The Affiliate Game Can Be a Dirty Proposition

I have officially been denied by American Express, Capital One, Chase, and Citi via the FlexOffers affiliate network. My applications for other, smaller banks are still pending, but I haven’t liked what I’ve heard so far, and want to make everyone aware of it so they know how this business works.

First some background. Almost every points/travel blogger that promotes credit cards uses FlexOffers as their affiliate network. There are other options, but from what I’ve seen FlexOffers seems to be the best from a user perspective. They also have ALL the credit card companies available to apply to. Other networks like Commission Junction have many of the same banks available as well.

Flexibility? Yeah...right.

Flexibility? Yeah…right.

These companies pay a relatively high commission for “selling” a credit card. I don’t have exact numbers since I wasn’t approved by them, but I guessed the range in my earlier article on affiliate links and was told my range was pretty accurate. To summarize, a referral results in commission of between roughly $75-$200 for most cards. I’ve learned that some premium cards and business cards can pay even more (I’ve heard up to $350 each, but haven’t confirmed that number). So be sure to sign up for that Ink Bold AND Ink Plus! ;)

After hearing that the payout was that significant, I thought to myself “Okay…it’s time to get in on this.” I figured that I’d make a few hundred bucks at worst with my own and family/friends’ sign ups. Once Travel Summary started getting a decent amount of traffic I decided to apply. The problem was, “decent amount of traffic” was completely subjective at that point (note that Scott at Hack My Trip hadn’t yet written this article, which would have provided great guidance to me).

Fast forward to this past week. After being declined by Chase and Citi from FlexOffers, I decided to just apply for the Creditcards.com affiliate links from a different affiliate company. I’d like to thank The Deal Mommy for the suggestion, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it at all (by the way, I’ve never met her and I only know her through Twitter. Yet another reason why Twitter rocks). She said there was no quotas to meet as there was with the other affiliate companies, but that payouts were substantially lower. That sounded just fine to me, so I applied and got accepted last Monday, just hours before I found out about the 100K deal from that website. I still don’t know if I stand to make a commission off any of that by the way.

This past Friday on 1/11, I received an email from an Affiliate Manager at FlexOffers that read: “While reviewing your site, American Express found the following article that they need removed before they can make a decision on your pending application.” The article in question? Well, it was the most popular article that I’ll probably ever have…the one posted just four days earlier. It was the 100K post.

I didn’t like that, for lots of reasons. First of all it didn’t make sense why they’d care – after all, thousands of people signed up for their most premium card (granted for a ton of points). Second, I didn’t want to take down my most popular post. That post was still driving a ton of traffic to my website, even after the deal expired. And third, it just didn’t feel right. Why should I have to remove a post for them?

Nevertheless, I decided to ponder it for a bit. I posted the situation on Twitter and got many responses in both directions. Some said I should do it, take the money and run. Others said I shouldn’t give in. Ultimately, I thought to myself “Okay, this is likely the only issue they have with my website. If they were going to deny me anyway, they would have done it outright, right? And I can always put the post back up after getting approved anyway.” So I moved the post back to “draft” status, and hundreds of people received error messages when directed to that page.

I emailed the guy back letting him know the article was removed. I asked him why it had to be removed, and he said “If approved to the American Express affiliate program, you will ONLY be allowed to discuss the products available to you. If you chose to discuss offers outside of the affiliate space, they ask that you do not link to them.” To me, that means that no one that’s approved for Amex links can link to creditcards.com, for example. Knowing that ALL the other bloggers did that anyway, I responded “Got it. So all the other bloggers that were approved for the American Express affiliate program and linked to that same website did so against the terms and conditions of the agreement?” I received no response.

I didn’t feel right about taking the post down. I felt like I’d sold my soul. I felt whipped, and I didn’t even have anything to show for it yet. Then after two hours I received a phone call from another FlexOffers representative. He told me he wanted to discuss my account and website and answer any questions I might have.

