THIS IS A GUEST POST FROM VICKY PESTER, LOWCOST'S HEAD OF MARKETING (RESPONSIBLE FOR EASYJET HOLIDAYS)
I have watched with interest as the debate has raged over affiliate culls and, having read the views of many affiliates on the receiving end of these unfortunate incidents, I thought it was time an alternative view was put forward. The problem is I find it almost impossible to defend my merchant peers.
So, together with Emma Delaforce, easyJet Holidays’ account manager at Webgains, I analysed the most often cited reasons given when brands decide to perform affiliate culls. I believe affiliate culls often happen for all the wrong reasons, and that these flawed reasons often prevent merchants from implementing a more constructive way for merchants to deal with their affiliates. Put simply: ‘It’s not them, it’s you.’
1. Affiliates are Inactive or under-performing
Merchants often want to ‘clean up’ their affiliate lists and remove either the inactive or the lesser-performing affiliates. This theme comes into most of the other reasons given for a cull, so it is clearly important. These affiliates fall into two categories:
- Inactive affiliates, defined as affiliates who although joined to your program have not yet started promoting you.
- Non-converting affiliates, that is, affiliates who generate impressions and/or traffic but don’t convert into sales.
Having inactive affiliates on your program seems to lead to some sort of misplaced insecurity on the part of the merchant. Brand owners tend to think the worst about what they neither know, nor control. This is understandable given that there is often little information on these affiliates, over and above what the affiliates choose to disclose about themselves and their sites to the Network. The thinking seems to be that they are either lying in wait to ambush your business at some time in the future and are downloading banners and misusing them, or are in fact competitors checking up on your marketing efforts. However, often these are affiliates who just have not got around to supporting your program, or have in fact forgotten what great incentives you offer.
Non-converting affiliates engender similar insecurity but for different reasons. Merchants need to ask themselves why affiliates would send traffic that does not convert. It could be fraudulent traffic, or ‘spam’ traffic caused by inappropriately placed ads, banners which are totally out of date, or the promotion of irrelevant seasonal products. Merchants should also examine at what point of the purchase process the consumer actually drops off the website, and whether it points to a weakness in the purchase journey, and therefore the merchant site itself.
Often the insecurities mentioned above come about because merchants do not monitor affiliate activity above looking at summary network reports, and more detailed analysis is required to understand the real reasons. Hence, you should look deeply into all available data sources to work out what is going on. You also need to address underperforming affiliates through regular and bespoke communications to encourage active participation and to solve issues discovered.
Whatever the reason for the lack of performance, Merchants would do well to remember the harm that a blunt ‘We no longer want you’ message can do to your program. Rightly or wrongly, the affiliate perception is that this is unfair and lazy behaviour. Affiliates are a close-knit community and word spreads quickly.
2. The Brand is exposed
The argument here is that, with hundreds or thousands of affiliates on a program, it is impossible to retain oversight and control over how your brand is being used. There might be nervousness over the sites on which ads appear, the nature of the content of those ads, or the tactics being used by affiliates; all of which might compromise hard-earned goodwill towards a brand among consumers.
Firstly, there are tools in place on most Networks, such as manual affiliate approval, to ensure that only affiliates and sites which can genuinely add value to a brand name are accepted as affiliate partners.
Secondly, it is often felt that too many affiliates will result in brand abuse slipping through the monitoring and control processes. The brand owner has to decide how to deploy affiliates both tactically and strategically while limiting potential risk. Brand-use guidelines, set up by the brand owner, often in consultation with their network account manager, have to be clear and precise, designed to limit abuse, while at the same time taking advantage of the huge reach of affiliates. Again, most affiliate networks have tools to identify the misuse of brand terms. The policing of abuse is often a joint effort, carried out in a systematic and planned way, and as an added benefit, often results in the discovery of other, more valuable promotional activity by the affiliate base. Removing poorly performing affiliates just because of insecurity that some brand abuse may be happening is folly.
Not only will you harm your reputation with affiliates, you may be cutting off a major lever for future growth Affiliates are not stupid, and understand the investment you have made in your brand equity and your rights as brand owner. Affiliates will understand the brand guidelines better if you give them good reasons for them. Asking for feedback will also open up the dialogue and allow affiliates to put their own points forward. This ‘pressure-testing’ of your brand guidelines should also ensure that your guidelines produce the best return on your marketing spend, and hopefully will dovetail into your overall marketing strategy.
Some merchants, pricked by the newly introduced ASA guidelines, have focussed on affiliate culls as some sort of solution to a perceived potential problem. They seem to think that new ASA guidelines will place a greater duty on them to monitor where their ads appear. Merchants have to remember that it has always been their responsibility to monitor the placements of their brands and the correctness of their marketing messages, and that there will not be any pro-active monitoring by the ASA. It will remain a reactive process. Also, keep in mind that the ASA will investigate complaints and decide where responsibility lies – it’s not necessarily with the merchant in every instance. We need to make every effort to retain the current benefits of affiliate marketing. We are an open distribution channel that benefits from the performance-focused experience of affiliate marketers.
