Affiliate marketing is a model used by small and big businesses to encourage more sales on their products.
They recruit affiliate marketers to promote their products and give them some commission for each sale generated because of them.
Affiliate marketing sounds like a very safe model for both the affiliates and the product owners alike, but this is not always the case sadly.
While many affiliate marketers follow totally legit techniques to promote their products, some sadly use the dark side of affiliate marketing to game the system.
And your PR pro along with the entire PR department needs to be ready to act if there was some image-damaging situations arise.
The Technical Aspect of Affiliate Marketing
Let me first explain how affiliate marketing works behind the scenes because this is where some blackhat affiliate marketers manipulate the system.
Technically, affiliate marketing works like the below diagram:
As an affiliate, someone visits your website where you put an ad for the product you are promoting; the ad includes your affiliate link.
Now when someone clicks on that ad or affiliate link, they get redirected to the product’s sales page.
They then can access the checkout page for the product to buy it.
The second they click on your ad, the product owner immediately places a cookie file on the visitor’s computer.
That cookie files contain information like:
- The affiliate marketers user id (registered with the product’s owner)
- The product that was clicked by the visitor
This information is crucial in guaranteeing that the affiliate marketer gets paid as a reward for his marketing efforts (legit or not legit).
Cookie files usually last for a long time (3 months or more).
This means that when someone clicks your affiliate link, you can still get paid even if they decide to buy the product after few months of clicking your affiliate link.
The Dark Side of Affiliate Marketing
Now that you know how affiliate marketing works behind the scenes, I will show you how this system can be gamed.
Cookie stuffing is just one of the many blackhat techniques in affiliate marketing, and it is done by simply injecting your affiliate cookie on thousands of people’s computers without them knowing so.
Stuffing can be done easily sadly; you won’t need to put a virus or anything.
You could simply inject this cookie using some PHP code when anyone visits your website or download your application.
Perhaps the most notable case of affiliate fraud was eBay suing both Shawn Hogan and Brian Dunning, both are successful affiliate marketers who made$35 million in affiliate sales combined.
In eBay’s lawsuit they claimed that both of those affiliate marketers injected cookies on over 670,000 visitors’ computers using their free downloaded app and on their websites.
However Brian Dunning rebutted this claims on his emotional message.
He said that eBay was well aware of his marketing techniques and he didn’t stuff cookies but instead he did indeed place ads and promoted eBay products legally.
He placed the blame on the war between Commission Junction, the affiliate network that used to run eBay’s affiliate program back then, and between eBay.
He claims he got caught in the middle of policy conflict between those two companies and all this was a result of eBay just trying to get its affiliate program straight.
Now it doesn’t matter really who is wrong and who is right (for us at least), the PR nightmare just started for eBay.
eBay’s PR Maneuver and What your PR Pro can Learn from It
Such lawsuit against eBay’s top performing affiliates can have a very negative effect on the company’s reputation and on its affiliate recruitment plans and their affiliate program in general.
But what the PR department did at eBay was really a master piece and a testament to how good PR can in fact boost the company’s reputation instead of hurting it.
They contacted pretty much all the major newspapers and told their side of story first, while at the same time drowning both affiliates in a mountain of legal motions and other irrelevant lawsuits against their family members.
This doesn’t give much time and creditability to the affiliates and while eBay working hard to make this go their way; the affiliates are trying to combat the sheer volume of lawsuits coming their way.
In the end, both affiliates had no choice but to settle and plead guilty to avoid further consequences, and eBay ended up with a successful PR campaign.
This teaches us that as a PR pro you should always be ready to address such major legal concerns in affiliate marketing.
Such cases are rare and most of the time they are less dramatic, but constantly building your company’s image as reliable and honest company can help you counter any PR nightmare that comes along the way.
Having good relationships with your affiliates and newspapers and knowing when to enter a PR war is something you should be good at.
You can avoid this drama by running your affiliate program with many major affiliate networks like Commission Junction, ShareASale, Amazon or any other one.
These companies are responsible for the affiliates and how they behave, so your company’s image will be hurt less if any affiliate marketer tried to game the system.
And if this happens you won’t be the only one running a PR campaign to counter this, because the affiliate network will also run its own PR campaign that would benefit you.
Many activities of your company can put you in a PR damaging situation, one that is not necessarily your fault. But having a PR pro that is on top of things will go a long way in preserving your brand name.
Affiliate marketing is one of those areas that can result in legal problems, but they are not that common.
Since many affiliate marketers are now learning more legit and effective techniques from various training and courses, they don’t need to revert to such blackhat techniques.
And now many affiliates are aware of the consequences of illegal affiliate marketing.