Affiliate Networks are striving to extend their reach by entering foreign markets, but local challenges threaten their chances of international stardom.
If the affiliate model is effective for selling necklaces in Nantucket, shouldn’t it also work to move wurst in Wittenberg and mobiles in Manchester?
U.S.-based affiliate networks are hopeful that taking their business models to all four corners of the globe will translate into the same kind of success that they have enjoyed in North America. The networks see nations that have lagged behind the U.S. in embracing e-commerce as fertile ground for sowing the seed of performance marketing.
Commission Junction set down roots in the U.K. and Germany, while LinkShare put out its shingle in Japan. Both companies, as well as their European counterparts, have designs on extending their global footprint sooner rather than later. Commission Junction, LinkShare and Performics are the leading U.S. affiliate networks.
Going Gangbusters Globally
"My prediction for 2005 is that this will be the year that affiliate marketing truly goes global," says Heidi Messer, president and COO of LinkShare. Messer says the company "will be aggressive in expanding into Europe" and is interested in participating in the burgeoning economies of China, Korea and Australia.
LinkShare began its global odyssey three years ago, according to Messer, when it partnered with Mitsui & Company, a leading Japanese retailer. LinkShare provided the marketing platform while Mitsui contributed the business relationships and knowledge of the local requirements. "Going it alone wasn’t a possibility," says Messer, because each country has its own buying pattern, laws and culture.
Messer says LinkShare is evaluating opening networks in European countries on an individual basis. "We are very methodical and will not enter markets where we are not 100 percent committed," she says.
The increasing willingness of Europeans to purchase goods and services online makes the region a likely destination for American marketers, according to Hellen Omwando, an analyst with Forrester Research’s consumer markets group. Omwando says that within the first year of going online, 16 percent of Europeans now buy items such as travel and clothing, whereas in years past only 2 percent would have purchased commodity items such as CDs or books online in the first 12 months.
Omwando says that affiliates’ potential audience is also growing – 55 percent of Europeans online now participate in ecommerce. "It’s all good news from a consumer perspective," she says.
The United Kingdom and Germany are driving most of the growth in Europe and account for two-thirds of all e-commerce, according to Omwando. Not surprisingly, Commission Junction launched its first two European affiliate initiatives in those two countries.
"We are up to our eyeballs in international expansion," says Elizabeth Cholawsky, vice president of marketing and product development at Commission Junction. She adds that the company will next launch in France in mid-2005, and that Spain and Italy are also priorities for expansion.
By entering new markets, the company would be able to better serve its advertisers through an international network of websites, says Cholawsky. In addition to Europe, Commission Junction has launched eBay in India and Australia, and has China on its radar.
The most difficult aspect of Commission Junction’s European launch was not technological or cultural, but bureaucratic, according to Cholawsky. She says that because European tax officials are not well-versed in the intricacies of e-commerce, the company hired auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to work with government representatives in the U.K. and Germany. The European Union’s adoption (with the exception of the U.K. and Switzerland) of the euro has simplified currency exchange.
The company hired a design firm from Germany and a language translation firm from Washington, D.C., to create a website acceptable to local affiliates, according to Cholawsky. She says launching in the U.K. first simplified establishing a presence in Germany. "Europe has more things in common than different," she says. "Culturally it’s similar all around."
European expansion has contributed to Commission Junction’s rapid growth. The company’s revenue jumped from $24 million in 2003 to an estimated $54 million in 2004, says Cholawsky.
Affiliate network Performics is unlikely to join the European fray this year, according to Chris Henger, senior vice president. He says Performics is focusing on integrating its resources with new parent company DoubleClick. "In the longer term you could see us moving in that direction, but it’s not an immediate strategy," Henger says.
Navigating the Potholes
Ashley Friedlein, CEO of London-based E-Consultancy.com, says that incumbent local companies have the upper hand over Americans in attracting retailers. "European merchants want to deal with companies who understand their markets," he says.
Citizens of each country have their own preferred methods of purchase, revenue model, topselling products and legal requirements, according to Friedlein. Europeans are much more likely to purchase products through their mobile phones, and the laws for online data protection and privacy protections vary from country to country, he says.
European e-commerce trends run about six to 10 months behind the U.S., Friedlein says. And European affiliates continue to use the pay-per-click revenue model that Americans have largely moved beyond, according to Friedlein. Search engine marketing in Europe requires local expertise, especially for American companies used to operating in a Googlecentric universe.
Europeans have their own searchengine marketing techniques, and affiliates and merchants are working out how to cooperate with search partners, according to Friedlein. He says that affiliates and retailers have been in a bidding war over getting priority for brand names in search engine rankings. "It’s a bone of contention," he says.
One similarity with American affiliate marketing is that merchants depend on a few affiliates for most of their revenues. "I reckon that 90 percent of sales come from 10 percent of affiliates," Friedlein says.
