Monday, February 4, 2008

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing is a web-based marketing practice in which a business rewards one or more affiliates for each visitor or customer brought about by the affiliate's marketing efforts.

Affiliate marketing is also the name of the industry where a number of different types of companies and individuals are performing this form of internet marketing, including affiliate networks, affiliate management companies and in-house affiliate managers, specialized 3rd party vendors, and various types of affiliates/publishers who promote the products and services of their partners.

Affiliate marketing overlaps with other internet marketing methods to some degree, because affiliates often use regular advertising methods. Those methods include organic search engine optimization, paid search engine marketing, email marketing and in some sense display advertising. On the other hand, affiliates sometimes use less orthodox techniques like publishing reviews of products or services offered by a partner.

Affiliate marketing — using one site to drive traffic to another — is a form of online marketing, which is frequently overlooked by advertisers. While search engines, e-mail and RSS capture much of the attention of online retailers, affiliate marketing carries a much lower profile. Still, affiliates continue to play a significant role in e-retailers' marketing strategies.[1]


The beginning
The concept of revenue sharing, paying commission for referred business, predates that of affiliate marketing and the Internet. The translation of the revenue share principles to mainstream ecommerce happened almost four years after the World Wide Web was born in November 1994, when CDNow launched its BuyWeb program. With its BuyWeb program, CDNow was the first non-adult site to introduce the concept of an affiliate or associate program with its idea of click-through purchasing. had the idea that music-oriented web sites could review or list albums on their pages that their visitors might be interested in purchasing and offer a link that would take the visitor directly to CDNow to purchase them. The idea for this remote purchasing originally arose because of conversations with music publisher Geffen Records in the fall of 1994. The management at Geffen wanted to sell its artists’ CDs directly from its site but did not want to do it itself. Geffen Records asked CDNow if it could design a program where CDNow would do the fulfillment. Geffen Records realized that CDNow could link directly from the artist on its Web site to Geffen’s web site, bypassing the CDNow home page and going directly to an artist’s music page.[2]

Affiliate marketing was used on the internet by the adult industry before CDNow launched their BuyWeb program. The consensus of marketers and adult industry insiders is that Cybererotica was either the first or among the early innovators in affiliate marketing with a cost-per-click program.[3] launched its associate program in July 1996. Amazon associates would place banner or text links on their site for individual books or link directly to the Amazon’s home page.

When visitors clicked from the associate’s site through to and purchased a book, the associate received a commission. was not the first merchant to offer an affiliate program, but its program was the first to become widely known and served as a model for subsequent programs.[4][5]

In February 2000, announced that it had been granted a patent (6,029,141) on all the essential components of an affiliate program. The patent application was submitted in June 1997, which was before most affiliate programs but not before PC Flowers & (October 1994), (October 1995), (January 1996), EPage(April 1996), and a handful of others.[3]

Historic development
Affiliate marketing has grown quickly since its inception. The e-commerce website, viewed as a marketing toy in the early days of the web, became an integrated part of the overall business plan and in some cases grew to a bigger business than the existing offline business. According to one report, total sales generated through affiliate networks in 2006 was £2.16 billion in the UK alone. The estimates were £1.35 billion in sales in 2005.[6] MarketingSherpa's research team estimated that, in 2006, affiliates worldwide earned $6.5 billion in bounty and commissions from a variety of sources in retail, personal finance, gaming and gambling, travel, telecom, education, publishing and forms of lead generation other than contextual ad networks such as Google AdSense.[7]

Currently the most active sectors for affiliate marketing are the adult, gambling and retail sectors.[8] The three sectors expected to experience the greatest growth are the mobile phone, finance and travel sectors.[8] Hot on the heels of these are the entertainment (particularly gaming) and internet-related services (particularly broadband) sectors. Also several of the affiliate solution providers expect to see increased interest from B2B marketers and advertisers in using affiliate marketing as part of their mix.[8] Of course, this is constantly subject to change.

Web 2.0The rise of blogging, interactive online communities and other new technologies, web sites and services based on the concepts that are now called Web 2.0 have impacted the affiliate marketing world as well. The new media allowed merchants to get closer to their affiliates and improved communication between each other.[9][10] New developments have made it harder for unscrupulous affiliates to make money. Emerging black sheep are detected and made known to the affiliate marketing community with much greater speed and efficiency.

