That’s what happened with ABCmouse.com. The company’s affiliate program manager at eAccountable noticed some irregular spikes in traffic and commissions. Immediately, he dug just past the surface and began to suspect fraudulent activity on the part of a particular group of non-US-based bloggers.
But the real key to this story is that ABCmouse.com and eAccountable were not satisfied with simply kicking out the alleged offending publishers but decided to dig even deeper. They worked together to really get to the bottom of things. eAccountable eventually discovered a very creative group of bloggers using some innovative methods to drive valuable traffic, not a group of fraudsters as first identified.
This case study takes many twists and turns but the final results made the journey and the fact-finding mission worthwhile.
eAccountable’s client ABCmouse.com is a subscription-based children’s learning website. Its affiliate program runs across multiple networks and offers a lead-based commission for each user who signs up to a free trial.
In a routine review of ABCmouse.com’s affiliates on the LinkShare network, Jason Waring, the eAccountable program manager overseeing ABCmouse.com, noticed nearly all of the top performers were affiliates who listed their websites as Malaysian blogging pages. This seemed odd, given that those sites appeared unrelated to ABCmouse.com’s target audience and language.
On first glance it appeared that this group of publishers were pay-per-click (PPC) affiliates that were actively bidding on paid ads on search engines like Google to drive affiliate traffic. Often the highest converting keyword pairs include the advertiser’s tradename and a variation like “coupon”.
Seasoned affiliate program managers are all too familiar with tradename and tradename plus bidding and struggle to ensure it doesn’t lead to higher conversion costs in other channels. In many cases where an advertiser is already running their own paid search, PPC bidding is expressly forbidden and affiliates found violating this policy are removed from the program.
ABCmouse.com is among those merchants that expressly forbid tradename bidding.
In addition, almost all of the manual cancellations for invalid credit cards that eAccountable was performing for ABCmouse.com were coming from this same group of Malaysian bloggers.
eAccountable sent an email to the top traffic driver in this group regarding their traffic practices, and received a simple response: “Ad Woads”.
Also, two out of three of these affiliates had BrandVerity warnings, a service used to monitor PPC affiliate bidding. And, three from the group had received a third and final automated warning from BrandVerity. LinkShare also internally confirmed tradename bidding was taking place and sent a cease and desist letter.
However, eAccountable continued to dig even deeper and wanted to know if any of the traffic from these bloggers was driving sales. They asked ABCmouse.com to run the sales numbers for all the customers whose signups these 19 bloggers had generated. After reviewing every signup from these Thai bloggers in 2013, ABCmouse.com came back with surprising results.
These 19 Thai bloggers were very profitable drivers of traffic! Over 80% of the signups generated by them led to customers purchasing a second month of ABCmouse.com access.
Not only were they profitable, but the cost-per-conversion was lower than ABCmouse.com’s own PPC efforts on a managed Google AdWords account with significant spend.
It was decided that ABCmouse.com definitely did not want to remove these affiliates from their program. So, eAccountable developed a strategy with ABCmouse.com where tradename bidding continues to be disallowed, but tradename plus bidding is permissible. In PPC terms, bidding on exact match trademark is a no-no, but phrases and broad matches are allowed.
More and more merchants want to be able to create specific rules and exceptions for what is allowed regarding trademark bidding. To that end, LinkShare recently added a new profile option for each advertiser account, which asks them to specifically address tradename bidding policies ranging from terms to misspellings to broad-match results.
That network change on LinkShare, coupled with the global rise of affiliate marketing, make this a great time for program managers to review their policies on trademark bidding and decide what restrictions are right for individual merchants.
Regardless of how policies are set, keeping a vigilant watch on traffic sources is always necessary. That, along with establishing a great partnership between merchants and the program manager, is paramount. This will allow everyone involved to have a complete picture of what is happening when confronted with any traffic issues. And having the transparency and access to data to dig deeper might yield a pleasant (and lucrative) surprise.