It used to be that business on the Internet was a lot like Las Vegas. What happened there, stayed there. But over the past few years, the web has become a hub to online business, resulting in millions of online transactions, interactions and marketing campaigns. Businesses and marketers have become more savvy, and it’s become much harder to decipher fact from fiction.

Improving the Usability of Digital Advertising

While we once only had to worry about phishing scams and Nigerian princes. Now we have our online identities and privacy to consider when we click, like or buy online, not to mention the authenticity of the brands marketed toward us. To show you how much technology has impacted the way business advertise online, the Federal Trade Commission has released updated guidelines for digital advertising to account for activity on social media and mobile devices. 

The first thing you’ll notice when reading the report, “.com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising,” (other than the use of the word cyberspace) is that it reads more like a study in usability, than law and governance. This is a good thing, because as we know there are many brands that are guilty of committing gruesome acts of customer experience. It also serves to make a correlation between the user experience and best business practices.

The next thing you’ll notice is that the FTC hasn’t really changed the rules governing digital advertising -- it’s just highlighting how the old rules still apply to evolving technologies. It’s a good reminder that despite new platforms and technologies, we’re all still subject to the same rules. No matter where you are, transparency makes for good business. Being able to provide clear and conspicuous disclosures and messaging can only help you, provided you have nothing to hide. 

The beauty of social media is that if you have something to hide, someone will expose you. But that doesn’t always mean it’s easy to notice. Unlike those spammy emails your your email provider has isolated as junk mail, social media and mobile technology doesn’t yet have a singular way to identify suspicious marketing messages. Furthermore, social media and mobile technologies are still new to consumers so they aren’t as likely to identify and ignore nefarious messages, as they might on more traditional platforms like email or web browsers.

Evolving Digital Advertising's Second Screen Experience 

The guide is easy to read and clearly outlines the legal expectations of online advertising, as well as providing a useful appendix of visual examples. While you might already know many of the rules of advertising, chances are you haven’t really thought about how one might really disclose the necessary information about your product or promotion within the second screen environment. On TV, you can say it really quickly as the phone number flashes on the screen. In print, you can put an asterisk that directs reader to the bottom of the page. But how do you provide additional, required information on Facebook or on mobile device, knowing full well that it might not be seen or available to readily access? 

In this example, the substantial gap between the end of the webpage’s main text and the hyperlink makes it unlikely that consumers will notice the hyperlink, which is also inadequately linked.

In this example, consumers might not understand that “#spon” means that the message was sponsored by an advertiser. If a significant proportion of reasonable viewers would not, then the ad would be deceptive.

This is part of the reason many pharmaceuticals chose to abandon Facebook once brands were required to allow comments on their pages. For every time someone (either the brand or fan) mentioned the name of a medication, the manufacturer was required to provide the fine print associated with it. Doing that consistently isn’t easy when you open up comments to the public where they can casually name drop or offer unsolicited medical advice. But I digress ...

Educating Consumers, Promoting Awareness 

The FTC isn’t making it harder for marketers to advertise online. It’s making it harder for shady marketers to advertise online -- provided that there will be stricter consequences for not following the rules. Which makes me think the FTC’s guide should also be read by consumers, not just marketers, so spotting suspect digital advertising isn’t as difficult. 

This is much an educational campaign as it is an attempt to remind marketers about the laws governing online behaviors. Promoting awareness among consumers is probably just as effective as cracking down on violators. By becoming more selective about the ads we click, brands we engage with and the products we buy, consumers can weed out the bad to focus on the brands that are purposely transparent and are creating engaging customer experiences built on trust.  

This report isn’t entirely black and white and there are many instances where marketers are likely to be more confused or may push back, especially where celebrity endorsements and mobile website optimization are concerned. Overall, the report is a step in the right direction, highlighting the need for better usability and brand transparency, as well as promoting awareness about the rules of digital advertising.

Alone, it won’t change much, but coupled with best practices for customer and mobile experiences, it will help to keep companies and marketers honest and ultimately, successful when marketing online.