A Few Thoughts on WordPress Affiliate Programs

A few months ago, a number of companies – ours included – began to suspend or completely end their WordPress affiliate programs.

Naturally, this created a bit of a backlash.

In all fairness, not all customers were particularly upset. Some were disappointed, sure, and rightly so but moved on with their blogs; others were far more upset about the apparent injustice that was served by companies opting to pull the plugin on the program.

Since news in WordPress opts to ebb and flow week to week, this has been something that’s passed, but I’ve begun to see some comments beginning to crop up again specifically around affiliate programs in the WordPress space.

My Thoughts on WordPress Affiliate Programs

Companies are generally free to operate however they want, but the truth of affiliate programs is that they are far too easily abused and cost the companies that offer the services too much time and/or money to resolve disputes and track down abusers to warrant the program.

In short, they can cost more money than they actually generate.

That said, there are a few individuals that seem to believe that affiliate programs are something that should be offered, no questions asked, and that the abuse that comes from them isn’t something that carries enough weight to suspend a program.

So, for whatever it’s worth (which admittedly may not be much), I’ve three thoughts on this.

1. The Primary Reason of Purchase

If your primary reason for purchasing a product with an affiliate program is the affiliate program itself and not the product and the solution that it provides, then you’re disrespecting both the company and the product that you’re purchasing.

Affiliate programs are meant to reward those who purchase a product, enjoy using it, and evangelize its quality to others.

If you’re purchasing the product primarily for the affiliate program and secondarily for the product, then you’re accepting a reward on false pretenses.

Granted, this is a morally gray area – and that’s cool – but purchasing a product first to make money and second for its solution is backwards.

2. They Are a Feature, Not a Product

People will argue that companies exist to make a profit, but I tend to be idealistic and believe that companies exist to provide solutions that in turn generate a profit.

You can’t create an affiliate program product. It’s a feature of a product provided by a company. As such, like any other feature of the product, it is subject to updates or even removal.

Now, this isn’t to say that customers shouldn’t be warned about when something is going to go away. Case in point: Google is really good about notifying users when something is going to be retired so that we can make alternative choices for our software.

Similarly, companies should do a good job of informing customers when an affiliate program is going to go away. Just like purchasing a product primarily for the affiliate program is disrespectful to the company, pulling the plug with no warning is disrespectful to the customers.

3. They Aren’t Meant To Be Secondary Income

If i don’t get push backs on either of the above points, then I think this is the one that’s likely the touchiest of the three, but I personally don’t believe that affiliate programs should be expected to provide a significant source of secondary income.

I know, I know: Affiliate marketers exist and some make quite a bit of cash from it, but there are exceptions to every rule and they are it.

If you’re a person who is a blogger or who is using a product for which an affiliate program exists, and expect it to help greatly increase your income, then I think that’s a dangerous mentality.

Here’s why: Affiliate program pay outs are based on the amount of product that you’re able to convert to sales. If people aren’t buying what you’re promoting, then that’s lost income and this can vary greatly month to month.

Secondly, most of us don’t have that great of reach so we’re likely to exhaust those who we do reach relatively quickly. And if a person doesn’t purchase a product through the first time or two of you promoting it, they aren’t likely to do so in the future.

Your Thoughts?

Of course, everything above is my opinion coming from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve observed; however – as I’ve mentioned before – I’d rather be known for strong opinions, weakly held than anything else so I’m completely interested in alternative perspectives.

So if you’ve got ’em, share ’em :)!

17 Replies to “A Few Thoughts on WordPress Affiliate Programs”

  1. I appreciate a good affiliate program when a company has one.

    For the last 10 months we’ve been reviewing a lot of WP plugins and themes and not until recently did I pop in an aff. link or two.

    Earning a few extra bucks from someone who decided to buy the product is welcome in my book.

      1. Example would be our review on Ninja Forms.

        We reviewed the plugin and in the post I dropped the affiliate plugin in. If folks used that link and were enticed to buy it after our review, we earned some coin. No ground breaking cash, still under $100 on that particular example, but could add up across the board in the long run.

        But after reading your comment below, I see why you were saying people bought it, for the discount etc.

        That I’ve never done and would blame the product company for having an affiliate program that works that way vs one that just pays out based on cookie tracking at the end of the month.

  2. We’ve been running an affiliate program for our themes for a couple years now, and it has generated a lot of income for us. Some of our affiliates simply won’t promote any product without getting a commission for it because they rely on the income from their promotions. I don’t necessarily think that’s evil, though there are certainly folks out there promoting crap products just to make a buck.

