Many merchants and affiliates develop very close relationships with their account representative at the networks. These network reps often take on many roles including problem solvers, helpers, mentors, sounding boards, cheerleaders, and sometimes they end up being cherished friends.
Many of these representatives are juggling multiple client relationships as well as their daily interaction with colleagues and peers. The account reps are usually big supporters of their clients and while the relationship between the network and its merchants is a partnership in many ways, it’s best not to forget that the account reps ultimately work for the network. And the goal of the networks is to make money.
And that’s where potential conflicts begin to arise. As a network you want to have efficiencies and leverage strengths. If one representative has experience dealing with the specific challenges and issues of a particular vertical segment (whether it’s those selling online mortgages, insurance, shoes or flowers) then having a single person deal with all those clients might be the most effective way to maximize your resources.
However, from a merchant’s point of view this might create a conflict of interest. If you are a merchant selling flowers online, you don’t want the same person handling your account having access to all your proprietary information and also managing the accounts of your competitors.
“I think it could be a benefit and liability for the merchant,” says Shawn Collins, co-founder of Affiliate Summit. “If all goes well and you have a rep with good insight, that’s great. But if you have someone that you suspect has a reason to help someone else over you, that’s not a good feeling.”
Collins says those uneasy feelings could easily be amplified since each of the networks offer different levels of service.
“I would probably have some concerns if the same rep was working on the same verticals – especially if the network was managing the account,” he says. “If you’ve got one company paying $1,000 a month to the network and another paying $10,000 and they are in the same vertical, I’d be worried that the one paying more was getting much better attention. I’d also be worried about shared intelligence even if it was innocent or inadvertent.”
ShareASale.com President and CEO Brian Littleton says his network is very aware of the situation and asks “each client who their competitors are, in their minds, so that we get a comprehensive list as well.” He says in “any area where a ShareASale representative is in front of sensitive data, we take as many steps as we can to make sure that it is not shared directly or indirectly with a competing merchant,” Littleton says.
LinkShare President Steve Denton says that his company helps quiet merchants’ fears by giving them direct access to their affiliates. That’s not the case with some other networks – most notably Commission Junction.
“It’s your channel; you should have that information,” Denton says, who admits that tact could be a liability if a merchant decides to leave. However, he says he thinks the upside of building a partnership outweighs that.
Denton says that for LinkShare it’s all about the service level the merchant has bought into. LinkShare offers two levels of service: one where the merchant purchases tools to help them run their own program; another whereby LinkShare runs your program for you.
“If you bought tools from us and I’m not running your program, then you can be put in a vertical category,” Denton says. “I don’t see a conflict there because it’s just a tool set and the playing field is level. But if I’m running your program – recruiting affiliates, extending private offers, etc. – then you can’t have the same reps working on accounts in the same vertical. I would not have direct competitors in the same portfolio. They may roll up to the same VP. We have Dell and Apple, Wal-Mart and Target, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. But the same reps don’t work on those accounts.”
Gary Marcoccia, marketing director at affiliate network AvantLink, says that in the company’s top two categories – Outdoor Gear/Recreation and Special Occasions – AvantLink has seen “that the more merchants from those respective categories that come in, the better all programs seem to do. This is because each program brings quality affiliates, adding even more specialized affiliates per category to draw from and attract.”
But what if a merchant is working with a CPA or ad network? Generally the merchants that do business with ad networks are looking to get leads and conversions. They are not paying them to deal with branding guidelines.
“In essence you bought shelf space in a store, you can’t expect much more. You didn’t buy an exclusive network. The attention goes to the guy that pays the most and has the best-selling product. Welcome to the world of distributed commerce,” Denton says.
Merchant Vann’s works with two different networks and according to Matt Ranta, affiliate manager at Vann’s, “Fiscally, it can be in a network’s short-term best interests to promote one competitor over another based on the analysis of commission and conversation rates,” he says. “But, ideally, if competing merchants both were working with a single network, they should be offered equal services and opportunities from separate representatives so as to assuage as much as possible a potential conflict of interest. Unfortunately, is seems that this is not always the case with some networks.”
A Taxing Experience
Some companies worry about conflicts when competitors simply join the same network. For TaxBrain, the problems started last November when Intuit and H&R Block also joined Commission Junction after leaving LinkShare. For four years leading up to the point, TaxBrain had enjoyed being the only tax preparation program with a big affiliate presence at CJ. Even though its rivals had much larger overall brand recognition with consumers, TaxBrain had more success using affiliates.
