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Affiliate marketing is a microcosm of the wider digital industry. So, it often feels like any developments occurring at a macro level are quickly felt in our own space. AI, social commerce and retail media are just some of the emerging trends impacting affiliate currently. Awin and ShareASale take a closer look at where the biggest changes and challenges are likely to arise in 2024 and ponder what they might mean for affiliate marketers. 

1. Slowdown in social media growth will spur more brands to launch their own creator-affiliate programs 

Global digital ad spend growth slowed to single digit figures in 2023 for the first time in two decades, illustrating its now relative maturity. In 2024, that’s set to continue as Dentsu  forecast growth of only around 6.5%. Part of that slowdown can be attributed to a similar one in the social media space where new user growth has started to plateau. Ad spend is also expected to flatten out following a huge spike during the pandemic.  

One way for brands to insulate themselves from this slowdown on social is to consider partnering with creators on a more direct basis. Influencer marketing spend has shown itself to be more resilient and less prone to sudden fluctuations in cost than paid social. And more enterprise brands are increasingly launching their own large-scale creator affiliate programs recently as they seek to work closer with these influential figures. 

The Body Shop, Walmart, Target and Abercrombie are all examples of brands that have done so in the last 12 months, and this is a trend we predict will continue to grow as brands increasingly look to tie awareness-building activity on the big social platforms to tangible marketing outcomes that they control. 

And that’s good news for those influencers seeking out more reliable incomes. TikTok’s canceling of its creator fund last year was just another example of how that patronage-style model, concentrated in the hands of a central platform, is always under threat from sudden upheaval. 

With influencers joining Awin and ShareASale at an insane rate and advertisers seeing their share of sales from this cohort grow rapidly (specifically, 21k new creators joined our platforms last year to generate an impressive $566m in brand revenue), it’s clear this is a trend that’s set to continue its upward trajectory in 2024.   

2. TikTok vs. Amazon turf war will illustrate value of the affiliate model… but brings new competition to the industry  

As the big tech companies have grown and matured, they have inevitably looked at each other for inspiration as to where they can squeeze out further growth.  

So, Amazon has shifted from being simply a marketplace for shopping to also an ad space where consumers search for product inspiration. And at the other end of the funnel, TikTok has shifted from being a place of pure inspiration and entertainment to one where you can actually buy products.  

Encroaching on each other’s ‘turf’ brings them increasingly into direct competition with each other and an affiliate-type model appears to be an important part of TikTok’s approach, fueling a similar commerce ‘flywheel’ to Amazon’s but using creator content as it’s fuel.  

Of course, affiliate has long been a firmly established part of Amazon’s own strategy. Its Associates program has been running for over two decades and continues to be an important driver of traffic to its platform.  

On the one hand, this use of affiliate strategies by two of the biggest commerce platforms on the planet is validation to the wider industry of affiliate’s model as a form of effective marketing. But another aspect of this adoption could be that we see brands concentrate even more ad dollars into these big tech platforms as they compete for attention and a share of shopper’s wallets. 

That said, brands again face the dilemma of deciding whether to embrace another new marketplace where they lose control of the customer experience, or instead continue to compete and drive traffic to their own ecommerce properties.  

If they opt for the latter then the pressure is on to continue enhancing the shopper experience on their own sites, something affiliate tech partners can help support. 

One recent example of this saw Nike bring livestream shopping to its own store via an innovative tech partner called Contester. The affiliate’s tech enabled Nike to host a livestream presented by The Sole Supplier (a popular lifestyle content publisher) showcasing its latest products over the Cyber period. Shoppers could watch and shop right on the Nike website – a great illustration of how top brands are using affiliate to bring unique, entertaining new content to their own storefronts. 

3. Programmatic’ s continued woes will see affiliate take share of ad spend away in 2024 

2023 was another disastrous year for the programmatic ad industry. The US’ Association for National Advertisers spent much of the year publishing its Programmatic Media Supply Chain Transparency Study in several instalments and it made for pretty hairy viewing. 

Among its highlights were the fact that, of the $88bn that flow into the programmatic supply chain, around $22bn is wasted. Only 36 cents of every dollar invested found its way to reaching an actual consumer, and over a fifth of the reported impressions served went to spammy MFA (Made for Advertising) websites.  

