Travel website roadtest – Affiliate marketing

We evaluated eight travel websites to assess their affiliate friendliness, openness to merchants, affiliate-specific offers and range of creative


Travelodge


Friendliness of site for affiliates
Travelodge’s business model fits perfectly for promotion through the affiliate channel. While Travelodge currently only pays on confirmed room bookings and does not reward for ‘add ons’ such as travel insurance, the company’s commitment to drive 95% of sales via its website results in excellent conversion rates. The best room rates and deals can only be booked online.
Score: 23/25


Programme Description and Openness
The programme terms and conditions explain in depth Travelodge’s business proposition, clearly defining what it is and its unique selling points. There is also reference to current conversion rates and earning potential as well as a good indication of the geographical areas Travelodge is interested in targeting. Pay-per-click policy is explicitly explained as are the various room rates and promotions offered.
Score: 22/25


Affiliate-specific offers and communication
Travelodge is new to the affiliate market so the programme is still in its infancy. The advertised commission is a standard base rate offered to all affiliates. The level of information already disclosed is fairly involved, indicating a good level of interaction with the affiliates already working on the campaign. The 2007 summer sale that saw a huge spike in general site traffic was flagged up in advance and communicated to the affiliate base.
Score: 18/25


Range of creative
There is not an extensive range of creative, however the banner sizes available are more than adequate for general affiliate promotion. Banners are updated in line with promotional offers. Product feed has yet to be supplied but would be a perfect addition and no doubt result in a boost to the affiliate programme as well as engaging with affiliates not currently pushing the campaign.
Score: 17/25


Overall score: 80/100



Haven Holidays


Friendliness of site for affiliates
Haven’s content-rich site consistently flags up special promotional deals encouraging users to complete their booking online. Cookie length is in keeping with industry standard at 30 days, however commission levels are lower than some competitors. This should never be the decider in whether an affiliate promotes a campaign but, in reality, some affiliates will prefer to promote programmes based purely on an advertised rate rather than performance.
Score: 20/25


Programme description and openness
A wide range of information is well presented and clearly flagged up including explicit instructions for those affiliates looking to develop content pages for paid search activity. Haven’s position in the market and target audience is referenced with open dialogue encouraged between the agency managing the campaign on Haven’s behalf. Account manager details are available for all three networks the programme is operating on. 
Score: 20/25


Affiliate-specific offers and Communication
While commission may be below sector average, affiliates are rewarded for volume performance with cash bonuses. Promotions are supported with extra affiliate rewards as well as specific creative as Haven looks to increase its base of content affiliates. Haven demonstrates a willingness to engage with its affiliates through frequent e-mails and other communication, especially during the key summer peak.
Score: 20/25


Range of creative
Seasonal creative is frequently refreshed to reflect the latest offerings, referencing school summer holidays and half-term weeks. The one area that should be addressed is the use of the company URL within the creative, a constant gripe of affiliates. However, a feed featuring all the latest deals is available due to the fact turnaround on last-minute deals can feature out-of-date offers.
Score: 18/25
 
Overall score: 78/100



Opodo


Friendliness of site for affiliates
Opodo, like its competitors, offers a wealth of deals, promotions and packages. Affiliates are safe in the knowledge that every sale they drive will result in commission, whether this is a flight, hotel or car booking or indeed a combination. Unsurprisingly, an affiliate is more likely to promote a site such as Opodo, than a programme that does not offer commission on every product. 
Score: 20/25


Programme description and openness
Opodo offers information on its affiliate programme via a link on the home page. This is an excellent resource as it not only outlines how affiliates can benefit from promoting Opodo but also offers a brief summary of what affiliate marketing is for those new to the industry. Contact details are also reference in this exhaustive introduction to one of travel’s big online brands.
Score: 22/25


Affiliate-specific offers and communication
Opodo offers a definitive commission structure, including standard 30-day cookie, as well as an open channel of communication with affiliate managers both through the network and the client direct. There appears to be a lack of affiliate promotions and incentives, however that is not to say these are not being run on a private or bespoke basis for key affiliate partners.
Score: 18/25


Range of creative
The challenge the travel industry currently faces to provide affiliates with the most accurate and current information is manifested in the lack of product feed for the programme. The lack of dynamic content is allayed somewhat by an extensive range of creative and searchable banners in all popular sizes, as well as a bi-weekly html newsletters focusing on both generic and seasonal promotions.
Score: 19/25


Overall score: 79/100



Warner Breaks


Friendliness of site for affiliates
While the booking process stages are clearly defined, there is a visible telephone number throughout the procedure. This is not uncommon, however it’s not clear whether Warner Breaks offers a commission payment on transactions that start online but complete offline. This is still rare but increasingly advertisers are embracing this technology as they seek to engage further with their affiliates.
Score: 17/25


Programme description and openness
Warner Breaks offers a basic but friendly affiliate sign-up form from its home page. The lack of commission details could be off-putting but the programme is given a human face as the affiliate managers at Warner’s agency are mentioned. From the network sign-up page the information provided is again adequate but it would be worth fleshing out as arming your ‘virtual sales force’ with as much detail as possible is always advisable.
Score: 16/25


