New Network Flavors

The affiliate network menu is expanding to offer many more options than just vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

Call them what you wish – ad networks, sub networks, CPA networks, CPA ad networks. No matter the name, these aggressive challengers are mounting pressure on the “Big 3” affiliate networks.

CPA ad networks, which use a cost-per-action payment model, are providing increased competition, which is likely to mean publishers will benefit from more choices, bigger payments, a wider range of potentially lucrative offers and what some observers claim is a more nurturing environment.

Affiliate consultant Shawn Collins refers to ad networks as the “hybrid of affiliate marketing – part merchant and part affiliate.”

Like traditional affiliate networks, CPA ad networks rely on publishers willing to promote their advertisers’ offers. But unlike their cousins, ad networks act more like direct CPA-deal brokers and generally focus on lead generation, registration-based offers and bounty programs. In addition, CPA ad networks often don’t require start-up fees and advertisers to prequalify, thus lowering the barrier to entry. It’s estimated that one needs approximately $5,000 to get a CPA network off the ground.

However, many claim the life span for the bulk of these emerging ad networks is limited and this crop will never be able to truly compete on a larger scope with the bigger established networks such as Commission Junction, LinkShare and Performics. “

CJ started in 1999 and the landscape has changed over the last six and a half or seven years,” says Kerri Pollard, director of publisher development at Commission Junction. “There’s been an increase in competition and new CPA networks.”.

Some affiliate managers argue that CPA networks fail to add value because they poach advertisers who are already in merchant affiliate programs. Others insist CPA networks add tremendous value because they attract new and unique advertisers who in turn, deliver new valuable customers.

Regardless, CPA networks are emerging as major players in the online marketing world. These marketing companies have direct access to groups of advertisers who, through a wide array of techniques, have the potential to drive a high volume of clicks, sales and new customers.

Maybe that’s why you can’t attend a conference or trade show related to online marketing without seeing the booths of the exhibit hall jam-packed with CPA ad networks looking to woo affiliates and garner some attention.”

Who’s on First

With so many players in the game, it’s difficult to keep tabs on everyone. Some well-known current networks include CPA Empire, DirectLeads, Endai Worldwide, Adteractive, Metarewards, The Vendare Group, XY7.com, YFDirect, eMarketMakers and TheBizOppNetwork. In addition, several new ones are popping up nearly every week.

In 2005, many of the major players gained a bigger foothold by partnering with other companies. Affiliate Fuel, also known as Thermo Media, LLC, was acquired by Experian in April. PrimaryAds was bought by Think Partnership for nearly $10 million. And ValueClick purchased Web Clients for $141 million.

For affiliates, much of the appeal of these ad networks is the size and frequency of payments. Affiliate networks usually pay on a monthly schedule or when a certain revenue level has been achieved, whereas CPA networks typically pay affiliates weekly so they don’t need to float the costs of advertising or, in the case of incentive sites, the costs of the incentives themselves. CPA networks often negotiate top-rate commissions for their publishers. In many cases, these deals are much better than what a publisher can negotiate from the merchant’s affiliate manager.

A post on the ABestWeb.com forum from an affiliate sums up the appeal of CPA networks:

“As an affiliate, I love them because they often pay considerably higher commissions than the major networks, they often pay quicker, and most don’t allow reversals,” writes Michael Coley, president of AmazingBargains.com.

While the affiliate appeal is high, some downsides to dealing with ad networks exist, including poor practices, such as cookie stuffing, adware, spyware and spamming. “

The biggest problem I’ve had is that campaigns will get canceled without any notice sometimes, so I end up having to find another source and switch out my links,” Coley continues. “I don’t think any of them are ‘clean.’ Most seem to work largely with email marketers, some of which are notorious for spam.”

Merchants claim to be somewhat cautious for a variety of reasons. Although CPA networks reduce the risks for publishers while maintaining the direct-response needs of the merchant, the merchants have no control over how their offer is presented. “

As a merchant, you don’t know who is promoting you, and the CPA network is not going to tell you, because you’d cut them out of the deal if they did,” according to Collins. “

What I like least about CPA networks is they build loyalty between the network and the affiliate with merchants’ money,” says Beth Kirsch, group manager of affiliate programs at LowerMyBills.com.

J.T. Stephens, director of auctions marketing and business development at Overstock.com Auctions, offers some tips for advertisers dealing with CPA networks:

  • Communicate your business needs;
  • Provide networks with an email suppression list of marketing companies/ affiliates on your blacklist and a list of your top affiliates that the network cannot contact;
  • Be on the alert for unsavory affiliate activities (adware, spam, spyware); and
  • Do not let the networks determine how to market your offer.

