Putting the Genie Back Into the Bottle

“You can’t put the genie back into the bottle” or so says the idiom. The issues surrounding adware have certainly been a “genie” for affiliate marketing.  We may have the opportunity to see if that genie really can be put back into the bottle, at least for a sub-set of adware applications, toolbars.

Yesterday Brian Littleton, CEO of ShareASale, announced a Toolbar Roundtable Discussion for next Tuesday.  The purpose is to receive input from the community for establishing guidelines for toolbar behavior within the ShareASale network.  This is a shift from the historical policy of ShareASale which has not allowed software in the network. Not unexpectedly, there is some heated discussion around the announcement in the ShareASale Forum on ABestWeb.com.

Many people mistakenly think that I am opposed to adware. This isn’t the case. Adware is just technology, which isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s just technology…ultimately a bunch of 1’s and 0’s strung together to elicit preplanned behavior from the computer of the end user.

What I have opposed over the years is the manner in which many adware applications generate revenue in the affiliate marketing channel.
I have been exceedingly frustrated at times by technology being abused to the point of causing schisms within our industry and stigmatizing the technology itself which, in reality, could have been positive for the affiliates, merchants, networks and consumers it was meant to serve.  On more than one occasion I have stated that adware does not have to be an issue within affiliate marketing.  For years now I have worked outline a model for adware behavior. Not once have I been asked the details of that model, at least until now.

My view is broader than just toolbars. I personally feel that it is possible for any adware application to be respectful of the rights of other internet businesses, benefit the consumer, and generate legitimate revenue, directly and/or indirectly, in the affiliate marketing channel. I now have the opportunity to share some of my views and thoughts on how this can be achieved.

There is a glaring reality that we cannot afford to overlook: the technology is here and it’s not going to suddenly go away. The genie isn’t going to just disappear. My contentions have been with the policy, both written and how acted upon in reality, for how adware is allowed to behave in the affiliate marketing channel. My mantra is behavior, behavior, behavior (to the point I get tired of hearing it myself!) not toolbar, widget or desktop app. I don’t have a problem with Google’s toolbar, but I do have a problem with most software generating revenue through the affiliate channel.

To this point, there has been two primary types of policy by networks and merchants regarding how affiliates can use software in the affiliate channel: not allowed at all (the parasite-free policy) or allowed under a set of conditions that are far less restrictive for affiliates than marketing through other means (the COC/Addendum policy). I have always been opposed to the COC/Addendum policy because I feel it allowed revenue generation that facilitated unfair competition and diminished the overall value of the affiliate channel. I have longed for a working policy (policy that is actually being used) that would address how software can be legitimately used within the affiliate channel sans all the controversy. Indeed, I strongly believe it is critical that our industry be able to produce such a working policy.

Why? So we can demonstrate our ability to self-regulate and foster the healthy growth of our industry. All established industries need to demonstrate this ability for long-term success. To this point, I don’t think we have been able to demonstrate an ability to effectively self-regulate the very technologies our industry depends upon. Affiliate marketing is a technology business after all.

There are currently various technologies used by affiliates in their marketing efforts.  Web sites, email, video, widgets and many other forms of technology are common.  Guidelines for acceptable use have been established for promotion though most of these technologies. Granted, there may be an occasional debate regarding a new way these technologies are used, but none have been as problematic as downloaded software. Nor has a policy of all or nothing been applied to defining their use by affiliates.

Any and all of the technologies used by affiliates can be potentially abused. Questionable revenue generation tactics as well as more malicious behavior can occur through any promotional method. We certainly don’t say that affiliates cannot use web sites, email, and video or social media technology as promotion mechanisms because the technology can, and at times is, abused. Of course we don’t! We set guidelines and then we work towards enforcing those guidelines.

Enforcing a policy for toolbars will not be without its own challenges. But all monitoring of promotion comes with unique challenges. There are millions of web pages, owned by the affiliate or by someone else, where bad behavior can occur. However, once policy is established for promotion through a web site, protocols for monitoring are developed.

While practices may not always be policed by some companies to the degree some desire, we all understand that ultimately it’s a matter of survival for our livelihoods to have a certain degree of self-regulation within these technologies.

The landscape has changed dramatically since 2002 when the COC/Addendum policy was released by the major networks of the time. There is no longer a huge cost barrier for any affiliate having downloadable software and there are several sources for acquiring your own toolbar for free or at a very low cost. Distribution channels are available that do not require bundling, especially for toolbars. This has resulted in literally tens of thousands of toolbars available for download.

Of course, not all of these operate within the affiliate channel, but there is an increasing number which do. Toolbars can engage in a very wide range of behaviors. I don’t feel that a global policy of   “X is not allowed” to be an adequate manner with which to address issues facing our industry in regards to a technology that is not going away.

Brian Littleton has outlined a starting point  on the ShareASale blog for this policy discussion. As someone who has always focused on how adware can behave with regards to revenue generation, I am intrigued by his initial points. He appears to be envisioning toolbar technology used as a customer service vehicle versus a marketing vehicle. Marketing practices would use the toolbar for direct revenue generation, which is the most common use seen to date. Customer service would involve behaviors focused on the consumer experience, thus building branding, loyalty, and visitor retention for the affiliate’s own business. This form is a more passive marketing of the affiliate’s own business and does not tie the toolbar directly to  the affiliate link for tracking a commissionable sale. While I still believe software can behave “nicely” and be used for more direct revenue generation, I find Brian’s outside of the box thinking on this issue very interesting.

