CJ’s Missing Link

When Commission Junction announced its Link Management Initiative (LMI) on May 23, the reaction from the affiliate community was swift and decisive. It was interpreted as a mandatory change for affiliates from HTML to JavaScript links and it was not embraced. In fact, it sparked petitions, anti- LMI buttons, forums and message boards decrying LMI and hundreds of blog entries questioning Commission Junction’s, actions and motives.

Every online marketing constituency – affiliates, affiliate managers, merchants, other rival networks, agencies and industry watchers – weighed in on LMI. Observers and insiders speculated the change was motivated by CJ’s parent company ValueClick’s desire to use affiliates to gather traffic information on customers as well as perform some behavioral targeting.

Following the community outcry, Commission Junction has backed off its position that LMI will be mandatory. The company sent this update to publishers in mid-August.

“On August 30, 2006, publishers will notice changes in getting links in the CJ Account Manager. This change will make it easier for publishers to choose either HTML or JavaScript links. To reiterate, there are no plans to remove support for HTML links.

However, advertisers will have the option to designate a link as JavaScript-only (with the exception of keyword links), if they deem it necessary. Commission Junction encourages its advertisers to support both HTML and JavaScript link formats, to meet the varied needs of publishers.”

CJ executives were unavailable at press time to comment.

The change of positioning was hinted at on the most recent ValueClick earnings call on August 6, 2006. CEO Jim Zarley said, “We are not mandating it [LMI] however, and it could take a considerable amount of time to do such a migration [from HTML links]. “We got a response loud and clear from our publishers that they are not willing to do this on a wholesale basis, but we believe that over time, maybe it takes a year or two, that this will be the way that the market will go. So we are going to be patient with it. Right now, we are just working with our publisher on a one-to-one basis, and eventually I would anticipate that we will get there over time.”

One source close to CJ says that the overall Link Management Initiative encompasses more than just JavaScript versus legacy links and that LMI is intended to provide additional options related to links. Several sources, who asked not to be named, say, “There is more than meets to the eye to LMI,” but no one offered any specific details. However, all hinted that the scope of the overall initiative had not been completely revealed.

“Long term, whatever is driving this hasn’t gone away, but CJ has realized that they cannot do it quickly or force it on affiliates, so they have at least slowed down,” says Scott Jangro, owner of affiliate MechMedia, who is also a former BeFree and CJ executive. “JavaScript might be the way to go someday in the future, but certainly not in the current technological climate.”

Jangro, a very vocal opponent of LMI (see sidebar on page 101) says, “As long as you’re defining LMI as the mandatory elimination of plain HTML links in favor of JavaScript, I don’t see any upside for affiliates. Affiliate marketing is so much more than renting out space on a website in which a third party can serve ads.”

He offers an example: A website includes a blog entry how-to on repairing your projection television set. There are text affiliate links in the content pointing to a merchant that sells the parts required. He says it would make “no sense to serve some of the text in my page as JavaScript. To someone who doesn’t have JavaScript enabled (as well as search engine spiders), the text would be invisible.”

The bottom line, according to Jangro, is that JavaScript can only make a page less reliable, perform more slowly and be more difficult to maintain.

Jeremy Palmer, a super-affiliate who runs QuitYourDayJob.com, explains that most of the benefits of LMI are to merchants that get more control over the “who, what and when.” He also says that, “LMI also benefits CJ’s Network Quality team because they have more insight into the traffic sources and behaviors of their affiliates. Right now, they rely on an image pixel to gather this information, but if an affiliate omits the pixel, they are unable to get this data.”

On the flip side, Palmer has many concerns including creative control. “I seldom use the creative offered by merchants in the CJ account manager,” Palmer says. “Being able to customize images and ad copy is what helps separate me from the competition.”

Anne Fognano of CleverMoms.com agrees. “The links are cookie cutter with designated creative that may or may not present the message affiliates want to get out to their customers. Affiliates who run Java creative will have links that are too similar, and the unique site feel that many affiliates work to employ for these merchants will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain,” she says.