Compensation methods

Predominant compensation methods
80% of affiliate programs today use revenue sharing or cost per sale (CPS) as compensation method, 19% use cost per action (CPA) and the remaining 1% are other methods, such as cost per click (CPC) or cost per mille (CPM).[11]

Diminished compensation methodsThe use of pay per click (PPC/CPC) and pay per impression (CPM/CPT) in traditional affiliate marketing is far less than 1% today and negligible. CPM and CPC are today still heavily used in display advertising and paid search.

Cost per mille (thousand) (CPM/CPT) requires the publisher only to load the advertising on his website and show it to his visitors in order to get paid a commission, while PPC requires one additional step in the conversion process to generate revenue for the publisher. Visitors must not only made aware of the ad, but also pursue them to click on it and visit the advertiser's website.

Cost per click (CPC/PPC) used to be more common in the early days of affiliate marketing, but diminished over time due to click fraud issues that are very similar to the click fraud issues modern search engines are facing today. Contextual advertising, such as Google AdSense are not considered in this statistic. It is not specified yet, if contextual advertising can be considered affiliate marketing or not.

CPM/CPC versus CPA/CPS (performance marketing)
In the case of CPM or CPC, the publisher does not care if the visitor is the type of audience that the advertiser tries to attract and is able to convert, because the publisher already earned his commission at this point. This leaves the greater, and, in case of CPM, the full risk and loss (if the visitor can not be converted) to the advertiser.

CPA and CPS require that referred visitors do more than visiting the advertiser's website in order for the affiliate to get paid commission. The advertiser must convert that visitor first. It is in the best interest for the affiliate to send the best targeted traffic to the advertiser as possible to increase the chance of a conversion. The risk and loss is shared between the affiliate and the advertiser.

For this reason affiliate marketing is also called "performance marketing", in reference to how employees that work in sales are typically being compensated. Employees in sales are usually getting paid sales commission for every sale they close and sometimes a performance incentives for exceeding targeted baselines.[12] Affiliates are not employed by the advertiser whose products or services they promote, but the compensation models applied to affiliate marketing are very similar to the ones used for people in the advertisers' internal sales department.

The phrase, "Affiliates are an extended sales force for your business", which is often used to explain affiliate marketing, is not 100% accurate. The main difference between the two is that affiliate marketers cannot, or not much influence a possible prospect in the conversion process, once the prospect was sent away to the advertiser's website. The sales team of the advertiser on the other hand does have the control and influence, up to the point where the prospect signs the contract or completes the purchase.

Multi tier programs

Some advertisers offer multi-tier programs that distribute commission into a hierarchical referral network of sign-ups and sub-partners. In practical terms: publisher "A" signs up to the program with an advertiser and gets rewarded for the agreed activity conducted by a referred visitor. If publisher "A" attracts other publishers ("B", "C", etc.) to sign up for the same program using her sign-up code all future activities by the joining publishers "B" and "C" will result in additional, lower commission for publisher "A".

Snowballing, this system rewards a chain of hierarchical publishers who may or may not know of each others' existence, yet generate income for the higher level signup. This sort of structure has been successfully implemented by a company called, a division of Alticor, the parent company of Amway. Quixtar has implemented a network marketing structure to implement its marketing program for major corporations such as Barnes & Noble, Office Depot, Sony Music and hundreds more.

Two-tier programs exist in the minority of affiliate programs; most are simply one-tier. Referral programs beyond 2-tier are multi-level marketing (MLM) or network marketing.

Even though Quixtar compensation plan is network marketing & wouldn't be considered 'affiliate marketing', the big company partners are considered and call themselves affiliates. Therefore, you may argue that the Quixtar company is the affiliate marketer for its partner corporation.

From the advertiser perspective

Pros and consMerchants like affiliate marketing[13] because in most cases, it uses a "pay for performance" model, meaning that the merchant does not incur a marketing expense unless results are accrued (excluding any initial setup cost). Some businesses owe much of their success to this marketing technique, a notable example being Unlike display advertising, however, affiliate marketing is not easily scalable.[14]

Implementation options
Some merchants run their own affiliate programs (In House) while others use third party services provided by intermediaries to track traffic or sales that are referred from affiliates. (see outsourced program management) Merchants can choose from two different types of affiliate management solutions, standalone software or hosted services typically called affiliate networks.

