Brand Safety Should Be Your Cornerstone

November 4, 2021

By Van Chappell

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Within the realm of partnership marketing, affiliate marketing has matured as a channel in the past 10 years, thanks to greater adoption by performance marketers. Affiliate marketing is a thriving strategic and operationalized ecosystem, with its own dynamics and concerns.

At the same time, it's become clear that the channel also includes the very real hazard of fraud. It's estimated that 9 percent of all "partnership" transactions are affected by fraud, with as many as 1.5 percent of conversions being fraudulent. By the end of 2020 alone, affiliate marketers themselves are expected to lose $1.4 billion from these fraudulent transactions.

Given the existence of fraud in the affiliate ecosystem, it's vital that marketers organize their efforts to deal with it, effectively setting brand safety as a cornerstone of our programs.

How Program Leadership Can Right the Wrong


When fraud runs unchecked, a lot can go wrong. There's a wide range of fraud types encountered in the partnership arena — everything from click spoofing, click insertion, and click flooding to dayparting, device spoofing, proxy tunneling, IP and geo targeting — and any number of other sorts of deceptive re-directs and illegitimate install forms.

Yes, there are solutions, but these solutions must all begin from within. That starts with an internal operational commitment to brand safety as a principle of any affiliate marketing program.

So, how do marketers get there?

To start, the marketer's mindset as the vested steward of one's own program is key. It's the pride of ownership. Potential partners must know that partnering with the brand is a privilege, not a right. It's important that partners and affiliates adhere to the company's established terms and conditions. However, sometimes bad actors sneak through and conduct non-compliant behavior.

The upside of running a successful affiliate marketing program makes tackling all of these fraud hazards worth it. Thanks to appealing financial models and natural cost efficiencies, affiliate marketing has made its way into the preferred arsenal for performance marketers. It gives them certain operating leverage, helping mitigate costs across their marketing mix, given their focus on driving the most profitable possible customer acquisition volume over time. It enables omnipresence.

Yet, it's in this very omnipresence that marketers see the friction and potential for fraud. With all these touchpoints, there's simply greater room for channel conflict and affiliate abuse. Brand safety must be an always-on focus for affiliate marketers, both from the perspective of rules of partnership engagement down to the tactics of program management and quality assurance.

A Closer Look at The Greatest Offending Fraud Type


There are lots of fraud types mentioned here, so let me share one very specific example, ad hijacking, something fairly wicked but also easy to get your mind around.

Affiliate ad hijacking (also known as brand poaching, direct linking, URL jacking) is when an affiliate impersonates a brand by running ads that look identical to a brand's ads.

To someone looking at a Search Engine Results Page (SERP), ad hijacking doesn't look any different from regular advertising. Yet ad hijacking can be very damaging to a brand's paid search programs with several negative impacts. A marketer may see spikes in referral traffic and conversions from affiliates that are not well known to the brand -- or nearly identical conversion rates for an affiliate and branded paid search. This may also take the form of a reduction in impressions and clicks since the search engines don't allow multiple ads with the same display URL to serve at the same time.

This is but one example, and specific remedies are another conversation for another time. The point is, fraud can be tricky to identify, let alone resolve; therefore, it becomes imperative to establish preventive measures and solutions to maintain a brand safe environment.

Regardless of fraud type, hijacking or otherwise, when operating with brand safety as a cornerstone, it's key to ensure airtight terms and conditions, automated monitoring along with manual audits and analysis, and of course always-on enforcement. Here's how to quickly establish each:

  • Know what normal looks like
  • Review all affiliate agreements, thoroughly and often
  • Remind partners of the program's brand-bidding policies
  • Utilize automated monitoring in paid search
  • Be proactive and when needed, react quickly, and take action

Affiliate marketing has transformed performance marketing. Given the success of the affiliate model, interrelated if not conflicting interests are a natural issue, and tension is to be expected. As brands, affiliates, affiliate solution providers and consumers comingle, the business implications of fraud are real.

Brands are in the best position to take the lead on creating a foundation of brand safety, ensuring that all parties, from solution provider to partner, are aligned on providing a brand-safe program. With the right mix of proactive strategic planning, organization around monitoring and auditing, proper T&Cs and thoughtful communication, the hazards of fraud can be reduced so that they have minimal negative impact.


The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.


Van Chappell is the general manager of EMEA at BrandVerity.


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