The UK Way: 4 Steps for US Affiliate Marketers to Build Trust

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Affiliate marketing has suffered from a bad reputation in the U.S., and things weren’t so different in the U.K. a decade ago. In the U.K., though, industry leaders worked hard to change attitudes toward the sector by creating stricter standards and more transparency.

Affiliate marketers in the U.S. could learn from their U.K. counterparts’ experience and reshape attitudes toward their industry.

What’s so different about affiliate in the UK?

E-commerce has grown exponentially over the past two decades, and with it, so has affiliate marketing. It’s a top marketing strategy for Target, Apple, Macy’s, and other Fortune 500 companies. While affiliate marketing has more than proven its value among top brands as a strong driver of high-quality traffic, sales, and leads, some marketers still question whether it is incremental; others still perceive it as a model that only works if a coupon or deal is offered.

Go back eight or 10 years, and things were very similar in the U.K. Because affiliate marketing is performance-driven and huge sums of money are spent in the channel each year, there will always be some elements of the industry that do not behave in an ethical way. These unseemly practices have slowly eaten away at trust in the industry all around, so we knew we had to do something to change it.

Since then, U.K. marketers have worked hard to try to remove those unethical practices and educate all stakeholders in the industry on what is considered good practice and what is not. This collaborative effort has enabled us to reposition affiliate marketing to advertisers as a safe, efficient, volume-driving channel where they have the ability to approach consumers through a variety of diverse affiliates.

How UK affiliate marketers changed the narrative

The biggest change that occurred in the U.K. was the formation of an affiliate marketing council through the Internet Advertising Bureau, where we managed to get key stakeholders to coordinate and collaborate to create best practices and standards. We now have a number of standards such as the Voucher Code of Conduct, the Advertiser and Publisher Standard Charters, and a Downloadable Software Code of Conduct.

This means that as an industry, we now work to ensure best practices and standards are adhered to. With the speed of progress in digital, we also recognize how important it is to continually revisit these guidelines. We regularly review the standards and discuss any additional best practices that might be relevant.

Certainly, there are some cultural realities that have made this collaboration possible. In the U.K., business tends to be centralized in London, so the logistics of being able to work together and collaborate like this was made much simpler. We may be competitors, but we see each other at all the main events and generally work together well, which makes for a smoother relationship and facilitates more transparency and honesty within the industry as a whole.

Improving US affiliate practices to mitigate misperception

Invalidating the negative stigma whirling around affiliate marketing in America will take a great deal of transparency and a modicum of patience. Given the scale of the problem and logistics involved, it may take some time to right the ship.

Here are four key best practices that we employ in the U.K. that could help affiliate marketers in the U.S. shift perceptions and get the respect the space deserves:

1. Start early, and self-regulate. My company, Acceleration Partners, was an early adopter of best practices. We wanted to make sure our affiliate marketing programs were high-quality from the beginning. This is the best advice the U.K. could offer the U.S. when it comes to improving affiliate marketing’s reputation: Self-regulation is much more favorable than handed-down mandates. It doesn’t rely on intervention by the government, which is often unaware of the business complexities and potentially imposes regulations that may harm the industry.

2. Use U.K. affiliate standards as a guide. The standards and best practices we’ve put in place in the U.K. would more or less apply to the U.S. as well. For example, IAB’s Affiliate Marketing Council Voucher Code of Conduct makes sure that voucher code sites have clear, easy-to-understand practices and are not misleading. Another example is the Downloadable Software Code of Conduct, which sets standards for affiliate marketing that directs traffic to merchants via downloadable software.

3. Be willing to negotiate and compromise. Decisions are made and things get done only when you’re willing to give and take. You and your industry counterparts are not going to agree on everything, and if you look for unanimous agreement, you will never get anywhere. For example, when we were writing the Code of Conduct for the Voucher Code space in the U.K., we debated several points, and there were many differences of opinion.

One of the biggest challenges we found was getting commitment from stakeholders on time and resources. The Voucher Code of Conduct requires networks to conduct an audit once a quarter, for example. This is a large job and requires resources and time from the networks, which not every network was keen to give. However, we found that as soon as the majority of networks did do this, it was hard for the others not to follow.

To find a solution that everyone is happy with, it’s important to be flexible and find ways to reach an agreement.

4. Use PR and marketing to make advertisers aware of the changes. It’s vital to ensure advertisers know what changes you’ve made to best practices and standards. This helps to educate and inform them, assuaging their potential concerns that the affiliate channel is not a safe or effective place to spend their marketing dollars.

I recommend making this information easily available. For example, in the U.K., all codes, best practices, and standards can be accessed by anyone through the IAB U.K. website. It is imperative that all stakeholders within the industry are aware of best practices so everyone can learn and do their best to comply.

In a time when other digital marketing channels are under increased scrutiny in terms of transparency, value, and reporting accuracy, this is an opportunity for the affiliate marketing business to be seen as a channel that is proactive, self-regulatory, and continuously ensuring the highest standards and ethics. By getting ahead of the regulatory curve, U.S. affiliate marketers can improve their reputation and increase their marketing dollars.

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