Foursquare’s founder Dennis Crowley has an idea: turn influential social media users into affiliate marketers.

At a panel discussion the other day, he suggested that if you mention a
brand, or one of its products and services, and that mention generates
revenue for the brand, “you should get some kind of referrer’s fee.” He
predicted that within a year, “there will be some way for [users] to get
” through social media platforms.

There’s only one problem: there are already ways for individuals to shill for brands and get paid for it, and technically, many risk running afoul of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) social media guidelines, which require disclosure. That the CEO of one of the hottest social media startups was unaware of the FTC’s ‘rules‘ speaks volumes about the FTC’s ability to effectively ‘regulate‘ paid shilling, but that aside, there’s an even bigger problem with Crowley’s vision: the kind of kickbacks Crowley thinks are going to be a boon for brands aren’t going to be. Here are five reasons why.

Word of mouth is powerful because it’s genuine

Word of mouth’s effectiveness is based on the fact that when somebody you know and trust recommends something to you, you’re more likely to believe that it’s genuine. If everybody is getting ‘kickbacks‘ to promote products and services, your friends will become about as trustworthy as the used car dealer on the shady side of town.

Word of mouth is attractive because it’s ‘free’

Why is word of mouth so attractive to brands? It’s not just that word of mouth recommendations are powerful. It’s that word of mouth is as free as marketing can be. And that’s how it should be. When brands aspire to deliver quality products and services, they shouldn’t be surprised that their customers sing their praises to friends and family. Conversely, when brands disappoint, they shouldn’t expect to fix their problems by throwing money on marketing.

It sets the wrong expectations

On paper, paying customers to ‘like‘ you seems like a good way to game the system. But long term, there can be little doubt that the consumers will regret creating the consumer expectation that saying something nice about a product or service should always result in a kickback. After all, there will inevitably be consequences when brands decide not to pay.

It’s hard to pay everybody, but it’s hard not to

Who should brands compensate? If they only pay kickbacks to the ‘influencer‘ class, they make stoke resentment amongst consumers who aren’t in that class. Even more complicated: defining who’s an influencer. Once faced with the realization that influence isn’t what they thought it was, brands will have to answer the question: do we just spend money anywhere and everywhere and see what sticks?

It’s an accounting/auditing nightmare

The last thing most brands need is to be tracking affiliate revenue for a large number of individuals who may only mention their products or services once or twice. There’s plenty of room for disputes and fraud, and while Crowley may not care about the FTC, he and those receiving kickbacks should care about the IRS. Annual payments to individuals in the U.S. exceeding certain thresholds will need to be reported, and kickbacks will produce taxable income for the consumers being paid, creating a whole host of issues for many of them that may make the entire exercise a net loss.


In short, the kickbacks Crowley seems to think are the future of social media are a bad idea, and will probably never work at scale. There are fundamental and logistical flaws with the whole model. In some cases, brands that really like the kickback model would probably do far better building a ‘kickback‘ into their products and services in the form of — wait for it — lower prices.

That kickbacks aren’t going to be the secret sauce of an effective social media strategy, of course, doesn’t mean that social platforms are worthless to brands. Quite the contrary. But for brands to take advantage of these platforms, they can’t treat their target customers — consumers — as media buys.