He started off by letting me know I’d been declined by Chase, Citi, and Capital One, which I already knew. He then told me I’d likely be denied by Amex and other banks as well. Whoa whoa whoa…wait a second. Why the heck did I just take down my post if I’m going to be declined by Amex? I held on to this question for a little bit so I could gather some more info.

I asked the most logical question: What are the banks looking for when deciding on the approval? He responded that the first thing was the professionalism and layout of the website. He told me I had no problem with that part. The second part was whether my website’s content made sense for their product. I also had no issues with that. The third thing was something that Kathy at Will Run for Miles first told me about: Alexa.com ranking.

This ranking shows how “popular” your website is based on traffic (and many other factors that I’m not smart enough to describe). The lower your number, the more popular your website is. My ranking on Friday was around 1.8 million, and as of the writing of this article it’s about 1.6 million. So what do I need to be ranked to get me into consideration for those sought-after links? Apparently I need to be sub-300K, so I wasn’t even close.

My Alexa.com ranking. That's a bad score apparently.

My Alexa.com ranking. That’s a bad score apparently.

So while that guy on the phone kept talking about a bunch of other uninteresting nonsense, I decided to check out a few popular blogs to see those rankings. Parag of Frequent Flyer University, who recently had his Chase links pulled, ranks 550K. Daraius at Million Mile Secrets is at 64K, Brian aka The Points Guy is 43K, and FlyerTalk is 6K. Okay…I’m not even in the same ballpark as these guys. Just as an FYI, Facebook is number 1.

FFU

Million Mile Secrets

The Points Guy

FlyerTalk

Fair enough, my site doesn’t have the kind of traffic they’re looking for. I understand that they don’t just hand out links to anyone with a website, so I was willing to live with that.

Then came the good stuff. The FlexOffers representative suggested that since I’m already approved for Discover, that I “try to push those links to get that commission.” His words, not mine. He then said that I should sign up for the prepaid card affiliate links and start writing about those and pushing those as well, because then I’ll start collecting some money. He also said to make sure I “don’t pick and choose” which bullet points to list regarding the cards – I had to list ALL of them because the banks don’t like when we omit information.

At this point I was trying to hold back a little laughter – this guy literally told me to PUSH links. All he cared about, and apparently all he thought I cared about, was getting money. At that point I made my decision – I don’t want these affiliate links. Contrary to what their company name wants you to believe, they’re not flexible at all. And whether it’s FlexOffers or the banks themselves, it’s not right. If there’s a better offer, I should be allowed to talk about it. If I want to point to creditcards.com, I should be allowed to. If Amex or Chase has the best offer on their own website, then I’ll direct people there. If there’s a feature of a card that sucks, or vice versa, then I’ll point it out. If I want to leave out the 0% balance transfer part of the card, I should be able to. Those are my opinions, and they disagree with all of them.

I asked the representative how they monitor this stuff. He said that FlexOffers has employees that periodically check websites to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions and to ensure that expired links are removed. Whether this is done actively or not, I do not know.

So with this information in hand, and knowing that I want nothing to do with them anymore, I feel no fear by saying all this about FlexOffers. I don’t want to work with them, because it crosses my moral and ethical line to do so under such conditions.

The point of this post is twofold: 1) I now hate FlexOffers and want the world to know, and 2) Now people can know a little more about what they’re dealing with.

After my post on the play-by-play of the 100k offer, and even on the 100k post itself, many people were pleasantly surprised at my honesty and straightforwardness. I found that to be both rewarding and sad to hear at the same time. It felt rewarding because my main goal is to be as honest as possible. I’ve been told I’m blunt to a fault in my personal life, and I think I’ve carried that to this blog as well.

I also thought it was sad because if my honesty is refreshing and surprising, what does that say about some of the other bloggers? Not that these people (or me) are calling other bloggers underhanded or liars – it’s not that at all. But I think there’s a lot of information about the business side of this that people would love to know, and it may very well influence their decisions. It’s easy to get a beginner in the points game to sign up for a credit card by saying “if you sign up through MY link I can guarantee you’ll get the points,” but I think a mention that it’s available everywhere else is also appropriate. Similarly, when MileValue continues to push the inferior US Airways affiliate link, it’s simply not right. There’s a better, non-affiliate offer, and it wasn’t even mentioned. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read their website since they provide a ton of useful information, but I’d be wary of taking credit card advice from them.

