On both the affiliate and seller sides of the spectrum, we sometimes encounter people who are uncertain about the ethics of affiliate marketing as a way to make money. I’d like to talk through the bigger picture of what it even means to be an affiliate marketer, and then explore the ethics of this business model, so you can decide what’s right for you!
In this article, we’ll answer the question “is affiliate marketing ethical” by pointing out actual potential issues that could compromise your business integrity – and what you can do to avoid them in your marketing as an affiliate. Let’s get started!
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Intro to Marketing for Affiliates
You’re probably well aware of affiliate marketing as a business model, but as a quick reminder, the whole point of affiliate marketing is to promote other people’s products and get a cut of each sale. Pretty simple!
This happens to be a fantastic way to generate income, whether you’re a one-man side hustle making extra cash in your spare time, or a giant corporation using affiliate marketing as a significant additional revenue stream.
But it’s already obvious how this could lead to ethical issues, if you choose to mislead potential customers with deceptive messaging or promote low-quality products. The same moral hazards that exist for any business apply to the business of affiliate marketing (even though the product isn’t technically yours).
What Ethical Affiliate Marketing Looks Like
Before we touch on what not to do, I want to paint a picture of what we should be aiming for as ethical affiliates!
If you think about it, this is the primary value that an affiliate marketer provides:
That solution could be a yoga program for improving mobility among seniors, a software tool that can help small businesses create ebooks more easily, or a health supplement that can boost metabolism for weight loss.
In my case, I run a songwriting blog where I share the information I’ve learned about writing and producing songs over the years. To monetize my blog, I act as an affiliate, I promote a piano course listed on ClickBank’s marketplace that I believe will help my readers become better songwriters and musicians.
Through this process, my role is simply to make aspiring songwriters aware of a solution (this piano course) that can help them achieve their goal of writing better songs. I’m able to do this through a detailed review of the product, or just by driving awareness with simple banners and mentions of the product in and around my free informational articles.
Obviously, you can promote affiliate products in any number of places online: via email, an online community post, a YouTube video, a TikTok clip, an organic social post… The number of channels available to affiliate marketers now is practically endless!
But where you promote affiliate offers isn’t the most important factor – it’s how you promote them! Want to know what I mean? Let’s put on our “black hats” for a moment and look at the most common shady practices that affiliates engage in.
What Unethical Affiliate Marketing Looks Like
Unethical affiliate marketing isn’t complicated to understand. It’s basically engaging in practices that generate commissions by:
A) Failing to add value.
B) Deceiving customers.
Here’s a little more detail about 7 of the most problematic affiliate practices we see all too often in this space. Under each one, I also explain what you should do instead!
1) Failure to Add Value
Remember what I said about affiliate marketing introducing solutions to an audience with some kind of pain point or problem? I also mentioned that an affiliate marketer’s job is to provide value, which they can do by making helpful product recommendations, educating consumers, or just motivating people to take action and improve their lives with the help of new products.
But a lot of affiliates take shortcuts, focusing more on the business model than on the part where they add value. As an example, I’ve seen affiliate bloggers who publish basic articles that are heavy on affiliate links and light on actual content. They don’t tell the reader anything that they couldn’t find out on a product page or in a VSL – and many of these affiliates haven’t even tested the product for themselves, so they can’t really offer any valuable insights that would influence the consumer’s opinion about a product.
Think about it this way: if you were to remove yourself from the buyer’s journey entirely without the customer noticing or missing you, then you have work to do in adding more value.
Do This Instead: Create original written and video content with exclusive new information and product insights. Take photos. Be entertaining.
2) Misleading or False Claims
One of the biggest concerns people have about affiliate marketing is the potential for misleading claims.
The obvious problem here? Affiliates earn a commission on each sale made through their tracking link, so it can be tempting to exaggerate the benefits of a product in order to generate more sales. For example, you may state that a health product can treat or cure a disease when there’s no evidence to back up that statement. You absolutely shouldn’t promise results that a product can’t deliver – even if it’s not your product for sale!
Of course, beyond the obvious moral implications of making misleading or false marketing claims, doing this habitually could set you up for financial and legal headaches. You certainly don’t want to get in trouble with the FTC or other government body that monitors claims made in commerce.
And in a more immediate sense, affiliates who exaggerate will likely end up with a host of other problems, including:
- Excessive refunds and chargebacks that take a bite out of their profits (this will affect you on both a revenue share or cost-per-action basis).
- Account shutdowns from affiliate networks, social media platforms, and other third-party providers who don’t appreciate aggressive marketing practices.
