Amazon Compliance – An FTC Reminder for Affiliates


Earlier this month (October 2019), the Amazon.com Associates team sent out a note to affiliate publishers and influencers about the necessity of being clear to their community about the use of affiliate links through
multiple disclosures.

Compliance is an incredibly important subject. Still, unfortunately, the email was a bit vague (we had some lingering questions) but it brought up an important point that we didn’t previously understand as well as we could have. After getting some clarification, we wanted to share our insights with you to help ensure all of your affiliate marketing efforts (not just for Amazon) won’t inevitably violate a guideline from the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) or the Amazon Associates’ Operating Agreement

With this article, we will:

The main takeaway (aka TL;DR) is that there are two disclosures affiliate marketers need to make any time they post an affiliate link: 

1/ a “link-level” disclosure to meet FTC requirements. 

2/ a site, or channel, level disclosure to meet the Associates Operating Agreement requirements.  

How and when to do this correctly is explored below. 

Understanding Amazon’s Email 

The email sent out on October 18th, 2019, titled the “Reminder: Associate Program Disclosure Statement” started with the following paragraph: 

This is a reminder of your disclosure obligations under the Operating Agreement. Any time you share an affiliate link, it’s important to disclose that to your audience. They will trust you more if you are transparent about where you are directing them and why. To meet the Associate Program’s requirements, you must (1) include a legally compliant disclosure with your links and (2) identify yourself on your Site as an Amazon Associate with the language required by the Operating Agreement.

This is a bit dense and buries a critical point, so let’s break it down. 

This is a reminder of your disclosure obligations under the Operating Agreement. 

The Amazon Associates Operating Agreement is the legal agreement required to participate in their affiliate program and earn commissions from referring sales to Amazon.com. It’s also the rules on how to play the affiliate game with Amazon, and we strongly encourage you to read the doc, even if you are not a lawyer.  

In that doc, that you agree to when you first sign up for the Associate’s program, there are a few sections explicitly talking about “disclosures.” This includes section five in the main agreement (titled “Identifying Yourself as an Associate”), which focuses on a line of text you need to add on your website or social media profile. There is also a section in the accompanying Policies page, section 3. (b) that references the requirements to abide by the FTC’s rules around disclosure.  

This first sentence is merely noting that you should already be familiar with your obligations around “disclosure” from previously reading the Operating Agreement and the Policies page.  

However, we think that this is more than merely a reminder and take it as a strong hint that it’s time to up our compliance game.    

Any time you share an affiliate link, it’s important to disclose that to your audience. 

This is the theme for the whole email – you need to be obvious and deliberate in disclosing your affiliate links! This includes not only links on social media but also on your website.  

They will trust you more if you are transparent about where you are directing them and why. 

“Shopper trust” is an essential theme to Amazon as a whole and for the Associate’s program in particular. We also believe it to be one of the primary reasons that they have sections 6. (v) and 6. (w) in the policies page that is specifically talking about being clear to the shopper about where they are being directed.  

It can also be reasonably ascertained that this transparency is good for business and what is good for selling on Amazon is good for your commissions.  

To meet the Associate Program’s requirements, you must (1) include a legally compliant disclosure with your links and (2) identify yourself on your Site as an Amazon Associate with the language required by the Operating Agreement.

This is the line that initially threw me off but likely the most important of the email. It’s important to note that there are two (2) disclosures you must make. A single (Amazon Associates) disclosure is a common practice, but it doesn’t seem to actually meet both of the previously mentioned requirements.    

Previously, the disclosure that most affiliates are familiar with is the generic Amazon Associate affiliate disclosure, which reads “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.” The rules for this disclosure are more forgiving—it’s acceptable to ‘bury’ it a little on your site or channel. For example, it can be placed in the footer of your site or in the ‘about’ section of your social media channel. However, this disclosure is now secondary on Amazon’s list.

The first “legally compliant” disclosure mentioned in Amazon’s email is the disclosure that is specified by the FTC. In our experience, this disclosure is rarely provided appropriately. It seems that most affiliate sites fail to include the FTC disclosure, perhaps thinking that the generic Amazon Associates disclosure is enough. As for social media channels, it would seem that many affiliates only think it’s necessary to include sponsored content. This is simply wrong!

For social media, a disclosure must accompany every post, video, tweet, etc. that includes an affiliate link. For a blog or website, the disclosure should be visible before any affiliate links. More about this in the best practices section below.    

