Holiday shopping is almost in full swing. In fact, for my fellow Chanukkah celebrators, the gift-buying window is closing quickly. Although it may seem like autumn just started yesterday, to many of us, the rise in holiday-themed music at local storefronts has been signalling the change for some time. And finally, we’re all about to take the plunge.

The holiday season is always a bit of a wild card. Sure, we experience it every year – but those experiences can vary tremendously. It’s an incredibly competitive environment. So much energy goes into such a brief time window that it’s hard to know precisely where we’ll stand by the end of it all. What enticing deals will competing sites be offering – and when? How will we balance our various marketing channels and efficiently drive sales? Questions range from the elaborate and complex down to even the most basic (e.g. ‘Will our site be able to handle the bump in traffic?’).

There are so many moving parts to the equation. And unfortunately, there’s a relatively fixed amount of human brainpower that you can devote to it. Individually, you can work longer – but you’re probably not doubling the size of your marketing staff just for one month. So here you are with lots to do and limited resources. How can you fit affiliate compliance into the larger picture?​

Know What You’re Looking for

Remember, the increased demand during the holiday season also incentivises affiliates to engage in non-compliant practices. There’s a lot for them to gain and they know you’re incredibly busy. That’s the perfect storm for violations. And while it’s probably impossible to stay ahead of every single tactic that a black-hat affiliate might employ, you can still cut down on a tremendous amount of abuse by keeping a set of high-priority issues on your radar. From anecdotal experience, here are some of the tactics that increase during the holiday season:

Ad Hijacking and Direct Linking

If you’re not familiar with either of these, ad hijacking occurs when an affiliate’s paid search ad displaces the merchant’s own ad and links directly to the merchant site through an affiliate link. Alternatively, direct linking occurs whenever an affiliate places a paid search ad that goes directly through their affiliate link.

Because searches for branded keywords tend to spike during this season, black-hat affiliates have more opportunities to abuse your paid search policies. Check out this Google Trends graph for the search term ‘Amazon’ over the past six years. It clearly jumps in December every single year, and is already trending up again this year.

*Click to enlarge

Brand Bidding on Coupons, Discounts, Promo Codes, and Deals

Searches for the term ‘coupon’, ‘promo code’ and other variations follow a similar trend. But when it comes to discounts, how are your affiliates representing your brand? Here’s an interesting example from an affiliate targeting Payless (see below).

The first ad links to this landing page, where you’ll find a few coupons good for only 15-20% off. The difference is somewhat slight, but how does this reflect on the merchant? This may seem like a bait-and-switch to the customer, resulting in a negative experience. Some sites will quote much higher discounts, helping commoditize even the most high-end brands.

Coupon Code Abuse

Coupons are an excellent way to spark demand at the right time. Employed strategically, they can ensure a healthy stream of sales. But coupons also pose their own set of risks. Affiliates may post codes early, leave expired coupons up on their sites (whether intentionally or not), copy exclusive codes from your other affiliates, or even produce false codes in the hopes of encouraging clicks.

This busy period can amplify all of these issues. In the pressure cooker of holiday shopping, affiliates not only have more incentive to use non-compliant tactics – they’re also more likely to simply make mistakes. Regardless of whether an affiliate intentionally copied an exclusive code from a competitor’s site or was just so busy that they forgot to remove an expired code, the merchant is still affected. You’d certainly deal with each case differently – but the sooner you can reinstate compliance, the better.

Cookie Stuffing

The name doesn’t seem terribly threatening (and may even sound like an odd combination of two holiday foods), but cookie stuffing can be a serious threat. In fact, two infamous cookie stuffers stole a total of $35 million in commissions from eBay and may end up serving 20-year terms in jail for wire fraud.

Cookie stuffing is inherently a numbers game. Cookie stuffers want to force as many cookies onto visitors’ devices as they can, hoping that those visitors will go on to make sales at certain merchants’ sites. The more likely those visitors are to make a purchase before the cookie expires, the more likely that the cookie stuffer is to steal a commission. Unfortunately, this means that the holiday season is a perfect target for cookie stuffers. They already know that a high volume of purchases are going to happen over the next month. What better time for them to set their traps?​

Know How to Spot Violations

You’ve already got a million things to do in far too little time. And I apologise, but now I’ve given you a bunch of other stuff to worry about. So how can you fit compliance in with everything else? Fortunately, there are some efficient ways to fold compliance into the marketing activities that you’re already doing.

You Know When You’re Most Vulnerable

Your marketing team probably has a pretty good idea of how you’re going to roll out certain promotions. That means you can already identify the moments where affiliates may be most tempted to use non-compliant tactics. So instead of having to constantly worry about compliance in the back of your mind, you can focus on it at the most relevant times.

You’re Already Analysing the Data

Analytics are a crucial aspect of online marketing – and they’re increasingly moving to real-time information. During the holiday season, you might have someone checking up on various marketing stats at nearly every moment. Those are your eyes and ears for catching affiliate abuse. Signals can appear in a variety of reporting channels: your affiliate data, PPC, or even your main website analytics. By having some idea for what to watch out for, these various disciplines can each be vigilant of potential abuse.

Beware of These Warning Signs

Affiliates with Abnormally High Conversion Rates: this is a classic sign of ad hijacking. Affiliate hijackers know that branded keywords convert well, and target them for that very reason.
Affiliates with Extremely Low Conversion Rates: this is generally an indicator of cookie stuffing. Since cookie stuffers load cookies without sending traffic over to the merchant’s site, very few of their targets actually end up completing a purchase. Conversion rates for cookie stuffing affiliates may be a whole order of magnitude lower than your average.​​

Extra High Commissions Paid to Certain Affiliates: in general, your top-performing affiliates should be applauded for driving traffic and sales. However, sometimes these top performers generate such impressive metrics via non-compliant means. It’s probably worth checking in with some of your most productive affiliates – especially the ones you’re less familiar with, to see how they’re getting those numbers.

Higher Incidence of Coupon-Related Error Pages: if your analytics indicate that a lot of users are submitting coupon codes that aren’t working, it’s quite likely that you have some expired or false codes in circulation.

PPC Anomalies: if your paid search team is experiencing a lower-than-expected CTR, this may be attributable to brand bidding affiliates (often coupon bidders who quote discounts in ad copy). Alternatively, if your paid search team complains about below-normal click volume, you could be losing those clicks to ad hijackers.

Happy Holidays!

This time of year can certainly be intense for digital marketers, so I hope that these suggestions will help your seasonal marketing run smoothly. Once you’ve made it through to the other side of these tough weeks, I wish you all some well-deserved respite and relaxation.