Future gazing - affiliate marketing in 2024 and beyond
Affiliate and partner marketing is a cost-effective, innovative and performance-driven channel. Over the years it has continued to reinvent itself, acting as both a microcosm of the wider digital marketing ecosystem and a proving ground for new martech solutions.
The channel is now more than 25 years old and worth an estimated £3bn across Europe.
Continuous evolution has been the bedrock of the channel’s success and the industry can not stand still, especially in a world where measurement, marketing value and customer discovery are key demands for advertisers of all sizes.
As we enter 2024, we thought it was time to look at some areas of change and development for the industry, both for this year and beyond.
Around 60% of all industry spend goes on some form of discount-orientated marketing, a number which has remained constant over the last eight years.
One thing is for certain, consumers will continue to search and seek out discounts when shopping online. However the discount code sector has changed enormously over the past few years.
The emergence of white-label discount pages on online newspaper publications has resulted in an ongoing SEO tussle for publishers. Whilst discount portals for closed users of specific groups such as students, emergency workers and professional groups have also seen significant growth and are now common top 10 partners. Advertisers are even trying to own the discount search space themselves, SEO-ing their own offers pages or relying on the help of a third party.
So what might change?
Ecommerce platforms wield enormous power when it comes to the future of discount codes given the sheer volume of advertisers that now use them. The proliferation of plug and play ecommerce platforms like Shopify now make discount coding flexible and more controlled.
This could manifest through greater advertiser control to dynamically hide or show the discount code box based on the source of the traffic, to create offer-led pages onsite that seek to stop the user from searching for discounts elsewhere, or even dynamically customising an offer at the basket stage.
The affiliate industry has always seen technical innovation grow from changing online behaviour, and so perhaps we will see more technologies such as Shopify apps that will emerge on a CPA supporting discount strategies.
These technologies would no longer rely on Google’s SERPs for traffic and so could fundamentally change how affiliate marketing supports an advertiser’s discount code strategy.
It will also be interesting to see if search engines embrace the advent of AI-driven search results to inject live codes into search results, which may ultimately pose a threat to existing discount partners, but an opportunity for advertisers looking to help their users find more relevant offers.
One area that will continue to advance is how networks support the sign up and link management process for content creators. Whether it’s bespoke sign up funnels or an app to manage their account, resources are being applied to better the collaboration between advertiser and social content creators.
Over £200 million is spent on social content annually through the affiliate industry, yet the workflows remain clunky. Gazing further in the future we believe that the product gifting process will be refined - largely through technology, removing the need for multiple emails back and forth.
Finally, there is an open question over how shoppable advertising directly integrated into YouTube, Instagram, and most recently TikTok, will impact the marketing opportunities available to brands and the shopping journeys of users. These are mammoth platforms that are embracing a new era of affiliate relationships and it’s highly likely we’ll see more developments from the likes of TikTok Shop for advertisers in 2024.
Loyalty, cashback & open-banking
More companies are emerging that link a user’s debit or credit card with a cashback or reward mechanism. In some cases this is via a standalone offers portal. In other instances we see more banks and credit card companies refining the idea of cashback to sit as a ‘customer perk’ within their offering.
Card-linked cashback isn’t new but is certainly coming to the fore with the average consumer now having a greater awareness of these offerings. For consumers it reduces the friction, effort and touchpoints required to receive additional cashback rewards.
Advertisers are attracted to the idea that offering cashback could become more of a time-limited campaign strategy, enticing a user to activate a cashback reward which is marketed with an end date. The big question is whether this could impact the traditional cashback sites where cashback is ‘always on’.
It’s certain that in 2024 cashback linked to a user’s card or bank account via the Open Banking initiative will become a more ubiquitous part of affiliate marketing.
To continue to thrive against the rising tide of card linked cashback there is one area where traditional cashback sites could advance quickly and soon. Traditional cashback portals sit on millions of data-points, rich with spending habits and consumer trends. With this data cashback sites could further develop their model with dynamic personalisation. Cashback rates could be showcased based on the ‘value’ of the cashback member and their previous shopping behaviour.
A sub-network is a business that aggregates publisher websites, normally through helpful link-building technology, and then connects to a mainstream affiliate marketing network to access advertiser brands.
Sub-networks account for around 15% of all industry spend and there are more than 30 major sub-networks operating across Europe.
Both sub-networks and traditional networks have done a lot of work over the last few years to improve the transparency of this parter type. However, there is much work left to do.
There is evident frustration from advertisers who often join a sub-network to partner with a specific content publisher or media house, only to lose control over how their brand is accessed. We can expect tighter working restrictions on sub-networks to emerge over the next year and more selective strategies for working with these partners.
The role of search
Google is still the single most important company in the affiliate industry, simply because it is the largest source of traffic for partners. Google search algorithm updates have always been a hidden, yet extremely impactful part of affiliate marketing.
The Helpful Content update in September 2023 was one of Google’s most important updates from an affiliate point of view in many years. It has penalised websites using rich content as an SEO tactic. Some content partners have lost two-thirds of their traffic since the update was launched, while others have benefited to the same extent.
Forum sites like Reddit have also benefited from the update, but it has also received negative feedback from search users angered by the changes to their results pages. It’s impossible to know what Google has in store, but whether the search giant rolls back or doubles down on last year’s Helpful Content changes will be crucial to the performance of almost every affiliate program in 2024.
It might seem odd to include a measurement platform in an article about the future of affiliate marketing. But Google’s eponymous measurement platform has undergone some big changes, which has thrust it back into the consciousness of affiliate marketers.
Google Analytics 4 has adopted a new, data-driven measurement model as well as new methods to count and allocate events to the various acquisition channels. The result has seen marketers confronted with startlingly different results on channel contribution.
Some advertisers have reported affiliate sales under-reporting by over 90% compared to their old Universal Analytics view. While the affiliate industry is working hard to redress these issues, GA4 is here to stay and will continue to be the default measurement platform for the vast majority of advertisers spending money in the channel. That means, like it or not, GA4’s treatment of affiliate marketing will most likely be the issue that makes more headlines than any other in 2024.
As the partner marketing space continues to evolve, drivers of change come from all sides; advertiser’s strategy, emerging affiliate types, network innovation and reinvention within traditional affiliate mechanisms. If you have any feedback, input or future predictions of your own then please get in touch or leave a comment for us on Adtraction’s social media.