Sunday, January 30, 2011

Affiliate marketing: death of the long tail?

With increasing regulation and scrutiny coming in to the affiliate channel, including the extension of the ASA digital remit, what does the future look like for different affiliate models?

There has been considerable talk in the trade press about the extension of the ASA digital remit, but the discussion has mainly been about the impact on social media.

One thing that has been overlooked is the fact that affiliate marketing will fall under the ASA’s remit for the first time, and this has some pretty serious consequences for a channel that is becoming increasingly influential.

The ASA generally concerns itself with advertising that a brand has generated itself, governing on complaints about misleading claims. Within the affiliate space, brands are ceding control of what is claimed to 3rd parties, or affiliates.

The view has always been that because affiliates are taking the risk, spending their own time and money to drive traffic and only being rewarded if a sale takes place, that they should be allowed to operate within a loose set of guidelines to drive that traffic as they see fit.

The concern amongst brands will now be that the claims made on their behalf by affiliates hoping to drive traffic, could see the brand winding up in breach of ASA regulations.

I say “could” see, as at present it seems that there is quite a bit of confusion about who would be held responsible if a breach of the ASA code occurred: would it be the affiliate making the claim, the brand who are implicitly approving the copy by paying for it, the agency running the activity on the clients behalf, or the affiliate network who control the relationship with the affiliate?

Let us have a look at a couple of examples where affiliate marketing could be affected.

Product feeds

Many affiliates populate their site using product feeds produced by brands. This will automatically update the affiliate site and contains data such as price and availability. Were the feed not to be updated and wrong information about these aspects were reported, that could be a breach of the code.

Voucher code sites

Voucher code sites list valid codes, deals and offers that encourage the consumer to click through to the brand site to take advantage of them. Clearly, promising a deal or offer that is not available on the brand site would be a breach of the code.

Outdated content

While brands generally employ significant sized tech teams to manage their content, and their sites are regularly updated, this is not always the case with affiliates.

Many are featuring many merchants on their sites and requests from merchants to change things can often go unnoticed. If these changes relate to something governed in the ASA code, again this could lead to a breach.

So where does this leave the world of affiliate marketing?

In some cases I foresee no change. Many brands out there manage their affiliate campaigns closely already and hold strong relationship with their affiliates meaning that they are unlikely to be affected.

However, I do see a situation coming where more brands will be looking to protect themselves by ensuring that they only work with a smaller number of affiliates whom they know and trust.

Unfortunately this goes against the original concept of affiliate marketing, but we have seen plenty of precedents where brands have culled affiliates on their campaign over the last few years to afford them greater control of their brand and against fraud.

I feel that the forthcoming involvement of the ASA could act as a catalyst for more brands to do the same.


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