New FTC regulations and ethics in travel blogging

Posted: December 1, 2009    Categories: Travel

As of today, December 1, the Federal Trade Commission is instituting new rules regarding how bloggers disclose relationships they have with companies. In particular, the the regulations are aimed at bloggers who review products and have a financial incentive (usually affiliate sales) in the product. I’ve spent the last several weeks reading articles about the new rules and have even listened to FTC officials try to explain the new rules, and I still am not totally certain what is and what isn’t allowed. In fact, I haven’t met anyone who can really explain what is and what is not acceptable with any sort of certainty. Honestly, I don’t think the FTC even knows.

Personally, I’m not worried. The one thing everyone agrees you need to do is to disclose any relationships you have with companies you work with. In particular, disclose anything which isn’t obviously an advertisement. For example, yesterday I wrote an article about my evolution as a photographer. In that article are links to for the products I mention. The reason I link to Amazon is simple: I get a small cut from Amazon if anyone buys anything after clicking on the link. The total amount is about 5%, and so far I’ve never gotten a dime from Amazon (but I have hope!). I do the same thing when I run contests for books from companies like Lonely Planet or National Geographic. I also get a small kickback from for people who sign up after clicking on a link from my site. (I highly recommend Smugmug and have trusted them with my entire online photo portfolio) The kickback is in the form of a discount on my future hosting fees, not cash money. You also get a $5 discount if you use my affiliate code. *Hint*

In the name of full disclosure, you should assume that any link from my site that deals with a product or company has some sort of affiliate program behind it. The reason is simple: it’s an easy way for me to make money, and it doesn’t cost the readers of the site a dime. The cut I get from the seller is out of their end. In reality, most of links on my site I’ve created in the last three years do not have affiliate programs behind them. Nonetheless, I probably will be doing it more in the future and for the sake of argument you should assume that anything I link to just might make me a few bucks.

The ethical issues come into play when I might be linking to something to make a buck, but it is something I wouldn’t otherwise endorse. Perhaps someone gave something to me for free (like a hotel room) and I am saying something nice in return. This is what I have to say on the matter:

  • As a reader, you have to determine who you trust. This doesn’t just apply to me, it applies to everyone. If you are a new reader, you should assume I am a liar until I have earned your trust. I can’t tell you I am honest, because that is the same thing a dishonest person would say. I have to earn it over time.
  • If someone offers me something for free like a hotel room, a cruise or a flight, I’ll probably take it if it fits with my schedule. I don’t do hotel reviews or consumer advocacy so I don’t think there is a huge conflict of interest. I write about the places I go and the things I experience, not about the thread count of the sheets in my room. Moreover, I have such low standards, a Motel 6 is pretty fancy to me compared to the places I’ve been sleeping during the last three years. If a company gives me a free room, I’ll acknowledge and thank them on my site or on Twitter the same as I would if I was given a room by a person on I think it is just good manners.
  • People think if you get something for free from a travel company you are more likely to say something nice about them. I don’t think that is true. I could get a lot more traffic by ripping into a company than I could by praising it. Moreover, a hotel room is only worth so much. Even if I burned my bridges with a company by writing something bad about them, there are thousands of other hotels out there I could still work with. It isn’t a big loss. The $100-200 I might save for a night at a hotel is nothing compared to the cost of the appearance of losing my integrity with my audience. I’m in this for the long haul, not for a free nights stay.
  • At some level, I think that travel companies have an obligation to pay for a trip if they want to get any sort of coverage. Last month I was a guest on a Princess Cruise. There is no way in hell I’m going to spend over $1,000 of my own money to provide a large company with free advertising. That makes no sense. I have never been on a cruise and had no intention of going on one on my own accord. I had no problem going and writing about my experiences, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to do it on my own dime.
  • Some traditional media outlets like the New York Times are very fussy about journalists getting freebies. I understand why they do that. However, they have luxury of a budget with millions of dollars and separate staffs to handle advertising and editorial. I don’t have that luxury. I’m a one man operation. Also, I’m not totally convinced that the firewall between advertising and editorial is as strong as they claim. I don’t think it influences individual journalists, but I do think it has to come in to play at higher levels.

In summary, 1) you should assume I am a dirty, rotten liar in the pockets of every major travel company. It is up to me to prove otherwise. 2) any link to a product or company should be assumed to be an affiliate link, even if it isn’t.

I’ll be putting up a disclaimer page on my site soon.

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