Any good affiliate marketer hits the Long Tail Dilemma of publishers fairly quickly. On the one hand are large publishers with lots of eyeballs which could get the merchant huge volumes of highly focused audiences. For instance, an India-centric Moto-enthusiast website such as http://www.xbhp.com/ would make a fantastic publisher for a motorcycle company such as Royal Enfield. These form the “head” of your publisher base – they number a few, but bring in substantial sale volumes individually. As an affiliate program manager, you will work with each individual large publisher to best position your merchant’s offerings on their web “real estate”. Here’s where you get real innovation, where magic with data feeds can be wrought, where true integration with content is possible.
However, affiliate program managers are also acutely aware that there’s tons of data being generated every single day on the web – and that every website, blog, service that comes online is more web real estate, and every new user is a potential affiliate. These form the “tail” of your publisher base. For an affiliate program to really scale (and scale tremendously), it must ride the wave of this data. As a program manager, you won’t chase and cut deals with each individual fish that jumps into the web pool. Today, you rely on publisher registrations on CJ, Shareasale, Linkshare and that minnow in the news lately, Performics. As the read-write web gathers mass, the tail is growing inexorably larger in comparison to the head.
The Dilemma, then, is this: you can’t offer the tail as much as you can offer the head. And reciprocally, the tail can’t perform acrobatics with your creatives and data feeds either. All your tail does today is slap banner or text ads on their blogs or home pages. That’s about the limit of adoption. Where’s the differentiation? Not only for your merchant, but also for you, the affiliate program manager? What value are you adding? If the only interaction with the tail is going to be making animated GIFs and catchy text ads, writing up a “Join our Affiliate Program” page on the merchant’s website, and registering on CJ et al (and waiting for the tail to sign up), the merchant will soon realize that the middleman isn’t adding any value, and will cut you out. He’d much rather do it himself.
What we’re seeing is the commoditization of the process of traditional affiliate marketing. The guys who’ll make the real bucks in the future are going to be those who’ll put easy-to-use tools in the hands of the tail. Or even better, make tools for affiliates that auto-deploy themselves. Who bring in the innovation that belongs in the head today into the tail. Amazon began the process way back with aStore, but that isn’t going far enough.
Hold it. Auto-deploy? Doesn’t that sound like Search Engine Marketing? Well, it does, in a way. From the publisher’s point of view, what’s the essential difference between AdSense and Affiliate marketing? With AdSense, the publisher has no control over what ads will be displayed in the AdSense code box that he/she slaps on his/her page, merely that they’ll be more or less relevant to the page content. With Affiliate marketing, the publisher chooses from a clutch of creatives provided by a merchant. Once you talk about auto-deploying merchant creatives in innovative, “head-like” ways, the line between them gets blurred. Several startups have caught on already. This comment on Sam Harrelson’s blog lists a few of the more interesting ones.
We’re at a fairly interesting juncture in the Affiliate Marketing market. The next big opportunity belongs to whoever will have the gumption to target the Long Tail, and do it in a way that goes far beyond the tired, banal banner-text-ad process that’s been perfected into a science. Watch this space!
Rahul Gaitonde is an Affiliate Marketing consultant with Convonix Inc.