The Basics

Behind Blogging: The “Dark” Side of Affiliate Relationships

Written by Charlie

A behind-the-scenes look at blogging and the “dark” side of affiliate relationships. This post shows you how both the readers and blogger can be left in the dark with these relationships.

Advertiser Disclosure

Welcome to another post about Behind Blogging, a look at things that most readers may not know about. I wrote a very detailed post last year that looks at things like affiliate marketing, blog-reader relationship and more. If you want to know about some of those things, check out that post.

Behind Blogging: The “Dark” Side of Affiliate Relationships

Today, I wanted to highlight something with affiliate marketing that can be confusing – both for readers and bloggers! As a blogger that has dealt with some of the top affiliate partners over the years, I have more than just an idea about how many things work – and they are not always clear!

This is why I refer to it as the “dark” side of affiliate relationships – literally, the opaqueness of dealing with affiliates that can confuse readers and confound bloggers, all at the same time.

What Is Affiliate Marketing and How Does It Work?

Before we dive into the “dark” side, here is what affiliate marketing is. Many bloggers may start out writing for “family and friends” but those who stick around do so because they are able to grow a reader base with content that many readers find useful. In order to justify the time (and some turn blogging into a full-time career) and to pay for things related to the blog, many blogs start using affiliate channels that value the high number of visitors that these blogs get.

In many ways, this can be a win-win for the blog and reader. If a blog is regularly writing about deals (whether it be travel, travel tech, etc) and readers find that useful content, why shouldn’t the blogger receive a commission on those deals they are already writing about and the reader is already buying as a result? The reader wins because they are still getting these great deals and the blog wins because it gets supported to keep hunting out such deals.

With FTC rules about disclosures, such relationships are to be clearly shown so that the reader can take into consideration that something a blogger is recommending is also something that pays the blogger should a sale be made. That disclosure can be a simple pay and header about such relationships.

Often here at Running with Miles, I always try to remember to tag an Amazon link (for example) with the words that it is an affiliate link so readers know I have a financial interest in that deal as well (even though I also write about that on my disclosure page and at the bottom of each post).

So, that is a brief look at the overall system of affiliate marketing.

The “Dark” Side of Affiliate Relationships

However, there is a “dark” or opaque side to these affiliate relationships. Bloggers are limited in what they can share with readers (or the public) as to what their payout is, what card or product is paid more for, what kind of bonuses may be available to the blogger for so many sales, etc.

Blogger/Affiliate Agreements Leave Readers in the Dark

Affiliates are very clear that there are many taboo things for bloggers in regards to these relationships. For example, with credit card affiliates, a blogger cannot tell readers which cards pay what amount to the blogger. Don’t you think you would like to know if a particular card is paying a blogger $250 for a conversion when they recommend it so wholeheartedly?

For the reader, this kind of information could be valuable when determining which card may be best for them. For example, there is one large site that recently was pushing the Delta American Express cards at the lowly amount of 40,000 miles. There was zero mention of the fact that you can only get one card bonus per card per lifetime – or that those cards just recently had bonuses that were much higher than that amount.

Most of the reason for that is that their affiliate agreement prevents such talk so they go along with that and it leaves the blog’s readers in the dark as to what they may be missing out onSince that blog (or, rather, credit card company outlet) caters to newbies, those readers never know about those better offers.

Limited-Payout Bonuses for Bloggers – But, the Reader Does Not Know

Back when I was a direct credit card affiliate, I would receive e-mails telling me that there were increased payout offers on a particular card – but there was no higher bonus than normal for the reader. This would encourage blogs to start pushing this particular credit card even though nothing had changed about that card in the past 4 months.

For the readers, they see a number of these posts and assume something good is coming or that something has made this card more valuable. But, due to the blog/affiliate agreement, the reader never knows that the only reason the credit card is receiving extra attention is due to the extra bonus payouts for the blogger.

Better Bonuses Available Through Other Channels – But, the Reader Does Not Know

Some credit card companies refuse to allow a blogger to talk about a credit card offer that does not go through the affiliate channel – even if it is possible to just get the better offer directly at the credit card issuer’s own website. Part of that reason is for compliance (so the affiliate company knows the blog is adhering to the strict compliance rules and not doing workarounds) and the other reason is that the better offer is available because the issuer does not have to pay the affiliate payout.

This means that the affiliate amount can be translated to more points for the reader and affiliate companies do not like to confuse those offers on a blogger’s website.

Bloggers Are Left in the Dark with Affiliate Companies

Believe it or not, the blogger can also be left in the dark sometimes. Affiliate companies can break off the relationship at any time without giving an actual reason or without allowing an opportunity for the blogger to make a reasonable appeal.

Being Warned About Activity That Goes Unchecked On Other Blogs

Furthermore, blogs can be warned about practices on their website while other websites are allowed to do the same exact thing. For example, when I was a credit card affiliate, I would often get a warning letter from the affiliate company many blogs in this space use. It would be something small that I only did when I noticed that 5-7 other blogs were doing the same thing.