The next section of the email dives deep into the two requirements of the FTC regulations around using an affiliate link (the #1 in the previous sentence of the email).  

To comply with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations, your link-level disclosure must be:

  1. Clear. A clear disclosure could be as simple as “(paid link)”, “#ad” or “#CommissionsEarned”.
  1. Conspicuous. It should be placed near any affiliate link or product review in a location that customers will notice easily. They shouldn’t have to hunt for it.

With regards to the first point, the blurb must explain the financial (a.k.a. affiliate) relationship “from the perspective of reasonable consumers.” So while the examples above are good, merely stating “affiliate link” or “ambassador” as a disclosure, or having a “buy now” button is not okay as per the FTC’s website.  

We break down some of the verbiage that appears to be copacetic in the best practices section below.  

For the second point about being “Conspicuous,” I believe that this is reasonably clear. The link-level FTC disclosure should happen before the affiliate link or immediately afterward. Remember, the placement of the disclosure is as essential as the language of the disclosure!    

The following section of the text in the email is specific to the more well-known disclosure. It simply reads: 

In addition, the Operating Agreement requires that the following statement clearly and conspicuously appears on your Site: “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.” For social media user-generated content, this statement must be associated with your account.

We’ve covered the requirement of including an Amazon Associates disclosure on your website in an earlier blog titled “Amazon Associates – The Ultimate Guide To Getting Your Account Bannedwhere we deep dive on the subject in section 9/ Not Including An Affiliate Disclaimer (the gist is that you need to include the single sentence on your site!).  

In our blog “How to Share Amazon Affiliate Links on Social Mediawe discuss the requirements of disclosing your relationship with Amazon on your social media channels (hint – it’s okay to place this disclosure once in the “info” or “about” section of your social media channel).   

The Bigger Picture 

From Amazon’s perspective, they shoulder a lot of the responsibility that their affiliate publishers and influencers are correctly disclosing the use of affiliate links.  And, it’s Amazon who will bear the burden of the FTC’s wrath when publishers and influencers aren’t doing this correctly. This is likely why we saw the aforementioned email, which we discuss in the Backstory section below

The FTC has the mandate to help ensure transparency to the average (American) shopper, specifically that they know when they are being advertised to. The FTC’s Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements and the Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising are all applicable to letting shoppers know whether an affiliate publisher/influencer is genuinely promoting a product or if they are just promoting products for monetary compensation.  

Unfortunately, this is a very “black and white” approach by the FTC as many of us only promote products that we genuinely use and like. However, since we use affiliate programs, like the Amazon Associates programs, to be compensated for those recommendations, we need to be upfront with that. So, even if you use a product every day and swear by it if you are getting paid for promoting the product, then the FTC affiliate disclosure applies to you.

The rumor is that 2019’s Prime Day bonanza from Amazon Associates’ mass communications to consumers in the US was enough to push a consumer rights group into action and complain to the FTC. It’s possible the story we are hearing is what triggered the email we recently saw. We’ll explore that story further below

It’s important to note that the Amazon Associates disclosure, that’s done at the site or channel level, is specific to using the Amazon Associates program, while the FTC agreement applies to ANY and ALL affiliate marketing that you do, regardless of the affiliate program, affiliate network or reimbursement mechanism. If you are linking to eBay or Walmart or B&H Photo Video, you must still include the link-level FTC disclosure.    

Best Practices for Disclosures on a Website or Blog

There have been significant and detailed guides written about FTC compliance, assembled for affiliate publishers, by professionals. These guides appear to be updated regularly, so we’ll leave the nitty-gritty to them. A couple that we found helpful in our research included “FTC Disclosure for Affiliates: The Definitive Guideand “What the FTC Says About Affiliate Disclosures.” We encourage you to dive into those as well as read some of the high-level points that we think are most important below.    

A few general guidelines for the FTC disclosure include: 

1/ The verbiage must be clear to “a reasonable consumer.” A reasonable consumer probably doesn’t know what “affiliate” means with regards to the financial relationship, so spelling that out is essential. Further, it’s best to keep the disclosure as short as possible and avoid complicated or technical terms and jargon.  

2/ The verbiage must also be “conspicuous” to that reasonable consumer as well. This means no hiding it! As a good rule of thumb, the disclosure should go before any affiliate link is used or immediately after the affiliate link. Further, the disclosure should go above the fold of the website. Finally, the font of the disclosure should be at least the size of the affiliate link, and the text color should have good contrast. A disclosure that is too small or doesn’t stand out against the background isn’t going to get you off the hook. 

