How to Properly Disclose Sponsored Instagram Posts According to the FTC
With the recent spat of FTC crackdowns on Instagram partnerships, a lot of people are wondering how to stay safe when sharing sponsored Instagram posts.
Is using the hashtag #ad enough? What about sponsored Instagram Stories? Do you have to disclose a partnership even if you weren’t paid?
As more and more businesses turn to influencers to promote their products on Instagram, it’s more important than ever to know the FTC’s rules.
Not sure you’re doing it right?
In the following post we cover what you can and can’t do, and how to disclose different types of Instagram partnerships and sponsored Instagram posts:
- How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Posts Using Hashtags
- How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Posts as a Partnership
- How to Disclose Instagram Ads or Partnerships Without a Hashtag
- Do You Have to Disclose Free Gifts or Products?
- Is Tagging a Brand in Your Photo Enough?
- How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Stories
- Is Instagram’s Paid Partnership Feature FTC Compliant?
- Overview of the FTC’s Endorsement Guides
What is the FTC (And Why Do They Care)?
The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has long been aware of the problem of influencers and celebrities failing to disclose sponsored content on their social media channels.
As a consumer protection agency, the FTC is tasked with the prevention of fraudulent or deceptive advertising, and “educating marketers about their responsibilities under truth-in-advertising laws and standards.”
But it’s only recently that they’ve started cracking down on deceptive influencer marketing.
In fact, early last month, the FTC sent letters to 21 Instagram influencers (including Lindsay Lohan and Naomi Campbell), warning them that publishing sponsored Instagram posts on their personal accounts without “clear and conspicuous disclosure” is a breach of the rules.
At the same time, the FTC updated its Endorsement Guides with clearer directions on what language influencers can and cannot use when working with businesses on sponsored content.
It’s unclear why the FTC has chosen now to begin cracking down on influencers, but one thing’s for certain: if you want to stay safe, you need to follow the FTC’s guidelines.
So, what exactly are they?
What are the FTC’s Rules of Disclosure?
Before we get into the nitty gritty details of disclosure, let’s talk about when and in what cases you have to disclose your sponsorships on Instagram.
Basically, the FTC requires you to disclose your endorsement relationships with a businesses whenever a “material connection” with that business exists.
Material connection can include everything from being paid, receiving a gift, or even having a business or family relationship with the business.
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Basically, it all comes down to transparency.
It’s about making sure your followers are aware when you’ve been paid or given something of value to promote a product–as opposed to recommending a product because you simply like it.
If your followers can’t tell when you’ve been paid to endorse a product and when you’re simply highlighting a product that you personally like, you’re probably violating the FTC’s guidelines.
Here’s how to follow the rules of FTC disclosure today:
How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Posts
Whether you’re a brand or agency running an Instagram influencer marketing campaign, or you’re an Instagram influencer yourself, it’s important that both parties get on the same page about how to disclose sponsored Instagram posts.
Generally, it’s best if the disclosure directions come from the brand first. As a brand, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you are FTC compliant — but that’s not to say that influencers aren’t responsible, too.
If you’re an Instagram influencer who hasn’t received instructions on how to disclose your sponsored Instagram post with the brand, you should reach out to them and ask, or follow the recommendations below:
How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Posts Using Hashtags:
A common practice among influencers is to include a hashtag like #spon, #sponsored, #ad, #paid, or #partnership in the captions of their sponsored Instagram posts.
But that’s not enough anymore, says the FTC.
If you want to disclose sponsored Instagram posts using a general hashtag, the only FTC-compliant ones are #sponsored or #ad. According to the FTC and Adweek, “both hashtags make it super clear that a person is working with a brand without leaving any wiggle room for interpretation.”
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But according to the FTC, you can’t simply hide #ad in the middle of your 29 other hashtags (especially because Instagram captions are shortened after 3-4 lines of text). The disclosure hashtag has to be easily noticed and understood by users.
That doesn’t mean you have to put #ad or #sponsored at the very beginning of your caption, but it’s obviously less likely to be seen if it’s in the middle or at the end.
The FTC also states that you can’t simply attach the word “ad” to the end of another hashtag, such as #adidasoriginalsad.
How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Posts as a Partnership:
So, do you have to use #ad or #sponsored? Some Instagram users are wary to use these hashtags as they believe that they will be negatively affected in the Instagram algorithm.
There is no evidence to support this, but there might be other reasons why you don’t feel comfortable using the #ad hashtag.
You can say “Ad” or “Sponsored” but those aren’t the only ways to disclose. #Influencers101
— FTC (@FTC) September 21, 2017
There is another way that you can disclose your partnerships, and that’s by using a unique partnership hashtag that uses both the brand name and partner in the hashtag (#partner is not enough).
This is a great way to disclose Instagram ads and partnerships for both brands and influencers. Influencers can legally disclose using language that feels more like an authentic partnership instead of a straight up ad, and brands can track all of their Instagram partnerships in one place with their brand partner hashtag.
For example, Airbnb created the hashtag #Airbnb_partner and asks their influencers to post this hashtag at the beginning of their Instagram caption.
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The FTC has confirmed that this form of disclosure is permitted:
— FTC (@FTC) September 20, 2017
How to Disclose Instagram Ads or Partnerships Without a Hashtag:
What if you decide to forego using hashtags to disclose your sponsored Instagram posts? Well, you still need to make it crystal clear when a post is sponsored!
For example, saying “thanks to @kyliecosmetics for my lipkit” isn’t enough, because it doesn’t necessarily denote that you were gifted product.
Instead, you should say “thanks to @kyliecosmetics for gifting me their new lip kit,” as it makes your business relationship with the company much more obvious.
Do You Have to Disclose Free Gifts or Products?
