We Don’t Do Affiliates So Please Stop Asking!

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If there’s one thing I really, really hate it’s affiliate programs. We don’t have one, we don’t have affiliate links in our blog posts, and we would appreciate it if you stopped asking us to.

Why do I hate them? Well, first up, because they corrupt and destroy the web. Seriously.

Trying to find an unbiased and unaffiliated review of different WordPress hosts via Google? Like the massive one we did in 2013. You can’t! Because every effort like ours is hidden under heavily optimized, promoted and affiliate-heavy posts and sites.

Which, at best, are very subtle in letting you know you are clicking on an affiliate link.

We make nothing from our survey, never have done (unless you count the goodwill and continued interest of our members and also readers who hopefully will become a member at some point), so we don’t have the inclination or dedication to spend all day every day pushing it, whereas sites that make piles of cash from them do.

They might be well-written, illustrated and promoted but they aren’t independent or impartial and you will not be getting a recommendation for the best WordPress web host, you’ll be getting the one with the best affiliate program.

Meh.

Mea Culpa! Again! We Used to Have an Affiliate Program and It Was Awful

October 2010 got off to a great start with the annual sales for WPMU DEV at an all-time high, at least until the chargebacks started to pile in. The problem – our affiliate program.

What had we done? Nothing that all of our competitors weren’t also working hard at – desperately trying to incentivize our users to promote the heck out of us on their blogs, discussion forms, comments threads, email and anywhere else they could cram a link, in return for 30% of the revenue.

What we didn’t realize was that the credit card thieving crews operating out of Vietnam (or at least via a Vietnamese VPS) also saw this as a wonderful opportunity.

They set up an affiliate account, purchased a stack of $419 accounts with stolen cards and pick up the 30% slice on PayPal before heading off into the hills with nice, clean cash. Bastards.

Fortunately, as we were technologically backward enough to have to manually process our affiliate payments, we pretty much caught every single one of them and then quickly refunded every connected account, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. It meant that all we really lost was a bunch of $20 chargeback reconciliation fees and some money that was never ours in the first place. Still, it was pretty painful.

And they came back, again and again, 2011, 2012 and 2013, until we pretty much (bar one remaining relationship) killed the program entirely and eventually made ourselves completely affiliate-free.

Which allows me to, with a relatively clean conscience, complain about affiliate programs, finally. Yay :)

Good and Bad Affiliate Programs

There are pretty much only two kinds of affiliate program I don’t mind.

When sites like Boing Boing that recommend cool stuff for their readers do so and link to Amazon etc, accordingly. It keeps them afloat and good on ’em.

It makes sense, they don’t have a way of selling it, I’m keen on buying a bunch of stuff they recommend and I know that none of their recommendations are made from a revenue generating standpoint (their audience would destroy them if they were), plus it gives me a way to give back constantly browsing the site with Adblock on.

Also, I don’t mind the kinda programs Uber or Transferwise offer. They are friend-to-friend, based on personal experience, they are based on positive experience (after all, you only get something as part of that service), and hey, you’d want to promote both of them!

If we do happen to do an affiliate program again in the future, it’ll be just like that, not for cash, just bonus rewards for members who already like the service, and for friends. If we promote other services or products it will be because they are awesome, we use them and at the very worst we’re doing a cross promotion.

But that’s not what we’re constantly being asked for and it’s not what our blog writers are being constantly hassled to do – we’re not interested in cash for links. We’re trying – really hard – to provide bona fide independent WordPress resources, tutorials, tips, reviews and news for our members and readers, and there’s no place for affiliate links.

We’ve got no advertising on our site – bar our own products – and no affiliate links, and we’re not about to start loading up our pages with affiliate links and ad, not for any amount of money.

We never, ever put affiliate links in The WhiP.
We never, ever put affiliate links in The WhiP.

