In a recent article about conflicts of interest and financial advice, I wrote the following:
We [bloggers] make money recommending companies that have affiliate programs. For example, I earn a commission if you open an account at Scottrade through one of my links. I earn nothing if you open an account at Vanguard. Similarly, it’s more profitable for me to recommend Ally Bank than Bank of America.
Apparently Ally Bank didn’t like that.
Within just a few hours of publishing that post, I received the following email from my account manager with the affiliate network that manages Ally Bank’s affiliate program:
[Ally Bank is] not pleased with the insinuation that they “payoff” affiliates for recommendations on publishers sites. They want you to modify the language to make it clear that they do not pay affiliates to recommend Ally Bank, however Ally Bank pays affiliates to place their ads on their sites. Ally Bank is concerned that this language may come off wrong to customers.
I don’t have a problem with a company paying salespeople a commission to sell their product. I do have a problem with a company trying to keep that fact a secret.
Ads or Recommendations?
In my opinion, Ally’s position that they pay for advertisements rather than recommendations is nonsense.* The “ads” in question do not pay a flat rate per month. Nor do they pay per pageview or whenever a visitor clicks on the “ad.”
Instead, we’re talking about an arrangement in which Ally Bank pays a commission to a web publisher whenever a visitor clicks a link from the publisher’s site to Ally’s site and opens an account.
When you pay a commission, what do you get? You get people to sell your product. Paying a commission is the very essence of paying people to recommend your product.
Ally Bank pays for recommendations, and that’s exactly what Ally Bank gets. (If you don’t believe me, Google “Ally Bank review” and see if you can find a negative review anywhere in sight.)
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
I bring this up not because I have any ill will toward Ally. In fact, as a customer, I’m quite happy with their services, and I plan to keep my own money market account there.
Rather, I bring it up because I think it’s important to know that what you read online is often influenced by behind-the-scenes payments. Ads don’t stay nicely segregated in the sidebar, header, and footer of a site. Often, they’re the content itself.
*From a legal/regulatory perspective, Ally may be absolutely correct that their affiliate program counts as advertising rather than buying recommendations. I have no idea. But I doubt that’s their concern here. It seems unlikely that the legal nature of the program is affected by how I describe it in my blog posts.