And while I’m discussing this, let me ask…do you think credit cards would be pushed if there were no affiliate links? We all know credit card signups are extremely valuable to boosting your points/miles earning strategy, but would we really see them as often as we do now? I personally don’t think so. For the life of me, I can’t really understand why there are so many affiliate links at all. If these cards are so fantastic and so great for travel, wouldn’t all the points/travel bloggers point to them even without a commission? Why do the banks pay hundreds of dollars per card? If your response to that is “Bloggers will point to them more often if they’re paid for it,” then we have a problem, because that implies they’ll point to them when it’s not necessary – otherwise known as “pushing” links.

That’s fine, it’s their prerogative if they decide to do that. I just want everyone to be informed about what’s going on behind the scenes. This is why everyone and their mom needs to blog about it when a new card or offer comes out. They might add their personal thoughts on the card or link to their own review, but they want their affiliate money too. That’s why I thought the 100k offer was a little funny, because the big affiliate companies, and therefore most bloggers, don’t have links to creditcards.com.

If you’re interested in this affiliate stuff, I will say that it’s very tempting to get involved with. Just seeing the list of categories and companies that offer a commission made me want to quit my job and start making websites. There’s so much opportunity there, and it sounds amazing to be able to make money while you sleep, but there’s always a catch. Hopefully now you have a better idea of what that catch is.

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Comments

  1. First, thanks so much for your transparency.
    Blogging takes a ton of time and effort. I have a grand total of 7 posts, and honestly, I’m not sure how much longer I can keep it up. I hope you find an effective way of monetizing your blog. It looks great, you’ve obviously put in a lot of work into it, and you just broke a great deal. Have you looked into one of those amazon ad widget for your sidebar?

  2. Bravo! I got the exact same rap months and months ago, when flexoffers denied my app for the “Big” credit card issuers, but approved the full panopoly of Discover cards (I wonder if we spoke to the same person?). At first I thought I’d play the game, but the playing field got so large that I backed off and did my own thing. I just couldn’t push a card I wouldn’t recommend to a friend. I’d rather post a link to a Kindle or Brooks sneakers – at least if someone bought those from my affiliate links (and no one did), I believe in the products.

    Please don’t be offended at the following questions, as they are ones I ask myself as well (1) do you hate FlexOffers for their policies, don’t you think the credit card companies are in turn pulling FlexOffers’ strings? (2) Would you hate them as much if you were approved?

    • Travel Summary says:

      1. I don’t know whether it’s FlexOffers or the banks themselves. The banks definitely have a lot of say in any case. It’s possible that I hate both.
      2. Money is blinding, and I probably wouldn’t hate them as much, but I’d still hate their policies.

  3. This is a way cool post. I found out where I am ranked and found other websites that are linking to mine. Good way to track your influence on the internets :D

  4. Good and honest article. It’s disappointing to see how much of a corrupting influence the affiliates have had on the blogs I used to respect. It’s hard to maintain independence when someone other than your customers/readers is paying you. I don’t think bloggers quite realize the subconscious change in behavior that occurs.

  5. This post is fantastic. I was recently approved for a FlexOffers account, but based on this, I’m not going to go gung-ho into working with them. In time maybe, but maybe not. I enjoy periodically writing about my travels, experiences, and good deals. Like you, I want to stay objective.

    Thanks for posting this. I learned a lot about FlexOffers. I, too, wonder how these credit cards would be discussed in the blogosphere if commissions were not paid…

  6. Scottrick says:

    You got an email in reply. Heck, you got a friggin’ phone call. Working with FlexOffers reminds me of reading Kafka’s “Before the Law.”

