Ecommerce Sites Pay You To Peddle Their Affiliate Spam, But This Pin Is Not For Sale

It takes a lifetime to build up social capital, but now it’s easier than ever to burn it all to earn some discounts via new ecommerce discovery site affiliate programs. But why should Fab, or The Fancy, or other Pinter-esque services care? They’re not the ones getting spammed. It’s Facebook and Twitter’s problem.

But that’s bullshit.

By incentivizing aggressive sharing with monetary discounts — not a spot on some leaderboard, or (gasp!) a sense of altruism, these ecommerce sites are growing and making money at the expense of financially-strapped users and the social networks they frequent.

The world economy is rough. Meanwhile, shopping discovery sites are booming. They inspire a materialistic culture where you’re only as good as your Italian leather sofa, your hand-knit pea coat, or your picture-perfect wedding dress. This puts people in tough spot, where they can’t afford the things they mistakenly think they need.

But what many of these users are rich in is social capital. Over the years they’ve gained a few Twitter followers or more likely, plenty of Facebook friends, all at the other end of that status update box. The more thoughtful ones realize the true worth of these connections: emotional support, crucial advice, a foot in the door to a new job. Others don’t, or don’t care for the right price.

So when sites tempt their users with money or credit to share their links, some will take the bait. If you don’t think this is a problem, maybe your friends are really smart and won’t succumb.

But right now somewhere, someone’s seeing product links from The Fancy on Facebook or Twitter, not because their friend necessarily thinks they’d love those products, but because The Fancy launched an affiliate link program today. Meanwhile, that site gains exposure, traffic, and maybe even more money per referral purchase than their users do.

Thankfully, Pinterest, the most popular of these sites, hasn’t gone to the user affiliate link dark side yet. Update: And it doesn’t even use affiliate links to make money for itself anymore.

Yes, sites like Amazon have long had affiliate programs, but they were pretty clearly designed for career or at least hobbyist marketers. The new line of ecommerce discovery referral programs are different. They don’t even require you to sign up separately. Just share away and discount credits pile up in your account. They’re bringing affiliate marketing to the mainstream.

This all hurts the prevailing social networks, where these links decrease the relevance of content feeds and make the services less addictive.

In response to a question about whether the program promotes spam, The Fancy’s CEO and founder told GigaOm, “We’re going to have to watch it. But, right now, I think you know what your audience is going to tolerate, it’s the same as anything else. If you tweet a bunch of junk people may unfollow you on Twitter.” That doesn’t address the harm these programs do to the user experience of the communication platforms they piggyback on.

But honestly, affiliate programs hurt the sites offering them too. Suddenly no one can tell the motive behind why you pinned, fancied, fabbed, or glimpsed something. This taints the joy of discovery and makes organic sharing seem smarmy. Hopefully ecommerce photo sharing sites think through these risks when considering whether to keep or launch affiliate programs.

And Pinterest? Don’t you dare.