Affiliate marketers in the UK drove an estimated £5 billion in e-commerce revenue last year, with travel/flights and fashion/accessories being the most widely promoted sectors. The market has come a long way from the days when affiliate marketers could profit from simply buying URLs and driving traffic cheaply. Today, they’re creating engaging content, building their own brands to attract and retain users and finding innovative ways to drive and monetise traffic using data feeds.
A data feed contains all the rich product attributes that are found on an e-commerce website. The data is extracted via the website front end and is packaged into an XML file. The structured data can then be used in online channel marketing applications from affiliate marketing to automating paid search.
For example, in affiliate marketing content affiliates use data feeds to match embedded links within blogs, news, recommendations and reviews with relevant products on merchants’ websites. Price comparison affiliates use rich product attributes to offer users an enhanced shopping experience, while paid search affiliates use product data to automate pay per click (PPC) campaigns.
For any type of online marketing, easy access to accurate product-level information is essential to allow effective targeting and drive incremental sales in new channels. For merchants and advertisers, there is the growing need to forge strategic relationships with affiliates, understand their individual requirements as the channel continues to diversify and provide the data, tools and technology to help promote products effectively.
Innovation is key but content is still king for affiliates
Content, and unique content in particular, remains king. Consumers like web sites that engage them – and so does Google. Consumers also like an intuitive user experience whilst researching and buying online and affiliates add value in this area too.
Holiday planning website weather2travel for example combines climate and weather content for specific destinations, with travel products such as package holidays, hotels, flights and hire cars. This enables it to promote specific travel products for a given destination alongside its climate guide or weather forecast. By showing destination-specific products with a price point and a landing page deep within the booking process, weather2travel achieves much better rates of conversion than from traditional banners, buttons and text links. The site uses data feeds from travel suppliers ensuring content is accurate and engaging.
Data accessibility drives success online
As an advertiser with an affiliate programme, it is critical to make your product data available, accessible and easy to use. The product-level information should be well structured, consistent in terms of hierarchy and labelling and updated regularly, depending on the type of product. This is where high quality data feeds make life really simple.
Currently, there are no standards for the creation of data feeds. Typically, data feeds are XML or delimited text files distributed by merchants via their affiliate network, agency, data feed specialist or directly themselves. FusePump has published best practice guidelines with the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), but there is no consistency in adoption since requirements differ from vertical to vertical, product to product and merchant to merchant. The fact there can be numerous parties in the value chain means there is plenty of potential for difficulties to occur– e.g. a change in format as the feed passes through the chain, use of non-ASCI characters, or data that has not been checked for accuracy.
Common mistakes lead to poor uptake or consumer dissatisfaction
More fundamentally, the quality of the data itself needs to be high; however this is where a lot of current data feeds fall down. A major US cash-back affiliate for example, reported it was ingesting 70 million products on a daily basis but only using 16 million of them, with the rest discarded due to poor quality and missing data from the feeds.
All too often, key fields/attributes are missing or incorrect. Simple problems such as spelling mistakes, product names in caps, truncated fields, badly encoded text and broken links to products and thumbnail images makes the job of the affiliate considerably more difficult. Missing fields/attributes impact on their ability to categorise products automatically and means the affiliate either ends up with poor search results or spends time manipulating the data. Meanwhile, links that are broken or fail to take the consumer through to the correct page on the merchant’s website mean the opportunity for conversion is lost.
Thinking more creatively
E-commerce sellers need to think much more creatively about of how they present their product data to partners. Technology solutions make the process simple by providing affiliates with all the information, functionality and business intelligence they need to market products online and increase sales.
Utilising good quality data feeds, ad and widget creation tools allow affiliates to create dynamic advertising solutions that go beyond the simple ‘banner advertising’ concept and enable consumers to engage and select products within the banner. Presenting their data feeds through interactive widgets and dynamic banners is a clever way to engage with affiliates that don’t have the technical know-how to work with large datasets.
