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Affiliateware: Are Rogue Affiliates Killing Performance Marketing?

Posted on 4.30.2013

We all like to be paid for the job we do, but with most work being digital these days, it’s become more difficult to credit the right person. This has grown into a significant issue in the affiliate, or performance marketing industry, thanks in large part to last-click attribution.

With this model, the last digital marketing “touch point” that a customer has is given most (and usually all) of the credit for a conversion or sale. This means that affiliates who specialize in the early part of a sales cycle (think content marketers or review sites) often don’t get their work attributed to them, even if they initially introduce consumers to specific brands.

The Effects on Affiliate Marketers (and Advertisers) Some people may feel like last-click attribution concerns are a bit of an overreaction. As long as the conversion happens, it’s all good for the advertiser, right? Not quite.

The core problem with the use of last-click attribution is that one affiliate marketer may entice a consumer to click on an ad multiple times before they ever actually convert. If that consumer ends up coming back to the advertiser’s site through another marketing channel (e.g. search, PPC or online video ads) to officially convert, then the affiliate who did the lion’s share of the work familiarizing the consumer with the advertiser’s brand gets no credit (e.g. commission).

It’s not only hard-working affiliates getting the shaft. Last-click attribution also harms online advertisers, as it can hinder their ability to drive “funnel” conversions. The whole point of the “funnel” is to lead consumers through various touch points, meticulously designed to incite conversions and create brand loyalty. With last-click attribution, marketers can’t measure the actual value of these different touch points, which obscures the true picture of the return on investment (ROI) of their online ad campaigns.

The March of the Rogue Affiliates

The use of last-click attribution becomes malicious when rogue affiliate marketers use it to take credit for their peers’ work. In some circles, they’ve adopted the name “affiliateware” to describe the tactics used to steal clicks from hardworking performance marketers.

“Affiliateware is a collection of techniques used by affiliate marketers to transform real performance marketing stats to generate sales opportunities,” explained Cristian Miculi, the senior affiliate marketing manager at Avangate. “Examples include: generating false clicks, false views, cookie stuffing and the abuse of affiliate links by ‘marketers’ that try to get remunerated through affiliate programs, without adding any value to the customer nor the merchant.”

He continues, “The sales referred via the affiliateware practices are the result of mere technical tricks (e.g. toolbars, cookie stuffing, etc.) and are not of the affiliate’s work and effort to influence the buyer’s decision, as in the case of a review article, advertorial or shopping comparison engine. The affiliate commission is thus unjust, as these types of referrals bring zero value to the commercial transaction.”

One particularly nasty tactic that rogue affiliates use is injecting their own new code into Web page requests through a Squid proxy server, allowing them to steal clicks through nefarious means by injecting their ads directly into the content on “common websites.”

What Can Be Done?

Taking down these tricky wannabe affiliates can be a task, but good affiliate networks can help in the quest for online advertising justice.

“At Rakuten LinkShare, we use a combination of people and technology to identify publishers that might be using solutions that violate our network policies or the terms and conditions of a particular advertiser program,” said Scott Allan, the senior vice president of global marketing at Rakuten LinkShare. “The key here is transparency and empowerment. Advertisers should have complete control over which publishers they work with, while creating clear program terms and conditions that are in line with their brands.”

It’s important to move beyond the current model of simply attributing the final stage of the sales cycle to pay those affiliates that have more influence with consumers at a higher margin. The increasingly common use of big data is a good first step in this process, as it can help advertisers understand the various interactions that a consumer has with their brand until a sale is complete.

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