Awin Thoughts: An affiliate marketing gold standard

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If you were to create an affiliate marketing gold standard, what would it look like? How would best practice be enforced and who would it apply to?

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What do we mean by gold standard? Generally speaking it covers guiding principles, rules and governance. A blueprint that maps out consistent best practice based on universal consensus. What would a seal of quality look like? Who would it apply to and who would enforce it?

These are questions we may be asking again in 2019 as the UK’s only formal affiliate association, the IAB’s Performance Marketing Council (PMC), reopens discussion on this perennial, problematic conundrum. Over the next few months, members will hopefully start to shape something akin to the IAB’s existing gold standards for the programmatic industry but moulded specifically for those engaged in affiliate marketing.

But we’ve been here before and every time we’ve tried to create something that sounds simple enough on paper, it’s proved a challenge too far and fizzles out. The complexion of the digital marketplace, however, is very different to that of even just a couple of years ago, with existential threats everywhere and trade bodies coalescing around multilaterally observed standards. Perhaps the appetite now exists to get this project over the line.

Impressive past achievements

Past iterations of the PMC (formerly known as the Affiliate Marketing Council) have achieved much. I won’t retread in detail, but two codes of conduct have been in place for the past decade (if you’re not familiar with them and you deal with voucher codes and/or toolbars and plugins, you can find more details here), as well as existing best practice guides and blueprints for running successful advertiser and publisher affiliate campaigns. Tying these disparate strands together and pushing to a wider audience, however, has proved elusive.

Why so? Firstly, there are inherent problems around governance. Who monitors, updates and enforces? Given a tiny fraction of the industry’s players are IAB members (fees start in at low four-figure mark, putting it out of reach of your average affiliate), it easy to see why some view it as an exclusive club creating standards they want others to adhere to rather than holding themselves to task for their own failings.

Secondly, it’s historically been dominated by networks and agencies, with a smattering of publishers and interested partners contributing; a body that constitutes fewer than 1% of the industry it purports to represent.

This isn’t to denigrate either the work that has been done or the IAB. The IAB provides a framework, it enables members to come together on a semi-regular basis and decide the agenda for the affiliate industry. In a world that is increasingly scrutinising digital channels, it’s importance to have a consistent, collaborative voice. Also, the codes of conduct, while not perfect and not always followed to the letter of the law, address past excesses and empower well-meaning advertisers and affiliates to make better decisions and rise to the top.

The money problem

Next, while the fees may make it unfeasible for most, good governance costs money. My company, Awin, pays probably close to the highest fees for IAB involvement of any affiliate member, but even that wouldn’t pay for the annual affiliate marketing study that the industry has become used to seeing for the past six years. Or indeed an employee to coordinate it.

The fact is, any credible accreditation scheme needs to be administered, audited and monitored. This is both costly and time consuming. It also needs to be sustainable and widely adopted. Therefore, it would need a marketing push and compelling reasons for - in the main part – affiliates to sign up to it. It would need teeth which means an appeals and arbitration process for any complainants. If any of these elements crumble, it loses credibility and its appeal ebbs away.

What problem are we addressing?

Another quandary, what problem are we addressing with any trade body? Despite the myriad challenges, I see the appeal of an affiliate quality seal, something a marketer could slap on their programme or website to show they adhere to certain criteria. It should be possible to package good intent, a collaborative willingness to do the right thing by the channel. There will always be bad players and grey areas but it’s generally easy to spot what ‘good’ looks like. A seal also sends an immediate visual indicator.

So, what could a seal represent? Well the industry is comprised of disparate players and we should acknowledge that accreditation and standards for networks will differ to those of agencies, as will be the case with affiliates and advertisers.

As a starting point, an overarching narrative built on basic values could reinforce a little known, but widely agreed principle; to ensure affiliates are fairly rewarded for the sales they generate. This means the slow creep towards squeezing commissions paid on existing customers, or over-zealous de-duplication policies shouldn’t be allowed to pass just because a network fears advertiser backlash.

A precedent exists

Other industries do it. Consider JICWEBS which develops best practice standards for digital ad trading. At the time of writing, their homepage features a push to drive signatories to their brand safety, viewability and anti-fraud accreditation. This in turn builds trust and delivers transparency for advertisers, something they are then content to pay for. The affiliate industry should be keen to embrace something similar and acknowledge there will be a cost implication.  

There are many more areas to tackle. As discussed by my former colleague, Anthony Clements, recently, there are too many affiliate marketing measurement and tracking variances. While I believe it is one of the most transparent channels available to brands, it can feel opaque and impenetrable to those who hold the purse strings. While I don’t think Ant’s entire wish list is currently achievable, certainly in the short-term, there are topics he covers that could represent quick wins and in turn simplify the message. It would however require industry to work collaboratively rather than constantly looking to reinvent the wheel or fight over the scraps.

A breakthrough year?

2019 could be a breakthrough year for affiliate standards. The Council is looking to engage publishers who aren’t members in helping to shape an affiliate gold standard that could complement the existing programmatic initiative. The increasing pressure of external factors and the tightening of margins means such a scheme is no longer a nice to have. It’s up to all of us to care enough to get involved and make it happen.

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