Social media has opened up quite a few cans of worms. Lots of people have been forced to reevaluate how they handle certain things in light of social media’s increasing prominence with consumers.

Add another can of worms to the debate: the potentially treacherous combination of social media and affiliate marketing.

A couple of examples to demonstrate what I’m talking about here:

  • There was a backlash when it was discovered that a number of Twitter users participating in a Twitter ad network called Magpie were paid to tweet links with affiliate codes. In some cases, the tweets were made to look like personal recommendations and in most cases, there were no clear indication that the tweets were paid and contained affiliate links.
  • In a recent post, TechCrunch writer Sarah Lacy included a link to her book on Amazon.com and applied her Amazon.com affiliate code to it. Quite a few commenters felt that her inclusion of a personal affiliate link in a post on a professional site that employs her was wrong.

Over the weekend, Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang provided his thoughts on the subject of Twitter and affiliate links. He recommends that Twitter users:

  • Make sure the product or service they’re linking to “lines up editorially with your personal brand“.
  • Disclose affiliate links.
  • Be sincere.
  • Be transparent about how you’re using Twitter.

These are all good, common sense best practices.

But since social media is broader than Twitter, I think it’s worth addressing this subject in the context of social media at large. This encompasses blogs, social networks and user-generated content services.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: when affiliate links are used, disclosure is always a must. If you’re going to promote something that you could potentially derive revenue from, the people who you’re promoting it to deserve to know that.

But disclosure isn’t a free pass to apply affiliate links to everything you promote. One of the most powerful things about social media that has made it so popular is its largely uncommercial nature. When you recommend a book to a friend over the phone, chances are you aren’t sitting on a copy that you’re trying to sell to your friend for 10% than it cost you. Why should that change online?

Most of the interactions that take place through social media are similar in nature to the social interactions we have offline: just pure information sharing and personal communication with no commercial overtones. In most cases, I feel that trying to make a few bucks from basic social interactions online diminishes the integrity and value of those interactions.

Of course, not all social media online is of a non-commercial nature and this is where the subject gets a little more tricky to address.

If you write a popular blog that frequently reviews books, for instance, is there a legitimate reason to use affiliate links? In my opinion, there absolutely is. The content you produce is relevant to the products being linked to and there’s little to complain about (provided that you’ve disclosed). After all, you’ve taken the time to provide value to a reader in the form of a book review; if somebody purchases the book after reading your review, it’s not unreasonable to think that you deserve a little compensation.

In the case of TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy, however, her post was not related to her book and thus the Amazon.com affiliate link was irrelevant to the actual content provided to TechCrunch readers. Additionally, she placed the affiliate code in a link on a website that she is paid to write for (not one that she owned). To put this in perspective, imagine the backlash that would occur if a prominent New York Times journalist slipped a plug for a product he created into an article for the sole purpose of promoting it to readers.

In the end, it comes down to good taste and a healthy dose of discretion. There’s definitely room for profit in social media (everyone needs to make money) but when it comes to using affiliate links, I believe they should only be used when:

  • They are disclosed.
  • They are directly relevant to the content provided or interaction taking place.
  • They do not create a conflict with your duties if you are acting in a professional capacity and/or are using your employer’s ‘podium‘.
  • They cannot reasonably be placed outside of the core content or editorial.
  • You’ve provided something of value (eg. an honest, thoughtful review) that could contribute in some way to a purchasing decision.

Photo credit: g-hat via Flickr.