New FTC regulations and ethics in travel blogging

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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 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 Amazon.com 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 Smugmug.com 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 have 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 the 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 Couchsurfing.com. 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 that 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.

12 thoughts on “New FTC regulations and ethics in travel blogging”

  1. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for sharing an interesting take on disclosures. Personally I have had a hard time deciding what I will accept on my blog in the way of sponsored posts, etc. As far as I understand you don’t accept sponsored posts at all?

    • I have not and will not ever put sponsored posts on my site. That is one line I will not cross. I’m not that desperate for money.

  2. I’m with Dave. Love the approach you took here Gary. I’ve been meaning to write one of these disclosure posts and I think I’ll go with your model of crude honesty:)

  3. i agree with dave – it is tiresome to have to do this, but i understand why (i guess. why doesn’t the gov’t also do full disclosure?)…

    what drives me crazy is when people avoid affiliate links – how do they think people earn $?

  4. I think that whenever something is given for free, it needs to be explicit acknowledged to comply with these new regulations. If someone sent you a free product and you review it, regardless of whether your review is positive or negative, it is wise to put a disclaimer somewhere that says something along these lines: “So and so sent me a free sample to try.”

    I write for a major publication that already requested we do this, but now requires it. At the end of the article, I must say “A complimentary night’s stay at the hotel was provided for reviewing purposes” or something of that nature.

    Also, the new regs do include the need to disclose affiliate advertising. What some major bloggers have already been doing is putting “(affiliate link)” after the link to let readers know. Or you could put a disclaimer at the bottom of the page that says “The above product links are affiliate.” It doesn’t matter whether you endorse the product or not — you’re still making money from it, and the regs require that to be made known.

    I know some people aren’t please about this, but ethics are taken extremely seriously in traditional journalism (and my background is journalism) so I’m actually quite happy to see some disclosure requirements in blogging. Makes things more transparent and reduces people from abusing the system.

    OK, I will get off my soap box now….. :)

    • I agree that free stuff should be disclosed, but announcing every single affiliate link is a pain in the ass. I’d rather just make a blanket disclosure and have people assume that I could be making money off of any given link.

  5. I’ve always assumed, with all of the travel blogs that I read, that an affiliate link is an implict endorsement of a product or company. It’s funny that the government is trying to legislate critical thought. I mean, do they want us to stop thinking altogether?

    • I don’t think it is necessarily an endorsement. If I hated a product, I’d still put an affiliate link to it if I mentioned it. Some small number of people still might like it or be curious about it.

    • Gary

      I’m thinking you haven’t dealt with a lot of government regulatory bodies. They never make it clear what the rules are! They just show up and arbitrarily decide that you broke them. They get paid to do this and don’t have to pay a lawyer Count on several people having their lives, and rights, trashed by this new regulation.

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