Disclosure:  Names of the guilty have often been excluded to 1) not give them the attention they deserve, and 2) avoid any suggestion of libel or untoward behaviour.  The opinions expressed here are exactly that, my own opinion.  That’s why you’re here, right?

As the owner of a travel content network, I’ve explored a lot of ways to make money (offline and online).  A very popular way to do this is with travel affiliate marketing.  All that is, simply, is getting a commission to promote products and services.  Normally, you promote stuff you like, use and recommend, though you could promote anything really.

For most intents, this is a terrible way to make money.  Have I made money with it?  Yes.  Have I made a lot of money with it?  Yes.  Is it easy money?  No f-king way.  Should you do it?  Maybe. Maybe not.

This has been on my mind lately as I’ve been trying to find a white label provider for a couple of my websites.  So, let’s explore the dark underbelly of this beast, and what it might mean for you, both as a small business as well as an individual consumer.

Why Travel Affiliate Marketing is Awesome for Small Businesses

If you’re a small travel business, affiliate marketing is a pretty cool tool for you, for two reasons:

  • Cheap lead generation:  You’re only paying people (usually) when there’s a sale made, which makes this  lead gen tool pretty cheap.  Plus it gives you access to some great niche markets and puts a personable spin on your marketing.  The problem is you get what you pay for, so there’s no guarantee any particular affiliate will or will not do well.
  • Rewarding your followers:  Sometimes your biggest affiliates are the people who love you and would promote you anyway, so you’re rewarding the people who love you.  Doesn’t that feel nice?

I can’t say whether you should set up an affiliate program for your small business, because the pros and cons really depend on your niche.  Consider it, though.

Why Travel Affiliate Marketing Is Perilous for Individuals

I will agree with the majority here by saying that being an affiliate is awesome, because you get paid to promote something you like, use, and would recommend anyway.  That is true.

However, in reality, promoting affiliate products (when you’re not a business) is fraught with ethical dilemmas. Consider:

  • Should affiliates be required to disclose any time there is an affiliate link?  Most marketers don’t.
  • Should you be allowed promote affiliate links to your friends in more ‘social’ areas, like Twitter and Facebook?  How do I know if you’re asking me to check something out because you had an awesome time there Friday night, or because you’ll make some coin with my click?
  • Should affiliates be allowed to promote companies and products they’ve never used?

Affiliate marketing + social media are a slippery slope.  Please use with care.

Problem #1:  Getting Declined

The first problem, as an affiliate, you’ll have with travel affiliate marketing is just getting approved for a damn program. Most often you’ll get auto-rejected, or rejected regardless.  I’ve discussed this with Trisha Miller before, whose advise was to always get in touch directly with the company to discuss your plans.

This is great advice, and follow it if you ever get declined.  But even with direct follow up and proposals, you will get rejected most of the time.  And you won’t know why.  Here is an actual rejection for an affiliate request that I submitted with a marketing proposal.

Thank your for your interest in working with <lousy brand name>. At this time, we are unable to comply with your request to join the <lousy brand name> Publisher Program likely due to one of program’s approval criteria below.
1. Clearly states an online privacy policy on their site
2. Does not misrepresent themselves as a <lousy brand name> Web site by using the “look and feel” of or text from our site
3. Does not include “<lousy brand name>” or variations or misspellings thereof in their domain names
4. Does not engineer site in such a manner that pulls Internet traffic away from <lousy brand name>
5. Does not otherwise violate intellectual property rights of <lousy brand name> or its affiliates
6. Does not require a user name and password to access
7. US based sites only
8. Site primarily serves a US based audience
9. Must drive a reasonable amount of traffic by way of sales volume, clicks and page views to our site (in our sole judgment)
10. Must not link to or provide a portion of their commission or affiliate benefits to sites or organizations that violate any of the above criteria
11. Website must have a clear focus on e-commerce. Sites that do not sell products or feature merchants on their site will need to submit a business plan describing how they will drive revenue for <lousy brand name>.
12. Must have an active site that is not under construction
13. Must not excessively use pop-ups on site
14. Require downloads and/or unknowingly download software
15. Does not promote sexually explicit materials or that could be deemed obscene, pornographic or excessively violent
16. Does not promote violence or hate toward any persons or groups
17. Does not promote discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, nationality, disability or sexual orientation
18. Does not promote illegal activities 19. Violate any federal, state or local law (including privacy and spam laws)
20. Does not contain, in our sole judgment, material that is defamatory, fraudulent or harassing
21. Must not include offensive or inappropriate content (in our sole judgment)
22. Must not link to or provide a portion of their commission or affiliate benefits to sites or organizations that violate any of the above criteria

Translation:  We could care less about affiliates, so please go away.  We don’t know why we have an affiliate program anyway.

