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Affiliate marketing is not often associated with ethics, in fact, many consider it to be an immoral way to make money. Sadly, this is because of the number of people that don’t care how they make a profit, as long as they do.

Although this represents the common view of affiliate marketing, it’s not actually the truth and you can decide, right now, to practice ethical marketing.

In this article, I’ll explain exactly what I mean and why it matters by using common affiliate marketing practices as examples.

Some examples of unethical marketing

Affiliate marketing, as it’s commonly practiced, involves creating a website with the sole purpose of making a sale. 

The website will feature pages about specific products or services (I’ll just call these products from now on) with links to a vendor’s website where the product can be bought. When the visitor clicks the link and buys a product, the vendor will pay the website owner a commission.

That’s not really unethical, as long as the website owner is honest about the product and that the links will earn them a commission. 

That’s where the problems start.

Inaccurate or untruthful reviews

I my experience, many affiliate marketers care little about the truth as long as they make a sale. 

When they review a product they might only talk about the positives of a product, without saying anything about the downsides. They may even make bold or exaggerated claims about the product that are utterly untrue.

Bad affiliate marketers lie about products to make a sale because there is no regulatory body to stop them doing so.

How many times have you seen a product promoted that will make you rich overnight, with very little effort on your part?

Hidden affiliate links

I’ve seen many cases where a website that clearly uses affiliate links don’t mention it at all. They will make it appear that the links are there as a service to the visitor, to make it easier for them to find what they’re looking for, not to make money for the website owner. 

Don’t get me wrong, affiliate links can serve both purposes – this website includes affiliate links that will result in a commission for me if you buy something but I only place those links on pages where I’ve given you a balanced view of the product.

Copy & pasted vendor scripts

Affiliate marketers will often copy and paste text from a vendor’s script, without editing it at all. In so doing, they are representing the vendor’s product exactly as the vendor wants it to be (again, such scripts will often be littered with exaggerations, misrepresentations or outright lies). 

Aggressive upsells and funnels

Many affiliate marketers will happily promote products that are part of an aggresively marketed funnel. 

A customer might buy something that solves a problem for them. 

They’re happy with the price because it seems very reasonable. 

But as soon as they try to complete the sale, they’re hit by a hard-sell video inviting them to ‘upgrade’ their purchase to something else, often at a much higher price. 

They want to complete their purchase but they have to wade through a skyscraper page of offensive marketing to do so. 

Obviously, they can just scroll down to the bottom of the page and finish buying the item but they’ll often have to give their email address as they checkout… which then results in a steady stream of emails trying to coerce them into ‘upgrading’ their purchase at a later day. 

You might think this is okay – nobody is forcing them to buy the product in the first place, right? They don’t have to fall for the upsell, after all. Unfortunately those upsell pages will use every nasty psychological in the book to close the deal. 

Trying to force someone to buy something, especially if they don’t need it or possibly can’t afford it is unethical at best.

FREE products that you actually pay for

I’m sure you’ve bumped into those adverts about free books where all you need to do is pay the shipping charge. 

Paying for the postage doesn’t seem unreasonable, if they’re going to send you a free book and it’s not, unless the shipping charge is double what it should be. 

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example, using Russell Brunson’s book, Expert Secrets. I like the book but it’s a great example of misleadingly using the word, ‘free’.

You’ll encounter marketing across the Internet that will offer the book for ‘free’ if you go to the Expert Secrets website. 

As you can see in the screenshot below, I can also buy the book on Amazon but I’ll have to pay $6.98 for shipping that will take around ten days (as well as paying for the book). 

This screenshot is taken from the Expert Secrets website. As you can see there’s no charge for the book but the shipping is going to be $14.95 because I don’t live in the US.

You could assume this is for express shipping but it’s not.

I know this because I ordered the book from expertsecrets.com and it took two weeks to get here. It must have been standard shipping ($6.95 on Amazon).

In the interests of fairness, I actually really enjoyed reading the book. There were some fascinating ideas and insights in the book that really got me thinking. But there were also some points I considered borderline unethical. I think we’ve already established that I’m not a big fan of Russell Brunson’s marketing style so that’s not really surprising. What did surprise me were his insights about building a dedicated tribe.

