140 characters isn’t much, but for several years people and personal brands have found creative ways to leverage Twitter and turn carefully crafted messages with links into ads designed to generate conversions and sales. These links – often provided by advertising platforms or an affiliate program – sometimes include an indication that the tweet is sponsored, or an ad. Other times, it can be hard to discern if a tweet endorsing a product has actually been paid for. This confusion has now caused the FTC to step in and regulate advertising on Twitter, forcing users to clearly indicate when they are compensated for a tweet.
According to a report released this week , The FTC wants online advertising to “be truthful and not misleading, have evidence to back up their claims and…not be unfair.” The FTC suggests that Twitter users indicate when a tweet is advertising by beginning the tweet with “Ad:”or the notably lengthy word “sponsored” (nine characters). Previously, Twitter users followed best-practice guidelines that included adding hashtags such as “#ad” or “#spon” at the end of a Tweet. The FTC says these hashtags, particularly “#spon” could be unclear to consumers.The agency even included a hypothetical example that didn’t follow the new rules by using the “old” approach of indicating advertising. In this “wrong” example Twitter post from a fictitious celebrity account, a tweet said: “Shooting movie beach scene. Had to lose 30lbs in 6 wks. Thanks Fat-away Pills for making it easy. Typical loss: 1lb/wk. #Spon.”
While the FTC doesn’t handle criminal investigations, it can issue civil penalties if it finds misleading advertising – such as tweets using #spon at the end of an advertisement on Twitter instead of with “Ad:” at the beginning. According to the Wall Street Journal, civil penalties range from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars, depending on the nature of the violation. In addition advertisers have previously been ordered to give full or partial refunds to all consumers who bought a product that was promoted via misleading ads.
If you advertise on Twitter, it may be in your best interests to take a look at the FTC’s report and follow the new guidelines, even if it means adding a few extra characters to your tweets. Otherwise, you may find yourself paying back those commissions – and maybe even a little extra in fines to the FTC – instead of pocketing a profit.
Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she led a variety of marketing and communications projects at San Francisco startups. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After living nearly a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned to her home of Charleston, SC, where you can find her enjoying the sun and salt water with her family.