Affiliate marketing is often proposed as a solution for getting a new product to market. Revving up to introduce something new, and need to make a real splash? Recruit some power affiliates to your cause and you’re likely to see a significant uptick in sales.

But what happens when a particularly well-known brand is preparing to launch a new product? If the brand or product already generates a significant amount of interest on its own, it probably doesn’t make that much sense to spend time recruiting new affiliates. There are so many other things a brand has to focus on before launch: communication and PR strategies, marketing plans, product testing, and more. Plus, new affiliates may not contribute all that much for an especially popular brand. After all, if the brand already has great awareness and reach, its new affiliate traffic and revenue may not actually be incremental.

That’s a pretty enviable setup, but popular brands can also come with their drawbacks. For example: ad hijacking affiliates. An ad hijack occurs when an affiliate places a paid search ad that 1) displays the brand’s domain, and 2) redirects through an affiliate link to the brand’s site. The result is that once a purchase is made, the affiliate gets the commission for a sale they didn’t really help generate. Normally, of course, this occurs with branded keywords for products that already exist (such as iPod or iPhone). So how does ad hijacking apply to products that haven’t even been launched yet?

Hijackers Can Jump the Gun on New Products

There are many products that are strongly anticipated in the marketplace well before they actually make it into stores. For example, here are just a few products that are set to launch later this year (or beyond) coupled with the number of monthly searches they get on Google:

Playstation 4: 2,740,000
Xbox one: 2,240,000
Iwatch: 368,000
Ipad 5: 550,000
Iphone 6: 2,740,000

Imagine a searcher looking for information on one of these products, possibly just to check the release date, and then seeing an advertisement for the product in question. Furthermore, imagine that the ad appears to have been placed by the brand who makes the product or by a large-scale online retailer. For many curious searchers, that would certainly be an enticing ad to click on! Who knows? Maybe the launch date has been pushed up, or perhaps the brand has some sort of exclusive rewards you can sign up for. There’s nothing for the user to lose by satisfying their curiosity.

But for the merchant, this could definitely result in some unearned commissions. Even though the searcher won’t get directed to the actual product they were looking for, they’ll still end up loading the affiliate’s cookie. So any purchases made by this visitor before the cookie’s expiration will be credited to the hijacking affiliate. Furthermore, this could also generate significant confusion for the visitor about the actual product launch date, misrepresenting the brand and presenting a negative experience.

Does This Actually Happen?

Yes, in fact, even in the limited paid search monitoring that we set up to test for this, we found hijacking for a few different products. Affiliate strategies varied a bit, but generally guided the visitor to a set of products related to the unreleased one they originally searched for (for example, an ‘iPhone 6’ ad might lead to an iPhone 5 page or a page of iPhone accessories).

Other affiliates would link to a search page on the merchant’s site, which would ultimately populate with relevant products. In another case, we found an affiliate linking to a pre-order page on a merchant’s site. Of course, with the ability to actually order something, this resembles more of a traditional ad hijack. But because it’s not terribly obvious to monitor unreleased products, the merchant was probably more susceptible to this type of hijack.

Who’s At Risk and What Should They Do?

Any brand that runs an affiliate programme and has a highly anticipated product in the pipeline can certainly become the target of this tactic. Perhaps even more significantly though, this could end up affecting any online retailers who have an affiliate programme and distribute the brand’s products.

Leading up to the actual launch date, the most actionable first step would be to periodically do some manual testing. Since a merchant already knows whether or not it’s placing ads for these particular search terms, it should have a good idea of what ads (if any) will show up when the terms are searched. Any anomalies would be reason for further investigation and analysis.