Taking Some Of The Ugly Out Of Content Compliance

Financial institutions need to take charge of their online brand and make sure they stay in compliance. Between blackhat publishers, content scrapers, rate comparison sites and third-party affiliates, there is a lot that can go wrong.

When marketing financial services, you’re constantly awash in a sea of acronyms. From the FTC to the FCC, the CFPB to the FFIEC, the TCPA to the FCRA, your task is never straightforward. Whether you’re marketing loans, banking service, credit cards, or something else, it can start to feel like you’re always one small step away from disaster. Every word published — by you, by a partner, by an affiliate, even by a consumer — seems to open you up to some kind of risk.

This is the focus of a report on “content compliance” in the financial industry from BrandVerity. What exactly is “content compliance?” It’s content that third-parties, partners, affiliates and consumers produce about your brand and that content’s compliance with your partnership agreements, terms of service and branding, as well as with federal and state regulations. It’s one thing to make sure that the content produced by your own marketing department adheres to the guidelines set out by state and federal agencies; it’s another to make sure that every piece of information produced about you and your financial products by third-party vendors does as well.

Ensuring content compliance is a task in mitigating risk. It’s impossible to know everything that might be said about your brand on all of the nearly 1 billion sites on the internet. Fortunately, the regulatory agencies aren’t quite asking you to do that. The type of content that you should be most concerned with includes:

  • Third-Party Affiliates — These sites send traffic over to advertisers’ (brands) websites via some form of tracking link and are then compensated in some way for the traffic (typically for a conversion such as a sign-up or purchase).
  • Lead Generators — These sites encourage visitors to fill out forms with their personal information, then sell that information to various advertisers. Most sites offer incentives such as free quotes to motivate visitors to enter their information. Examples include: mortgage rate sites, loan quote sites and insurance quote sites.
  • Marketing Partners — These sites generally have a direct relationship with your brand, typically through some sort of co-branded offering. Because of that, they may have permissions to promote your co-branded offering on their own, potentially requiring review or monitoring. Examples include: partner credit cards and lead-sharing agreements.

If there’s one thing the FTC has been incredibly clear on, it’s that appropriate disclosures —
on your site, on affiliates’ sites, on social media and on partners’ sites — are crucial. Any
material connection between someone endorsing or advertising a product and that product’s manufacturer must be disclosed. In general, it’s best practice to make sure that consumers are no more than one click away from the appropriate disclosure.

The 2012 update to the FTC’s guidelines for online disclosures made even more apparent that disclosures need to be “clear and conspicuous” and that they should not be “relegated to ‘terms of use’ and similar contractual agreements.” Further, they must include all relevant information, even if it is not specified by the regulations. Unfortunately, many bloggers, affiliates and paid partner sites and media continue to avoid placing appropriate disclosures on their pages. From affiliate social media posts to paid advertorials, all material connections must be disclosed.

Some Partners Just Want to Do Things Differently

The most basic reason that third-party sites slip out of compliance is fairly innocent: affiliates, partner sites (for example, partner credit cards), or paid media sites just want to do things their own way. They may change some copy, upload a new image, make an add-on offer that they think will better entice their readers. While the materials you send them have already been cleared by your compliance team, moving a single word could change that.

One of the most common reasons for sites to become non-compliant is missing an offer update. You may be updating, changing and rotating your offers much more frequently than your partners who might struggle to keep up. But any mismatch between a site’s text and the actual terms of an offer can expose your brand to a variety of regulatory risks. It creates the possibility for customer confusion — which is the very thing the FTC and CFPB most want to avoid. While missing an offer update may not be malicious, per se, it opens up the company to compliance risk every time it happens.

Beware of Content Scrapers

While most non-compliant content appears on sites of known partners and affiliates, BrandVerity says they are increasingly seeing brand-specific content appearing on sites that have no material connection with the company. “Scraper sites” copy content from legitimate websites and re-post it on their own sites. The main reason to do this is (ironically) to seem more legitimate. Review or comparison sites will scrape high quality content from other places on the internet in order to appear to both consumers and search engines — which scan for the quality of content — to be higher quality than they are. BrandVerity is also seeing some tabloid news sites, paid media outlets and bloggers and affiliates doing the same thing.

These sites can cause tremendous frustration and difficulty for several reasons:

  1. They don’t make themselves known. These are not sites you’re choosing to work with, and they are not going to inform you that they’re stealing content from your or your marketing partners.
  2. Their content is never updated. These sites often pull old material in the first place, meaning whatever text, offers, or images they use are immediately outdated. Further, because you have no connection to these sites, there is no way to get them updated.
  3. They may outrank you. Because these sites scrape high-quality content from a variety of places, it is possible that they will outrank both you and your marketing partners in search. They also may run search ads or other types of advertisement to potentially divert your customers. This can cost you traffic and customers due to increased competition, friction and confusion.

Deceptive Geo-Targeting

Many financial offers are location-specific. Mortgages, short term loans and many other promotions are limited to certain states. They only apply to specific geographies or regions, so it is both deceptive and illegal to market these services outside of the approved locations.

Increasingly, BrandVerity is seeing offers being advertised in inappropriate markets — largely by affiliates who use sub-affiliate networks. This kind of action is, of course, both out of compliance with partnership agreements and with regulations. Unfortunately, however, it can be meaningfully profitable for a malicious partner to neglect these geographical restrictions. Tempting offers will still drive leads, and deceptive publishers are able to scrub their leads of any identifiers that might prove they were generated in a non-compliant manner. The result: financial brands pay for leads that were generated in bad faith, and that they can’t actually sell to.

Download the Report

You can download the entire 24-page white paper, “Guide to Content Compliance for Financial Brands,” from BrandVerity. The report provides an overview of key regulatory issues, a breakdown of the types of sites you need to monitor, ways in which websites can become non-compliant, tactics that blackhat publishers use, and recommendations for structuring and running a compliance process.

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