Affiliate programs and referrals are an increasingly common way of monetizing your content. A company may ask you to recommend them on your podcast or website using a special link that identifies you. In return, you will receive a percentage of the sales that result from the referral.
It can be an easy and potentially lucrative source of income, but affiliate schemes can impact your personal brand when they turn sour.
When you endorse a product or service, you are staking your reputation on that endorsement. You have built up your readers' trust, and you are telling your readers they can extend that trust to the company you're endorsing. But if that company proves to be unreliable, the reader will lose confidence in your judgement, and it will be a long time—if ever—before that trust is restored.
So how can content creators be sure of who they're tying their reputation to?
There is an element of risk in any endorsement, but carefully vetting affiliates can reduce that risk substantially. Below, you'll find five basic techniques for appraising affiliate partners. These criteria can help you weed out the riskier propositions, and feel more confident that you're partnering with a company that's worthy of your endorsement.
1. Cut through the hype.
Companies must strike a careful balance between enticing clients and overselling their services. As a prospective partner, it's up to you to examine that hype with a critical eye. Is the company making concrete statements and promises, or are they spewing fluff?
Examples of concrete statements:
- “We distribute your book through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google Play, and internationally through Ingram's global network.”
- “We guarantee 1,000 hits to your Amazon sales page, independently tracked.”
- “Our Silver Package includes professional cover design and copyediting up to 70,000 words.”
Examples of meaningless fluff:
- “We distribute your book worldwide.” (To what countries? Through what networks?)
- “We will promote your book to our thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers.” (Exactly how many? Do those followers actually see and interact with the content?)
- “We take care of everything!” (What exactly does that cover, and how?)
A company that promises little may have little to offer. Ask for hard statistics to support their claims. If the company can't back up its hype, you're better off walking away.
2. Assess the quality of the work.
The best indicator of a company's quality of service is a random audit of their work. If the company produces tangible work such as books, marketing materials, or website designs, look up examples of their work in the wild.
You can't rely on cherry-picked examples provided by the company, or a test drive they offer, because they're obviously going to show you their best work. To truly assess a company, you'll need to see candid, unvarnished examples of what they do.
3. Talk to the clients.
Feedback from past clients is essential, because if they're not happy, there's a high chance that the people you refer will not be happy either—and they'll hold you responsible. Pay close attention to reviews, especially on consumer watchdog sites, but ignore testimonials offered by the prospective partner. These are always carefully selected to show the company in its best light, but you need to see what's on the other side of that shining facade.
4. Comparison shop.
Compare the company's pricing and quality to similar companies. If the prospective partner is charging more on the basis of higher quality, is that quality evident in their work?
If you can't tell the difference between a $100 service and a $1,000 service, they may be the same except for the $900 markup.
But, at the same time, be suspicious of a deal that's too good to be true. If a company is offering a product at a fraction of industry norms, you will need to know where corners are being cut to allow that discount, and whether that's sustainable in the long run.
Which brings us to our final tip…
5. Look for the history.
An oft-cited statistic states that 80% of new businesses fail within their first year, and 50% of all businesses have failed by their fifth year. A lot of chaos can develop in that time, and a company that seemed promising can quickly devolve into a nightmare of unpaid bills, degraded service, and an abrupt exit from the scene.
There are no guarantees for any company's sustainability, but one should be especially wary of new and untested ventures. As a rule of thumb, the shorter the time the company has been in existence, the greater the risk for instability. Avoid endorsements of unproven companies until they have established themselves as a stable, reliable partner.
Vetting partners requires effort and time, but it's worth it. Your audience trusts you not to lead them astray with a careless endorsement, and a bit of research now can save you an embarrassing loss of credibility later.
OVER TO YOU
Are you using referrals or affiliate links to generate income? What steps have you taken to protect yourself? Let us know in the comments below!