AFFILIATE MARKETING: STILL AN INFLUENCER’S BEST FRIEND?

At our Summit last month we covered Affiliate Marketing: the available platforms, programmes and links, as well as explaining how they fit in as part of the influencer landscape. Brands often rely on an attractive affiliate scheme to encourage influencers to link to their products, just as influencers often use the same links as a means of income. They’re much maligned and often misunderstood, so given that we’ve seen lots of explainers and disclaimers popping up this week, so we wanted to set the record straight on how affiliates work in our minds, what it means when you shop, and how influencers should be using them properly.

Recently, there have been a surge of influencers rushing to clarify their stance on using affiliate marketing following a new ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA, the de facto regulator of influencer marketing in the UK). The particular complaint that set the trend in motion also came to our attention – ASA Ruling on Matalan Retail Ltd in association with TL Blog Ltd.

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This ruling didn’t come out of the blue. Back in September 2019, the ASA released a new report that claims, “People struggle to identify when social media posts by influencers are ads” and additionally that, “Our findings dispel any argument that labels aren’t needed, and re-emphasise the importance of influencers being upfront and clear with their followers about when they are advertising”. While the necessity of distinguishing organic and paid content is news to exactly no one, what the report subliminally said was that the ASA were on high alert for infractions.

It’s worth noting that this piece of advisory hasn’t been changed – since this set of guidelines was first published in the summer of 2018 the ASA has always ruled that affiliate marketing is advertising, but the advice seems to have been interpreted differently, meaning that whatever the form of the content, if it includes an affiliated link then by the ASA’s standards this should be an #ad. Until now, the widely accepted strategy was for blogs (including The Londoner) to include a disclaimer on their sites to say that they use affiliate platforms like Skimlinks, rewardStyle and Rakuten. We also think it important to add that the ASA’s precise ruling was for influencers to make sure declaration on affiliate marketing was clear using markings “such as” #AD. They did not say that was the only acceptable declaration, meaning that as long as influencers’ audiences aren’t ever confused, they can declare in a way that works for them. The only absolute definite in all of this is that is an influencer uses affiliate links, their audiences must know.

Without the evolution of new, definitive guidelines outlining how affiliates can be specifically considered in the context of influencers, we are left with no choice but to consider the latest ruling as the mandate to adhere to going forward. This isn’t ideal, and has certainly set off alarm bells in the heads of influencers and industry insiders, not to mention us here at One Roof Social. Here are the points that have had us talking this week:

Firstly, we see the ruling as patronising to customers.

While the ASA is a safe-guarding body for all consumers, they should be able to assume that we the consumers (with the young and vulnerable naturally omitted) are capable of a level of critical analysis or scepticism when it comes to marketing. It insinuates a kind of wilful misunderstanding rather than any curious, inquisitive or analytical attitude, something we can assuredly argue that users of social media possess.

After all, an affiliate link does not indicate an influencer is being paid to wear a dress or use a moisturiser, only the potential for earnings if their followers trust their recommendations or like their style – and it is this major distinction that the ASA ignores in their ruling., Jessica Dante, founder of Love + London, pointed out in a discussion of this topic, “Are traditional publications held to this kind of scrutiny? No.” This is a well raised point because we as consumers are expected to approach print content with a degree of analysis. As Jessica continued, “Maybe we can give consumers a little more credit!”

After all, it’s crucial for consumers to remember that wherever or however you make a purchase online, the existing infrastructure means that someone other than the specific brand you’re purchasing from will also profit – whether that’s the third party retailer, the comparison site that sent you there, or even Google. As a ‘creative content’ comparison, you need only look at online style advice editorials to see that all outbound links are affiliated – and undeclared.

For the vast majority of brands and influencers, they are not trying to disguise the commercial nature of their content from consumers. Better advisory guidelines from the ASA could safeguard the sensibilities of the customer, while also acknowledging their ability to distinguish an advert from editorial content.

