helping brands make perfect sense of social media, from IAB UK’s social media council

At January’s meeting of the IAB Social Media Council, Nick Stringer, director of regulatory affairs, presented to the council about transparency in social media, following the decision by the Office of Fair Trading to rule that Handpicked Media was to disclose when promotional comments had been paid for.

Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 prohibit the misleading of consumers where this is likely to have an impact on the decision about a product / service / brand.

It therefore prohibits the use of editorial content to promote a product  – where the promotion has been paid for – without making it clear to the consumer.

The Unfair Trading Regulations are enforced by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). The OFT’s statement also reinforced the transparency requirements of the law. From 1 March, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)’s self-regulatory remit includes ‘marketing communications’ on Twitter and Facebook. The OFT remains the legal ‘back stop’.

In the USA, the FTC’s revised Endorsement Guide provides case studies of when it believes those paid to promote a product / service / brand should disclose this. It includes social networking sites, blogs, forums & message boards.  It does not specifically recommend ways for marketers to disclose a paid promotion, however it suggests the use of hash tags on Twitter. For example : #paid ad / #paid / #ad

The OFT supports this – without endorsing a particular way of doing things – and sooner rather than later we can expect further guidelines (or from ASA).

The Council was asked:

Does it agree that the council should be proactive and recommend some good practice for the market?

Should the IAB prepare a one-pager with examples of good practice across social all media? For example, hash tags.

A sub-group was assembled and came back with some recommendations for the guidelines, however there seemed to be differing opinion at February’s meeting of whether more transparency was needed.

Here, a member of the sub-group; Fleur Hicks-Duarte, explains the sub-group’s intended guidelines.

“The outcomes that we propose are as follows:

1) We would advise that as a minimum standard, everybody who is receiving or is likely to receive sponsorship from a brand or organisation should write words to this effect in their bio on all social platforms:

‘This profile may contain sponsored messaging’; ‘Sometimes brands pay me to write about them on this site’

The wording of this declaration should leave no ambiguity as to there having been a paid transaction.

This however should act as a back up to:

2) Best practise for paid for social media. This is a clear indication within the body of the actual message that the post has been paid for.

For twitter this may be a hashtag; within a blog this should be a clear statement or footnote within the body of the text.

We do not feel that best practise would constitute tagging a blog post with the word ‘ad’, nor use of the phrase “I have been asked…”.  If a paid transaction has taken place, this should be clear for the reader to ascertain within the body of the message.

Words such as Sponsorship, Advertisement and Paid For (or clear abbreviations of these) are advisable words to use due to their clarity as an indicator of a cash value exchange.

Additionally, we would advise insertion of a link such as, which would click through to a page on the ASA or OFT website, or a page provided by the brand/agency should they so wish.  The page, which, mindful of our ethnically diverse society, would ideally be available in all languages and have all disability options applied.  This site should make clear to any audience what ‘paid for’ means.  In layman’s terms and succinctly.

If the ASA/OFT are pleased with these initial thoughts, then perhaps we could talk further to them about the detail of what this encompasses, but were reticent to go into too much detail as it opens a Pandora’s Box full of scenarios and applications.

We feel that applying these guidelines should satisfy not only their legislative requirements, but also help the Paid Messenger cover bases by applying at least the minimum standard requirements.

The thinking behind it is:  What can we practically advise – mindful of all the scenarios, platforms and contexts that can be played out within social – that can be used across social as an entirety as a best practise guideline once the official governance comes into play in March.

This serves the following:

a) helps practitioners who may be unsure as to how to protect themselves

b) supports the ASA regulations

c) forges the IAB’s position as helping lead the way in practical application within social.

‘Will people know what a hashtag is?’ and ‘Do we need to outline what is already law?’ are not the issues being discussed here.  The issue is:  How do we devise a practical guideline (for practitioners) that can help them when the law is in place to prevent said law from beating down on them.

