Who’s Writing?

Affiliate marketing has exploded in the last few years and it’s easy to see why. This cost-per-acquisition model enables a low risk and highly measurable alternative to traditional online advertising. It makes perfect sense. But what happens when online content relies too heavily on the success of its banner ads, rather than the other way around? When matters of editorial integrity are concerned, an interesting debate arises.

Looking back, newspaper publications and advertising have existed side by side for centuries. One of the earliest examples of this came in 1704 where an announcement seeking a buyer for an Oyster Bay in the US was published in the Boston News-Letter. This revolutionary idea became so heavily integrated in publications that by today’s standards, newspapers and magazines are bursting at the spine with sales campaigns. Whilst the content from both sides has risen in sophistication, the relationship between the two has remained remarkably unchanged, even within the digital sphere. Essentially the model is as follows: the content is designed to sell, whilst the advertising pays to piggyback the distribution reach.

An issue of affiliate marketing, and the reason why some major publications have traditionally treated it with such black and white precaution, is that it can alter the power balance. When the editorial content relies on the direct success of the advertising for revenue, then, evolutionarily speaking, it must cling on for its own survival. As the digital manger of one major publication put it, ‘Would the article have been written if there wasn’t a sponsorship deal fueling it?’

It’s for this reason that the Daily Mail Online’s decision last year to take on an affiliate programfor its fashion finder section caused controversy. Users now have the ability to click on the outfits of celebrity images and be taken through to the e-commerce page. The Mail then takes a cut of the completed purchase transaction.

Here, the easy option would be to satirize the Mail’s insistence that ‘editorial integrity’ would be maintained. But with a global online readership of around 8.2 million daily browsers, this clearly goes well beyond a matter of so-called high-brow/low-brow journalism…

We live in a digitized world where people simultaneously value what they pay for, whilst expecting content for free. Whilst pay-walls and subscription fees have been incredibly successful for many major publications, it is no surprise that some are looking for alternative revenue streams in light of today’s challenges. And it doesn’t take much to work out why affiliate programs have plugged the gap. In the UK alone the affiliate marketing sector now has an estimated worth of over £4.5billion ($7.5 billion USD) with high expectations of growth (Source: IAB). What’s more, the ever-expanding blogging industry has shown just how well affiliate programs work in this context…

However, affiliate marketing is far more than an additional revenue stream. For one, it can have significant benefit on user experience. Take the Daily Mail example. For one, content access continues to be free as revenue is sourced elsewhere. For another, the journey from admiring an outfit to buying it is made practically seamless. That more fashion publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, have implemented similar programs, suggests that the online fashion industry might be on the cusp of a new digital era.

But fashion is just one category. And largely speaking, having seen a clothing item, the consumer can make an educated decision whether they want it or not. The same is probably true of music, another industry that thrives on affiliate programs. But consider, say travel, where the trusted opinion and credibility of the journalist/publication is all the reader has to inform his or her decision to go to Africa.  If the article relies directly on holiday package transactions, then what integrity does anyone have to go by? Without naming names, you don’t have to look far to see publications playing pretty closely to this line.

Affiliate programs have brought an array of benefits to online marketing, not least the seamless transition in the consumer purchase cycle. But this article never set out to doubt that, nor cast affiliate marketing in a negative light. The question here isn’t whether it is right or wrong as, like any digital solution, it is totally case specific.  Issues only arise when advertorials dress up as independent editorials. People don’t only care about what they are reading. They also want to know who they are reading. Who is the voice behind the pen (or keypad as the case may be)? It doesn’t matter who that voice is, be it a journalist, a brand, or an affiliate blogger, the context of content is just as important as the content itself. Transparency equals trust.

*For every click of this link, Ogilvy will take 10% of the direct revenue obtained ;)

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