  3. I’m confused by your comments. You seem to tie affiliate programs to purchasing the product? Certainly with something like backup buddy I have purchased and use the product and I also have the link up somewhere and I have received one fee for referral after I recommended the product to someone and they just happened to go to my site and click the link before buying. Honestly I don’t even know if it was the same person but I received a fee and that was nice.

    What if I hadn’t bought the product and just had a link to something that I thought fit an article I wrote. That is just advertising to support content generation, that just happens to more fairly get paid for only when I show value and someone purchases the product.

    So if you compare affiliate programs to any other form of product advertisement they really only pay when the advertising is of value. So they are the first thing that a company should want when marketing a product, because they remove the gamble of paying for non-converting clicks.

    I’m just not understanding the link that you are making between buying the product and selling the product. Is there some reason why you wouldn’t sell a product you didn’t buy? Certainly you don’t want to offer things to people on your website that don’t make people happy, because then they won’t believe your recommendations in the future.

    I’m also curious about the “abuses”. I’m not sure what that means? How can you abuse an affiliate program? If, as a business you offer a fee for referral, you can set that to a level that is supported by your price and allows you profit. So you should be happy paying that on any sale as long as it is priced into the product. You are just paying it to someone on the web instead of an internal sales person or process. And you only pay if there is a sale and that sale has a third parties code on it. By abuse do you exploits on bad affiliate code that don’t allocate sales to the affiliates?

    You seem to be taking issue with advertising on some level? Or maybe the idea that you would need to price advertising cost into your product?

    If companies want to not run an affiliate program to get sales and see some other way to sell their product, that is clear their prerogative. Personally I think that we need a stronger affiliate channel for WordPress because it is such a intertwined mess of plugins. I would like to sell support from a third party, for say, things like the events plugin. Rather than be supporting it myself (because it’s not my code), but there is no incentive for me to try and sell third party monthly support services if I’m not making a piece of that. And taking on markup to a third party listed price is tacky. Instead I buy plugins with developer licenses and just install them wherever I want.

    I like more clarification on your opinion. I personally think that popular platforms that don’t respect their channel are doing a disservice to themselves and to the people that promote them. I believe that about WordPress.com. There is no reason that they can’t have a contractor centric setup that allows us to manage multiple sites for clients and make part of the membership dollars. And then grow out clients from wordpress.com to wordpress.org if they need more customization. There is a dismissal of the value of the symbiotic relationship of the open source community and people who promote WordPress.org heavily and prop up the WordPress.com brand.

    So I think I come down on the side of affiliate programs. I don’t see any reasonable stigma there. People who talk about and link to your product are exerting energy, which is work, and assuming that should come for free is odd to me. We all kind of feel weird about the value of sales naturally because we feel like salesman don’t make anything, but without that communication people don’t find and buy your product.

    1. Trevor – you bring up some really good points that are likely more of a failure on my part to fully explain my position so I’ll try to take your comments and respond in kind:

      I’m confused by your comments. You seem to tie affiliate programs to purchasing the product? Certainly with something like backup buddy I have purchased and use the product and I also have the link up somewhere and I have received one fee for referral after I recommended the product to someone and they just happened to go to my site and click the link before buying. Honestly I don’t even know if it was the same person but I received a fee and that was nice.

      In the WordPress economy, more often than not, affiliate programs are tied to a specific product.

      Usually, it goes like this:

      • You buy the product
      • You then get membership into the Affiliate Program in which you receive your affiliate code

      When blogging about said product, you can link to a sale of it using the affiliate code. Profit!

      Of course, you know this since you’ve been doing this with Backup Buddy.

      So, for purposes of this discuss, I am associating an affiliate program with a product.

      What if I hadn’t bought the product and just had a link to something that I thought fit an article I wrote. That is just advertising to support content generation, that just happens to more fairly get paid for only when I show value and someone purchases the product.

      I think that this is more closely resembles the Amazon-style model where you can have an Amazon account and then tie the affiliate link back to your account and then receive credit for when someone makes a purchase using your link.

      In that case, you’re right – affiliate programs are not associated with a particular product. Just a company or a brand or whatever you want to call it.

      In this scenario, this is a bit of a different model that I see as being outside the scope of what my post was aiming to discuss. Perhaps this is where the confusion comes from.

      I could wrote more about this particular variation of an affiliate program, but I digress for sake of writing another blog post in the comment section ;).

      But I want to be clear that you’re right and I definitely recognize that – an affiliate program isn’t always associated with a product.

      I’m just not understanding the link that you are making between buying the product and selling the product. Is there some reason why you wouldn’t sell a product you didn’t buy?