I would always ask how they were able to do it and if there was something I was overlooking. I would be told that they were also out of compliance but they were never sent warnings. It would only be me and even my affiliate manager would express curiosity at that.

Being Left in the Dark with Actual Conversions

There is one affiliate company I work with that will often send an e-mail to let us know that clicks and purchases made during a few day period did not track. Yet, they would assure us that they would make sure it was fixed and we would get the credit for it. How?! If they didn’t track them the first time, how I am supposed to know that whatever fix they say was made really was made in a way that fixed things for me?

Because I have no idea what is actually purchased through my site and by whom, I am left in the dark if the affiliate company fails to track it or they just don’t give me credit for it.

Here is another example when I was a credit card affiliate. There was one card offer that I knew I had at least 10 people sign up for through my website – and they were approved. When it came time for the payouts, I didn’t have anything on that particular card and the company actually used that as one of the reasons I would eventually be removed from the program. I told them I knew of 10 people that were approved (and there were actually 4,000 clicks on that link – using their own stats, it would stand to reason that I could have had as many as 70 approvals) but they said I didn’t have any.

In the end, after our relationship ended, I lost out on at least $2,000 because they failed in tracking. Yet, there was no recourse for me – I was completely left in the dark because they were the ones that maintained the links, the tracking, and the payout. They said the only way they would go back and assign the payout was if I had everyone who applied through my site send me their name, address, and social security number so they could check itYeah, I was not about to ask blog readers to give me that information!

Being Dumped – and Left in the Dark

Amazon blues

There are many blogs and websites that are dumped from affiliate programs with a very vague (or incorrect) reason given for the break. This leaves no recourse for the blog and these programs are often very difficult to ever get back into again.

Because the affiliate company holds all the cards and the blog/affiliate relationship is pretty opaque, we are left in the dark about a lot of things. This leaves us very much at the whim of these companies that may either make a mistake with us or outright decide to end the relationship.

Summary

Hopefully this post gives you a glimpse into some of the “dark” side of affiliate relationships, both in how it affects the reader and the blogger alike. While it would be nice for things to be much more clear for all, the affiliate companies really prefer it not be like that. That ends up leaving a whole bunch of us in the dark at times.

Some of the links on Running with Miles are affiliate links that pay a commission if a purchase is made. Running with Miles is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

28 Comments

  • Clicked this expecting whining about things that I (and everyone else) knows… but holy crap, I had no freakin’ clue! Literally 99% of this article is news to me.

    A true eye-opener, thank you.

  • wow had no idea either. I always thought miles/points bloggers had it best (compared to other types of bloggers) because of their relationships with credit card companies to get $$$ from affiliate links. Seems like the banks/credit card companies ‘own’ the bloggers. :/

    • The money through credit card affiliates is definitely better than what bloggers in other spaces are getting from most things (think $50-$300 per credit card app!) but because they are financial products, the scrutiny from compliance departments mixed with the fear of losing these lucrative links make things a bit hazy. Of course, a big company like TPG certainly has a better link since they are actually owned by the company that provides affiliate links to other bloggers so it would be easier for them in some ways for sure.
      I will say this also – there are a couple of good-sized blogs here on BoardingArea that have gone through the process (a very stringent one) to have editorial independence with credit card links. With these two bloggers in particular, this does give them more leeway to give a better view at the outright value of a card as well as possibly talking about other links that don’t pay them.

  • What a superb post. Thanks, I really learned a lot, even if most of it was a bit disheartening. Now I understand why Boarding Area is suddenly swamped at times with lots of bloggers pushing one specific card when there’s an affiliate payout increase. Ultimately, I think that the problem is a severe lack of integrity. TPG is obviously the most glaring blog example, but being by far the worst doesn’t make it the only blog to act that way. The way out of that is by requiring transparency. If people know the facts, they can make a better judgement. Likewise, there should be a great deal more regulation of the affiliate programs, so the blogger doesn’t get burned as you have. These posts are really helpful and insightful.

    • Thanks a lot! Especially in this space, it is certainly a good idea to do your own homework or follow a blog like Doctor of Credit to get completely unbiased opinions. With products, it is easy enough to return it if it doesn’t live up to the hype of a blogger/website. With a credit card, you could have missed out on a better bonus and be unable to get a bonus on that card for at least 4 years!

    • TPG is not the most glaring blog example…DansDeals is worse. Numerous times I have seen him push credit cards on his blog when you can get double the sign up bonus somewhere else.

      • I don’t like bashing one blog on another. Suffice to say that if you see the same card being touted by multiple blogs without a limited-time SUB offer, they’re not copying each other – the issuer just has a limited-time high-payout offer.

      • While I have some issues with Dan’s Deals, IMO TPG is vastly worse. The Marriott post by Richard Kerr incident shows that TPG is completely beholden to the affiliates, and couldn’t care less about honesty or integrity. If he ever tires of his current job, no doubt he could become a shill for Airlines For America.

      • I will say this – DansDeals has some of the most informed and savvy deal-hunting readers in this blogging space and they are very loyal to him. I have seen it often expressed that they don’t mind giving up extra miles/points to support his site. His site is kind of in a separate niche all by itself also.

