I’ve worked in affiliate marketing for more than 13 years and in that time I have had to endure a lot of comments about the industry emulating the “wild west” and being tarnished with a bad quality image. 

I have always felt these comments to be incorrect and unfair, but what the affiliate world has done very well is address these concerns by putting in place practices to ensure transparency and quality that is self-regulated by industry stakeholders.

The broader digital industry faces a huge threat from ad blocking and could take some useful lessons from what the affiliate channel has achieved.

I have followed with great interest the hot topic of ad blocking. Of particular amusement has been the anger directed from many corners of the digital advertising industry at the ad blocking companies themselves.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. Why have ad blockers been able to find a market of consumers (reported to be 18% of the UK online population) willing to use their tools?

It's because some of the advertising within the digital industry is quite frankly terrible. It can be disruptive, bad quality and not relevant or targeted to the consumer.

The cynic in me would say consumer experience is not always a priority of those controlling the ad spend.

The IAB has been somewhat pro-active in addressing the ad blocking debate and has produced a number of useful stats and materials. 

A few of the most noteworthy are from a consumer study carried out in October last year:

  • 25% of online adults have downloaded ad blocking software.
  • 3/4 of those downloaders, so 18% of online adults, are currently using ad blockers. This is up from 15% in June 2015.

No wonder this has the digital industry spooked, that is a lot of cash being lost.

But even more interesting are some of the reasons people gave for using ad blockers:

  • 52% use them to block all ads.
  • Just 9% use them to protect against privacy, so stopping tracking software working.
  • One in two would be less likely to block ads if they did not interfere with what they were doing.

And this answer:

  • 61% of people would prefer to access content for free and have ads present than pay to access content

So it appears the frustration from consumers is with poor quality, badly executed, disruptive ads.  

Therefore, rather than attack the companies that are helping consumers rid their world of these frustrations, perhaps we should be condemning those companies that are the cause of this irritation.

On the bright side

There are positive things happening, the IAB launched its L.E.A.N principals which are a step in the right direction and have been getting the industry talking reasonably sensibly about the problems we face.

We need to come together and self-regulate, pointing a spotlight on those companies that do not adhere to these principals.

After all, these are basic good marketing and advertising principals which should already be being observed. Once we find sites that don't comply we should all chase them down the street with pitch forks until they do it right or go out of business. Easy.

I jest a little, this is a huge industry with many different components and mostly there are good companies and people that understand the principals of honest and ethical marketing. 

But there are also a lot of bad eggs out there chasing money. As an industry we need to find and stop these companies executing bad practices.

But after they have been getting away with it for years, it is not an easy task.

Follow the affiliate's lead 

To find an industry that has executed this with reasonable success we need to look no further than the affiliate marketing channel.

In the last 10 years we have worked hard as a group of individuals and companies to ensure quality, a fair playing field and ethical practices.

With the help of the IAB, the Affiliate Marketing Council has put in place a number of best practice and self-regulatory principals that all stakeholders within the market adhere to (affiliate networks, agencies, advertisers and publishers). 

We are proud of these principals as an industry and we do not take lightly to those that break the rules as we know that can harm the reputation of all of us. 

I suggest the digital industry needs to follow a similar path and clean up its act, otherwise the use of ad blockers will only increase. 

Educating consumers about advertising and commercial relationships with publishing sites is clearly another avenue that needs to explored. 

Most of the sites that consumers visit would not exist without advertising, but paywalls have been tried and failed numerous times by large and small publishers alike.

61% of consumers say they would rather have ads than pay for content so I don’t really ever see a world where paywalls will be successful, there will always be someone that gives it away for free. 

So we have to tackle to fundamental issue first and foremost, which is ridding the industry of companies executing poor advertising.

Why would an affiliate be concerned?

You might wonder why an affiliate marketer woud be worried about this, and that would be a good question. 

Across the affilinet network just 2% of our orders come from banners, and 98% come from content. What you now understand as “native advertising” has been the bedrock of affiliate marketing since its creation over 20 years ago. 

However, as a channel we are being negatively affected by ad blocking for two main reasons.

Firstly, ad blockers offer the ability to opt out of all 'tracking', meaning the tracking mechanism which we use to attribute sales and pay publishers is disabled. 

Without this the publisher and network do not get paid. 

Secondly, many of our publishers rely on banner advertising and ad networks alongside their income from affiliate ads. Without this in many cases the publishers simply will not survive.

In summary...

Growing consumer awareness will result in increased use of ad blocking and is a danger to all of us in the digital industry.

We need to come together, to self-regulate and chase those bad eggs out.

While without a doubt we have not eradicated bad practice in the affiliate industry, we most certainly have improved immensely and are proud to be a transparent and ethical industry.

We've shown that this can be achieved with time, resource and commitment from all stakeholders.

It’s time to focus on the root cause of the problem, and as a digital industry tackle this head on. 

Helen Southgate

Published 16 February, 2016 by Helen Southgate

Helen Southgate is UK Managing Director at affilinet and a guest blogger on Econsultancy.

5 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (1)

Jeremy Whitt

Jeremy Whitt, Management Consultant / Chief Marketing Officer at The Promethean Group

I certainly agree that ad blockers pose an enormous fundamental threat to the online publishing industry. However, I'm not so sure about your premise of better "quality" ads being the problem. I personally dislike any form of non-contextual ads or any ads that are not directly related to the content I'm consuming. If you write an article on CRM, I would be fine with ads for Salesforce.com and ZoHo. If you write an article on nutrition, I would be fine with ads for healthy foods and nutritionist services.

With the exception of the obviously obnoxious examples, I seriously doubt it has to do with the quality of the ads. I think that any non-contextual or unrelated ads are generally annoying to a majority of folks, whether it's TV commercials, display ads, or FB feed "suggestions". www.ESPN.com has almost become un-usable and totally infuriating now that they have moved over half of their content to video and force you to watch a zero-targeted and zero-personalized 15 to 30 second ad before each and every clip, some clips as short as 6 seconds!!! Furthermore, if you need to watch the clip again to see something you missed, you have to watch the exact same ad for 15 to 30 seconds, which already annoyed you before you can catch what you missed. Insanity. I am not exaggerating.

I think the larger issue is that the media industry as a whole needs to re-think and/or re-invent the model.


This notion that content should be free could be a very bad assumption. Perhaps some courage, and some healthy data sciences would probably show that appropriately marketed content could charge a premium, without the non-contextual or unrelated ads entirely. At least two tiers of content. Free and Premium.

There are several examples of this, as well as some hybrids, which have been successful or wildly successful. Premiums include HBO, ShowTime, WSJ and Glen Beck. Hybrids include SeriusXM and any of the Freemium sights.

My point is, it will take enormous courage, especially for the first few media outlets to attempt this and build the analytics model... But I think it may actually be more profitable to start training the public on the novel concept that if you want to receive or consume value, you need to pay for it. I would absolutely pay for no ads, other than content-related ads in my online and TV experiences.

Profound? Perhaps.

Courageous? Probably.

Bold? Definitely.

Risky? Is it not far more risky to fade into certain obsolescence?

over 2 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.