Five great productivity tools for writers and office workers

Digital kitchen timerEveryone needs help focusing now and then, so I thought it might help if I share a few productivity tools that help me get a lot of stuff done. Those of us who work independently probably get pulled in even more directions than those who have bosses telling them what to do right now, but these tools may be useful for just about anyone who works in an office.

Sellers of products may pay commissions on sales from links in this post.
  1. Boomerang is an add-on to either Gmail or Outlook that lets you pause your inbox for designated lengths of time. The default is two hours, but you can make this longer or shorter. Blocking out the distraction of constant email is a powerful way to boost productivity. The free version is pretty robust, or you can subscribe to get additional features. There even is a way to allow urgent messages or email from specific people to get through during your pause.
  2. Noise canceling headphones or earbuds. There is plenty of research that indicates that the human brain gets pulled off task just by sensing certain sounds, so the loss of productivity adds up fast if there are phones ringing or people talking around you. A friend gave me a pair of Pioneer Rayz noise canceling earbuds for Christmas. These are amazing, and not just when I am on an airplane.
  3. Focus@Will provides a huge selection of focus music (or ambient noise) that has been a big part of my ability to power through projects in the past year. Lately, the classical music options have worked well, but sometimes the cafe sounds help me get into the mood for writing.
  4. RescueTime app: This is a downloadable piece of software or a Chrome or other browser plug-in. You can set it to block social media or other counter-productive websites for certain time periods. It also can track your activity so you can get a report card on your online time.
  5. Kitchen timers. I recommend having two. Set one for a longer interval, maybe 18-30 minutes, and the other for a short interval, 3-5 minutes. Use the long intervals for focused work. Alternate with breaks using the second timer. This interval method is one of the best ways to power through just about anything.

There are many other tools that may be useful depending on the kind of work you do and what your style is.

What tools do you find helpful? Let us know by leaving a comment.

Bloggers must disclose freebies or discounts

 (This is a 2017 update of an article that I published in 2016 on Medium.)

Many bloggers and other writers rely on product samples or invitations to events to get what they need for their writing. This is particularly true among travel writers, especially when an article requires transportation, lodging, or meals in order for the writer to evaluate and write about a destination or the services available there. The ways bloggers disclose these relationships are as varied as the blogs on which they appear, and the rules that established publications apply to these situations vary just as much.

Writers need to be aware of both laws and practical rules. Violating either can impair a writer’s livelihood significantly.

The simple guideline is that readers should know if they are reading something based on an exchange of anything of value between the seller and the writer. If you keep this as your principle, you likely will be in compliance with both federal regulations and the requirements of your freelance clients.

The Federal Trade Commission, the agency with authority over advertising and marketing, has clear rules that were updated recently: writers must disclose freebies, discounts or other “consideration” in advance of any product mention. And, the rules apply to all media, including short form media such as Instagram, SnapChat or Twitter.

Publications are all over the map. To avoid any possibility of bias, some publications, such as at the Los Angeles Times will not accept articles from a writer who accepted free or discounted travel. Period. However, many smaller newspapers and some magazines are less strict. In many cases, this is a judgment call up to the editor.

Here are some tips on how to stay within the boundaries:

  1. Tell your editor if you plan to accept a free or discounted product or service in advance. Some publications will say no and cover the expenses instead. Disclosure in advance gives the editor a chance to decide.
  2. If you are a blogger, you must disclose every time you write about a product or service and you receive compensation or something of value from the provider of that product or service. This includes free product samples, meals, or any other item of value that is not generally available to all consumers. A generic disclosure is not good enough, unless it is obvious and precedes any product mention.
  3. Disclose that a review is based on a sample at or near the top of your review. Some bloggers put a short note above each post. Others include this detail within the text. Either may be sufficient, provided that a reader sees it before the product mention.
  4. If you link to a web page where consumers can buy a product you wrote about based on a free sample, the disclosure must appear before the link. This applies even if you do not get a share of the sale if you got something for free or a discount. If you did not get anything from the seller, have no business relationship with the seller, and are mentioning a product or service just as a convenience to your readers, no disclosure is required.
  5. On Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms that limit characters, tags like “Paid Ad” or “Ad” may be sufficient disclosures. “Affiliate” or “affiliate link” is not, because not every consumer will understand what that means. Sending a separate tweet with a disclosure is not sufficient. Many influencers are using the hashtag #ad to fulfill this requirement.
  6. Include clear disclosures on all platforms — this includes audio, video, or even SnapChat.
  7. Any links related to paid or otherwise compensated content must use the nofollow” tag. This should be used anytime a link is included because you received a sample, non-public discount or any other compensation.
Disclosure icons by Louis Gray and Jeannine Schafer.
Icon by Louis Gray and Jeannine Schafer.

