Tarzan Kay


March 15, 2024

to you

What you're reading is a copy of an email my subscribers received. This is an archive, so it's possible some links are missing or expired. If you want to stay in the loop, make sure to jump on my email list and get these delivered direct to your inbox!


why affiliate links feel creepy

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I’m offering half-day VIP days in April (3 spots available) to work
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I’ll tell you more next week but let’s chat now if you
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Here’s why affiliate links sometimes feel creepy
(and what to do instead)

The online course industry is a bit of a circle jerk.

(No shade on circle jerks! If I had the apparatus, I would try it at least once.)

Before I had my own programs, my business generated a healthy profit selling other people’s programs—about $300K+/year at its peak, with a list of less than 5000 subscribers.*

Eventually I opted out of large-scale affiliate promotions.

I wanted to focus on my own programs. I wanted to be as good at delivery as I was at selling.

More urgently, I also saw that the same 5 people were promoting the same 5 programs, passing leads back and forth according to where they could make the greatest profit, and gatekeeping who got to be in the circle.

It was frustrating to see influential course creators engage in nepotism when they could’ve been promoting their own student’s courses.

Even a shoutout in an email can make a real difference in people’s businesses, as many of my subscribers have shared.

And yet…

Affiliate revenue is a good way to monetize your email list.

Most of the newsletters I follow are monetized with ads. (For example, if you sign up to this newsletter-reading app [affiliate link], I’ll make $4 USD.)

If your subscribers care enough to read your emails every week, they also care to know what apps you use, who you’re learning from, which service providers you hired, what brand of deodorant you wear, and and and.**

I don’t want you to miss out on the revenue that comes from paid recommendations, ads, affiliate commissions, etc.

I also don’t want you to be creepy about it.

Transparency is one of my ethical business practices. So let’s talk about what that looks like.

I recently flagged an email that said at the bottom in a light gray font:

“*” indicates sponsored content

That’s not transparency.

Non-disclosure is obviously deceptive (and illegal). But you tell me, Sheila? Does that seem like disclosure? As per the FTC, disclosure should appear before affiliate links and be “clear and conspicuous.”

When I recommend something, I put (affiliate link) directly after the link, which is more clear than writing “this email may contain affiliate links” at the top, even though that would technically be FTC compliant.

I want you to know exactly which links are affiliate links, and which I’m sharing just because.

Newsletter referral swaps are a close cousin of affiliate links, so I’ve decided to add (referral swap) or (paid recommendation) after those. This way you know when I’m being paid to share someone’s work, or sharing in exchange for them sharing mine.

You’ve likely spent a lot of time building trust with your subscribers. That’s worth something.

If you have a lot of women or trans people in your audience, then you have an audience that is exceptionally sensitive to any marketing that is not consensual or transparent. (I’ve noticed men seem better able to hand-wave stuff like this away. Obviously not all men.)

Be clear:

Are you promoting this person/brand because they’re a client? A student? Because they’re your friend? Because they agreed to promote you?

In order for people to consent, they have to know what they’re consenting to. Otherwise it’s not consent. No need to make a big deal of it, apologize, or downplay what you’re recommending.

State the facts and move on.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.


*That was a different time. It was easier to sell courses pre-pandemic. To do $300K in affiliate revenue from courses, I would likely need 30K+ subscribers.

**Old Spice, because women’s deodorant is a scam. Plus the label copy is brilliant, even the fine print buried on the back (“hang a beautiful painting of a mountain in your armpits“) 

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What I’m reading + watching this week

 Collecting “zero-party data” is a must for consent-based marketers — see how to get it in Typeform’s free workshop on how to prepare for a cookieless future

 This email about spending 3 days reading 344 emails by yours truly written by the self-professed “President of the Tarzan Kay Fan Club” (holy  this got me in the feels)

 From LinkedIn: Everybody says this about email, but it’s only partially true 

Screenshot from Tarzan's LinkedIn post saying: Meta goes down for 90 minutes and all the email marketers be like, "I TOLD YOU SO< LOSERS! Never build on borrowed land!"
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Reply to the email


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Start writing consent-based copy and prioritize people over profit 


You can make money without being a greasy promise-pusher, slapping "70% OFF FOR ONE DAY ONLY!" all over your website, or putting giant red countdown timers in every email. Here's how. 


The easiest ways to Tarzan-ify your emails and launch copy


The Course Launch Copy Kit ($27)

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