      I want to say no, but I’ve seen it done: People fill blog posts with links to other WordPress companies’ affiliate programs simply to cash in – it’s not about the product, it’s purely about making the conversion for financial purposes.

      Certainly you don’t want to offer things to people on your website that don’t make people happy, because then they won’t believe your recommendations in the future.

      Personally, no way. I only recommend stuff I like. Truth be told, I don’t really use affiliate links myself for no other reason that I just haven’t taken the time to set anything up.

      That said, you and I are in 100% agreement in that “certainly you don’t want to offer things to people on your website that don’t make people happy,” but people do do it. – and that’s a shame.

      ’m also curious about the “abuses”. I’m not sure what that means? How can you abuse an affiliate program?

      This is something that my team and I have experienced first hand. There are a number of cases, but in order to keep my response reasonable, the number one abuse case is that we’d see people purchasing links to products using their own affiliate links.

      Now, from a legal standpoint, there’s nothing really wrong, per se, you know? But the fact that people are basically joining a program to circumvent the system to save cash is where the disrespect – in my opinion, again – lies.

      You seem to be taking issue with advertising on some level? Or maybe the idea that you would need to price advertising cost into your product?

      Definitely not :). I run ads on this site and I approve ones for products and services that I believe in – the truth is, I receive 0% commission as they aren’t affiliate ads.

      They pay to advertise and I opt whether or not to allow the advertisement to run on my site.

      I take issue with people prioritizing why they are purchasing a product. This week, I was told “The primary reason I purchase [this product] was for the affiliate program.”

      In the post, I recognized that there’s a morally gray area here but, for me – and as you said earlier – I’d rather sale and endorse a product in which I believe and have purchased than the other way around.

      . Personally I think that we need a stronger affiliate channel for WordPress because it is such a intertwined mess of plugins

      Stronger? Yes! Right now, there’s really only a single model with which I’m familiar that I’ve listed above.

      I’m totally open to hearing other ideas, though as this is something my team and I are also looking into.

      Hopefully, I’ve clarified my opinion a bit. If not, definitely let me know. I think we actually agree more than not, but my main issue is not so much with affiliate programs, but the motivation by which people use them (that is, they sign up for the affiliate program then get the product which is backwards to me).

      You can’t be a salesman for a product you don’t believe in, but far some people are trying to sale something simply for the profit – not because they believe in it.

  4. I think you’re right in the money here. When I launched my WordPress maintenance service, The WP Butler, I had considered using an affiliate program. I opted instead for a more manual and “human” reward for referrals. When someone signs up, they have the option of mentioning an existing customer that referred them, who in turn is rewarded with a free month if service. It’s not going to make anyone rich, but it’s a nice way of saying thank you to my clients.

  5. We’ve had the complete opposite experience. Our affiliate program has been in place for 4 years and we’ve had no significant issues with abuse or fraud.

    One of the things you mentioned, an affiliate purchasing the product themselves throuhg the affiliate link, isn’t something we allow. It’s not something any affiliate system should allow. So this isn’t an issue for us at all.

    We payout about $15,000 per month, on average, to affiliates. The majority of that is paid to a handful of top affiliates. One of those being an affiliate that makes FREE 3rd party Add-Ons for our products. How does he make money? Via affiliate links from those Add-Ons. So you mentioned affiliate programs shouldn’t be a significant source of income, this is a perfect example where that isn’t the case. He brings value to our product and is rewarded via the affiliate program for doing so.

    I’ve heard and seen numerous WordPress theme companies shutdown their affiliate programs due to rampant abuse. Either the plugin market is completely different, or we’re just incredibly lucky which seems unlikely given we’re one of the most successful and established commercial plugin developers, but we just don’t see the rampant abuse that people are saying is occurring.

    I’d love to hear more details on what that rampant abuse and fraud involves. One I’ve heard of is using known coupon codes to lure buyers. Then linking to the product via the affiliate link for the buyer to purchase. This isn’t really fraud or abuse. If its an issue, eliminate the coupon code.

    Another I’ve heard is related to this situation and has to do with one affiliates cookie overwriting another’s. A buyer clicks on a friends affiliate link. View the product. But before buying searches Google for any coupons. Find a coupon and then clicks on a link from that site to buy the product with the coupon..l at why point they’ve clicked someone else’s affiliate link. Again, this isn’t fraud or abuse. It’s just bad luck for affiliate A wh had their sale swiped by affiliate B because of the customer not purchasing immediately and instead clicking on someone else’s affiliate link. Is also something that could be eliminated if the affiliate system supports not overwriting an existing affiliate cookie for when multiple affiliate links are clicked.

