Over the past few weeks, I have done a great deal of research into affiliates and the ethics of using affiliate links. I am grateful to those people who happily contributed to my research. I spoke to many people in order to consider both sides of the argument. It was quite astonishing that the more someone used affiliates in making their living, then the more reluctant they were to share their opinion. I think that speaks volumes. Similarly, when I asked someone on Instagram, who has over fourteen thousand followers, to conduct a poll concerning what people thought about affiliate marketing on social media, over 82% said that they thought it was wrong.
I would like to stress from the start, that these are my views and opinions and whilst I do not agree with the ethics of affiliate marketing and I choose not to use affiliate links or advertising on my blog, I would not wish to criticise or condemn anyone personally. I am fortunate that I have my own career outside of blogging from which I earn money. If people are happy to make their money from affiliates or support those who earn their living from affiliates, then it is their decision to do so, provided that all concerned are transparent or aware of the truth behind these schemes. There are many issues to consider and I would urge you to form your own conclusions based upon the evidence. My main reason in writing this was to understand the system more and to educate others who may not be aware of how affiliate marketing works.
“Do you like what I am wearing? Then, why not swipe up below and buy?” This appears to be such a common retort in so many Instagram posts nowadays. In the main it comes from influencers. You see them talking about a product on Instagram. You like the idea of the product. You swipe up and you buy. A percentage of every swipe up item purchased goes to the influencer, as a reward for promoting a product. Many influencers are keen to stress that they believe it costs the consumer nothing extra. It just means the retailer shares some of their profits with an influencer. Most influencers claim the amount they are given is meagre – I have heard mention of pennies rather than pounds. However, one influencer told me that affiliates range per brand from 8-30%. Influencers are also entitled to a percentage of anything the consumer goes onto spend with the brand for a period of thirty days. By way of example, an influencer promotes a £10 item from Amazon. The consumer swipes up on the influencer’s affiliate link. They buy the product and subsequently throughout the thirty-day period spend on other items from Amazon totalling several hundred pounds. The influencer receives a percentage of the original affiliate item, along with a percentage of the total spend someone has made with a brand in that thirty-day period. Hardly pennies is it? For many it is a lucrative stream of income. For some, it is their only form of income. I have even seen some influencers recommend a product that they have not yet bought. The money they make from the affiliate link is used to buy it or they may receive it as a gift from the brand as a reward for advertising the product.
I know many people personally who see no harm in affiliate links and use them on their social media accounts and websites regularly. They will say that using these links is exactly the same as a salesperson earning commission on an item they sell. In fact, during my research I discovered that people seem to see affiliates in black and white terms. They are good for some and bad for others. There is no in-between. There is of course a world of difference between someone who may use a couple of affiliates of products linked to their blog as a means to afford the cost of running their blog, and the influencers who post affiliate links by the hour.
So, what is the truth about affiliate links? Are they as bad as some would have us think or are they just a perfectly harmless benefit for all concerned?
Since time immemorial, brands have looked at different ways to advertise their products. The history of advertising goes back a long way, in fact it can even be found in ancient civilisations. It was, however, with the advent of newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century that it became more widely used. Of course, the Twentieth Century saw the arrival of films, television, mail, cinema, transport systems and again these enabled advertising platforms to grow. Today we have social media and targeted advertising, which appears to be everywhere online. How many times have you looked up buying an item, only to see advertisements for a similar product subsequently appear on your social media platforms?
Affiliate links and marketing are just another platform for advertising. Since all forms of advertising cost, I wanted to find out exactly who meets the cost of affiliate marketing. I spoke to an expert in this field who assured me that the costs are always met by businesses and not the consumer. She was eager to stress that the affiliate costs are part of a media and marketing planning budget. She explained that when brands are looking to achieve a certain number of sales per year, they work out that they can target so many customers directly with television advertising and advertising in print, and online through known targeting. There are many places online such as chat rooms, social media platforms and social groups, where brands and advertising would not normally be seen, since they only have a limited budget for advertising. Affiliate marketing enables a brand to be visible in these places without paying for advertising costs and they are only paid on performance when a sale is made. Thus, if they can make a sale to a new consumer without an upfront spend, brands consider it as risk free advertising to bring in more sales.
