How to handle affiliate post disclaimers… when EVERY post is an affiliate post thanks to Skimlinks

March 23 | offbeatbride
Let's talk about this disclaimer, and where it appears.
Let's talk about this disclaimer, and where it appears.
I love Offbeat Bride and have for ages, and one of the reasons why I've always respected this site and the Empire overall is due to good business ethics and practices. Which is why I got super sad when I didn't see an affiliate disclosure on this post. I'm curious if it was just an oversight or if it's a change in the way the site is approaching affiliate-based content. -Christen

Christen, this is an awesome question, and I'm so glad you brought it up. I love having readers that watch out for this stuff.

First, let's review the basics

Before I dive into my answers here, I want to review the two different kinds of sponsored editorial posts we run:

  1. Direct-sold sponsored posts, where the advertiser pays for the placement directly to us. Most of these are very small independent businesses like local photographers. These are paid for before the post goes up, based on our flat rates.
  2. Affiliate posts, where we have a partnership with a large commercial business (think Amazon, Modcloth, or Minted) that gives us a percentage of the sales produced by the post. These are paid for after the post goes up, based on how many sales happen.

Ok, so now that we know the two main kinds of sponsored posts we feature on the sites. Now let's talk about how we aim to be transparent about these posts. The Offbeat Empire's policies about disclaiming sponsored content reveal that we're, uh, a little obsessive about this stuff. Of course that doesn't mean that human error isn't a factor (because it totally was in this case), but our policies are clear and have been pretty much set in stone since 2009:

That post features an older site design, but the disclaimer policies remain the same. If you want to see an example of the affiliate disclaimer in action on a recent post by looking at any of my shoe posts, like this one.

Ok, so what about this particular post?

In the case of the Modcloth post Christen commented on, this was a straight-up oversight. We categorized the post incorrectly, so the disclaimer wasn't automatically produced. The error has been corrected, and the affiliate disclaimer is now showing up at the top of the post. Whew! Sorry about that screw up.

Christen's question brings up a larger issue I should address, though. I've written about how the Offbeat Empire use Skimlinks.

Having Skimlinks enabled on the Offbeat Empire network means that technically every single link on the sites is an affiliate link — even links that readers share in the comments. This makes the disclaimer at the top of a post feel a little silly. We address this issue by having a disclaimer of every single one of the 20,000+ pages across the Offbeat Empire that informs folks that we monetize the site using Skimlinks, with a link to my post all about how it works for us.

skimlinks disclaimer text example on offbeat bride

If readers are concerned about monetization and transparency, it's worth noting that every single post on the Offbeat Empire is a intended as a revenue-driver, and that thanks to Skimlinks, every single URL in every single post and every single comment is monetized. There are, however, specific posts that are more focused on affiliate partners, like the Modcloth one…  let's talk about this: should we have the disclaimer at the top of all posts? (That's a lot of clutter.) Just affiliate-focused posts? (Does it make a difference, when they're ALL affiliate posts?) Should we have a disclaimer the sidebar like we do on Vendor listings? More text on the page causes clutter, and I've learned in my time on the interwebs that very few people actually read the text anyway… but still: I'm totally open to feedback that we could be doing better on this issue.

Regardless of all else, I'm super glad Christen brought up the issue — I'm always down to talk monetization transparency.

  1. I'm so happy you wrote this because there have been a couple areas of concern with OBE recently which, like Christen, leaves me a bit frustrated because I've always looked up to OBE as the monetization disclosure standard. In my five years of blogging, I feel like OBB is the only big wedding blog I can rely on to be open and transparent about their monetization practices.

    First of all, I totally appreciate the Skimlinks disclosure at the bottom of every page and that's way more than a lot of sites do. But from my interpretation it conflicts with the FTC guideline that the disclosure needs to be in the general area of the link: "As for where to place a disclosure, the guiding principle is that it has to be clear and conspicuous. The closer it is to your recommendation, the better. Putting disclosures in obscure places – for example, buried on an ABOUT US or GENERAL INFO page, behind a poorly labeled hyperlink or in a “terms of service” agreement – isn’t good enough. Neither is placing it below your review or below the link to the online retailer so readers would have to keep scrolling after they finish reading. Consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily. They shouldn’t have to hunt for it." (https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/ftcs-endorsement-guides-what-people-are-asking#affiliate)

    The second area of concern applies not to Skimlinks but to actual intentionally placed affiliate links, like for this post: http://offbeathome.com/2016/02/good-books-for-middle-schoolers
    This post uses Amazon affiliate links (correct me if I'm wrong, but it looks that way), but the only disclosure I see is the Skimlinks one at the bottom. It also looks like this post has an Etsy affiliate link in the photo caption. There's a vendor disclosure at the bottom, but no affiliate disclosure. http://offbeatbride.com/2016/03/used-engagement-ring

    So just curious your thoughts on these. Am I a sucker because I put a disclosure at the top of every page that includes even just one affiliate link? I feel like if the FTC came knocking on my door and questioned me about it, I wouldn't be able to honestly say I'm following their guidelines if I put my disclosure in the sidebar (which doesn't show up on mobile) or the footer (which – let's be real, who scrolls down that far ever).

