Amazon Associates, Others Face A Rapidly Shifting Affiliate Space

amazon-affiliatesWhat could be coined Amazon’s original advertising product, the Amazon Associates affiliate marketing program, connects advertisers to more than a million products in its marketplace.

As standard affiliate models go, publishers can run traditional text links or customized image links, widgets with Amazon functionality or banner promotions and ads in return for an advertising fee should a user purchase.

“They do a good job of being able to sell just about any product out there on the net,” commented Daryl Colwell, SVP of business development for digital media and performance-marketing company MediaWhiz. “So, all the eyeballs and visitors that click through a banner or text link or whatever that might be, they’re going back to Amazon to purchase that product, in particular, that they clicked on the banner for, or they shift through the Amazon mall to purchase any number of products.”

The key difference between Amazon’s affiliate program and other affiliate marketing networks is that, with Amazon, all of the traffic goes directly to Amazon. “When you run a campaign from a traditional affiliate network, you’ve got to worry about load speed, latency, site performance of many, many different websites,” Colwell added.

But as Jay Weintraub, a customer-acquisition strategist for NextCustomer, points out, “Amazon has one of the most technically complex and challenging affiliate programs to manage, as they need to create offerings for the long-tail of nontechnical content creators as well as those looking for greater automation.”

In addition to product links or an Amazon widget on a product detail page, Amazon, through a Product Advertisement API, offers what it calls “programmatic access” to Amazon product and discovery functionality; this opens the doors for developers to loop in customer reviews, similar products, wish lists and other data through the Amazon associate tag placed on publisher sites.

“In terms of all the different ad units, [Amazon] makes it really interesting for a content site to run a lot of different types of ad units to show a lot of different products to that visitor to the site,” Colwell noted. “They’re pretty creative and innovative in that regard. … Amazon can get really niche in terms of the products it can offer its associates’ Web visitors.”

The real value of affiliate had historically been the long-tail monetization of sites that may not have had the sales force or wherewithal to maximize return on a large number of products, Weintraub noted. A vast majority of affiliate commissions today, though, are driven by native ads – or nonstandard placements – such as coupon sites like RetailMeNot that take a feed-driven approach to affiliate marketing, he said.

As Amazon Associates and other affiliate marketing networks collect more and more data as a result of the diversified number and types of tags out on the Web, advertisers may be looking for a way to buy more programmatically.

“If you look at a fashion blog, for instance, a lot of the content is really ads for individual product URLs,” commented Kerri Pollard, president of ValueClick’s affiliate marketing network Commission Junction. “The likelihood of me, as a consumer, to go to a fashion blogger site and clicking and converting right there on the spot” is not necessarily representative of the customer lifecycle journey of today, which has become increasingly mobile and fragmented.

“We’ve been encouraging our marketers with content to explore other pricing alternatives like impressions to conversion, which we can support with our marketplace,” Pollard said. “There’s a lot of customization [with content you can do] to not only drive the click, but the conversion.”

In online marketing, the blurring of the lines between search, display, email and even affiliate have changed the name of a game that for so long depended on the click. The affiliate networking space itself has shifted (and sometimes stumbled). Google, this past spring, shuttered the Google Affiliate Network to focus its efforts on other ad products.

Affiliate marketing, as a whole, is gaining new position. MediaWhiz, for example, was acquired by global performance-marketing company Matomy Media Group in January and recently rebranded its affiliate program MonetizeIt into the MediaWhiz Affiliate Network. This summer, Matomy acquired mobile affiliate network MobAff, which was integrated with MediaWhiz within a new mobile division.

“MobAff typically focused around driving installs or downloads in the gaming and utilities space, but since [we] acquired the company, we’ve been able to do a nice job of cross-selling clients/advertisers into MobAff’s capabilities, particularly around pay-per-call, which is interesting to the direct-response clients we’ve got,” Colwell said.

As with MediaWhiz and Amazon, with its recent launch of the Amazon Mobile Associates API, mobile is a huge focus for Commission Junction. The company has debuted app-download technology to track anonymized mobile actions and engagement beyond the simple app-install. On the publisher side, Commission Junction has launched mobile-enabled certification, so publishers have additional reassurance that when they drive traffic to the advertisers’ mobile sites, they will be attributed and paid.

Powered by ValueClick’s acquisition of personalized display ad platform Dotomi in 2011, Commission Junction is eyeing new capabilities in automation.

“By leveraging Dotomi’s personalization engine, we have started to experiment with the content and personalization down to the consumer level through our publishers’ site,” Pollard said. “I don’t believe we’re at a place with affiliate, yet, where we can be 100% programmatic, but we do want to introduce some additional automation, especially around the personalizing the promotion and making marketers be much more cost-effective with promotions they’re pushing through the publisher channel.”

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