Product attributes are often provided with long generic descriptions, whereas shorter attribute-based fields make it easier for affiliates to present just the information relevant to their target audience. For example, rather than listing generic description information such as ‘flat-screen TV’ and price, a data feed should include fields for specific attributes such as ‘HD-ready’, screen size and best price.
It is of paramount importance that the merchant takes control of its product-level data and has a clear understanding of what its affiliates need. Many merchants now provide their network of online affiliates with access to the latest information on their products, pricing and availability though a user-friendly portal. Affiliate or performance marketing hubs help affiliates simplify the creation of product feeds, advertising units and widgets, as well as ensuring an open channel of communication and bringing a real focus to affiliate marketing programmes.
Centralise your affiliate marketing and give your programme focus
An affiliate hub is an online platform that contains all the promotional materials needed for a successful affiliate programme. Using an affiliate hub enables merchants to provide affiliates with comprehensive access to all of their product level data, as well as the tools enabling affiliate marketers to create their own data feeds and dynamic advertising units.
For e-commerce merchants and advertisers, an affiliate hub provides control of the inventory and advertising that their affiliate marketers download. It can include deep linking and ad creation tools, APIs and ‘Best Offers’, while providing a single place for downloads among affiliates that is visible and easy to use. e-commerce merchants and advertisers can also add forums, blogs, and support sections, helping to engage new affiliates easily through the platform, while allowing them to monitor and analyse the downloads and performance of each affiliate.
Affiliates and performance marketers using an affiliate hub have the complete set of tools and content available in one place, enabling them to quickly and easily select and deploy what they need. They can build and deploy bespoke feeds and content units in minutes, start earning commission straight away and keep up to date with new opportunities and promotional tools as they are made available by the advertiser or e-commerce merchant.
By improving communication and knowledge exchange between e-commerce merchants, advertisers and affiliates, a hub makes it much easier and more attractive for all parties to work together. For affiliates and partners, this approach eliminates the time it takes to wade through product information, minimising the risk of inaccuracies and increasing conversion rates by making consumer-facing content easier to distribute. Likewise, e-commerce merchants and advertisers are able to penetrate deeper into the long tail of sites and forge much closer ties with affiliates, who are much more likely to work with merchants offering a two-way relationship.
According to a recent survey of more than 300 affiliates by Econsultancy and A4u, almost half of affiliates were driving revenue of at least £5,000 per month (£60,000 per year) for merchants and more than half reported a rise in commissions. The survey also highlighted increased professionalism in the sector, with more full-time affiliates geared up for large-scale operations and the bandwidth to promote large numbers of advertisers, together with improved levels of direct communication between merchants and their affiliate partners.
With technology and data now central to a channel where performance is rewarded, affiliates are increasingly blending SEO and content, price comparison and social media to drive revenue. This was confirmed by LBi/Bigmouthmedia’s most recent annual affiliate survey, which also found that affiliates are focusing on producing niche-focused and cross-platform content, behavioural targeting and email marketing.
Providing affiliates with the right technology and high quality data feeds encourages affiliates and performance marketers to be more creative in how they promote products online and can deliver real results. Sky for example, has made creation tools available to affiliates so that they can incorporate a widget on their site enabling consumers to build their own package combinations online, see exactly how much they would cost per month and compare prices against Sky’s competitors. Sky’s affiliate data feed converts on average around 1-2 per cent of all clicks to sales, ensuring better consumer engagement and driving earnings per click (EPC) for its affiliates. Similarly, UK retailer M&S has tools that enable affiliates to filter feeds and deliver personalised content to consumers.
Merchants must therefore be smarter about segmenting and packaging their product-level data, as well as recognising that performance marketing is much more than just targeting super affiliates and data aggregators. At the same time, affiliates need to continue to find new ways to drive online sales and revenue and having a range of tools available to create a unique experience is more likely to drive traffic, sales and ultimately, return on investment.