Seven in ten Awin publishers think it’s important they inform their audiences how they make money from affiliate marketing. Of 650 publishers recently surveyed in the UK, US and Germany on the topic of affiliate disclosure, 71% feel they should be transparent that they earn commissions from sales generated from affiliate links.

American publishers considered it most important and when asked in addition whether they have a complete understanding of the regulatory requirements in disclosing commercial relationships, almost 60% said they do. The power and risks of hefty fines from US regulator, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could explain why the percentage is so much higher than among publishers polled in the UK (32%) and Germany (22%).

Low adoption rates

Yet the affiliate industry faces a dichotomy. While our survey found a good level of awareness of the topic in our three largest markets, publishers generally do not meet their regulatory obligations. On-site disclosure messaging within our channel remains rare and inconsistent.

For the longtail, there may be the assumption that they’re too small to matter, but size plays no part in who regulators investigate. It’s not just publishers under the microscope, brands too are held responsible for their affiliate partnerships. A worrying side effect could be that retailers, nervous of the reputational damage consumer complaints against them generate, decide to pare back their affiliate campaigns and with it slash their investment in the channel.

Ignorance is no defence

Ignorance is no defence with regulators tightening their guidance for influencers, bloggers and the wider publisher community over the past decade. The FTC and UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) now offer broadly aligned, prescriptive advice on an affiliate’s disclosure responsibilities.

Last updated in late 2019, the ASA states “in instances where there is an affiliate marketing arrangement in place, you need to make it clear whether parts or all of the content is an ad.” The FTC provides this additional context, “if you disclose your relationship to the retailer clearly and conspicuously on your site, readers can decide how much weight to give your endorsement”.

The growth of the influencer industry has no doubt expedited regulatory attention with brand partnerships and sponsorship deals attracting major money.

Social media solutions

For publishers reliant on social media, the technical or word limitations of social networks has necessitated simple and succinct solutions. It is now common to see labels such as ‘#ad’ or ‘#spon’ in posts endorsing brands and products.

According to a second study we commissioned of UK consumers, this seems to broadly resonate with audiences. One in ten users say they see such disclaimers almost daily, two-thirds at least once a week.

Unsurprisingly health and beauty and fashion are the sectors most likely to attract such notifiers as these are the most favoured by influencers. Our survey also found an overwhelming majority of consumers (81%) believe influencers should be more transparent about the commercial partnerships they are forging. 

A potential industry-wide solution

The direction of travel seems clear, but the industry has failed to coalesce around a central message or drive a concerted effort to encourage compliance through an ongoing education and training programme. At Awin we’re trialling a new plug-in for our longtail and content publisher community designed to automate and remove the confusing array of existing solutions. 

Offering page level and link level automated labelling for publishers, adMission is our first attempt to create a degree of standardisation for an industry where none exists. Successive surveys have shown that awareness of the affiliate channel by consumers is low (our own survey found that almost three-quarters of them were unable to correctly identify what ‘#aff’ or ‘#affiliate’ mean), but as more and more publishers feature disclaimers in their content, awareness of affiliates should grow, enabling publishers to talk more honestly and frankly about how they’re able to produce content because they earn commissions to fund it. 

Context was an important consideration when scoping out adMission, which is why publishers can tailor individual notifiers most appropriate for their pages. In a nutshell, the widget allows publishers to customise text that explains how they drive revenue from affiliate and other commercial relationships. Drilling down further, for publishers with links embedded in product reviews, advertorial copy or anywhere else on site, they are then able to automatically append each link with an icon, character or text of their choosing.

Enhancing consumer trust

Earlier this year we spoke to some of the mass media publishers who are opening up new revenue streams for brands in the affiliate channel and it was clear there was a demand for a technical solution. Anecdotally they told us anything that helps maintain trust with already engaged audiences should only be seen as a good thing.

This sentiment was reflected in our survey, as when we asked whether publishers would make use of a free and easy to integrate solution, 85% said they would with remarkable consistency across Germany (84%), US (84%) and UK (86%). Encouragingly, an even higher number (87%) felt the impact on their site would either be positive or at worst neutral. Just one in eight would eschew any sort of disclosure believing it to be a negative addition to their links.

One final consideration when we built adMission was that it had to be agnostic. There’s no point in offering publishers something that only recognises the Awin domain and appends a notifier to Awin links. Not only would this be confusing to the consumer, it would also be a non-starter for publishers. As a result any network, agency, vendor or SaaS provider’s domains can be added to the widget, providing a run of site answer to one of our channel’s biggest challenges. 

Ultimately it’s easily fixable

While the threat that disclosure poses isn’t existential, it’s one that is fixable and within our purview. It also demonstrates to regulators that the industry is capable of meeting challenges head-on. John Constine, Head of Content at SignalFire, writing in TechCrunch on this issue, neatly encapsulated why it should be nipped in the bud before it becomes inflated: “society has enough trouble with misinformation on the internet, from trolls to election meddlers. They should at least be able to trust that if someone says they love their new jacket, they didn’t secretly get paid for it”.