Backpacking Light Publisher and Founder Ryan Jordan’s letter to readers about journalistic integrity, product reviews, and affiliate commissions.
Dear Backpacking Light Reader,
This letter describes the longer-version of our affiliate disclosure statement, which is routinely appended to the end of our product reviews.
Here’s an example:
Product(s) discussed in this article may have been purchased by the author(s) from a retailer or direct from a manufacturer, or by Backpacking Light for the author. The purchase price may have been discounted as a result of our industry professional status with the seller. However, these discounts came with no obligation to provide media coverage or a product review. Backpacking Light does not accept compensation or donated/discounted products in exchange for guaranteed media placement or product review coverage.
Some (but not all) of the links in this review may be “affiliate” links. If you click on one of these links and visit one of our affiliate partners (usually a retailer site), and subsequently place an order with that retailer, we receive a small commission. These commissions help us provide authors with honoraria, fund our editorial projects, podcasts, instructional webinars, and more, and we appreciate it a lot! Thank you for supporting Backpacking Light!
So let’s have a frank discussion about how we protect product review integrity and how we approach affiliate marketing.
Our Values Drive Journalistic Integrity
Our Statement of Editorial Values:
We provide thoroughly-researched information and education about gear and skills (and other subjects of interest to backpackers) that is trustworthy, fair, and balanced.
Backpacking Light strives to educate and inform, so you can save time, money, and hassle when it comes to figuring out how to lighten your pack weight, hike and camp more comfortably, and figure out what gear to buy that works for you.
We value journalistic integrity, transparency, wilderness experience, research, science, and a rational decision-making process. We test and question and curate with one simple motivation: we want you to be able to trust our recommendations so you can achieve your own outdoor adventure goals without having to deal with clickbait, bias, conflicts of interest, and hidden agendas.
Backpacking Light has adhered to these values for nearly 20 years, and we plan on sticking with them for the next 20.
You don’t have an unlimited gear budget (how affiliate marketing has hijacked our ability to find product reviews you can trust)
Affiliate marketers depend on you spending money. Some of the strategies they use on their road to financial freedom:
- Provide positive reviews of everything and gloss over product limitations;
- Recommend products to readers that are beyond the scope of reader interests;
- Maximize clicks and search engine positioning with clickbait titles featuring gear (“Best Ultralight Tent of 2020!”) and gear categories (“Best Ultralight Stoves for Thru-Hikers!”) that includes products they may have never even used before.
The result is a practice that has evolved away from “helping a website owner make a little money for their content creation efforts” to a full-on business model that is predatory in nature.
So now, instead of product reviews with journalistic integrity that inform and educate, we are inundated by affiliate shills that exist primarily to make an affiliate sale.
Modern online marketing deploys psychologically powerful consumer manipulation tactics that can make full-time affiliate marketers enormously wealthy – at your expense.
So be careful out there. Spend money on gear carefully and with intention.
That’s (hopefully) where we come in.
When it comes to making product recommendations, we’re committed to the following principles:
- We won’t recommend any product “for everyone”, because we understand that not all gear works for all hikers – we all have different needs, preferences, and styles.
- We won’t publish “Best ___ (backpacks, ultralight shelters, stoves, etc.) of 2019″ articles – these clickbait listicles are a sure sign that you are stumbling onto a website that is strongly biased by, and dependent upon, affiliate marketing revenues. Website publishers who engage in these tactics claim that these tactics are necessary to optimize search engine performance, because “that’s what people are searching for.” Well, there you go – by their admission – a great example of how clicks over community and affiliate marketing have hijacked our ability to find trustworthy product reviews.
- We’re OK with giving gear poor performance reviews. We generally don’t make it a habit to review lousy equipment. Still, we will seek out anomalies on the market that we feel should be reported on – especially popular and well-known products that suffer from significant performance flaws.
What’s our review process, and why should you trust it?
First, an important principle that is the foundation of our product review program:
Backpacking Light does not accept free or discounted products, money, or any in-kind service in exchange for product reviews.
Product reviews are developed over the course of several weeks to several months; the process includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) the following components as necessary:
- Field testing appropriate to the type of product being reviewed.
- Side-by-side comparison between similar products.
- Interviews with users who have extensive experience with the product being reviewed.
- Consultation with subject-matter experts about materials, design, and engineering.
- Research about the product from other editorial sources, and evaluation of the sources in terms of their bias, reviewer experience, conflicts of interests, reputation, and review methodology.
- Research about customer experiences from published user reviews, and analysis of those user reviews for both positive and negative experiences with the product being reviewed.
In our reviews, we will disclose our review methodology and include in that disclosure the following as deemed necessary for justifying review claims: description of field testing, description of reviewer experience, and history of reviewer experience with related products.
When we make formal recommendations in product reviews (as identified by the Highly Recommended, Recommended, or Guide’s Gear badges), we do so only when:
- We believe the product has a broad appeal to our readership;
- We believe the product’s performance-to-weight ratio is materially better than most of its competitors;
- We have extensive field experience with the product in a wide range of conditions; and
- We have corroborated our findings with others who have extensive field experience with the product in a wide range of conditions.