As a brand, gifting your product to Instagram influencers is a great strategy to build brand awareness on Instagram and grow your following.
A lot of people assume that if no money is exchanging hands, it doesn’t qualify as a partnership or sponsored Instagram post. But this assumption is actually incorrect.
According to the FTC, if a business gives you a free product with the expectation that you’ll promote or discuss the product on Instagram, you have to disclose it.
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But what about mentioning or promoting a product that you got for free by some other means? For example, if a store gives out free samples to its customers. Must you disclose then?
The FTC is only concerned about endorsements that are made on behalf of a sponsoring advertiser. If you have no business relationship with the product or brand that you’re promoting, you don’t have to disclose.
Is Tagging a Brand in Your Photo Enough?
It might sound like an overreach, but if you tag a business in an Instagram post and you have a relationship with that business, the FTC considers this an endorsement–even if the post itself isn’t sponsored.
In other words, if you post a photo of yourself to Instagram and you tag the clothing brand that you’re wearing, and you have a relationship with that brand, you must disclose that relationship in the caption of your post.
This rule may apply even if you used to have a relationship with the business you tag!
For example, if a clothing company gives you a free pair of jeans to endorse in a post in December, and then you share another post with the jeans and tag the clothing company in March, even if you no longer have a relationship with that business, you may still have to disclose that the post is sponsored.
The reason the FTC gives for this is that your followers may not have seen the original post where you said you got the product free from the manufacturer.
All this being said, we haven’t really seen brands and influencers following this rule at all on Instagram — yet, anyway. But it’s a good thing to be aware of!
How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Stories
“Mail day” or “unboxing” videos are a common theme in Instagram Stories, Snapchat stories, and YouTube videos, because for some reason people really love to see the free products that other people receive. And it’s not just adults, unboxing videos of kids opening toys are huge too!
This content is a win-win for influencers and brands: influencers can easily showcase and give shout-outs to brands, and brands can grow their following and brand awareness.
But many people don’t know that the FTC’s rules apply to these videos, too.
So, what are the rules for disclosing free product or partnerships on Instagram Stories?
According to the FTC, a prominent, superimposed disclosure has to be included in all sponsored Instagram Stories.
The disclosure should be easy to notice and readable within the timeframe (or length) of your story. And like with Instagram hashtags, your disclosures on Instagram Stories can’t be hidden among other text.
The FTC also notes that because many Instagram users watch Stories with the sound turned off, a verbal-only disclosure may not be enough.
An easy way to disclose in your Instagram Stories is to just add the #ad hashtag somewhere in your story, or to disclose in a written way that you’re going to show off some of the free gifts you’ve received. It’s not enough to just assume that people know they’re given for free, even if you think it’s super obvious.
Is Instagram’s Paid Partnership Feature FTC Compliant?
Instagram recently introduced a new paid partnership feature to help users distinguish between sponsored and unsponsored Instagram posts.
This feature is available for both Instagram posts and Instagram Stories, and must be activated on the brand side first.
So, how do you get access to Instagram’s Paid Partnership feature?
This feature is popping up on Instagram business accounts, but as of right now it’s limited to larger accounts and there isn’t a clear way to gain access to the feature.
If you’re a large brand, or verified, chances are you’re able to set up this feature and invite influencers to use the disclosure tool.
As a business, you also get access to a ton of new metrics on your sponsored Instagram posts! For example, you’ll be able to see the reach and engagement (likes and comments) of your sponsored post in your Facebook Page Insights.
Influencers can tap “Advanced Settings” at the bottom of the caption screen and find a new “Branded Content” section that says “Tag Business Partner.”
When an influencer chooses that option, the business’ name will be added where a location tag normally shows up. The same goes for a sponsored post in an Instagram Story.
While the new feature is certainly a step in the right direction for creating more transparency, according the FTC, built-in platform disclosures like Instagram’s don’t always meet their requirements for clear and conspicuous disclosure.
Don’t rely on automated built-in tools. Disclose if it’s an ad or if you’re a partner. #Influencers101
— FTC (@FTC) September 20, 2017
Specifically, the FTC says that disclosures placed above a photo (which is where Instagram’s paid partnership tag is) may not attract people’s attention.
So, in other words, while it isn’t a bad idea to use Instagram’s new feature, you probably still have to disclose your partnerships in the caption of your post.
An Overview of the FTC’s Endorsement Guides
We know: It’s a lot of information to take in.
If you want to read the entirety of the FTC’s new guide, you can find it here. But if you’re low on time, here’s an overview of the important points:
- If you have a “material connection” with a business, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that partnerships in all sponsored Instagram posts.
- “Material connection” can include everything from being paid, receiving a gift, or even having a business or family relationship with the business.
- Using #ad or #sponsored in your Instagram caption is allowed, but the hashtag must be clearly visible to users.
- If you don’t use a hashtag, you still have to make it crystal clear when a post is sponsored. It all comes down to the language you use.
- Tagging a business in a photo on Instagram is considered endorsement if you have (or had) a “material connection” with that business. In such cases, you must disclose the partnership in the caption.
- A prominent, superimposed disclosure has to be included in all sponsored Instagram Stories.
- If you have no business relationship with a product or business that you’re promoting, you don’t have to disclose.
- When promoting sponsored content on Instagram that originated on another channel (such as your blog), you must disclose the partnership in both locations.
- Built-in platform disclosures like Instagram’s paid partnership feature don’t always meet the FTC’s requirements. It’s best to disclose in the caption as well.
While influencer-driven marketing is one of the best ways to reach targeted audiences on Instagram, it’s important for both influencers and businesses to disclose these kinds of partnerships and sponsored Instagram posts. Make sure to keep up-to-date on the FTC’s guides, and when in doubt, disclose!
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