It’s been satisfying to see affiliate marketing mature over the past two decades, evolving from a somewhat experimental performance option that more adventuresome marketers undertook to a reliable channel that has perfected the equation for partnerships, analytics and outcomes. In the beginning, early pioneers hoped that their investments and undertakings would pan out, with limited risk, to generate rewards. Those that have stayed the course to present day, evolving along with the space, have seen the value and now can scale with confidence into the future.
Thanks to compelling financial models and inherent cost efficiencies, affiliate marketing has effectively become a go-to for smart performance marketers. It gives them reliable operating leverage, helping mitigate cost across the wider mix of consumer touch points, as they seek to drive the most profitable possible customer acquisition volume quarter over quarter.
It allows for true omnipresence, yet it’s important to note that with the ever-desirable omnipresence comes the potential for channel conflict and affiliate abuse. Brand safety must be an always-on focus for affiliate marketers, both from the perspective of rules of partnership engagement down into the tactics of program management and quality assurance.
It’s no secret that there’s an extraordinary amount of fraud in display advertising writ large. In 2019, as reported by eMarketer, fraud within programmatic display ad spend alone was roughly $19B. Even worse, marketers continue to fall victim to it, so the losses are real and extremely high. Fraudsters are creative and vendors dedicated to attacking the issue are constantly investing in new detection techniques to counter the latest evolution of fraudster tactics.
Marketers advertising through the affiliate channel have a different, yet equally important, set of challenges. Since affiliate partners are typically only paid if a valid transaction occurs, the challenges associated with display ad fraud are non-existent. Instead, affiliate marketers need to focus on a different set of challenges to ensure brand safety in the affiliate channel. Fortunately, brand safety in the affiliate channel is far easier to ensure than preventing ad fraud in the display channel.
Integrity in Partnerships
Within the always-on imperative, brands need to ensure brand safety is a core tenet of their approach to partnership. Here are a few things to keep in mind so that partnerships generate incremental brand-safe gain:
1. Identify goals of the partnerships program
2. Define acceptable promotional methods and brand safety rules
3. Build those rules into the affiliate agreement
4. Develop a brand-safe checklist for new partners
5. And finally, ensure brand safety through always-on monitoring
All elements of a brand safety program are essential to ensure the brand safety of the channel. While customers may engage through partners, ultimately they place their trust in the primary brand. Partners that aren’t attentive to a brand’s message and positioning may damage their partner’s brand. Fortunately for marketers venturing there, brand safety in the affiliate channel is an always-on priority for those that run the platforms, solutions and services within it.
What Always-On Brand Safety Looks Like
Like all true always-on endeavors, there are multiple lines of defense — beginning with a brand’s affiliate provider’s processes and extending into the day-to-day management of the program. Here what continual brand safety focus looks like:
Onboarding materials: A brand’s onboarding materials play an important role in ensuring brand safe promotions. Both internal and external materials should identify the primary goals of the program and expectations for how affiliates contribute to them. Internal onboarding materials should also include a brand safety checklist that program staff use to evaluate each and every partnership opportunity. External onboarding materials also need to spell out the types of content and conduct that are considered a violation of the brand terms and conditions, and stipulations should be clearly listed for where a partner can post links (for instance, verified owned domains or social media). These terms and conditions are the first line of defense against affiliate fraud, as they ensure the affiliate and the brand have aligned expectations.
Monitoring: As a brand running an affiliate program and onboarding partners, it’s going to be vital to check in and review partners and influencers running the brand’s ads. Manual monitoring can contribute meaningfully; however, it’s important to work with affiliate providers that provide automated monitoring solutions as a core part of their offering, given how laborious and time intensive the manual work is. Automation naturally derives greater efficiency. Brands need to ensure that partners are adhering to their affiliate agreements and automated monitoring solutions should be checking paid search advertising, usage of unapproved promotional codes, and that partners are using the FTC mandated disclosures.
The influencer aspect: Within partnerships as a whole, brand ambassadors and influencers have become an integral part of the playbook for digital marketing. However, because they have follower relationships that transcend any given program, the FTC has subsequently regulated them more closely in recent years. Brands need to ensure that influencers are providing proper disclosures with their promotional activities and endorsements. The FTC has determined that the tools provided by the social media platforms are insufficient to ensure proper disclosure, and that brands are responsible for ensuring their influencer partnerships properly disclose the nature of their relationship.
Overall, the evolution of affiliate marketing has been a sight to behold. Given the success of the model, there is an interrelation of vested interests. As brands, affiliates, affiliate solution providers and consumers play together in the age of brand safety concerns, the stakes are high. So ultimately, the onus has to be on the brand to own its own integrity, and ensure its partners, from program provider through to partner, are aligned on providing a brand safe program. With the right mix of always-on advance strategic planning, masterful program organization, proper T&Cs and thoughtful, proactive communication, the evolution is bound to continue well into the future.
This article was originally featured in Retail Touchpoints on May 7, 2021.