Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Adding an Amazon or Apple Affiliate Link to Your Blog? The Feds Want to Know.

whoselloutLet’s say you’re a small-time blogger who makes a habit out of writing about, say, music or books or software or videogames. And let’s say that you’ve decided to join an “affiliate program” that sends readers to Amazon or to Apple’s iTunes, where they can buy said product.

This is supposed to be a win-win-win: Reader finds a place to buy something they’re interested in and the e-commerce company gets an interested customer. And if the sale goes through, the blogger gets a little cut.

Apple (AAPL) pays out five percent of revenue from any transaction its affiliates generate, while Amazon (AMZN) pays between 4 and 15 percent. Unless you’re a very popular blogger selling very expensive stuff–like Mac whiz John Gruber, who made several thousand dollars by steering his readers to Amazon last fall to buy Apple’s Leopard operating system for $129 a pop–it’s not going to amount to much.

But it’s not too small to escape the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC, which is prepping new guidelines about the kinds of disclosures bloggers should make when they endorse a product on their site, also wants bloggers to give readers a heads-up when they use affiliate links.

I understand the FTC’s impulse here: It’s trying to clamp down on pernicious “pay-per-post” setups, which are basically advertorial networks. They want bloggers who get get free trips or products from a company to acknowledge the freebies when they write about said company. And they want “street team” members, who are paid (or compensated in some form) to leave comments on message boards talking up certain products, to acknowledge that they’re getting paid. Etc.

This sort of stuff is standard on some TV shows, but not on all forms of media (disclosures aren’t standard in magazines, for example). I guess there’s no harm in trying to port the disclosure practice to the Web, but I don’t see why affiliate links need to be disclosed; they are, after all, just links.

So I called up Rich Cleland, the assistant director in the FTC’s division of advertising practices who was quoted in the AP story about the move, to make sure he hadn’t been misquoted. Did the FTC really want to spend time making sure that people who make a five cent commission on the sale of a 99 cent MP3 spell out that relationship to their readers? Answer: Yes. Yes, they do.

“Affiliate marketers are covered, and the stress there is on ‘marketers,'” he told me. “You can put a different name on it, but you’re still a marketer….We really want people to distinguish between advertising and nonadvertising.”

The new rules won’t take affect for a while, likely this fall, Cleland said. So bloggers, be warned! Your hobby may  require a little more work going forward.

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