The Ethics of Affiliation

The Ethics of Affiliation

I think… I think… this might be my last post on the ethics of reviewing for a while. Those of you who read the site regularly will be aware this is a topic I discuss a lot. I can’t help it – much as with my borderline obsession with the accessibility of boardgames I’m a sucker for the rich intellectual landscape of professional ethics. It’s not a new thing. I’ve been publishing work on this topic for quite some time now and there’s no end in sight. I’m fascinated by accessibility because people are always the most interesting part in a user interface. With professional ethics you’re looking at the social interfaces between people and between people and systems. It’s good stuff, and that’s why I’ve discussed it fairly extensively in the past. There remains though a dangling thread that still needs to be addressed – the ethics of affiliation. I raise this now because I said I’d return to it in a previous editorial, and because Owen Duffy, wandering Tabletop Troubadour, tweeted around a poll on the issue.

Every review and teardown posted on Meeple Like Us comes with an affiliate link to Amazon as the first link when the game is mentioned – if people click on that and buy the game, or indeed, anything from Amazon provided they do it within a relatively short window of my sending them there, Meeple Like Us will get a small chunk of change as a reward. It’s not a secret that we do this – we point out our affiliate link right in the boiler plate at the bottom of every post. If review copies are something that can potentially distort coverage, and we believe they are, how can affiliate links possibly be ethically okay? After all, if you buy a game because I raved about it then I get money for having talked you into it that’s surely a conflict of interest in the exact same ways that we’ve talked about before. After all, I am financially incentivised to make you want to buy the games we cover.

Before we get too deep into the weeds, let’s throw a net around what we’re talking about here. For Meeple Like Us, the money that comes from affiliate links is a small amount. A very small amount. Over the twenty or so months of this blog’s operation I have received one Amazon voucher to the tune of £30. It was Real Nice, putting paid to the nasty rumours that this blog is a loss-making endeavour. That £30 immediately got reinvested into the site in the form of a game I wanted to review. If I had invested the time I have spent curating affiliate links into inserting an inquisitive finger into the coin slot of random vending machines, I would probably have come out ahead.

So, we’re talking a non-zero sum of money here. It works out to about four pence a day. I’m not saying my integrity can’t be bought. I am saying it can’t be bought for four pence a day. You’d need to double that. And add a zero. Eighty pence a day – that’s my price. Take it or leave it.

That doesn’t really matter though because as I noted in a previous editorial, one of the reasons that ethical lapses in this area worry me is precisely because the sums involved are so small. I worry what happens if de minimis becomes de maximis. Regardless of the tiny amounts of money involved, I am being financially remunerated for review work. With larger amounts of money making their way into my grubby hands the stakes and the impact get larger. The equation of right and wrong remains broadly the same.

Let’s look at this issue through a few new lenses.

Where is your money coming from?

In this specific case, it’s coming from Amazon. That’s what makes it so appealing – it’s financial remuneration that doesn’t come directly out of the pocket of those responsible for generating it. However, the issue becomes morally complicated again by the emergence of at least one publisher that ties the availability of review copies of games to the number of sales driven by a previous review. I don’t know if they are still operating that scheme, but it was the trigger that led to me leaving the Facebook board game reviewer group. Posts there were making me a little bit sad on a regular basis, and that was one of the more significant sources of sadness.

What are you getting the money for?

The money here comes not specifically from the game that was linked, although the percentages gained on such sales are somewhat better than for others. The money comes from anything that was purchased while your affiliate link is active on someone’s computer. I get a bigger share if you buy the thing I explicitly linked, but in the end it doesn’t really matter if you’re buying Ticket to Ride or toilet brushes. Of the parsimonious sums that have come my way, approximately 95% of those are because of purchases of other items. The money doesn’t come from successfully selling someone on a game. It comes from successfully driving them into the waiting embrace of Amazon.

Is that revenue stream at risk if you are honest about a product?

Here, we can safely say – no. Or at least, we can mostly safely say no. New Amazon affiliate accounts require a certain number of verified sales before they are properly accepted, and those need to come in during the first 90 days of an account’s activation. If you don’t make those sales targets (and they are very low), then kiss the Glengarry leads goodbye. You’re out of here, buddy.

Assuming you do clear this tiny hurdle though, the answer becomes an emphatic ‘no’. Amazon could not care less about what you say about a product. They have an interest in sales that’s best expressed in a fluid dynamics equation. They want throughput. They don’t have any stake in ensuring that the products bought came directly from the links you put out there. They want sales, they don’t care what those sales are.

