Researchers from Princeton University’s Department of Computer Science have conducted an empirical study on affiliate marketing, an online marketing strategy in which companies pay a commission to social media figures for driving sales.
Affiliate marketing links were drawn from randomly drawn samples of 500,000 YouTube videos and 2.1 million Pinterest pins. 3,472 YouTube videos and 18,237 Pinterest pins with affiliate links from 33 marketing companies were found. This is the first publicly available list of this size. The Princeton researchers found the links by identifying characteristic patterns in the URLs that marketers use to track readers’ clicks.
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Subsequently, natural language processing tools were used to search for disclosures of affiliate marketing relationships within the description of the pins and videos. They were found in only 10 percent of the YouTube videos and seven percent of the pins.
“Affiliate link” disclosures, which used wording such as “Disclosure: These are affiliate links” were the most common. These are exactly the kind of disclosures the United States Federal Trade Commission said people shouldn’t be using, as their meaning is not always clear to users.
A user study of nearly 1,800 participants that revealed the relative effectiveness of different types of disclosures was also a part of this research. Only 50 percent of the participants were able to correctly interpret the meaning of “affiliate link” disclosures on Pinterest, while 65 percent understood them when paired with YouTube videos. When presented with “explanation” disclosures, nearly 95 percent of users on both platforms were able to explain that the content creator would be paid when a product was purchased through an affiliate link. “Channel support” disclosures, which only appeared on YouTube, were correctly interpreted by 85 percent of participants.
The researchers have recommended that regulators take broader legal action against affiliate marketing companies for failures to disclose, and have stressed that social media platforms should make it easier for content creators to disclose marketing relationships in a standardized manner.