Are Affiliate Links Ruining Your Reader Relationship?

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Let’s discuss a scenario.

A good friend of yours invites you over to have dinner with him and his wife. Not wanting to be rude, you accept the invitation. Plus, you’ve been friends with this individual for a few years now. You’ve exchanged jokes, shared stories, and had some great moments.
Dinner goes well. The conversation and the wine are both flowing. Suddenly, the topics start to shift.
You learn that your friend is now a sales rep for Advocare – a health and wellness company. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever tried,” he says. “So much energy!” you’re promised. Slowly, the conversation shifts to prices, and your “friend” promises you a low introductory rate. 

What would you do? Buy? Stay? Say yes? Ask for more info?

I’ll tell you one thing: If that happened more than once, I’m not going back over for dinner!

Now, this story may not play out exactly this way in real life (unless your friends are assholes), but it happens with your online relationship every single day in the form of affiliate links.

I use Advocare as an example because it seems like everyone on Facebook is an Advocare rep these days. They’re all pushing the revolutionary products on their friends and family. Some use social networking tools like Facebook to spam all of their friends with the latest deals. Others reach out to specific targets individually (I’ve received about 4-5 special offers from acquaintances to share with my clients). However, other examples are everywhere. Sites that recommend books almost always use an affiliate tag when they refer you to Amazon. Fitness blogs are absolutely littered with affiliate links to promote various supplements.

My problem isn’t with affiliate links. They’re a viable way to make money. My ultimate question however is simple: Isn’t there a better way to make money?

How Affiliate Links Work

Affiliate links are actually pretty simple. Suppose that you’re looking to kickstart your great new product: XYZ MegaMuscle. Of course, the product is unbelievably awesome (Duh! You created it). You invest years of your hard work, energy, and money. Finally, it comes time to release the product on the masses of…oh wait, you need customers.

Enter affiliate links.

They work in a variety of ways, but essentially, they’re a method to spread your product to a much larger audience.

  1. Person A has a product to sell to person C.
  2. Person A needs an introduction to person C. 
  3. Person B makes the intro with a bit of flare and receives a kickback.

This repeats over and over, and Person A (you, the product creator) is able to reach a much larger audience. The kickback could take the form of a variety of things but usually involves a small percentage of the sale.

In theory, this is a great way of growth hacking. As Ryan Holliday illustrates in his book about the topic (not an affiliate link), building your product is largely about finding new ways to attract and retain users. Obtaining a new audience is key. Affiliate links, by default, are a key way for product developers to reach a new audience through their network.

So, what’s wrong?

Enter the User

Affiliate links hardly have an affect on the user experience at all when they’re used sparingly. Users see links, they decide whether to click, and the idea that the author could be making money from their click or purchase isn’t really a large part of the decision-making process. Largely, affiliate links don’t even garner a ton of clicks.

When they work, users click. They buy stuff. The writer gets paid, and you sell a ton of XYZ MegaMuscle. Everybody wins (assuming the product is actually worth a damn).

The main problem is when the desire to make money from affiliate links ends up harming the user experience and it almost always does. Writers begin participating in affiliate marketing programs from friends and colleagues that are unleashing new products. The opportunity is extremely enticing: Write a post, include a link, get paid.

Over time, the content starts to morph. The writers begin focusing more and more on making money via links and less on the user experience. Whereas the blog started with content directed towards the intended reader, the content eventually turns into more of an author-first mentality. Soon, 60-70% of posts are focused first on writing compelling sales copy to get the reader to click. The blog morphs from one focused on entertaining and educating the reader to selling products.

Recently, I’ve seen a staggering increase in affiliate links from bloggers and writers. They spend months and years gaining the trust of their readers only to pump their posts full of affiliate links in an attempt to make a buck. There are several problems with this strategy:

1. The writer ends up endorsing products they don’t believe in.

Most admirable writers and bloggers will limit their affiliate links to only products that they fully endorsed – meaning the products mesh with their philosophy and methods. Over time however, morals get tossed out for money.

In fact, businesses are now springing up with the ability to mark-up sites with affiliate links and give the author a cut of any products sold. The author doesn’t necessarily know anything about the products themselves. The links are simply placed based on keywords. So, now writers are selling products they don’t even know about?

2. A reader’s trust for a few bucks is a shitty trade.

I’ll admit – if I see several posts in a row riddled with affiliate links, I’m not coming back. It’s the same story of the best-friend-turned-salesman. There are a lot of ways to completely lose your readers. Littering your posts with affiliate links is a surefire way to do it.

3. Affiliate links are a sad way to repay your readers for tuning in.

So, awhile back, I pre-ordered a book from some top fitness professionals. They had a captive audience and led an astonishingly successful book launch that put them on the bestsellers list.

To help springboard sales, they came up with incentive plans to encourage readers to pre-order their book (pre-orders force bookstores to order more initial copies). I, like many others, jumped on the bandwagon. One of the gifts for pre-ordering the book came in the form of bonus materials that were left out of the final print. After thoroughly enjoying the book, I was eager to jump into the extra chapters.

About 2-3 pages in, I was stunned.

Sure, the content was cleverly written, interesting, and funny, but I couldn’t help but notice the amount of product links present. Since the extra materials were in PDF format, readers had to either view them from an e-reader or their laptop making them a captive audience for links. Nearly every product I saw had a link of some sort.

That’s how you repay readers for pre-ordering your book? By passing along bonus material that’s also stocked full of affiliate links to make another buck?

Simply put, writing a post/essay/book with the sole intention being getting your readers to click your link is a shitty way to do business.

Is There a Better Way?

I’d be foolish to write an entire post demonizing affiliate links and then resolve that there was no other way for bloggers and writers to monetize their site. There are, of course, many alternatives. Some are a bit more intrusive; others blend in more with the content:

  • Banner ads
  • Sponsored content
  • Guest posts
  • Backlinks
  • Creating products

In my opinion, the last one is the way to go. You have the opportunity to build something that helps you to monetize your site while also providing value to others. Several bloggers like Chris Guillebeau and Leo Babauta have both done this successfully. They’ve built a readership with great content, and then, earned revenue through creating products.

Ultimately, which strategy you choose depends on your specific strengths and your individual situation. However, in my opinion, affiliate links are not the secret to success. Right now, they’re exploding with popularity. In the end however, they ruin reader confidence and end up destroying blog content.

Instead, build something that matters, and people will pay you for it.

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