The money you can make with affiliate marketing is amazing, but what if it comes at an ethical price? That’s what I want to help you figure out in this article.
Sure, being able to make great money with affiliate marketing is itself great and that’s often where most people stop thinking about it on a deeper level, but:
- What if that money you earned makes the people you earned it from miserable?
- What if the product you promote and say is so amazing ends up actually financially and physically harming your customers?
- What if whatever it is you’re promoting makes people go into bankruptcy or go broke?
These are legitimate, ethical questions and I actually want to take a moment to commend you on reading this article in the first place because the very fact that you are doing this, shows that you have ethics, character and a conscious.
The truth is, you can 100% create a full time income with affiliate marketing, without sacrificing ethics and at the same time, have it be rewarding for both yourself and the people you are making the money from.
In fact, I’m going to share some shocking true stories about how this focus actually helps you earn MORE money, whereas the other, unethical one actually can really circle back around and lead to your business’s destruction.
The point is. we want the ideal, ethical affiliate marketing business.
And that is what I’ll be showing you how to do in this article.
Because I’ve had so much personal experience with affiliate marketing, and have done it many different ways (I admit to making ethical mistakes, it was part of my learning curve), as well as seeing countless people also do it many ways, I have noticed that it’s often pretty simple to break down how they (and myself) are doing it into green, yellow and red categories, where:
- Green is the most ethical approach and where you ideally want to be.
- Yellow is more of an acceptable but sometimes questionable approach and…
- Red is unethical.
I’ll be giving a lot of examples of each of these categories so you can use them as you own personal “ethical compass” in affiliate marketing.
Now I just want to say that my compass and yours may be very different. For example, what I consider to be a green way to do affiliate marketing may feel like a yellow category in your experience or even red and vice versa.
This is why I also ask that you look at my approach to ethics and affiliate marketing openly but also skeptically and give me your take on it in the comments below. Let’s debate these things respectfully if we agree or disagree.
Let’s get to these categories and examples.
Let’s start with the green approach (the most ethical to doing affiliate marketing with).
In my opinion, the very best and most ethical way to do affiliate marketing is to through the experience, passion, profitability and help approach.
In other words whatever I promote as an affiliate:
- I know a lot about the product, the service (I used it) and the greater topic that it’s related to (the experience part is there).
- I sincerely have interest and passion for the product itself. I’ve lived it basically (the passion part is there).
- I know the niche market I’m involved in is profitable because I’ve done the research.
- And I aim to actually promote this product in a way that helps people who are also interested in it (the help part is there).
Now let me give you examples of where all 3 of these things are present:
Here are 3 examples of when affiliate marketing is ethical:
Bobby loves skateboarding, has many years experience with them and genuinely loves to teach and help people get into this hobby.
In my experience, if Bobby decided to start an affiliate marketing business promoting skateboards, he would do VERY well because he has all 4 of the qualifications I listed:
Experience, passion, profitability and help.
Bobby could easily start a YouTube channel or even a blog where he talks about these experiences in great detail.
I am certain his visitors who are also interested in skateboarding (millions, which is why I say it’s profitable) would love his content so much that they would be very inclined to buy the things he suggests.
Susan loves fishes and has an aquarium with plenty of them. She knows about how to keep the water clean, the fish healthy and so on.
Someone like Susan would also likely do VERY well if she decided to start an affiliate marketing business selling fish tanks, supplies for fish tanks and those sorts of things, through a blog where she shares those experiences and so on. This is also a popular and profitable topic with many items she can promote, including the tanks themselves which can cost $1,000’s of dollars.
Now before I give the last example, which is of myself, I want to say that Susan and Bobby’s examples illustrate how love and experience for popular topics (skateboarding and fish/tanks) can be materialized into good money made ethically. In short, Bobby and Susan have found their unique niches to do affiliate marketing with and that’s ideally where you want to be as well.
Note: If you’d like to start using blogging to do affiliate marketing, begin here.
This involves me. I started HelpingHandAffiliate.com because I love affiliate marketing and have SO much experience with it. I help people like Susan and Bobby take their hobbies and passions and make them into very profitable affiliate businesses.
The very topic of affiliate marketing and helping people monetize their passions is extremely popular (and profitable) and is the central goal of my website and I do that by promoting a program like Wealthy Affiliate to them, and anyone who has similar goals (and offering my affiliate coaching if you do).
It’s membership costs are honestly cheap compared to others I’ve seen and reviewed, and the benefits such as the tools, education, support and other things make this place a great deal for anyone who is serious about starting an affiliate business.
