Affiliate marketing is a delicate strategy. For all the benefits it can bring to both your business and to the affiliate, there’s an ever-present danger lurking: turning yourself into a shill. While there’s nothing wrong or deceptive about a business person helping to move a product he or she believes in, even for a commission, affiliate marketing done cynically (or too often) quickly gives off the distinctly fishy odor of insincerity.
Here at Business Republic, we like to limit the amount of affiliate marketing we’re willing to engage in. Not only are we extremely selective in choosing other businesses on which we’re willing to stake our own brand and reputation, we’ve got our own product to focus on. The value of one’s own product, and no one else’s, has to be the primary source of success in a strong business. To be overly reliant on profiting from recommendations can spread customers’ trust very thin, very quickly.
Despite the pitfalls, affiliate marketing can be fruitful. When you truly believe in the strength of someone else’s product, and the opportunity to help sell it without detracting from your own operation presents itself, it’s worth taking on as a side project. Done right, it can enhance your reputation as an authority in the industry while bringing in some always-appreciated revenue.
To stay on the constructive side of the affiliate marketing coin, be sure to avoid these common missteps:
1. Offering affiliate product exclusively
Affiliate marketing should be the result of a trusted figure in an industry offering their own customers access to something different, but relevant. If you don’t produce your own valuable product, why should anyone believe that you possess the passion and expertise that would make your recommendations worth considering?
By only offering the products of others, you confine yourself to the business of other businesses. These other businesses are beyond your control. That means surrendering any pretense of entrepreneurship in order to become, essentially, their sales associate. Offer your audience more than advertisements for other operations. Offer them something of your own, and its value will be reflected in how seriously your recommendations are taken.
2. Not being an authority
Affiliate marketing is the act of earning a commission through the weight of your recommendations. It’s conversion by association. That means that the only value you have to offer your affiliate is the value of that association. Customers who might not otherwise buy a thing will do so (theoretically) because they trust you.
In business as in life, trust has to be earned. Affiliate marketing without establishing yourself as an authority leaves little difference between you and a pop-up ad. Customers don’t buy things from affiliate marketers the way they do from advertisers. The difference is that advertisers are solely in the business of delivering their clients’ messages, whereas non-advertisers are in their own business, and have become so trusted in that business that their suggestions carry their own gravity.
For example, one of our affiliate relationships is with Michael Port, whose public speaking expertise wasn’t just something we felt we could recommend in good conscience- it was something we had personally benefited from as public speakers ourselves. Having been students of Port, we felt his business was worth promoting. More importantly, as recognized authorities in the field of entrepreneurship training and education, we knew that the man who helped shape our success could shape that of others. That’s a reason for a customer to consider a recommendation, not just a request to.
3. Audience abuse
Having gone to the necessary lengths in order to build an audience for your business, you wouldn’t want to waste that time and effort by turning them away. Unfortunately, that’s what many who over-engage in affiliate marketing end up doing. Sending a consistent deluge of ads and other irrelevant emails to an audience, day after day and week after week, is an abuse of the trust they’ve offered by signing up.
This is abuse, because the implicit reward your audience expects during signup is that they’ll be emailed something of value to them. Offers from your affiliates can only occasionally fit that requirement, and they can only come so many times before they cross the line between offers and spam.
As a rule of thumb, if at least 70% of the emails sent out to your list isn’t content, something is wrong. Providing genuinely valuable content to your audience is what earns you the right to make sales conversions when appropriate. That’s not just an ethical stance; it’s a business one. Audiences who learn to expect your emails to be nothing but ads will soon make use of features like Google’s “promotions” tab, or worse, your “unsubscribe” button.
4. Hiding affiliations
This is simply a matter of honesty. By disguising the fact that your affiliation with another business is one from which you take immediate profit, you leap over the thin line that separates the ethical ways one can leverage an audience’s trust from the greasy confidence games of the Nigerian princes.
Be explicit about profiting from affiliations. While a certain cynical logic may suggest that a customer is less likely to take a recommendation seriously knowing that it’s made in the interest of profit, the truth is that in a world of semi-ethical online enterprises, disclosure breeds more trust than omission.
5. Selling the Dream
One of the first red flags of a shady marketing scheme is an insistence on selling not a product, but a fantasy. A certain lifestyle, a new outlook, the admiration of others: these are not things anyone can sell. By offering the Dream, whatever it is, you offer something you can’t provide.
Of course, advertisers have been doing subtle versions of this approach since the Don Draper era, but it’s an art better left to people who aren’t staking their own reputations on the quality of what they recommend. While the ability to encourage a fantasy and sell the Dream may be the business of some, a business with its own product has to play a different role- the role of a respected producer of something with its own value who sincerely thinks that their own customers can benefit from an affiliate’s product.
When it’s time to sell that affiliate’s product, do so on the product’s merits. Be specific about what it is, what it does, and why you believe your audience can benefit from it. Don’t sell an image or an archetype. That kind of cynicism may work on a few eager customers, but it will come at the expense of the trust you’ll need to build for the long term.
If you’re considering affiliate marketing, be selective. Let the opportunity to do so arise organically from a genuine relationship between your business and another, from a place of authority and respect in your industry. Affiliate marketing can be a valuable part of your business, but only that: a part. If it becomes most or all of your business, you surrender the core of whatever your own business was meant to be about.