Promoting Your Products Online? 5 Legal Concepts You Should Understand

Don’t over-scrutinize every word you enter online, but do realize that you’re a publisher now.

The internet – and particularly social media – has made everyone a publisher. That’s a good thing if you have products or services to sell. You have control over content, and it’s free or relatively inexpensive to get your message out the way you want it to appear.

But traditional publishers, companies that produce books and magazines and newspapers, have entire legal teams who pore over every word. And still they worry about breaking a copyright law or crossing the line with what they may think is a harmless sentence or photo caption.

Granted, you’re not as likely to be slapped with a lawsuit as a major publication with hundreds of thousands of readers is. And social media are so young that everyone is still trying to sort out the rules. But there are some very basic publishing guidelines that you should know.

Protect yourself. You know those tiny links to privacy policies and terms of use agreements that appear at the bottom of websites? The bigger and more prominent the company, the lengthier these documents are. As a blogger or a website developer, you should post a very visible link on your landing page to a set of rules governing contributions to the site.

And enforce them. If you don’t understand the concepts of slander and libel, there are many sources on the web that you can consult. Even if you never write anything about a competitor that could be considered defamation, a contributor could. In some cases, you may be liable. So be sure that comments are monitored regularly and offenders are shown the virtual door.

Respect the intellectual property of others. This is a complex publishing rule — and one that is often broken. If you’re going to reprint something from another source that is copyrighted, look for a copyright notice and read its rules. Sometimes, permission is required, while other times you are free to paraphrase or take content verbatim as long as the original creator is credited. There are exceptions; these are referred to as fair use. To be safe, always ask and/or acknowledge the source.

Be careful, too, with re-publishing, for example, a glowing post that someone wrote about your product on Facebook. There’s a difference between public information and public domain. Private citizens like your Facebook fans have legal rights, so again, always ask – especially if you’re going to print a photo.

Protect your own work, too. Consider posting a copyright notice.

Be aware of the promotional guidelines on other sites. The major social media networks – and lots of lesser-known sites – have their own rules governing how you can use their space for promotion. Here are Twitter’s and Facebook’s. If you’re on someone else’s blog, check out any restrictions they have before posting. Some will boot you off for doing anything that smacks of self-promotion. In many cases, it will be fine to post an answer to someone’s question and include a link to your website or blog in your signature line.

Choose your words carefully when responding to a complaint. It goes without saying that if someone airs a grievance about your product on your blog or Facebook page, you want to:

  • Thank them for their feedback
  • Ask for more information if necessary
  • Assure them that their concern will be addressed by the appropriate employee
  • Follow up.

Resist the urge to acknowledge a problem in print, for all to see, unless there’s a simple fix for a minor problem that you want to make public. Lawsuit-happy readers may try to use your statements against you.

Disclose. Investment writers have to disclose any relationship they may have (particularly if they’re stockholders) when they write about a specific security. If you – or someone you’re compensating, even if it’s just a free t-shirt – go to another social venue online to say positive things about your products, you must disclose your relationship. You can’t pose as just a consumer and say nice things if you’re tied to the business in some way.

Undoubtedly, these rules are broken frequently on the internet with no consequences. There’s too much territory to police. But an ethical, conscientious publisher doesn’t have to break any of these rules to promote a brand, develop social relationships with prospects and make sales based on an effective online presence.




Stock images courtesy of