Affiliate marketing’s rapid growth in Europe has made it difficult for retailers to find in-house expertise to manage their programs, according to Friedlein. Many large retailers do not have a dedicated affiliate manager, so the responsibility is either part of the marketer’s job, or it’s outsourced.
European sales generated through affiliates during 2004 are estimated at $1.1 billion, a 100 percent increase over the previous year, Friedlein says, and he expects similar growth this year. Friedlein says 3.5 percent of all e-commerce sales in Europe are generated by affiliates.
Forrester’s Omwando warns that while affiliate marketing in Europe is in a comparatively early stage of development, Americans looking to land on the Continent in 2005 may have a hard time forging relationships. Europe already has three significant networks in place: Zanox in Germany; TradeDoubler, which has operations in 16 nations; and Commission Junction, which began its U.K. operation in 2001.
She says retailers unfamiliar with affiliate marketing are unlikely to partner with a foreign entity. "Marketing at the end of the day is very localized, and anyone participating has to understand the nuances and cultural sensitivities," Omwando says.
For example, to work with German companies, networks must first establish relationships with the local trade associations, Omwando says.
"I really don’t see what the opportunity is for American companies," she says. To have any chance at attracting European retailers, American companies must bring with them an impressive roster of international advertisers, according to Omwando.
The American networks’ grab for affiliates abroad will put them in direct competition with European companies that also have designs on expanding into Asia, and perhaps even in the U.S.
TradeDoubler poses a formidable challenge to foreign competitors. The company has been in operation since 1999 and has a presence in 16 European countries.
It is assessing possible expansion into Asia, and clients have frequently asked TradeDoubler to consider opening an office in the U.S., according to Will Cooper, chief marketing officer.
"Having a pan-European footprint has given us access to the world’s largest advertisers," says Cooper, who counts Dell, Apple, Sony and Reebok among his clients. TradeDoubler’s network includes more than 800 advertisers and 450,000 publishers across Europe.
Cooper says the challenge of starting networks in several European countries should not be underestimated. Each country has a unique cultural and business climate that requires networks to retool their business model, he says. "Every market is so incredibly different in terms of things such as broadband penetration, size of market and payment models," Cooper says.
While Spain and the U.K. are both large markets with populations of more than 40 million, their e-commerce demographics are quite different, according to Cooper. The U.K. has the most mature e-commerce marketplace, and the costper- action revenue model works well. But Spain has very different characteristics. "The culture is not to buy online. People prefer being able to touch the products," Cooper says, and cost-per-click is the preferred commission structure.
Heavier reliance on mobile phones provides another opportunity for networks looking to move into Europe. TradeDoubler developed a program for Swedish mobile phone users who are more comfortable with brick-and-mortar purchases. Customers can download coupons that contain an identification number for the referring affiliate to their mobile phones, which they take to the checkout counter where scanners read the coupons.
Another example of a TradeDoubler affiliate program designed for a specific country is its British lottery program. After registering online, Britains text message their Lotto picks, which takes advantage of the U.K.’s interest in mobile phone e-commerce.
Zanox, an affiliate network based in Germany that spans 22 European countries, launched the ring-tone download service Jamster in the U.S. and Australia. "You cannot compare Europe and the States," says Holger Kamin, Zanox’s executive account director.
Kamin says his company has an advantage over American networks because it has already established relationships with major retailers in Europe and provides many affiliate services, including consulting, email permission marketing programs and a transaction platform.
The cultural differences between countries that share a common language can be difficult for non-Europeans to understand. "You can’t think that because they speak the same language in Austria, Switzerland and Germany that the culture is the same," Kamin says.
To succeed in the long term, affiliate networks must have international reach, according to Kamin. "This business is global," he says. Kamin predicts that the market will consolidate to five top-tier international affiliate networks that will compete with smaller regional players.
American affiliate networks are not alone in their hemisphere in seeking a share of the international marketing dollars. Canadian affiliates are enjoying success selling products such as prescription medicine, adult content and sports books in the United States.
Nicky Senyard, CEO of Montreal-based network ShareResults.com, says merchants in her country are significantly behind their southern neighbors in understanding affiliate marketing. "Online merchants don’t know what they are or how they are to be used," Senyard says. Many Canadian affiliates are currently selling American products, but her company and others are educating Canadians on the possibilities of selling their goods in the U.S.
Just as Commission Junction and others are now operating networks in Canada, she expects that Canadian networks will increasingly do business in the U.S. "[Opportunity] flows in both directions," Senyard says.
American networks that wait until 2006 to launch European initiatives may find the window of opportunity closed. Local companies who become established with retailers now will have a definite advantage, according to Gary Stein, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "The advantage is to the incumbent," Stein says. U.S.-based advertisers who are expanding their European online marketing programs have to weigh the factors of familiarity with American networks versus local expertise, according to Stein. "There are arguments on both sides of the equation."
JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlertNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.