- Damaged brand reputation and standing in the industry.
While it might seem like lying to customers can help you make more money, it’s not a good bet for long term success!
Do This Instead: Provide realistic claims and couch them in terms of the actual effort required. You might have fewer sales upfront, but you’ll have fewer refunds to worry about later – and a better reputation.
3) Conflicts of Interest
Another common potential concern with affiliate marketing is that affiliates will just recommend the product that offers the highest commission, rather than finding a product that’s most valuable to the consumer. The incentive structure for affiliate marketing may encourage affiliates to look for the highest-converting and highest-order-value offer in their niche, period.
You can decide for yourself what the right balance is between maximizing potential revenue and maximizing value for your audience, but the bigger concern about conflict of interest is whether you’re disclosing your affiliate relationship with consumers when you promote products to them.
It completely changes the nature of a product recommendation if you don’t tell your audience that you’ll be paid a commission when they click your link and make a purchase. You can check out our guide to affiliate link disclosure to learn more about how to do it right.
Do This Instead: Always add a written affiliate disclosure on your blog posts and landing pages, in your YouTube video descriptions, or explicitly mentioned out loud in your videos.
Spamming is the practice of sending or posting unsolicited messages online in an attempt to get your tracking link in front of as many people as possible. This can happen through email, online communities, social media posts/comments, and more.
Going back to the ethical requirements I talked about earlier, spamming is the opposite of adding value. Not only is spam annoying and unhelpful, but in some cases, it can run afoul of the law. There are strict requirements about who you can email or send SMS messages to, and what you’re allowed to say in those messages. You don’t want expensive fines or other headaches as a result of spamming people.
Beyond that, it’s also just a terrible and ineffective way to grow your affiliate business. If someone happens to make a purchase through your affiliate link, but they don’t know you and didn’t receive any value from you before they bought, what’s the likelihood they’ll change their mind and ask for a refund?
I would steer clear of spamming for a lot of reasons.
Do This Instead: Find traffic channels and audiences where you can add value, and then do it. If you start from a mindset of wanting to genuinely help others, you won’t have to worry about spamming anyone.
5) Fake Reviews
Fake reviews are another unethical affiliate marketing practice. The idea here is that affiliate marketers will hype up a product or make positive claims about it, but gloss over any of the drawbacks or mischaracterize it completely in order to encourage people to buy.
Secondarily, some consider it a “fake review” if an affiliate reviews a product that they’ve never used themselves.
Now, I know that it’s probably unrealistic to expect professional affiliates to test every single product they promote – but if you can, you should. Beyond that, you should hold yourself to a high standard by picking quality products. Find ways to validate that the product is not only good, but good for your audience and their pain point!
As an example, say I’m looking to promote a dog training program in the pet niche.
What if I haven’t taken the training myself? In this case, I would at least want to make sure I know everything the course contains, check out reviews from other users to get a sense of the pros and cons, and most importantly, connect up the value of the course with what my audience is looking to solve.
You can still provide a quality review if you’re knowledgeable about a niche and can explain how a product may help your audience solve a specific problem.
Do This Instead: Put yourself in the place of a consumer looking to solve a problem, and make sure you publish review content that helps them get closer to a solution. YouTube videos and blog posts are perfect channels for quality product reviews.
6) Brand Bidding
A common unethical practice to be aware of is brand bidding as an affiliate. The idea of brand bidding is to pay for paid search ads targeting keywords or terms that include the brand name of a specific product. Then, when someone goes to search for more information about the product, they’ll click the affiliate’s ad, scan their landing page, and click through their affiliate link to make a purchase.
While this policy varies by seller, many product owners on ClickBank specifically ban the practice of brand bidding, because it comes back to that idea of adding value. If a customer is that far along in the buyer’s journey, you’re essentially grabbing credit for them at the very last stage without having helped them along the way. You’re also causing the price of a seller’s own ads to go up, because you’re in effect competing with them on search terms related to their own brand!
You can decide for yourself if you want to engage in a practice like brand bidding, but be very aware that most brands and product owners will not appreciate it – and they may even blacklist you for it!
Do This Instead: Create paid ads focused on solutions, pain points, and audiences, not the name of a brand that you don’t own.
7) Stealing Other People’s Work
There’s one last unethical practice that I almost didn’t include in this list, but I think it’s an important reminder: stealing other people’s work.
This is a tight-knit industry, and I can’t tell you many conversations I’ve had with affiliates and sellers who have run into people copying ads, products, or even funnels from them! And you know what? They HATE it!
