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On affiliate links, ethics and advertising

moneyI’m having a little trouble with affiliate links these days. Or rather with the ethics surrounding them.

In case you’re not familiar: Affiliate links are special codes used to give commissions to people who spread the word about your product or service. If I were to review a book on my blog, and include an affiliate link, I would get a commission if you clicked through to buy the book.

Here’s the thing.

I think affiliate links are fine, as long as they’re for products and services we legitimately recommend, and the affiliate status is disclosed.  For the record: I have affiliate accounts at several places, including Aweber and Amazon, but I have not yet used them.

Further, I’ve always thought that FTC regulations in the United States required bloggers to disclose affiliate links.  If you’re a Canadian blogger, it seems to make sense to follow these rules, as much of your audience is likely to be in the U.S.

Recently, I heard a speaker at an association meeting here in the Toronto area say that it is ethical to include affiliate links in his blog posts and LinkedIn updates, without disclosing that they are affiliate links that will earn him money.

That just doesn’t sit right with me. And this issue is now swirling around a prominent curator and blogger who is also using affiliate links – quite successfully – to pay the bills.

Maria Popova publishes the wildly popular Brain Pickings. I started following her on Twitter last year and sometimes click through to read her blog. Her content is always interesting and beautifully presented, although sometimes too long for the time I set aside for recreational reading.

Popova refers to her site as “ad free,” even though it is supported by affiliate links.  According to this post in On Advertising, Popova rakes in substantial revenue from the links while soliciting donations for her “ad free” site. I was disappointed to read this.  (By the way, you can often tell when a link is affiliated; just look at the code, where you’ll often see the referrer’s name. Sometimes it’s just a number, though.)

What do you think? Is an affiliate link an ad? Would you use affiliate links without disclosing them?

About Donna Papacosta

Writer, speaker, podcaster, communications and social media consultant, content marketer and curator. As a consultant, I emphasize the importance of storytelling and relationship-building, and enjoy helping people understand how today’s technology, combined with tried-and-true tactics, can help them communicate better with employees, customers and prospects. In other words: Share your story, build your business.

14 Responses to "On affiliate links, ethics and advertising"

  • Sue Horner
    February 19, 2013 - 10:36 AM Reply

    I agree that anyone making money through affiliate marketing should disclose that fact somewhere. If you do, chances are I will appreciate your honesty. If you don’t, and I find out, that makes your endorsement suspect.

    I subscribe to the Brain Pickings newsletter and have noticed the usual plea for donations to support the hours and hours that go into pulling it together. I’ve often thought she’d need fewer donations if she didn’t make each issue so very long. Like you, I’m disappointed to find out she’s actually making money from affiliate ads.

  • Barb Sawyers
    February 19, 2013 - 10:43 AM Reply

    I love Brain Pickings, but was so upset about the revelation of Maria Popova’s undisclosed affiliate links. So glad I never gave her a donation.
    Will the controversy damage her, like it’s doing with Jonah Lehrer, who admitted he plagiarized?
    I thought cheating was for highly competitive athletes like Lance Armstrong, not people whose writing and thinking I admired.
    I will unlike her on Facebook, even though her posts often brighten my day.
    I will not miss the brain pictures, which gross me out. I read that adding a graphic of a brain makes people think you’re smarter. I should have known that anyone who would stoop to cheap, and icky, tricks could not be all that wonderful.
    Who was the IABC speaker who said they were OK? He must go on our naughty list.

  • Donna Papacosta
    February 19, 2013 - 10:46 AM Reply

    Thanks for commenting, Sue and Barb. Barb, this was NOT a speaker at an IABC event. It was another association.

  • Gloria Hildebrandt
    February 19, 2013 - 11:13 AM Reply

    Affiliate links are new to my co-publisher and me. We do carry some paid ads on our website and would like to have more. I would like to offer affiliate links to online booksellers like Amazon &/or Indigo so that we earn some money from book reviews. Publishers and bookstores have not sufficiently supported our book reviews in print or online, so affiliate links may be the answer. I think that informing readers that we would make some money if they buy books through our links might lead to more people buying them through us, as it is a no-effort way for them to help us if they want the book anyway. I am not interested in pushing sales through affiliate links for things like email marketing services & ISPs & things I don’t understand. I see affiliate links as more of a convenient service: if you’re interested in this, here’s a link to make buying it easier. I would not want to make a career of selling online connections.

  • Donna Papacosta
    February 19, 2013 - 11:20 AM Reply

    Gloria, you’re right. For a publication like yours, I think your readers/fans would be HAPPY to support you through affiliate links. Fully disclosing would be a big plus in your case, I believe.

