What Disclosures for Sponsored Blogging and Speaking?

Let me tell you who my sponsors are...

While I’m recuperating from Rebarcamp NY and Inman Connect, and working on the next chapter of the RPR reviews, I thought I’d post something that crossed my virtual desk because, well, I feel like it. :)

I’ve heard from a couple of people during Inman week that some of the more prominent voices (and honestly, it doesn’t matter who, so don’t ask me) in the real estate space are paid to mention specific companies and products in their public speaking and public blogging activities.  Again, since I’m interested in discussing the principles here, names and identities are wholly unimportant.

In some cases, there isn’t a direct payment of cash, but there may be other sorts of compensation — revenue share on the back-end, cross-marketing arrangements, and the like.

Question is, should these arrangements be disclosed, and if so, how much disclosure of what sorts of relationships is appropriate?

Sponsored Blogging Disclosure Policies

As it happens, in the general “social media” space, there is much heat and light around this topic.  In fact, IZEA created DisclosurePolicy.org to drive the initiative forward, and its blog is full of interesting information on the topic, including videos like this one from the Federal Trade Commission:

Presumably, even real estate bloggers should disclose when they have received cash, gifts, or other compensation for a blogpost (or a tweet?).

This doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial.  Some people may believe in sponsored blogging; others may not.  But even those who do engage in it, like Chris Brogan, are in favor of disclosure.  It is awfully hard to argue against disclosure.

Limits of Disclosure?

The issue is whether such disclosure extends only to blogging.

For example, I get invited to speak at conferences and events from time to time.  And I go to various REBarcamps throughout the calendar year, and I often speak at those.

If I mention a company or a product as something that a broker or a realtor should investigate, what disclosure should I have to make?

This is an easy one for me personally since no one pays for my opinions, and no one has offered me anything as compensation for a mention — either on this blog, the 7DS blog, or in any public speaking appearances.  (Although, if you’d like to throw piles of money my way for whatever, I’ll listen :) even if I decide against it, as I’m likely to do.)

But let’s say for the sake of discussion that my friend Eric Stegemann, owner of Tribus, is paying me $5,000 a month to promote Tribus to my audience at Barcamp or at Inman.  (Which he is not.)  Do I have to disclose that?  If so, how?

What if he’s not paying me cash, but offering me a 10% revenue share on any sale directly attributable to my promoting Tribus in a REBC session?

What if Eric isn’t paying me one way or the other, but I’m a passive equity investor in Tribus and stand to gain if his company goes up in value?  (I’m not, by the way.)

Yes, Rob, I owe you many drinks...

What if Eric isn’t paying me upfront or in the back end, but just buying me nice dinners and drinks every time I see him at an event?  (He needs to buy me more nice dinners and drinks actually, now that I think about it….)  Does that need to be disclosed?

What if Eric bought me a Coke one time six months ago?  Does that need to be disclosed?

At some point, there are limits to disclosure.  If, as is the case in reality, Eric just happens to be a friend of mine, and I do genuinely think his system has merit in many cases, so I mention Tribus, praise it even, and Eric happens to mention me or my company to his contacts, audience members, and the like, and there is no “commercial relationship” between us, I think requiring disclosure is a little bit silly.

At the same time, however, some types of relationships really do need to be disclosed.  If a company is paying a well-known public speaker to promote its product, that surely needs to be disclosed.  But how?  Speaking in front of 500 people isn’t like putting up a blogpost; it’s difficult to have a “disclosure policy” when speaking in person.

So… how should such disclosure work, assuming that certain kinds of commercial relationships need to be disclosed?  And what sorts of relationships should be disclosed at all?

I’m interested in your thoughts.  Comment away!

-rsh

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  • http://www.sandiegolifestyle.info jeffreydouglass

    Rob, Having a disclosure of any incentive a blogger gets for recommending a product or service is a good thing. And yes I think that comes down to any significant item of value, a random can of coke, probably not, silent ownership in a product, YES.

    Being in real estate management for years, my answers for anyone that called regarding a possible disclosure is if you have to ask the question, it is likely, baring some law against it, that it needs to be disclosed.

    Ask yourself the question, would you want to know?

    Playing with the semantics of what should be disclosed is dangerous and will lead non-disclosure. Drag it out into the light of day – if you are a trustworthy blogger it builds trust, and folks can decide on the merit of your review and disclosure. Hey why not disclose the can of coke? – Builds trust and takes away the question of other hidden motivations.

