Affiliate links — I used to be dead against ’em: why taint my work with that of a commission salesman when I don’t have to? The pandemic changed that outlook. A year of lockdowns and the ensuing advertising income collapse opened my eyes to how affiliate income, alongside Patreon, could help reduce this publication’s exposure to a(nother) black swan event and, as it turns out, give me access to more elusive hardware — we’ll get to that.
Whilst not the perfect business model for any publisher (what is?), a combination of website banner ad advertising, Patreon subscriptions and YouTube ads – hard-coded and Google Ad Sense – combine to keep the content hosted on these pages free to view; and, therefore, not tucked away behind a paywall. Spreading financial exposure across several income streams thus lessens one’s dependence on any single income stream.
So where do affiliate links fit into this mix?
I won’t tease the big reveal: since joining two affiliate programs in January 2022 (Amazon and Howl), this publication has pulled in a total of €15,000. That’s quite a chunk of change. Time to book a first-class flight to Turks and Caicos to spend a month by the beach? Not quite.
Reviewers making megabucks is the lazy talk of conspiracy theorists whose conclusory statements, by definition, need never be proven. I am also aware that the more transparency you afford an audience about the inner workings of your business, the more some will try to take. (And if they can’t take it, they’ll fabricate it). This article therefore aims to balance your right to know with my right to privacy.
I joined Amazon’s affiliate program to (initially) try it for a year with the affiliate links on this website and associated YouTube channel looking like this:
Peter Gabriel i/o 2CD + Blu-Ray
Notice how the link is ‘naked’. It is not masked by a word, phrase or bit.ly shortcut. This was a deliberate decision on my part so that you, dear reader, aren’t forced to hover over a linked word or phrase to see the link displayed in your browser’s status bar to determine if it is an affiliate link or not. The shopping cart emoji doubles down on that clarity. A page or description box containing affiliate links will also display this phrase at the bottom:
Darko.Audio may earn a small commission from items purchased via affiliate links. They are indicated by a ‘🛒’.
If you were to click the Peter Gabriel link above and buy the 2CD + Blu-Ray set of i/o, I would receive 5% of the sale price: just over a dollar. And that sale price is the same whether you buy from my affiliate link or not.
Now our first twist enters the frame. In clicking that link, Amazon, with your permission, puts a cookie on your computer so that I get between 1% and 10% of anything you buy from Amazon.com within the following 24 hours. And that brings us to why I have persisted with Amazon’s affiliate program beyond my self-imposed trial period. Most of the income generated by Amazon affiliate links comes from purchases that aren’t connected to audio. It has come instead from people buying things like books, coffee, gardening tools, computer parts, candy and batteries.
This takeaway is similar to Howl’s affiliate program which sends this publication up to 12% of the value of all purchases made through links to Crutchfield’s online store. That affiliate income, whilst generated by audio/hi-fi hardware purchases, rarely comes from the item being linked to. For example, last year, I created a link to a Bluesound Node only to see it generate more affiliate income from speakers and subwoofers made by other manufacturers.
That affiliate link looks like this:
Bluesound NODE (2021)
Again, the link is naked and accompanied by a shopping cart emoji.
Fortunately, the pandemic-induced advertising income downturn didn’t last long. By early 2022, hi-fi manufacturer marketing budgets had returned to normal. But by then I no longer needed the advertising income as much as I once did. Patreon growth had not only allowed me to turn the Darko.Audio advertising base into an invite-only proposition (more on that in a moment) but I was able to let go of a few clients in the process — including one that was not so subtly trying to tie its advertising spend to editorial coverage. When this became apparent, I cut the cord by a) declining all review assignments and b) not renewing the advertising contract. No single Darko.Audio advertising client is irreplaceable.
Readers should know that every year since 2020 I have audited our video content to ensure that coverage of non-advertisers products outnumbers those made by advertisers by a ratio of at least 3:1. And each year we’ve hit that target! Less obvious to the casual reader is how the manufacturers of my favourite products are the ones invited to become advertisers (and not the other way around). This dog wags its own tail.
Moreover, publishers making use of affiliate income streams might consider treating it similarly to banner advertising. ‘Round these parts, just as a manufacturer doesn’t need to be an advertiser for us to review its product – only that we have the interest and the time – neither does that product need to be tied to an affiliate program.
But what of the affiliate income made by Darko.Audio since January 2022 — where has that gone? The short answer: back into the business.
In many cases, I have used the Amazon/Howl affiliate income to open doors to hardware with which I have no point of contact with the manufacturer. These manufacturers are often the industry’s biggest players – Bose, Sony and Apple – but they can also be harder-to-reach companies like FiiO and Sennheiser. If I wanted to bring their hardware home to find out how something sounded and what it was like to use, I had to go buy it.
In the past two years, I have purchased the following items:
Sony WF-1000XM5 €380 (Reviewed on Patreon)
Apple AirPods Pro 2 €350 (Reviewed here)
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 €300 (Reviewed here)
Sennheiser IE300 €350 (Featured here and here)
Sony NW-A306 €400 (Reviewed here)
Sony Xperia 1 V €1300 (Reviewed here)
Shanling ET3 €750 (Review in the works)
Rotel A11 Tribute €600 (Reviewed here)
Audiolab 6000A Play €900 (Reviewed here and here)
FiiO KA2 €80 (Featured here)
FiiO FF3 €120 (Featured here)
FiiO PL50 €160 (Featured here)
Bose QC Ultra IEMs €350 (Review in the works)
Denon Perl Pro €200 (Review in the works)
This list is not exhaustive.
Then there are products that I’m not sure I’ll want to (or have the time to) review but that I want to try for an extended period. Usually, that means 12 months or more. I don’t deem it appropriate to ask a manufacturer for a loaner for which there is no guarantee that l will film or write a review. If I want to put these boxes into my listening room without being on the hook for a review, again, I gotta go buy ’em.
Since January 2022, this has included (but is not limited to):
Rotel CD11 Tribute €500
Thorens TD1500 €1900
Apple AirPods Max €680
FiiO FHE: Eclipse €150
PS Audio Stellar Phono €2500
Rega Planar 8 €2000
iFi 4.4mm to XLR cable €100
TEAC VRDS-701 €2500 (Review in the works)
TEAC CG-10M Master Clock Generator €1500 (Review in the works)
If we dub this the cost of ‘professional development’, those quick with mental maths will note that I’ve already overspent; and that my additional hardware bill sits north of the €15,000 earned via Howl and Amazon. The shortfall is propped up by Patreon — which is why many of these items have since made their way back to Patrons via giveaways.
My process of Darko.Audio advertiser attrition has continued throughout 2023. Client numbers are down 40% from their 2019 peak. And if all goes to plan, advertising client numbers will fall again in 2024. I am aiming for the smallest possible core of advertisers whose products I thoroughly enjoy and use in the day-to-day. Picking up the slack will be Patreon and Google Adsense (YouTube advertising) with affiliate income keeping me in otherwise unattainable curiosities.
Turks and Caicos will have to wait. 🏖️