The affiliate marketing industry is one of the newest elements to the marketing sector and one that at present, continues to grow.

In fact, this growth has been so rapid and so embraced by consumers that the ‘voucher code’ industry (specifically) was the subject of research from the leading market research company YouGov – the company’s first foray into this particular market place. That research (April 2013) showed that 82% of adults in Great Britain have used some form of discount or voucher and, of this vast figure, 80% have gone on to use a voucher or discount again.

Turning to Affiliates

The recent socio-economic climate has obviously played a part in this shift in consumer shopping behaviour; people of all demographics are looking to get a good deal, whether through cashback, voucher or comparison services. Moreover and interestingly, they are turning to affiliates for trusted advice – rather than just a deal or code – along with the convenience of being able to find all offers under one website. The affiliate brand’s stock is rising and it’s the consumer who has driven that growth.

Yet even though for many advertiser programmes the partnership with affiliates is a financially positive one (and arguably one they couldn’t now do without) it’s reasonable to say that the affiliate doesn’t always have a seat at the marketing top table. Which leads to this unpalatable (for me who works for a voucher code affiliate) question: are some advertisers ‘ashamed’ of their relationship with affiliates and, if so, why?

I believe there are three reasons for why some might hold this view:

1) Incrementally – would the sale have been made anyway?

2) The last click model has been hotly debated and as an industry there is some scepticism to its merits (I’ll simply touch on this as this debate, in full, is a whole article or session in its own right)

3) Does offering a voucher or cashback incentive devalue a brand?

The obvious and generic response to the question is that if there’s been a shift in a consumer’s acceptance of affiliates/money saving sites (which their undoubtedly has been), then so there should also be this shift from merchants. To be fair, in the most part there has been, but it’s not complete or widespread.

Merchants Must Embrace

In the UK market alone there are 494,000 searches on voucher terms per month with no brand associations. This proves that consumers will research where they can find deals first rather than with brands that they know already exist or traditionally prefer. Which, in turn, begs the question; is brand loyalty becoming less important to some consumers as they realise they can get good value and the same/similar products if they shop around? If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then the market has never been more competitive and if that is the case, then merchants need to embrace new techniques to engage with consumers and ultimately drive sales.

What about high-end brands? Those brands that consider themselves as premium – and don’t wish to be associated with many of the publishers in the channel – need to be sure to not get complacent. Even those consumers in the AB1 category are more price-sensitive than ever before and will only look to buy from a brand if they can find a deal or a discount. According to Savoo research in 2012, 78% of UK adults only buy luxury/non-essential items if they have a discount voucher to use.

Explore a More Transparent Channel

Leaving the ‘brand’ question for a moment, what about the question of incremental sales? The technological developments in the last 10-15 years have not only changed the way consumers think, but the way they shop. The speed in which they can obtain offers and the ease for an affiliate to feedback this information to a merchant / network should provide invaluable insight and data. That data can be analysed almost in real-time to help shape and mould online sales strategies. The industry records clicks, not just on a sale level but also a response level, making affiliates totally transparent and, arguably, a strategic partner who can act not only on an affiliate sales level, but from a strategic / agency perspective.

The value of fluid AB testing and deal intelligence cannot be underestimated. No street billboard in the world could tell you how many of your target consumer had noticed or even responded to a given advert, yet huge amounts of our marketing budgets are still tipped in to this channel as opposed to one that is totally transparent but also insightful. I wouldn’t for a moment advocate losing other marketing channels, but the idea of testing the affiliate channel to see how incremental sales are growing must be worth exploring? Remember, affiliates are transparent, accountable and driven on ‘performance’.

To touch on the attribution argument – and I do mean touch as I don’t think we have the word count to do this argument justice. As the media landscape changes and internet usage grows amongst all age and demographics, it is time to start investing more into this channel and looking at different ways of paying different types of affiliate. Although the likes of voucher code, cashback and aggregator sites can bring the huge volume of sales, a consumer search can often start with a content site. Yet because this site did not drive the last click they are often not rewarded for their contribution toward a sale. It would be difficult to totally move away from this model and it’s a new debate that needs looking in to. Like our traditional marketing counterparts, our payment models need to be reviewed – could this channel work with a tenancy model rather than just a CPA? Let’s not forget the huge branding opportunities that come with working with high-traffic affiliate sites.

The Life and Soul of the Party

I don’t have the answer, but I am more than happy to discuss options with merchants and networks as we are keen to ‘test’ as many variants as an advertiser wishes.

So, in summary, I believe it’s important we keep innovating and sharing ideas with networks, advertisers and agencies to build on the wealth of knowledge we already have – constantly ensuring we are keeping the consumer engaged. Advertisers will only gain insight through testing different types of affiliate and analysing the results. That way, they can then make up their own minds as to how they see this innovative and forward thinking channel. It’s down to all of us to show that we are not the cousin you think will embarrass you at the family wedding, but the life and soul of the party who everybody loves and wants to talk to.