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I have spent the past two years working in what was Europe's largest independent digital marketing agency. An agency that won countless awards, conducted some ground breaking online display work, was the first large agency to embrace social media and managed huge search budgets for it's clients.
The agency was innovative and forward thinking, we even had someone who held the job title Head of the Future.
However they just didn't get affiliate marketing. In my two years as Head of Affiliate a great deal of my time there was spent justifying the fact that affiliates should be included within plans for the client. The widespread feeling was that the affiliate marketplace was a murky area and sat very much towards the darker end of the marketing spectrum. It was a necessary evil in some cases but somewhat of a dark art which was to be neither understood or fully embraced.
My feeling is that this is quite a widely held view across the marketing landscape. But why should this be? The affiliate market is over 10 years old in the UK and continues to command an ever increasing share of budget, according to Econsultancy and IAB research. But is the negative perception surrounding the model holding affiliate marketing back from branching out even further and dominating budgets more as it probably should?
So what is the problem? Why does affiliate marketing seem to be considered as the slight grubbier younger brother of more mainstream online marketing channels? I wish to put two arguments forward to suggest why I feel that this may be the case.
Firstly, there has been malpractice within our industry previously and rather than policing it effectively, a blind eye has been turned in many cases. There have been instances of affiliates utilising malware to stuff cookies on to users machines, bidding on brand terms when they think that no one is looking, and voucher code affiliates using click to reveal mechanisms that drop cookies on users unwittingly. All of these things were not necessarily strictly illegal or against specific terms and conditions at the time, but they were unethical and left a sour taste in the mouth of any brands involved. Legislation and technology swiftly caught up in most cases and the vast majority of such practices have now been outlawed.
However the feeling of many was that these practices were only stamped out when they reached a tipping point when the brands involved were about to pull out of the space. There was no proactive action taken by the industry to police itself until after the horse had bolted.
My second reason is that the pace of change within the affiliate market makes it a lot harder to understand than other channels such as search and display, and therefore brands look on what they don't know with an element of distrust. If we look at the diversity of tactics that exist within the affiliate model now – content, cashback, voucher code, PPC, app development, price comparison, behavioural targeting etc – there is no surprise that some marketing managers struggle to get their head around it.
And this is another area where the industry hasn't helped itself. There has never been a consolidated voice within the affiliate space that has gone out and shouted about what we do and why it is so great. We have been happy to isolate ourselves somewhat and some parts of the industry seem to revel in this “outsider” role. But you can't have your cake and eat it. If you want a place at the top table, you need to demonstrate that you will behave properly through dinner.
So history and lack of understanding are the stumbling blocks. How do we address this? I am pleased to say that progress within both of these areas is positive within the UK market. The work started under my reign at the IAB's Affiliate Council and being ably continued by Kevin Edwards has introduced a feeling of security and proactivity to the market. For the first time it seems that all stakeholders are beginning to realise that the industry has to protect itself and people are coming together to make that happen.
In terms of education, this is a more tricky thing to get right. The industry needs to break away from the mindset that prevails. But in such a fragmented infrastructure, how do we achieve that? The landscape is so disparate that a rallying call to all become more professional and stand together is difficult to achieve. And is it what we want to do? In the same way that people claim certain footballers wouldn't be the player they are if you took away their maverick streak, would the dynamic entrepreneurialism of affiliate marketing be destroyed if we all became more corporate?
The best answer to this is that those brands who have taken the time to embrace the channel have benefited immensely from doing so. A look at the list of winners of the recent A4U Awards shows that companies who have invested time and resource within their affiliate programme have reaped the rewards many times over. To back this up, the largest affiliate campaigns in the world, Amazon and eBay have taken everything in house and have large multinational teams running their affiliate activity, the same is true of all of the large gaming companies.
So if the largest and most successful online retailers in the world are embracing affiliate marketing, why is there so much reluctance around the rest of the wider online marketing industry? Of course there are inherent risks with affiliate marketing, like all channels, but if managed correctly the benefits far outweigh the risks. So don't be scared, affiliate marketing won't bite...