Bypassing the Affiliate: Coincidence or Strategy?

Between yesterday and today, a sequence of events has happened, raising an important question… Let me quickly reproduce them for you:

  1. I found a product I was interested in. It was one of the major — one of the top ones on The Top 500 List — e-tailers selling it.
  2. I placed my order through an affiliate link (I frequently do this, believing that hard-working affiliates deserve the support), which went through and got confirmed.
  3. This morning I received a new email from the merchant, inviting me to join their special customer program (with lots of cool perks).
  4. Being an affiliate marketing guy, I’ve decided to check their affiliate TOS, and see that once I join the customer program, all of my further orders through affiliate links “will result in a correction or a reversal of commission” for affiliates whose links I may use.

Whether this was a coincidence or a part of their marketing strategy (something inclines me to believe that it was the latter), I have mixed thoughts and feelings about this one. Had it been a CPL (Cost Per Lead) affiliate program, I would’ve not given this incident so much attention. After all, you’ve paid for this “lead” already. Why pay again? Now with CPS (Cost Per Sale) affiliate programs, having something like the above in place is similar to paying for new customers only, and no merchant can be 100% certain that the customer will definitely return to them. Therefore, I do have a problem with this practice.

Would love to hear other affiliate program managers’ and affiliates’ thoughts on this one.

14 thoughts on “Bypassing the Affiliate: Coincidence or Strategy?”

  1. This merchant is an idiot because high volume affiliates always split-test merchants and this merchant will definitely lose.

  2. Things can be even worse. I know a merchant who treats it’s own newsletter as a concurrent traffic source for affiliates. Imagine buyer B, brought by affiliate A. It means that if B gets regular newsletter and clicks a link from it – A is not getting money any more.

    1. So the merchant acts as an affiliate, overwriting the real affiliate’s cookie(s) by his own? Can you police and prevent this on the network level?

  3. A metric I’d be interested in seeing is “Average Sales per Affiliate Click”. I’ll bet that would be closer to one than two, in the big scheme. (Assuming there was a sale at all).

    At the same time, I’m not condoning this practice. I think as the industry matures, we’ll need to accept and develop some sort of multi-channel attribution, and utilize it as the norm.

    While there are Fortune 1000’s that still use “last click wins” even for their internal marketing attribution, more and more are moving away from that.

    I don’t have the answer to that as far as properly crediting an affiliate for his/her portion of the sale. If I did, I’d be writing this from my yacht, and not my desk.


    1. I agree with you, Kevin. Also, the further we go, and the more channels are added to the marketing mix (e.g.: mobile, social), the more we all see the need (there has always been the room) for a well-weighed multichannel attribution model (and platform(s)). But with the challenges in developing one it is no wonder we are yet to see one universally accepted.

  4. @Geno It’s hard to police this because at the network level you can’t really see this cookie overwriting on the vendors’ website / newsletters until you get feedback from an affiliate or you notice that one of the affiliates suddenly generates almost all of the affiliate orders and start to investigate. I’ve had cases where merchants were saying that they’re doing this because they’re working with a particular affiliate on local markets (who may have helped him translate the product/website in that language, for example). Some even claim to be running this “temporarily for testing purposes”.

    Another affiliate bypass technique I’ve seen is offering the customer an upsell to a product which isn’t offered to affiliates by the merchant. The price of the upsell is very convenient considering what it offers additionally to the original referred product.

    1. I can definitely see how this type of bait would work, Cristian. Would such a merchant plug this in during the checkout process, and again, link it through their own affiliate link, overwriting the original affiliate’s cookie?

      1. The merchant can do the upsell starting from the product page on his website / newsletter – comparison between the various products + benefits of the upsold product. Or he can replace the product in the shopping cart. The first method generates bigger conversion rates for the upsell for the traffic coming on the merchant’s website.

        So, he doesn’t even have to always overwrite the affiliate cookie since the upsold product can be eliminated from the affiliate marketplace – offer products A and B for affiliate promotion and keep product C only for the direct sales channel, upselling it from products A / B.

        1. The net result is the same for the affiliate though, no? No sale? The industry is getting interesting (again).

          Seems like each year the line between being affiliate friendly and running an “MBA Approved” online marketing program gets finer and finer.

          Don’t get me wrong. Merchants need to be profitable. And if you’re in an industry where you have a margin as opposed to a mark up, you have to watch cost of acquisition/sale on every transaction.

          Again, no easy answers.

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