Could Affiliate Marketing Hold Potential for Associations?

Affiliate marketing has gained a lot of notice in recent years as a powerful revenue generator for online media outlets. Using this model, there's potential for associations to gain a nondues revenue source—but it’s going to require that your organization do its homework.

As I noted last week, digital advertising has a lot of issues at the moment—and some of those issues will take quite a bit of time to solve.

But I have to wonder if associations looking for a stream of nondues revenue might do themselves a favor by looking to see what other options are out there.

One of those options is affiliate marketing, a model that’s existed online for decades. Over the years, the strategy has increasingly gained attention in the journalism world as a way to fund niche forms of online news.

If you’re not familiar with the basic concept, here’s how it works: Let’s say you mention a book on your website, or want to give a shout-out to a product on a social feed. Rather than simply linking the product using a normal link, you share a special link that ties the URL to an affiliate code. If that link leads to a purchase, you’d get a small kickback for the recommendation.

This model is common for many websites, but is most closely associated with Amazon, due to its popularity and breadth of products.

It sounds like a modest little model, but it’s proven hugely successful for some media startups over the years. For example, The Wirecutter, a product review site in the Consumer Reports mold, was sold to the New York Times Company last year for $30 million on the back of affiliate revenue alone.

When done properly, it can help boost the revenues for an online publication in a noticeable way.

Media outlets have increasingly been experimenting with affiliate marketing as a way to sell books, music, or other products sold by Amazon or similar companies. The Gizmodo Media Group, the network of sites formerly run by Gawker Media and now owned by Univision, is particularly good at this—see its Kinja Deals site over this way.

The Concerns With This Model

All of this is well and good. When done well, it can be a more consumer-friendly model than tracker-heavy ads are. If people read about a book you mention on your website, the odds that they’ll buy that book are slightly higher than before they read about it.

And when done properly, it can help boost the revenues for an online publication in a noticeable way.

But let’s be clear: It’s not a perfect model. There are a few important considerations here, and some of them highlight the risks that come with this strategy. Among them:

Transparency is a must: In 2013, blogger Maria Popova of the popular website Brain Pickings found herself at the center of a major controversy after a website pointed out that Popova did not disclose her use of affiliate links, which raised concerns since her public comments implied she did not rely on advertising at all (in fact, she was very critical of ads). Popova eventually left a disclosure on her website, but had she simply made clear her use of such links in the first place, it would have spared her a lot of headaches. (With that out of the way, it should be noted that Brain Pickings is a great model to borrow from if you’re considering affiliate marketing.)

Regulatory concerns: Another reason why this kind of disclosure is necessary is that the Federal Trade Commission has made it clear that failing to disclose the use of affiliate links is improper and deceptive. “When the review has a clear and conspicuous disclosure of your relationship and the reader can see both the review containing that disclosure and the link at the same time, readers have the information they need,” the regulator explains on an FAQ page. “You could say something like, ‘I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.’ But if the product review containing the disclosure and the link are separated, readers may lose the connection.”

Business model considerations: One of the biggest problems with the model from a business standpoint is this: There’s a risk of either spreading yourself out too far, or not far enough. If you use too many sites for affiliate links, you’re adding a lot of extra work to your routine. But if you just rely on Amazon—or Apple or Google if it’s an app you’re promoting—you’re basically relying on the whims of one company. Amazon recently changed its rules, which caught some publishers off guard as it limited some of the upside from advertising.

There are some startups that have helped take some of the guesswork out of affiliate marketing, including Skimlinks and VigLink, both of which automatically add affiliate links into content through the use of plugins.

The Biggest Problem for Associations

But I think the issue that gives me pause with affiliate marketing when it comes to associations is the fact that, when poorly implemented, it can create major concerns about favoritism and ethics in your content marketing or journalism approach.

As an example, would you be more willing to cover something on your magazine’s website because people might be willing to buy it? Does a link that endorses a product sold by a member show favoritism that could sour the relationships with your other members? And, if done too aggressively, does it look like you’re trying to pitch too hard?

The secret here, I think, is to have a set strategy for how you conduct affiliate marketing. Just as an example: If you run a site that always discusses books, or reviews albums, always run an affiliate link with that, in a set place.

Or maybe you build a site that relies on affiliate links but is neutral on how it covers your industry—say, a blog that covers the history of your industry by linking to old books about different industry-related topics.

But all of this is to say that affiliate marketing—as potentially useful as it could be as a revenue generator—should not be done carelessly. Transparency is key.

Respect your audience, and they might just respect you back.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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