Does anything about this create an incentive for you to skew your coverage?

It’s here we find the danger area in this topic, because the answer honestly is yes. We need to look at three seemingly uncontroversial statements to arrive at that conclusion:

  1. People are more likely to look at games if you convince them they should buy them.
  2. The more people are inspired to investigate a game, the more traffic you will drive to Amazon.
  3. The more traffic you drive to Amazon, the more affiliate reward money you will make.

If the relationship between your money and your link isn’t one to one, you have to make up in bulk what you sacrifice in targeting. One person that buys ten unrelated items from Amazon is worth more to my site revenue than ten people that buy the game from somewhere else. If only 5% of those that click on an affiliate link end up buying things, I need to drive twenty people to Amazon to make any money at all. The only way I can do that is to say ‘Hey, you should absolutely click on this link!’, and the only way I can do that is by saying ‘Hey, this game is absolutely awesome and you should check it out right now, it’s so urgent you can’t even look elsewhere’. There absolutely is an incentive here for me to drive traffic towards Amazon through coverage that skews favourably.

Oh dear.

There is then a misalignment between what it means to be a reviewer (serve your audience with honest coverage) and what it means to be an affiliate (send as much traffic as you can Amazon’s way).

To see why this causes me some concern, let’s scale up the numbers. Let’s pretend Meeple Like Us is one hundred times as big as it is now. Instead of generating four pence per day it’s generating four pounds per day. That means at the end of every month, £120 or thereabouts gets sent to me either by Amazon voucher or as a direct deposit in my account. That’s not at all bad – as a passive revenue stream it’s worth a touch under £1500 a year. That’d cover my overheads and more. That’d actually put this site into the black in terms of running costs. That’d be nice.

But you know… I could change tack with the coverage. We focus on the BGG Top 500, at least at the moment. That’s not likely to let me ride any hype-trains or leverage any momentum for The Hotness. We’ve managed to cover a reasonable number of 2017 games in 2017, but not enough that we remotely classify as temporally relevant. Maybe we should – maybe we should focus on the high profiles games everyone is talking about. Maybe we should take advantage of the positive feedback loop Reddit and Boardgamegeek is building in terms of demand and enthusiasm. Maybe I could turn that four pounds a day into ten pounds a day by changing focus?

And maybe that’s true, because I have had numerous people say to me, not without merit, that the focus of the site makes it a hard sell. We have an unabashedly niche focus. Nobody needs a new perspective on Catan. Everything that needs to be said about San Juan has been said. Okay, the accessibility stuff is new and unique but it really only has relevance to a comparative handful of people. Ah, but if we were scrabbling to be the first blog to have something worthwhile to say on the newest releases – that’s the kind of thing that generates clicks, and maybe those clicks could generate cash.

So maybe we do that – maybe we manage to increase revenue to ten pounds a day. Now we’re looking at £3650 a year. And maybe if we made our coverage considerably more favourable – if we made sure to give everyone that visits a reason to click that amazon link – could we maybe get it up to twenty pounds a day? Thirty? Forty? Maybe if we got it high enough we could even think about cutting down hours from our full-time jobs – put more time into the site. Maybe all this hard work would translate into a career doing this. I’d love to have that life. I don’t mean we would lie. No, of course not. I just mean that maybe we’d focus our attention on games that didn’t need us to lie. And if maybe we overstated a few things here and there – well. The fact that later sober reflection over the long term may have tempered our short-term enthusiasm doesn’t mean that we actually did anything wrong.

It’s a seductive story. I could see myself setting a tentative foot on that path.

Now, crash back down to Earth. Scale us back to where we really are. What we change there is the numbers, and the numbers become a little more sobering. Maybe we could up our revenue to 10p a day, but that’s still only £36 a year. Maybe we could skew our coverage towards the positive, but we’re still only at £365. It’s easy to take a moral stand at those sums and say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t be bought’. The only thing that changes in these two scenarios though is the siren call of possibility.

For Meeple Like Us, for now, it’s fine – I am not going to change anything for a few hundred pounds in a year. But I can say that because I’m in an intensely privileged position. I have many opportunities to earn that amount with considerably less work. I could volunteer to be an external examiner at another university. I could serve on a validation panel for a new qualification. That’s not an option that the vast majority of people have. To a large extent, moral fortitude is driven by our hierarchy of needs. Our place on that hierarchy is heavily influenced by our life circumstances. The sums of money that make for moral compromise vary from person to person.

