Entrepreneurs: Affiliate Marketing and the Balance of Trust

[NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the topic of entrepreneurship. While my focus has and will continue to be on Facebook ads, I have plenty to share about what I’ve learned while building my business.]

This isn’t your typical blog post about affiliate marketing for entrepreneurs. I’m not going to lay down how you can make a whole bunch of money doing it. It’s not the savior of your business.

Affiliate marketing does have its place for entrepreneurs. It had a place in my business. It has a diminishing — but still existent — role now. However, I don’t believe it is a good central, or long-term, strategy.

The purpose of this post isn’t for you to run away scared of affiliate marketing. Some of my marketing friends are very effective at it. They profit from it. And most importantly, they do so ethically while not losing the trust of their audience.

But that’s what takes me to the central focus of this post. It’s a balance. It’s a huge freaking balance. For me, it’s not worth it. I leave many thousands of dollars on the table because affiliate marketing makes me feel dirty.

When done right, there’s nothing dirty about it. But the problem is that there’s a very thin line you walk when recommending a product in exchange for money.

I don’t send emails about other people’s products. I rarely mention products that aren’t mine in my articles, webinars, or podcasts. When I do, it’s common that I’m not using an affiliate link.

Some likely think I’m crazy as a result. Some will be offended by this post. Some will point to the few, great affiliate marketers (many who are my friends) who have figured out the balance.

But I want you to understand that it’s not easy. How you approach this has long-term implications. While I’ve likely been way too conservative on this topic in the eyes of many marketers, I can confidently say that my approach has benefited me in the long-term.

Let’s take a closer look at affiliate marketing, its place in my business, and my recommendation for you…

What is Affiliate Marketing?

Affiliate marketing relies on a relationship where one party (the affiliate) sells another party’s product and receives a commission — usually a set dollar amount or percentage of the sale.

In the online world, this is often tracked through the use of affiliate links (custom links to the seller’s website) and promo codes. When sales are made via these special links and promo codes, the affiliate gets a cut.

You may see this in a number of ways:

1) Dedicated Emails: The affiliate will send an email to their entire list or list segment promoting a product. The product company is leveraging the affiliate’s relationships in the form of a direct email recommendation.

2) Product Reviews: You’ll see this in the form of written and video reviews. What may appear to be an unbiased take on a product is actually a veiled sales pitch. Click on the links (which should be marked as affiliate links) and make a purchase, and the reviewer will get a cut.

3) Product Mentions: Other times, a product may get mentioned in an article when the context calls for it. Once again, the affiliate link needs to be called out so that it’s clear the author has a monetary incentive, but that product may be mentioned more casually as a product the affiliate uses as a solution to a common problem.

The Benefits of Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing is a way for marketers to supplement their current income. Particularly for businesses struggling to sell their own products early on, affiliate sales can make a big difference.

While the majority of affiliate marketers can’t expect to make a living on commissions, those with large audiences are in an advantageous position. They can bring in significant income while putting in a fraction of the effort of the company that created the product.

The Drawbacks of Affiliate Marketing

I would not recommend starting a business solely as an affiliate marketer. Many do it. Few truly succeed for the long-term.

The biggest drawback is how affiliate marketing impacts the relationship between the affiliate and their audience. The danger is that the marketer makes a purchase recommendation — or directly promotes a product — while being motivated more by monetary reward than helping the customer.

First, let’s think about the affiliate marketer who is most likely to succeed. They’ve built a significant audience. How? They’ve offered lots of value and built long-term trust. When this person recommends something, their audience listens.

But damn… Isn’t that a contradiction? You’ve built trust. You’ve assembled this amazing audience of people who will do anything for you. Why waste that trust on selling someone else’s product?

Do you use that product? Does it have a great reputation? What if it fails? What if the brand suffers a PR hit? What if your customer has a terrible experience? And what if that ultimately reflects on you?

It’s one thing when it’s your own product. People understand when you push something of your own. And if it fails, you have ownership and can handle it.

[On a related note — but a tangent — feel free to tell people your product isn’t right for them. It’s not all about the sale right now. They’ll appreciate you more if you’re honest and you don’t believe it’s a good match.]

Let’s look at affiliate marketing in the simplest terms. What type of recommendation is most valuable: 1) One that has no monetary incentive, or 2) one that results in a commission?

It should be pretty obvious that the no-strings recommendation is most likely to provide the most value. It’s coming — it would appear — from a place of helping rather than of resulting in direct revenue.

If I see a Facebook post of yours featuring a photo of you with someone else’s book, I’m much more likely to buy that book if I know that you’ve read it, love it, and aren’t getting a dime for talking about it. But the minute I know money is involved (and affiliate links are easy to spot), trust begins to drop.

Understand that even if the intentions are pure, it doesn’t necessarily matter. All that matters is perception. If the customer thinks that money impacts whether or not you recommend a product, that alters trust.

Trust, once lost, can be difficult to regain. That’s lost revenue.

My Relationship with Affiliate Marketing

I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with affiliate marketing. I know how much it can impact trust, and I value my audience way too much.

Earlier in my business, affiliate marketing made up a decent chunk of my revenue. I relied on affiliate commissions while I struggled to sell my own products — and before I created any.

