Transparency Is Paramount When It Comes to Sponsored Social Media Posts
When thinking about transparency, those of us at a certain age will probably reminisce about the clear sheets of paper used for projector demonstrations your teacher drew on during high school biology class. Others may correlate transparency to the demanding call-to-action in the aftermath of the Enron scandal or Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns during his Presidential bid in 2016. Transparency is a word tossed around (usually in a post-corporate scandal cleanup) in most major industries—banking, real estate, and government. The healthcare industry is not dissimilar. Politicians call for transparency for drug pricing, consumers call for government accountability on healthcare coverage, and the FTC seeks transparency from healthcare marketers promoting their products to the public.
Many advertisers rely on the influence of celebrities, medical professionals and satisfied patients to positively impact the perception and sales of their brand’s product. With the increased focus on impacting patient behavior, especially through personalized product endorsements, healthcare marketers must adhere to transparent, ethical methods of providing education to consumers. As medical marketers navigate social media, they must balance a new world of effective influencer marketing with increasingly well-regulated government guidelines.
FTC Endorsement Guidelines
The basic premise of the FTC’s “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” is that, if there exists a material connection between the influencer who is endorsing the product and the company that is marketing the product (e.g., a payment, a free product sample or procedure, a family connection, etc.), that connection must be disclosed.
The FTC provides guidelines for the use of promotional endorsements and testimonials and has in recent years clarified their stance to encompass social media promotion. The FTC offers a number of guidelines that brands can follow to convey a reasonable degree of transparency to digital media/social media consumers.
The Difference Between User-Generated Content and Paid Sponsorships
The FTC recognizes the difference between paid endorsements and unsolicited content created by a product user. For example, RealSelf, a thriving community of individuals who share their experiences with particular products, procedures and physicians within the aesthetic beauty industry, is a perfect example of unsolicited consumer-generated content. When engaging in a paid or endorsement-related relationship with a brand ambassador or influencer, the FTC outlines the following key guidance:
- Endorsements must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser. Furthermore, an endorsement may not convey any express or implied representation that would be deceptive if made directly by the advertiser.
- The endorsement message need not be phrased in the exact words of the endorser, unless the advertisement affirmatively so represents. However, the endorsement may not be presented out of context or reworded so as to distort in any way the endorser's opinion or experience with the product.
- When the advertisement represents that the endorser uses the endorsed product, the endorser must have been a bona fide user of it at the time the endorsement was given.
- Any material connection between the advertiser and endorser must be disclosed.
- Advertisers must balance any consumer endorsement with "competent and reliable scientific evidence" as well as "conspicuously disclose the generally expected performance" of the endorsed product.
Based on FTC research, even a consumer testimonial with the disclaimers of “results not typical” or “testimonials are based on the experiences of a few people and are not likely to have similar results” do not sway an audience from taking the claims as usual or typical. A strong disclaimer could be effective, and the impression left with the audience non-deceptive, however… do you really want to tempt the FTC these days?
The FTC: Keeping up With the Times
In keeping with the digital times and the constantly morphing use of social media as a viable healthcare marketing tool, the FTC released an April 2017 letter to over 90 influencers and marketers reminding them to:
- Conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media.
If the connection is not adequately disclosed, consumers might give the endorsement more credence than they would have given it otherwise, and the endorsement is considered by the FTC to be a deceptive business practice in violation of Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
- Disclose their material connection in "unambiguous language" and make the disclosure "stand out".
Because of the recent crackdowns on Instagram sponsorships, many influencers on the platform are becoming even more conservative with disclosing brand partnerships—even those that are unpaid. Sponsored promotions can no longer rely on unclear or cryptic language or hashtags to legitimize a product endorsement. For example #sp, #partner or "Thanks [brand]" are not sufficient to express the post is sponsored. On Instagram in particular, many brand ambassadors are adding the word "sponsored" and/or their brand partners name front and center where a location tag would normally go.
- Ensure that the disclosure of an endorsement is readily visible and not hidden below a "More" button, particularly on Instagram.
Consumers viewing Instagram posts on mobile devices typically see only the first three lines of a longer post unless they click "more," which many may not do. The FTC goes on to clarify that hashtags delineating sponsored posts cannot be hidden in the midst of 20 other hashtags but must be easy to identify. Similarly, sponsored Instagram Stories must include a superimposed disclosure that is easy to notice and readable within the timeframe (or length) of the story, and cannot be hidden within other hashtags or text.
Worth It Rating: 100%
Patient testimonials and endorsements on social media can be incredibly helpful to you and your brand. This is especially true if the patient is writing about how much they like something they bought on their own and they are not being rewarded. Consumers have many opinions and personal experiences with a product or brand. Depending on the circumstance a marketer should not shy away from social engagement with a “thank you” response or an acknowledgment of the patient experience. We recommend not engaging with Internet trolls or bots. However, if the patient is writing that review as part of a sponsored campaign or are being compensated in any way—for example, getting a discount on a future purchase or being entered into a sweepstakes for a significant prize—then a disclosure is not only appropriate, it is imperative.
We recommend fostering online relationships with those who are the most vocal of your users or patients. With proper engagement those individuals can become an additional source of information to potential patients and consumers. People trust peers more than brands and there is value in influencers extoling your product or procedure to ring loud. Be sure there is always transparency surrounding the relationship by including visible disclaimer language.
Social media is rapidly changing and keeping up with the rules and regulations can feel like a full-time job—but in healthcare we’re used to that! Hopefully, the recommendations in this blog will help you navigate FTC guidelines—in addition to Regulatory guidelines—on social media for your life sciences brand. With the right attitude and clearly defined relationships about the content you’re publishing on your channels, social media’s benefits can hugely outweigh the risks.