    • Travel Summary says:

      Just read the summary of “Before the Law” and it seems to be a pretty good analogy. Not sure what that says about me though…

  7. Most excellent post! It will be my MVP Post of the Day for sure. Wow, you are just confirming I was too kind to call this company “Bent Offers”. Or maybe it should be Bend Offers, as in bend over now! The lack of transparency and pushiness makes me throw up in my mouth. I think I should start a blog post titled “How the bloggers sold their souls to the Devil” or something like that!

  8. funny comment, Scott.

    I presume you all saw the recent announcement of the acquisition of the Credit Card division of FlexOffers by BankRate?

  9. Thank you for this fascinating post! I had no idea the game was THAT dirty. I know my little niche eco-tourism/birding blog wouldn’t qualify for the major links based on past history of Cranky Flier and a couple others losing their links. My Alexa is is worse than yours, 8,746,603. Boarding Area is 17,612 so that’s why most of their bloggers get approved easily. Ironically, I do have links to all the major credit cards in my Google ads but I don’t know if I get more commission if someone is actually approved via my ads. The UA offer via the ads is worse than the current 55k one. I was thinking of trying for the links just to run my own app-o-rama through them, and then let them boot me when I fail to make quota. What I did so far was to make reference pages with links to the airline websites credit card partner pages just for information as I don’t want to be one of those credit card pimps and ruin the spirit of my blog. I do have Amazon.com affiliate links which I can post sporadically as they have no shortage of books/products that would appeal to birders. BTW, I love your banner! I’d like to do a custom theme at some point but can’t afford it.

    • Travel Summary says:

      I try to do the same thing – a separate page for all the links. Keep it clean and pimp-free! And don’t worry, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunity to monetize your blog in the future! Just keep at it, things will fall in to place.

  10. How does Flex Offers make their money? I would venture a guess that the bank pays them the full commission, then they pass on the bulk of it to their affiliate. So would it be correct to say that when you click on an affiliate link, you are helping to support the Flex Offers company?

    • Travel Summary says:

      I’m not 100% sure how they make their money, but what you said sounds logical. They very well could be a middleman that takes a small cut.

  11. Milerunner says:

    Bravo!
    Thanks for shining an overdue light on the underbelly of the miles/points blogging world.
    I’d like to see far more transparency in this secretive shilling game.

  12. I do not know for sure but I am certain they take a cut and it is large enough for them to be so choosy! So, let’s see: Chase pays BO (B stands for Bent), BO pays blogger. Middlemen orgy. We get miles/points over and over. WHO PAYS???????????????? Yep, it is the suckers out there who get excited about all the point scores! Increased usage yes. But I bet you the BIG money is made on the interest charged on balances and late/other fees. So BIG in fact that pays enough to take care of both FO and bloggers.

    I have no direct knowledge…this is my take on this whole thing.

    As far as monitoring which offers you talk about and the language…it is Baloney. The more income you bring in the less the more eager for them to look away!

    I need to go wash my mouth now:-)

    • They do look away! MMS (to his credit) discloses better offers than his affiliate links, which would appear to be against the rules but he hasn’t lost his links! But based on his Alexa rankings, he must be doing a LOT of business!

  13. You are a good man. Thanks

    • @ Miles to Wild – Sorry to hear that you can’t monetize via CC offers. However, your independence probably influences your original content. I was floored when I saw your write-up on the LifeMiles visa. It’s on my watch list, but gets no coverage anywhere. I monitor the “LifeMiles may be the best program in Star” thread on FlyerTalk, and I haven’t even seen it mentioned there. Original content. Congrats.

  14. Great article! Thank you for taking the time to put all this together. The more informed we all are, the better.

  15. BrittBleaker says:

    The last part of this article was ludicrous. Everything else was plausible. It’s clear more credit cards are being pushed because of affiliate links and that certain cards are. But to question the entire validity of signing up for cards? That’s the name of the game for earning miles. Besides how did you get the traffic surge? Clearly because other bloggers with affiliate links linked to the 100k AMEX offer on your site for no personal profit. Your reaction to affiliate links sounds like the story of The Fox and the Grapes. –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fox_and_the_Grapes

    • Travel Summary says:

      Perhaps you misunderstood what I wrote. I never questioned the validity of signing up for cards. I actually mentioned that it’s a great way to boost your mile/point-earning strategy. I only question the AFFILIATE links themselves, not the offers.

