In mid-March of 2008, eBay announced it would be transitioning away from having its massive affiliate program run by a network and instead they would take it in-house.

eBay began its affiliate program in 2001 and had since grown it to the second largest affiliate program in the world, behind’s Associate Program.

The eBay Partner Network launched on April 1, and the company started to transition its affiliate program away from Commission Junction. eBay also brought over to the new network.

Speculation that eBay might be thinking of a transition began back in September 2006, when it announced the launch of their own affiliate linking infrastructure called Project Rover. At that time, eBay claimed the new linking structure would provide a variety of improvements, including reduced ad and cookie blocking by using an eBay hosted domain; limited redirects, thus reducing the risk of user drop-off and improving speed and performance; and global infrastructure improvements by enabling eBay and Commission Junction to develop increased global tracking capabilities, allowing for more seamless international affiliate promotions.

That migration, which angered some affiliates who had to swap out links, was the start of eBay’s transition to bring its program in-house.

Senior Manager of the eBay affiliate program, Will Martin-Gill, emphasized the move had nothing to do with a dissatisfaction with CJ or ValueClick.

“CJ was great when the program was with them. They also were really helpful with the transition – from talking us through the public announcement, to helping with the messaging to the affiliates, to transitioning the team. Once they understood where we were going, that gave us the support to get there,” he says.

More Control Over Data

For eBay, according to Martin-Gill, it was simply time to bring the affiliate program in-house the same way eBay brought their search services in-house three years ago.

“When we did that, we were able to do more things than SEM agencies and use our internal conversion data,” Martin-Gill says. “We were able to determine the value of a click and what constitutes a good click. We learned so much from the data. That helps us make more informed decisions and is a tremendous advantage. We wanted to do the same for our affiliate program.”

Martin-Gill also noted that eBay was looking to build more flexibility and innovation into their program, to reach and sustain the more diverse crowd of affiliates and publishers on the Web today, and to have a direct relationship with those affiliates. Thus, it gave the company increased control over data across various marketing channels.

Martin-Will comes at this with some insight given that, prior to leading this effort, he was responsible for leading key advertising and search engine marketing initiatives for eBay. Before that, he was senior manager of corporate strategy, which being responsible for strategy development,mergers and acquisitions and various projects across Marketplaces, PayPal and Skype, including Internet marketing strategy.

eBay’s massive worldwide affiliate base was also a factor in the move. eBay was looking to turn its program into a global platform where publishers and affiliates can sign up to all the various country-specific programs at once, through the same interface.

eBay didn’t completely move away from ValueClick and is using MediaPlex’s tracking solution for the eBay Publisher Network. In addition, Tradera AB, ProStores, Reseller Marketplace, Media Marketplace, eBay Stores and StubHub continue to be on CJ’s platform.

There was a two-month overlap between the two platforms during April and May so that affiliates could make all the necessary changes to their links. eBay also paid an extra 5 percent commission to affiliates that transitioned their links and ID to eBay Partner Network by May 1. The company claims that by the end of May over 90 percent of its active affiliates had followed them to the eBay Partner Network, and eBay’s program also retained 90 percent of its volume.

“This was a big effort. It was an undertaking that required a huge effort that we didn’t take lightly,” Martin-Gill says.

He adds that it took over a year to put together all the technical and organizational elements required to get up and running. It required creating groups and systems to handle customer service, network quality and fraud detection,finance and payment, and account management. Martin-Gill won’t disclose the exact size of the team running the network, but did note that it has tripled since bringing the program in-house. The technology group responsible for the infrastructure and development is a shared group at eBay.

So far the biggest challenge for the network, according to Martin-Gill, was the volume of initial customer service inquires. “People have lots of questions,” he says. “This was a big growing pain for us in the first three to four months to get customer service up to speed. I don’t think we did too badly.”

To get its message out there, eBay launched a blog, relaunched the affiliate discussion boards, had a booth at both the Affiliate Summit and Ad:Tech conferences. The Partner Network also gave a presentation to a large group of eBay sellers recently.

Turning a Corner

Martin-Gill says that it wasn’t until October that the entire EPN team began to feel really comfortable. “We felt like we turned corner,” he says.

Early on in the program’s history there were some affiliates that questioned if tracking discrepancies had occurred in the transition, as some affiliate experienced a drop in commissions. Ironically, tracking was not one of the core infrastructures that changed the move. MediaPlex,which is owned by CJ’s parent company ValueClick, continued to handle all the tracking.

Martin-Gill says that EPN conducted audits both internally and by hiring third party firms, and in same cases issued “make goods” to affiliates.”We take tracking really seriously,” he says. Now he’s confident that after an exhaustive three month study, everything is on track.

The other thing EPN has learned over the last nine months is that a lead is not a lead is not a lead, according to Martin-Gill. “Some leads are more valuable than others,” he says.

Under CJ, eBay was paying $25 to $35 for each new user registration. He claims that there were those affiliates attempting to game the system by getting a customer to sign up and then buy a $2 piece of plastic jewelry – and then collecting a $25 commission.

To curb that behavior EPN created an algorithm that accounts for the lifetime value of a customer and pays the affiliate accordingly. In August, eBay moved to a value-based pricing plan for Active New Registered Users. The move was intended to better reward top affiliates,provide incentives for other affiliates to improve the quality of their traffic, and pay fair compensation for users who have low lifetime value to eBay. Under the new arrangement, they pay affiliates $1 to $50 per new user.

The new pricing structure took effect on August 1 for new affiliates and November 1 for all existing affiliates. At press time, more than one-third of their active affiliates are now earning $28 or more for every new user they drive to eBay, while several hundred affiliates are qualifying for the new $40 and $50 tiers.

Other enhancements since the transition include providing additional data to affiliates including a campaign quality report that shows affiliates which of their tactics and campaigns are driving the most engaged users. There is also a new report showing affiliates which categories of products their users convert, so they can improve targeting.

In addition, eBay has added tools for customer banners, as well as special creatives associated with particular deals and holidays.

“We want to give affiliates more tools and better ways to promote us, such as the customer banner where affiliates can specify pixel length and width. For 2009, EPN is also plannin

g to roll out coupons in the banners. Martin-Gill says that they will build-in unique coupons that are offered to high-frequency users. In addition, EPN is looking to offer affiliates more product feeds.

“We are making a push toward finding highly valuable publishers – we are not just about volume.”