For the “Good and Welfare”? I Disagree!

Affiliate marketing has undergone some pretty significant changes over the past year. The focus has shifted from merchant needs to the needs of affiliates. Solution providers, who once catered only to their merchant clients, have taken meaningful steps to provide their affiliates with the services they demand.

The number one affiliate concern is, and will always be, getting paid. I personally believe the situation has vastly improved. Still, there’s room for improvement and affiliates certainly need to know how to guard against exploitation. That’s why I wrote the following article, published on Refer-It: “How to Choose a ‘Good’ Affiliate Program and What to Do When You Get Involved With a ‘Bad’ One.”

Exposing and eliminating the “bad” programs and practices only makes the industry stronger. I believe it’s important to communicate these to affiliates, but it should be done in a balanced manner. When I read Jason Ciment’s article last week on ClickZ, I was distressed.

Though this forum does not afford me the space I would need to rebut nearly his entire article, I have the most serious concerns about these statements: “Are affiliates getting cheated out of commissions by affiliate merchants? I’m pretty sure that in many cases the answer is an astounding YES.” “When the visitor leaves her email address, does the affiliate site’s affiliate ID get attached to the email address in the merchant’s database so that any future correspondence to this visitor’s email address will be attributed to the affiliate site? Absolutely not.”

Statements like these simply fan the flame of mistrust among affiliates when so much is being done to earn their trust. In fact, there are technologies — return-day cookies — that enable merchants to track what happens after an affiliate sends a customer to their sites. Here is a basic explanation. When a merchant sets return-day cookies to 30 days, for example, he is enabling the affiliate who initially referred the customer to the merchant site to get credit for sales or actions that the customer takes for that specified period, no matter the route the customer uses to return to the site. So when a merchant sends an email solicitation to this customer that results in the customer returning to the site within the allotted return days, does the original referring affiliate get credit for those sales or actions? Absolutely YES.

Of course, having the capability and utilizing it are two separate things. That’s why it’s important for affiliates to review the terms and conditions associated with programs they are involved with or are considering. I don’t recommend participating in programs that do not provide for a minimum of seven return days, and I encourage affiliates to write to the program managers and voice these concerns. Eventually, these programs will improve their terms, or they will be unsuccessful.

I contacted the major affiliate program solution providers and posed several questions about return-day cookie functionality and its use by their merchants. The following are the responses I received (listed in order of receipt).

Rachel Honoway, director of marketing at KowaBunga! Technologies, providers of My Affiliate Program: Yes, we do offer that functionality in our standard software. We call it ‘cookie life,’ and it’s quite simple. Merchants have an area at their administration panel that allows them to control the cookie life. Here, they type in the number of days that they’d like the cookie to remain on the visitors’ browsers after a click-through from an affiliate’s site.

[Regarding email,] My Affiliate Program Software integrates with our Opt-In Pro Email Marketing Software to do just that. We have several merchants that are using this combo to collect information about their visitors INCLUDING the referring affiliate ID number. They merge the ID number in their outgoing messages to automatically create affiliate links.

I would say that 95 percent or more of our merchants have a cookie life over one day — it’s hard to say since we aren’t involved in running their programs; we just provide the software. Our sales department does receive the initial cookie life (that can be changed later) on the merchant’s order. When they see numbers under 30, they contact the merchant to briefly discuss strategy. They let them know that affiliates will hesitate joining the program if they don’t believe that the merchant intends to track past the first visit. We usually find that the merchant didn’t understand the feature and changes [his] number to a reasonable number of days.

Beth Mansfield, senior public relations manager at Commission Junction: In the Commission Junction network, advertisers have the ability to set the return days allowed in their program. Return days, known as ‘cookie duration,’ can range from one day to five years. The return-day cookie only expires when the consumer completes the desired action — a lead or sale — or when the return-day setting expires. The default setting for cookie duration for all advertisers in the Commission Junction network is 45 days.

Jennifer Roy, director of corporate communications at Be Free: Be Free encourages its customers to use either persistent cookies or log-on authentication technology to track and compensate their partners for return-day purchases. Be Free is able to and will process these return-day orders and report results back to affiliates through Reporting.net. The customer, however, needs to set the tracking on their end by setting persistent cookies or using a log-on authentication system on their site, because Be Free does not have direct visibility into the customers’ e-commerce back end. Cookies present minimal impact on the end user and are easy to implement. They can be set with or without an expiration date. Log-on authentication is very reliable. However, it requires the end user to register as well as integration of customer data with order and source ID.

Because we don’t control this functionality on our end, we do not have absolute visibility into what portion of our customer base is tracking return days. We do, however, know of many customers who track on return days — ranging from 3 days to 30 days and upward. Return-day tracking is most appropriate and useful for retailers and manufacturers using an affiliate program to sell high-end, expensive, or considered purchases — such as computer systems, diamonds/jewelry, or cars. These are cases where it is unlikely that the end user will make an impulse purchase. We encourage all of our customers in these spaces to implement return-day tracking.

Trisha Phillippe, supervisor of client support at LinkShare: Yes, the LinkShare Network offers our merchants return-day functionality. The LinkShare system uses a cookie dropped by the merchant on a visitor’s computer to track return days.

LinkShare actively encourages our merchants to offer their affiliates at least seven return days in their base offer. In fact, our new Premium Partner designation is contingent upon merchants offering seven or more return days in their baseline offers (this does not apply to merchants with pay-per-click programs, for obvious reasons).

I estimate that the above solution providers account for at least 75 percent of all the affiliate programs offered today. I hope that affiliates will take some comfort in the fact that the majority of the tracking solutions have the functionality to track future sales and actions, and, for the most part, merchants do use this technology to properly credit their affiliate partners. Certainly, affiliates/publishers have the ability to ascertain whether a merchant/advertiser offers return-day cookies and their default setting. Then, affiliates/publishers can make an informed choice whether to promote this merchant.

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