Trying to Find Quality Theme and Plugin Reviews for The WhiP is Damn Hard

There’s a section in our daily newsletter, The WhiP, where we like to include products reviews, mostly about themes and plugins, and sometimes other stuff we think would be valuable to readers.

The problem is, it is so incredibly hard to find decent reviews that aren’t salesy, loaded to the max with affiliate links, or just so overwhelmingly positive you have to wonder if the theme or post author wrote the article themselves.

We’re up to about 50,000 subscribers now and each and every one of them expects quality content – they didn’t subscribe so they would have another newsletter to delete from their inbox every morning. So when we’ve inadvertently included reviews with biased content and affiliate links, we hear about it from readers who, like us, are tired of being sold to and aren’t afraid to complain.

So from now on, any time we can’t find a single decent review for that section in The WhiP, we’ll simply leave an editor’s note letting subscribers know that there aren’t any good articles worth reading.

Oh, and just for the record, we have NEVER included affiliate links in The WhiP. Ever. And we’re not about to start.

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So, Seriously, Please Stop Asking Us. In Fact, Stop Doing It

We’re not gonna change our minds.

Instead, why not start offering your members service rewards, which allow them to benefit in terms of what you offer. Hey, we’ve even got a plugin that we’re developing to allow you to set that up (you can hack it now). You don’t need to use some third-party shady affiliate service that’s all about the cash.

Because just offering cash isn’t going to work.

Google are onto it and will increasingly become so, which means you won’t benefit that way (in fact, you might lose, big time).

You’re most likely to get spammers and people trying to rip you off like they did with us.

And like I said, it’s really not cool, not at all. You’re making the world a worse place and it won’t last.

Thanks :)

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46 Responses

    John Taylor

    Our fantastic team and I are just Finishing off (hopefully) the final sprints of V 1.1 of a platform that uses many WPMU plugins, however is heavily custom coded, In V 1.0 we used WPMU’s affiliate plugin with a bit of custom code, we even coded our own JVZoo affiliate plugin for Pro Sites and Membership.

    Guess what, we hated it all and our surveys from our beta testers told us they would do nothing withit and it was more of a downer than an incentive, If we are giving people value, why are we giving a % away in affiliate payments?

    Nope, it’s all been dumped, When we re launch, we will be looking after our customers, making sure they get great customer service and their web site or blog is fast and has the functionality it should have to rank well and be beautiful and they will pay for peace of mind, We will be able to commit 100% to the platform and not be worrying about idiots spamming social media getting us a bad name and potentially banned.

    And guess what else, there is no link to anything in this comment. It is what it is, a comment.

    Peace.

    JT

    Self styled entrepreneur and nerd

    Christian Nelson

    James…great post here, and I agree 10,000 percent!!!

    No matter how much someone thinks they are going to be honest about reviewing or talking about something, as long as there’s the possibility that they’re going to make money from someone else who buys that thing, it’s going to be difficult…very difficult…for them to give a really honest opinion.

    As you say, “corrupting and destroying the Web”…that’s really what affiliate marketing is doing.

    I mentioned in a comment here earlier while praising Daniel’s review on SiteGround…I’ve been trying to find a good WordPress hosting service, but most of the “reviews” are not much more than phony puff pieces designed to collect affiliate $…but Daniel’s review was real and it was great.

    Thanks for making this case and doing it so strongly…I hope a lot of people will see your post.

    Site Division

    Ditto!
    Filthy low life affiliate link building scum! Tapping away at their keyboards like there’s no tomorrow! Sending our readers off to a place that they didn’t even know was in existence! Selling malware infested themes and plugins or even worse, men’s supplements shipped in from Canada! Why is it always some Viagra knock off? I am sure that these rather talented hackers, who take the time to botch up a WP site, could make better use of their time and talent to develop a plugin to eradicate this web-spam!
    My God!

      James Farmer

      If you are a godaddy user, who values the service because it’s good, rather than due to the affiliate program, I think that’s fine :)

      Also it’s not polluting the web! Which is really my main concern (and vested interest… I don’t want that affiliate site article about responsive themes appearing above ours, especially as ours provides genuine reviews and an uncritical and unbiased perspective, I want google to recognise that!)

