It’s not very often that I do full recaps of an Affiliate Summit session, but so many people asked me about Ask the Affiliate Networks and it correlated enough with my own session that I felt the need to this time. My own session was Comparing Affiliate Networks and focused on 4 of the 5 networks featured in the Ask the Affiliate Networks panel. You can view the slide deck for that presentation although the video will be much more helpful once Affiliate Summit publishes it.
The description for the Ask the Affiliate Networks session was as follows: Wonder what you could do to earn more with a network? How a dispute over quality is handled? Top networks weigh in on your questions, talk what they’re most excited about today, and what’s to come. It was moderated by Oliver Roup, the Founder of Viglink. Participants included:
- Dan Chiss, Head of Network Solutions, Google Affiliate Network
- Allison Fox, Senior Director, Publisher Development, PepperJam Exchange
- Brian Littleton, President/CEO, ShareASale.com, Inc
- Kerri Pollard, President, Commission Junction
- Adam Weiss, SVP Global Network Development, LinkShare
I hear a lot of complaints about networks (and have a lot myself) so I expected this panel to be pretty lively with the network reps each addressing complaints/misconceptions about networks on the whole as well as their individual networks. In total, the panel only got through 8 moderated questions and 3 questions from the audience. Most of the questions were very generic and did not lend themselves to conflicting opinions or approaches. If I did not know much about the networks going into the session, I would have thought that pretty much all of them operated the exact same way based on their responses. Here are a few of the things that I did find interesting or worthy of pointing out.
- As far as differentiation, Linkshare is heavier on fashion and apparel brands and is working a lot on expanding globally. Commission Junction prides itself on its scale regarding both number of affiliates and number of merchants. Shareasale is focused more on niche retail. Pepperjam is concerned primarily with innovation and tools. Google is working to bring in new merchants that have never had affiliate programs before and high levels of quality.
- Shareasale wants content publishers to ask directly for help if they need matched with merchants. Commission Junction believes that content publishers are at the top of the funnel and generally do not convert well. Linkshare and Google think it’s a matter of the content publishers getting matched up with the right brands.
- All of them acknowledge that affiliate marketing is overwhelming for affiliates and basically education and engagement are the keys to those challenges.
- Each network is doing things from a technological standpoint to make it easier for publishers. Google rolled out the Blogger widget and now has Recommended Advertisers. Pepperjam has PJX Links. Shareasale wants to help publishers find what they need faster through Baskets. Commission Junction is working on the import/export of product catalogs. Linkshare is creating everything with an easy/medium/hard level approach to correspond to the needs of the particular affiliate.
- The answers for network quality were so dull that I hardly even took notes. Everyone talked about the need for transparency. No real specifics of any kind were discussed except the term “forced click” being used once. Commission Junction did say that they will not allow anything that would be considered “illegal or fraudulent” but would leave all other decisions on the gray areas up to the merchants.
- When asked about what is exciting or interesting in our industry, one of the most important answers to me came from Google about attribution. The panel didn’t get into it much, but I agreed completely with the mention about it because it is going to be huge in the coming year.
- Interestingly when asked which publishers are seeing growth, Google, Commission Junction, and Linkshare all mentioned coupon/deal sites and loyalty sites. This is the opposite of what I am hearing from my affiliate marketing friends. I wonder if it is because the “big” sites just keep getting bigger which is forcing out the small/medium sites? Most small/medium affiliate marketers consider those areas totally saturated and not worth pursuing. Commission Junction called them the “deal closer” sites, which went along with her previous mention about content being at the fop of the funnel. I liked Shareasale’s answer about seeing growth in affiliates who were willing to take on new challenges.
- How can we move the industry forward? Linkshare’s mention of their Forrester study was good because we need hard data, not just opinions. Shareasale talked about needing to work together toward common goals. Both Commission Junction and Pepperjam talked about incrementality.
That was the end of the moderator questions. Every person on the panel answered every question and with the exception of one tiny interaction between Linkshare and Commission Junction, none of the panelists followed up or took any stance against anything the others said. They pretty much agreed on everything with a few different details.
There was time for 3 audience questions. Linkshare answered that they do not consider poaching to in-house programs a problem because network tracking is so much more sophisticated. When asked about how to find merchants, the panelists basically said to check the site, ask an account manager, or do a search for products. The very last question was the best and most pointed: Who is accountable to the affiliates when the merchants try to take advantage of us? I loved the question but must not have loved the answers because I didn’t even write anything down.
All in all, this was a powerhouse panel of speakers. I bet between them they have 60+ years of experience in internet marketing. They’ve seen a lot, they know a lot, and they all present well. I would relish in the opportunity to sit down with any one of them and pick their brains about our industry and their networks in particular. But I don’t think they were really given much to work with or the format didn’t encourage discussion. Here are some things I would have loved to have heard them hash out:
- What is your network’s stance on toolbars and the overwriting of cookies? How do you enforce it?
- What kind of education does your network provide to affiliates and merchants?
- How active a role should the networks play in industry issues such as the affiliate tax? What responsibility do the networks have?
- Should the networks work together to form industry standards (through the PMA or otherwise) or should each network have different standards?
- What role should the government play in regulating affiliate marketing and/or setting standards?
Those were all just off the top of my head. Some of them could be answered on the spot but others would definitely require a little more prep time. Maybe next time questions could be submitted in advance by affiliates and merchants and the panel/moderator could choose from those questions? Or even the Affiliate Summit Advisory Board could pull them together and submit them to the moderator in advance? Just some thoughts about how we can hear from the networks but really get the answers we are all seeking.
What kind of questions would you like to have heard the network representatives answer?