What do advertisers want to see from their affiliate programmes?

Generally speaking, they ask two things: firstly, that the largest
possible proportion of their affiliate base is active in driving sales
revenue; secondly, that there be a constant feed of good quality new
affiliates coming onto the programme to actively promote them.

The affiliate divide

Traditionally though, a divide is noticeable on most affiliate programmes between the top performing affiliates, those that drive over 90% of the programme’s sales, and a sizeable long-tail of affiliates joined to the programme but which either bring in very few sales (and only infrequently), or which are sometimes entirely inactive.

In some respects, this picture is completely natural. Many factors go into making a good affiliate and some will always be better than others. But why do we see this pattern emerge so quickly after a programme launches and remain the case sometimes for years after?

Even if the emergence of a two-tier affiliate programme is a natural evolution, how does the way programmes are usually managed entrench the divide between, on one hand, large, established, affiliates which receive all the advertiser’s attention, and a long tail of small revenue drivers or entirely inactive affiliates on the other?

More widely, what can it tell us about the state of the affiliate industry, and how it has developed over time?

In some ways it should not be a surprise that the top affiliates in the UK are likely to be the top affiliates on all kinds of programmes. But some have viewed this as a lack of variety or an over-reliance on certain types of affiliate models (cashback and voucher codes are often cited).

However, surely this is true only to the extent that the advertiser wants it to be. Credit should be given to any affiliate that has succeeded in building their business into a brand that is, in some cases, bigger than the advertisers they promote.

Is there is a deficit of good quality new affiliates?

Given the growth of the web and the way affiliates bemoan the number of competitors saturating even the smallest niches, this seems unlikely.

Rather, could it be that the focus is concentrated on the existing big players, perhaps something which networks could do more to challenge, which serves to ingrain the divide between the top performers and the long-tail.

One of the effects of this divide is to encourage some advertisers to either abandon the long tail and focus on the top players (sometimes through an in-house programme rather than via a network), or to remove the long tail from the programme entirely to give the appearance that the proportion of active affiliates has increased.

There are of course internal reasons why an advertiser might take these approaches. The temptation to sacrifice the long tail, rather than attempt to engage and mobilise them, might put the affiliate manager in a better position to make the case for the channel as a whole.

There are also, so the argument goes, fewer relationships to handle, which means fewer potential issues, especially in the face of an anticipated increase in scrutiny from the ASA following a recent extension to its remit. But there are also good reasons why advertisers should avoid forced choice.

The divide between affiliates could be symptomatic of a problem at the level of how the relationship between advertisers and affiliates is forged. Specifically, in the way that affiliates are identified, engaged with and recruited onto a programme.

It will no longer be enough for the network to help maintain existing relationships with large affiliates but to provide insight into the value of the long-tail, from where advertisers will expect future growth on their programmes to come.