    Terry

    Amen!
    I’m low on the totem pole when it comes to making websites but I’ve been around for a while. One of the reasons I love wpmudev is that you generously provide an amazing array of resources. No strings attached. I tried affilliating my sites years ago. There’s no money in it and it makes your site look cheap. Today there’s not much that annoys me more than to go to a site that is ladened with ads and affiliate links when I’m just trying to find an honest answer. It’s nearly impossible to do.
    I vowed that my newest site would have no affilitions. I want, most of all, to promote the people that I’m featuring so they can achieve their own rewards. Let them make the sale and keep all they can. I can find other ways to make a buck.
    Great article James!

    Rachel McCollin

    This made me smile. As someone who writes regularly for wpmu dev, I frequently get emails from companies asking me to write about (i.e. promote) their plugins on the sites I write for (i.e. this one). Needless to say I’ve always said no cos I know it’s death for my integrity as a writer and wpmu dev’s as a trusted resource. If I want to write about something, it’s because I love it (or I don’t and I’m saying so in a review).

    timstrifler

    That’s awesome. Way to stick to your guns and aim to provide value. If there’s one thing I know about James Farmer, it’s that he’s not afraid to go against the grain. A renegade. I respect you for it!!

    It’s true though. Every time I see a review post online, I have to ask “What’s in it for them?” Affiliate program are making me question every bloggers agenda.

    GERARD S.

    I think the title is RUDE.
    Why is that ? if you already post a message saying that you do not have affiliated program that is not the business of new customers / readers. You do not have the same readers all the time each days and moths. So next month you will have to repeat it again because that the nature of things.
    Now instead of telling us to NOT asking it over and over you should put that information on the top of all your pages. That way you will not sent us this type of email news letter in our inbox for something natural for people to ask.
    If you have a web bsuiness it normal that people ask you for anything, if you do not like it, then close your business.
    Being rude is not a solution.

    Melissa Hill

    I also super hate affiliate/sponsored blog posts and agree it only creates more noise in an already over-crowded party. It’s getting trickier and trickier to tell genuinely enthusiastic/honest reviews from sponsored content. I’ve seen bloggers recommend themes and plugins they’ve never even installed and tested — and I wonder, in the long run, how can that be good for the brand to be racking up a bunch of phony recommendations? It certainly doesn’t help people looking for real solutions to their real problems.

    I agree though, that it can be done right (Disclosure: on my personal site I recommend my web host and domain registrar that I love, and I have links to the books I read and review as amazon affiliate links) and one way to do that is to have a relationship/community manager work with brand evangelists and partners — but unless you’re willing to put the work in to make it right, affiliate programs are terrible all around.

    SB Design

    Thank you for your post, although I do understand your frustration with running an unsuccessful program in the past, it seems that you were running a “spam farm” and not an actual affiliate program.

    I too, hate websites that cram a bunch of popups along with fake ads, reviews and articles to achieve a few clicks. But when I see that, then I know that the company allowing the affiliate to get away with that bad behavior is not managing their program very well, and perhaps WPMU DEV did not initially put enough thought into how to run their own program. The terms and conditions are vital as well as actually managing your affiliates.

    I have to admit that running an affiliate program for something in the “geek” industry such as web hosting is going to attract more bad apples, but it can still be done properly. I have run more than one affective affiliate program for retail clients and it has done wonders for sales, traffic and branding. In each case it has been a win win situation. One part of running a successful program is actually doing research to make sure that the affiliate you approve is legit and not a spammer. You can also set up stricter terms and much lower commissions to disuade bad affiliates and attract affiliates who actually follow the brand they are promoting.