If a winery pours free tastes to all visitors, you do not have to disclose that you had free tastes. However, if you got a free bottle, you must disclose it.

Where many people get mixed up is social media. The FTC does not distinguish between types of media. A Facebook post, YouTube video or newspaper article all have the same regulations. This even includes within a 140-character tweet. But it’s not that difficult. The FTC website has a thorough guide that shows how to do this with as few as three characters. Google also has a simple guide for online reviews.

In its latest update on how to handle product endorsements, the FTC emphasized earlier guidance that disclosures cannot just be a separate page on your website or buried at the bottom of the page. “It does not convey the importance, nature, and relevance of the information to which it leads,” says the federal agency. Simply putting “AD” in a tweet may be enough, however.

“You have to disclose that you were paid or got a free sample before you mention the product,” says Jana Seitzer, publisher of popular consumer blog Merlot Mommy. The disclosure has to be “clear and conspicuous,” according to the FTC guidance on native advertising, which applies to many kinds of blog posts, including reviews.

However, the disclosure does not need to be clunky. As long as the disclosure is clear and ahead of any links to other direct product or service reference, you can choose your own way to do it.

In a travel article, you can simply say something like, “I was a guest of [Property Name] and had a chance to see first-hand how the staff takes care of visitors.” Or, “The [Region] Chamber of Commerce hosted me for a weekend to explore the trails and scenery of the area.”

Here is how I handled a wine tasting for which I received a free (expensive) bottle of (very good) wine and a set of (not cheap) wine glasses:

In this case, the sponsor requested use of the specific hashtag, and the “Ad” tag before the hashtag complied with the rules in place at the time. Under the new guidelines, the tag needs to come before the product name. I also did a tweet at the beginning of the series that disclosed exactly what the winery provided. Note that the disclosure tweet does not satisfy the FTC guidelines. The “ad” tag or another explicit disclosure within each tweet that mentions the product is mandatory.

Following the new rules, here’s how I posted a promo for T-shirts from which I get a share of the sales:

The "AD" tag at the start of this tweet is a mandatory disclosure for compensated posts.
The “AD” tag at the start of this tweet is a mandatory disclosure for compensated posts.

 

I also include the “AD” tag when posting links to companies that give me an incentive for social sharing, such as this tweet endorsing a time-tracking and invocing app:

For more about “nofollow” tags, refer to Google’s Search Console or WordPress. There are many blog plug-ins to simplify this, but it’s really just a matter of adding rel=”nofollow” to your hyperlinks, like this:

<a href=”http://wineandfoodworld.com/” rel=”nofollow”>Doug Levy’s blog</a>

For a fun way to incorporate disclosures into your blog, check out the handy set of of disclosure icons by Google’s Louis Gray and artist Jeannine Schafer.

If you have questions or comments, please let me know.

Disclaimer: This post is for information only and not intended as legal advice. Although I have a law degree and am admitted to the Maryland Bar, I am a journalist, not a practicing lawyer. Please consult your own attorney for advice specific to you.

Ethics and disclosure rules for wine bloggers #WBC16

Like other journalists, many wine bloggers rely on product samples or invitations to events to get what they need for their writing. The ways bloggers disclose these relationships are as varied as the wine blogs on which they appear. Here is a quick guide to the rules that bloggers should follow, especially to stay within bounds of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations.

In guidelines first published in 2013 and reiterated in 2016, the FTC makes clear that there is no ambiguity: FTC rules apply to bloggers. It doesn’t matter whether anyone reads your blog. It doesn’t matter whether you get paid to blog. It doesn’t matter if it is merely a hobby.

If you are a blogger, you must disclose every time you write about a product or service and you receive compensation or something of value from the provider of that product or service. This includes free product samples, meals, or any other item of value that is not generally available to all consumers. 

If a winery pours free tastes to all visitors, you do not have to disclose that you had free tastes. However, if the winery sent you a free bottle because you are a blogger, you must disclose.

Where many people get mixed up is social media. The FTC does not distinguish between social media or a printed magazine or any other media. This even includes within a 140-character tweet. But it’s not that difficult. The FTC website has a thorough guide that shows how to do this with as few as three characters. Google also has a simple guide for online reviews.

In its most recent update, the FTC has reiterated earlier guidance that disclosures cannot just be a separate page on your website or buried at the bottom of the page. “It does not convey the importance, nature, and relevance of the information to which it leads,” says the federal agency. But simply putting “AD” in a tweet may be enough.