This is how I make my money in affiliate marketing and the reward I get other than the commissions for successfully referring people into Wealthy Affiliate is happy people who have a chance at actually creating a business they love. That is an even bigger reward in my opinion.
Chris is promoting a fitness program he personally went through and achieved amazing results with.
Because Chris himself has experience with the program he went through and is his own success story, it makes selling the fitness program way easier to others.
In fact, I find affiliate sales are way easier to make when you personally share your story with the product you are promoting. In this particular case, the fitness program is very ethical and Chris gets respect from his viewers and readers because he proved that the program works, by using himself with it.
Chris’s affiliate promotion in this case also displays experience (the best kind in this case), passion because he is a fan of the program, and fitness programs in general can be promoted within popular fitness niches. Chris also wishes to help others who also want to get into shape.
What to take from these 4 examples about ethical affiliate marketing:
In these following 4 examples, because experience, passion, profitability and the need to help people are aligned, the person who has these 4 qualities is very likely to succeed with affiliate marketing.
And believe me there are many niche market examples you can find that connect with these 4 things and these are clear examples of how to create a legitimate affiliate marketing business.
There’s 20 examples of how people can build profitable, and ethical affiliate businesses.
The more experience I gain in this business, the more I have been pushed into believing this is the BEST way to do it. In short:
This is the most authentic way to build an online business in my opinion.
The yellow category. A 50/50 area of ethics and affiliate marketing:
And now going into the yellow part of ethics in this business, you’re going to see how when all 4 things are NOT aligned, it could ruin the flow of the business (but still result in money being made nonetheless, but it may be at the price of ethics at times).
MOST people who get into affiliate marketing are likely to fall into the yellow category. This was also the case for me when I began.
What this means is that most beginners who hear about the possibilities of affiliate marketing and look to get started in it, usually do the following things:
- They seek to find the easiest and fastest way to make sales via affiliate marketing.
- They seek to promote ANYTHING that can pay them money.
- They’ll also promote things they don’t personally buy or know much about.
The big issues with this are that:
First: They usually don’t pick anything they are experienced or passionate about, but rather, they pick things they think will make them easy and quick money.
Second: The very thought that they are building a business or selling to real people isn’t important to them.
Third: Because the 4 elements in this case are not aligned (experience and passion are MISSING usually), the success of the person who tries to make money this way are hindered. All they care about is how to make the money as quickly as possible (it basically cheapens the business model).
Fourth: And because of this, people who are in this category are more likely to promote things that don’t exactly help their niche audience. All they care about is selling, and not really helping.
Unfortunately with many products I review that “teach” affiliate marketing, this is the message they send in their trainings.
They don’t talk about building real businesses, only hustling to make the commissions, but making it seem like this is the “best way”.
Here are 4 examples of when affiliate marketing may or may not be ethical:
Brian (a hypothetical, but based on real people example) has a blog and on this blog he decides to promote affiliate products in the fitness niche. Because Brian is a member of Amazon Associates, he can easily promote any fitness product there.
Brian has little experience with fitness and he isn’t very interested in it, but because fitness is a big topic, he thinks that if he promotes stuff on his blog, that he’ll make the sales, due to the niche’s popularity.
Brian also makes it seem like he’s experienced, by writing a fake about me story, and writing reviews for fitness products as though he’s an expert at it.
You can already see the lack of ethics going on here, even if what Brian promotes is legitimate, but this happens VERY often.
Anyway, in my experience, running an affiliate business the way that Brian is attempting to CAN work, but the lack of his personal passion and experience, not to mention not really thinking about HELPING his niche audience (those wanting to get fit) are going to cause a problem.
Remember, there are REAL people who will visit your site, your videos and read your content. They can SENSE if you are being authentic or not and that’s a reflection of how Brian writes his content. People who try to sell more than actually deliver content, helpful content will always sell LESS.
And if you don’t have your own personal proof, can’t really show that you know your stuff, this will affect their trust, and that lack of trust will affect Brian’s sales.
A long time ago, I ran a very small blog where I attempted to sell a fitness program to women. But the truth is that while I made sales and targeted a good niche topic, I didn’t really make a lot of money, and this is because of the following reasons:
- I didn’t really know enough about the program I was promoting (No real passion or experience was present).
- I am not a woman, so I can’t really relate to the fitness topic.
- I didn’t really set up the site with authenticity. I never shared my personal photo or experiences with the niche (I didn’t have it).