Imagine putting months of work into testing different hooks to promote a product with paid ads, and finally hitting upon a winner – and then only being able to run it for a few hours before a copycat comes in, steals your ad without having done anything themselves, and ruins it for both of you.
Stealing can happen in any channel, from professional email copy to full videos to entire products. And people DO notice! If you have any interest in being in the affiliate marketing space for a while, you should never steal. You can get inspiration from the pros or collaborate with them, but theft will just get you banned, blacklisted, and cut off from an important community.
Do This Instead: Create your own work based on the niche, traffic channel, and offer you want to promote. Allow yourself to get inspiration from a wide variety of advertisements and content channels.
Make Money (Ethically) With Affiliate Marketing
Even though it’s possible to make money with affiliate marketing in those unethical ways, there are a lot of positives about affiliate marketing too! Before we close out, let me remind you of a few of them.
1) A Helpful Form of Advertising
One of the best things about affiliate marketing is that it’s a useful form of advertising. With affiliate marketing, businesses can get their products in front of a wider audience.
Affiliate marketing relies on the influence and reach of individual marketers rather than paid advertisements directly from a brand.
2) Greater Transparency
Remember how some affiliates hide the fact that their affiliates? Well, most affiliates follow the rules, which means there’s actually a great degree of transparency in the marketplace about affiliate relationships with businesses.
Compared to many other forms of advertising, affiliate marketing involves outsourcing marketing to third-party individuals, which means affiliates can promote a product while still being honest about its pros and cons.
3) Consumer Benefits
Believe it or not, affiliate marketing can provide unique benefits for consumers. Affiliate marketers often promote products that they have tried and believe in, providing consumers with valuable insight into the quality of the product.
Additionally, affiliate marketing can sometimes provide consumers with exclusive discounts and special offers that they may be able to get otherwise.
4) Support for Content Creators
For content creators, affiliate marketing provides an opportunity to monetize their content and earn income by promoting products they believe in. Many content creators rely on affiliate marketing as a source of income, as it allows them to earn money while they create valuable content for their audience.
This is a win-win-win – independent creators earn a living, companies can get exposure and sales for their products, and audiences can get introduced to valuable new products from someone they trust!
5) A Valuable Source of Exposure and Sales
Thousands of ecommerce brands and product owners on ClickBank appreciate affiliate marketing’s potential for increased exposure and sales. By partnering with affiliates, these businesses can reach new audiences that they wouldn’t get access to otherwise, including email subscribers, blog readers, and social followers.
Best of all, affiliate marketing won’t break the bank – it’s a unique form of advertising where brands only pay after they get a sale, which is hugely economical for them.
What to Do With This Information
Now that I’ve shared some of the more unethical practices to avoid in the affiliate marketing space, I urge you to do just that: avoid them!
If you’re new to affiliate marketing, it’s entirely possible for you to accidentally break some rules or inadvertently engage in some questionable practices. But now that you’ve read this article, hopefully you can find a path forward that allows you to provide value to your audience and feel good about the work that you’re doing as an affiliate!
Lastly, I would remind you to pick affiliate products that you believe in. You can vet any product you promote to make sure it’s ethical – the rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling your own grandma to buy something, maybe it’s not a product you should be promoting!
Is Affiliate Marketing Ethical Wrap-up
So, is affiliate marketing ethical? Well, I think the business model itself is perfectly ethical, but it’s not a black-and-white answer when it comes to all of the players in this industry (or any industry, for that matter).
On the one hand, affiliate marketing is a fantastic way for marketers to earn commissions and for product owners to increase product sales and exposure for their brands.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to find examples of unethical behavior in this industry that can harm consumers and tarnish the reputation of affiliate marketing as a whole.
That’s one reason why I wanted to write this article! In order to make sure the affiliate marketing space is ethical, I encourage both affiliate marketers and product owners to be transparent and honest in their practices. Always disclose affiliate relationships, provide accurate information about your products, and avoid sneaky or deceptive consumer practices.
At ClickBank, we have an entire Risk & Compliance department dedicated to making sure that the products listed on our marketplace meet high standards and don’t engage in deceptive messaging. But of course, we’re only one player in the space – it’s up to everyone from sellers and affiliates to copywriters and media buyers to ensure that we all maintain trust with our audiences.
That’s how we can make affiliate marketing a trusted and valuable way to conduct business online!
Want to learn more about how to do affiliate marketing right? I encourage you to check out Spark by ClickBank, a game-changing bundle of affiliate marketing courses, tools, and community that can help shorten the time to your first affiliate paycheck!