Problem #2:  Not Getting Paid

My first affiliate experience was back in 2007 when I switched this site here from flat HTML to a blog, with a sidebar that was just begging for advertisements.  I took one look at Adsense and went running to what I thought was a reputable publisher, one of (if not the) largest travel guide publishers.  I setup an ad.  A few of my friends bought their travel guides though me, earning me a fair pile of cash.

But I never got paid.  It was through one of the “big boys” affiliate networks, and the system had some sort of glitch and had inactivated my account with the publisher.  I contacted the network, who said they’d fixed it, but I’d need to contact the publisher about my payment.

I emailed the generic “affiliates@douchebag-bookpublisher.com” account, and got no reply.  Then I sent them a DM on Twitter, and got a friendly “email me and I’ll take care of it.”  Well, despite chasing numerous times, it never got taken care of.  I’ve now sworn off this company, and in the interest of professionalism, I won’t name them, but believe me, I’d love to.

Problem #3: OMFG Terrible Systems

Ok, you could say that I’m a bit pedantic when it comes to this, considering one of my services is web design consulting. But all of the “big boys” in affiliate networks have TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE websites.  They’re convoluted, confusion, and unintuitive.  Awful.  This makes your job as an affiliate difficult.

Plus, strangely enough, most of these larger systems and networks only offer payment via CHECK.  Yes, those paper things they had back in the 90s.  WTF.

Amazon’s publisher program is actually one of the only sites that is straightforward, flexible, and useful.  But, in the case of Amazon, we bump into number 4…

Problem #4: Low Commissions

The commissions are low on travel affiliate marketing – the only exception is digital products (eBooks, etc) where you can make 50% or higher.  Most products hover between 2% and 7%, so you really have to have a hefty amount of traffic.  And if you do, then it begs the question, couldn’t you make a better living selling direct sales advertising.

Compounding the problem, I saw a tweet recently from Karen Bryan saying several of her major affiliate networks are lowering their commissions, saying “Sign of things to come?” Good question.

Problem #5: Getting In Your Own Way

Affiliate stuff could also be getting in your own way of success.  I’m going to quote my co-author Kelly Erickson of our fabulous book, Why Your Website Sucks and How to Fix It.  If you’re thinking about being an affiliate, our book is all-but-guaranteed to pay for itself with tips like these:

[Promoting affiliate products ] could be worth squandering good will if the affiliate sales are so significant that your own (now lost) sales wouldn’t make up for it—

but now you’re in the reselling business, not the hotel business (or whatever your business is).

Don’t let this sneak up on you like so many business owners we talk with. If you decide to get in your own way, make sure you change objectives (change businesses) consciously.

Should you get in your own way? For most companies the answer is No.

My Policy

So, after all THAT, if you aren’t sobbing into your coffee cup, you might be wondering, what should you think now about travel affiliate marketing?  Don’t misunderstand: I am not against being an affiliate, nor am I going to discontinue being one (both promoting my products via affiliates, as well as being an affiliate myself).  But I’m now implementing my own policy for how I’ll use and promote affiliate products – I encourage you to do the same.

  • I will only become an affiliate when I have a dedicated name and contact.  Two big names who are good about this are World Nomads and Gap Adventures.  I’m sure there will be exceptions to this rule, but only if I can really justify it.
  • I will promote affiliate products with good will intent, and not like a douchebag.  Enough said, right?
  • I will try to meet people in person to build a relationship.  Like, at conferences and things.  I’ve met the founder of our media ad network partner, and I’ve also met several of my affiliate managers.  It’s important if you want to have a long-term relationship.
  • I will always promote my stuff first. For example, I’ve removed all affiliate programs but my own at Travel Online Partners because, as Kelly warned us, I was getting in my own way.  Get out of your own way.

    Whew.  Was that useful?  Do you have question?  Will you be a travel affiliate marketer?

    Discussion welcome in the comments…