If there’s anything you can rely on to get the affiliate marketing community talking, it’s the fallout from a panel comprising of some of the channel’s leading networks. 

The latest ‘network panel debate’ took place at Affiliate Huddle last week as key UK representatives from some of the globe’s biggest affiliate networks fielded questions from a section of the 300 delegates that flocked to London on March 31 for the event.

The line-up for this particular session was as follows: 

CJ Affiliate by Conversant – Anne Delhon, country manager, UK 
Affiliate Window – Anthony Clements, country manager, UK
Tradedoubler – Dan Cohen, regional director
Webgains – Derek Grant, group sales director
Affilinet – Helen Southgate, UK managing director

Plenty of questions came from the floor and these were PerformanceIN’s highlights:

Is last click fundamentally dead?

The sustainability and suitability of the last-click payment model dictating commission on so many affiliate marketing programmes has repeatedly attracted debate as networks have invested in the sort of technology that might end its dominance. “Is last click dead?” was the very first question launched at the networks on Thursday, but equally one that could have been asked in 2015, or earlier.

Derek Grant kicked things off with the claim that last click still worked for the “majority” of Webgains’ advertisers, and that for the 80% of affiliate programmes in the UK that only reward on a single touchpoint, it did work despite debates over whether it was the best model for rewarding.

Clements pitched in with the view that while “fundamentally broken” was a harsh term used by panel moderator James Little, group commercial director for TopCashback, it “definitely” needed changing. An interesting point raised soon after was that last click has enabled some of the industry’s strongest publishers to become successful (also propelling the success of the industry on the whole), whereas content publishers – whose value may come in the earlier stages of a user journey – continually struggle to fully monetise their efforts.

Clements later predicted the emergence of a two-sided affiliate programme: one dedicated to the conversion aspect, the other aimed at obtaining reach which will “have to be paid for”. Networks such as affilinet and Affiliate Window have of course both released technology that could cater for the latter aspect.

Further references of a steer away from last click came via Dan Cohen, representing Tradedoubler, who insisted that the point at which networks looked at last click as the only payment metric had passed, but this ‘didn’t mean CPA was broken or dead’.

As for CJ Affiliate by Conversant – represented by Anne Delhon – the focus seemed very much on the customer; in tandem with advertiser demands for buyer profiling and personalisation. The value of the publisher, therefore, would be in what they could do to drive a valuable customer to the brand.

Where is the next wave of innovation coming from?

PerformanceIN’s own line of enquiry drew the focus to innovation – specifically to what the affiliate networks were doing to cut through the noise created by innovators in fields like programmatic, who represent competition when it comes to talk over budget.

Each network got the chance to present what they had done over the last year in creating new tools, many of which seemed to be geared towards data-driven solutions. Indeed, it was Cohen’s view that “all” networks were moving towards this space in a natural way when considering the banks of highly valuable data at their disposal.

A point raised on the heels of this centered around networks investing in lots of different solutions, which in turn prevented a ground swell in one particular area. Clements made reference to the technology being rolled out by Affiliate Window to change the way programmes reward commission, giving weight to the theory that innovation had been “better in the last year than in the last three to four”.

However, there was a slight disagreement over what really should be pushing the industry forward as a priority. Should it be innovation in the form of data-mining tools that help advertisers gain a more granular level of insight into their campaign performance, or Helen Southgate’s suggestion of more content and better ad formats to improve the population and prospects of affiliates?  

How many networks have the tools to facilitate online to offline purchase tracking?

The great “online/offline divide” continues to represent a huge talking point among marketers who wish to see just how much of their in-store custom is driven by online advertising and services.

It was Cohen’s opinion that rather than being the trailblazer for tech in this space (“it’s not our area of expertise”), affiliate should aim to aggregate some of the technology created by third parties to ensure full customer journey tracking on affiliate networks. 

Sometimes this is easy. The Body Shop (on Tradedoubler and Rakuten Affiliate Network) has online/offline tracking tech in place, according to Cohen, along with several other retailers.

Delhon highlighted the presence of offline conversion tracking on CJ Affiliate by Conversant – currently in its early trials – which enabled ties to be drawn between “the click of a banner ad” and an in-store purchase between a period of seven days.  

Yet there was certainly an admission of this being a “slow burner” in some senses; both Clements and Southgate highlighting the challenges in breaking down departmental silos (“online and offline have their own teams and their own numbers”, according to Southgate), with the former raising the time it takes to set up an online/offline promotion as another reason why affiliate’s ability to drive in-store purchasing is not always showcased.

Concluding the panel’s views was a consensus that while some advertisers are making good progress in joining online and offline together, most were “nowhere near” this ideal. The big question on this point seems to be what affiliate as a channel can do to ease this transition, if anything at all.

Has the profile of affiliate marketing in the UK dipped in recent years?

A riveting sub-plot derived from Cohen chasing down the defences of a lack of innovation by expressing worries of the channel becoming “business as usual”, even if it does perform “particularly well” for its advertisers. It was claimed that even the IAB’s efforts to promote the channel had done little to bring affiliate (potentially on a global scale) the recognition it deserves.

There was a disagreement from Webgains on the above as Grant used the event’s attendance in addition to his own clients’ view of the channel to pose a counter argument. This was followed up by Delhon’s points around affiliates becoming “brands in their own right”, the variety of publisher models available and the emergence of affiliate into a “serious business”.  

Cohen reiterated that while those points were valid in the argument of whether affiliate had grown as an industry, there was some truth in other channels (programmatic, while more of a buying method than a channel, was mentioned) evolving at a much faster pace and taking some of the limelight away. Clements alluded to a decline in mainstream news coverage being used to exemplify that point.

Do ad blockers pose a threat to the industry?

The ad blockers used by 22% of British web users certainly do pose a threat to the digital marketing ecosystem as a whole, according to Southgate. Underneath this, affiliate is actually benefitting from media owners seeing their inventory on the likes of YouTube become victim to such technology, she added, as these groups are taking to the channel in response.

Grant confirmed that Webgains “weren’t losing sleep” as a result of ad-blocker adoption and that the power of the advertising industry may start to come into view as a solution is found. Southgate mentioned that “bypassing the issue” missed the point about consumers being served by low-quality inventory, with Cohen and Clements stating that affiliate was in a good position to weather the storm due to what it gives the audience and the way it is set up – text links and all. 

Does the IAB still play a key part in the industry?

A hotly-anticipated question garnered a duly-expected answer as the representatives of networks still part of the IAB (Affiliate Window, affilinet, CJ Affiliate by Conversant) vouched for its relevance, while the non-members (Webgains, Tradedoubler) had their own reasons for opting out.

Those in the pro-IAB camp were full of praise for the work done by the Bureau, namely in outlining the codes of practice for the industry to follow, with Southgate adding the benefit of its authority being used to put affiliate marketing at the table of conversations about the EU Data Protection Directive, ad blocking and other matters.

Delhon cited the value of networks being able to converse over issues and communicate in IAB meetings. But Cohen said this could be done in different ways moving forward; that meetings between networks could still take place away from the IAB and that a return on investment on membership should be taken into account.

What would it take for the group to demonstrate its value? Cohen saw huge benefit in the Bureau appealing to a larger demographic of companies – namely the publishers helping drive business in the channel - with Clements admitting pressure on the IAB to follow up its good work, potentially with initiatives to improve regulation and trust. 

Did you attend Affiliate Huddle? If so, what were your big talking points from the event? Tweet us @PerformanceIN with the hashtag #AffiliateHuddle.