Clearly, advertisers have lost control of their ad spend in the opaque network of pipes that make up programmatic today. The promise of cheap reach at scale has led to, as the ANA puts it, “misaligned incentives…where advertisers prioritize cost over value… chasing cheap CPMs (that) will likely lead to a cascade of downstream ad quality issues.”   

The contrast with affiliate is stark, despite the latter having had to fight a perception battle over its reputation for far longer. Affiliate’s performance model, tying ad spend to real, tangible outcomes like actual sales and revenue makes it profoundly more valuable to brands. 

And while a view lingers that the manual nature of 1:1 partnerships makes it unscalable, the reality of what scaling your advertising via programmatic actually means is rapidly undermining that argument. It’s telling that the average campaign among the ANA’s study participants ran on 44,000 different websites. Yet, almost two-thirds of impressions were driven by just 500 top sites.   

And when the top-rated metrics that marketers feel are important for an ad model to be measured on are ‘brand safety’, ‘viewability’ and ‘invalid traffic’, as opposed to ROAS or incrementality you have to question how much longer the model can continue to persist.

In 2024, affiliate should take higher prominence in senior marketers thoughts when it comes to allocating spend.  

4. Chrome’s third-party cookie deprecation will spur server-side tracking adoption

Not so much an industry prediction as a clarion call for action. After three years of indecision, Google is finally pulling the plug on third-party cookies in its Chrome browser this year. Advertisers cannot claim they haven’t been forewarned given the sequence of delays and postponements that have followed that original announcement back in 2020.  

Yet, still there are many that have been slow to change their tracking setups. The Awin Group’s own portion of advertisers still reliant on third-party cookies for affiliate tracking are now a tiny minority, and that is a figure that has dropped dramatically as we’ve sought to educate and raise awareness on this issue and the all-round benefits of adopting a more comprehensive tracking setup. For example, Awin’s and ShareASale’s partnerships with Moonpull have helped bring additional clarity to conversations with existing clients thanks to its automated auditing solution – flagging programs where tracking is no longer fit for purpose in today’s context.  

Still, one of the persistent sticking points has been that the necessary changes required on the advertiser side sit outside the responsibility of the affiliate team. It’s often a manual change to the website that can involve multiple technical teams that are balancing a variety of other internal priorities.  

To that end, a new technology partner has emerged to provide a simple-to-implement solution that could further accelerate server-side tracking adoption. Stape was formed in 2020 to provide a much easier and cost-effective way of setting up server-side tracking. Its since gone on to work with over 100 different platform partners and brought its solution to over 50,000 clients globally.  

Now, the Stape technology is available via the Awin Group to help those advertisers still lacking a server-side tracking setup to easily add this without the need for in-depth programming work on the advertiser’s site. 

With solutions like Stape’s emerging in the affiliate industry via platforms like Awin and ShareASale, there is a chance to scale server-to-server tracking adoption rapidly and ensure that the channel insulates itself effectively from Google’s looming cookiepocalypse.   

5. Affiliate tech partners will alleviate marketing software buyers’ sense of regret 

Martech will be everywhere in 2024. Businesses are under pressure to improve their marketing tech stack as these solutions become ever more important for acquiring new customers and improving user experiences.  

Gartner’s recent report on the space revealed that marketing software was second only to IT security software as a top priority for buyers this year. 

However, one aspect we frequently overlook on the buyer’s part is the emotional facet of being a marketing leader charged with the responsibility of acquiring these new solutions.  

Success in this space is generally measured in terms of sales targets being attained or growth benchmarks being exceeded. But Gartner’s report highlighted this more emotional perspective. Sixty-one percent of marketing professionals in their survey said they had experienced regret from one or more types of technology they had purchased in the last 12 months.  

You can understand why. Any such purchase is a gamble to some extent. You have no means of knowing for certain it will work out. If it doesn’t, it’s a costly mistake which you are responsible for. 

One way of sidestepping this gamble though is via affiliate tech partners. The growing choice of solutions in this space is offering a much more agile and risk-free approach to being able to experiment with new technologies. 

Awin and ShareASale now offer over 80+ different technologies via their container tags, meaning no dev work or coding is required. You simply choose the partner(s) that best matches your marketing goals, set it live and see if it works. If it does, scale it across your site. If not, simply switch it off and try another. 

As more advertisers have recognized the benefit of this approach, the performance in this space has grown too. 2023 saw tech partners generate more than $540m in sales revenue for the first time and they played a pivotal role over the Cyber Weekend, collectively driving an additional 30% in revenue for brands compared to the same period in 2022.  