I wrote product reviews. I wrote a post about the products I used and loved. I sent the occasional email. I had ads on my site with affiliate links.

But as I found more and more success selling my own products, I involved myself in affiliate marketing less and less. I pulled myself out.

To me, this migration has been easy. Why would I waste valuable real estate on my website promoting someone else’s product (for which I get a small percentage) instead of my own (for which I get 100%)?

Why would I send you an email about someone else’s product, when I can tell you about my own? I’m already conscious of how many emails I send you. Why would I send that one extra email that makes you unsubscribe by pushing someone else’s product?

I rarely use affiliate links these days. I care very little about them. You’d still be able to search my site and find a few. But they make up about .5% of my revenue. It’s not consequential.

When I make product recommendations these days, I rarely use affiliate links. When I do, I make it very clear that it’s an affiliate link. However, it’s a product I know and love. And you’ll probably sense my discomfort.

The counter argument is, “What’s the big deal? If you love the product already, why not get a few bucks in the process?” And really, you’re not maximizing the value of your audience by leaving that money on the table (or so the argument would go).

But even when it’s a product I know and love, I’m finding little desire to use the affiliate link. I value the trust of my audience more than the few dollars that may result in a commission.

That may sound cheesy, but I consider it a sound business model. I’ve been in business for more than five years. I want to keep people for years at a time. Their trust is incredibly important to me.

I don’t want you to buy one product today. I want you to buy that one product today, but only if it’s a good time for it. And I want you to have such a great experience that you eventually buy five more.

On the flip side of all of this, you may wonder if I offer an affiliate program. People often email me, asking if they can sell my products. They’ll say that they’ve been reading my site for years, and recommend me all the time.

My response: I would hope that whether or not I offer an affiliate program wouldn’t impact whether or not you’d recommend my product.

Maybe that makes me sound like a dick. But so many problems come from an affiliate relationship.

I’ve toyed with affiliate programs. But I’ve never paid out a single commission. I don’t want people to recommend my product only because it may result in a commission. I want people recommending my product because they genuinely find it valuable.

Maybe that will result in fewer people recommending my products. I’m perfectly fine with that.

Granted, some people genuinely find my products valuable and need affiliate revenue to keep their business going. I understand that. But it’s a bad match for my business.

Understand that when motivated by money, some will sell your product at all costs. Some will mislead. Some will deceive. And that will reflect poorly on you.

Ultimately, I haven’t found affiliate marketing — whether accepting commissions or paying them out — to be worth the risk.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term

I see affiliate marketing, in most cases, as a short-term play. You know that some will be turned off by your pushing another product for a commission. But you’re out for that payday.

If you don’t rely on affiliate revenues, you can focus entirely on your products. And when you recommend someone else’s product, you can do so with a clear conscience knowing that it was pure — and that it can be perceived only as such.

I’ve found that my audience appreciates this. There is a ton of crap out there. They don’t know what to believe and whom to trust. And if they know you are simply trying to help, they’ll thank you over and over again.

Honestly? It feels freaking great to recommend a product, knowing I get nothing in return. It feels amazing when I can tell someone that my product isn’t right for them, that it isn’t a good fit.

Short-term, you bet. I’m leaving some silly money on the table. But I’m doing just fine.

My goal is to build a long-term business. While this month’s revenue matters, it shouldn’t be at the expense of future months and years. I’m trying to build an audience of loyal customers who will stick around for years to come.

The Balance of Trust

I, by no means, have perfected affiliate marketing. I don’t enjoy doing it. So maybe I’m not an expert on it and you should listen to someone else.

However… I can speak from the perspective of a consumer. I do not feel like the typical marketer — I don’t enjoy selling. As a result, maybe I see things that other marketers don’t.

Try to see through the eyes of your consumer. What are the things that chip away at trust? What builds trust? What makes them love you? What sends them away?

As a consumer, I see how the typical marketer is perceived. Slimy. Not trustworthy. Deceptive. Willing to say anything for a buck. Shallow. Lacking substance.

So understand that many — if not most — consumers are thinking something similar. How you act will determine whether you gain trust or fall into the slimy category.

It’s really, really easy to start slipping around in the slime when you get involved in affiliate marketing. You can do it ethically, but it’s a constant dodge of puddles.

There Are Exceptions

Before you send me hate mail, I know. I have good friends who are ridiculously successful and they rely pretty heavily on affiliate marketing.

And by “ridiculously successful,” I don’t just mean they make lots of money. I mean that they make lots of money while also having an impeccable reputation.

But remember that they are exceptions. Use them as a model. Notice how they retain your trust. See how they call out affiliate relationships.

The most successful affiliate marketers don’t deceive you. They are personable and transparent. That’s how you can do it long-term.

My Recommendation

I won’t tell you to avoid affiliate marketing. I’ve done it. I still get the occasional affiliate commission check.

But be very careful. Understand that there’s a cost to making a recommendation in exchange for a commission. Even if the dollars are coming in right now.

Supplement your income with affiliate revenue when it’s needed. You need to put food on the table. Put the kids through school. Every dollar counts.

Just remember that there’s a balance. You have long-term goals. Build your own product. Aim to eventually ween yourself off completely of affiliate commissions. Envision the day when you can recommend a product without needing a commission — because your business will be fine without it.

Always take a long-term approach.

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