  • http://www.thexbroker.com JeffX

    In these days where anything less than 100% transparency can be labeled misleading, disclosure of compensation in return for a recommendation is sound practice. The details of which are less important than the simple disclosure, save say you are an owner in said company…i.e. We have a business relationship with Tribus, or I'm an equity owner in Tribus…

    Hopefully the relationships are true in the fact that the presenter uses and/or truly believes in the product. Pimpin product and services as an opportunity to just collect some side $$ would seem to diminish the recommendation as well as the credibility of the recommender…regardless of potential value to the audience.

  • http://twitter.com/tcar Todd Carpenter

    I don't buy the 100% transparency issue. At 100%, a real estate agent wouldn't be able to write a positive review of restaurant in their neighborhood without saying, “I'm also writing this review because I hope the shop owner will like the review and advertise it (and my blog) to his customers”.

    Business motivations apply to blog posts well before a relationship even exists. I imagine Rob was partially motivated to blog about RPR right out of the gate because he wanted to have a presence on Google before most MLS staffers decide to go searching for advice. I wouldn't expect Rob to disclose that though.

  • http://www.thexbroker.com JeffX

    One need not disclose what they HOPE to receive in return for a mention, positive review etc…only if there is a pre-arranged agreement where the influencer is directly receiving some tangible, valuable consideration in exchange for the recommendation. In this case, the details of the relationship aren't as important as the simple disclosure that such a formal relationship exists, so one may take that for what its worth to them, IMHO…

    Opportunistic motivations without any promise of consideration vs. a pre-arranged relationship where money changes hands and/or the influencer owns the dog in the fight are quite different…

    Granted, 100% Transparency is a little too black and white in this instance, insinuating anything and everything should be disclosed based on what could/might happen is far too open ended.

  • VictorLund

    Just say the company is a client.

  • robhahn

    Actually, presence on Google interests me very little — as evidenced by my rockin' PR 2 score.

    Nor do I think my blogging about RPR or anything else has a commercial intent beyond, “Hey, I hope people think I'm smart” — a branding play, if you will. But even that takes a distant backseat to, “I just dig on writing.”

    I'm lucky (or cursed) with this blog, and with my speaking: I write about, and recommend, stuff that interests me. I've sort of disclosed that already in my About page.

    BUT should someone throw a bunch of money or favors my way, and I in fact believe in their product/service, I would disclose that prominently. Not sure how I'd do it when speaking in person, but I'd figure something out.

    Generally speaking, though, motivations aren't in the 100% transparency category; maybe some people write reviews on Yelp because they hope to date the owner's daughter. Heh. But actual relationship needs to be disclosed in some way.

    -rsh

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  • http://twitter.com/Bru5W Bruce Walker

    Does it have to be difficult? I don't think so. In the case of disclosures let common sense be a guideline. It's interesting to me that you felt like you had to disclose all the things you WEREN'T receiving on behalf of Tribus.

    Most readers will smell a paid endorsement or reciprocal agrrement. If you are honest about the relationship, you will probably not risk losing readers. If you constantly shill for the same companies over and over, your credibility is shot especially if it is disclosed at a later time.

    Many bloggers want to make money off of their site and if an endorsement will work, then be honest about it. Hell, I still haven't seen anyone work an endorsement into their blog as seemlessly as Paul Harvey used to.

    If you want to make some dollars, use your common sense.

  • http://twitter.com/EricStegemann Eric Stegemann

    Being the person so prominently displayed here I had to chime in… I think that the biggest concept here is the amount of value. I think that it's the most reasonable factor in determining if compensation is material or not. If I buy Rob a dinner as thanks for mentioning me and it's under say $50, I don't think that needs to be disclosed. I think most people would assume that I'll probably buy him a drink or dinner as thanks. I think where it starts to cross the line is in ownership interests, set affiliate compensation systems, or just straight pay for discussing – anything which materially affects Rob's bottom line. If the FTC wants to have some sort of enforceable rule, it's going to need some objective test, not some blanket statement.

  • http://www.7DSAssociates.com/ RachelNicole

    If a “relationship” involves $$ and that isn't disclosed in a blogging/speaking situation, the conversation, in my eyes, shifts from editorial/opinion content to advertorial content.

    I do agree with Jeffrey in that the semantics of “the rules” can get a little fuzzy. Discovering the the blogger/speaker was receiving free soda probably going to dissuade me from taking the recommendation as genuine. Finding out the recommender being bought expensive dinners on a weekly basis – this might shift my views. I suppose common sense is the best approach..”Would you feel comfortable if your audience discovered what you were “hiding”?

    The details can be tricky. So, I say, just throw it out there. Simply mention a relationship exists and perhaps the general depth of that relationship (a can of coke vs. equity in the company) and think is enough.