3/ Ideally, the verbiage finishes with a hyperlink to the full disclosure on your site. On the page with the full disclosure, you should also include your Amazon Associates disclosure.  

One disclosure, multiple links? 

We don’t yet have a clear answer on if a long-form article or blog post that contains multiple affiliate links requires an FTC level disclosure at every affiliate link that is used. The FTC writes: 

In some instances – like when the affiliate link is embedded in your product review – a single disclosure may be adequate. When the review has a clear and conspicuous disclosure of your relationship and the reader can see both the review containing that disclosure and the link at the same time, readers have the information they need.

While they mention “a single disclosure may be adequate” they follow that up with “the reader can see both the review containing that disclosure and the link at the same time” which implies the disclosure needs to be viewable from all the affiliate links on a page, which on a longer-form piece just isn’t possible.  

From our review of other Amazon affiliate related blog posts on the subject, the general consensus seems to imply that a substantial disclosure at the beginning of the long(er) form piece should be enough. However, including multiple disclosures intermittently through your longer-form content or and additional notice in a sidebar that scrolls along is likely the most conservative approach.  

While it’s hard to be definitive in saying what is okay as it’s up to the FTC to make the call, the one thing that is absolutely clear is that an FTC disclosure at the end of the post isn’t going to fly. 

Example Disclosures 

While we aren’t saying these are wrong, as we aren’t qualified to make that decision, only the FTC is, we don’t think these are the best-written disclosures: 

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.

Please note: This post contains affiliate links.

The “reasonable consumer” likely doesn’t understand the financial relationships associated with an affiliate link.  

Rather, we like these disclosures better: 

“This post includes affiliate links for which I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.”

“This post contains affiliate link(s). An affiliate link means I may earn advertising or referral fees if you make a purchase through my link.” 

Both of these follow the term “affiliate link” with a hint at the financial implications. While “fees” is more clear than “commissions” both are better than the first examples.  

Another few good examples might be:

“I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.”

“If you buy something through our posts (or “links”), we may get a small share of the sale.”

“Just so you know, [XYZ site] may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page.”

Here are a few more we found from prominent websites across the internet that regularly use affiliate links, with my unqualified personal opinion on how strong a disclosure it is: 

Wirecutter: Wirecutter is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Note: While the placement is good, as it’s found at the top of the page, it mentions “earn,” which shows a financial relationship, and it includes a link to a full disclosure, the inclusion of “reader-supported” dips into a (dark) grey area of Amazon Associates policy around “incentivized clicks” (which we’ll discuss below).  

TechRadar: TechRadar is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Note: Very similar to the Wirecutter disclosure, I think the placement is great and like the link to a full disclosure, but again mentioning “supported” could be seen as an incentived statement by the Amazon Associates review team. 

Windows Central: We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more.

Note: The shortest yet, I too think this placement (top of the page) and wording is a great example.  

Digital Trends: Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Note: This disclosure is buried at the bottom of the page in a footer so it may not pass muster.  

CNET: AFFILIATE DISCLOSURE CNET may get a commission from retail offers.

Note: This disclosure is also at the footer of the page and while it’s one of the shorter ones and the all caps / bold are eye-catching, it’s placement and weak use of words in sharing the financial relationship might not pass FTC review in my non-professional opinion. 

Asking for support

As you work on exactly what wording you’d like to use for your FTC disclosure, it’s crucial to consider one other nuance that can get you in trouble – asking for support or incentivizing clicks on your affiliate links. 

Asking your readers, or even hinting, to click your affiliate link to “support” your website is considered a form of “incentivizing” shoppers and is not allowed by the Amazon Associates program in section 6. Content on your site (g) of the Policies page (emphasis is ours):

(g) You will not offer any person or entity any consideration, reward, or incentive (including any money, rebate, discount, points, donation to charity or other organization, or other benefit) for using Special Links. For example, you cannot implement any “rewards” or loyalty program that incentivizes persons or entities to visit an Amazon Site via your Special Links.

Therefore you should be careful not to include more verbose language like “Clicking the affiliate links below supports our site” or even something as simple as “supported” or “reader-supported” as “a reasonable consumer” may read that and then click your links even without the intent to buy in hopes the action will support your site.  You have to remember that Amazon wants consumers to purchase because of good recommendations, not as a method to support a site or cause. 

To learn more about incentivized clicks, check out section 6 in our blog “Amazon Associates – The Ultimate Guide To Getting Your Account Banned.”     