You can be sure that none of those marketers have experienced any sense of regret from working with these partners. In 2024, expect more advertisers to follow in their footsteps.

6. A big year for news and media publishers could mean big things for affiliate commerce content 

2024 will see more people voting in elections than ever before. The main event will be the US presidential election in November, but there will be 40 national elections across the course of the year in countries whose citizens represent over 40% of the global population. That means lots of political interest and eyeballs on news sites.  

However, while ad spend forecasts for the year have acknowledged the likely bump this will bring to the wider ad industry, it’s no guarantee of an increase in incomes for news media publishers.  

These are publishers that have really expanded their efforts in the affiliate channel, as they’ve had their fingers repeatedly burnt by declining incomes and poor website experiences when loading programmatic display ads onto their pages. With many brands historically keyword-blocking or ‘blocklisting’ any news content that veers near to potentially controversial topics, these publishers will again face the irony of growing traffic surges with declining ad monetization opportunities in 2024. Affiliate efforts can help offset this deficit as these publishers seek out ways of maximizing the value of the demand that users see in their journalism. 

And that deficit might well be offset further by the arrival of two of the biggest global sporting events in 2024 calendars too. In June, the European Football Championships promise to have populations across Europe avidly consuming sports content, before the rest of the world joins in afterwards as the Olympic and Paralympic games descend upon Paris. As with all major sporting events expect groceries, electronics, travel and sportswear retailers to do particularly well as the world watches on.    

7. Search’s AI revolution may be a threat to the affiliate longtail 

“The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google’s search results.” So goes an oft-quoted meme that encapsulated the need to rank high in the world’s most popular search engine if you wanted to reach an audience.  

Over the last 20 years, the way we’ve become accustomed to searching for information online has been set by Google’s search console and the links it shares with us, directing us to the original source of information. 

But that behavior is increasingly being challenged by Google’s own need to further monetize its search product (a contributing factor to the enshittification of the internet), as well as the promise of new AI-powered search consoles that don’t require external links.  

Use ChatGPT to look up a recipe for Spanish omelet and it will give you the recipe there and then. No need to head to @NYTCooking or Allrecipes.com and wait for that page (and its accompanying ads) to load.  

This is a profoundly different experience to what we’ve been used to and it has deep consequences for the wider internet ecosystem too. If nobody is clicking on search links to visit websites then that publisher has no way of monetizing their traffic and generating an income.  

Some publishers have responded already by refusing companies like ChatGPT from crawling their websites to train the LLMs that underpin the AI itself. And concessions have been made by some of these platforms to include citations and links to the original sources where relevant as a means of highlighting where they’ve pulled their information from. 

But the rollout of Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) represents a seismic new entrant to this market given its status as the incumbent power in the industry. SGE promises to provide users with AI-generated answers to their search queries, again, foregoing the need for a user to have to travel to a website to get the information they want. And with Google giving publishers a non-choice of either having their site crawled for SGE or them not being able to feature in any Google search, there is little room for negotiation here.  

SEO experts that have analyzed the early results from SGE suggest that though some sites did see traffic increases, for the most part organic traffic to publisher websites declined by as much as 40% on average. 

That’s bad news for the affiliate long-tail and it remains to be seen how the new search product will impact smaller websites that are so dependent on search traffic. Although even larger affiliate publishers must be concerned about the impact this shift in search behavior may have on their own traffic figures. 

As ever, the priority for affiliates, big or small, is to continue serving the needs of their intended audiences as effectively as possible. Google’s established SEO values of E-E-A-T (Expertise, Experience, Authority and Trustworthiness) will be vitally important for SGE, if not more than ever given the narrow window of opportunity for publishers to be featured in the new interface.  

8. Travel to bounce back with renewed appetite for pop culture-inspired trips

When the pandemic enforced a global lockdown in 2019 many experts questioned whether the travel industry would ever recover to its previous heights. Fast forward to 2024 and that speculation seems wildly off base. Pent up demand from consumers desperate to get away has seen record numbers of vacationers packing their suitcases and heading to airports. 

IATA predicts that 4.7bn people will fly this year, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 4.5bn, and it’s something that Awin has seen in its own data with travel bookings driven by affiliates growing rapidly in 2023. 

That’s set to continue in 2024 as consumer confidence floods back into the market, airline capacity continues to grow following necessary cutbacks during the lockdown, and a series of notable big events (the Olympics and European Football Championships referenced above) spur demand further. 