“You have to disclose that you were paid or got a free sample before you mention the product,” says Jana Seitzer aka Merlot Mommy. The disclosure has to be “clear and conspicuous,” according to the FTC guidance on native advertising, which applies to many kinds of blog posts, including reviews.

Here are five things wine bloggers should do:

  1. Disclose that a review is based on a free sample from a winery at or near the top of your review. Some bloggers put a short note above each post. Others include this detail within the text. Either is ok, provided that a reader sees it before the product mention.
  2. If you link to a web page where consumers can buy a product you wrote about based on a free sample, the disclosure must appear before the link. This applies even if you do not get a share of the sale. However, no disclosure is needed if you are mentioning a product or service just as a convenience to your readers and you have no relationship with the seller of that product or service.
  3. On Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms that limit characters, tags like “Paid Ad” or “Ad” are sufficient disclosures. “Affiliate” or “affiliate link” is not, because not every consumer will understand what that means. Sending a separate tweet with a disclosure does not satisfy the requirements.
  4. The disclosure rules apply to all platforms, including audio and video.
  5. Any links related to paid or otherwise compensated content must use the “nofollow” tag. This should be used anytime a link is included because you received a sample or compensation. https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/96569?hl=enthe “nofollow” tag.

Here is how I handled a wine tasting for which I received a free (expensive) bottle of (very good) wine and a set of wine glasses:

The “Ad” tag before the hashtag that the sponsor asked me to use followed the FTC guidelines. However, the recent update suggests that the tag now should precede the product mention. If I were to do this now, the tweet would look more like:

Tasting notes: High tannings, med acidity, blackberry & leather in (#Ad) @minerwines 2011 The Oracle. This #wine needs time. #TheOracleHasSpoken

I also did a tweet at the beginning of the series that disclosed exactly what the winery provided. Note that the disclosure tweet does not satisfy the FTC guidelines. The “ad” tag or another explicit disclosure within each tweet that mentions the product is mandatory.

For more about “nofollow” tags, refer to Google’s Search Console or WordPress. There are many blog plugins to simplify this, but it’s really just a matter of adding rel=”nofollow” to your hyperlinks, like this:

<a href=”http://wineandfoodworld.com/” rel=”nofollow”>Doug Levy’s blog</a>

(Bonus: Google’s Louis Gray and artist Jeannine Schafer created a handy set of disclosure icons.)

Disclaimer: Although I am an attorney licensed to practice law in Maryland, this blog post is for information purposes only and not intended as legal advice. Consult your own attorney for advice specific to you. 

Seven things food bloggers should know about copyright, FTC rules, and ethics

Every creative professional worries that someone may use their work without permission (also known as “stealing,”) and there is plenty of reason to be confused about how copyright laws apply to food blogs. Here’s a quick guide on copyright and a couple of other key legal issues that every food blogger should know.

  1. Copyright: Generally, recipes are “procedures” and lists of ingredients, and thus not covered by U.S. copyright law (17 U.S. Code § 102.)
  2. Narrative: However, the narrative of a recipe may be subject to a copyright, if it has “substantial literary expression,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office. If you have more narrative, you are more likely to protect your work.
  3. Images: Copyright does apply to videos, photographs, and illustrations.
  4. Acknowledgement: If you use another person’s recipe, ask for permission and give credit. Although these steps may not be legally required, think about what you would want others to do to you.
  5. Adaptation: If you create your own recipe based on someone else’s, give credit by saying your recipe was “adapted from” or “inspired by” the originator. For a discussion on this, visit the Food Blog Alliance website.
  6. Privacy: Get permission from people whose images are in photographs that you plan to publish. State laws vary on whether people have a privacy right to protect their images in public places, but this is another situation where you should do what you would want others to do to you.
  7. Disclosure: Federal Trade Commission rules require clear disclosure if a blogger promotes a product or service in exchange for a payment or other compensation. This includes free product samples, restaurant meals, or any other item of value that is not generally available to all consumers. The FTC website has a thorough guide that shows how to do this with as few as three characters. Linking to a separate page with your disclosures is not sufficient. (Bonus: Google’s Louis Gray and artist Jeannine Schafer created a handy set of disclosure icons.)

For a more detailed discussion of how copyright law applies to recipes, visit The Definitive Guide to Recipes and Copyright by Louise Hendon. I consulted Hendon’s article in addition to case law, statutes, and government references when writing this post.

Disclaimer: Although I am an attorney licensed to practice law in Maryland, this blog post is for information purposes only and not intended as legal advice. Consult your own attorney for advice specific to you.