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure

Thankfully the Amazon Associates Operating Agreement does a good job precisely outlining  what to use for compliance. They simply state (emphasis our own): 

    1. Identifying Yourself as an Associate

You must clearly state the following, or any substantially similar statement previously allowed under this Agreement, on your Site or any other location where Amazon may authorize your display or other use of Program Content: “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.” 

While we regularly see this one line Amazon disclosure in the footer of affiliate focused site it seems to be okay to be a bit more buried and live on your About or Terms page. However, it will ideally live on a separate “disclosures” page where you link to, from your FTC disclosure mentioned above.  

Best Practices for Social Media 

Every tweet on Twitter, post on Facebook, video description on YouTube, pin on Pinterest, etc. that includes an affiliate link also needs to include an affiliate disclosure to be compliant with the FTC. Period.  

Unfortunately, this isn’t something we, or researchers, regularly see but something that is needed to ensure long term good standing with both Amazon and the FTC (note: a research paper from Princeton University found that 90 percent of affiliate posts on YouTube and Pinterest aren’t disclosed to users).  

The individual FTC disclosures can be as simple as “#ad” or slightly longer with “(paid link)”, or “#CommissionsEarned”.  

There are likely many other short phrases that will work, but it’s essential when choosing one that you are disclosing that a financial relationship exists and doing so in a way that a “reasonable consumer” would understand.  

Unfortunately, “affiliate link” isn’t clear enough. The FTC states: 

Consumers might not understand that “affiliate link” means that the person placing the link is getting paid for purchases through the link.

Please share in the comments below what you think is a good hashtag or phrase to include in your posts!  

For a tweet, where the character count is limited, or a short Facebook post, the disclosure can come at the end. However, for longer form Facebook posts or YouTube comments, it’s best that the disclosure precedes the affiliate links or immediately follows them. 

Leveraging a Choice Page

Another option to completely avoid the requirement to include a link-level FTC disclosure on each social media post is to take advantage of our Choice Pages.  These interstitial landing pages are built specifically with Amazon (and now FTC) compliance in mind and include the requisite FTC disclosure immediately after the buy buttons and a link to a full disclosures page that includes the Amazon statement as well.

By dropping in a link to a Choice Page you can stay in compliance and, as our testing has shown, significantly improve conversion rates and earnings per click.

Amazon Disclosure

Amazon perfectly explains in a Resource Center article that the single sentence Amazon affiliate disclosure (“As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”) can be placed in the “info” or “about” section of their social media profile. 

…For social media user-generated content, it must be associated with your account. This can be on an “about” or “info” section. For individual social media postings this full statement is not required.

Our Updates 

To help ensure full compliance for Amazon Associates publishers with our intelligent link management service and with Kit, we’ve recently made some changes as well. 

For Geniuslink Choice Pages we’ve always included an “affiliate disclosure” link at the bottom of the page that contains a full disclosure for Amazon Associates as well as for reviews and sponsored content. We now include the sentence “Note: Commissions may be earned from the links above. directly underneath the buy buttons to ensure full FTC compliance for our clients using our Choice Pages.  

For Kit, we are now including the sentence “Note: Commissions may be earned from the links below.” directly below the title and description of each kit and directly above the individual product listings. 

Rumor has it… (The backstory on this email?)

While it’s always a good time to double-check on your affiliate links, especially in relation to compliance, it seems that the email we received may not have been entirely out of the blue.   

A nod to Dom Wells at OnFolio for the tip. He speculates that Amazon is under additional scrutiny from the FTC after this year’s massive 2019 Prime Day event. The story goes that a consumer protection group, Public Citizen, noticed a barrage of outreach to Americans across email, social media, and websites for Amazon Prime Day deals and the bulk of them were not disclosed at all or done improperly.  

In a letter to the FTC, they wrote:    

Leading up to and through Amazon Prime Day on July 15-16, Americans’ email inboxes were stuffed with recommendations for Amazon Prime Day best buys, their Instagram feed replete with suggestions of what to buy on Amazon, their internet and blog reading lists overflowing with pointers for the best deals. Some substantial portion of this publicity and recommendations for Amazon Prime Day were paid endorsements, but in a great number of cases, the endorsement relationship was either not disclosed to consumers or was communicated with inadequate disclosures.

