“I've heard rumors that MailChimp hates affiliate links, and will shut down my account if it finds them in my email campaigns."
Not true. We only stop emails that contain URLs that are on blacklists. Sending an email with a blacklisted domain can make spam filters block your message. If we simply allowed these campaigns to leave our network, those campaigns would taint our network's reputation among ISPs and spam filters, subsequently jeopardizing deliverability for all our other users.
We don’t hate affiliate links. Our system just automatically scans for links that are blacklisted by spam filters. That’s what keeps our delivery rates so high.
In fact, here are examples of great email campaigns that are sent through MailChimp, and that contain affiliate links.
It just so happens that some affiliate marketing domain names end up on blacklists sometimes. But then again, so do lots and lots of other links that have nothing to do with affiliate marketing. Spam filters ban the weirdest things sometimes. Once, links with “google.com” were blocked by spam filters. Another time, links with “bit.ly” were blocked. Those blocks are so egregious, that spam filters tend to auto-correct themselves in a few days or even hours. It’s temporary. And in those cases, we temporarily “suspend” the user from sending. We don’t permanently shut them down. Inevitably, we all use a link in our content that's banned by a spam filter. When that happens, MailChimp temporarily suspends the campaign and alerts the sender. We don’t shut down the sender’s account. We’re not going to give you our exact algorithm for detecting bad links. But at the bottom of this article, we provide a list of public resources you can use to do your own domain reputation checking.
So what's behind all the rumors, then? Surely people aren’t just making this up?
We've read a lot of the rumors ourselves. Most seem to be from people who are affiliate marketers who are–surprise, surprise–reselling a competing email service (read their robo-retweeted blog posts, and at the end of their “squeeze pages” you’ll find an affiliate link to some email service for affiliate marketers). Some of the complaints are from marketers that we've actually suspended or shut down. In most of those cases, it wasn't about affiliate marketing links. It was because they were sending content that's deemed risky to email service providers like us (content like get-rich-quick schemes, pornography, over the counter stocks, etc). For the record, it's not that we're prudes or that we're judging the character of those senders; that content just gets blocked by spam filters, which then hurts the reputation of our delivery network, which then hurts deliverability for all our other users. We care about our reputation (and yours) so we take an active role in guarding it from risky content.
So what does MailChimp deem as "Risky Content"? Why not spell it all out?
Ah-hah! In your list of risky content, you say: "Affiliate Marketers." Busted!
Heh. Well, we understand the confusion. If we could provide an extremely clear explanation we would. But the best we can do here is provide some example scenarios.
Good affiliate linkLet's say you're a mom blogger. You send emails where you, as a mother, recommend certain products to your readers (like baby food, kids' clothing, etc). For some of the products that you link to, you use affiliate links. Why not? We all have to make a living. That's perfectly fine to send in MailChimp.
Now let’s say that the mom blogger’s audience grows, and she’s super famous now. Everybody wants her endorsement. So a toy company comes up with an offer that’s exclusively for her loyal audience, and the toy company provides an affiliate link to track all the customers she’s referred. She has a choice: a) she can craft a special email to her audience, using the template and branding and language and style that they’re all accustomed to, and explaining that this is a very special offer to her special audience, or b) she can just plop the advertisement that was created by that toy company–design, copy, subject line and all–into an email and hit “send.” If she takes the latter (lazy) approach, her customers will not understand why they’re suddenly receiving promotions from a toy company. This isn’t just a matter of a poorly-written subject line. This gets into “misleading subject line” territory, which leads to complaints to the FTC, which lead to investigation for CAN-SPAM violations, which lead to expensive fines and lawsuits. Those that do understand that the email is from their favorite mom blogger might assume she’s gone and sold her email list to the toy company. So they’ll report the email as spam. If they do it enough, they can get the mom blogger’s domain AND the toy company’s domain on a blacklist. Not to mention MailChimp’s domain name. So this is an example where our Compliance Team might suspend a user that has an affiliate link, but the actual reason is abuse complaints from confused recipients as a result of bad/confusing design.
Known spam URL
If either of the mom bloggers from above use *ANY* link at all that's been reported as spammy (and is blocked by spam filters) the message will be blocked from sending, and the sender will be warned. It doesn't matter if that link was an affiliate link or not–if it's on a blacklist, we'll block it from sending.
A typical example of an affiliate marketer is someone who buys an email list specifically to hammer the recipients with random offers. Offers that don’t have anything to do with the interests of the recipients. Just offers that earn high affiliate commissions. Oftentimes, these affiliate marketers use email lists of people who’ve actually agreed (heaven knows where) to “always open and click any email” so that the sender earns the affiliate commission, and then theoretically shares a little of that commission with the clicking recipient. Um no. Not what MailChimp’s for. That’s not a business owner or blogger who occasionally uses affiliate links to earn a living. That’s a career affiliate marketer that doesn’t care anything about content, other than the commission it generates.
So what’s the problem with career affiliate marketers?
Affiliate Market-ing vs. Affiliate Market-ers
So we've hopefully established that affiliate links are not the problem, and that MailChimp has no philosophical issues with affiliate links. In a lot of cases, they're very helpful to authors who provide useful content to people who opted-in for that useful content. Now let's talk about when things "cross the line" over to a violation of our TOS (specifically, the “Affiliate Marketer” reference).
Do you find telephones useful? Even helpful sometimes? If you're a business owner, and a customer calls you, do you use the phone to establish a relationship with the customer and perhaps even say nice things about your company? I think we can all say "yes" to that. That’s marketing. And it happened on the phone. And if you occasionally pick up the phone to call on a customer and provide some useful information or help them, we'd all agree that's a good thing. Again, you're doing marketing. On the telephone. You might even call that “tele-marketing.” Heh, nothing wrong with that so far. But now if you install a robo-dialer that systematically dials every number in the phone book at dinner time, and then link that to a giant room full of workers with headsets that try to sell stuff to people (usually at dinner time), you've become a telemarketer. And that's annoying as hell to people.
Are telemarketers bad? No. Do we, at MailChimp, judge telemarketers? No. They have to put food on the table too. But we can all agree that telemarketers annoy us.
Telephones are good. Marketing is good. Telemarketing is acceptable. Telemarketers are annoying as hell.
Here’s another example. Old fashioned snail mail is good. Occasional letters or offers from a company that you do business with is nice. Direct marketers who cram your mailbox full of flyers and coupons every day are annoying as hell.
Direct mail marketing is good. Direct Marketers are annoying.
Affiliate marketing links can be good. Email is good. Affiliate marketers are annoying.
In all cases, we have people who are just trying to make a living. No judgements. But when they overuse an -ing to become an -er, they also become annoying.
The thing about email (unlike the telephone or snail mail) is that everybody has a convenient little "report as spam" button. They can easily click it and report the sender (in our case, the "sender" is often deemed by spam filters to be "The Entire MailChimp System") as an annoying spammer. Yes, even if they actually asked for that content. It doesn’t matter. Once it becomes annoying, it's “spam” to them. If that happens often enough, all future emails from the "sender" just gets automatically thrown into the spam folder. Yeah, that sucks. We don’t make the rules, though. We just have to abide by them.
Bottom Line on Affiliate Marketing Links
Resources to check domain reputation
- Web of trust: http://www.mywot.com/
- Google's API https://developers.google.com/safe-browsing/lookup_guide
- SURBL http://www.surbl.org/
- URIBL http://www.uribl.com/
- Spamcop http://www.spamcop.net/
- Spamhaus http://www.spamhaus.org/