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Is Time Running Out for Incentive Publishers?

Is Time Running Out for Incentive Publishers?

Here’s an interesting one. Testing from the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the National Library of Medicine in 2015 shows the average human being’s attention span to be 8.25 seconds. That’s down from 12 seconds in the same assessment in 2000. If you’re still reading this, you’ve probably already decided whether it’s worth what you’d usually spend consuming a piece of content.

There is a fine explanation as to why our capacity to maintain focus is one second lower than that of a goldfish. Before the year 2000, there was an internet, but no heavy adoption of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to fill it with streams upon streams of information. Content marketing was a much smaller, lesser-known beast, while spend and interest in using the world wide web to broadcast information just wasn’t at the same level as we see today.

It’s easy to blame the internet for adaptations to the way we think and process information, but given the three billion of us that can be found online, and the hours we spent perusing websites and apps, it offers fair reasoning for why our tendency to switch between channels of thought looks to be in a state of constant decline. 

Those same brands that are helping digital marketing channels like display, search, social and content reach 11-figure sums for spend committed face an uphill battle to keep their audiences engaged. 

It’s easy to incentivise in this case; to offer a discount or reward via a banner ad; to step up relations with an incentive publisher to push people ‘over the line’. But while this might create short-term gains, there is evidence to suggest that putting so much emphasis on money-off rewards or driving sales with calls to action isn’t long-term thinking. Because within those 8.25 seconds, if that consumer recalls prior experiences and communication with the brand, there shouldn’t be any need to startle, shock or even surprise.   

Times have changed and the old adage of “loyalty is royalty” rings truer than ever. After all, when entering any battle, for attention spans or otherwise, it helps to go in prepared. 

The Fab trap

Marketers have learnt quickly that in order to breed loyalty, they need to know who they’re talking to and what they want. That comes from data and recognising traits of the individual at the other end of the conversation. 

“Loyalty is more important than ever, but brands must figure out how to measure the lifetime value of their customers,” says Jeremy Waite, head of digital strategy at Salesforce Marketing Cloud, who recently called out brands for treating customers like Tinder profiles - asking them to buy without any level of personalisation and prior thought.

“It feels to me like this battle between ‘click-to-buy’ and ‘click-to-share’ is being fought harder than ever.

“Perhaps attention spans online are only seconds, but to rely on social, search or display advertising to capture the attention of your customers in that time frame is missing the point.”

Jeremy points to the example of, the one-time e-commerce darling whose frenetic approach to targeting and selling led to much industry hype and a market worth of $1 billion, only to be eventually sold for $15 million after the buzz died down. 

“Brands need to think long term if they are to avoid being the next”

Success by ‘a handful’

Thankfully the means to assess what customers want and need is here, and in a big way. The view that brands, if they wish, have the ability to engage with consumers at the right time and with the right message is adopted by Sylvia Jensen, senior director of marketing for EMEA at Oracle Marketing Cloud - the global software provider with plenty of ties to data management.  

“Today’s brands must operate in a multi-channel environment and marketers can now interact in real time with 1:1 personalisation across every digital channel with integrated intelligence, brand consistency and a deep understanding of the individual's digital body language.

“The rewards of taking this personalised approach stand to be immense,” she comments. “Overall, what this means is that marketers can finally create a personalised, one-to-one marketing campaign for each and every customer, across all channels at scale and continue improving the online experience of consumers – the Holy Grail for all brands.”

It’s with an eye on one-to-one, meaningful, subtle but impactful messaging that is waning some brands off the overuse of incentivisation and onto loyalty. A radical change in brand attitudes has been witnessed first-hand by UK digital agency 7thingsmedia as part of its affiliate work with image-conscious retailers such as Ted Baker, French Connection and

“For some time now the majority of retail clients have been keen to move away from a reliance on incentive publishers, who had previously contributed up to around 90% of programme revenue, and focus on content publishers,” says account manager Lauren Brawn, who also acknowledges just how hard it is to veer in the opposite direction with channels like affiliate.

“Growing a content publisher base requires a lot of hard work, time and ultimately a lot of investment.

“In my experience, only a handful of retailers have been fully willing (or able) to take this on.” 

