One thing I absolutely pride myself on with any marketing that I do is that I hold myself to a very high ethical standard. I follow a very simple rule:
“Don’t do anything that I myself wouldn’t like to be subjected to as part of the target market.”
Without a doubt, this means I’ve left a fair amount of money on the table over the years. When you have an audience and you’ve been doing this for any length of time you will get opportunities presented to you that could result in a heavier wallet if you’re willing to do certain things.
Let me start by saying, this is not an email designed to preach at you or call anyone out about the way they behave. I do my things my way because that’s what I’m comfortable with. I know that if I run everything I’m doing through the prism of, “Would I be ok if someone marketed to me this way?” then I can always be comfortable about the outcome.
Many people lose sight of their ethics because they get greedy – I’m going to call that out for sure. They often dismiss their ethical problem in terms of, “But this thing works” or some other justification.
The interesting dilemma comes when you start promoting things as an affiliate to your audience.
About six or seven years ago I used to do a fair bit of affiliate stuff and it wasn’t always what I’d now consider being something I am comfortable with. Call it greedy, naive or stupid and you’d probably be right on all counts. It used to be very easy to drive enormous levels of traffic via search to small crappy sites promoting products for which you were an affiliate. You really only needed a small conversion rate to do really well and the whole business model was VERY scalable through automation.
Then one day in 2010 I came to the realisation that I didn’t feel good about what I was doing, so I stopped. I got rid of all of the affiliate sites and just stopped doing it. Cold turkey. Within a few weeks, I got out of that entirely.
After that, I would occasionally promote an info product if I had used it myself and could legitimately vouch for the product. In fact, part of my affiliate strategy for these products was to generate value-added bonuses based on my knowledge and feedback in using the product.
By 2012, I pretty much stopped operating as an affiliate. I’ve done the odd thing here and there and in 2015 I put together an affiliate site for Udemy courses, but the traffic acquisition costs were too high, so that kind of died.
Since starting Casual Marketer, the whole affiliate angle has been something I’ve been wrestling with from two sides.
On the one hand, I’ve had a number of people reach out to me and ask me about promoting the newsletter to their audience. I think this is something I’ll do in the next couple months. I’m not going to have an open affiliate program because I want to control who promotes the newsletter. That will allow me to vet who I work with and make sure that they’re promoting me and what I do in a way that I’m comfortable with. It also means I can invest more time and effort into their success which is important with affiliate relationships – you want it to be win/win/win, a win for you, a win for your affiliate partner and a win for the customer.
On the other hand, I’ve also been having people ask me to promote their stuff to my audience via these daily emails which ultimately get posted on the blog. On that front, I can say unequivocally that will never happen. These emails are a conversation between you and I, they’re not for sale. Do I promote my own stuff to you? Yeah, for sure. If I want you to be aware of something from someone else that I think will help you, then I’m going to tell you about it and not expect to get a commission for it – this is me sharing something I think would be beneficial to you, that’s the nature of our agreed relationship.
One area where I may look at using an affiliate link is on a resources page on the website. There are certain tools that I use regularly around the site and to put the newsletter together that people may want to know about. If I’m giving those companies and products space on my site and referring customers from my site to them then I don’t have a problem with getting paid for it. With that said I’d never put something up there that I didn’t use or feel good about recommending to people. For example, I use Liquid Web as my webhost, so I’d never tell people to use another host that has better commissions or pays out faster.
Again, it all comes back to doing what you’re comfortable with and the relationship you want to have with your audience. I don’t personally have a problem with people sending me the occasional affiliate promotion via email, but that’s not the relationship I want to have with you, so I won’t do that.
If you take the time to create a comprehensive and valuable resources page on your website and it helps me make a purchasing decision because I trust and value your opinion, then I actually want you to get something for that. Likewise, I’m pretty comfortable doing this myself on my site.
For me, the basic benchmark is pretty clear, “Would I like it if someone marketed to me this way?” For other people it might be, “Could I figure out a way to justify my behaviour as not breaking any known laws?”
To thine own self be true.
Remember when I told you I liked Shakespeare? That line is from Hamlet – Polonius is speaking to Laertes. He also tells him “Neither a borrower or a lender be” – which could be a whole other email. Again, sorry for the Shakespeare tangent.
Anyway, you will need to figure this one out for yourself. I’ve tried to share my perspective, warts and all, to get you thinking about where you want to draw your lines. I also hope you take a minute to think more deeply about what you’re doing because it’s easy to just get wrapped up into something and not realise you’re blurring some of your own ethical lines.