How to be a Transparent Blogger, Keep Readers Happy, and Keep the FTC Off Your Back

Why do you blog? Is it because you have something to say? Because you want an audience? Because you want to make money? There’s nothing wrong with any of those blogging motivations, and you can even have all three! One of the best, and simplest, things you can do to increase your audience, build more trust in your blogging community, and make more money blogging is to be transparent.

Let’s take a look at what transparent blogging is, how you can do it, and how transparency can help you grow your blog.

What is Transparency?

Basically transparency means full visibility — you’re not trying to hide anything. In other words, if your company CEO were to write for the company blog under their own name and share their honest thoughts that would be relatively transparent. On the other hand, if that CEO were to then post a comment on that blog post under a different name to make it look like positive customer feedback, that would not be transparent — it would be deceitful. Transparency is about being as open and honest as possible with your clients, customers, or audience, and doing so whether or not it always paints you in the most positive light.

Benefits of Being a Transparent Blogger

Why would any blogger want to be transparent? After all, doesn’t that give the competition insight into how you operate (potentially giving them an edge)? Do you really want readers or customers to know about the inner workings of your business just because you have a blog? I promise, it’s really not that bad. It’s just about being honest. No one expects you to give away trade secrets or publish your business and marketing plans as roadmaps for anyone else.

Be a trustworthy blogger

Honesty is absolutely worth it. As a blogger, trust can play a great role in your success — both with traffic and with income generation. Let’s say you monetize your blog with affiliate links. You review products and include the affiliate link so you earn a commission if your readers buy it. You could simply post glowing reviews about everything, or you could give honest and balanced reviews (still emphasizing that you recommend a product overall, but noting any room for improvement so readers won’t be surprised by flaws if they buy on your recommendation). The second garners more trust, and when readers know they can trust your buying recommendations, you’ll increase the chance that they’ll buy other products you refer them to in the future.

Readers don’t like to wonder if your words (and opinions) are your own or if you’re just another mouthpiece being paid to promote a business. When you make those readers your priority instead of earning income from sponsors and affiliate programs, you might very well earn more than when you think solely about the money. People find honesty refreshing. It’s not as common as you’d like to think in the blogosphere (with some bloggers not disclosing payment or relationships with advertisers and others allowing their sponsors to influence the editorial side of their blog). Give them that honesty and they’ll not only trust your sales referrals but they’ll be more likely to link to your posts and tell others about you, increasing your traffic and growing your community.

How You Can be a More Transparent Blogger

Being a transparent blogger isn’t difficult. Here are some of the basic things to keep in mind:

  • Disclose relationships with companies you’re blogging about (if I were to write about on one of my personal blogs for example, I should include a disclaimer saying that I’m a paid blogger with the company — anything else would be misleading to readers). This also includes never blogging or commenting anonymously in order to further your cause. Don’t post glowing reviews of your (or your employer’s) products without noting that you’re from the company. Don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t. Don’t be anonymous — if you aren’t willing to take public credit for your words, then they’re not worth saying in the first place. Also, don’t assume that disclosing your relationship with a client, employer, or sponsor once is enough. Every time that company is mentioned on your blog, make the relationship known. People come to inner pages via search engines all the time. No matter where they first see the company mentioned, they should know immediately how you’re tied to that company.
  • Disclose the fact that a post contains paid links or affiliate links. You might just write a quick sentence or two up front, or you could include a banner stating that the post contains affiliate links (that’s my personal preference, and I like to link that affiliate link disclaimer banner to a larger affiliate link policy page so my readers can find out exactly how affiliate links are chosen and how I might use them on the blog).
  • Disclose post sponsorship. If a company pays you to write a post about them, readers have a right to know that payment may have influenced the opinions laid out in that post. Even if your reviews themselves are completely unbiased (I believe wholeheartedly in never taking sponsorships that require solely positive feedback), be up front with readers and let them make an informed decision of whether or not to trust your review for themselves.
  • Disclose freebies. Even if a company isn’t paying you cash to review their products or services, you should disclose any kind of compensation, including freebies. If you get a free hotel stay, mention it. If someone sends you a free review copy of a new book, note that it was sent to you. On the flip side, when you do pay for something yourself before reviewing it, I suggest mentioning that too. While it’s not necessary, I find that when you show that you considered a product worth spending your hard-earned money on, readers are even more receptive to your reviews.
Blogger Sponsorship

Are you noticing the recurring theme here? Disclosure! If there’s anything at all in a post or comment that could be construed as a conflict of interest, disclose it.

Another key element of transparency is admitting your mistakes. If you try to cover something up, you’re bound to be found out. You’ll also be in much hotter water with readers if that happens than if you admit you made an error and you work to correct it. If you lash out, don’t go back and censor things like it didn’t happen. Apologize sincerely. If you forget to disclose a relationship before reviewing a product, go back and do that (if you want to be even higher on the ethical spectrum, you might also offer to refund readers who bought on your potentially biased recommendation but were unhappy with the product — although most bloggers wouldn’t do this). In short, own up.

U.S. Bloggers: The FTC Weighs in on Transparency in Blogging

Transparency is always a good idea in blogging, but if you’re a U.S. blogger it’s soon going to be a legal requirement rather than a simple question of business ethics. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued legal guidelines that affect bloggers starting December 1, 2009. Basically you’ll be required to do some of the things mentioned above — disclose relationships, payments, and freebies for example.

While there are some debatable issues in the new regulations (such as whether or not they’ll eventually actually start cracking down on bloggers with fines instead of focusing more on the advertisers, and the issue of print media being left to their own devices while bloggers become more regulated), it’s common sense isn’t it? Be honest. Don’t mislead people. Don’t post biased information without letting readers know exactly what they’re looking at up front. Did we really need a federal agency to tell us something our mommies and daddies should have taught us years ago? Because of a few bad apples, apparently so.

Whether or not you’re covered by the FTC guidelines, consider making changes now to become a more transparent blogger. You don’t have to give away all of your secrets to success in order to reap the benefits of increased credibility. Let transparent blogging lead you not only to more readers, but more readers who truly value what you have to say.

FTC Disclosure Rules


Written by
Jennifer Mattern