    Neither of the situations are really fraud or abuse, although I’ve seen both of them cited elsewhere as being so. And if you did consider them fraud or abuse then simply not allow them I. Your affiliate program terms and conditions.

    Our program has worked fine, and while it’s no longer a significant source of our sales, it helped us in the very beginning when we were first getting established. We have no plans to discontinue or end it. Although we do plan on switching which system we use to manage it. It helps reward our most loyal supporters as well as our 3rd party Add-On developers.

    1. Love hearing that others have success with this kind of stuff, Carl. Obviously, it sounds like you guys have it setup right – especially when it comes to this:

      One of the things you mentioned, an affiliate purchasing the product themselves throuhg the affiliate link, isn’t something we allow. It’s not something any affiliate system should allow. So this isn’t an issue for us at all.

      I know this is a moral gray area, but to me it’s an abuse of the system and that’s just where I stand with it. Some of my friends disagree but :shrugs:, that’s okay – that’s there’s prerogative just as much as as it is mine.

      I just happen to agree with your stance.

      So you mentioned affiliate programs shouldn’t be a significant source of income, this is a perfect example where that isn’t the case. He brings value to our product and is rewarded via the affiliate program for doing so.

      This is a good point and a use case I had not considered – I’m definitely not above admitting that, so I love seeing this kind of stuff. Gives me ideas for some future stuff of my own, as well so thanks for mentioning this.

      Either the plugin market is completely different, or we’re just incredibly lucky which seems unlikely given we’re one of the most successful and established commercial plugin developers, but we just don’t see the rampant abuse that people are saying is occurring.

      I can only speculate about this, but I imagine that as being as established as you are, you headed off a lot of issues early on and have significantly stricter terms than others.

      The idea of an affiliate program, on the very surface level, sounds like it’s free advertising (well, not so much free as you are paying out for others to promote your work, but you know that I mean), but – and as much as I hate to say it – you have to believe that if there is a loophole in the system, people will take advantage of it.

      To that end, you’ve absolutely gotta have terms that are clear to prevent that from happening.

      Another I’ve heard is related to this situation and has to do with one affiliates cookie overwriting another’s.

      Yeah, sigh, this is something I’ve seen first hand which really results in sunk support costs because you’re having to technically explain something that shouldn’t have to be explained at all and you’re not really being compensated for the time to explain it.

      Such is the nature.

      Regardless, Carl, this is an excellent comment and I always appreciate your insight on this kind of stuff.

  6. A couple of observations/thoughts on all of this.

    1. I think this post could be renamed to affiliate programs in general. We’re just seeing a proliferation of them in the WordPress eco-system. The questions and comments are all valid. I think simple disclaimers like “I do not use this product, but I think it’s good for the people who ask me for advice affiliate link : “.. or “I love this product, I use it daily, and think everyone else should too. here’s a a link or coupon code especially for people who ask me for advice”

    The risk the individual who recommends a product with or without an affiliate link takes is their reputation as a source for correct advice. It’s fair to think that the recommendation they make has a skin in the game too.

    The key is to be open about whether they will be

    I’m asked daily about an affiliate program for ZippyKid, when we say we do not currently have one, some people recommend us anyway, sometimes they’ll only recommend WP Engine or someone else with an affiliate link. I don’t think there is anything wrong when they choose to do that.

    I know that as a vendor, we can choose to have an affiliate program as a division of our marketing expenses, we choose not to, and we have no right to think less of someone who doesn’t recommend us due to it. We just think of it as if we chose to not buy an ad in a specific magazine.

    1. I think this post could be renamed to affiliate programs in general.

      This is a neat thought because, based on some of the other comments, we’re kind of all over the place on this. Some believe it’s too niche, others believe that it could be applicable across the board.

      The risk the individual who recommends a product with or without an affiliate link takes is their reputation as a source for correct advice. It’s fair to think that the recommendation they make has a skin in the game too.

      Agreed – and this is why I think purchasing a product primarily for the affiliate program rather than the product itself first is dangerous. It simply puts a lot of risk on the person’s reputation (if they care about it), and can really mislead others into something that isn’t that high quality of a product simply to turn a quick buck.

      I know that as a vendor, we can choose to have an affiliate program as a division of our marketing expenses, we choose not to, and we have no right to think less of someone who doesn’t recommend us due to it. We just think of it as if we chose to not buy an ad in a specific magazine.

      This is good perspective.

      Thanks Vid – really good thoughts here.

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