I recommend you read it, if only to get a feel for how some people approach marketing but if you order it from Expert Secrets, watch out for the upsells. Click here if you want to order the free book. Russell will pay me $1 if you order one. How’s that for honesty? 🙂

No experience of the product when writing a review

Many affiliates will ‘review’ a product they’ve never set eyes on. They will recommend it, having never used it or really knowing what the downsides of the product are because they’ve never had chance to find out.

Often, they’ll just look up reviews other people have written about it and rewrite them to make it sound like they’ve used the product themselves. I cannot imagine anything more unethical than recommending something you have no direct experience of. 

Me holding a copy of Expert Secrets by Russell Brunson

Expert Secrets, the book I mentioned above is heavily promoted by a huge number of affiliates – but I’m willing to bet that the majority of them, in spite of recommending it, have never held it in their hands, let alone read it. 

I’d be a hypocrite if I hadn’t so here’s a picture to prove it! 🙂

The scarcity lie

You will often see sales pages telling you that you need to buy now because there aren’t many copies of the product left. 

This would be okay if the product was physical and really did have a limited number left but this sales tactic is often used for digital products that can be downloaded for as long as the vendor wishes. 

They use the lie of scarcity (only a limited number available or only available for a limited time) to make you feel under pressure to buy it before it’s no longer available. 

If you’re selling a digital product and you create false scarcity solely to drive sales, you’re dishonest and unethical. 

I can understand limiting sales to a specific time window if what you’re selling is time sensitive (e.g. if you’re selling an ebook about stock market predicitions for the coming year) but having a time limit for a product that could be sold for any period of time is a pretty underhanded way of forcing a customer’s hand.

How to be an ethical affiliate marketer

Be honest with your readers. 

Be kind to your readers.

That’s it.

Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that so I’ll elaborate.

Warn your readers about potential hard-sell tactics

Take the example of Expert Secrets above. I didn’t approve of Russell Brunson’s marketing methods but I really do think it’s a book every marketer should read so I recommend that you buy it.

I didn’t just tell you it’s an amazing book, and that you should buy it though. 

I warned you about the upsells if you choose to get the free book. It may be that you appreciate the upsells because they’re offering products that could change your life but I warned you about them in case you only wanted the book.

If you treat your customers as intelligent, valued individuals that have invested their time in reading your articles, they will come back to your website regularly. I think, if you recommend a product but warn the customer about some aggressive marketing at the other end, they’ll appreciate that.

Be open about product weaknesses and downsides

The reason I created this website was to help people. I hope that every article that I right is helpful to somebody. If I recommend a product it’s because I beleive it’s genuiniely helpful and I’ll try to explain why the reader should buy but I’ll always try to be honest about the caveats too. 

There’s no such thing as a perfect product and an ethical marketer will always try to be honest about representing the true picture of a product. That way the customer can make an informed decision rather than one based on a biased view.

Warn about hidden costs

If a product is going to require further purchases in order to be effective, warn your readers about that.

I’m sure we’ve all bought that one ‘cheap’ product that in reality was just a lead-in to a much higher-priced product. It didn’t make me feel good and it won’t make your readers feel good either.

Avoid Recommending bad products at all

When I created this site, I considered reviewing bad products (e.g. training programs that were clearly never going to deliver) and including affiliate links to them anyway – after all it’s your choice if you choose to subscribe.

Eventually, I decided I couldn’t do that. If I think a product is that bad and provide an affiliate link that will make me money, that’s implicitly recommending it for my own gain and I can’t do that. 

Conclusion

I’ve presented a pretty detail list of things you might want to avoid if you want to be an ethical affiliate marketer. 

Please don’t take this article as an attempt to judge or condemn your own business practices. 

You might not agree with my points. You might feel slighted that I’ve implied that you lack ethics but I’ve presented this article from my ethical viewpoint. There are some things I hate as a customer that I would hate for my readers to experience. 

The simple fact is that I’ve established my ethics based upon my lifetime experience and philosophical beliefs and you’ll have established a completely different framework that you live by. It’s quite possible you live by an even stricter ethical code than I do and question my integrity for including affiliate links at all. That’s okay too.

I do know that regardless of where you stand on your preferred marketing approach, being honest with your readers will always be appreciated and respected and ironically, may increase the sales you experience as a result. 


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