The letter then goes on to focus specifically on the Amazon Associates program: 

When Amazon associates post reviews or other information about products available on Amazon, they are functioning as endorsers who are paid for the endorsement through sales commission rather than a flat fee. The endorsement relationship is of material interest to consumers, precisely for the reasons identified in the FTC’s Endorsement Guidelines: Absent an affirmative disclosure, consumers are unaware of the financial interest of the associate in promoting items for sale through the Amazon platform. When consumers consider an associate’s recommendation for a “best buy,” it is of material interest to them if the associate has a monetary interest in ensuring that the consumer does, in fact, buy. Indeed, the entire purpose of the recommendation may be to generate sales, a situation entirely lost on consumers who believe they are reading independent reviews or recommendation lists, not promotional material from a commissions-based salesperson.

Then comes an accusation that Amazon isn’t taking FTC disclosure seriously enough: 

Significantly, we do not believe the Amazon-required language is an adequate disclosure of the endorsement relationship. The language is too obscure to communicate the endorsement relationship. A more effective disclosure would state, for example: “This is a paid endorsement. I receive commissions on sales if you click on links in this story or use the code included in the review.”

But even appropriate disclosure language fails to meet the standards of the law and adequately inform consumers if a) it is not prominently displayed; or b) it is not used at all.

Towards the end of the note comes the requests. The first aimed at the publishers and influencers who were included in the letter as examples of poor or missing disclosures from websites and social media posts: 

Upon a conclusion that the associates we identified in fact failed to disclose their paid endorsement relationship with Amazon or did so inadequately, we urge you to communicate with them about their responsibilities under the Endorsement Guidelines and other relevant law, rules and guidelines.

And then the hammer for Amazon: 

More aggressive enforcement action is needed for Amazon. We urge you to pursue enforcement action and seek a consent decree so that Amazon: 1) requires more clear and understandable disclosures for its associates program; 2) establishes clear, Endorsement Guidelines-compliant standards for the required prominence of disclosures; 3) monitors compliance with the program and works with associates to ensure prominent and universal endorsement disclosures; and 4) is subject to penalties if widespread failures to ensure adequate disclosures persist.

If this letter from Public Citizen led to action from the FTC on Amazon’s affiliate program or if it was merely a wake-up call for the Amazon Associates team, we cannot tell. But the bottom line is that Amazon’s recent email is an excellent wake-up call that many of us need to up our game to ensure full compliance, or we risk losing our Amazon Associates account and/or trouble with the FTC. Neither good options!

Frequently Asked Questions 

I live outside the US, does this affect me? 

Yes, as it’s Amazon.com who carries the burden of your disclosure practices when using their affiliate program, so while you may avoid the direct wrath of the FTC, you are flirting with getting your Associates account closed. Not something I would recommend! 

I don’t use the Amazon.com affiliate program, does this still apply to me? 

First, if you are using an international Associates program and seeing even a few percent of international traffic you should be using the Amazon.com affiliate program as a catchall to earn commissions from this longtail of traffic.  And, if you are using the Amazon.com affiliate program you should be following these guidelines.

Second, if you are using any other affliate program that is US based then you’ll need to follow the FTC disclosure guidelines, but not necessarily the Amazon Associates ones (if you are not using the Associate’s program.

Third, we see these disclosures as a good, general practice. Additional transparency to your shoppers is never a bad thing and it may be only a matter of time before similar rules are mandated in other countries so this puts you one step ahead.

 

FAQs from the FTC

The following questions come from the FTC’s site

Is “affiliate link” by itself an adequate disclosure? What about a “buy now” button?

Consumers might not understand that “affiliate link” means that the person placing the link is getting paid for purchases through the link. Similarly, a “buy now” button would not be adequate.

What if I’m including links to product marketers or to retailers as a convenience to my readers, but I’m not getting paid for them?

Then there isn’t anything to disclose.

Does this guidance about affiliate links apply to links in my product reviews on someone else’s website, to my user comments, and to my tweets?

Yes, the same guidance applies anytime you endorse a product and get paid through affiliate links.

It’s clear that what’s on my website is a paid advertisement, not my own endorsement or review of the product. Do I still have to disclose that I get a commission if people click through my website to buy the product?

If it’s clear that what’s on your site is a paid advertisement, you don’t have to make additional disclosures. Just remember that what’s clear to you may not be clear to everyone visiting your site, and the FTC evaluates ads from the perspective of reasonable consumers.

Would “#ambassador” or “#[BRAND]_Ambassador” work in a tweet?

The use of “#ambassador” is ambiguous and confusing.

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