    1 agrees
    • SO many great points! Let me settle in here for a nice long ramble…

      I'm willing to admit that I've become very cynical/realistic about how monetization works on the web and have gotten to the place where I assume by default that every link in every post on every social network and every website everywhere is monetized by the publisher — and if it's not, I give the publisher side-eye and am like, WHY AREN'T YOU BENEFITING FROM THIS LINK?

      I'll go a step further here: the economy of the web has changed so much in the decade that I've been working full time as a publisher, and the current reality is that everything is monetized. If you as the publisher are not monetizing it, then someone else is. Your eyeballs and clicks are dollars in someone's pocket, pretty much every time. If it's not the publisher making the money, then it's their content management platform — this is true of Tumblr, Medium, and Facebook. Their entire revenue models are based on people cranking out content and clicks FOR THEM! FOR FREE! It blows my mind.

      Basically, I assume that every minute online is monetized.

      Yes, this is super cynical.

      I'm also super cynical about the FTC. I got my start in magazines in the '90s and OMG do you know how much free stuff magazines get in exchange for writing about that stuff? I have friends who've worked for Conde Nast publications who are showered in free stuff — this is how the print publishing industry has always worked, and I find it a little bothersome that the FTC is like "web publishers, you are beholden to these rules that we have never enforced on magazines, who sell ads to advertisers and then make readers pay money to read those ads!" I love magazines, but I know how the business models work and where all those products they mention on their pages come from, and it's a racket!

      Then again, all of media is a racket. Media are in the business of selling eyeballs. That is a cynical business, and it's part of why TV and newspapers are all about bad news (it sells) and disturbing sentences like If it bleeds, it leads.

      Now that I've backed myself into a cynical corner about the industry that I have dedicated my entire life to and love beyond my capacity to fully express it, let's get back to the issue at hand: Should our disclaimers be more obvious? For me personally, when I see disclaimers listed that publicly, it strikes me as almost quaint… a relic from a different time of the web when it was new and the default was unmonetized.

      Here's a question: how does age factor into this? I'm 40, and I feel like folks 15-20 years younger than me (who are Offbeat Bride's primary readership) don't care as much about this stuff, because they don't remember an unmonetized web.

      Lots to think about here! The reality is that it's super easy for me to add a disclaimer anywhere on the page, so I might do that just to be triple careful… but I'm genuinely not sure 99.9% of my readers would notice or care.

      Thoughts? I'm totally not in a place of thinking I'm right here — just happy to bounce ideas around with other folks who like to think about this stuff!

      4 agree
      • Let me just start off by saying I do not disagree with you on anything you've written so far. At all. I'm also happy to have a place to geek out over this stuff.

        I, too, assume everything is monetized but that's probably just because of the business I'm/we are in. I remember a looooooong time ago, around 2002 or 2003 I regularly visited a fan page with a forum. The page owner had Amazon affiliate images in the sidebar and someone posted in the forum, throwing a hissy fit over it, saying he was making money off of us and not telling us. My first reaction was surprise (again – earlyish internet days) and my second reaction was, who cares. He runs the site, he deserves to earn money. It was actually my first realization that you could earn a living by running a site dedicated to a fandom (it only took me another decade to actually do it). But I guess I've never forgotten how totally enraged that lady was and I don't want to make my readers upset.

        You make an excellent point about millennials assuming everything is monetized – but based on some of the completely clueless emails I get (like asking me where they can buy the dress I featured in a real wedding – like the actual dress because they assume I've had, what, 100 weddings?) – I'm not so sure I have so much faith in this theory.

        Also, if this is the working theory, why hasn't the FTC updated the guidelines to reflect this. I totally get what you're saying about magazines, product placement, etc, and the unfair rules they seem to put on website content curators.

        Trust me when I say I do NOT want to put a disclosure at the top of every post and I don't want to have to #affiliate every time I want to share something awesome from Etsy on Facebook. But I also don't want to put pants on to go to Starbucks but I have to because those are the rules, you know? I'm not sure I shouldn't follow the rules just because I don't agree with them.

        1 agrees
      • While I'm *not quite* the 15 to 20 years younger, I know it's a pretty common conception 'round the scaled-younger crowd that if it's free to you, you're the product. If you pay, you're the consumer. That's why free users get ads and paid users get them removed on sites that explicitly use that model.