Now there’s nothing wrong with being a man and promoting products for women and just disclosing these honest things would have made the site a lot more profitable. But I was shy and all I wanted to do was make money promoting an honestly good program.
Naturally, this didn’t end well, and while sales were made, I suspect the missing pieces I had in this business could have made the profits 100x better and in the end, this site and project tanked.
So while I was 50/50 on the ethics part and truly selling something that was good for women, I had to kind of “fake” my promotion in order to try and sell it, and that eventually ended badly for me, because I lost a lot of time trying to make this work.
And this is a mistake MANY affiliates make. In this list of 12 affiliate mistakes, it’s one of the most common.
Josh has a website in which he promotes programs that teach affiliate marketing. Josh is a GREAT seller and knows how to write a sales copy that has a high conversion rate (sales rate), but the problem is that Brian recommends pretty much everything he reviews.
The ethical issue with being extremely positive about everything you review is that it basically shows your lack of authenticity. Josh’s approach, although successful because he can write sales copies well lacks authenticity because it basically comes down to:
Buy this, buy that, it all works, and it’s easy.
And naturally people who read his reviews, who know nothing about affiliate marketing but want to get into it and see Josh’s success in this business, assume his word is honest and so many of them follow it.
But there is also a category of audiences who read Josh’s content and think “well this guy is just a sleazy salesman”. And they would be right in doing so.
In my opinion, Josh is lacking authenticity because in any industry, there will never be a 100% recommendation rate if authenticity is involved. Something has to be better than something else, because quality comes in short supply and people who seek reviews, not just for this topic (affiliate marketing) but ANY need to know what the better or best product is out there.
Being able to provide THAT specific information helps you succeed at this business. Not being able to provide that information and just saying that everything is good produces some results, but it never gets to it’s full potential.
In this example, we’re going to talk about reviewing products that you haven’t purchased or even tried. This particular example can be ethical or unethical depending on the context and I’ll use myself and my personal experiences to explain this.
On one of my biggest profit generating websites, I have reviewed over 300 products.
Over 90% of these products that I have reviewed, I have never purchased them and I also don’t recommend them, but I do review them as though I understand them (and I really do).
Now I have been called out by people for this, saying that I will purposely review products I don’t own to bad mouth them in order to make sales for something I am promoting as an affiliate.
And these are fair criticisms, and in order to keep these things ethical, let me explain a few important points:
In my opinion, this is an ethical practice if:
- You understand the products you are promoting very well, so you can distinguish the good and bad without having to buy it.
- You disclose that you haven’t purchased the product you are reviewing.
- You can paraphrase other people’s reviews of a product you are reviewing as evidence (but disclose it’s not your review).
- It is ideal to actually buy the product you are promoting as an affiliate because it can increase sales numbers.
- You provide evidence of why a product you are reviewing is good or bad.
- In short, this is how I ethically promote affiliate products when I don’t own them.
And in my opinion, it is unethical if:
- You literally lie about a product you review and slander it.
- You promote a product and aren’t genuine about not owning it or knowing anything about (You are just trying to sell stuff).
The red category. Where in my opinion, things get truly unethical:
There are specific things I cannot stand as an affiliate marketer that I believe are truly unethical, and here is a list of them:
- Promoting or recommending MLM programs.
- Promoting or recommending high ticket SCHEMES (not products, and I’ll explain shortly what I mean).
- Secretly lying about your experiences or expertise to convince people you are promoting to you are legit.
- And copying other people’s sales copies/sites/ideas. I made this mistake ONCE in my life and regret it.
These 4 things usually encompass how affiliate marketing can be used unethically and sadly, MANY people I know who are VERY successful at this business, very often reach that success through doing one or more of these 4 things.
Here are clear examples of when affiliate marketing is nothing ethical:
MLM programs. I know how they work and while MLM is similar to affiliate marketing, I truly believe that it is a mistake to get involved with one or more of them if you are planning on doing affiliate marketing. See examples of an MLM program like 1090 Method here.
Even the most legitimate MLM programs typically have 2 parts to them:
- They sell their own brand of products (typically health related).
- And they offer a recruitment scheme. Oops, I meant to say “opportunity” and in some cases, those recruitment models do offer valid opportunities.
When you look at the products, they are very expensive, and while they may actually be good, they are also marketed in a very hyped way to make it seem as though they are truly spectacular.
I personally do not believe that even the best products an MLM produces are that much better than what stores sell.
As an affiliate marketer who tries to stick to the green category of promoting things, if I am seeking to promote, for example a skin cream for that’s supposed to make you look younger, I’d much rather promote one on Amazon that is $30, gets a 5 star rating and has 1,000’s of positive reviews, than the MLM alternative which costs $300 for the same kind of thing.