“There is no upside,” says Scott Hazard, president of Brightside Media and a superaffiliate. “The downside ranges from inability to use databases, to the fact that JavaScript takes away basic design elements. Limiting an affiliate with JavaScript links is keeping that affiliate from using their creativity in presenting the merchant or the merchant’s product to the customer.”

“I am not sure of the upside of LMI, but a downside that I see is that some affiliates can’t use the codes in their article management systems and possibly other systems. Personally, my article system strips the code out,” Wendy Shepherd, a super-affiliate who runs TipzTime.com, says. “In this case, I have to use the old CJ links for as long as they are available. When those links are phased out, I won’t be able to use the links within articles or reviews in the article system anymore.”

For many, the problem is that in order to use JavaScript they will have to change nearly 90 percent of their links, which can be a laborious process. That effort is likely to take a vast amount of time, resources and money if they need to hire someone to handle the process. All that can translate into decreased revenue.

“I think LMI will be a hindrance. Some of the bigger affiliates have created internal systems that rely on using their own redirect to an affiliate link, and I am not sure how they can adapt when LMI becomes compulsory, unless they rebuild their infrastructure,” says Shawn Collins, president of Shawn Collins Consulting. “Also, I am among a great many affiliates that redirect affiliate links through META redirects, .htaccess files, etc. This makes things more efficient in the event that a merchant changes networks or closes their affiliate program. I am able to simply change the affiliate link in one place to control dozens or hundreds of instances of that affiliate link.”

QuitYourDayJob’s Palmer also raises issues about the load time of the JavaScript code and users that might disable JavaScript, which is not supported by all browsers, while traditional hypertext links are 100 percent supported.

Spyware expert Ben Edelman says that it’s uncertain what effectiveness LMI will have at blocking improper activities like forced clicks, “because it seems wrongdoers can easily circumvent the additional security provided by LMI.”

Still, some affiliates are searching for something positive.

Adam Viener, president of search affiliate IMWave, says, “The upside of having JavaScript links is that in certain situations you can have dynamic code that can be updated with the latest special deal or promotion. For example, if you wanted to have a ‘deal of the day’ link, that would be a perfect use for a JavaScript link.”

However, he notes, “The problem is JavaScript links don’t work in every situation, and offering them as an option is a great idea. Moving to a 100 percent JavaScript solution just won’t work for many affiliates and for many websites.”

FREEDOM OF CHOICE

Because JavaScript won’t work for everyone, affiliates didn’t like the idea that CJ appeared to be making this mandatory. Affiliates interpreted this stance as Commission Junction not listening to their concerns, and that caused much concern.

“I personally think that CJ should take into account what affiliates want instead of pushing them to use what they think is better for affiliates. If they don’t listen to their affiliates, this will have an effect on their business,” TipzTime’s Shepherd says.

Others say that CJ “will have to chalk LMI off to a poor PR effort and settle for ways to provide JavaScript links as options,” according to Viener.

“I don’t think they will be able to switch everyone over to these links, and may risk alienating some of their top affiliates if they attempt to force this on everyone. I would like to see them offer these as options, and remove them from being the default option. It has been quite a pain to keep hitting the legacy code button every time I want to get a link from them. Personally, I haven’t implemented one JavaScript link from them at this time,” Viener says.

“I’m sure they invested a lot of time and resources in LMI. It is a shame to lose that, but they will lose market share if they force it on affiliates,” says Hazard. “Affiliates have money and time invested in their online properties and operations. For a network to demand such an extensive change and restructuring is an over-the-top move in my opinion. The reaction it got seems to support that.”

Many say that if CJ doesn’t listen to its affiliates, they may shy away from using the network’s merchants and opt to work with those merchants on other platforms. In some cases, affiliates have already reduced the amount of time they are spending on CJ merchants rather than swap out the links.

MERCHANT DILEMMA

“I am aware from my interactions with many other affiliates, that many have reduced, and in some cases even stopped generating legacy links because it is so time-consuming to do so since the introduction of the JavaScript links,” CleverMoms’ Fognano says. “I am not aware of anyone I interact with on a daily basis using the Java links yet.”