Affiliate management and program management outsourcingMain article: Affiliate manager
Successful affiliate programs require a lot of maintenance and work. The number of affiliate programs just a few years back was much smaller than it is today. Having an affiliate program that is successful is not as easy anymore. The days when programs could generate considerable revenue for the merchant even if they were poorly or not at all managed ("auto-drive") are over (with the exception of some verticals).

Those uncontrolled programs did aid (and continue to do so today) rogue affiliates, who use spamming,[15] trademark infringement, false advertising, "cookie cutting", typosquatting[16] and other unethical methods that caused affiliate marketing to get a bad reputation.

The increase of number of internet businesses in combination with the increased number of people that trust the current technology enough to do shopping and business online caused and still causes a further maturing of affiliate marketing. The opportunities to generate considerable amount of profit in combination with a much more crowded marketplace filled with about equal quality and sized competitors made it harder for merchants to get noticed, but at the same time the rewards if you get noticed much larger.

Recently, the internet advertising industry has become more advanced. Online media has in some areas been rising to the sophistication of offline media, in which advertising has been largely professional and competitive for many years already. The requirements to be successful are much higher than they were in the past. Those requirements are becoming often too much of a burden for the merchant to do it successfully in-house. More and more merchants are looking for alternative options which they find in relatively new outsourced (affiliate) program management or OPM companies that were often founded by veteran affiliate managers and network program managers.[17]

The OPM are doing this highly specialized job of affiliate program management for the merchant as a service agency very much like Ad agencies are doing the job to promote a brand or product in the offline world today.

Types of affiliate websitesAffiliate sites are often categorized by merchants (advertisers) and affiliate networks. There are no industry-wide accepted standards for the categorization. The following list is very generic but commonly understood and used by affiliate marketers.

-Search affiliates that utilize pay per click search engines to promote the advertisers offers (search arbitrage)
-Comparison shopping sites and directories
-Loyalty sites, typically characterized by providing a reward system for purchases via points back, cash back or charitable donations
-Coupon and rebate sites that focus on sales promotions
-Content and niche sites, including product review sites
-Personal websites (these type of sites were the reason for the birth of affiliate marketing, but are today almost reduced to complete irrelevance compared to the other types of affiliate sites)
-Blogs and RSS feeds
-Email list affiliates (owners of large opt-in email list(s))
-Registration path or Co-Registration affiliates who include offers from other companies during a registration process on their own website.
-Shopping directories that list merchants by categories without providing coupons, price comparison and other features based on information that frequently change and require ongoing updates.
-CPA networks are top tier affiliates that expose offers from advertiser they are affiliated with to their own network of affiliates (not to confuse with 2nd tier)

Publisher recruitmentAffiliate networks that have already a number of advertisers usually also have a large number of publishers. This large pool of publishers could be potentially recruited. There is also an increased chance that publishers in the network apply to the program by themselves, without the need for any recruitment efforts by the advertiser.

Relevant sites that attract the same audiences as the advertiser is trying to attract, but are not competing with the advertiser are potential affiliate partners as well. Even vendors or existing customers could be recruited as affiliate, if it makes sense and does not violate any laws or regulations.

Almost any website could be recruited as affiliate publisher although high traffic websites are more likely interested in (for them) low risk CPM or medium risk CPC deals rather than higher risk CPA or revenue share deals.[18]

Affiliate program detection

Affiliate programs directories are one way to find affiliate programs, another method is large affiliate networks that provide the platform for dozens or even hundreds of advertisers. The third option is to check the target website itself for a reference to their affiliate program. Websites, which offer an affiliate program often, have a link titled "affiliate program", "affiliates", "referral program" or "webmasters" somewhere on their website, usually in the footer or "About" section of the site.

Even if all those methods seem to indicate that a site does not have an affiliate program, could it still be the case that there exists a non-public affiliate program. The only way to find out for sure, is to contact the site owner directly and ask.

Past and current issues

In the early days of affiliate marketing, there was very little control over what affiliates were doing, which was abused by a large number of affiliates. Affiliates used false advertisements, forced clicks to get tracking cookies set on users' computers, and adware, which displays ads on computers. Many affiliate programs were poorly managed.

Email spam
In its early days many internet users held negative opinions of affiliate marketing due to the tendency of affiliates to use spam to promote the programs in which they were enrolled.[19] As affiliate marketing has matured many affiliate merchants have refined their terms and conditions to prohibit affiliates from spamming.

