There was a slightly inconvenient clash last night between the a4uAwards for affiliate marketing and the AOP Awards for online publishers where I’m proud to report that Econsultancy won the Specialist Digital Publisher category.

My late-night cab journey from the former awards ceremony at the London Park Lane Hilton to join my victorious colleagues at the latter at Old Billingsgate in London got me thinking about the increasing amount of overlap between affiliate marketing and old school publishers such as The Mirror, Guardian and Telegraph who dominated at the AOP Awards.

For example, among the AOP award winners was Trinity Mirror for Best Commercial Partnership on account of its cashback offering set up through V A C Media and promoted successfully in The Mirror newspaper.

Another company which is helping to bring newspapers into the 21st century is Skimlinks whose technology is also enabling the likes of The Mail to earn money from their content through affiliate marketing.

The company, launched in December 2008, scored a hat-trick at the a4uAwards last night in winning the gongs for Innovative Publisher of the Year, Best Use of Technology within Affiliate Marketing and Best New Entrant in Affiliate Marketing.

Skimlinks technology converts publishers’ links into affiliate links via some code in a site’s footer, simplifying the affiliate marketing process and enabling publishers to earn commission where appropriate from thousands of merchants across all the main affiliate networks.

As Econsultancy CEO Ashley Friedlein has discussed at length, the big online publishers need to think harder about their business models and introduce more of a retailer mindset. This kind of move is a step in that direction. But, obviously, respected publishers need to tread carefully as this can mean an uncomfortable blurring of the boundaries between editorial and commercial.

Newspapers who have spent hundreds of years establishing their editorial credibility need to tread carefully when it comes to affiliate marketing.

You can imagine Guardian readers in Muswell Hill or Telegraph readers in Tonbridge being non-too-impressed if they thought that their newspapers were getting commission from a fashion retailer off the back of a complimentary piece of editorial which, in effect, was advertorial.

Or, worse still, if a link to Air France or another airline in a news story somehow got caught up in a merchant’s affiliate programme and a publisher got some commission from ticket sales off the back of an plane crash tragedy. I’m not suggesting that people reading news are typically in buying mode but you get the picture.

In between picking up gongs last night Skimlinks chief technology officer Ciaran Rooney told me how publishers were careful to make sure that affiliate tracking wasn’t introduced inappropriately and had complete control over which parts of their site were affiliate-enabled.

But I digress…

Other a4U winners included Affiliate Window who won both Innovative Affiliate Network of the Year and Publishers’ Choice of Affiliate Network.

Argos also did a double, winning Best Use of Affiliate Marketing as part of an Integrated Campaign and top Retail Merchant. PrezzyBox won the Innovative Merchant of the Year awards (again) while i-level and Existem (both featured in Econsultancy’s Affiliate Marketing Buyer’s Guide) triumphed in the agency categories.

Duncan Jennings, founder of and an investor in Skimlinks, also made it on to the winners’ rostrum after his voucher codes site was announced as winner of the Retail Affiliate category.  

Matthew Wood, founder of the a4uAwards, should be commended for putting on another great night. He said: “This year’s awards not only rewarded the innovation demonstrated by affiliates, networks and advertisers, but also the growing contribution from digital and full-service media agencies keen to integrate affiliate marketing campaigns in their online plans. 

With Affiliate Marketing very much part of the required ‘smarter marketing’ thinking now, the 2009 a4uAwards showcased the ‘smart’ affiliates who are finding unique and innovative ways to drive and convert traffic into sales, the ‘smart’ advertisers who are really pushing the boundaries with their campaigns and the ‘smart’ networks and agencies who are also driving this industry forward and ensuring our partnerships continue to develop and deliver.”

For more on the AOP Awards, you can read here.