Achieving Brand and Affiliate Harmony in Search

When have you crossed the line between affiliate or brand advocate and brand adversary? How can the goals of an affiliate program line up with brand marketing? Are the two worlds of affiliate and brand marketer forever at odds?

On the heels of last Friday’s SES @ A4U event in London (the last session of the day) I had the rare privilege of debating the roles of brand search and affiliate with Napster’s Director of Online Marketing, Jeff Ferguson.

The recent announcement from the IAB UK regarding best practices for affiliate marketing spurred some level of debate about what is — and what is not — appropriate for affiliates. Strict controls? Bad communication or affiliate behavior? It’s all here, you be the judge.

Opposites don’t detract

The primary focus of our discussion: The alignment traditional brands choose with affiliates in contrast with the free-spirited approach of a digital brand. Our discussion compared the approach of Hilton and Napster as examples, but many of the key points made can be found in affiliate programs everywhere.

Control is often an issue with traditional brands. Early on in the search marketing world, affiliates and brand advertisers quickly discovered buying brand and product terms meant both high commissions and conversions.

This simple buy and return equation prompted brand advertisers with access to enough budget funds to purchase an entire product or service list of keywords to restrict affiliates from buying keywords. Meanwhile, other brands began to share effective converting keyword lists with affiliates. Keyword guidelines aren’t restricted to search advertising.

Brand owners realized the decision to tighten or loosen keyword guidelines each had its own benefits. A tight keyword policy allows for greater brand control over messaging, while loose keyword controls or sharing allowed brands to have larger presence in search results.

Momentary lapse of practice

I like how “best practice” includes the qualifier “practice,” akin to the “practice” of medicine and law. Trial and error led many brand owners to become policing authorities. Many third-party affiliate management firms offer these services as well, but complications inevitably arise in the often dicey, but connected, affiliate to brand relationship.

Ferguson advised that dedicated resources for affiliate communication — along with providing detailed guidelines for the use of creative, logos, and messaging — were the best way to go. In the Napster example, it is a mission-critical competitive imperative that affiliates have (and use) the latest information, since delivering the wrong message can lead to potential customers making ill-informed buying decisions.

Placing the right information backed by dedicated resources will lead affiliates to increased revenue, while allowing the brand owner to maintain a consistent presence in the marketplace. Affiliates not maintaining the latest messaging and creative only hurt themselves, and while many have no malice intended in falling behind, some are just hell bent on breaking the rules.

Cliché: Affiliates Behaving Badly

In the midst of our discussion, one audience member (and active industry blogger) Joost de Valk, search strategist from the Arnhem, Netherlands-based interactive media agency, Onetomarket, found a Napster affiliate that had apparently cloned the Napster site while blatantly using cloaking technology.

Now there’s a good way to get spanked by a brand. In spite of many best practices and active communication with an affiliate base, there are always going to be those who believe they are above the rules.

In this instance, the affiliate not only threw affiliate guidelines to the wind, but search engine Webmaster guidelines as well. At the end of the day, solid communications, along with clear guidelines and assistance, just aren’t enough.

Brightly complicated future

Google venturing into the traditional media universe suggests that new opportunities for affiliates will arise. Quality scoring and stricter controls on affiliates dictate that affiliates maintain their own sites for search engine advertising positioning, but what about television, radio, and print advertising?

To date, affiliates establish landing pages or simply link from their own content; disputes arise regarding compensation every day. Google’s attempt at leveling the playing field of media buying and creative will provide another means of driving traffic to unique sites.

While the affiliate universe has yet to adopt the new traditional media platform, wouldn’t it be ironic if the strictly online marketing universe helped kick start an offline media buying spree?

In the end, it seems there are no easy answers, just humans behaving as they do. One thing is certain: The future of the brand/ affiliate relationship promises to be exciting.

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