Posted on Dec 10, 2011 | 5 comments
In the past week, I’ve seen posts on five or six different blogs that included affiliate links that were not identified as such.
It’s a disturbing trend that began months ago.
Someone at an affiliate marketing conference told attendees that they didn’t have to disclose affiliate relationships. That statement traveled through the blogging community. It was discussed during a panel at a blogging conference.
Those Thesis buttons on the bottom of many blogs? Whether they’re labeled or not, they’re probably affiliate links.
The ebook buttons in the sidebar of many blogs? They’re probably affiliate links, too.
The links to iTunes? Affiliate links.
Links with lots of numbers in the URL? Links with id= or aff= in them? Most likely, they are affiliate links. The site owner is paid a commission for each sale made through the link.
Before I get any further into this post, I want to say that I have no problem with affiliate marketing.
When I’m making a purchase from Amazon or e-junkie or any number of other sites, I intentionally look for a friend’s affiliate link. I post affiliate links on my site, and I earn money from them.
Selling products as an affiliate is a workable revenue stream, and I would encourage all bloggers to learn how to do it.
In order to maintain the trust and respect of your readers and the greater blogging community, you have to be honest and transparent about affiliate links.
No matter who you are.
The problem that I’m highlighting here is the failure to identify links as affiliate links, the failure to explain to readers that it’s there to make money, or even worse, cloaking links to make them look like they’re not affiliate links.
All of the quotes below come directly from that FTC FAQ page.
It’s always been the law that … if an endorser has been paid or given something of value to tout the marketer’s product – the ad is misleading unless the connection is made clear. (emphasis added)
This law is nothing new; it dates back to the original FTC endorsement guidelines from 1980. If you endorse a product or service and get something in return (affiliate income, straight up payment, a bottle of ketchup, or anything of value), then you are ethically and legally bound to disclose the payment or goods.
When the guidelines for endorsements were released a couple of years ago, there was a big debate about them. That debate has (fortunately) died down.
What remains an oft debated point is how all of this endorsement disclosure business relates to affiliate marketing.
The answer is simple.
Affiliate links need to be disclosed just like free products and upfront payment. In the eyes of the law, affiliate payments are exactly the same as sponsorships or any other perk.
The FTC requires that disclosures be clear and conspicuous:
I’m an affiliate marketer with links to an online retailer on my website. When people click on those links and buy something from the retailer, I earn a commission. What do I have to disclose? Where should the disclosure be?
Let’s assume that you’re endorsing a product or service on your site and you have links to a company that pays you commissions on sales… In some instances, where the link is embedded in the product review, a single disclosure may be adequate. When the product review has a clear and conspicuous disclosure of your relationship – and the reader can see both the product review and the link at the same time – readers have the information they need.
If the product review and the link are separated, the reader may lose the connection.
As for where to place a disclosure, the guiding principle is that it has to be clear and conspicuous. Putting disclosures in obscure places – for example, buried on an ABOUT US or GENERAL INFO page, behind a poorly labeled hyperlink or in a terms of service agreement – isn’t good enough. The average person who visits your site must be able to notice your disclosure, read it and understand it.
I have started making the link title “This is an affiliate link.” so that pops up when someone hovers over the link. I also put a statement at the bottom of my post, something like “This post contains affiliate links.”
There is no common wording, and the FAQ page goes on to explain that the disclosure need not be legalese. It simply needs to make readers aware of the affiliate relationship.
That’s not good enough. Everyone doesn’t know.
Isn’t it common knowledge that some bloggers are paid to tout products or that if you click a link on my site to buy a product, I’ll get a commission for that sale?
First, many bloggers who mention products don’t receive anything for their reviews and don’t get a commission if readers click on a link to buy a product. Second, the financial arrangements between some bloggers and advertisers may be apparent to industry insiders, but not to everyone else who reads a blog. Under the law, an act or practice is deceptive if it misleads “a significant minority” of consumers. So even if some readers are aware of these deals, many readers aren’t. That’s why disclosure is important.
Terrific. It’s not good enough.
Would a single disclosure on my home page that “many of the products I discuss on this site are provided to me free by their manufacturer” be enough?
A single disclosure doesn’t really do it because people visiting your site might read individual reviews or watch individual videos without seeing the disclosure on your home page.
Would a button that says DISCLOSURE, LEGAL, or something like that be sufficient disclosure?
No. A button isn’t likely to be sufficient. How often do you click on those buttons when you visit someone else’s site? If you provide the information as part of your message, your audience is less likely to miss it.
There is nothing in the guidelines or in the FAQ that requires every single link to be identified, as long as there is a disclosure in the vicinity of every link.
In other words, every post or page that contains affiliate links must include a disclosure.
The bottom line is that the FTC guidelines and their supporting documents are very clear.
Affiliate links must be disclosed as such, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong.