Calacanis Kerfuffle

We asked to be poked in the eye. We got poked in the eye. Some of us cried out in anger. Some of us said thank you.

I did not attend the Jason Calacanis keynote, though I wanted to. After the show, I didn’t intend to comment on it but the buzz and reaction prompted me to listen to it. His words compelled me to post.

I found his comments disrespectful, hypocritical and terribly uninformed. He used over-the-top phrases like “a normal person feels ashamed,” “criminal mind set,” “pathetic,” and “”you’re at the bottom of the food chain” to describe affiliate marketing.

His thesis was that affiliates are ruining the internet by creating low-quality content “pollution” and offered the precedent of Usenet, which was overtaken by spam and abandoned by its users. He went on to describe better possibilities without realizing that affiliate marketing already represents those possibilities.

For example, he admonished his audience to chase the American dream, apparently oblivious to the multitudes of affiliate publishers who are doing just that.

He talked about a “middle market not addressed in our society” – (people who want to work part time on the internet – in his case for Mahalo), apparently without noticing that many affiliate marketers manage to work part time (or intensely for certain periods) and travel.

He made fun of affiliates for bragging about $100,000 checks by belittling that amount of money, going so far as to say “they wouldn’t let you in the Valley with that.” What is this supposed to mean? The affiliate’s point was that he achieved a personal milestone – he’s not saying he’s going to start a venture capital company. It always rankles me when someone talks down other people by talking down dollar amounts they value.

His negativity tells me he doesn’t know any real affiliates, although is a publisher of Google AdSense and would, I think, easily fit into certain definitions of “thin affiliate”. He goes off on an extended, half-cocked tirade about something he doesn’t really understand. Interestingly, he reveals that he did the same thing with his “SEO is bullshit” quote. A typical complaint is that a polluter manipulates the system by throwing a bunch of keywords together to make noise above everyone else, but ultimately the content is either redundant or useless. That description might fit his keynote.

The publicity advantages to Jason aside, I’d like to focus on the larger issue that’s been framed here: affiliate marketing does cause things people don’t like, such as search engine spam. No one disputes that. In fact, there has always been a healthy level of discussion about it.

This logic presupposes that commissions and bounties are the profit motive for people with a “criminal” mindset. There is a vague, further implication that if affiliate marketing didn’t exist, these problems wouldn’t exist either. This line of thinking is false.

For example, in Jason’s Tragedy of the Usenet Commons, the first cow on the commons was a lawyer – what we might call a merchant – not an affiliate. The simple fact of the matter is that eyeballs are money. If neither CPA nor CPC nor, for that matter, CPM existed, you’d still have the same people doing the same things. There are cheaters and people you simply don’t like in all forms of commerce – it doesn’t mean the model is bad. Ultimately, affiliate marketing is simply a way to monetize. It’s actually a wonderful arrangement that allows an advertiser to engage in a number of relationships on a performance basis that would otherwise never be practicable.

I believe that part of the critical attitude toward affiliate marketing comes from a solipsistic sense of entitlement to traffic. There’s an old joke among SEOs that SPAM is an acronym for “Search Placement Above Mine.” With this in mind we can point out that no one “deserves” traffic. We tend to feel like “my site is the site the visitor is seeking” when it’s usually just “my site is the site the visitor is surfing”.

I think a lot of people can look at a page and agree that’s a bad page but the system is geared not to reward those habits. Site owners of all stripes aim to produce content formatted and marketed in a way to appeal to humans and search engines alike. This requires a lot of know how, effort, and resources. Affiliates, like all other content publishers, invest time and money to get to the top of the rankings. This, too, is another point where Jason was wrong – most affiliates build their sites for the long term.

One thought we should consider is why Jason’s speech resonated so strongly and got so much attention. I think in part he spoke to affiliate marketing’s insecurities. Some people feel badly that other people in the space are bad apples. But those bad apples would be bad whether or not affiliate marketing existed.

I think affiliate marketing is great and I really like the people in the space. What I think we are missing is not an agency to police sites (can anyone say where its funding or authority would come from?) but a public relations agency to combat misperceptions and outright untruths that are out there. Affiliate marketing should not suffer for mistaken ideas.

About Brook Schaaf

You can find Brook on Twitter @brookschaaf.

5 Responses to Calacanis Kerfuffle

  1. Wayne Porter says:

    That pseudo-agency has been "spyware and scumware" hunters. I don't mean complainers- I mean the people that most here have no idea "marketers" exist beyond to pollute…I have went as far as to try to educate *them*, but as far as they are concerned- "Wayne there isn't enough good to save!"

    I don't feel that way- I see many good things. However, I don't feel it can be self policed. Like Sam's latest podcast at (yes btw any ads I had there- I paid for and revenews will bite the hands that feeds sometimes- and that is good- that is cheap consulting.)

    WHY aren't networks stepping up and either a) sponsoring b) joining the conversation or c) both? (Don't look for RN to engage you for sponsorships- were stressed thing as it is- reach out.)

    Anyway, Brook mentions Usenet tragedy (which btw is still useful) that old Tragedy of the Commons….

    "The Tragedy of the Commons is a type of social trap, often economic, that involves a conflict over finite resources between individual interests and the common good. The term derives originally from a comparison noticed by William Forster Lloyd with medieval village land holding in his 1833 book on population.[1] It was then popularized and extended by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 Science essay "The Tragedy of the Commons."[2] However, the theory itself is as old as Thucydides[3] and Aristotle.[4]"

    Heck here it is…

    Sam I challenge you (me) (others) to have a weekly or twice weekly post or stream (twitter account) covering some of the things we need to know or that will enrich us. A concept, A word…educate…

    Remember, not all of us stayed in school… 😉

    Yes I was listening. I also think smaller publishers, those without adbudgets (and I don't like the hearts) might be willing to ante up for that…I have some thoughts Sam. 🙂



    PS A caveat for readers- Revenews, as the old guy who has been around since the puke green BG and before, is going way beyond "affiliate marketing". Get behind it.

  2. Wayne Porter says:

    As for an agency to "evangelize" or "combat faulty perceptions". AU- Affiliate Union….was there too- eons ago Brook. We did get a great working document on contracts, but once (and I hated the name "union") the name was voted in then people were unhappy over dollars, self-interests, etc.

    Affiliates have KNOWN the problems, they HAVE tried to fix them…who wields the power?


  3. Brook Schaaf says:

    I dunno – the search engines only account for so much traffic. I'd say no one wields the "power". Who are the influencers, though? And what are their beliefs?

    Several past efforts have fallen apart. By this point the industry is probably large enough to work together on some uncontroversial (for us) points.

    The question then is if it's worth the effort.

  4. Wayne Porter says:

    Affiliate marketing is changing- that is the point…Sam has been trying to drill it home, and I, and some others agree. A lot of industries are going to blur together Brook, and become needed competencies, and when they do consolidation happens.

    This is why Sam and I are pushing people to see Next-Gen marketing. (More Sam /hat tip ok- me if you count virtual worlds) If people don't get out of the mindset that the way it has been always will be… <shrugs> Change is coming fast. Embrace it!


  5. Pat Grady says:

    Dagnabbit Brook, that dang word “kerfuffle” is still stuck in my head, for like 4 days now. Kudos to you for wordsmithing your way into my subconcious mind and staying there. Throw your mental thesaurus away dude, I’m not getting any work done… I feel so kerfuffled. 🙂