  • I am not sure about bloggers but other affiliates I know use third party trackers to track the conversions so they KNOW the clicks and conversions. So there is a way to keep them honest. Please look into that.

    • Thanks, Bruce. Some of the really big affiliate companies (that I don’t want to mention because I don’t want trouble! :)) handle the tracking on their own and, in fact, don’t allow third-party interfaces/schemes that come between.

      • I would not use a network that does not allow a tracker. There are many good networks that have no problem with trackers. Find them and drop the ones you’re using as they are dark/shady. Be proactive. You can do better. Good luck.

  • Thanks for sharing. It’s often a treat to get to peek behind the curtain.
    Recently another popular blog was also removed from affiliated relationship after Prime Day… when it clearly could’ve made ’em a boat load of income. This whole thing smells fishy. In some ways, it’s understandable that the one who holds the wallet holds the power…. but it doesn’t make it any easier or better. Thanks again for sharing and I hope your blog will continue be successful with new revenue streams.

    • Yes, I was definitely thinking about DoC but did not want to mention that in the post in case he is able to get them to let him back in. I didn’t feel it was my place to insert it as an example, but I definitely had a horrible feeling for him and think that was a really sorry move by the affiliate company.

  • Hmmm, very interesting. I was wondering why TPG was pitching DL credit cards with a low bonus when last week they just had the highest bonus ever. He used to give good helpful tips but not it’s just a credit card show.
    I think that they really should show just how much money they get paid per click, referral, application, etc.

  • Expected fluff but this was deep. Very interesting. Thanks for opening up this world to the uninitiated. Sorry your vendor screwed you. In the end, whether it’s a hobby or a full time job, money is still money.

  • I wonder if you ever noticed any actions that would indicate one blog going after another. You don’t mention this–maybe because there are no instances of that that you have witnessed, or that you are too nice to say it—but I guess I’ll bring it up.

    Other things I’m curious about:
    What about the reverse: where one blogger fawns on/refers to another? Is there some potential for “under the table” split commissions that would explain some of that?

    Have you ever seen different blogs get paid different amounts from a bank–this would help explain some of the more fevered “excitement”, maybe.

    You said that you had to trust that your affiliate was properly keeping track of everything. Do some of the bigger blogs have their own mechanisms for checking?

    What is the minimum number of conversions needed to have a blog still be valuable to an affiliate marketer?

    Finally, do you think some of the blogs are given extra spifs/incentives if they “reach their numbers”?

    All in all, a fascinating shady world. Reminds me so much of financial planning, and the various charlatans that move about in that world.

    • Thanks for following along and for asking the questions.
      There are some bloggers that have either very high respect or similar for other bloggers and that comes through in their writings. The ones that I know of like that have no other financial relationship between them.
      However, there are some blogs that have something like a sub-affiliate relationship and have their links offered to other blogs or have some kind of revenue splitting deal. The ones I know of like this are completely above board, however, and you can clearly identify where you are applying and the relationship is disclosed. There may be others that do an under-the-table deal but that would likely be very hush-hush since it is really not allowed.
      Some blogs will get a higher payout, depending on the amount of conversions in a few month span. The affiliate companies have drastically cut down on blogs that have direct links with the number of successful conversions likely at around or over 100 per issuer each month. I’m guessing it is even higher than that, though. There are sub-affiliate companies that offer credit card links that you cannot specify exactly with a link – more like “see this credit card page for a card that works for you” and the minimums there are much lower to retain that relationship.
      With direct links, those blogs have a much better relationship with the affiliate manager given the amount of money that the blog is bringing to the company. If some blog has direct links with Chase, for example, they may be bringing in 250 conversions in a month that could translate to a minimum of $25,000 but likely over $35,000 per month. That is just the blogger’s cut. Because of that amount of money, the blogger is as important to the affiliate account as vice-versa so there would be a better ability to find loss conversions due to the strength of the relationship.

  • I miss the “old days” when bloggers would actually give advice on which card offers to avoid, often explaining that a better offer was coming the following week.

  • There are, indeed, a lot of dark sides to affiliate blogging and sponsored posts in general.

    My worst experience to date was with Digital Access Pass. I wrote an honest review that, frankly, was more positive than negative. As you probably know, honest reviews actually sell more anyway, because they are more credible.

    Digital Access Pass retroactively changed their affiliate policy to refuse commissions to anyone who wrote anything negative about them. They never paid me the commissions I already earned and have essentially muzzled all their affiliates from writing honest reviews. You literally can’t point out anything that needs improvement or they won’t pay you. It sure doesn’t match with any of my deepest values.

    In another case, I spent a lot of time promoting an affiliate to my list. My customers were telling me they bought through my link but I wasn’t getting credit for the sales. It turned out this major company somehow “forgot” to have their Paypal sales linked to the affiliate program. In other words, they ripped off their affiliates big time during a major major promotion event. I was able to get credit for the sales I could prove, but I am sure that was a tiny, tiny fraction of my actual sales.

    The stories go on and on … it’s too bad because all in all it makes the internet a less trustworthy place for all of us.

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