Hence the two-pronged approach.  If people don’t know what a hashtag is then if they’ve implemented the minimum standard, then they are covered, by law, for any comms mishaps.  For instance, in case they mention drinking a brand in the recording studio, and they are sponsored by that brand.

I agree with what Nick (Stringer) said in January’s meeting that this is essential, it is progressive and it puts the IAB Social Media Council on the map in a way that no other trade bodies are on this matter.”

What do you as a member of the Social Media Council think? We will be looking at publishing guidelines towards the end of March so a firm decision needs to be made at Tuesday’s meeting.

Daljit Bhurji
March 11, 2011

It must always be possible to distinguish between paid for editorial content and genuine editorial content generated through PR, regardless of platform. A blanket ‘I may or may not have been paid to produce content’ will not be popular with most bloggers and would destroy the value of genuine third-party endorsement which PR generates. This is not a recommendation which would be workable and likely to be supported by the PR industry. An agreed form of words that would act as a disclosure statement at the end of a sponsored-post would be more transparent and fair.

March 12, 2011

This outlines delivers clear advice. Given the complexity of the ASA/OFT regulations and the numerous grey areas, this at least cuts through the clutter to give clear ‘protecting’ instruction. Your two pronged approach is correct and covers the bases and minimum requirements.

The one element I am not sure on it the link. Eating into 140 characters with the hashtag is one thing, but the link (even shortened) is just adding to the characters in the post. I am not sure what value it plays when #paid is fairly clear in its explanation.

There is one grey area we ought to cover though. And that is what constitutes payment. In social media, there is so many different forms of relationship that we need clarity. For instance, is supplying and giving product, payment? is a blog trip, meet considered payment? across the board these tactics are also being used by Ad, Media and PR agencies alike to cajole bloggers and influencers into positive recommendation. So it is worth defining, what in the OFT law constitutes payment.

Other than that, I think the guideline is great positioning for the IAB. Clear and simple it should gain us a lot of PR traction and just make life a bit easier for those of us dealing with social media.

sarah wood
March 13, 2011

Excellent idea to have the discloure text linking through to ASA or OFT website as it makes it clear that the blogger is aware of and doing their best to comply with legislation.

“This review is sponsored by BRAND NAME [link to brand site] in compliance with OFT regulations [link to OFT site]” would be good for many scenarios though it will depend on the type of post/relationship etc so probably not practical to stipulate exact wording.

Shona Ghosh
March 15, 2011

The measures outlined in this post are an excellent start – however, I wonder how many advertisers are likely to adopt the best practice recommendations on top of minimum standards?

Let’s assume the worst – this means the majority of brand endorsers would only include bio information stating they might be sponsored. How many consumers would actually read bio information? And how visible to bios tend to be on most SM platforms? I can imagine that the additional bio information might end up being theoretical transparency rather than actual improved transparency for the consumer. Obviously the bio information is important, but perhaps it is worth also including the #paidfor hashtag (or similar relevant marker) recommendation as minimum standard.

I also wonder if trying to get advertisers to include the link in every sponsored tweet might be a little impractical. An alternative might be to ensure the page explaining ‘paid-for’ comes top in Google if a consumer types ‘what does #paidfor mean’…

Russell Goldsmith
March 15, 2011

Yes this is a good starting point, but Daljit is spot on with his point. I also cant see a celeb, for example, remembering to include an link everytime they tweet something they are being paid to promote if they genuinly run their own twitter feed – that bit is very hopeful! Which is why as mentioned before, I think it’s down to the brand to put a release on their website to say they are paying said celeb to be the face of their campaign etc.
Also agree with Katy that #paid wont be relevant for every tweet – do we come up with a series of them to choose from – cant think what they’d be though!

Perhaps guidelines for bloggers “I was sent a product to review…” “I was invited to a press trip…” etc, and a series of hashtags #paid, #ad, #productreview (too long!) could work

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