The sales robots are coming. Sounds far-fetched? Artificial Intelligence (AI) is popping up in areas of life ranging from sport to education – and it is set to revolutionise performance marketing. AI helps affiliate marketing network providers support their account managers with deep campaign insight at the click of a button. With AI, vast amounts of campaign data is crunched in a matter of seconds to identify how individual campaigns could be improved – freeing up the account manager to analyse the data with the customer.

Unlocking the power of affiliate marketing

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to transform online sales beyond recognition. Last year, UK companies spent £1.578 billion on online performance marketing, according to the IAB and PwC’s Online Performance Marketing (OPM) study. Reportedly ‘OPM’ activity generated £12.30 for every £1 spent, driving 5.6 billion clicks and making £19.4 billion in sales in 2016 – a 16% increase on 2015. The study defines OPM activity as mainly affiliate marketing (88%) with some lead generation (12%). This market has been very much focused on a small core of major advertisers, publishers and affiliates – until now. AI is set to revolutionise the sector and make super-intelligent online performance marketing core to all businesses.

At a recent TED conference session ‘Our Robotic Overlords’, a university professor revealed that she has trained a robot to pass prestigious University of Tokyo entrance exams. In the past two years, the AI robot outperformed 80% of high-school pupils and was in the top 1% for math. Another expert told the conference go-ers that machines would soon be reading and understanding very well – and very soon afterwards, they will have read everything that has ever been written. In sport, AI is giving team managers detailed analysis of the performance of individual footballers and basketball players and autonomous machines now make half the trades on Wall Street.

In the affiliate marketing network world, advertisers rely on their network account managers, or digital marketing execs to analyse campaign performance and recommend improvements. The reality is that analysing large amounts of data can be a costly and time consuming process, and to a certain extent a line needs to be drawn as to where you stop analysing and start optimising – and with the sheer amount of data available even the most skilled and experienced account managers struggle to identify the very best campaign strategy. A typical marketing campaign might generate thousands of sales a day, based on hundreds of thousands of presales activities as customers click through various links. Over a matter of weeks this can amount to millions of data points, presenting a real challenge to marketers who wish to analyse this data for information about how successful their campaign is.

AI disrupts traditional marketing decision-making. Typically, companies spend a long time collecting and analysing marketing data, deciding what to do next and negotiating deals with publishers and content platforms. AI automates all those processes and addresses the questions “So what?” – “We have loads of data, is it good or bad? So, what does it mean?”, and “Now what?” – “How do we decide what our next steps should be and optimise our actions for the best chance of success?”.

The latest cognitive capabilities allow organisations to collect unstructured data into a corpus – a body of data – then almost instantaneously identify patterns that humans might take weeks to see, or might not be able to find at all. From zettabytes of data about advertising platforms, product preferences, time of day, positioning of product, AI can identify the marketing approach that is most likely to end up in a sale – a bit like buying every item in a supermarket and producing one delicious meal.

AI will also unlock much deeper intelligence and insight around all aspects of performance marketing, broadening it out to many more businesses, advertisers and affiliates. One consequence of this is likely to be that marketing roles such as a “Digital Marketing”, will evolve as technology will perform most of the lower level analysis. Instead, these roles will advance to be more in line with “Campaign Engineers” (not to be confused with coders), drawing upon knowledge and experience to understand data driven results of multiple campaigns. This new-found insight can be used to build campaigns and then continually analyse and adapt them, based upon data from AI, for continued performance.

The revolution will not be televised; it will be streamed

Consumer behaviour and how companies market to consumers is undergoing nothing short of a revolution. A new generation of consumers rarely watches television and sees very few TV and newspaper adverts. Consumers now operate across multiple devices, multiple channels and use multiple products. The fight for consumer attention is raging and forcing its way into more and more aspects of our daily lives.

For example, Millennials’ buying decisions are more likely to be driven by what their friends via Snapchat or Instagram stories or YouTube vlogger idols are buying and wearing, almost moving back to a more traditional campaign revolving where branding and positioning is everything, but fashions and trends are started and ended in literally hours. It is a real challenge for brands to harness this shifting market to ensure their content remains personalised and relevant. AI will change all that by analysing billions of items of data to create a clear picture of exactly where and when consumer-buying decisions are made. On top of this the technologies will learn how to anticipate new micro-trends and sensitive shifts in existing and future consumer intent.

It will also underpin a much more responsive payment model. Currently affiliate marketing attribution is largely based on ‘last click wins’ – the last advertisement or link that the consumer clicked on that linked them to the purchase site. It does not take account of activity further up the buying chain. A consumer may have seen content in a blog article, for example, that got them interested in the product or service. Then they may have decided to research the purchase a bit more, perhaps discovered a voucher code and clicked on that, finally arriving at the advertiser’s website and making the purchase. Only the voucher code publisher will receive any payout.

AI will allow advertisers, via agencies and network providers to see the contribution of smaller affiliates & influencers such as bloggers and content producers to the final sale and reward them too. Smaller companies that are spending big on SEO and SEM marketing will also benefit from increasingly closely targeted and accessible performance marketing that has a very much more measurable return on investment.

Being the master, not the servant, of AI

To bring the insight of AI to performance marketing, Webgains has become the first of the large international affiliate marketing networks to invest deeply into AI and Machine Learning, through their recently announced strategic partnership with IBM Watson. It is possible to use IBM Watson cognitive technology tools off-the-shelf. However, Webgains has built a much deeper partnership with IBM. The two companies are working hand-in-hand to address in-depth the potential of applying AI to Webgains’ data analytics, based not just on the billions of consumer campaign views, ad clicks and transactions gained over 13 years of operation of their network but also in real-time across their 50,000+ daily sales volumes in 130 countries

This partnership will explore how cognitive capabilities can transform the affiliate marketing operating model and foster stronger growth in campaign performance and reach.

Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus motors, famously said, “Simplicate, then add lightness”. AI does that, taking a hugely complicated process and simplifying it so that publishers and affiliates can rely on highly sophisticated affiliate marketing just working and driving campaign performance. The bottom line for most organisations is to make more sales for less money and this highly intelligent technology delivers that. By effectively and intelligently creating a daily task list for the new breed of ‘campaign engineers’ which are almost guaranteed to lift performance, ‘Marketing’ is dead; long live the intelligent, articulate, real-time and right-first-time Sales Robots!

Richard Dennys

Richard Dennys


Richard Dennys, CEO Webgains.