  • Ian Turner
    February 19, 2013 - 12:20 PM Reply

    Donna, I agree with you in some regards, especially that the use and promotion of affiliate links is a dubious practice, especially given the disclosure of it is rarely addressed or dealt with. I’d prefer to disclose this link to readers/users, but how overt and obvious does this statement need to be? Salespeople in retail and other industries rarely if ever disclose if they earn commissions or sales incentives when they help you, and when you ultimately purchase products/services from them. Is this any different? i don’t think so. Affiliate marketing is really an online form of pyramid selling, which is likely where your discomfort lies. Like you, I don’t feel it’s completely above board but at the same time it’s like a lot of sales (and promotions), you don’t entirely know the motivation of the promoter or salesperson.

  • Andrea Dubravsky
    February 19, 2013 - 12:39 PM Reply

    My partner has been running a website that promotes books, reading and education in Czech Republic for the past 10 years. The site is being sponsored by major publishers (whose logos are displayed on the site) but he will not promote a poor book just because it is a bestseller. So his website has an amazing reputation.
    I would not mind if a blogger does not disclose that she is affiliated if she had earned my trust recommending really good sources. And I would not mind if she did disclose it either.
    But it seems Popova has been cheating, not misleading, when she was asking for donations. It’s a really good article you are referring to, Donna.

  • Donna Papacosta
    February 19, 2013 - 12:40 PM Reply

    Ian, I don’t think it’s a dubious practice if done transparently. Plenty of people list affiliate links in their blog with a note after each one that says [affiliate link]. I have even seen some with a note: Please consider all links to be affiliates. Others say: Thanks for clicking on my links to buy books. I earn enough on each one for a latte.

    As for motivation, I think it’s awful to promote something you DO NOT believe in for the sake of a commission. Sure, salespeople do this: “That dress looks lovely on you.”

    As a communicator, blogger, podcaster, etc., I think I would blow my credibility to bits if I started recommending books, podcasting gear, etc., just to make a few bucks off it.

  • Marnie Hughes
    February 19, 2013 - 1:05 PM Reply

    Great to open this discussion, Donna. I think affiliate links are a great way to generate income if they are selling something you truly endorse. Being secretive or trying to hide the fact that you are using affiliate links, however, seems shady to me. I like Gloria’s comment that if the link is there it gives people an opportunity to support you while purchasing something they would have anyway.

  • Martha Muzychka, ABC
    February 19, 2013 - 1:16 PM Reply

    I think it is important to disclose the links no matter how big or small. In health research, one must always disclose conflicts of interest so you can assess the level of bias that may or may not be present. More importantly, it also assures the author of a certain level of credibility such transparency provides. I recently did a presentation and recommended a book that I thought attendees might find helpful to explore a particular approach to a topic. I was careful to say I received no funds for suggesting it, but noted the author and I were members of the same professional organization.

  • Donna Papacosta
    February 19, 2013 - 1:18 PM Reply

    Martha, that sounds like a professional and highly ethical approach. (Coming from you — not a surprise at all!)

  • Renee DeCoskey
    February 19, 2013 - 2:58 PM Reply

    This is perfectly timed for me, Donna. Long story short, just this morning I found myself with an editorial mess on my hands as a result of discovering a bunch of people who didn’t disclose their affiliate links. I was also under the impression that you had to disclose such information. That seems logical. Anything else seems like trickery (and just downright tacky when it’s a product or service you don’t even believe in).

    Thank you for sharing your insight!

  • Donna Papacosta
    February 19, 2013 - 4:30 PM Reply

    Glad you found it useful, Renee. I agree it does sound tacky — and appears to be trickery — when you don’t disclose.

  • Dave Howlett RHB
    March 4, 2013 - 9:52 AM Reply

    Hi Donna,

    An associate, James Morris once said “people don’t get upset when they feel pain, they get upset when they feel unexpected pain.”

    As per the comments above, people often experience a feeling of being duped when one behavior is discovered to be another.

    Referrals are traditionally based on what I term 3rd gear (intrinsic reward) behavior. You try a product, you enjoy it and you want to see your friends experience the same joy. This works for Harry Potter books, roofing contractors or hair dressers.

    A 2nd gear (external reward) commission strategy may be used to create sales. But then the question will always arise: “are they promoting the book because they have my best interest at heart or their own financial interest?”

    When you muddy the waters, people often default to assumption of 1st gear (narrow self interest behavior) and trust is damaged.

    I believe full disclosure is best. Then any monetary rewards can be 3rd gear; an after-effect of the endorsement, not the focus of the endorsement.

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