In fact, Expedia and Amadeus, two of the biggest global travel firms peering into the 2024 crystal ball of tourism have both predicted that experience-based tourism is going to have an especially big year. Holidaymakers taking destination inspiration from their favorite TV and films (‘set-jetting’ apparently) and music festivals is expected to become an increasingly popular phenomenon, influencing where travelers head in 2024.   

The travel industry’s renaissance is good news for affiliates, too. Travel bookings are often some of the most complex online customer journeys with numerous component parts. Prospective travelers are in constant need of reassurance and extra information before they’re confident they’ve found their perfect trip. 

Affiliates play a vital role across that entire journey. From inspiration and comparison to providing relevant offers, and personalized upselling options.  

Brand partnerships in particular stand to benefit with many opportunities for a travel brand to partner with, for example, a holiday insurance brand or a swimwear retailer to offer additional customer benefits after they’ve made their booking. 

With brand partnerships on the Awin Group seeing rapid growth last year (+60% in sales, +54% in revenue), the travel sector’s resurrection will ensure this acceleration continues at similar levels in 2024.

9. Cheap fashion competition will undermine sustainability efforts, but there are affiliates still pushing a greener approach to retail 

Despite last year’s Cop28 reaching a landmark agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, the sense remains there is still inertia around the topic of climate change and sustainability.  

2024 is likely to follow suit unfortunately, with the rising popularity of ultra-fast fashion platforms like Shein and Temu (perhaps partly inspired by the TikTok phenomenon of buying cheap ‘dupes’) contributing to more landfill fashion.  

The success of the Chinese retailers’ business models has even had an impact on Amazon’s own strategy. The average Temu user is spending almost double the time on that app compared to Amazon’s own. So, the ecommerce giant recently announced it would be reducing seller fees on clothes priced below $20 as it attempts to fight back against these upstart competitors. 

With that said, some affiliates are making it even easier for consumers to make more mindful choices when it comes to retail and are doing so in a variety of innovative ways. 

Refoorest’s browser extension enables customers to plant a tree each time they visit one of its 20,000+ partner sites, while Axon Mobile incentivizes commuters to reduce their travel emissions by offering rewards for taking transport modes that have less of a carbon footprint. And these are just two examples from a recent ‘Top 10 Awin Partners’ list that focused on more sustainable affiliates. 

And one new solution that we’re particularly excited about this year is Birl, whose resale solution brings the circular economy to your ecommerce store. A brand new technology partner to the Awin Group, Birl enables a shopper to offset the cost of buying a new item of clothing by trading in their previous purchase and earning credit for it.   

10. More publishers to seek out data aggregation solutions as monetization tactics continue to fragment 

Though big tech has arguably done more to consolidate the digital ad market than any force (for better or worse), the fact remains that when it comes to data and reporting, marketing is an incredibly fragmented industry. There are few universal standards and agreed-upon principles. In truth, every business is different and, understandably, has different goals it wants to measure its own success by.  

For publishers, that’s something that is especially acute. Monetization strategies have diversified to an incredible extent in recent years, not just from a channel perspective but also with respect to the various platforms and environments they’re now operating across and expected to deliver ad solutions on – from blog content, newsletters and email, to social media, video, podcasts and more.  

To compound this issue further, affiliate marketing is by its very nature an inherently fragmented industry.  

Publishers often operate across a variety of platforms and networks, not to mention working with very individual advertiser programs that offer different rewards or have unique rules in place for how they want to be promoted. This means it’s an industry in desperate need of consolidation from a data and reporting point of view,  to make life simpler for affiliates who want to better grasp how their efforts are impacting their own performance. 

It was with that dilemma in mind that Awin announced its investment in the data consolidation platform WeCanTrack last year. Built by a set of former publishers, the solution has been created with this audience in mind and with a view to making it as simple as possible to draw together disparate data sources into one unified and digestible form.  

Available via Awin’s Publisher MasterTag solution, WeCanTrack’s technology can be speedily implemented without the need for any technical knowhow. Publishers are therefore able to focus less time on setting this up and more on being able to easily dive into the aggregate data and reveal where their marketing efforts are best focused. 

As more solutions like WeCanTrack’s become available, expect to see publishers adopt them as a means of making sense of their marketing.    

To stay in the loop on all the latest affiliate trends and developments this year,  make sure you follow the Awin Group across all social channels and bookmark our Market Insights