By Anna Johansson

Though the format may be different, there typically isn’t much of a distinction between online marketing and more traditional print and broadcast formats. After all, the goal is still to convey a clear brand message without too much distraction, to draw in an audience and build connections. In terms of legal concerns, however, online marketing comes with a few added concerns. Privacy, clarity, and compliance take a front seat in ways that they might not in print and broadcast marketing.

In order to avoid serious liability, your company will need to conform to several key practices. Keep these 3 standards in mind as you launch your next campaign and you can feel confident you’re coloring inside the (legal) lines.

Put Privacy First

One of the greatest concerns that has arisen alongside digital marketing is that of privacy. Most websites gather some kind of personal information, whether that’s user profiles or email addresses, and it’s important that you disclose what you’re doing with the information. Are you storing it? For how long? How will you use it?

Whenever you collect user information, you need to have a prepared privacy policy explaining the terms of use around that information. Hardly any of your users will ever look at it – it’s a legal document full of dense terms – but that legalese is for everyone’s protection. Consider it mandatory if you don’t want to get fined.

Disclose All Dangers

When you see a commercial for a medication on TV or an ad in a magazine, the end of the ad is typically followed by a long listing of potential side effects. Kind of a downer, right? While it may not be what anyone wants to hear about a potentially life-changing drug, disclosing the dangers of a drug or other product is a serious concern when it comes to liability.

Drug makers who don’t offer sufficient notification about side effects can be held liable for any harm done to patients, facing class action suits in the millions. The same goes for medical device manufacturers, though the healthcare industry isn’t alone in this concern. The Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packs, as well as alcohol advertisements that remind users to “drink responsibly” are expressions of liability concerns.

Marketers need to stay on top of the shifting territory of legal liability as changing social mores and scientific gains lead to regular changes in what needs to be disclosed. For example, Coca-Cola was recently sued for their failure to link their product to preventable health issues. Rather, according to the suit, the brand sought to misrepresent the health risks of their product – and they may pay dearly for that, even if only in terms of public perception.

Ace Accuracy Checks

We expect newspapers, magazine articles, and even TV reporting to be accurate, but the internet has democratized information. Anyone can say whatever they want online, right? Yes – unless you stand to profit from advertising. According the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), companies, advertising agencies, and web designers are all responsible for reviewing the accuracy of advertising claims. All claims about a product’s safety, performance, or advertised offers must be substantiated and cannot be misleading. That means all of your online advertising needs to hold up to its claims, just as it would in any other forum.

What does this look like in practice? Car advertisers, for example, need to accurately represent fuel economy, MSRP, and safety ratings, while in the example of the Coca-Cola case mentioned above, an unhealthy food shouldn’t represent itself as a “healthy snack.”

One industry that’s been hit hard by FTC rules around accuracy is the nutritional supplement industry. Most nutritional supplements claims can’t be substantiated, yet they often are advertised with outlandish statements about how they benefit users. In recent years, many have been fined heavily for their deceptive advertising practices.

Finally, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of affiliate marketing disclosures in today’s digital world. Whether your website contains affiliate marketing links or your Instagram includes paid partnerships, these should be clearly disclosed. Users can’t make informed decisions if they don’t know about conflicts of interest.

Online marketing has as many, if not more, potential liability pitfalls as traditional marketing approaches, yet we often treat it like it’s a free for all. It may be hard to regulate such an expansive marketplace, but our responsibility as small businesses is to regulate ourselves so that we will be found in compliance when the judge passes through. You can make an impact and still play by the rules. In fact, your impact will be more meaningful for it.

Anna Johansson is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. A columnist for, and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.