Affiliate-specific offers and communication
Warner Breaks communicates consumer offers and current news to its affiliate partners – but this is sporadic. This information includes detail on sale periods, special offers and fresh creative to reflect new seasons. Whether Warner Breaks offers private incentives to top affiliates or not is unknown as this isn’t specified. It’s always useful to provide a teaser flagging up the special deals available for those more engaged affiliates.
Score: 18/25


Range of creative
Warner Breaks refreshes its creative to reflect the latest onsite consumer offers. Both static and animated banners are available together with a good variety of text links that highlight all activity packages available from Warner Breaks. Supplying a product feed and Warner Breaks e-mail creative would aid promotion of the brand and be a useful addition to the programme.
Score: 20/25


Overall score: 71/100



Thrifty Car Rental


Friendliness of site for affiliates
Like other car-hire companies, last-minute bookings cannot be booked online. From an affiliate perspective, Thrifty and its car-rental competitors need to be advised of additional network services such as call-tracking that can reward affiliates for offline transactions. CPAs can be lower but it demonstrates a willingness to reward for the initial lead. The four-stage booking process is flagged up in the programme description.
Score: 17/25


Programme description and openness
There is an affiliate sign-up link for Thrifty on its home page and the programme description is useful, indicating site improvements. However, there is a sense the detail hasn’t been updated recently as PPC terms and conditions make reference to Overture and e-spotting and completely omit Microsoft’s adCenter. It’s imperative the most up-to-date and relevant information is communicated to networks just as advertisers would treat any other on or offline supplier.
Score: 15/25


Affiliate-specific offers and communication
Commission data is clearly indicated and a general reward scheme is also highlighted. Tiered structures are common in affiliate marketing, and Thrifty makes use of this tactic by rewarding with higher commissions on seemingly realistic increments with a substantially higher upper-tier payment. Thrifty may want to look at additional activity as affiliates are often more motivated by prizes and ‘money can’t buy’ promotions.
Score: 18/25


Range of creative
A wide selection of banners in a good range of sizes means content affiliates are well catered for. Creative featuring specific locations, including Heathrow, is also supplied. Deep-linking instructions are provided – a definite plus point, as almost any merchant running an affiliate programme will be aware that text links will generate the majority of its sales. A product feed would be useful, if only to pull deep links from.
Score: 18/25
 
Overall score: 68/100



Eurostar


Friendliness of site for affiliates
Eurostar’s stylish site clearly flags up the packages and promotions available and the booking process is optimised to guide users smoothly through to completion. The total absence of a telephone number or additional offline help will no doubt help boost conversion statistics and assure affiliates Eurostar is serious about working with them, although it’s not clear whether travel insurance is rewarded.
Score: 20/25


Programme description and openness
A common mistake that advertisers make is the failure to supply information about where they sit within their market. Eurostar addresses this by supplying market share data and unique selling points. There are also reassurances that Eurostar is committed to its affiliate programme and is actively engaging with affiliates. Any company looking to join the affiliate programme can also find a sign-up link on the home page.
Score: 22/25


Affiliate-specific offers and communication
Commission levels are clearly spelled out, as is Eurostar’s paid search policy. However, the seemingly heavy-handed approach to PPC is a concern. Eurostar may be working strategically with key paid-search affiliates but this isn’t mentioned. There is also no reference in the programme information area to any affiliate promotions or rewards but again these may be communicated on a private level.
Score: 16/25


Range of creative
The programme boasts a full complement of creative flagging up general and more specific offers, including Disneyland Resort Paris promotions. While it features strong calls to action, some banners also include the company URL. Affiliates can also pull dynamic banners featuring drop-down options. There is a good selection of text links – however the programme doesn’t supply a datafeed.
Score: 20/25
 
Overall score: 78/100



Flight.co.uk


Friendliness of site for affiliates
Flight.co.uk offers a simple booking facility in a short five-stage booking process and the site is pleasingly uncluttered. Possible leakage has been addressed by removing the telephone booking line specifically for affiliate traffic. Affiliate commissions in the flight sector are traditionally low. However, Flight.co.uk offers a higher flat rate for low-cost carrier bookings, making this programme far more attractive than competitor programmes in the sector.
Score: 22/25


Programme description and openness
While there is no information about the affiliate programme on the Flight.co.uk website, the programme details given via the network clearly set out and define the company’s aims and objectives together with a very neat section entitled ‘USPs’. There isn’t any indication of a more interactive involvement with the affiliate base from the public details offered.
Score: 20/25


Affiliate-specific offers and communication
Flight.co.uk communicates airline sales and specific flight/destination deals regularly. It also offers commission-based incentives for individual flight carriers. While Flight.co.uk is clearly proactive in its approach to affiliate marketing, carrier incentives may be difficult for affiliates to work to as the site itself does not allow flights to be searched in this manner. Information on individual carrier destinations should be prioritised.
Score: 18/25


