How To F*#! Your Affiliates: Black Friday to Cyber Monday Edition

I have been, or can be if you click on a link and make a purchase, compensated via a cash payment, gift, or something else of value for writing this post. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

Merchants often screw over their affiliates (see Got My In A Bunch). Sometimes they know what they’re doing, and sometimes they just aren’t thinking clearly. Sometimes they play dumb, and sometimes they just really are dumb.

Last Thu, Nov 28, 2013 at 2:31 PM (for those of you not reading this the first week of December, 2013, last Thursday was Thanksgiving, and at 2:31 I was enjoying dinner at my Mom & Dad’s house), I received a commission change notice from Cellars Wine Club:

Commission Change Notification

In case you think that table is useless and doesn’t tell you anything, you’re right. A few hours later:

Non-commissionable Coupons

So I emailed Cellars, but the person who put these rules into effect wasn’t in the office. I guess he, too, was having Thanksgiving dinner with his family. But someone else did get back to me:

This is just so our new customer targeted coupon codes can’t be combined with an affiliate commission.

After another email back & forth, I was finally told three codes which would be non-commissionable (but there’s 4, 0% commission actions listed). We had none of these on our wine club review site, so it wasn’t a big deal.

However, after checking our stats this weekend, we noticed we had some sales that resulted in a $0 commission. Looking at their site, we see:
Cellars Wine Club Promo Code

There on the landing page is one of the non-commissionable coupons!

So let’s review the process:

  1. We refer users to Cellars Wine Club, expecting a commission on the sale
  2. Cellars Wine Club displays their non-commissionable promo code, which the user applies
  3. The user makes a purchase
  4. We get $0 commission

I understand not wanting to pay a commission and apply a coupon to a sale, but then don’t show the coupon to the user if the affiliate cookie is set!

Now, going into the busiest shopping season, we’ll be referring customers to a merchant, and racking up $0 commissions.

That’s how to F*#! your Affiliates: Black Friday to Cyber Monday Edition.

Update: Brian Littleton, CEO of ShareASale (where this program is hosted) is stepping in to make this right. Thanks, Brian!
Update 2: See comment from Mark. Coupon code was only supposed to be shown to existing customers, not everyone. I just checked, and when clicking through our link, I do not see the coupon code displayed on the site any longer. In addition, our $0 commission sales have been updated to give us the credit we deserved. Actually, no matter what I do, I can’t get the code to appear. I use Pingdom to monitor merchants, and will set up a monitor to make sure the code does not reappear on this page.

This problem started days ago with some emails, and quickly escalated to the point of having to write this blog post for resolution. It’s a shame affiliates have so little power, but in situations like this, we cannot be ignored.

I personally reached out to every wine club affiliate and informed them of the situation, and others spoke up as well. This is the perfect situation where a niche affiliate community would have helped; if you’re a leader in a niche, I encourage you to start one now. When (not if) a merchant makes a wrong decision, accidentally or not, you’ll want your competition to help fight for what’s right.

  • Tricia Meyer
    Posted December 2, 2013 12:59 pm 0Likes

    What’s really frustrating is that we spend 11 months essentially building backlinks and content to lead up to 3 main weeks of commissions and then they do this without any notice or care as to the repercussions except that THEY are going to make a lot of sales still and we will get absolutely nothing for the 11 months of planning.

  • Brian Littleton
    Posted December 2, 2013 1:09 pm 0Likes

    Eric – We won’t let this stand, you’ll be paid commission on these orders one way or the other along with the rest of their Affilaites who were caught up in the middle of the coupon code battle. Using rules to stop Affiliates from POSTING deals is understandable… but then putting those codes on a landing page and basically forcing them to be used (thus negating commissions) is unacceptable.

  • Lee
    Posted December 2, 2013 1:12 pm 0Likes

    That really sucks! Seems like a lot of companies are doing their best to screw over affiliates lately.

