The affiliate channel has always had a chameleon-like ability to adapt to its environment. However, as consumer and regulatory concerns about privacy and data escalate, brands ramp up their demands for transparency and the tech giants clampdown on what can be tracked online, so affiliate marketing is faced with a barrage of new challenges.

In 2020, what should brands be doing to futureproof their campaigns for the next generation of affiliate and partner marketing? Here, we outline a future blueprint for marketers in the channel.

Privacy and data

Privacy and data will be two major battlegrounds and it is imperative marketers work with trusted partners who can demonstrate they have robust systems to minimise the risk of customers’ data being exploited. 

In 2017, PwC surveyed 2,000 American consumers to better understand their attitudes to data security, cybersecurity, privacy, trust, and regulation. They found that 92% of respondents want to control the data collected about them with a similar amount saying they will not do business with a company they do not trust. Overall, PwC found there is a strong correlation between the trust a consumer has and the amount of data they are willing to share.

With a quarter of US consumers using ad blockers and a flurry of data protection laws coming into place across the world, we need to establish a new standard that puts people’s privacy protection and cybersecurity first to maintain confidence in our channel.

The first consideration needs to be what data do you capture and can you justify doing so? Privacy by design is now a default setting. Every product, iteration and service developed by companies should take this as a starting point. 
The smaller the amount of personally identifiable information the better. Consider a classic affiliate sale. Strictly speaking, this could mean an IP address or order ID. Both of these data points can be scrambled, truncated or anonymised within a reporting interface. 

If you want to capture further customer data, you must have checks and balances in place to ensure it is safely stored or used in an aggregated form. It can be tempting when speaking to clients to ask them to share as many data points as possible with a view to creating a suite of hugely detailed reports. But, with a data protection approach and as a general rule of thumb, if you don’t need to capture certain pieces of information, then don’t.

The critically important European legislation GDPR bakes in a number of principles based around how any of the European Union’s 500m citizens’ data can be used. With many global companies selling products to the EU, it’s vital marketers across the world are informed about the regulation. 

Futureproofing tracking

Another core challenge marketers face is being able to accurately track their online campaigns and interactions. With Apple, Chrome and Mozilla moving from supporting third-party tracking to the reliance on first-party cookies, it’s incumbent on vendors to develop technology that mitigates the impact.

Apple’s high profile Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) has already seen an erosion of around 3% of affiliate commissions and while Awin has clawed back lost commissions in the form of compensation payments for impacted publishers, clearly a longer-term approach is needed. The situation is reminiscent of when mobile sites first launched without affiliate tracking in place. However, in that case, a shift towards mobile responsive sites eradicated the problem. This is not a topic that can be solved without companies investing in new tech solutions while also recognising that affiliates do not work for free. Commissions shouldn’t be a price these partners pay for a lack of advertiser urgency in futureproofing their programmes.

The industry is now able to offer solutions that ensure the continued tracking of affiliate programmes. Server to server tracking helps to tackle the consequences of adblockers and browser tracking preventions. Similarly, mobile app tracking not only supercharges the number of sales an advertiser can report on but also boosts conversion rates. Awin’s longstanding MasterTag and another similar industry tracking relies on first-party cookies which means the affiliate industry is able to offer tough tracking solutions that other digital marketing disciplines can’t necessarily rely upon.  

For now, this hybrid approach offers valid solutions, however, how do we futureproof tracking so that it isn’t beholden on changes that browsers can make with little or no notice? Similar to Google’s Parallel Tracking, Awin has recently launched a tracking solution that sends the consumer directly to an advertiser site by ‘bouncing’, rather than redirecting, thereby ensuring no adblocker or browser can impede the technology.

While moves to block tracking aren’t typically aimed at affiliate marketing activity, we are impacted as a consequence of bigger initiatives, underpinning why it’s critical we work as an industry to continue to invest in robust solutions.

A more accessible platform

The final area of the affiliate marketing evolution is in how partnerships are formed by creating a more egalitarian and accessible platform for businesses of all shapes and sizes to connect from. One of the key developments over the past 18 months has been the emergence of a number of non-traditional affiliate businesses, software companies, banks and brands who are looking to explore the CPA model and build additional revenue streams.

By developing a trusted ecosystem of innovative companies who are capable of augmenting everything from publisher feeds to on-site conversions, so the industry will take a more ‘open source’ approach to affiliate marketing.
In recent months Awin has started working with visual product recognition companies, single basket solutions, dynamic search and product recommendation companies, white label price comparison sites and advanced attribution businesses.

We need to stop thinking that networks should be constantly looking to build these solutions themselves. Why try and iterate world-beating business intelligence tools, for example, when Tableau exists? 

We should be positioning affiliate partners and advertisers as part of a seamless and dynamic ecosystem, connected by a network and payable on a last-click CPA basis. Instead of a focus on the affiliate model, we will instead put the consumer at the heart of our connections and adapt working practices and payment models based on what works for that particular relationship. Breaking free of that mindset should engender a more creative approach to all our jobs and secure the next generation of affiliate and partner marketing.