    Funny thing is, these types of situations have been taking place offline for years. Let's say you're a writer for InStyle magazine, people/companies/PR folks send you “samples” constantly…hoping you'll include the product/service in the issue. Although it is considered normal practice, these writers/editors in print don't disclose, “Hey, Chanel sends me full-size bottles of perfume and beauty products on a weekly basis.” What's up with that?!

    Thanks for a great post!

  • robhahn

    The trouble arises when the company is NOT a client, and the speaker in question is not in the client-having business.

    It's when the relationship is something more like a partnership, or a sponsorship. On a blog, it's easy to disclose and put down a disclosure policy. When you're up in front of hundreds of people listening to you speak, it's not as easy to disclose.

    “Hey folks, I'm going to tell you the three tools you need to look at for promoting listings. By the way, Company XYZ is paying me 10% of every sale traceable to this speech of mine, as measured by month-over-month comparisons for six months after this conference.”

    That's a bit unwieldy, and few public speakers are going to be able to do such a thing.

    One could say, “I have a business relationship with Company XYZ” but is that enough disclosure? Business relationship could mean you make $1 per sale (which now gets us into the “he bought me a Coke” category) or it could mean you own 30% of the company.

    I think disclosure is necessary in some way; question is, how does that work when you're speaking on a panel vs. posting a blog.

    -rsh

  • gibsouza

    Disclose if you are getting paid only if you want to maintain personal integrity plus it is the right thing to do. Shouldn't even be a question.

  • http://twitter.com/brandiei brandie young

    I think this issue can drill down forever with thousands of if/then scenarios. Isn't there always some kind of motive? $$ is obvious, and if you're a paid endorser say so. Cross marketing – meh – who cares as long as the message makes sense in the context of a presentation/speech.

    To RachelNicole's point – in PR it's been going on forever …

    p.s. Eric never buys me cokes, or dinner or anything. I may be a little bitter about it.

  • http://agentinvitation.com/about Don Stewart

    I think that if you are an industry spokesperson that is relied on to be impartial then you should be impartial, and not take back end fees to promote a product or service.

    It is not a question of how easy or difficult it would be for a speaker in front of hundreds of people to say “Hey folks, I'm going to tell you the three tools you need to look at for promoting listings. By the way, Company XYZ is paying me 10% of every sale traceable to this speech of mine, as measured by month-over-month comparisons for six months after this conference.”

    You must disclose if you have a paid relationship – easy to say or not, period. A grade school kid could tell you that.

    You are either a resource that people can rely on for an objective opinion or you are a shill, a paid spokesperson. Either is OK, just do not try to do both.

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  • http://twitter.com/jillayne Jillayne Schlicke

    Rob since you're also writing about NAR on Inman, this might be a good time to mention that the topic at hand would be a wonderful addition to the NAR Code of Ethics. Raising the bar higher means we inform our clients of any conflict of interest we may have, and turn down any gigs where the client asked us to hide the conflict of interest.

    Example: A real estate broker hires me to conduct a seminar with his agents in attendance. Same real estate broker owns an interest in another company This real estate broker client wants me to tell his agents to use this second company. Come on. The ethics works both ways. Broker/owners shouldn't ask for this to be done….but they do.

    Another way this pops up is when a big coaching company cuts a deal with the broker: They say if you sell X number of coaching sessions, you, the broker, get to keep X percent of the sale.

    So the broker promotes coaching! Yes, everyone should buy coaching!

    But the broker doesn't tell the agents about the side-arrangement.

    The blogging world and social media are just a different variation of real life. Always disclose conflicts of interest when you are the one who benefits from not disclosing.

  • http://twitter.com/jillayne Jillayne Schlicke

    Rob since you're also writing about NAR on Inman, this might be a good time to mention that the topic at hand would be a wonderful addition to the NAR Code of Ethics. Raising the bar higher means we inform our clients of any conflict of interest we may have, and turn down any gigs where the client asked us to hide the conflict of interest.

    Example: A real estate broker hires me to conduct a seminar with his agents in attendance. Same real estate broker owns an interest in another company This real estate broker client wants me to tell his agents to use this second company. Come on. The ethics works both ways. Broker/owners shouldn't ask for this to be done….but they do.

    Another way this pops up is when a big coaching company cuts a deal with the broker: They say if you sell X number of coaching sessions, you, the broker, get to keep X percent of the sale.

    So the broker promotes coaching! Yes, everyone should buy coaching!

    But the broker doesn't tell the agents about the side-arrangement.

    The blogging world and social media are just a different variation of real life. Always disclose conflicts of interest when you are the one who benefits from not disclosing.

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