TaxBrain got wind of a competitor joining CJ when TaxBrain’s No. 1 affiliate called the company to say H&R Block’s account team at CJ was recruiting him. TaxBrain’s affiliate manager and vice president of business development, Todd Taylor, says he approached CJ about actively recruiting his top affiliates for the H&R Block program and was told these folks signed up as publishers looking to work with specific types of merchants, and the H&R Block profile was the same as TaxBrain’s.
Affiliate Colin McDougall says this kind of poaching is the norm. “This happens all the time. I will usually accept the rival offer; however, I will promote both companies on my site by offering reviews and pointing out the differences between the two companies for my visitors to make the best decision possible,” he says. “In most cases, each merchant has their own unique selling proposition and promoting rival companies benefits the merchant, consumer and the affiliate. The merchants get more traffic. The consumer gets to see a third-party perspective. The affiliate makes more money by having more brands to promote.”
That might be true, but Taylor says it’s still a hard pill to swallow when you’ve been at the network much longer. Taylor, who had suspected something was afoot when H&R Block showed up at CJU in September, was also miffed that the newcomer Intuit got high-profile treatment at the network. CJ recently put Intuit as a featured advertiser on its home page. TaxBrain has never been featured in that position.
“I felt like that was a slap in the face,” Taylor says, adding that TaxBrain has gone through four entire account teams in the last year at CJ, due to personnel changes and reshuffling at the Santa Barbara-based network.
This has all caused Taylor to be very cautious about communicating his affiliate strategy to CJ. He’s also worked hard to find out the names and other contact information for his top affiliates (CJ doesn’t actually share that information with its advertisers). He claims that now he only calls his top affiliates on the phone and deals with them personally. The rest of the affiliate program related to messaging and such is outsourced to a team at Partner Centric.
The impact has been felt on TaxBrain’s program. Taylor claims it has seen the conversion rate come down compared with last year, while the commissions paid out have gone up. He attributes some of that falling conversion rate to a variety of factors, including the state of the economy and that there is evidence that many people are holding off on filing their taxes. He directly cited the increased affiliate program competition for the rise in commission rates, saying that his company has had to pay out more to be competitive. He also claims that H&R Block recently began mimicking TaxBrain’s successful hybrid affiliate program that pays for both leads and sales.
After getting over the initial shock of H&R Block coming to CJ just in time for tax season, Tax Brain felt like it was dealt another blow when Intuit, which joined CJ in early January after running an independent program, had its lawyers begin sending a handful of cease and desist letters to TaxBrain. Most centered on advertising that TaxBrain was doing (some here in Revenue magazine) to recruit affiliates and promote its affiliate program.
“They are lawyering us to death to keep us from gaining market share,” Taylor says. “It’s cheaper for us to comply then spend the money on legal fees.”
Boon for Affiliates
While all of this competition can be a headache for merchants, it’s great news for affiliates. The more people affiliates have bidding for their attention the more they are in the driver’s seat in terms of getting better offers and higher commission rates.
Affiliates that want to create comparison sites in a particular category can also maximize their chances of getting commissions for sales or leads. “This is great one-stop shopping having all the players in one spot – search engines love that stuff,” Taylor acknowledges.
But some affiliates claim there is some loyalty involved. “I have been approached by rival merchants seeking to compete with a strong performer on our site. However, in these cases, loyalty plays a strong role,” says Mike Allen, president and chief executive shopper of Shopping-Bargains.com.
“It’s wise to ‘dance with the one who brung ya’ and I’m not willing to dismantle a strong relationship for a quick dance with a newcomer. Over the long term, though, since we have a diverse base of shoppers, I’m willing to build a complementary relationship with additional and even competitive merchants. Expand, yes. Replace, not likely.”
Allen adds there is also a lot of research that goes into joining a new program. “Once we have evaluated a program and determined we are interested in running it, we then look at the finer details of their program to determine how much we will promote it. This is especially important when there is a lot of competition in a particular vertical. Some of the finer details that impact placement and promotion on our site include the merchant’s conversion rate, their coupon policy, the availability of their affiliate manager, their policy regarding parasites and opportunities for additional earnings through bonuses, higher tiers, private offers or sometimes even slotting fees.”
McDougall says, “As an affiliate, having multiple merchants to choose from helps grow my business. More merchants to promote provides me with more brands to review for my site visitors, offering greater value to them. Plus more merchants in a vertical creates more competition amongst the advertisers to get prominence on my site, which of course leads to higher commissions. If there are too few merchants in a vertical, an affiliate doesn’t have much leverage for higher commissions.”