How to identify sponsored content and affiliate links

We all consume content online, from informational blog articles to funny TikTok videos. But growing a large audience and creating content takes a lot of time and resources, so creators often try to monetize their efforts by working with brands in exchange for some form of payment.

This results in sponsored content, where a brand pays a creator for their efforts. Sponsored content can be beneficial for professional creators such as bloggers, social media influencers, and major publications to survive as a business with brand partnerships. This kind of content can also allow small creative entrepreneurs to make a living from their content.

However, as consumers we often look up to and trust bloggers and influencers. We seek out information about products to help us decide what we want to buy. When content creators don't disclose that they were paid to create content for a brand, consumers are not able to factor potential bias into their purchase decision. They can't make truly informed decisions.

What is the difference between affiliate and sponsored content?

Affiliate marketing and sponsored content are sometimes used interchangeably, and often present in similar ways. Content that is "sponsored" simply means that there was some sort of material exchange between a company and a content creator.

Affiliate content is a form of sponsored content. It involves a revenue share model where the content creator receives a commission percentage or flat fee for referring sales to a company. Affiliate sales are tracked in several ways, typically using special links or coupon codes that provide the vendor with information identifying the referrer.

Commonly, an influencer might post something like, "Use my code influencer20 to get 20% off your order. " When you make a purchase using that coupon code, the company then pays the influencer a referral fee. Affiliate content is one example of sponsored content, but there are other non-affiliate sponsorships as well.

Sponsored content might also look like a company paying a placement fee in exchange for a blog post written about their product. A brand might also pay for a social media post sharing photos of an influencer using their product. In cases like these a content creator will receive a flat fee for their blog post or social media post. The creator will likely link to the website of the brand or company sponsoring the article, but the brand does not pay a commission to the content creator if users make purchases.

How to tell if content is sponsored

Legally, content creators must disclose sponsored content to the audience, so looking out for a disclosure is a great start to identifying sponsored content. However, many websites do not use the proper disclosures, so we’ll share some tips below on how to identify non-compliant sponsored and affiliate content.

FTC disclosure guidelines for affiliate and sponsored content

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission is the regulating body in charge of setting guidelines for advertisers. The FTC has created sets of requirements for people and companies that share any type of sponsored content.

This goes beyond simple situations where a company pays a blog to write a review of a product. It includes a wide variety of situations where any form of payment or exchange is made, like when a company provides a free product for a user to test and review.

The FTC's disclosure guidelines ensure that consumers know the motive behind the content that they are consuming. When you're looking for information online, you have the right to know if there are conflicts of interest that may bias the content. If someone is being paid to test and review a product, they

According to FTC guidelines, sponsorship disclosures must:

- Be placed conspicuously. Disclosures cannot be hidden in sidebars or footers of websites, or in a comment of a social media post
- Appear before any product links
- Use clear and concise language that the average person would understand. The language might look like "advertisement" "ad" "sponsored content" "paid post".

What is native advertising?

Some of the most popular publications online have been using “native advertising.” Native advertising is when a company pays for placement in a way that looks like an objective review or article. It’s in an effort to fool consumers into thinking they are reading an objective review, when in fact they are being sold a product based on opinions disguised as facts.

Native advertising, even with the legally required disclosures, is designed to deceive consumers. If the appropriate sponsorship disclosure is in place, the creator has placed it so that it is visually subtle and easy to miss.

How to identify affiliate content

As we mentioned, the easiest way to identify affiliate content is by finding an affiliate disclosure. Websites that make money from affiliate sales are legally required to disclose their status to readers.

Identifying affiliate links

Affiliate sales are usually tracked using special links. Here are examples of a few different types of affiliate links.

UTM links

Some of the links carry UTM attributes, which look something like this:

Other link attributes

Some affiliate platforms and commerce stores use a different type of link attribute. Amazon affiliate links will include a tag that looks like this:

Redirect links

Redirect links are another way that affiliate deals are tracked. If you use Chrome as your web browser, when you hover your mouse over a hyperlink, a preview of the link appears in the bottom left corner of your browser.
screenshot example with hyperlink circled in red
If you click the link, you’ll notice that the URL in your browser is different than the preview you noted.
example of final destination link in browser
This happens because the link was redirecting, and the referral data was transferred to the e-commerce store so that revenue can be attributed back to the linking website.

Coupon codes

Coupon codes are another likely indication of an affiliate or sponsored relationship, even if there is no disclosure. Coupon codes are especially popular on social media platforms where tracking links are hard to use (e.g., Instagram). Instead of a tracking link you might see an influencer post a call to action like, “use code Influencer123 for 10% off!” The e-commerce company can then identify and attribute which sales were driven by an influencer or partner and pay them a commission.

Note, this is not always the case! Some influencers and publishers simply want to give their audience a good deal on a product that they like. Bloggers and influencers are required by law to disclose a relationship when they post coupon codes, so that is still the clearest indication of a relationship between the brand and the promoter.

Examples of major publications using affiliate links

News and media companies have used sponsored content and advertisements as a primary source of revenue since they began heavily migrating online.

Over the last few years, most of the major media companies across the U.S. have invested in some form of affiliate business. For example, the New York Times bought Wirecutter, and USA Today owns Reviewed.

Other notable affiliate websites include Healthline, Buzzfeed, TwentyTwoWords, and Runners World. If you come across a large website that talks about and links externally to products or services, chances are it is sponsored or affiliate content.

Should you avoid shopping through affiliate and sponsored links?

This article isn’t intended to be a scare or smear piece. There is nothing inherently wrong with sponsored content or affiliate links. However, FTC disclosure guidelines exist for an important reason: to protect consumers against deceptive marketing tactics.

When organizations explicitly go against disclosure guidelines and deliberately hide that their content is sponsored, that is a problem. These practices hinder the consumer’s right to make informed choices.

There is also an undeniable, unavoidable implication of bias in content that involves payment. Affiliates will guarantee 100% unbiased reviews and content, which simply is not possible when there is an exchange of money. They may be sharing their genuine thoughts about a product or service, but they are choosing the product based on a limited set of criteria (i.e., only what is available for affiliate payout). Affiliates may unknowingly or deliberately prioritize one product over another if there is a greater payout.

Consumers do not necessarily need to avoid consuming media that contains advertisements and affiliate deals. However, consumers should be empowered to identify which content is sponsored and which is not. Informed consumers can weigh a publication’s potential bias in their decision to trust the content they consume.