And don’t even get me started on the insincere ways people market MLM products, trying to make it seem like they are the you know what.
I have found that the more “passionate” a person is about promoting an MLM product, the more likely it is that they are just doing it for the money and also because they spent a lot of money on the actual product to resell it, so they are desperate to make the profit.
And then we have the recruitment SCHEME. Yes I said scheme and not opportunity.
Recruitment in an MLM is extremely complicated and while you can make money from it, the complexity of the compensation plans that exist in an MLM make it too hard in my experience to actually get there. I think compensation plans and recruitment models in MLM are usually pyramid schemes and as an affiliate marketer, it is very unethical in my opinion to promote such a thing.
High ticket schemes. This is something I believe is just as unethical as MLM programs and something I equally dislike as them.
High ticket schemes are typically make money “opportunities” you see where things such as making money quickly or earning “$10,000 in 1 month” are pitched.
In short, they are typically get rich quick promises that have the “it’s easy” vibe to them. These are not the same as high ticket items which are ethical to promote as an affiliate.
The core issue with high ticket schemes is that these claims are what get people through the door, but once they step in, a MASSIVE hype funnel ensues that keeps getting them to pay more and more on very expensive upsells to become more and more eligible to re promote the opportunity.
High ticket schemes are also usually broken up into different packages where the first one is very cheap, but upon buying it, you find out that the better information lies in a more expensive package, and this continues up and up until the person ends up spending $10,000+, the same amount they were said to make if they joined.
High ticket schemes typically start at under $100 to join them, without mentioning the upper upsells, but after you join, one up-sell after another hits, typically for $1,000’s, then $10,000’s if you go further, with the promise that if you buy it, that you’ll be able to get those “juicy commissions”.
This is a SCHEME and scam and it’s also something affiliate marketers are promoting in DROVES nowadays and unfortunately in my opinion.
And again, high ticket schemes also REQUIRE that the person who wishes to promote their products first BUYS it, ensuring a GREAT compensation for the program itself, but that also puts the person who bought it into a tough position, because now they need to start getting to work and re promoting it to make the money back.
In CLASSIC, ethical affiliate marketing, you will not need to buy such expensive things to make money, but with high ticket schemes you WILL be required to.
I also strongly believe that when marketing make money opportunities, that it’s better to market lower cost, but higher value programs. This is something I’ve been doing on this and another site where I review high ticket schemes, call them out on it, and tell people to get into Wealthy Affiliate instead, because the price is significantly lower (and that’s an understatement) and the value is FAR higher.
In my understanding of ethics, an affiliate should put the consumer first, not the money they can make from them.
High ticket schemes are also VERY notorious for:
Destroying people’s lives, savings and getting them into bankruptcy.
So while an affiliate who successfully promotes one of these scams can make good money, the expense and toll it usually takes on their consumer is in my opinion NOT justified.
So I say, stay away from high ticket schemes, if you’re planning on doing ethical affiliate marketing and ask me about them below so I can help you figure out if what you’re promoting is a scheme or not.
And if that’s not enough to convince you to stay away from them.
Let me tell you a quick story about MOBE:
This was one of the biggest high ticket schemes that the FTC took down last year.
Not only did the OWNER of the program lose basically everything, but his top affiliates, who often unethically promoted this “opportunity” were and are now being investigated, with odds that the money they made promoting this scam will now be taken away too.
So in this example, it didn’t pay for them to promote this.
Do you remember Chris, the hypothetical person I used above when showing ethical examples and how he promoted a fitness program successfully by going through it himself?
While that example was indeed ethical, there are situations where someone who gets results with a product may unethically promote it, because the product itself is unethical and this is what I want to explain in the following example…
Let’s take a successful affiliate marketer who promotes a high ticket scheme. Yes they get results with this program and show off their income reports and one can make the argument that they “live” their results and it shows legitimacy.
BUT because the core problem of the program is that it is a scheme, the promotion can become unethical and with high ticket schemes, this is very often prevalent.
There are big time affiliates who promote schemes successfully and then use that success as a way to get people into the scheme too (and make sales). The problem is, because the program is a scheme, most of the people getting into it will lose a lot of money, so the success of the original affiliate comes at the cost of the customer, where they get nothing more than a get rich quick scheme that takes their money.
So beware of promoting programs as an affiliate in that you should be able to distinguish if they actually serve your customers with real benefits or if they aim to scam them.