Secondly, the whole point of brand/influencer partnerships is to extend the relationship between them, when an influencer has a natural affinity with a product/brand and its development. The ruling makes these relationships more difficult to form in an authentic way.

Turning organic, editorial content into an extension of a brand partnership does disservice to both the brand and the influencer. This kind of ad hoc content is what grows a relationship with an influencer and their paid partnerships, not to mention creating the kind of authentic affinities that their followings love. In essence, the brand noticing an influencers is talking about them, with the influencer able to finance the content through affiliate revenue (remembering that this is indeed employment for many) is often the prompt brands need to notice one influencer’s impact in the millions that exist in the industry.

In addition, the nature of secondary networks like rewardStyle, the merchant (brand) isn't always aware that the publisher (influencer) is promoting them and there is no pre-agreement – which is in essence what an advert is; an agreement for promotion. This lack of editorial control also means that influencers can represent brands in ways that they wouldn’t choose, which is another problematic angle when treating affiliates exactly the same as commissioned content.  

Using the example of The Londoner, the product from Matalan that featured wasn’t part of a previous partnership and had been paid for as a consumer – so to suggest it is advertising does seem a little over zealous. It really doesn’t behove influencers to try to deceive their followers about their commercial relationships with brands – the resulting backlash would be too great, not to mention that well executed organic and paid content both perform in the same way in any case. Followers often interact with advertorial content, use user-specific offer codes and follow affiliate links when they shop to support an influencer they like, knowing that this will give the creator a small benefit from a purchase they were already going to make.

As luxury lifestyle writer Grace Olivia Parry commented to ORS, “I don't see affiliate links as an advert. A paid collaboration or an actual advert, yes. Affiliate links are affiliate marketing ­– entirely different. As long as the links are disclosed (which I know they are on that particular blog), all is well IMO”

As Grace highlights, it fundamentally comes down to influencers being honest with their audiences, who as a result of enjoying the content generally use affiliate links willingly to support their favourite digital creatives. It’s a small way to say ‘thanks, I like what you’re doing’.

Finally, complaints are largely made by people looking for issues, rather than being genuinely misled.

Sometimes (certainly not always) the complaints voiced to the ASA are made by people who understand the guidelines, often to a point where they construct a scenario of having been misled. After all, the ASA’s report highlights that people struggle to identify when social media posts by influencers are ads, whereas, to quote the ruling, “The complainant, who understood that the post contained affiliate links, challenged whether the ad was obviously identifiable as a marketing communication and did not make clear its commercial intent”. Emphasis our own.

Remember that as a body the ASA are reactive not proactive – meaning that they aren’t scouring every paid Instagram post for an infraction, they’re responding to a specific complaint made by an individual or people filing multiple complaints. This kind of speculative complaint does a disservice to both consumers and those directly within the influencer marketing industry that have been calling for sensible, sensitive guidelines that show an understanding of the marketplace as a whole. One size really doesn’t fit all in this context.

We really want to highlight that affiliates aren’t merely an extension of a relationship a brand has with an influencer – they’re actually a different game altogether. Ultimately, if consumers want to opt out, and would prefer that the small percentage payment doesn’t go to the influencer whose link was used, you can just clear cookies and search for the item via a search engine or the brand’s own site. If you do choose to swipe up, affiliate cookie tags last minutes and do not affect future purchases. Ultimately, until a body such as the ASA (or any marketing body assuming responsibility for regulating the industry) puts out educational material for consumers on what the nature of difference commercial opportunities are for influencers, the misinterpretation, misinformation and mislabelling will continue.

So, what do you think? Do you consider affiliates to be no different from display marketing, or should the ASA be re-evaluating their stance and creating a bespoke set of guidelines that feel more intuitive to both influencers and consumers? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Let us know by getting in touch with the team at hello@oneroofsocial.com

You can find our primer on the origins of affiliate marketing here.  

Daniela Rogers