    If for example you were running an affiliate program for a women’s clothing site, then a fashion blogger who writes honest reviews and communicates with their own followers would be a good affiliate. Such as a blogger who answers comments in their blog and is active in their community and is likely not going to write a spammy or inconsequential article that will upset their reader base. Another good example would be a legitimate coupon site which people frequently use to search for promotional codes to use during checkout. This would provide powerful backlinks for the client as well as a discount for the customer and commission for the affiliate.

    A few BAD examples would be an affiliate program that offers high commission, approves nearly anyone and never checks to see where the affiliates links are posted. Of course this type of affiliate program will have no problem signing up a legion of affiliates, but because of the high payout, the possibility of having a multitude of bad inbound links which will negatively affect your SEO is almost certain. Also the possible backlash from unhappy website visitors who had your client’s banner pop up a dozen times or read a fake review while visiting a bad affiliate site is hardly worth the benefits.

    As I mentioned, I also do hate sites that have no idea how to run an affiliate program or simply do not care to manage their program properly, but anyone who had an “awful” experience needs to think back and figure out what they did wrong.

      James Farmer

      I agree, my attempt at it was deeply flawed and I think you describe well why!

      As well as how to do it better.

      HOWEVER, I’m still stuck wondering how (and if) in this field we can have a non-manipulative, legitimate and fundamentally non-annoying setup – although I’m open to hearing how!

        Elton Morais

        Hi, James

        I think that You’re almost on the way to do things work… Talking about a good, non invasive, truthworthy affiliate program.

        I have a infoproduct, and a lot of people want to be affiliate. Well, my product isn’t for everyone. There’s a specific niche and specific conditions that makes someone get benefits with my product. If I let anyone to promote it, almost every affiliate will just ignore it and try to sell it for anything that has a credit card on his hands. And I end with trouble clients, that don’t understand the product, makes my support work more than it’s necessary, and a lot of other problems.

        So, the clients that really understood the product, that put what I teach to work, I let them be affiliates…

        You have an awesome and sophisticated method of give points to users. Hero and general points. And people reach some levels…

        If You define a high leval, hard to get, only for those who really love WPMUDEV, and let only people who gets there be affiliates, them I think that You will have a program that works and people will not just “promote”, will invite people that really need Your product.

    JessycaFrederick

    It’s unusual to find an otherwise excellent business such as yours who is willing to trash such a large segment of your customer base. Every business model and industry has bad actors and while the affiliate industry has had it’s share of shady practitioners, it’s not all bad.

    When an affiliate site adds value—makes researching complex products easier, decodes technical and marketing jargon for the layperson, or facilitates price comparison—it’s a good business.

    For example, when a specialized-topic writer at a major pub like Forbes decides to tackle a review of a few niche products related to that topic in a 2-page article, she doesn’t have as much knowledge as someone who has been reviewing said niche products for several years. What is more valuable to a reader? Single paragraph overviews of each product? Or detailed analysis of nearly every product on the market? Shouldn’t the creator of greater value get paid, too?

    Google names the game, not the affiliates, and as an affiliate I have to keep up with every change to every guideline and algorithm they use to continue to have the top ranking pages for my keywords. I don’t get to ask merchants to stop aiming for my keywords by fraudulently using the keywords “review” in their SEO efforts even though they don’t have any reviews on their site, but I didn’t notice you decrying SEO competition in the other direction, just blaming affiliates for making your marketing job harder.

    And why is it different if Forbes shows display ads (CPM) and text ads (CPC) all over their site, but the niche product reviewer uses affiliate links (CPS)? People hate ads, it’s why we have AdBlock Plus. People like non-intrusive “native” content. Everything sold on the planet is “buyer beware” so why are product reviewers who get paid to thoroughly review products “bad?”

    You should stick with what you do well—creating awesome WordPress content and products—and not diminish your precious reputation by crapping all over an industry as if everyone in it is the same.