Many CPA network advertisers are huge proponents of free iPod offers and promotions. That tactic is likely to bring in customers more interested in the prize or giveaway than the merchant offer. This type of promotion fuels the perception that CPA ad networks only cater to less-savory advertisers.

Still, some figures state that big brand names make up 30 to 45 percent of all CPA advertising. Big-brand sites can also act as affiliates accepting CPA ad buys, such as MSN, when it has remnant inventory. Big-name publishers are selling CPA buys, but often it’s directly to the advertiser and not through the network.

Everybody into the CPA Pool

Though networks generally make more money selling on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) basis, some will sell leftover inventory and run CPA offers, according to an executive at one of the major affiliate networks, who asked not to be named for fear that the industry stigma associated with CPA practices would be damaging. In most cases, the networks are “booking these revenues as CPM,” the source says.

Another network executive says her network will continue to stay focused on its overall value proposition.

“We want to make CJ remain the preferred place for the new publishers,” Pollard says. “We have many different categories of publishers. They are the backbone of affiliate marketing. The top request from our 1,500 to 2,000 advertisers is overwhelmingly, ‘How can we help publishers trying to make money?'”

Pollard claims that by leveraging CJ’s connection with its parent company ValueClick, it can provide more value than CPA networks can by going beyond affiliate marketing to include lead-generation business, click integration, tracking and email.

“It’s a bigger and better picture to the clients. We have more synergies and offer them in a streamlined way,” she says. “But there is a lot of value that CJ brings as a trusted third party and the value associated with that is worth a lot to our clients. It’s currently a win/win situation and we want to make sure it remains that way.”

Rob Key, president and CEO of online agency Converseon.com, says the Big 3 are doing well with fraud initiatives and payment services. He also applauded LinkShare’s efforts in the area of analytics, which he says adds a higher level of sophistication to its program. However, he feels there is some room for improvement in the area of data feeds and customization.

“There will always be a place for LinkShare, CJ and Performics,” Key says. “But the space is expanding and people want more customization than the Big 3 can offer.”

He claims the movement toward more customized platforms has “topped out in the networks, which are looking to be all things to all people.” Instead, by offering specialized services, certain network alternatives help “people look beyond the traditional and reinvigorate.”

Converseon’s network-agnostic custom platform is designed to aid companies that are trying to get a view of their data across all channels, Key says. “You can’t do that if the affiliate data is off to one side, like it is with the networks,” he says, adding that the traditional networks will see continued price pressure.

Pollard expects to see consolidation in the CPA network space over the next year or two and says there’s no threat of a CPA network displacing any of the Big 3.

“I also expect that one or two other larger players may come in, but nobody that’s the size of LinkShare and CJ. CPA networks will evolve for months and years, but many of them will not be around for long,” she says.

The increasing power of ad networks was brought to the forefront at the end of last year when Commission Junction ousted AzoogleAds from its network. Because AzoogleAds was a CJ affiliate that grew into its own revenue-sharing network, many industry watchers claim it was just a matter of time before CJ kicked out the sub network.

Joe Speiser, AzoogleAds.com cofounder, called the move by Commission Junction “flattering,” adding that his company was clearly “dangerous enough from ValueClick’s point of view” to warrant giving up the “nearly 80 percent of traffic we brought in on the eBay campaign.” That’s a huge factor, since eBay is CJ’s biggest campaign.

Speiser also says that CJ was threatened by Azoogle’s growing presence.

Pollard says despite the incident with Azoogle, CJ has no plans to ban sub networks.

“Our business is always changing and we never want to put policies in place that hamper publishers and stop them. I want the creativity to remain,” she says. “Sub affiliates are great partners and we want to continue to have relationships with them.”

From Pollard’s point of view, sub affiliates “have found good niches and are good at servicing the advertisers.” However, she notes that it’s important for CJ to maintain network quality and ensure sub networks do not do business with affiliates that are engaging in questionable practices, such as performing downloads and software installations.

Collins says CPA networks are a dime a dozen. “A good amount of them fail quickly. If 10 new CPA networks open today, most of them will fail within months,” he says. “I guess it’s sort of like affiliates; there are a million affiliates and only about 10,000 that are doing things. Some aren’t going to move the needle,” Collins continues. “The networks certainly don’t need to sweat it just yet.”

Rather, according to Collins, pay per click is a much bigger threat to the networks than CPA. He expects a viable challenger to soon emerge (such as Direct Response or KowaBunga) that is backed by significant capital from a public company.

Regardless of the challenges, Pollard claims the good news is that the performance marketing pie is getting bigger and there’s room for everyone.