        I think that making the permanent disclosure a little more indiscreet wouldn't hurt, as I didn't even know it was there until your post pointed it out to me. As a reasonable internet user, that could be in contravention to the spirit, if not the letter, of the FTC regs above. Is it fair that print is "special" in this regard? No. But our law enforcement is currently struggling to still understand what Twitter is, and that platform is 10 years old. I would not expect regulators to be that much more caught up than the police who struggle to understand the basics of online harassment.

        Your points are totally strong, though, and I get where your head is at (whether cynical or not).

        1 agrees
  2. I totally agree with everything that Ariel is saying re: sponsorship disclosure standards in traditional media vs. new media.

    I hold the Offbeat Empire on a pedestal of sorts, not only for monetization transparency but for social media strategy, community management, adaptation to current media trends, etc… Basically: errything.

    As a reader, I *HOPE* that every link on your page is monetized — for years (and years. and years.) I've been enjoying the content that the Offbeat Empire provides and I know that it's not free. I feel the same way about all of the sites that I read: creating media costs money, and it has to get paid for. If readers don't want to pay for subscriptions or access, then where else is the money going to come from?

    To me, monetized links are a complete non-issue. There are only two things that I care about re: monetization:

    1.) I expect disclosure anytime a review might be skewed because of an advertiser relationship. (ie: I don't want my favorite writer to gush about this really amazing product, only to buy it and find out that it's not all that it was cracked up to be.) This is an area that Ariel and the Offbeat team are uh-mazing at. I never, ever, ever feel like I'm being duped into trying a product that I wouldn't actually love — the Offbeat vetting process for products is spot-on in terms of knowing their audience, transparency and disclosure, and also in general quality/level-of-awesomeness.

    2.) I expect a very big, obvious, shouting-it-from-the-rooftops disclosure in the case of sponsored content. This part isn't so much about being sold an item that I don't necessarily want/need; this is about being able to maintain editorial integrity. I want to know what articles I'm reading might be skewed by an advertiser's talking points. Again, this is something that the Offbeat Empire (seemingly) never fails at.

    In the spirit of full transparency: I'm the owner of a boutique advertising agency (based in Jakarta) that specializes in content marketing and social media. I am constantly dealing with brands looking to engage 'influencers' and attempting to fight the good fight re: disclosure. It's a hard balance to strike, since brands want their ads to feel as natural and non-ad-like as possible and publishers want to maintain their own credibility and voice.

    Since this is a Whole New World of Media and Advertising, brands and publishers are still trying to figure out the sweet spot. I see organizations like Offbeat Empire as industry leaders for the way that things can — and should — be done.

    4 agree
    • I agree with Ariel too, but the fact remains that the FTC guidelines are there. Is it becoming an industry standard to ignore them just because we don't agree with them?

      • I have no idea what the best practices are regarding adherence to FTC guidelines, because I don't do any of my work Stateside, but if anyone is interested in reading a highly entertaining piece on 'What Not To Do When Engaging Influencers & Advertisers', check out this piece by one of Singapore's top bloggers 'Xiaxue'.

        She exposed the sketchy influencer marketing strategies of Singapore-based firm Gushcloud and started a whole dialogue on transparency and ethics in digital advertising in Southeast Asia.

        http://xiaxue.blogspot.co.id/2014/12/the-big-gushcloud-expose.html

        (Laws in SE Asia — especially Indonesia — haven't caught up to technology, so it's up to whistleblowers to keep both sides of the industry honest when self-regulation fails.)

        • I quoted an excerpt from the guidelines above, if you're interested.

  3. I would think that the name of the vendor (in this case modcloth) in the TITLE OF THE POST would have been enough of an indicator that it was a sponsored or otherwise monetized post, no?

    3 agree
    • Perhaps to the trained eye, but not everyone *gets* the Internet, which is why the aforementioned FTC guidelines are in place. It's also very much a matter of principle — as bloggers, we're often told "disclose or get kicked out of the affiliate program" so some of us ardently follow the rules only to turn around and notice blogs considerably larger than us consistently not disclose (not talking about OBE here) with no penalization whatsoever.

      As the squeaky wheel here, the grease I'm hoping to obtain is either universal adherence (dreams, I know) or more clarification for online publishers about whether or not disclosure is necessary. Guidelines are not law, but we've seen a recent case of Lord & Taylor get slapped with a suit for not requiring disclosure from their bloggers (sponsored) and nigglings of rumors that Google is going to start uber cracking down on all monetized content that does not have a disclosure.

      A reason I posed the original question to Ariel is because I respect her greatly, and have long been curious as to her stance on this. Personally, I'm super involved in affiliate marketing and this is a conversation I have with my affiliate managers and merchants on the regs. I am an ardent rule-follower in regard to disclosure on the blog I run as well as my own blog, and I have often asked the question of my AMs and merchants as to why we get our knuckles rapped if we forget to disclose but others seem to flit merrily along with nary a disclosure in site. It seems as though we should all be held to the same standard, and when I noticed the original lack of disclosure on a big blog that is normally so good about it, I saw the opportunity to start this discussion.