Search engine spam / spamdexing
There used to be much debate around the affiliate practice of spamdexing and many affiliates have converted from sending email spam to creating large volumes of autogenerated webpages, many-a-times, using product data-feeds provided by merchants. Each devoted to different niche keywords as a way of "SEOing" (see search engine optimization) their sites with the search engines. This is sometimes referred to as spamming the search engine results. Spam is the biggest threat to organic search engines whose goal is to provide quality search results for keywords or phrases entered by their users. Google's algorithm update dubbed "BigDaddy" in February 2006 which was the final stage of Google's major update dubbed "Jagger" which started mid-summer 2005 specifically targeted this kind of spam with great success and enabled Google to remove a large amount of mostly computer generated duplicate content from its index.[20]

Sites made up mostly of affiliate links are usually badly regarded as they do not offer quality content. In 2005 there were active changes made by Google whereby certain websites were labeled as "thin affiliates"[21] and were either removed from the index, or taken from the first 2 pages of the results and moved deeper within the index. In order to avoid this categorization, webmasters who are affiliate marketers must create real value within their websites that distinguishes their work from the work of spammers or banner farms with nothing but links leading to the merchant sites.

Affiliate links work best in the context of the information contained within the website. For instance, if a website is about "How to publish a website", within the content an affiliate link leading to a merchant's ISP site would be appropriate. If a website is about sports, then an affiliate link leading to a sporting goods site might work well within the content of the articles and information about sports. The idea is to publish quality information within the site, and to link "in context" to related merchant's sites.

AdwareAdware is still an issue today, but affiliate marketers have taken steps to fight it. AdWare is not the same as spyware although both often use the same methods and technologies. Merchants usually had no clue what adware was, what it did and how it was damaging their brand. Affiliate marketers became aware of the issue much more quickly, especially because they noticed that adware often overwrites their tracking cookie and results in a decline of commissions. Affiliates who do not use adware became enraged by adware, which they felt was stealing hard earned commission from them. Adware usually has no valuable purpose nor provides any useful content to the often unaware user that has the adware running on his computer. Affiliates discussed the issues in various affiliate forums and started to get organized. It became obvious that the best way to cut off adware was by discouraging merchants from advertising via adware. Merchants that did not care or even supported adware were made public by affiliates, which damaged the merchants' reputations and also hurt the merchants' general affiliate marketing efforts. Many affiliates simply "canned" the merchant or switched to a competitor's affiliate program. Eventually, affiliate networks were also forced by merchants and affiliates to take a stand and ban certain adware publishers from their network.

Resulting from this were the Code of Conduct by Commission Junction/BeFree and Performics,[22] LinkShare's Anti-Predatory Advertising Addendum[23] and ShareASale's complete ban of software applications as medium for affiliates to promote advertiser offers.[24] Regardless of the progress made is adware still an issue. This is demonstrated by the class action lawsuit against ValueClick and its daughter company Commission Junction filed on April 20, 2007.[25]

Trademark bidding / PPCAffiliates were among the earliest adopters of pay-per-click advertising when the first PPC search engines like (which became later, acquired by Yahoo! in 2003) emerged during the end of the nineteen-nineties. Later in 2000 Google launched their PPC service AdWords which is responsible for the wide spread use and acceptance of PPC as an advertising channel. More and more merchants engaged in PPC advertising, either directly or via a search marketing agency and realized that this space was already well occupied by their affiliates. Although this fact alone did create channel conflicts and hot debate between advertisers and affiliates, was the biggest issue the bidding on advertisers names, brands and trademarks by some affiliates. A larger number of advertisers started to adjust their affiliate program terms to prohibit their affiliates from bidding on those type of keywords. Some advertisers however did and still do embrace this behavior of their affiliates and allow them, even encourage them, to bid an any term they like, including the advertisers trademarks.

