On a cold Minnesota afternoon, affiliate marketer Connie Berg checks her email fearing the worst: a message from a dream merchant saying her affiliate application for either iShopDaily.com or FlamingoWorld.com has been denied.
You see, Berg’s sites post coupon information – a once-hot commodity now shadowed by merchant belt-tightening and recent incidences of customers getting expired or invalid affiliate-posted codes.
“No matter how much we try to convince them that 99 percent of the coupon sites are simply shopping sites that also post coupons, they don’t seem to want to give us a chance,” Berg says.
It’s certainly a frustration for Berg, still an ideal candidate with 90 percent of her traffic from direct bookmarks or type-ins and a “deal alert” newsletter going to thousands. But she’s been caught in a war between ideologies that surrounds many once-highly desired affiliate sites. Merchants are looking twice at any site that could potentially cut its profits, give the wrong idea about its brand or send an unapproved marketing message.
That’s why affiliate application turndowns extend even beyond coupon sites. Under fire are affiliate sites offering coupons, incentives, discounts, email marketing, heavy search buys, forums, downloads and even mass-market and cross-cultural appeal rather than the merchant’s defined niche.
“Five or six years ago, it was about who had the biggest affiliate program,” says Chris Kramer, media director of NETexponent. Kramer, who approves affiliate applications for The New York Times, Financial Times and others, says, “Now it’s more about ‘who is this affiliate, what are they doing and do I have to worry about what they are doing?'”
Performics, for instance, denies 20 to 40 percent of the applications it receives for programs including Bose, Eddie Bauer, Harry & David, HPshopping.com and Motorola. While AffStat 2005 found onequarter of its merchants still auto-approving applications, the buzz is that the remaining three-quarters of merchants are creating additional safeguards to determine who gets in, and who stays in.
“When we talk about this issue of merchants denying affiliates, it’s mostly due to brand sensitivity,” says Kraig Smith, co-founder of Chicago-based Media- Impressions.com. His clients include Apartments.com, Healthcare Media, HEE Corporation, LifeGem Memorials and Performics. “Many big-brand offline marketers are concerned about protecting their brand in affiliate marketing.”
After all, these days merchants can be more selective – mainly because there are plenty of affiliates to choose from.
“There’s a lot of filibustering going around about how many affiliates there are,” says Chris Henger, Performics’ vice president of marketing and product development. “There are legitimately probably 50,000 to 100,000 types of affiliates active at any point in time. While it used to be easy to stand out as an affiliate with a professional site, now you’re just one in the crowd.”
“The whole [affiliate] industry has gotten more sophisticated,” says Elizabeth Cholawsky, vice president of marketing for ValueClick, Commission Junction’s parent company. “These are real businesses with real employees working day to day to grow their revenues and customer base.”
Even Vinny Lingham, a Commission Junction super-affiliate and founder of Clicks2Customers.com, the affiliate search marketing technology provider that won CJ’s 2004 Horizon Award for Innovation, gets denied for about 10 percent of the programs he applies for.
“We’ve mainly been denied because of the fact that we’re search marketers,” he says. “From a search marketing perspective, 90 percent of the merchants realize they can’t market through search engines as well as the affiliates can.” The result, he says, is that some merchants pin search-oriented affiliates as the culprit if their own search campaigns don’t produce.
Perhaps, but Kerri Pollard, Commission Junction’s director of publisher development, says it’s more about being concerned with how an affiliate will fit into the merchant’s overall integrated marketing strategy.
“Paid search has become such a big component of all the affiliate programs,” Pollard says. “They want to make sure that whatever the publishers are doing doesn’t conflict with their own search campaign.”
Still, Lingham’s site takes top affiliate status in many programs, even globally, and Clicks2Customer’s parent company, incuBeta, is one of Business Day’s “Technology Top 100 Companies.” “In reality, if we or any other super-affiliates are not working for your company, we’re building your competitor’s business and market share instead.”
Oklahoma affiliate Joel Comm has begun running DealofDay.com, a community of 125,000 bargain hunters, since he sold off ClassicGames.com to Yahoo in 1997. Three to 5 percent of his applications are denied, and the bulk of those come from financial-related merchants.
“Some merchants, like financial services, just don’t want to be part of coupon sites,” he says.
His response if denied? “I’ll just put someone else there instead,” Comm says. “There are some affiliate managers that just don’t get it, and others where the affiliate relationships are managed by the legal team – dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s. That ties their hands.”
That’s particularly apparent in the financial services arena.
“I don’t know if it’s as much price point as it is brand concern, but there is a correlation between higher price point products and brand concern; that’s not accidental,” says Peter Figueredo, CEO of NETexponent, the agency that manages the Financial Times’ affiliate programs.
NETexponent’s Kramer says one of the reasons is that financial service companies, ranging from American Express to mortgage companies, are governed by strict rules, codes and laws.
“They can’t have affiliates out there advertising ‘no-fee balance transfers’ when there really is a fee, because they can get fined,” Kramer says. “But when it comes to companies such as Financial Times, it’s more based on brand integrity. They’ve invested a lot of money in protecting and developing their brand,” and wouldn’t want “just anybody” representing that brand. Financial Times also “fits a tight demographic of highly educated, higher-income customers,” he says. “It doesn’t serve their needs to have their ads on sites where their ideal customers are not going to be.”
However, as a trend, “declines by merchants are on a case-by-case basis,” ValueClick’s Cholawsky says. “Some merchants are tiptoeing into affiliate marketing and are very restrictive. Others accept every application. We try to encourage merchants to be more inclusive, since we’ve seen that as one of the best practices. Otherwise, there is relatively little change” across the board.