      2 agree
      • …and I'm super glad you did!

        My personal feelings are that as long as you're not causing ridiculous amounts of clutter on the page, it's generally better to over-disclose. That said, I also think that we're probably in a time of shift about this, and that less and less people will disclose because the assumptions about monetization are rapidly changing. Production placement in television shows is changing, too — when you're watching Ugly Betty and they film a scene in Target for no reason, we all know what's going on. Monetization is built into new media apps from the get-go: when a Viner with 1 million followers does a 6 second video about Doritos, we all know what's going on.

        What's interesting to me is that the advertising/monetization mediums are changing so rapidly, and those of us who are old enough to remember the prior revenue incarnations are like "Wait, you need to TELL ME it's monetized!" and people who don't remember the old ways are like "Dude, is anything NOT an ad?"

        The attention economy is a weird new place… we're all saturated in it all day long, and monetization is part of every drop. As a publisher, it's interesting to feel the edges of where it feels necessary to be like "Hey guys, we're making money here" and where it feels out-dated. For example, I used to have a little text link under our third-party banner ads (like AdSense) that linked to a page explaining why we used them, and how people could report it if they saw objectionable banners. At this point I'm like, "You guys, it's a banner ad. This is a business. No shit this is how we make money. It is what it is."

        I want to make it about me and be like "I've gotten so jaded!" but the reality is that it's all of us. The internet has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and is just continuing to shift. As quickly as you can pick an ad type to ignore, someone invents a new one that's harder to ignore… that's the engine of the attention economy.

        Bringing it back to affiliate disclaimers: my strategy may be to streamline the design of our longstanding affiliate disclaimer, and use it more aggressively.

        2 agree
        • Thank you for taking the time to respond, Ariel, both in the post and in the continued conversation we've been having here. Though I'll continue to use my adorbs little disclaimer until the day I'm told it's no longer necessary, I find your insight into an industry where you've been a stalwart for some time invaluable.

          I also, personally, really appreciate that even though it's like "Duh, OBE is making money all the places" you continue to be credible by disclosing — and that, for me is a lot of what it comes down to. There's no sneaky trickster tactics of "tee-hee, they're clicking and buying and I'm making the skrilla!" and as someone who's worn her teeth down to nubs with all the grinding when I see that on other blogs I've formerly respected, please know that this long-time reader, former bride in a real wedding feature and overall OBE fan appreciates it.

          1 agrees
          • Hey, my pleasure. I feel like Offbeat Bride readers used to be WAY more vocal about stuff like this, and I just don't get as many questions about it, which means less prompts to talk it over…. and god knows I love talking it over!

            In fact, this decline in questions about monetization is part of my impression that the newer/younger wave of readers just aren't as sensitive about sponsored content as some of us older folks are (or were, as the case may be).

            If nothing else, your question prompted the first offbeatempire.com post in months, which is great! Thanks again for taking the time to ask.

            5 agree
        • The TV thing is interesting to me, because it's only in the last few years that's it's become legal to have product placement in UK TV shows, and it's still controversial enough that most shows don't want to risk alienating their audience over it. It's nnt subtle, either – you have to wave a giant product placement logo at your audience to make sure they know they're been advertised to.

          I think assuming the average user of the internet understands how websites are monetised is being naive about the webusing world's naivete. If you have to tell people there is no Nigerian prince, that their bank doesn't need their pin, and forwarding that email won't net them a free trip to Disney, you need to tell them you're selling them stuff. We don't have FTC legislation here, and I think that's not because Ofcom think people are more aware of online product placement than they are TV, but because Ofcom itself doesn't know how prevalent it is.

          (a couple of years go I taught a regular web-using colleague that a mouse has more than one button. It really made me question my assumptions about internet use, and that just because someone knows how to use Amazon and ebay, it doesn't mean they have the faintest idea what they're actually doing)

          • This is a great point. I guess there's understanding, and then there's caring. How many readers CARE how a site is monetized?

  4. I almost wonder whether part of the question is whether the OBE (and/or any ethical website) is responsible for educating their readers about the realities of the monetized internet, at least a little. It's all well and good to assume everyone knows all product placement is paid for and all links are monetized, but, I mean, it's not like this is instinctual knowledge. We have to learn it at some point. And maybe part of being an ethical online business is giving consumers a chance to think for just a second about what that means to them.

    Or, in other words, whether consumers care and whether you, the publisher, cares, are maybe two different things. 🙂

    • I'm with you, and I hope that offbeatempire.com is part of that education… although I am aware that despite it also being linked on every single page of Offbeat Bride and Offbeat Home & Life, relatively few readers know offbeatempire.com exists. Again: there's so much on the page!
      Most of us ignore 90% of it.

      1 agrees

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