Range of creative
Animated creative is available in a number of sizes. While the range of banners is small, they highlight their USPs and the succinct booking process. Like any good travel advertisers, Flight.co.uk has also rolled out a number of searchable banners. There is no product feed due to the issue of live data, but text links to highlight flight offers would be a nice addition.
Score: 18/25
 
Overall score: 78/100



Olympic Holidays


Friendliness of site for affiliates
The telephone booking number in a visible position at the top of the home page highlights a serious point of leakage. Generally, affiliates are secure in the knowledge they are being rewarded for the sales that do complete online. However, Olympic does not pay out on brochure requests. The concept of rewarding on leads or e-mail sign-ups is one that hasn’t been fully exploited by travel clients when working with affiliates.
Score: 18/25


Programme description and openness
As well as the standard programme information that any affiliate programme should have, there is a streamed online interview with a representative from Olympic Holidays. He describes in depth the focus of the company, its USPs as well as further information about the conversion and average order values. This is an innovative way to further interact with affiliates.  
Score: 22/25


Affiliate-specific offers and communication
Olympic Holidays’ commission rates are listed but there is no mention of private deals or anything creative beyond the standard. From an outsider’s perspective, this can be off-putting as there’s nothing exceptional to grab the imagination. There may be additional promotions in place but these are rarely published. In a crowded marketplace (travel more than most sectors) advertisers should always be seen to offer above and beyond the expected.
Score: 17/25


Range of creative
The creative is fairly disappointing given the great video introduction affiliates receive welcoming them to the programme. There is a limited range and some of the banners do not fully reflect the Olympic USPs. It is critical that advertisers looking to run affiliate programmes ensure offline or other online messaging is carried through in all creative being run. This also applies to your affiliates, ensuring they are aware of forthcoming advertising campaigns.
Score: 15/25


Overall score: 72/100


Olympic Holidays has asked Travolution to highlight the following:



  • The company disputes the reference to the telephone number in the section relating to “friendliness” – deep-linking on a site should be seen as a positive step for affiliates, rather than a negative. In addition, if a user signs up to a brochure and subsequently makes a booking within 30 days the affiliate will be paid.

  • Full information about the Olympic affiliate programme is available via videos on the AffiliateFuture client network.

  • Specific offers and communication is provided by representatives through published contact details.

  • The score for “range of creative” is inaccurate as travel affiliate marketing, Olympic argues, is primarily about distribution which entails making live or close-to live inventory available to affiliates.


Testing criteria:


Friendliness of site for affiliates – Are there any reasons why an affiliate wouldn’t want to promote the website? Does the site contain key leakage points such as telephone numbers visibly displayed on the home page and throughout the booking process?


Programme description and openness – Does the advertiser reference its affiliate programme on the home page and, if so, does it sound as if it’s keen to promote the channel? Is the network’s programme description as complete as it should be, offering detail on what the advertiser wants to achieve?


Affiliate Specific Offers and Communication – What information is publicly available for affiliates? If there are complicated commission tiers and structures are these clearly explained? If there are private rates or special bespoke deals that can be arranged does the advertiser make reference to this?


Range of Creative – Does the creative reflect what the advertiser is trying to achieve through other marketing channels? Is it engaging with a strong call to action and no company website address? Are there additional searchable or dynamic banners in a full set of sizes? Beyond creative what other linking methods are offered?



Overview:


Overall, none of the sites reviewed performed badly, partially because fierce competition demands improvements to the click-to-sale conversion, a key consideration for any affiliate looking to make every click count.


That is not to say the travel industry has affiliate marketing sussed. Many big travel brands do not run affiliate campaigns or have failed to grasp the importance of the micro management the channel demands.


Consistent affiliate gripes include site leakage and failure to offer commission on the full range of products offered. If business pressures dictate it isn’t feasible to reward on everything, any decent affiliate network should have a technical solution that addresses the issue.


Overall, PPC terms and conditions were clear. Never underestimate the importance of paid-search affiliates who can still drive the vast majority of an advertiser’s affiliate sales.


As networks and engaged advertisers alike search for the Holy Grail of good quality content affiliates, so product feed and dynamic content move further up the priority list. Product availability and the fast turnaround on deals presents a challenge the affiliate industry has yet to fully address. As we enter Web 2:0 those advertisers who can fully embrace and innovate in this area will gain the most.



About the authors:


Kevin Edwards is head of the Affiliate Channel at Affiliate Window. His work involves projects aimed at improving and optimising how the network engages with its affiliates. He also advises on best practice procedures when running affiliate programmes.


Rachel Humphreys is a key account manager. Specialising in the travel sector she oversees a number of blue-chip accounts including Haven Holidays and STA Travel.


Affiliate Window has brought innovation to the market through developing software solutions that provide its partners with brand protection, spyware monitoring, affiliate recruitment, performance measurement and product comparison. It has become a preferred partner for many of the UK’s leading brands, such as Comet, Next and M&S.

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