for social media. We live in a society that accepts “selfie” as a word. Instead of communicating through a note or even a phone call or email, the new way of communication is through texting or services like Snapchat.

Last summer, the Huffington Post ran an article explaining why social media is a serious threat to the professional future of today’s children. Though the article has some good points, we at SugarSpun, do not believe that social media is a hazard (Duh!). Yes, there are things that teenagers and adults alike are posting and sharing across social media that could be detrimental to their future careers. But, social media isn’t to blame for this. We, as a society, do need to do a better job of educating the younger generation on the permanency of content, but this is no different than content posted anywhere else on the Internet.

The truth is that we are definitely going through a transitional period. Communication has and will continue to change. The hottest tool today may or may not be that cool tomorrow. But, this isn’t bad. While this could mean that we’ll soon find ourselves feeling like we’re living in real-life SCI-FI film or TV show like our SugarSpun president loves so much to watch, it also opens doors for new development and innovation.

Take us, for instance. The majority of our business involves social media. Since it has blown up – and is still continuing to – it has created an entire new marketplace for people like us to create vocations around. Also, similar to when the Internet and blogging first started to emerge and began to give introverts a voice, the same is true with social media.

Business Impact

What does this mean from a business and marketing standpoint? For one, it’s clear that the next generation could likely take us to, what we currently think, is a SCI-FI level. Kids today are growing up in a world where they virtually never have to watch commercials and can always watch Netflix while driving down the road. If my 2-year-old niece can clearly navigate an iPhone and iPad and thinks that a phone call is FaceTime or Skype, then her generation is going to go even beyond a touchscreen stove.

Next Generation Whirlpool Stove

But, all this also means that if social media and technology integration is not a big part of your plan, then you need to make adjustments. We’ve said it before, and we’ll continue to say it until we’re blue in the face – social media is not going away.

It’s a new year, but have you really made changes to the “way you’ve always done business”? Yes, there is a place for consistency, as we talked about last week, but beyond this, times are changing. Having a successful, modern business today is so much more than integrating social media. It’s all about the mentality. Are you breaking down the walls and being transparent? Are you being visual by utilizing tools such as video, infographics, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.? Are you becoming an information source and expert instead of just a destination spot when a customer needs something? All these things and more will help you come through this transition period on top.

Whirlpool image courtesy of Mashable.

The World Does Not Begin and End With SEO

Ever notice how when someone finds a solution to a problem they’re having, it suddenly becomes the solution to everyone else’s problem as well? People who love their chiropractor tell you how much seeing one would help your sore back/sinus problem/shin splints/etc. People who have lost and kept weight off with a specific diet suggest how well it will work for you. People who experience success trying a marketing tactic tell you what a difference it will make for your company if you do it too.

WhisperingThis is fine and dandy. It’s called word of mouth and it’s a very effective way to influence decisions. The problem comes when the love of the solution supersedes the common sense needed to apply it properly. That chiropractor likely isn’t going to fix your blocked heart valve and that special diet probably won’t heal your broken ankle. In the same way, we need to remember as search engine marketers that just because something can help search results doesn’t make it a good mainstream marketing strategy.

Debra Mastaler pinged me this morning to point out a post that’s a good demonstration of a strategic search marketing ideas being pushed past the point of common sense. In a post over at SEOMoz, Rand Fishkin encourages marketers to replace the standard “visit us at domain.com” with “search for “company name” on Google” in their offline ads. His reasoning is that personalized search has now become the default option on engines like Google and driving consumers to the engine to search for and click on your listing is a good way to increase your relevancy in Google’s eyes so you’ll stand a better chance of ranking for other searches later.

Here’s how it would work…

  1. Superbowl Ad – A big company, let’s say Coke runs a Superbowl ad and closes it with “visit www.google.com and search for “Coke,” instead of simply giving consumers the company’s URL.
  2. Consumer Action – Joe Soda drinks the kool-aid…er, I mean cola…and heads to Google after the game. He searches for Coke, which will clearly pop up www.coke.com as a top result, clicks it and visits the site.
  3. Search Engine Action – Google makes note that Joe Soda clicked through to the coke.com domain and increases the relevancy of that domain for Joe Soda’s future searches.
  4. Consumer Action – Joe Soda is thirsty, but he’s tired of all those calories. He heads back to Google to find a new alternative and searches for “no calorie cola made with Splenda.” The hope here is that the past search will increase the relevancy for Coke.com enough to increase it’s chances of ranking well for that related search.

Now that’s fine and dandy in theory and I don’t doubt at all that there may be some positive impact by getting a bunch of people to search for and click on your domain name.

But Here’s the Big Gaping Hole in this Theory

DirectionsYou’ve just increased the barrier for your consumer and you’ve done it to benefit your own search rankings.

What I mean by that is you’ve made the consumer take an extra step to find your site and your product. You could have simply told them to visit you at www.coke.com but no, you got greedy. You knew it would be a benefit to your company’s search rankings to make them take that extra step to actually FIND you. It has nothing to do with what’s best or easy or convenient for the consumer, it has everything to do with your search engine optimization efforts.

Now let’s take a little detour into conversion optimization 101.

Less steps = more success.

It’s a very simple equation. Let’s look at it again…

Less steps = more success.

That’s right folks, the LESS things you ask a customer to do, the more likely they are to do it.

Now clearly we live in an enlightened enough world that most people can guess www.coke.com even if Coke is brazen enough to hide that info and direct users to go run a search instead. But what if you aren’t a big brand name like Coke? What if you’re a little beauty salon called Curl Up and Dye in Wisconsin? Are you really going to tell your customers to go and search for you in your TV, radio and newspaper ads? Heck no, you’re going to give them your URL and phone number to make it as easy as possible for them to find you. Otherwise, they’re going to go find someone else.