Having said this, brands will always factor into the future cost of any product, a possible number of future affiliate costs. Although they may say that the cost is met by a brand, technically it will be factored into the future cost and therefore in my opinion, it is passed onto the consumer. The consumer will end up paying for the affiliate costings somewhere down the line, despite what brands and influencers may claim. Fortunately, consumers are starting to realise this, and many are now boycotting the brands who seem to be constantly gifting influencers. These consumers are now deliberately not shopping at certain places because they consider it wrong that wealthy influencers are gifted items for free, whereas those who work and earn their money and are not as wealthy as these influencers, have to buy the item themselves. This therefore shows the true cost of affiliates. It creates a bad reputation for businesses and influencers who over-use them. I saw something online referring to influencers, who over-use affiliates as, “tarted up beggars with cameras.” It is not exactly a flattering term for a profession. Influencers may claim that affiliate marketing is akin to a salesperson earning commission, but salespeople have to work to earn their commission. Influencers are posting a link, which takes seconds.
One influencer, who is aware of how negatively affiliates can be perceived, told me that she deliberately never uses affiliates as an income stream, since she feels they are an insult to her viewers, who work hard for their money. For her, it was vital not to be seen to be greedy or getting something for free. She explained that as an influencer who relies on their viewers to make a living, it is essential that followers consider her to be honest and ethical. Influencers really need to think about their target audience and what they may or may not like. In many ways influencers will also pay the price of affiliates, not in monetary terms, but in how they are perceived by their followers and how their integrity is judged.
We tend to think of affiliate marketing mainly in terms of products such as household items, clothing, make-up and food and drink or experiences such as theme parks or holidays. However, there is another area of affiliate marketing that we need to consider. Many people make money from recommending using a particular app or service. The bingo and betting industry uses affiliate marketing. I spoke to someone who told me that affiliate marketing enables a person who recommends a bingo or betting app to receive a percentage commission based on someone’s financial loss. The bigger amount someone who signs up loses, then the bigger the commission given to someone who recommends the app or site. I asked if this was not considered wrong by people who earn the commission. The person I spoke to stated that it was not unethical, since people are aware of what they are signing up for when they start gambling. It was as if they were implying that because someone chooses to gamble, they should be prepared for someone to profit from their addiction. This feels to me like the drug dealer who never takes drugs and uses someone’s drug addiction to make money.
There are also many so-called money-saving bloggers. These sell themselves as a caring group helping people to live off a budget, pay-off debt or save for things. Yet some amongst this group encourage their followers to sign up for random apps to get ‘free’ money, or a free amazon gift card or a share of cash, without revealing what the app is or the fact that the terms and conditions of signing up to these apps can change rapidly and people can be tied into something that they struggle to escape from. Not to mention that people are revealing their personal information, unaware of how it will be used in the future. Most people would realise that there is no such thing as free money but what about the vulnerable members of our society who might easily fall for this? In a way it is making money out of people’s naivety. Furthermore, many people will trust money-saving bloggers more than other influencers, because they believe that since they claim to be helping people get out of debt, then they are somehow more altruistic and honest. This is not philanthropy. It is enterprise.
