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 mahalo.com 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.