The final example is more of an encapsulation of little tricks and deceitful things affiliates do such as:
- Copying other successful affiliate’s work, sales funnels and basically piggybacking off their success.
- Faking yourself to be someone you are not to make a sale.
- Not being honest about what it is you are promoting, especially if there are big upsells after the sale is made (high ticket schemes).
- Using other people’s results and evidence and making it look it is your own, when it’s obviously not.
Now there’s an important note about the first part (copying) and that is there’s nothing wrong with using people ideas to formulate your own unique ones, but flat out copying them is bad and as I said before, this is a mistake I made a long time ago when I was a bit new to this business. I lost a friend in the process and vowed never to do this again.
Not only do you lose friendships like I did, but even knowing that someone is “that type of person” is enough to break trusts, potentially rewarding business relationships and start to have rumors be spread about who you are.
Trust me, it is NOT worth it. These unethical acts can and do come back full circle eventually.
When it comes to ethics, keep this 1 word in mind from now on:
I said it earlier, but authenticity is what truly determines an affiliate’s success in business.
Yes experience, passion, profitability and wanting to help are ALL important too, but ALL of this backed up by an authentic person who wants to help their niche audience while honestly disclosing who they are is what truly makes that person’s business a success.
It’s something I am more and more forcing myself to adhere to because I’ve seen more than one case study of people who have followed this approach and seen truly amazing results with affiliate marketing.
My website is designed to truly provide that authenticity, and after making the mistakes that I have in this business, and sharing how I believe you can truly do this ethically, I hope you agree with me.
But I did say before that I have NO problem with anyone debating me on ethics when it comes to affiliate marketing. By all means, if you have your own color schematic of how you judge these things and examples of that, please let me know.
I’m always open to evolving my point of view on this subject 🙂
Thanks for reading!
4 thoughts on “Is Affiliate Marketing Ethical? How to Stay on The Good Side”
Thank you Vitaliy,
Great article, and my re-entry point into the business of affiliate marketing. I have used affiliate marketing before ethically, but all those years ago lacked good online sales funnels.
To re-enter the market I want to make sure what I am offering is of exceptional value to the customer, benefits them in tangible ways, and I have sufficient experience to make the connection.
Ideally a good vendor would filter or qualify people selling their product by their experience ideally, lest someone misrepresent their product or service.
Thank you for taking the time to put this quality information out for free in the public space. If we end up working together it would be a privilege to work with someone who appears to have integrity.
Hi Brook thank you very much. You can always find me inside the Wealthy Affiliate program if you wish to connect with me directly. That program teaches that ethical approach I talked about in this article so everything you are aiming to achieve ethically in the affiliate marketing world can be realized through this program.
Great article Vitaliy. I really liked the examples you used to illustrate the subtle differences in approach that make the difference between ethical and unethical practices.
I’m an affiliate marketer too, though relatively new to it. Something that’s a source of frustration for me is the perception from friends and family that there’s automatically something shady about recommending products that you don’t necessarily own or use yourself.
As an example, I ask them if they expect their doctor to undergo every medical procedure or use every medication that they prescribe.
You explained it so thoroughly that I’m going to show this to a few people to help them understand affiliate marketing better. And I’ll be back to check out the rest of your site, as I think I can learn a lot here – Thanks.
Thanks Jordan! I do want to comment on what you said about friends and family not trusting you when you explain this business to them and how to get them to do it.
The truth is, whether it be affiliate marketing, or anything related to selling, there will ALWAYS be skepticism because people know and feel that as long as someone is trying to sell them something, that will always be the emotional trigger.
This is most common in MLM and network marketing, because friends and family are the first people MLM and network marketers try to sell to in most cases, and it’s one of the reasons why they fail and it’s also why I don’t get into that type of branch of affiliate marketing.
When you approach anyone and start telling them about this business, as long as they think you are trying to sell them something, even if it is an idea, it won’t work.
The person you are speaking to has to be open to the idea or interested in it before you start explaining it and when you do.
Whenever people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them, I sell stuff online without getting into details, because I’m honestly tired of getting into discussions about it, but ironically, this is what gets them to ask me followup questions on the topic.
The point is, I have learned that selling something, even if it is just an idea or even marketing yourself, the less you do it, and the most nonchalant you are, the more people will want to know about it.
So with regards to your friends and family, I suggest not talking about it and quietly working on your affiliate business behind the scenes. Believe me, when the income starts coming in, you will have people start asking you about how you did it and it may get to a point where this will become annoying so enjoy the silence of not having people bombard you with inquiries for now 🙂