Creativity and technology: Publisher innovation is the key to unlocking untapped opportunities in performance marketing

In affiliate marketing, advertisers naturally focus on big numbers, which more often than not come from big publishers. But there are other, more imaginative publishers out there recognising the value in innovative new propositions, as Katie McQuater reports.

Illustration by Ross Lesley-Bayne

Performance marketing is an industry founded on innovation, and new affiliate models have always been at the forefront of the continued evolution of digital marketing.

The desire to innovate has led to the creation of mutually beneficial approaches that bring value to advertisers and publishers alike, and it isn’t slowing down. As we approach 2014, advances in technology and creative ways of thinking are creating new and lucrative means for advertisers to increase their return from performance-based channels.

The advent of cashback affiliate sites brought an innovative approach to an existing model by incentivising consumers, while voucher codes affiliates brought incremental value to advertisers – but outwith the big affiliates, smaller publishers today are now using different approaches to create valuable experiences for their visitors, while untapped areas such as video affiliate are seeing greater investment from advertisers looking to capitalise on new opportunities in the space.

The Beans Group, the company behind affiliate publisher StudentBeans.com, created an online version of the traditional freshers’ fair in 2012. The site was built with the insight that to reach 100,000 students, a brand would need to have a presence at 35 offline fairs and spend approximately £70,000. In comparison with offline freshers’ events, the website offered measurable ROI for brand partners and allowed students to focus their interest only on the offers, deals and content that was most relevant to them.

In its second year, the campaign has seen 200,000 conversions (visitors clicking an offer or entering a competition), with involvement from over 100 brands.

“Creativity played a big part in the success of the campaign,” says Simon Eder, commercial director at The Beans Group. “When we first ran this campaign in 2012 it had never been done before.”

Content was also important in this year’s approach, adds Eder, with advertisers able to get involved in branded content created to fit their objectives in the tone of a typical StudentBeans.com article.

Eder says that the biggest challenge for publishers trying to innovate is standing out from the voucher and cashback affiliates.

“The market hasn’t changed in a long time, it’s just consolidated itself around the major players. The challenge is how do affiliates stand out from the crowd and break the cartel of these ‘affiliate super brands’. It comes from adding value, which in turn only comes from innovation.”

Mutually beneficial technology Technology, the foundation of performance marketing, continues to drive the industry’s growth in new ways. Automated link-tagging tools such as Skimlinks and Google-backed VigLink allow publishers to monetise their existing content by changing words or product references into affiliate links.

According to Alicia Navarro, CEO and co-founder of Skimlinks, the means of creating revenue from the affiliate channel has been made easier by this technology, meaning it is a “no-brainer” for many publishers. As a result, says Navarro, affiliate marketing has become a “ubiquitous mainstream form of monetisation for publishers; a natural component of their revenue mix”.

Aside from the removal of complexity for the publisher, other benefits of the technology include insight into which retailers are most popular with their readers, the days that are busiest for shopping, and a host of other data.

“For advertisers, we have created this ecosystem of high quality content sites that are incentivised, encouraged and trained to link out to those advertisers natively in their content, and to create more commerce-related content,” says Navarro. “Advertisers derive all the branding and PR benefits of advertorial, with content created naturally by publishers for their readers.”

Mutually beneficial models that derive value for advertisers yet also incentivise the consumer are key to the success of affiliate channels. Adpoints, a viewer choice video platform that rewards people for watching and interacting with video ads in exchange for Nectar points, segments consumers to show them ads based on their preferences. Meanwhile, advertisers pay on a cost-per-engagement model.

“We’ve found that interweaving relevancy, choice and reward results in a far greater pre-disposition to the messaging and offer,” explains founding director Jason Froggett, who suggests that the future of affiliate marketing lies in the creation of “integrated” rather than “interruptive” online experiences.

“Video is beginning to play a significant role in the consumer’s web experience, so it’s a great opportunity for both advertisers and publishers. However, publishers need to think carefully how they leverage and monetise it. Real estate is limited, so they need to ensure that short-form content isn’t overly disrupted by interruptive formats.”

Size, scale and CPA – barriers to innovation The importance of continued affiliate innovation can’t be understated, yet publishers face a raft of barriers – not least fending off competition from larger publishers and missing out on revenue as a result of the last click attribution model favoured by the majority of advertisers.

Andrew Copeland, network director at Tradedoubler, suggests that the focus on “instant return” often leads to innovative ideas being dismissed because they can’t deliver immediate results for advertisers.

“Publisher innovation is progressing at a faster rate than ever. Unfortunately, most of this innovation goes unnoticed and is therefore under-utilised. Naturally, advertisers focus on big numbers, which often come from big publishers. Imagination is key in seeing the value in a new proposition, which has no pedigree in delivering results.”

Meanwhile, the failure of the CPA/last click model to adequately recognise the value of all influencers in the path to conversion has created another barrier to innovation, according to Affilinet MD Helen Southgate, who says that the current model means innovative thinkers simply aren’t being rewarded.

As relevancy becomes ever more important to time-poor consumers, affiliate sites who embrace innovation are delivering results for advertisers. Challenges lie in the form of outdated affiliate payment models and a lack of understanding from advertisers, but what’s clear is that creativity and technology – the backbone of performance marketing – will continue to deliver results for forward-thinking publishers and partners. And this, in turn, is what drives the industry forward.

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The untapped opportunity of video affiliate Video is one area that as yet has remained relatively untapped in comparison with more established affiliate models. Yet according to Cisco, video will account for over half (57 per cent) of all consumer web traffic by 2015 – almost four times as much as web browsing and email.

Video affiliate technologies which enable clickable affiliate links to appear over related videos are offering publishers a means of monetising their content. Coull’s Vidlink technology works by adding contextually relevant affiliate links to videos on publisher websites. According to Rae Rawlings, SVP Europe, maximising click-throughs and conversions is dependent on “targeting content, not people”.

“As video grows in popularity, performance models will continue to play a part in the monetisation process for publishers, alongside other models that recognise the power of video to drive wider branding and engagement goals for brands through association with publisher content,” she says.

However, Rawlings adds that many publishers don’t yet understand how to monetise their video content effectively. “The current formats made available to brands when they choose to advertise through video are restrictive. By this we mean they don’t let brands associate with the content itself, which would enable the advertiser to provide a more targeted and bespoke advertising experience. Currently a lot of the formats are predicated on tracking people across the internet, not actually focusing on what the video is about and what contextual relevance the ads have to the viewer.”

Jaakko Iso-Järvenpää, senior partner manager at ‘smart content’ platform Kiosked, echoes Rawlings’ comments on the importance of a contextually relevant model when it comes to unlocking the opportunity of video affiliate. The platform, which enables the addition of shoppable elements to images, videos or apps, has seen a 12 per cent increase in time spent on-site when using kiosks in image content.

“When consumers view videos the focus is in the content itself and anything disturbing will interfere with this experience,” says Iso-Järvenpää as he explains why brands have been cautious and slow to adopt video solutions.

“Marketers (affiliate and others) need to find ways to turn advertising into service. Innovation is the key and it should focus on how to capture impulses people get from visual content and how to deliver call-to-action in a non-intrusive manner.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's performance supplement on 22 November.

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