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Summary:

Blogger Maria Popova has come under fire from a number of critics for her use of undisclosed affiliate links on her blog Brainpickings, which highlights how heated the debate over alternative forms of advertising has become.

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There’s been a lot of sound and fury recently about a blogger named Maria Popova, who makes her living by curating links to smart content on her Brainpickings blog. Popova has been quite vocal about how she doesn’t like traditional advertising and instead relies on donations from her readers, in much the same way that former Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan now does. But that commitment was recently challenged by an anonymous critic who noted that Popova also gets revenue from affiliate links to sites like Amazon — and the resulting debate says a lot about the future of both content and advertising.

One of the reasons why this incident has drawn so much attention is that Popova seems like a great example of the kind of self-sustaining media entity many bloggers — and even traditional journalists — aspire to become. While she may not be in the same league as Sullivan, who employs a team to run his Daily Dish blog (and who will be speaking at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17), the idea that someone can make a living by simply curating excellent content in return for donations is inspiring.

The Popova case has also become a flashpoint because as traditional advertising becomes less lucrative, publishers are turning to alternative forms of advertising such as “native” or sponsored content — something that caused a similar firestorm of criticism for The Atlantic recently — as well as affiliate-related content. Gawker is hiring writers to create what it calls “commerce journalism” that is designed to drive revenue from affiliate links. But standards on disclosure and other elements of these new forms of advertising are all over the map.

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In a number of profiles, including a glowing one in the Sunday New York Times, Popova comes across as a highly intelligent and motivated individual — a former recreational bodybuilder from Bulgaria who started Brainpickings as a way of collecting interesting links to books and other content. The reputation of the blog seems to have spread fairly quickly, to the point where luminaries like former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter said they support her through donations in the same way they support National Public Radio. And Popova has said repeatedly that she is proud to be advertising free:

“It doesn’t put the reader’s best interests first – it turns them into a sellable eyeball, and sells that to advertisers. As soon as you begin to treat your stakeholder as a bargaining chip, you’re not interested in broadening their intellectual horizons or bettering their life. I don’t believe in this model of making people into currency. You become accountable to advertisers, rather than your reader.”

That rosy picture got a little blurrier over the past couple of days, however, after an anonymous blogger (later revealed to be Tom Bleymaier, founder of a startup in Palo Alto, Calif.) posted on Tumblr about Popova’s liberal use of affiliate links — that is, links to books and other products on e-commerce sites (primarily Amazon) that provide her with a payment if one of her readers clicks through. The anonymous blogger extrapolated from Popova’s traffic numbers and estimated that she could generate between $200,000 and $400,000 a year from those links.

Disclosure is always better if you want trust

Given that kind of income — from something that is pretty clearly a form of advertising, although perhaps a non-traditional one — the Tumblr critic argued that Popova’s claim to be “advertising free” is clearly inaccurate. He also argued that some of her donors might think twice about giving her money every month if they knew that she was deriving a substantial amount of income from affiliate links, something that Popova didn’t disclose before or after a reader clicked on one of those links (Note: She has since added disclosure to her donations page).

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon followed up with a post about Popova, repeating some of the financial claims made by Bleymaier and adding some of his own. Popova has since responded to both Salmon and Betabeat — which also published a critical post about her practices — saying she doesn’t see affiliate links as advertising, is open about using them, and doesn’t make anything close to what Bleymaier said she does.

“Those numbers are ludicrous! If Amazon gave me even a tenth of that a year after Uncle Sam takes his fair share, I’d be delighted. I’ve been completely honest about the Amazon links with anyone who’s ever asked – and have many, many, many emails I’m happy to forward – and have brought it up myself multiple times in talks and on Twitter.”

Many of Popova’s supporters have said they are happy to have her get revenue from her writing in any way possible, and don’t mind the lack of disclosure about her use of affiliate links. Others, however, have questioned why she wouldn’t attach a simple disclaimer to her site — especially on the donation page — to note that she uses them (and some have even pointed out that this kind of disclaimer is arguably required by law, due to FTC regulations on disclosing marketing-related content).

I think the main point that Salmon makes in his post on the issue is a good one: namely, that if you are relying on donations from your fans for your livelihood — as Sullivan is, and others such as musician Amanda Palmer are — then it behooves you to be as open as possible about your financial arrangements, in the interests of increasing the trust your readers or fans have in you. Sullivan and Palmer have both been extremely forthcoming about their financial situations, an approach Popova might want to imitate.

Note: Since the original version of this post appeared, Popova has added a footnote to her site at the bottom of each page that describes how she uses Amazon affiliate links, which says:

“Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.”