    BobfromCA

    I agree… somewhat. I have an affiliate based product review site. I review products I personally have bought and use. I also do not hide the fact that I am an Amazon affiliate. My reviews are honest. Hopefully, my reviews help others make informed decisions. If it were not for the affiliate part of the site, I doubt I would take the time to write my reviews. I do not make a lot of income from my posts, but enough to keep the site active. http://www.bobsrantsandraves.com

    I do not like sites that pretend to be unbiased in their reviews and then recommend a product or service only because they make a commission to do so. Deceitful affiliate sites are bad. Honest affiliate sites can be helpful.

      Vaughan

      Hi Den,

      I think you are misunderstanding the article itself. The article is saying that WPMUDEV itself does not run any affiliate programs at all. Based on our experience of the affiliates program that we did used to have, it was stopped because of abuse and scamming. That was our experience of it, and was the main cause of us stopping the DEV affiliate program which was very popular at the time.

      We provide the affiliates plugin for other people to use should they decide they want to run an affiliate program, we are not suggesting that all affiliate programs are bad and that people shouldn’t use them, but there is nothing wrong with providing tools that people actually want should they choose to.

      It has nothing to do with trying to sell more copies of the plugin. The plugin is quite old anyway & doesn’t actually need indirect marketing because it is already widely known & listed in google and other sites.

      Hope this helps

    Dave

    Ironically, this post has made the decision for me to unsubscribe from your list. I’m not an affiliate marketeer, not one bit. What I dislike about this post is the sheer hypocrisy of the author/wpmudev.

    That’s not to mention that this post simply boils down to link bait marketing. In my opinion this is less about your opinion on affiliate marketing, and more about causing enough of a stir to attract organic search for people ‘looking’ for affiliate marketing.

    In every facet, nook, and cranny of the internet there are those who are intent on exploiting methods and practices for their own gain. So what? I’m not condoning it, but really, who cares? Your company is big enough, and intelligent enough, not to be threatened by that.

    Put your money where your mouth is, like someone else inferred above, drop the hypocrisy and drop your Affiliates plugin.

    If you think your readership is dumb, and deserves an email like that, then good luck to you, I won’t be around to hear it anymore.

    Best regards
    A 100% non-affiliate marketeer (but maybe I will just to annoy the author)

    dainis

    James, I really think you are doing a disservice to the integrity of the Internet.

    Guess what? With my first affiliate program — I also had scammers do exactly what you described — but because of a bad element in society — affiliate programs are bad?

    Next, you argue that financial affiliation creates bias. Why? So, if you believe in a product and are willing to profit from selling that product — it makes the product necessarily bad?

    Can you address your fundamental logic?

    I find your post quite mean-spirited.

    With one small shift in consciousness (that financial profit from promoting a product is directly connected with honor), we could move forward into a society where profit sharing creates a basic income for every single person on this planet. We could literally end poverty on earth, if we scrapped the fundamental assumptions you voiced in your article.

      Jude

      Howdy @Dainis,

      I think you are slightly misreading James post here. He is not against sensible and healthy affiliate programs like the ones from Uber and Boing Boing as you can see toward the end of the post. Im not sure we can conclude from this post that profit sharing is inherently bad, just some forms cause more harm than good.

        dainis

        The article begins with “If there’s one thing I really, really hate it’s affiliate programs.” What do you suggest I am misreading? I mean my question sincerely.

        We could literally end poverty on earth, if we scrapped the fundamental assumptions voiced in this article. I find ending poverty on earth to be a worthy cause.

        “They set up an affiliate account, purchased a stack of $419 accounts with stolen cards and pick up the 30% slice on PayPal before heading off into the hills with nice, clean cash. Bastards.”

        Yup — happend to me too. So, ineffective policing means that the fundamental principle is bad? That’s not logical. At all.

        Authenticity? It is absolutely not true that people will migrate their recommendations to the “best affiliate program.” Are all athletes drawn to promote Coke and Mt. Dew? No, they are not.

        It is exactly through appropriate affiliate programs, that we as a society will be able to dismantle the financially corrupt systems that are causing direct harm to humanity.