We need to show that we are up to the challenges of regulating the very technologies used to enhance and bring value to the affiliate channel. I’m excited to see a company with a track record and reputation as established as ShareASale’s stepping up to the plate to undertake the task of presenting meaningful policy in regards to toolbars. I look forward to having a policy in use that I can point to as an example of how software technology can be used in a harmonious and productive manner.

Will ShareASale be able to put the genie back into the bottle? I don’t think the technology can go back into the bottle. But can we have the benevolent genie? I think so. The real challenge will be whether or not ShareASale can overcome the stigma that has become attached with downloaded software, turning what has been somewhat of a black eye for affiliate marketing into a positive.

I will definitely be at this Roundtable that Brian has facilitated. I encourage any and all who care about the policies driving our industry to attend as well. I’m hoping to see as many merchants as affiliates in attendance as this is not an affiliate issue but an industry issue which impacts all parties in the equation.

About Kellie Stevens

You can follow Kellie on Twitter: @KellieAFP.

12 Responses to Putting the Genie Back Into the Bottle

  1. Billy Kay says:

    I'm against toolbars, but if they're here to stay, I'm glad Brian is the one discussing it and trying to set the bar.

  2. Judi Moore says:

    I'm happy to see the situation presented without all the drama. Thank you for trying one more time to explain that technology does not disappear just because someone abuses it and that behavior is what we're trying to manage.

    Excellent presentation of the situation; I'm glad you're involved.

  3. Tom Rice says:

    I am sure this will make for an interesting meeting, and I would much rather have Brian organizing this than any other network.

    I have my doubts that anything accomplished there will have any impact whatsoever on merchants or affiliates residing at other networks, as there seems to be a mindset amongst some that it is okay to push the edge of legality and morality until a position becomes untenable.

    Yet, I think it is a good thing that SAS spells out precisely what their position is on toolbars, that is something that I wish every network would do properly. Whether I agree with their conclusions or not is another matter entirely, but at least I will have the information that I need to act in my own interests.

  4. I plan to be present at the ShareASale's Roundtable on toolbars, and I applaud Brian's openness. It will be interesting to see which way all of this develops.

    Your idea of a "working policy that would address how software can be legitimately used within the affiliate channel" is one I fully stand behind. It is indeed critical to have an industry-wide policy like this (as until we have one, compliance will keep on meaning different things for different networks). The problem, of course, is the fact that there is too much money generated by the unethical adware affiliates (btw, what are the numbers now, Kellie?), and the affiliate networks are partaking of a substantial chunk of that money (is it 30%? the question, of course, is a rhetoric one), which pushes the ethics from the way of the money-making.

  5. Pat Grady says:

    "I’m against toolbars, but if they’re here to stay, I’m glad Brian is the one discussing it and trying to set the bar."

    Exactly my sentiment!!! Brian's ethics, fairness, intelligence and level headed reason have proven themselves to me many, many times.

    I don't like toolbars at all, but I can envision Brian setting things in motion at ShareASale that could set a new example for the other networks that currently litter their clients (and wreck their ROI) with every cookie-setting pilferizer (thieving machine) under the sun.

  6. Kellie,

    A very reasoned and well written post – excellent work.

    I agree that we need to show we are up to the challenge of putting together a policy which both protects our interests and ideals, while also allowing for technological innovation.

  7. Ron Bechdolt says:

    I commend Brian for his efforts to deal with this issue in the manner in which he has. One of the primary reasons for starting up four different merchant programs at SAS over the years is based on the years of ethical behavior I have seen at SAS that I had not seen at other big networks. I trust that Brian really does look at the entire playing field when trying to deal with situations like this.

    I, too, have signed up for the round table discussion and look forward to that discussion.

  8. Toolbars Adware Parasites and Policy…

    I have been exceedingly frustrated at times by technology being abused to the point of causing schisms within our industry… For years now I have worked to outline a model for adware behavior

  9. Toolbars Adware Parasites and Policy…

    I blogged yesterday about the growing controversy surrounding Brian Littleton’s attempt to create a policy for accepted usage of toolbars on the Shareasale Network: …

  10. andrew wee says:

    Hi Kellie,

    A good read seeing how you've laid out the facts with a neutral perspective.

    I'm still not clear how the 'customer support' dynamic plays into the toolbar, perhaps like a knowledgebase or browser toolbar version of Ask.com or Wikipedia with affiliate links?

    I think toolbar are a neutral technology, it's the practices that need to be looked at as Brian and you have alluded to.

    At the heard of this, it's the affiliate cookie overriding element that needs to be addressed and ultimately stamped out.

  11. Sam Gianca says:

    “I’m against toolbars, but if they’re here to stay,”

    I don’t understand that kind of sentiment.

    These affiliates and networks are creating these toolbars for one reason only, to get commisions they would never have gotten before. These are not toolbars which persuade people to buy products, these commissions are diverted from publisher affiliates and merchant traffic that already exists.

  12. Alberto G says:

    This issue happened two years ago, I hope it has been resolved. In my opinion toolbars should be placed in neutral.