Lack of self regulationAffiliate marketing is driven by entrepreneurs who are working at the forefront of internet marketing. Affiliates are the first to take advantage of new emerging trends and technologies where established advertisers do not dare to be active. Affiliates take risks and "trial and error" is probably the best way to describe how affiliate marketers are operating. This is also one of the reasons why most affiliates fail and give up before they "make it" and become "super affiliates" who generate $10,000 and more in commission (not sales) per month. This "frontier" life and the attitude that can be found in such type of communities is probably the main reason, why the affiliate marketing industry is not able to this day to self-regulate itself beyond individual contracts between advertiser and affiliate. The 10+ years history since the beginning of affiliate marketing is full of failed attempts[26] to create an industry organization or association of some kind that could be the initiator of regulations, standards and guidelines for the industry. Some of the failed examples are the Affiliate Union and iAfma.

The only places where the different people from the industry, affiliates/publishers, merchants/advertisers, networks and 3rd party vendors and service providers like outsources program managers come together at one location are either online forums and industry trade shows. The forums are free and even small affiliates can have a big voice at places like that, which is supported by the anonymity that is provided by those platforms. Trade shows are not anonymous, but a large number, in fact the greater number (quantitative) of affiliates are not able to attend those events for financial reasons. Only performing affiliates can afford the often hefty price tags for the event passes or get it sponsored by an advertisers they promote.

Because of the anonymity of forums, the only place where you are to get the majority (quantitative) of people in the industry together, is it almost impossible to create any form of legally binding rule or regulation that must be followed by everybody in the industry. Forums had only very few successes in their role as representant of the majority in the affiliate marketing industry. The last example[27] of such a success was the halt of the "CJ LMI" ("Commission Junction Link Management Initiative") in June/July 2006, when a single network tried to impose on their publishers/affiliates the use of Javascript tracking code as a replacement for common HTML links.

Lack of industry standards

Training and certificationThere are no industry standards for training and certification in affiliate marketing.[28] There are training courses and seminars that result in certifications. Some of them are also widely accepted, which is mostly because of the reputation of the person or company who is issuing the certification. Affiliate marketing is also not a subject taught in universities. Only few college teachers work with internet marketers to introduce the concept of affiliate marketing to students majoring in marketing for example.[29]

Education happens mostly in "real life" by just doing it and learning the details as you go. There are a number of books available, but readers have to watch out, because some of the so-called "how-to" or "silver bullet" books teach how to manipulate holes in the Google algorithm, which can quickly become out of date[29] or that advertisers no longer permit some of the strategies endorsed in the books.[30]

OPM companies usually mix formal with informal training, and do a lot of their training through group collaboration and brainstorming. Companies also try to send each marketing employee to the industry conference of their choice.[31]

Other resources used include web forums, blogs, podcasts, video seminars and specialty websites that try to teach individuals to learn affiliate marketing, such as Affiliate Classroom, whose founder Anik Singal won the first place and $15,000 in the Young Alumni Category of the University of Maryland $50K Business Plan Competition in 2006.[32]

Affiliate Summit is the largest conference in the industry, and it is not run by any of the Affiliate networks, many of which run their own annual events.

Code of ConductMain article: Code of Conduct (affiliate marketing)
A Code of Conduct was released by the affiliate networks Commission Junction/BeFree and Performics on December 10, 2002. It was created to guide practices and adherence to ethical standards for online advertising.

"Threat" to traditional affiliate networksAffiliate marketers usually avoid this topic as much as possible, but when it is being discussed, then are the debates explosive and heated to say the least.[33][34][35] The discussion is about CPA networks (CPA = Cost per action), such as AzoogleAds or Hydra Network and their impact on "classic" affiliate marketing (traditional affiliate networks). Traditional affiliate marketing is resources intensive and requires a lot of maintenance. Most of this includes the management, monitoring and support of affiliates. Affiliate marketing is supposed to be about long-term and mutual beneficial partnerships between advertisers and affiliates. CPA networks on the other hand eliminate the need for the advertiser to build and maintain relationships to affiliates, because that task is performed by the CPA network for the advertiser. The advertiser simply puts an offer out, which is in almost every case a CPA based offer, and the CPA networks take care of the rest by mobilizing their affiliates to promote that offer. CPS or revenue share offers are rarely be found at CPA networks, which is the main compensation model of classic affiliate marketing.

The term "affiliate marketing"Increasingly, voices in the industry are recommending that "affiliate marketing" be substituted with an alternative name.[36] The problem with the term affiliate marketing is that it is often confused with network-marketing or multi-level marketing. "Performance marketing" is a common alternative, but other recommendations have been made as well.[37] A similar attempt was made to rename search engine optimization, but with little success.[38][39]