(Editor Note: When you are friends with people who work in social media, you can’t help but have a lot of chatter when companies do something outrageous. The following is a collaborative guest post that came out of a conversation between such people today. Credits go to Ashley Coombe, Kim Rowley, and Daniel Feinberg for pulling it all together using Shareist.)

It’s not often that use hear anyone use the words “accidental” and “porn” in the same sentence, but today at US Airways, those two words are echoing through the halls.

Don’t worry US Airways, we’ve got your back.

We know it was just an accident. You’ve already got some of these steps taken care of, but we’re providing a guide for businesses that may accidentally follow in your footsteps:

Just in case you live in a cave, here is a recap of exactly what happened with US Airways:

(NSFW!)

YIKES. This is very NSFW and US Airways is looking into what happened exactly.

Our Suggestions:

1. Immediately post an apology with the word “Deeply” included. US Airways took care of this immediately. They deeply regretted the issue. Other options: You are deeply sorry. The staffer is deeply embarrassed. The airplane was deeply embedded….

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2. Declare that someone was FIRED! Even if you don’t fire anyone, everyone expects someone to get fired.

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3. Claim you were hacked. It probably had something to do with that Heartbleed thing. [click to continue…]

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One of the most important and yet least understood issues in Affiliate Marketing right now is FTC compliance. In large part it is because the FTC continues to issue only “Guidelines” and “Settlements” and not really specific directives. But that is, for the most part, how the FTC operates. The FTC issues Guides that are “interpretations” of laws. In this case, they are are interpretations of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act prohibiting unfair or deceptive practices in commerce. Basically–false or deceptive advertising.

That’s where affiliate marketing comes into play. By virtue of making money off of our sites and social media accounts or reviewing free products, we fall under this law and these Guidelines.

Last year when the new .com Disclosures were released, I wrote about how they applied to affiliates (Affiliates Take Note: New FTC Disclosure Guidelines). Since then I have written and spoken about them several times and continue to receive many questions. While I can’t tell you definitively what you should be doing, I can tell you what the FTC has said, how others are interpreting it, and what some best practices are.

On April 8, 2014, I will be conducting a free webinar with ShareASale titled “The FTC and You!” You can sign up through their site, and spots are limited.

Here are some of the things that I will be covering:

  • How the FTC Guidelines apply to affiliates
  • Revised Endorsement Guidelines and .com Disclosures
  • Is a “Disclosure” link or button sufficient?
  • Top v. bottom of blog post disclosure
  • Disclosure on Twitter and Facebook
  • Specific examples from the FTC and other sites
  • Monitoring and enforcing disclosure in affiliate programs

Whether you are a blogger reviewing free products, an affiliate marketer, an OPM, or a merchant, you need to understand how the Guidelines apply to you. If you have any questions in advance of the webinar, let me know and I will try to work them in!

(**Disclosure about disclosure–I’m an attorney, but I am not YOUR attorney. What I say should be taken only as legal information and not legal advice. If you believe you might be in violation, contact counsel for assistance.)

Please help me spread the word about this webinar. So many people need this information and do not even realize it.

Plus: If you want to stay in the “know” about issues like this, 1) be sure to sign up for my newsletter (right sidebar), and 2) follow me on Twitter and Google+.

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This morning I received bad news from a merchant that my members (and I personally) love. The merchant was “streamlining” their program and decided to drop us. I checked our stats and saw that we had 34 sales in about 9 weeks. That’s not huge, but it is consistent. My first thought was that maybe they decided to drop incentive sites for ROI reasons. So I checked my “big dog” competitors and found that they were still there.

I know that our quality of sales is always good because we have been receiving that feedback from our merchants for 8 years. I also know that we are known for playing by all of the coupon rules and carefully monitoring for fraud. We try to promote merchants in unique ways to our loyal base and do not even get much coupon search traffic. We’ve received numerous awards over the years in all different categories from the consumer side and the industry side. But the bottom line is that we just aren’t big enough for a lot of merchants to want to work with us.

Why Do Merchants Drop Small Affiliates?

In talking to merchants, affiliate managers, and OPMs over the years, I’ve heard various reasons why merchants will not want to work with smaller affiliates. Some programs only want X number of affiliates and do not have the time or inclination to work with a bigger number. On the flip side, I hear affiliate managers saying that the more affiliates in the program the better…even if the affiliates are not sending a single sale.