  • Chris Johnson
    Posted December 2, 2013 1:17 pm 0Likes

    Well, as a merchant, I can say that this makes up for all of the SEO results around _______ coupon code where affiliates intercept traffic (and expect commissions) that are intended for the buyer.

    • Eric Nagel
      Posted December 2, 2013 1:24 pm 0Likes

      Chris – there are right ways to handle TM+ coupon code SEO affiliates. This isn’t it.

  • Jennifer
    Posted December 2, 2013 1:54 pm 0Likes

    Yikes! That’s a crummy move, especially with the timing. Good for Brian and SAS for stepping in. As a merchant, I think no matter what happens in SEO, as Chris mentioned, or other areas of marketing, unfair, last minute changes like this is no way to create mutually beneficial long-term relationships.

  • Trisha Fawver
    Posted December 2, 2013 2:52 pm 0Likes

    That’s definitely a jerk move. Though, knowing how tricky those affiliate commission rules can be, it might have been a mistake. Even STILL, don’t make those kinds of changes on Thanksgiving before you know how they’ll work and definitely don’t display the non-commissioned code.

  • Carolyn Kmet
    Posted December 2, 2013 3:12 pm 0Likes


    • Charlie Calabrese
      Posted December 3, 2013 3:53 pm 0Likes

      Agreed – SHADY

  • Mark
    Posted December 2, 2013 4:14 pm 0Likes

    Hi Eric,

    I’m actually familiar with the behind-the-scenes of what happened with the commission issue you’re blogging about here. The owner of Cellars emailed me for some insight as I’m tangentially involved with the content and marketing people. (I’m part of the dev team working on the new site)

    I did some investigation and it turns out that one guy, who’s running segmented A/B tests, incorrectly allowed for all web traffic to see the offer that was only meant for existing customers. The issue has been fixed and it’s no longer up as an on-site coupon code.

    That offer and coupon code should have only been seen by existing Cellar’s customers from the emails going out for the holiday specials. Of course, even with the intended implementation, there’s still a remote chance that an individual could click on a ShareASale link from your site but also have the coupon code because they are an existing Cellars customer. That would then cause the same commission issue but that’s probably a pretty rare occurrence.

    I can’t say for sure, but I think that the owner of Cellars, now that he knows what happened, is going to make good on commissions.

  • Sarah Bundy
    Posted December 2, 2013 5:36 pm 0Likes

    It’s so sad how clueless merchants can be… Just another example of why some merchants are better off outsourcing that expertise.

    • Mark
      Posted December 4, 2013 7:09 pm 0Likes

      Actually, in this case, Cellars did outsource the work. It was really a case of one person at the agency who did the segmentation wrong on a Visual Website Optimizer “redraw” meant for existing customers coming from email only.
      Cellars specified the work correctly but it wasn’t implemented correctly.

      From what I can tell, and I haven’t been involved that long, Cellars has a decent history with its affiliates and very few snafus like this.

  • Brendan Monahan
    Posted December 2, 2013 8:22 pm 0Likes

    Let’s hope so Mark. This is the type of activity drives quality affiliates away in droves.

    Considering a well established affiliate program, from a major vendor such as the Cellars Wine Club, should bring in around 10% of the total online revenue, enough unprofessional faux pas such as these has the potential to decrease revenue 10% during the busiest wine club purchasing season of the year.

    With that in mind, I would hate to be the Cellars Wine Club’s Director of eCommerce Sales. He’s the one that is going to have to answer to the CEO for what has transpired and it will be his year end bonus that is at stake.

  • Rosalind Gardner
    Posted December 3, 2013 12:28 pm 0Likes

    Love that you made this issue public, Eric. Affiliates need to be informed and stay aware of what merchants can and will do (dumb or not) to cheat them out of commissions.

  • Brian
    Posted December 6, 2013 4:47 pm 0Likes

    It’s as easy as saying TM+ bidding is prohibited in your Terms and Conditions and then affiliates have no leg to stand on when you reverse commissions after they violate this policy. This is a relationship based business and as long as everyone is on the same page from the beginning then you can avoid embarrassing situations like this. .

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