      I got the traffic surge not because of the bloggers. If you noticed, most “hat tips” came at the very end, in small font. I got nearly every bit of traffic either directly or from FlyerTalk. Boarding Area and TPG represented less than 10% of my referral traffic. Half of the other bloggers didn’t even link to me, and I still don’t know if I’m getting paid for it anyway.

  16. gregorygrady says:

    Great blog post and expo! I am totally skeptical anytime I hear credit card advice come out of the mouth of a blogger that is being paid via affiliate referral links. The problem is that most newbies don’t know any better and just follow along like lemmings, not knowing any better. You have really hit the nail on the head though with this one. LOL, I got a kick out of gleff’s blog post today: “Which CC is better, the Sapphire Preferred or the Ink Bold”…………………………….and of course what is gleff’s summary and conclusion? THAT HE SUGGESTS YOU GET BOTH. What else would you expect from him. Then when I call him out in his blog posts for the credit card salesman that he is, he goes and censors the comments. Worst part is that he claims he doesn’t censor comments, and that he has only censored a single person. Funny, I can no longer post on his blog comments, as he deletes every single comment I make on there. And there are others as well. The guy is a lying salesman…………………..what other type of salesman is there though. thanks for posting your experiences here with affiliate links, it is VERY much appreciated. I have never read your blog before, but I see a bunch of blog posts that interest me very much, so I am going to go back and read them all and then put you on my list of daily blogs to read. Keep up the great work……………and if you do ever get affiliate links in the future, please do as FrequentMiler does and don’t shove them down our throats.

    • Travel Summary says:

      Great comment! I agree that comments should NOT be censored unless there is a personal attack of some sort. I know several bloggers that do this and it’s really infuriating.

      I’m glad to have you as a new reader. Frequent Miler is my idol in terms of affiliate links – I believe that’s how ALL bloggers should do it. I’ve already created separate “Credit Cards” and “Support Me” pages, and don’t plan to add more than one link per post.

      Thanks for the comment, I really do appreciate it.

    • Well, I am not signed up with affiliates, but to be fair, if you asked me the same question, I would also tell you to get both. And a few months later grab the Bold too if you can handle the spend. It makes perfect sense to grab both CSP and Ink Plus not only for the bonus (although, that’s what interests me the most) but also to maximize your game with UR mall. So, again, let’s just be fair.When a blogger tells you to sign up for a POS card, that’s a totally different story, of course.

  17. Great post. Thanks for being so transparent. I really don’t like how affiliate links have changed the travel/points blogs. Good work if you can get it, but at what cost?

    • Travel Summary says:

      Thanks for the comment Brad. There are definitely costs, and now I know them better than I ever did. Hopefully others do too.

  18. As a newbie to this sport, it’s very easy to get into the mind set that you are missing out if you don’t participate in the latest and greatest offer. What starts with reading one blog, mushrooms to more than you can count, with many of them echoing the same message. I fell for this especially on the Ink Bold – remember how at the end of 2012 they said that 50,000 bonus was going away? It’s 2013, and it looks like the offer is still here… Still think it’s a great card, but knowing the affiliate game and background motivations helps me read the blogs with a different view. Thanks for the post and keep it up.

    • Travel Summary says:

      You’re the the audience this was written for because I know most experts know how this stuff works. I was in the exact same boat as you at one point, and I just want people to be informed when making their decisions. Always ask questions!

  19. I enjoyed reading your post. Very informative. I’m a newbie to the points game, I only started collecting in July 2012. I learned long ago that there is only one person looking out for my best interests…me. So when bloggers say get this card or that card, I don’t act on it. However, I am very appreciative of the time all these bloggers put into their writings.