Affiliate and best-selling author (The AdSense Code: What Google Never Told You About Making Money with AdSense) Joel Comm didn’t pull any punches. “For our site, DealofDay.com, CJ’s LMI requires that we totally revamp our back-end administrative tool. As of now, I’m still not sure how well the new links will work. If it comes down to it, we will just write off CJ merchants from promotion on our site. I don’t understand the logic behind making it more difficult for affiliates to link to merchants. If I were a CJ merchant, I would be extremely upset.”

Many are, but they are extremely cautious about commenting publicly.

“This was not good for affiliates or merchants. It’s only good for ValueClick,” says one CJ merchant who requested anonymity. “But there isn’t much that affiliates could do except vote with their feet and leave. That really sends a message.”

eBay, CJ’s largest advertiser, has already informed its affiliates that it will not require JavaScript links and instead it’s working on its own HTML tracking methodology. Here’s what eBay told publishers in an email:

“Many of you have asked us what eBay’s recommendation is regarding LMI and the promotions you are currently running for eBay. We have been working on a new HTML tracking methodology specifically for eBay that will work seamlessly with the Commission Junction interface so that all of the current reporting capabilities will remain supported. While we do not have a deployment date, we are confident that it will be deployed prior to the holiday season, and we recommend waiting to change any tags related to eBay US and eBay International auction-related accounts until the new eBay tag schema is available. Given that Commission Junction is taking a phased approach for publishers to change out their tags, we think this approach will cause you the least amount of disruption.”

UNITED FRONT

Many are taking a wait-and-see approach to assess the overall industry impact.

Others claim this is one of the few issues that have united nearly the entire affiliate community.

“It has caused the affiliate community to come together to sign Scott Jangro’s online petition. I think it is one of the first times we have seen the affiliate marketing community agree on something,” IMWave’s Viener says. “Clearly everyone, except maybe some people at CJ, agree that the forced LMI initiative is a bad idea. We can only hope it goes away as fast as it has arrived.”

“I think the other networks have learned something from it. If you are going to insist that your affiliates change out millions of links, there needs to be something of value in it for them. The word ‘mandatory’ should probably not be used,” Hazard says.

This strife could work in the favor of other networks.

“I think it’s got both affiliates and merchants at least concerned enough to start looking elsewhere for their affiliate solutions. LinkShare, Performics, ShareASale and the other networks, on the other hand, are loving it,” says Jangro.

“Recently there has been an increasing shift on the part of both merchants and affiliates away from the ‘big three’ networks and onto more focused and specialized tracking platforms,” says Stephanie Schwab, vice president of Converseon, which offers an alternative platform. “I think this trend will continue to grow, and if CJ pushes LMI it will accelerate even faster.”

ThePartnerMaker.com’s president, Jeff Molander, says, “CJ has already seen the defection of retail-focused advertisers and this will likely continue. First they forced BeFree customers into a public network (something they actively voted against when they chose BeFree years ago). Now the LMI sends the message that scale and automation is more important than what affiliate marketing has traditionally been built on: labor-intensive relationships.”

He continues, “ValueClick is happy to keep the many lead-generation and offer-based advertisers within CJ as these advertisers are seeking a performance-based solution that scales. ” LMI supports this.”

Choots Humphries, co-president of ad network LinkConnector, says that his company also uses JavaScript links (LinkConnector Hot Link) but makes it a voluntary decision for affiliates, since there are individual challenges and advantages to implementing the technology. “Having it be an option is the key,” he says.

Deborah Carney, the affiliate manager at Rextopia.com, likens the situation to when Coca-Cola pulled Coke off its shelves in favor of New Coke in 1985. It was an infamous public relations debacle, and the beverage giant was forced by public pressure to bring back the much-beloved soda as Classic Coke.

“Anytime you take away something and force people into a new business model, it doesn’t work,” Carney says.

Many pointed out that although other advertising systems such as Google’s AdSense use JavaScript and have never provided affiliate flexibility and control, the uproar regarding LMI is because CJ and competing affiliate systems have always granted such control and “taking it away feels like a loss,” according to Edelman.