Why influencers should disclose their affiliations

We’ve all got to earn a living, right? I certainly have and I understand that social media influencers need to keep the wolf from the door, too. If you’re an influencer, there are various different income streams open to you. The big bucks are likely to come from paid partnerships, becoming an official brand ambassador or producing sponsored posts, but advertising revenue from sidebar and banner ads on your site and selling on gifted products can also be profitable. What I want to talk about here, though, is affiliate marketing.

Maybe you know all about affiliate marketing, maybe you don’t, but influencers on all platforms are very familiar with it and you don’t necessarily need followers in the billions to join an affiliate program. In fact, it can work particularly well for micro-influencers with a niche but committed audience. The income it provides can vary on a month to month basis, but it can be a nice little earner and a great way to supplement income from other sources.

Just to give you an idea of the size of the affiliate marketing sector, one of the leaders in this space is a company called Awin, which runs affiliate networks around the globe and, it says, works with 100,000+ active publishers, which essentially means influencers, and 13,000 advertisers, which means brands or businesses, including Dorothy Perkins, Vodafone, Travel Lodge, Karl Lagerfeld and Playmobil. It claims to have generated 148 million sales in 2017. CJ Affiliate (formerly known as Commission Junction), Clickbank and Rakuten are other big names, and eBay has an affiliate programme, too, called the eBay Partner Network.

The most well-known affiliate programme is probably Amazon Associates, which has been going since 1996. This works in the same way as other affiliate programmes, so, in Amazon’s own words, “When website owners and bloggers who are Associates create links and customers click through those links and buy products from Amazon, they earn referral fees.”

Although it’s unclear whether it has been particularly successful or not, a year ago, Amazon even launched a scheme just for influencers. With the Amazon Influencer Program, influencers are given their own Amazon URL, making it easier to direct potential purchasers to Amazon, especially where hyperlinking isn’t possible, for example in video content or Instagram captions. This doesn’t seem to have been a game-changer yet, but it does give influencers of sufficient stature another revenue stream, which is what it’s all about.

The ins and outs of how affiliate marketing actually works are fairly complicated and I’m not going to get into the detail here, but if I’m a fashion Instagrammer with a relatively modest following, I can apply to, for instance, ASOS or Boohoo or Topshop to become one of their affiliates. When I feature one of their products – let’s say a pair of heeled sandals in rose gold from ASOS – in an Instagram post and, as a consequence, you purchase the sandals to wear on your forthcoming long weekend in Rome, I earn a small commission. (I know they’ll kill your feet as you traipse round the Sistine Chapel, but trust me, they’ll be perfect for evening.)

Levels of commission vary, but at ASOS the basic for a confirmed sale is 5%, so on a pair of sandals costing £32 I earn £1.60. OK, it’s not a lot, but if a hundred of you love the way those shoes look on me and snap them up for yourselves, your purchase will be tracked and it will all add up in my bank account. I gain financially and, just to be really clear, it doesn’t cost you, the consumer, anything at all.

To be honest, I really don’t mind if an influencer earns a commission on a jacket I buy. From time to time we all make fashion faux pas and if that jacket doesn’t suit me, I can always send it back, but what I do have a problem with is the lack of clarity about the affiliate relationship between influencers and brands. Have you noticed any influencers declaring their affiliations? I haven’t and I find it frustrating, because I want the influencers I follow to be straight with me. If they’re transparent about when I’m helping them make money, it won’t stop me buying, but it will make me feel I can trust them more.

If you’re eagle-eyed and have your wits about you, it’s not difficult to spot affiliate links. Lots of influencers use an influencer-friendly app called LikeToKnow.It from an affiliate network company called RewardStyle. This app makes affiliate link management easy for influencers and allows consumers to shop screenshots of Instagram posts.

A couple of months ago, US interiors blogger Julia Marcum of Chris Loves Julia explained to her 180k followers in a blog post exactly how it works. I applaud her for her transparency as it’s a very open piece (and the comments are interesting, too). Her site has a page with information on sponsorships and affiliate marketing, and the liketk.it links appear prominently on her Insta posts, so she obviously wants to do the right thing, but there don’t actually seem to be any disclosure hashtags? I know she’s explained on her blog, but if I only follow Chris Loves Julia on Instagram, I’m not going to know, am I?

Affiliate marketing, which usually pays per sale, per click or per lead, is one indicator for brands of how much engagement an influencer actually has, and the vast majority of influencers only become affiliates of brands which they genuinely like and which have real appeal for their followers, because it would be bad for business if that wasn’t the case, but influencers really should disclose their affiliate marketing relationships. In my view, until they do, affiliate marketing will be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Prizeology advises on influencer marketing compliance and runs effective social media promotions. Do get in touch if we can help.

Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist and a National Trading Standards Scams Team Scambassador. She does have a tendency to spend a lot of time on Instagram.

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