Lastly, affiliates are consumers too – and very influential ones at that. Removing an affiliate from a program just because of potential abuse of brand terms leaves a nasty taste, and smacks of unfairness and/or laziness; not really the reputation you want associated with your brand.
3. Inactivity affects the statistics for the whole program
The argument goes that, when affiliates who – for whatever reason – are not delivering effective click-throughs remain on a program, they compromise the statistics of the entire program, making it look less attractive to new affiliates.
If particular affiliates are not converting at the rate you expect, there are many reasons why this might be the case. Broken links, links pointing to the wrong landing pages, out-of-date messaging, lack of niche offers all point to issues that need further investigation. So, instead of summarily dismissing those affiliates, surely it makes better sense to communicate with them, get to the root of the issue and seek to get it right. Your program will benefit, the affiliate will benefit and the likelihood is that you will learn something about how other affiliates might be able to drive better conversion.
4. I need time to focus more on the best performing affiliates
Merchants here are seeking, understandably, to put their time, energy and resources into those affiliates that deliver the best returns. While this is understandable, it ignores affiliates with potential, thus depriving your program of future growth. It is easy to segment your affiliates, and once segmented, design and execute different strategies (with appropriate incentives), for each segment. Most Networks offer detailed performance reports allowing a brand to easily identify under- (and over-) performing affiliates. Reports can be customised on lots of parameters to report, for example, only on those above a certain threshold, enabling a merchant to identify and focus on those affiliates if they so choose. And there are simple methods of communicating with those not yet deemed worthy of personal attention.
Affiliate forums, email newsletters, training programs – there are a wealth of options to keep affiliates engaged and drive improvement that do not consume enormous amounts of time and energy. The goal must be not to remove affiliates under a threshold but to get as many as possible above it.
Also, Affiliates below this threshold are often so because they registered for a program to reflect their interest and are busy setting things up to begin work, or just haven’t got round to it yet. This is particularly true of content affiliates who need a lot of time just to build, optimise and have indexed any site. In addition, SEO is a promotional technique which requires a long(ish) time frame where improvement comes by increments, not all at once.
5. I need to remove old content from the web
Another reason given for an affiliate cull is that, if affiliates have stopped working on a program, inappropriate content representing the brand is likely to still be available somewhere on the Internet, probably using out-of-date messaging, pricing, offers and brand assets. The thinking,is that by culling such affiliates, merchants can perform a purge on this content and ensure all available messaging is relevant and ‘on-brand’.
By removing affiliates from a program, you are almost certainly not going to deal with this problem. Whether still working on a program or not, affiliate content will continue to live on the web. Pages will be left live regardless of a brand’s demands since those affiliates will have moved on to other things. Moreover, by upsetting affiliates, the chances of them doing anything in the service of that brand become less, not more, likely. Communication is again fundamental. You must increase your efforts to provide up-to-date content to affiliates and use that as an opportunity to re-activate them.
Some words of advice
From my point of view merchants need to have a clearly defined strategy right at the start of a program regarding who you want to partner with and the type of affiliates they are looking for. Such a strategy will necessarily incorporate a deep understanding of what you are trying to achieve through your affiliate marketing program, and the affiliates you will need to achieve this. Hence, your affiliate recruitment must be aligned with your overall strategy, and clearly defined, so that you know exactly how to process the affiliate applications, who to approve and reject, and most importantly, who to approach as part of your pro-active recruitment efforts. Getting your recruitment planning right from the start will save you from headaches further down the line.
Of course, strategies change over time, especially in a fast paced environment such as the affiliate industry, and merchants have to revise from time to time their existing partners and align them to the business plans. Removing affiliates who no longer add the required value is one thing, removing en masse the majority of affiliates, so that a closed group is formed is very different. In the event of a radical change in strategy, it’s imperative that communications are planned well in advance and the reasoning is explained clearly to affiliates. They should also be given the option to apply to be kept on the program, should they feel they can provide the required traffic as per the new directives. You must also remember that additional incremental sales are exactly that, additional sales you would not otherwise have had.
These are the major reasons given for affiliate culls and none of them make sense individually and moreover collectively .Of course there are justifications for removing certain affiliates from a program but never justification for a ‘cull’, particularly when the ‘you’re fired’ message is the first form of communication those affiliates receive.
It is only after a merchant has been proactive in dealing with the issues at the heart of ‘under-performance’ that they should consider slashing affiliate numbers. It doesn’t cost much to leave under-performing affiliates in place, and the potential downside to wholesale culling is significant. On a risk/reward basis, it does not seem to make much sense. If you really think you have to cull, do so politely, explaining the reasons and the logic. It is, after all, in your interests to treat your affiliates with the courtesy they deserve.
image courtesy of caricatures-ireland.com