Optimize Your Own Dang Site

skeptical womanIt’s not the job of consumers to optimize our web sites. It’s not their job to take on MORE work in their daily activities so we stand a better chance of showing up for related searches down the road. Now I’m not saying there aren’t innovative ways to impact these things. A great example of this is a comment on the original post saying they’ve sent out direct mail pieces with specific instructions to search for a discount. This gives the customer something of value in exchange for their extra work and still offers the benefits of the original idea.

The problem I see repeatedly is a severe case of cranial rectal inversion. Our industry spends so much time talking algorithms and social sites and deep links and site wide links and blah blah blah that we forget to see things from the perspective of the everyday consumer. The average American watching the Superbowl doesn’t have the Google toolbar installed. They have no idea what Google Chrome or Google Wave are and they don’t know personalized search results are even being delivered to them. They just want to get to the information they want and need the fastest way possible. They don’t know, nor do they care, about the inner workings or latest and greatest features offered in the world of search.

So whether you’re part of the industry or you’re a small business owner, I’d ask you to remember to place common sense at the top of your marketing strategy arsenal. Stop thinking about what will benefit you or your rankings and start asking yourself in all honesty if this approach is going to benefit your users. If the answer is no, you need to move on to a new idea.

Strengthen Your Twitter Outreach with New Data

HubSpot has released their Third Annual State of the Twittersphere report and for those of us who keep tabs on Twitter from both the marketing and social interaction perspective the results are interesting. HubSpot analyzed the more than 5 million Twitter accounts and 6 million Tweets that have been collected by Twitter Grader.

Perhaps the biggest news in the report is the slowdown of Twitter’s phenomenal growth over the past few months. Twitter hit a peak of double digit month over month growth last spring when the service was responsible for breaking several news stories and when celebrities like Ashton Kutcher gave the service new exposure.

In the last half of 2009 however, growth of the service started to slow a bit. That’s not a bad thing, it simply means Twitter is starting to level out into a more realistic and sustainable growth rate.

Twitter User Growth

Twitter Users are more Engaged

It’s worthwhile to note that while growth is starting to slow, Twitter members are maturing in their use of the service. The average Twitter user is now following around 170 people (as opposed to about 40 people when HubSpot first analyzed this stat) and is being followed by an average of 300 other people.

Those numbers are some what skewed by power users, however. Twitter users like Ashton Kutcher literally have millions of followers, bringing the average numbers way up. In reality, most Twitter users are still operating with a fairly small network. In fact, 82% of Twitter users have less than 100 followers and roughly the same percentage are following less than 100 people themselves.

The average number of tweets per Twitter user has also increased dramatically, showing the users who stick with the service are taking the time to become truly invested in the conversation.

Twitter Users are Profiling Themselves

HubSpot also notes the number of users who have taken the time to write bios, specify their location and add a URL to their account has doubled since the last time they reported on Twitter. This again tells us that Twitter users are becoming more mature in their use of the service and they’re making sure they’re leveraging it properly.

Interesting Data on When Twitter Users are most Active

HubSpot also has some excellent insight into when people are using Twitter. This is essential data to have a grasp on if you’re looking to build a Twitter marketing strategy. After all, getting your message heard above the chatter on Twitter is difficult on a good day…post it on a day or at a time when no one is paying attention and you’re entire campaign can come to a screeching halt.

The highest usage days for Twitter are Thursday and Friday. There’s a sharp drop-off over the weekend and a slow ramp up that begins building again on Monday.

Twitter Usage by Day of the Week

Most Twitter users are night owls, actively tweeting in the evening between 10 and 11pm while wrapping up work or watching TV at home.

Twitter Usage by the Hour

By mixing this data with information presented by HubSpot’s Dan Zarella at last November’s PubCon, we can really start to build a picture of when the best times are to launch information you’d really like to see spread on Twitter.

At the show, Dan shared the following data:

  • The highest click thru rate on tweeted links occurs between 2 and 3pm. (Followed by the 8-9pm time slot and the 5-6pm time slot.)
  • Thursday, Saturday and Sunday experience the highest click thru levels, consistently beating the average.
  • The more links you tweet, the less likely people are to click those links.
  • Tweets that include links are far more likely to be retweeted than tweets without links.
  • The highest percentage of retweets occurs on Fridays at 4pm. (Monday afternoons also have high retweet rates.)

Dan also had some great data on the types of content that are most likely to be retweeted:

Types of Content that gets Retweeted

So How Does This Impact You?

There are several strong strategic points we can take away from this data.

We now know if you’re looking to use Twitter for viral purposes to get your message far and wide, it’s important to launch your efforts on those Monday and Friday afternoons when the most retweeting is taking place. We know it’s important to include links in those tweets and including links tied to breaking news or that are designed to inform and educate will increase our chances of being retweeted.

We also know if you’re looking to use Twitter purely for the click thrus and you already have a strong following, you’re going to want to focus your efforts in the early afternoon, around dinner or right around prime time. We also know you’ll want to be very selective in how often you tweet links so the ones you do share are well received and have the chance to increase your credibility.

Twitter can be a very effective way to spread the word about your business, but as with all other forms of marketing and advertising, it’s important to understand the dynamics of its users. The latest data from HubSpot proves the idea of day parting your message is just as effective on Twitter as it is elsewhere.

For more insight, you can download the full report as a PDF, or read the summary over at HubSpot.