If we consider that in society, we admire those who work hard – just think of the way we admire our nurses and doctors during the current coronavirus, – then it is understandable why many people do not like influencers pushing affiliates. Furthermore, bragging is seen as such a negative personality trait that there is little wonder people dislike influencers, who appear to be getting a comfortable lifestyle for minimal work. An influencer may think that they are onto a winner because they have earned a certain amount of passive income from merely posting a link, but too many of these links can seriously damage an influencer’s credibility. The current crisis has seen influencers complaining that their income streams are drying up and asking for their subscribers to help them out by clicking on links. However, it is hard to feel any sympathy for them, when we see pictures of nurses and carers witnessing the trauma of a pandemic and doing eighteen hour shifts; their faces bruised from PPE, whilst influencers sit at home in their hashtag gifted Joanie clothes; made up in hashtag gifted Charlotte Tilbury make-up; on their hashtag gifted grey sofa; surrounded by hashtag gifted Desinio prints; whilst their children play in their hashtag gifted mud kitchen. The loss to someone is not in concrete terms but rather more intangible. It is loss of authenticity, loss of integrity and more than anything, loss of respect. This is certainly something to consider if ethics matter to you and if you want to be perceived as authentic without fear of constant criticism. Influencers are ultimately brands and if your brand is associated mainly with getting something for nothing, it will impact your reputation. And as one influencer said to me, if you genuinely care about your community, you just would not do it.
I do believe that there are still many influencers who need to be more transparent about affiliate marketing and it is reassuring that the bodies who regulate the world of advertising are demanding this. If after reading this, you are still happy to use someone’s affiliate links or use affiliate marketing, then that is your own decision. My rule of thumb is that I want to set an example to my children. Children become what they see. It is right for them to adhere to the belief that hard work is rewarded. Would you really want your children to grow up thinking they do not need to work hard because they can make money from their bed or sofa, merely by posting links and making money out of other people who work for a living? Just because something is legal, does not necessarily mean that it is right.
No examination of affiliates would be complete without sharing my own experience. I started writing a blog just over a year ago. I set it up to showcase my writing and I wanted to become a published author. I recognised blogs are the perfect way to promote yourself as a writer. It worked. My first book comes out in September. To me, that is all the reward I required. However, I noticed that as my blog became more successful, I would be approached by companies asking me if I would post advertisements on my blog or promote certain products. I did not want my blog to be an advertising forum. Furthermore, as someone who has worked for their living since a young age, there was something that never sat right with me about receiving money through a passive income stream. I find my career incredibly rewarding. Many of the rewards I receive are not financial. It matters more to me to know that I have done something to improve someone’s life or make a difference. In addition, I am not someone who enjoys taking risks. To rely on a passive income stream seems incredibly precarious, especially in modern times when so many businesses and organisations are struggling and going into liquidation.
Furthermore, I set up a system on my blogs called #Honestreviews. Here I promote items or businesses that I genuinely use myself for no financial reward. To me, integrity was worth far more. I wanted people to trust me. To know that I only recommended items that I bought myself with my own money. I have been offered many freebies and money to promote products. But I refuse to do this, despite my husband thinking that I should and that I am crazy for not doing so. If I did this, then my blog would become compromised. The trust of my readers is more valuable that a clothing haul or a subscription to some food box delivery service. I know not everyone will share my view and it may be partly explained by my age and coming from a different generation.
If you do consider affiliate marketing to be unethical, then stop feeding the machine of those influencers who rely on it and vote with your feet and possibly your conscience. Instead think of supporting the influencers who offer something else or offer education or entertainment. There is a wonderful lady named Jo Good, a radio broadcaster, who is in her sixties, and has recently been making her own YouTube videos. Jo never set out to make money from her vlogs and she often features beauty and clothing items that she loves. Her videos are incredibly uplifting, and you will never find her moaning about brands cancelling campaigns or no one clicking on her affiliate links. She receives no money for promoting items and refuses to do so. When Jo recommends an item, then I know that it will be good. We have often purchased items recommended by Jo, because we admire her, and we know she is honest and genuine. I am also a huge fan of the Royal florist, Simon Lycett, who offers great advice on growing plants and flowers. Perhaps this might be the new way forward for brands in advertising? Find someone who has been using your product and would willingly recommend it for no fee, and use them to promote it? Sadly, I do not think this will be likely to occur anytime soon, because as the saying goes, “Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough!”