Legitimizing Affiliate Marketing

Mark Cuban, the famed online entrepreneur and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, was a speaker at Adtech New York last Fall.  I missed his speech and so afterwards I sent him an e-mail, not expecting any response.  I asked him a simple question – “What do you think of the affiliate marketing space?”  To my surprise, he responded to me the next day and said, “It’s a sleazy business, but a quality organization can survive.”

Unfortunately, the affiliate marketing industry has had that “sleazy” reputation for a number of years, and still struggles to attract big brands, most of which prefer to stick with CPM for brand awareness.  Historically there have been obvious factors contributing to this reputation, whether it be incentivized traffic, the ringtone era, health & beauty re-bills, e-mail spam, not to mention blatant affiliate fraud.  There continue to be too many shady advertisers with no money who try to use networks to bankroll them, make empty promises, rack up big invoices and then disappear into the shadows without paying.  There also continue to be too many young, stupid affiliates that lie through their teeth, talk a big game at tradeshows in order to get attention, and spend most of their time on Facebook or the message boards instigating or participating in useless, time-wasting gossip and/or insult exchanges.

I’ve been in the online space since 1997, and full-time in the CPA world since 2006, and I’ve met and worked with some of the biggest advertisers and affiliates ever in the industry, many of whom are no longer in business.  I grew tired of hanging out with the shysters at trade shows that boasted about how much money they had, how many women they’d been with and how we would make millions together, only for them to eventually skip out on the bill.  I even stopped going to the industry parties in order to avoid these types of people, not to mention the guys that pour top-end bottles of champagne and vodka like it’s water so everybody thinks they’re “ballers”, or the dimwitted young affiliate managers who wear short skirts and low-cut tops because they still think that that’s the way to get traffic.  If you’re not from this industry and then you witness these things, you’ll probably walk away with anything but a positive impression of the business.

The thing is, this can be a good, lucrative business with quality people, and that’s why I still love it.  Every show, I look forward to seeing the same industry friends that I’ve had for years, people that talk to you because they’re genuine, not because they’re looking for a way to make a buck off of you.  I recently got engaged and had past clients that I hadn’t done business with in several years text me their well wishes.  They didn’t do it because they want traffic or to introduce me to some plug in exchange for a referral fee; they did it because they’re good people.  And this industry is still loaded with good ones – advertisers, affiliates, and network people alike.

Almost every day, somebody is outted on a Facebook group for their latest scam.  Dozens of people will comment about it, the person who broke the news will pat themselves on the back, and the accused will either come up with a stupid explanation, or have one of their group administrator buddies delete the post so they can pretend it didn’t happen.  This is the type of stuff that hurts the reputation of the business, but most of those who get engulfed in the gossip are in their early 20’s (if not late teens) and so they don’t really know any better.  The good news I guess is that the smart advertisers and affiliates avoid working with these scammers, and treat the gossip as nothing more than mindless entertainment.  The bad news is that many inexperienced people do work with these idiots because they don’t know any better, and months later they’re posting messages about how they’re owed money, and inevitably they turn to threats or to insults, and the whole stupid cycle continues.

The bottom line is, this can be a good, legitimate business, and from where I sit it is.  We only work with trusted affiliates who actually communicate with their Affiliate Manager.  And we only work with direct advertisers that adhere to their payment terms, plus we actually assign and monitor credit limits – something that many big networks failed to do over the last few years and crashed because of it. Maybe most importantly – we communicate.  We talk openly to our advertisers, we try to help them out, we tell them what they can expect both the good and the bad, and we honor their wishes in terms of caps and budgets.

Affiliate marketing isn’t dead or even dying, as some have tried to claim.  It’s alive and well and hopefully, the only business that’s dying is the business owned by the people whose poor ethics hurt the rest of us.

As always, your feedback is welcome!