        For that reason, WPMU DEV should be devoting a lot of meditative effort — along with technological effort — to helping individuals & businesses create healthy affiliate programs. Having a healthy affiliate program would obviously facilitate such an effort.

        I’m not saying it’s not hard, but I am saying it’s worthwhile. And I am also saying that James Farmer’s fundamental logic is flawed.

        Elton Morais

        Totally agree with that part:

        “For that reason, WPMU DEV should be devoting a lot of meditative effort — along with technological effort — to helping individuals & businesses create healthy affiliate programs. Having a healthy affiliate program would obviously facilitate such an effort.”

        I don’t think that it will end poverty… But I think that affiliate programs is here to stay. If WPMUDEV stands for a better internet, I think that You should help people to have healthy affiliate programs, prove to the world that it’s possible to have a healthy and lucrative affiliate program. And empower entrepeneurs to have the same thing.

        I was wondering to use Your affiliate program. Quit. I prefer plugins that You actually use. The updates will be more frequent, for sure.

    Ryan

    James,

    I found your article because I am interested in your affiliate plugin. However, now I’m running the other way! (Just kidding). A few thoughts I have:
    * What is an affiliate plugin was built that “banned” certain countries? (Not a complete fix but would have helped your Vietnamese issue)
    * The “manually approve” affiliates feature or rather, “Don’t pay until approved” is another way to filter out. You could do research, talk to them over Skype or at least through some great email conversation. If their website turns out to be a site that Google favors then you might be in the safe zone
    * Since I haven’t started the affiliate program yet and am still figuring out how to use it, I’m thinking of the best ways to take advantage of it. Currently I have the setting for “pay everyone” but after reading your article I’m going to change that. Also, the sites and people that I intend to approach for my program are ones that I trust are not going to abuse it.
    * Yikes, that must have been devastating when you had to pay those fees. Thanks for venting in a transparent way. Perhaps maybe you could use the strategy I plan so that you could run a well gardened affiliate program that is more “hand selected” than “open to anyone”?

    -Best,
    Ryan

    Jeremy

    Hi James,

    I think it’s worth noting that there is a whole community of honest affiliate marketers who provide good content and recommend products and services that they love to their reader and customers.

    It’s not really fair to lump them all in as scammers because one person or group scammed you. In fact the people who scammed you, by definition, are not affiliate marketers, they are just scammers. They have nothing to do with the overwhelming majority of folks who earn a living through honest affiliate marketing.

    As far as “polluting the web” that sounds like a great way to stir up some hysteria and continue placing blame on some nebulous “them” out there that, again, you are assigning all affiliate marketers to. BTW there are certainly folks who think that people who restrict access to GPL code, only letting it out for money, etc. are also “polluting the web” or “destroying open source.” Everyone has an angle but that doesn’t mean they are correct or that other people should then be grouped together in pejorative ways.

    To your point of feeling that it’s okay for affiliate marketers to recommend products they truly love, there are plenty of folks who truly love wpmudev products and recommend them. That’s why they keep asking you for an affiliate program, not because they are lining up scammers to steal your money. They want to recommend your products and they want your company to help them support themselves as they then work with their clients to provide additional support for your products.

    When done right, affiliate marketing is a way of paying it forward. From the perspective of a company it’s a way of rewarding loyalty and building a network of people who help support the products and the community that uses those products.

    While some sort of “points” program or loyalty rewards is a, “cute” way to give something back, actually paying honest affiliate markers who support what you do lets them keep supporting you.

    I hope this is all food for thought. My goal in writing this is not to convince you to start an affiliate program, but to remind you that good people work in the affiliate space and support themselves and their families honestly and with integrity in doing so.

    Thank you for your time and for creating products that help people accomplish their goals with their WordPress sites. I hope you will recognize the value affiliate marketers can bring to what you do. We’re all in this together and we’re all part of the same community.

Comments are closed.