Either way, the networks say tough requirements work both to the advantage of merchants and affiliates.
“Affiliates don’t want to be associated with a network that has a lot of fraud running rampant on that network,” says Danay Escanaverino, head of Global Resource Systems’ quickly growing affiliate network, Filinet.com. “If we allow fraudulent affiliates, generating bogus leads or clicks, that makes the program difficult to run for our other affiliates, and advertisers start losing faith in the program. It’s in everybody’s best interest for us to be a little bit more vigilant about who we allow in.”
Pay-per-click or pay-per-lead merchants, however, have higher rates of declines, attempting to weed out applications likely to send bogus clicks for quick cash. It’s an issue faced every day by Jonathan Miller, who approves applications for 27 affiliate programs managed by ForgeBusiness.com.
“We get inundated with affiliates trying to get into our programs,” says Miller, who since 2001 has received tens of thousands of applications, if not more. “We used to take just about anybody that signed up, but over the past year I’ve realized that things have become a lot more fraudulent and, in some programs we manage, as many as 90 percent of the applications in some periods are fraudulent.”
It’s usually only a temporary spike, made up by syndicates doing mass submissions from outside the United States, but Miller still usually denies 30 to 40 percent of the applications he receives, many of which are fraudulent.
Though common for pay-per-click or pay-per-lead sites, other merchants generally see fraud in no more than 5 percent of their applications, says a KowaBunga insider. (KowaBunga runs MyAffiliateProgram .com.) The rate of fraudulent applications often depends upon the type of merchant, the type of product, whether the merchant pays per lead or per click, and the dollar amount of commissions for average sales. “If you have lucrative offers,” Miller says, “it will be tested by forgers.”
So Miller, like other affiliate managers, is adding extra safeguards. He now has all the network fraud protections and verifies Social Security numbers and compares application info against the Whois.com registration information for the domain. Even after an application is approved, he watches for any telltale activities, such as lots of immediate clicks or changes in banking information at the end of the first month. Then, before paying out checks that are often in the thousands of dollars, ForgeBusiness.com requests not only a W-99 form but also additional proof of the affiliate’s identity, such as a faxed copy of a driver’s license, Social Security card or business license.
“We are willing to share our identity with our affiliates,” Miller says, “and we’re now requesting that our affiliates share their identity with us.”
Still, Miller says, “There is always a worry that we will be denying legitimate affiliate applications, which is why we call every affiliate that applies that makes it through the fraud software on our networks. If the affiliates can’t be contacted, then we either wait and hope to hear from them or their application is rejected.”
So while merchants of pay-per-click and pay-per-lead programs must still watch out for fake applications, ValueClick’s Elizabeth Cholawsky says – though the company hasn’t made an official statement – that she’s not seeing any more or less overall affiliate fraud than there was years ago. If the website is legitimate, the email address gets a response, and if the tax ID number checks out, then “the initial barrier [into CJ’s program] is fairly easy for a new affiliate.”
Though acceptance is easy, Commission Junction doesn’t cut a check until it’s reviewed by a “network quality team.” In June 2005, it redoubled its efforts, bringing in Cyveillance’s phishing, identity theft and corporate-brand-abuse protection software, which includes affiliate channel compliance and control features.
With more eyes on applications, Commission Junction can now relax some of its other requirements, such as denials of applications from affiliates in certain geographical areas: “We used to exclude all of Asia, all of Russia, but now we just exclude a couple of pockets,” Cholawsky says.
Meanwhile, officials at both Commission Junction and Performics say the number of applications isn’t going up, and the number of active affiliates are about the same even with new entrants (as new ones enter, old ones drop off). At the same time, the number of merchants with affiliate programs is growing year after year.
“As affiliate programs become standard, we’re starting to see it as part of every online merchant’s sales efforts,” Cholawsky says. This seems to say that the issue of perceived growth in affiliate denials isn’t a result of increasing competition for a limited number of spots.
So what is the answer? Though requirements and the number of applications remain stable, what used to slide is now inexcusable. “Three years ago you would see the ‘under construction’ symbols, and maybe that’s what kicked you out; today I’d be shocked to even see ‘under construction’ signs,” Performics’ Henger says. “We probably have a more discerning eye today as to what is a quality site that we want to let into the network.”
Other affiliate sites are being turned down because they’re missing something that could be easily fixed (see sidebar page 51).
Once you’re in the network, remember to reread your affiliate agreement on a regular basis.
“We put a lot of work into post-screening as well, checking month to month on the top sites to make sure they’re consistent with the rules we set,” Kramer says. As such, he says, affiliates are increasingly concerned about guidelines, especially regarding search or email marketing, once they get into the program. “Years ago, nobody cared about search and it was definitely a free-for-all, where you could do whatever you want,” he says. Now it’s a much different model.
These days, affiliates like Berg have to push for acceptance into the programs they want. But they are doing it.
“I’ve had some merchants that I was able to get into by really pushing it with the networks,” Berg says. “American Eagle was really hard to get into; I had to basically promise away my life that I wouldn’t do this or that. They gave me a data feed so I can post real-time products, but they were really particular about what they would allow on the site – and I follow it to a tee.” That means no coupons for American Eagle’s site and no inclusion of the words “discount,” “sale” or “coupon.”
And affiliates like Berg are learning to cut their losses.
“Sometimes I’ve actually dropped some merchants because they didn’t even want their name mentioned in the title meta tags, even when they are the only store on that page.” She’ll either find other merchants who carry the same products or chalk it up as a lesson learned. “Sometimes,” Berg says, “you get into their program, but the restrictions are so tight that you just have to walk away.”
JENNIFER D. MEACHAM is a freelance writer who has worked for The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine. She lives in Portland, Ore.