“Be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be” – Kurt Vonnegut
This is the second part of my short series on banner ads and affiliates, you can find part one here.
In part one I covered the early days of the internet and the development of the first banner. Those were exciting times full of optimism, innocence and innovation. So what changed?
In 1994 a man in called Jeff Bezos started an internet business that sold books. As it wasn’t a traditional bricks and mortar company, it could stock more books than any normal shop. This simple concept developed a website that would grow to become one of the most powerful entities on the internet and have a lasting impact on global business… Amazon.com.
In 1996, Amazon started their Associates programme. This is the grandfather of all affiliate programmes and is still going strong with over 900,000 affiliates worldwide. To put it in context, this started a mere 2 years after the first banner made its debut.
Banners to this day still rely on tracking technology called ‘cookies’. A cookie is a small text file that exists on your browser. When you click on a banner, a cookie is ‘dropped’. If you then buy something because of that banner, the cookie tells the merchant which site deserves the commission. This is the basis for affiliate marketing.
As performance marketing began to develop, so too did all the sneaky little ways that you could game the system. The humble banner was about to get a very bad name… ever see this before?
PPV, Adware, cookie stuffing, banner farms – The internet suddenly had a slew of frightening new words to describe what could be lurking behind these colourful images… and they all worked perfectly – it was the online equivalent of herding sheep.
At the turn of the century, people are still receiving CD’s with 30 day trials of ‘the internet’ free in the post. PC’s are still very much a luxury item. The general public at large is only beginning to explore this brave new world. AltaVista is the search engine of choice and Mark Zukerburg is still in high school…
It was the perfect storm for opportunistic ‘Black Hat’ marketers who quickly figured out that there were huge amounts of money to be made from banners and a gullible public.
Cookie stuffing involves dropping as many different cookies as possible when someone clicks on an ad. The idea is that eventually the person will buy something/anything on the internet and hopefully one of the many cookies will claim the commission for the sale. Countless other techniques were also employed in the quest for commission. Affiliates were desperate for people to click on banners, and they used any method possible. Brands lost all control as the websites representing them became more and more ruthless and banners displaying reputable brands were often misleading.
There were few controls to prevent, or even identify this behaviour. In fact, in many cases this was even thought of as innovative and forward thinking… shame on them.
The concept behind CPA affiliate marketing is an amazing ideal. A website promotes a relevant offer to their users. The customer gets a discount, the affiliate earns commission, the merchant makes a sale. Win, win, win. Instead, it fostered resentment amongst users, a cruel streak in marketers and a reputation that performance marketing has spent the last decade trying to recover from.
If you have a minute to spare, search ‘Amazon Associate’ on Google. You will see countless articles of ‘success stories’ from people claiming to have made thousands a month from the programme. The banner ad democratised business on the internet through performance marketing. Everyone and anyone could earn money from a PC in the comfort of their own home. The huge profits available lead to a veritable gold rush which peaked with the dot com boom.
Tune in next week for part three, when we catch up with the present and take a glimpse at the possible future of the banner ad as we know it.