Anyone working in affiliate marketing will tell you it’s a complex
channel. Typically the day to day grind of an affiliate network is to
try and make sense of this complexity, juggling priorities and
conflicting interests, resolutely performing the role of middleman and
arbiter. 

Yet as the industry matures and grows in both value and influence, is the role of the affiliate network changing?

Rollback five years and an affiliate network’s role was seemingly pretty straightforward. As long as the tracking worked, links were easy to access and commissions were paid on time, that would suffice. Of course those fundamentals remain as important today (certainly from an affiliate point of view) but the general shift towards performance based marketing has resulted in affiliate networks taking on extra roles and responsibilities.

First and foremost, affiliate networks have become significantly more accountable. Long gone are the days when some networks would actually act as a barrier to communication between affiliate and advertiser. Similarly brand monitoring tools are frequently offered as standard additions to any affiliate programmes ensuring advertisers are happy with how their brand is being represented by a whole host of different affiliates.

Evolving that point, different affiliates offer different promotional methods and in doing so the question often returns to one of value. What is the value of an advertiser’s traffic from a voucher site versus an affiliate’s supporting long tail paid search campaign or presence on a cashback site?

Affiliate marketing has always been online in microcosm and with the prevailing wider industry discussions about multi attribution and the longer term viability of rewarding on last click, so affiliate networks are able to provide insights from the variety of online traffic they record.

One function of an affiliate network that isn’t always considered is how it can act as an easy access platform for publishers looking to tap into hundreds of advertisers at once. Networks are often approached by publishers and technology companies who don’t have the time or resource to build individual relationships with advertisers en masse.

As long as the publisher is willing to work to a CPA then networks can offer a shortcut to major brands. And as the ‘try it and see’ attitude that CPA offers prevails so advertisers are increasingly amenable to increasingly diverse opportunities.

Any discussion of the role of networks wouldn’t be complete without referencing how agencies are increasingly competing for a slice of the affiliate pie. Many agencies now have dedicated affiliate teams and may choose to run some of their affiliate activity via their own white label platforms taking market share from networks. In a sense this competition is nothing new; some major brands like Amazon have always chosen to bypass networks. But as agencies beef up on their affiliate knowledge so networks will sharpen their focus.

Clearly, agencies have one distinct advantage over networks in that they may also handle additional media offering the potential of a clearer view of how affiliate marketing fits within an advertiser’s overall mix. There will however, always be a role for excellent specialists and networks have the benefit of their own proprietary tools and technology, both time consuming and expensive to develop.

Most networks will have preferred agencies they work with and where the relationship flourishes is when there is a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. Some of the most successful agencies working within affiliate marketing are also specialist affiliate agencies tapping into the burgeoning mid-tier SME market and thus have a natural affinity with affiliate networks.

The role of networks in a crowded marketplace is actually clearly defined in an area that didn’t exist until a couple of years ago, that of self-regulation. The codes of conduct that have emerged from the Affiliate Marketing Council over the past two years (taking on a heightened importance with extension of the ASA remit into other areas of digital) have shown a mature and collaborative approach from most of the major affiliate networks in the UK and also defined a crucial and pivotal role in further professionalising the industry. Only networks have the clout and collective will to ensure the work of the Council is enforced.

As the industry becomes more crowded so affiliate networks will need to evolve offering a combination of the easiest and most accessible affiliate tools and strong consultancy to their key clients. Those networks that maintain a focus on strong customer support and a deeper understanding of the industry are likely to be those who stand the test of time.