Is it possible for the performance marketing industry to police itself in any meaningful way? It’s a question that has been asked for years, mostly by people who want to take the industry forward. Their argument is that for major brands and big ad agencies, brand protection and the risk of  fraud are huge issues. As a result, the free-wheeling, try-anything-once approach of some affiliates – and some networks, to be fair – is a significant drag on the performance marketing industry’s growth rate. So it’s a big deal.

We asked the members of our Blue Ribbon Panel for their thoughts on whether anything more can be done to “regularize” affiliate marketing. We spoke with JP Sauve of Max Bounty together with Clickbooth’s Erin Cigich, Melissa Feemster of Rakuten Affiliate Network, co-founder of W4 Jason Durant Walker, Cristian Miculi of Avangate and Matt Frary of SmarterChaos.

mThink: We have seen a number of efforts to improve industry policing, from new technology solutions at the network or merchant level, through to the PMA’s various initiatives. Is anything working? Can anything work?

mattfraryMatt Frary: The problem is that not everyone in the performance marketing industry has incentives to police themselves. The bad actors are still able to keep doing business and in many cases appear more successful because they are cutting corners. The only way for us to start to rise above these kind of  issues is for a few key players to lead the way by example. Those players can put out industry standards and conduct themselves in a public way that shapes the way others think in our industry. It is not just one company or organization that needs to do this, but all of the high profile ones.

darylcoldwellDaryl Colwell: That’s right. It is the responsibility of the leaders of this space to ensure appropriate parameters are put in place. These leaders must take into account opinions & policies from all ends – affiliates, networks, advertisers, technology providers and more – to ensure there is an opportunity for a harmonious environment where we can all work together & prosper. If we can do that then I absolutely believe it’s possible, and necessary, for the industry to police itself.  

cristianmiculiCristian Miculi: The big problem is that since there isn’t any globally accepted authority that oversees compliance in performance marketing, any “classic” approach to policing or regulation is not possible. However, I think the performance marketing industry is nevertheless in an ongoing process of developing self-policing, or at least in understanding how to separate the “good” from the “bad” (in terms of compliance) and in making sure that the majority of the players comply with the generally accepted rules.

erin-cigichErin Cigich: Yes – the industry is moving in the right direction. But success requires participation from ALL parties – advertisers, networks and affiliates. When any one of us is willing to accept less than best practices on any portion of our revenue we jeopardize the entire industry. Many parties in the industry could benefit from a simple gut check – “Do I feel good about the way I’m generating these profits? Am I adding value to the customer experience?” I suspect there may be quite a few for which the honest answer might be a no.

melissafeemsterMelissa Feemster: Policing of the industry is not just possible, it’s actually happening! There are all kinds of  attribution tracking technologies, and backup tracking that advertisers can install to ensure enhanced accuracy, and compliance rigor. Additionally, the network effect of scaled advertiser and publisher data passing through new analytics platform helps identify fraud and trends to watch. It is becoming progressively harder for the fraudsters but merchants needs to ensure that their network partners are aggressively investing in attribution technology.

Jason Durant Walker: Yes, as said above, this kind of policing will more likely be done on a company-by-company basis rather than by some consortium of companies or the industry as a whole. What is that will drive a company to police itself? The fact that delivering poor quality and fraud is simply bad business. If you are not delivering value to your advertiser clients, you are not going to be keeping them for long. Fortunately, there are more technology tools than ever before for quickly weeding out fraudulent and low quality traffic.

JPsauve2JP Sauve: I suspect it is going to be an uphill battle that won’t be won anytime soon. The industry is pretty wide now so there is no common approach possible for policing affiliates, advertisers, networks or traffic sources. They will each require a different approach, so while some improvement is possible, I suspect things will continue pretty much as they are, with occasional governmental intervention whenever some small group within the industry inevitably decides to push the boundaries.

Daryl Colwell: That’s a good point. The affiliate space is a very delicate one. On paper it’s the greatest marketing model an advertiser can ask for. Unfortunately, if a few bad apples find their way into the mix, what has been presented on paper may not turn into reality. To stay protected, before agreeing to work with a new network, advertisers need to mandate that the network will  abide by the utilization of some of the excellent tools that are now available to help police campaigns.

mThink: In conclusion then, nobody seems to think that any kind of “top-down” policing of the performance marketing industry is going be possible. The industry is too fragmented, the incentives of many of the players are not aligned with a totally clean, fraud-free industry, and no organization has enough authority or power to make new regulations stick. Even the FTC can only attack the very worst problems piecemeal.

But there is hope. The consensus of the Panel members is clear: new technologies at the network and merchant level are creating a way forward in which bad actors can be identified early and advertisers can feel assured that their brand and business is protected.