This story was updated to note that Popova has added disclosure of her affiliate links to her donations page, as she noted on Twitter, as well as a note in the footer of her site.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Igor Steganovic and Brainpicker

  1. You said, “e-commerce sites (primarily Amazon) … provide her with a payment if one of her readers clicks through.” Clicking through and making a purchase after clicking through are two different things (at least with Amazon). There’s no payment to the affiliate unless there’s a purchase made during that visitor’s session. This really should be clarified.

    I, for one, would think that no one is twisting the arm of the purchaser. If they buy it’s entirely their choice. They are free to blow it off as well.

    1. Thanks, Marty. That’s a good point, although I was trying to cover the use of other affiliate programs as well with that statement.

  2. Hold on, hold on. I’m all for transparency, but …

    I think this story is being blown way out of proportion. Does Popova provide a useful service to her readers? I don’t know, because I don’t read her site. But presumably, people think so if they’re motivated enough to donate. Whether she makes money off affiliate links or not seems completely beside the point. Do affiliate links detract from the value of her site? Donors can be the judge of that.

    Nobody’s forced to donate, and a donation is not an entitlement to get under the hood of her finances. Private companies don’t have to disclose their finances, so why would we hold bloggers to a different standard?

    It’s one thing for an established and trusted blogger to be a mouthpiece for advertisers without disclosing those arrangements. That’s shady — and probably flies in the face of FTC rules. But is that what’s going on here?

    Finally, why shouldn’t someone whose trade is high-quality aggregation include affiliate links? Seems like recommending great products and services, tailored to the sensibilities of an audience, is a natural complement to recommending articles, books, music, etc.

    Is the brouhaha all because she’s been vocal in her anti-ad stance?

    1. The underlying issue is that she’s both monetizing her site via affiliate links AND actively soliciting donations.

      It’s an ethical issue, not a legal issue; it’s clearly legal for her to do both, especially after adding the footnote about the usage of affiliate links.

      She clearly makes substantial money from affiliate links but also is clearly trying to downplay that fact, ostensibly so that donations continue to come in at the rate they have in the past.

      As you point out, so what. She’s legally not required to post a tally of her affiliate income and it’s always up to a potential donor to decide whether or not to donate.

      Ethically, though, it gets a lot more dodgy. She pretty clearly realizes that donations would drop if there was a tally of what she makes from affiliate links or if she discussed that amount openly.

      It’s basic human nature to donate more if you think someone is providing a service for free and donate less if you knew they were making $50,000+/year.

      To me that’s legal but shady: to each their own.

      1. This is dead on.

        Plenty of bloggers would be GIDDY to generate that much money from their personal sites with affiliate links. Once the affiliate income became substantial enough to basically pay them a full-time salary, they’d remove the donate option. They’d be THRILLED to be able to do that.

        She’s taking the other route, which is the grab-any-cash-that-you-can option. She’s doing everything possible to downplay the affiliate income she gets and still rattling a tip jar for donations.

        It might be legal but it’s sort of like a lottery winner continuing to receive and cash in food stamps for the remainder of their eligibility period after winning $50 million.

  3. One quick follow-up, just to clarify: If she’s obligated to make a disclosure, that’s one thing, but just because Popova takes donations doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

    Is she running a charity? No.

  4. Thank you for the read. Some people just can’t control themselves no matter how good their intentions may be.

  5. Conway Training Thursday, February 14, 2013

    If adding a disclosure in this situation is a legal issue, then I can see some reason why people would get up in arms. If its a matter of preference though, then why does it matter if she adds a disclosure? It doesn’t cost the people who click those affiliate links anything.

  6. themelodyfactory Thursday, February 14, 2013

    Nice post, thanks for the info.

  7. HipsterApproved.net Thursday, February 14, 2013

    Nice post.
    Wish someone would make a donation to me!

  8. Want disclosure? Mine is free. No links here, unless you care to assist me help people buy coverage, not the premiums. – oh, for free.

  9. under the skies of arkansas Friday, February 15, 2013

    i had a donation button on one of my blogs years ago and never made a cent ahhhhhrrgh so its good to see someone finally got some use out of one of those things

  10. Affiliate links are ads. She’s just another Internet nut job who thinks that things are different on the Internet. Oh, she’s not like the old media. Sure. She’s even worse because she designs her content around her ads.

    I’ve noticed a number of these Internet loons doing just the same thing. BoingBoing often mixes ads into the story stream. At least they put a practically invisible note calling it a “sponsored link”. God forbid that they ever call it an “ad”. Nope, these guys are busy patting themselves on the back and pretending to be different.

    1. Sponsored links and affiliate links are different things. Sponsored links are something you’re paid to put on your site. Affiliate links are something you create linking to a product, and if the reader decides to buy it, then you get a small kickback. Amazon doesn’t tell her what affiliate links to use, with a sponsored link they would. Huge difference.

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