Let’s be honest though, there’s no such thing as incorruptible. Everyone has a price, if we’re honest. Do you want me to write a five-star review for your terrible game? There is a sum of money you could pay me to do it. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s way, way higher than anyone could justify. There absolutely exists an invisible price tag – a number of pounds that if they made their way to me I would put aside every moral qualm I have and write whatever you wanted. I’d have all kinds of justifications for it – it would enable me to do so much good in the world. It’s only board-games so it doesn’t matter. The focus of the site is on accessibility, not reviewing, so it’s not like I’m betraying any core principles. I like to think it would be a ludicrous amount that would be needed, but that is an untested proposition. Maybe if genuinely faced with the opportunity I’d turn out to be less unaffordable than I might think. The best I can say is that the sum is definitely greater than 4p a day and as such the moral core of the site remains pure. For now.

There is then a genuine moral misalignment here that is made a non-issue purely because of the sums involved. But – I want Meeple Like Us to keep growing. I want the site to become large and popular. And with that will come a constant readjustment of the impact of the misalignment. Will I be so cavalier if Amazon affiliate payments are paying for my hosting costs? Or maybe my groceries? Or my mortgage payments? I’d like to think I wouldn’t make any changes, but it’s hard to be too confident. Every time there’s an observable real-world ripple as a result of income from affiliate links, it’s easy to look at what you could do if only the income was a little more substantial. If you were purely at the mercy of fate, wishing wouldn’t matter. The thing is that you’ve got tools available to shape that income more favourably.

All I can really say is the same thing I said for review copies – yes, there’s an issue here. The important thing is to control for it. The Meeple Like Us revenue from affiliate links is comically low – that’s what makes the thought of it influencing coverage so laughable. If and when the sums become more serious, well – maybe it won’t be quite such a laughing matter. There are genuine and valid question marks over the ethics of affiliation in a review context, but for now, for us, they are small and easily ignored. It does put us in the slightly odd position of essentially kicking the issue into the long grass until such time as the affiliate links actually start doing us some measurable good. In achieving real income with affiliate links perhaps the only ethical course of action is to terminate them. If that’s the case, perhaps it’s better to never use them at all. I’m not planning to remove them – I’m planning to control for them.

‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodies, Your grace?’

‘I know that one,’ said Vimes. ‘Who watches the watchmen? Me, Mr Pessimal.’

‘Ah, but who watches you, your grace?’ said the inspector, with a brief smile.

‘I do that too. All the time,’ said Vimes.

– Thud, Terry Pratchett.

We’ve really done the rounds here with our series on ethical issues in game reviewing. Basically all we’ve ended up with is ‘Almost nothing you can do here is ethical, unless relying directly on your readers through Patreon or other crowdfunding platforms’. It’s not ethical to take payment for reviews. There are reasonable grounds for concern over accepting review copies from publishers. Now we’re saying it’s not ethical to have an affiliate link, or at least it comes with an ongoing responsibility for moral self-policing. A reasonable reviewer at this point may throw up their hands and say ‘I don’t have an audience large enough for crowdfunding, so how exactly am I supposed to be compensated for the work I do?’

It’s a deeply fair question with a deeply unfair answer. The world is under no obligation to align your passions to your financial health. It would be wonderful if it was – if we could all find our bliss and earn a living from pursuing it. If anyone wants to dismantle the Capitalist system and replace it with something that can permit that to happen I’ll get my screwdriver and lend a hand. Until that happens, there’s only one cruel economic truth that matters – just because you want to earn a living doing something, it doesn’t mean there’s necessarily an ethical way to accomplish it. The stakes are low here. The consequences minimal. In the end, most people don’t really see a problem with affiliate links, although we’d argue that ethics is not a subdiscipline of statistics. Enthusiasm alone though does not create ethical opportunities, and that’s a fundamental limitation in society that all of us in this space simply have to deal with.

‘I’m hugely conflicted’ is really the takeaway from this. On the one hand, provided someone is aware of the potential for misconduct through affiliation, there’s nothing inherently unethical about using affiliate links. Being incentivised to do something is not the same thing as actually doing it – it just means you need to be mindful of how your own behaviour might be changing as a result of what you do. On the other hand, is the risk really worth taking?

For now, the affiliate links will likely remain on Meeple Like Us for two main reasons.

  1. I’m still not absolutely sure it’s a problem.
  2. It’s a massive pain in the arse to go through all the posts and remove or modify them.

I would though be very interested to hear your views on the ethics of affiliation. I might have talked myself into removing them at some point but I’d like to hear a range of opinions on the topic.