Some merchants only want to work with big “brand” affiliates. So if you are an affiliate that does not have a big brand name, they do not want their brand associated with you. It’s more about image than anything else.

Sometimes it is only about the sales. The affiliate manager is looking purely at numbers. If you cannot sell at a certain level, it does not matter the quality of your sales or the reach of your audience. If you cannot stay at the level of sales that they want, they don’t have any use for you.

Benefits of Working with Smaller Affiliates

Despite all of those reasons, there are even better reasons that merchants should consider working with affiliates that don’t pull huge numbers.

First, smaller affiliates are usually cheaper to work with. They don’t usually charge any kind of placement fees and will often give preferred placement just for commission increases. What do you have to lose by offering them a higher commission for front page placement? If they don’t have enough traffic to sell anything, you are not paying them anything anyway.

Second, they are usually more agile. There isn’t much red tape in a company with only one employee. You don’t have to wait for the people in the graphics department and the newsletter department to approve things. Nothing needs signed by the VP of Advanced Placement to make a deal. You and the affiliate email back and forth a couple of times and you might get on their homepage by afternoon.

Third, the site might not have a huge reach, but it might reach people that you are not already reaching through the bigger sites. Not everyone reads the same blogs. You’d be surprised at the number of people who intentionally avoid big news sites and overly commercial sites. Affiliates of all sizes have a knack for creating audiences of loyal visitors.

Fourth, you have better control over your data when you allow a smaller affiliate into your program given their other alternatives. I work with a very big branded merchant that only pays 4% back to me, so I pay 3% back to my cash back members. I send them sales pretty much every single day. I saw that I could get 6-8% if I pulled their links through Viglink or Skimlinks instead. When I reached out to them and explained this to them, they told me to use those links then. I was floored! Here I was as an affiliate with proven sales who wanted to try to work directly with them where they would be able to track their ROI with me and they couldn’t be bothered to even discuss it. Affiliates have a lot of alternatives when it comes to sub-networks that make life REALLY easy for the affiliate. If the affiliate is willing to do the extra work to work with a merchant directly, the merchant should at least be willing to negotiate with the affiliate.

Fifth, affiliates talk. When you treat an affiliate right, word travels. Affiliates talk in private Facebook groups, public forum, and conferences. Affiliates of all sizes share stories and experiences. Working with one small affiliate may end up being what gets you great exposure to a lot of other quality affiliates. Conversely, an affiliate that has a bad experience when you drop them out of the blue is likely to share that information with other affiliates who are on the fence about working with you.

Lastly, you never know a site’s potential. Working with a big affiliate doesn’t guarantee that you will get sales, and working with a small affiliate doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get sales. Sites move up and down in rankings and visitors all the time based on Google’s whims, a lucky mention in the press, a viral blog post, etc. When you take the time to work with an affiliate and build up good will, you never know how that will boomerang to you in the future. I like to think that some of the affiliate managers who helped me out in the beginning have seen me pay them back over the years by promoting their up-and-coming programs, pushing sales that no one else would, and going the extra mile with creative promotions.

I know that not every program is a great fit for every site. Merchants have to make decisions based on ROI and the strength of their brand. And yet, I think too often they underestimate the value of a truly loyal partner as opposed to one that just has big numbers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts either as 1) a small-ish affiliate who deals with this same problem, 2) a merchant who has a different take, or even 3) a big affiliate who thinks I just eat too many sour grapes!

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The email heard round the industry!

Well…only if you were in this particular affiliate program. Or had any friends who were in it. Or pay attention to Facebook or Twitter. My phone, messages, and email have been lighting up since an email came out a little bit ago from the owner explaining why he is closing the program.

I know it’s only a matter of time before even more people see the email than already have, so I don’t feel badly about posting excerpts from it. People are upset about it for various reasons. Our industry is huge but small at the same time. A lot of people are friends and even family. When someone openly trashes a colleague, people get defensive. When someone pretty much tells us that our industry is worthless, we get angry. Both of those happened today.

So what’s the buzz? Here are some excerpts from the email and why I think it was handled terribly.