    • Travel Summary says:

      I’m glad you found this post useful. The bloggers definitely provide TONS of value. I read all of them all the time, and I’m constantly learning new stuff myself. But the credit card items demand a little more thought from our (the customer) side.

  20. Great article! I have been dreading to start with this game (not that I qualify anyway, since my Alexa rank is several times worse than yours) but there is no way in hell I will direct people to inferior offering just to keep credit cards happy. I will say this in defense of Milevalue though: unlike the other USair offer you’ve mentioned, the affiliate offer OFFICIALLY makes it available to everyone, and not just the Chairman members. Yes, we all know it still works for everyone, but for a newbie having it all spelled out is often more important than an annual fee. Again, great article and thank you for your analysis.

  21. This article is pretty much must read on the subject. I find MMM’s writing to be a bit tedious at times, but his integrity is gold plated.

    http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/06/21/i-just-gave-up-4000-per-month-to-keep-my-freedom-of-speech/

    Good stuff TS.

    • Travel Summary says:

      Thanks, I’m very familiar with that post by MMM. I did lots of research before getting started and this one kept coming up. It’s good info for those interested.

  22. Funny how NONE of the main miles&points bloggers have cared to comment on this post.

  23. Bro, from one desi travel hacking nomad to another, bravo for this straight up – no bullshit – transparent post. Thanks man for sharing insights into this black hole of affiliate card process and for being open to discussions here and being authentic in all that you were dealing with internally. I have one word – Brilliant!

  24. Great post! I just clicked through after seeing your link on FT. I got that same guy from Flexoffers. He wanted me to also write blog posts pushing banner pages – linking to an entire list of Bankrate affiliate cards (on their site) one example he gave me was ‘write a post of cards to restore bad credit then link to this bad credit page of ours’ I checked it out and on that page we’re some of the most disgusting cards – high APRs mixed in with Prepaids that didn’t report your credit score… wanker.

    I told him no, and could i have a direct link to a card that I value, he told me Alexa of under 100K.. fair enough, but i’m not linking my readers to crap for the chance to make a buck from this guy.

  25. Enjoyed the transparency of your post as well. At the end of the day, I think that as long as someone writes about what he loves and is passionate about, then he will attract the right type of person who believes what he believes. From there, affiliates etc. will come.

  26. Very interesting post. I had no idea that CC’s would require a traffic-ranking minimum to approve you. After going thru what you did, I can understand why you declined the entire arrangement. But, I’m thinking there has got to be a better portal/arrangement out there for small scale bloggers to aff link to CC’s.

  27. I just started to write a blog on Saving money and now starting into credit cards. Would you suggest Flexoffers is okay for a fairly newer blog or ?

    Thanks
    Kate
    MoneySaverNews

    • Travel Summary says:

      No! Start with another company. Only go to Flex if you want Barclay’s and Discover cards. Until you get HUGE conversions, Flex will not approve you for any programs.

  28. It is tough getting approved for credit card affiliates. Thanks for sharing your experience, and congrats on moving up in the Alexa rankings! I see that you’re in the 400k’s now!!!

    PS: It was nice meeting you at the Chicago Seminars.

  29. I know this is 1 year after this post, but I am new to the game. I have an app idea which I’d like to generate revenue via affiliate links. So far, I’ve only heard a lot of complaints, and I can see why. Like yourself, I have a moral compass that guides my business practices, and I value quality on the consumer side before pushing dollars through the business side. I’m always looking for out of the box ways for everyone to win on my terms.

    However, I got to start somewhere, and I was wondering if you could provide any suggestions on vendors who are easier to work with, and have more relaxed policies. If I can sign on with vendors like that, then that will be how I get my foot in the door. If not, then I will simply find some other revenue generating model. FWIW, I don’t mind building an app that provides quality guidance/content without the affiliate links. At this point, part of this is just because I want to, and I thought maybe I could make some cash along the way

    Thanks you for listening :)

  30. Great artice! And kudos for not sacrificing your transparency to be a salesman for the banks… Nothing is truly free, and it’s important to remember that!

  31. Don’t change and keep doing what you’re doing!

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