However, while significant revenue might not be initially evident, by engaging publishers with tenancy payments, events and face-to-face meetings, over the course of a year or longer, Brawn claims to have seen programmes “transform” as a result. 

“By establishing long-term partnerships with content sites and bloggers, you can build an army of brand ambassadors who will want to promote you all year round. Team this with a large amount of engaging, unique and most importantly accessible content and in our experience, the traffic and revenue will come.” 

Indeed, “revenue will come” to those who wait, according to Brawn, but curbing something that does generate revenue month after month is always going to be a bold move.

For a retailer with guaranteed earnings through incentive publishers, any attempt to scale back on activity within this space needs to be justified by increased takings elsewhere, which seems to be the sticking point.

Out of view

Voucher and cashback sites find themselves in the middle of the situation - driving more sales than ever but also needing to provide assurance for advertisers.

To look at things from the other end of the table, we asked Shane Forster, UK country manager at Voucherbox, what his own discount site made of retailers becoming less interested in on-off sales, and whether they could play into the loyalty angle.

“There is, and always will be, strong value in consumers only making ‘one-off’ purchases for retailers based upon various promotions - the affiliate channel is a great opportunity to secure these sales and instigate relationships with new customers,” he comments.

“Whether the user decides to enter into an on-going relationship with the retailer comes down to the service which they receive and how they identify with the brand.”

Shane adds that voucher sites, like brands, are working hard to create their own data sets in order to gain valuable insights on purchase behaviour. The question of whether an incentive publisher would be forthcoming in the distribution of these assets is up for debate, but it may at least help in driving repeat custom for the retailers.

This isn’t without stumbling blocks along the way, though, as Forster states.

“Unfortunately, the current developments within the market leave little incentive for publishers to assist retailers in achieving a single view of their customers. In the majority of instances, retailers seeking a single view of users consequently decide to decrease commissions for existing customers gained by publishers (both incentive and non-incentive). 

“This in turn discourages publishers to bring users back and assist retailers in developing this understanding of users. While many advertisers seek to reinvest these commission decreases via increased exposure and tenancy payments, these funds are ultimately reallocated for different purposes for promotion which aren’t aligned with achieving a single view of users.”

We also pitched the single customer view conundrum to James Milne, head of client services for UK at affiliate network Tradedoubler, to see his view of the situation. 

Judging by the comments, it appears that retailers could be missing a trick by keeping their goals for the single customer view and everything they do around incentivisation as separate entities. 
“When brands begin to look at a single customer view, by the very definition of the exercise, they must look at all of their marketing touchpoints with that customer, and evaluate the role and effect of each in driving that customer to purchase,” says Milne.

“When brands look in detail at the role of their incentive publishers, they are often surprised at the results. For example, in our own research, titled ‘Performance Marketing: From first impression to last click’, the retail customers interviewed revealed that they were likely to use both cashback and voucher code sites for research, as well as purchase.”

It’s sometimes the reputation of voucher and cashback sites that prevents brands from scratching under their surface, even if it’s well within their advantage to do so.

“The role and effect of any publisher differs greatly from brand to brand, but the important thing is to fully understand what that difference is and not to make a decision on the value of a publisher based purely on opinion or preconception,” advises Milne.

“The trick lies in identifying the data provided by customer activity and reacting to the right information at the right time.”

So if data is to be considered, and incentive publishers are still driving sales aplenty for online retailers, the decision to opt out of an existing cashback and voucher partnership is a tough call to make.

Judging by the sheer amount of luxury retailers that remain listed on cashback sites offering 5% commission or less, it seems that even loyalty-driven brands are aware that a balance between incentives and brand-building efforts must exist. But it’s the thought of this balance becoming slightly more weighted towards the loyalty side that’s giving certain affiliates something to think about.

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Richard Towey

Richard Towey

Richard serves as head of content at PerformanceIN. After many years spent covering developments from the automotive, sports, travel and finance sectors, he eventually turned his full attention to reporting on stories from the fast-evolving world of digital marketing. Richard now heads up the editorial team at PerformanceIN: the performance marketing industry's leading publication.  

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