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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.