“Now that Valentine’s has passed it was time to look at the raw numbers and unfortunately more sales were brought in by work I did in Yahoo answers a few years ago than from affiliates.”

This feels like a slap in the face to affiliates. Like we aren’t trying enough. Could it be that it was the program that wasn’t successful and not the affiliates?

“In truth affiliate sales never really grew after the short lived, disastrous OPM. He said he kicked affiliates out of the program because he didn’t like them or had previous bad experiences with them, it was not based on what the affiliates were doing with this account. He was also using the send email to affiliate function in order to harvest email addresses, if you’ve received unwanted email from him I apologize. It took over a year to recover from the overall sales drop that happened as a result of his suggested changes. Perishable products just can’t be treated like aprons and t-shirts and it was my mistake to follow those suggestions.”

Blame an OPM that had the program YEARS ago for why the program is not running well now? So openly defame someone in our industry? An OPM who has won awards for his work? Of course it had to be his fault and not the way that the program has been run since then. That makes perfect sense. This type of public shaming of someone who formerly worked for a company is unprofessional at best and even borderline libelous because of the ramifications it could have on the OPM getting work in the future.

If the OPM company wants to weigh in here, they can. I’m not sure it’s worth arguing the specifics. I was in the program before, during, and after the OPM. There was never any difference to me except that I never found the tone of the emails for the OPM offensive like I did almost every single email from the merchant. The program was run best when the OPM was there but it has never been all that great in general due to the restrictions the merchant places on the affiliates.

“While ShareASales merchant rates and fees are reasonable, affiliate sales are nowhere near offsetting that.”

Again, it’s our fault as affiliates that we didn’t do a good enough job making the program convert. ShareASale fees are VERY reasonable. More so than any other network. It doesn’t take a lot of sales to offset the minimum monthly fee. At the pricepoint of this product, it would probably only take a couple.

“Far too often a customer looking for coupons would reach a page with advertisements for a competing company, even when the affiliate was listing our coupons.”

Why should affiliates have to promote only one company? We do what we do because we can choose who we want to promote without restrictions. If the merchant cannot compete, it is the merchant’s fault. This merchant repeatedly told us that he didn’t want any Adsense on any pages that had his name on them and did not want any other merchants promoted on those pages. Let us do our jobs!

This wasn’t even all of the email but you get the picture. I have to at least give him credit for not shutting down the program right before Valentine’s Day, although apparently no one was doing a good job promoting them anyway.

I’m not mentioning the merchant’s name because I don’t want the post to rank in any way for it. That’s not the point. My point is that our industry is tight. We stick up for each other. There are good ways and bad ways to announce program changes, close programs, move networks, etc. Throwing everyone else under the bus and failing to take responsibility for yourself is not acceptable.

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Most of the time when I write about cookies and affiliate marketing, I mean the digital cookies that result in our tracking. Not this time. This is a story about how actual cookies resulted in Facebook likes, Pinterest traffic, backlinks, and more… but not until almost a full year after a post was published. More importantly, it’s about the long-term benefits you can get out of good content.

If you want to read all about the technical aspects behind how our site was able to keep up with the traffic and the programming behind it all, check out Eric’s post: Be Ready for Viral Sharing. This is essential if you do not want your site to crash or to spend a fortune in hosting!

It Started with the Cookies

Todd Farmer, Eric Nagel, and I have a system for our Wine Club blog. We publish X number of “money posts” (highly monetized) and X number of “filler” posts. We call them “filler” for short, but they are really the content that makes up the site beyond just writing about our merchants. They can be evergreen posts related to our merchant (like How to Choose a Wine Club), Pinterest-worthy posts (like Red Wine Chocolate Cupcakes), or timely posts (like Fondue Day).

The Pairing Wine with Girl Scout Cookies post was meant to be both timely and Pinterest-worthy. Eric created an image that would clearly show both the Girl Scout cookies and the wine.

On February 7, 2013, we published it, Pinned it, posted it on Facebook and Twitter, etc. All our normal methods of sharing. In the first week, it had 319 pageviews. A couple of repins. A couple of likes. Nothing spectacular. In the time since then, it has gotten a little traffic here and there. But nothing like what happened starting January 11, 2014. [click to continue…]

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