We make three types of format recommendations:
- Highly Recommended – a product that has a performance-to-weight ratio that is among the highest in its category.
- Recommended – a product that has a performance-to-weight ratio that is substantially higher than most products in its category.
- Guide’s Gear – a product that achieves a high performance-to-weight ratio while providing durability, value, and applicability across a wide range of conditions.
To what extent do we engage in affiliate marketing?
Our revenue streams (in order of importance, i.e., relative size, from highest to lowest; arrows indicate growth as a % of total revenue trends since 2016) are:
- Membership sales
- Affiliate commissions
- Display advertising*
- Online education sales
- Guided treks
- Live event ticket sales
* As a result of us intentionally reducing the number of ads we are serving, and eliminating advertising for Unlimited Members.
We have affiliate marketing relationships with several networks and merchants (more than 100 merchants – product brands and retailers) as of November 2019).
Are affiliate commissions an important revenue stream for us? Yes, absolutely.
A note here, however. In 2018, we terminated our affiliate relationship with Amazon. This was a decision that has cost us more revenue than any other income stream. In good conscience, we simply cannot support a company that devalues workers’ wages and benefits, transparency, and sustainability – values that are (supposed to be) wholly consistent with the outdoor recreation industry. Disclosure: we still use AWS for some of our media hosting in the cloud (our current contract averages < $10/month), but we are actively exploring alternatives.
Do our affiliate commissions introduce bias?
But we are in the fortunate position to have diverse sources of revenue, and other than membership sales, we are not dependent on any one of the other revenue streams to pay our operating expenses or our employees.
That said, if all of our affiliate revenues disappeared tomorrow, it would have minimal impact on our ability to keep delivering trustworthy and comprehensive editorial content.
What affiliate revenues do provide for us is the ability to fund company growth, reach more hikers with the lightweight gospel, buy more gear to review, and develop more education and outreach programs.
These are all really good things, and we’d be foolish to cannibalize any revenue stream intentionally in a way that would cause these things to suffer.
But there are philosophical reasons why we must reject the temptation to review products positively in order to stimulate a consumer to make a purchase.
The primary reason is that if we lose the trust of our members, our membership sales will decrease, and that would have more severe consequences for our financial health than losing some affiliate commissions.
However, I do wonder if our articles or reviews or recommendations result in somebody purchasing a piece of gear they didn’t need.
I have strong ideological ties to the principles of:
- Responsible consumption
- Fiscal responsibility
…and I don’t want to leave a legacy that has had a negative impact on our environment, your time, or your credit card.
Now, back to the question: do affiliate commissions introduce bias into our reviews?
From the standpoint of our authors and editors, generally, the answer is no. Their salary (editors) or honorarium (authors) is not tied to affiliate performance. In addition, our authors don’t have visibility into our affiliate marketing business model – an intentional choice on my part to make sure that editorial integrity is their #1 priority.
For example, when affiliate links are added to our product reviews, they are done at the very end of the production process – writers and editors play no role in identifying prospective affiliate links, adding them to their articles, or otherwise influencing, directing, or being influenced by, our affiliate marketing strategy. In some cases, links are autogenerated by AI and keyword matching software that runs transparently in the background, which adds the links after the page is loaded. For example, this is the process by which most autogenerated affiliate links will appear in forum posts. When you see a link that points to a URL of the form backpackinglight.com/shop/product-name – there’s a high probability that link was autogenerated by software. (Important: we never edit your forum posts outside of very occasional SEO edits as outlined in our Terms & Conditions).
But when I’m personally developing content for Backpacking Light that includes affiliate links – full disclosure – the temptation is there. Allow me to explain what this means. In this case, I’m wearing several different hats – the publisher, responsible for developing and overseeing the business model; the author, responsible for developing a review you can trust because it fairly and honestly presents the product’s performance; the CFO, responsible for the company’s cash flow; the CMO, responsible for growing company sales; and an employee, who gets paid by the company so we can pay our bills at home.
I do recognize and acknowledge this temptation, but at the same time, my tolerance for manipulative marketing tactics (driven by my INTJ personality type) is extremely low.
Sometimes my adherence to intuition (I), thinking (T), and justice (J) paints me into an ideological corner that is hard to escape from, which means that I am inclined to have ideological beliefs about how gear should perform. So if you have a reason to distrust my product recommendations, you are more likely to do so because of my intolerance for poor gear performance than flowery product recommendations motivated by a thirst for affiliate revenues.
So why risk losing members and integrity in what I’m writing in the interest of growing affiliate revenue? It’s not worth it to me.
Plus, I’m passionate about math and analytics. And I know – I have almost two decades of data to prove it – that preserving and building our membership sales revenue is more valuable for our long-term financial sustainability than the incremental increase that comes from writing affiliate shills.
I hope that you will acknowledge my inherent bias, but that it will be compensated for by my experience and background in wilderness travel, product development, entrepreneurial longevity, industry/market awareness, and journalistic integrity.
Here’s the bottom line:
We aim to produce the most authoritative and trustworthy outdoor gear, technology, and skills education available anywhere.
If that resonates with you and you’d be willing to support us on this journey, please consider joining our community and becoming a member.
Founder and Publisher, Backpacking Light