Affiliate marketing is now “everything”. But do blurred lines cause concerns for financial brands?

Financial services are a burgeoning sector in affiliate marketing. But as the practice becomes even less definable, how can marketers remain confident when “mistakes mean incidents”? PMW talks to senior leaders at HSBC and Cleo to chart the channel’s evolution beyond last clicks and cash incentives.

It was very clear after a day at Rakuten’s DealMaker Europe event that affiliate marketing is no longer just cashbacks and vouchers. This is a reputation the channel is trying hard to shake as it continues to evolve.

“Affiliate marketing is getting harder and harder to explain what it is because it can be everything,” said HSBC’s Senior Affiliate Manager, Laura Adamson.

The delegates at the affiliate and networking event demonstrated how the channel is transforming. Luxury beauty and fashion continue to dominate, but finance and travel have had their biggest appearance to date.

PMW attended the event to find out what the biggest brands are concerned about, the pros and cons of in-housing or outsourcing to an agency and treading the blurred lines between performance and branding, in an interview with HSBC and money-saving app Cleo.

“You have to fight to get it out of last click land”

The exclusive financial services mixer was coloured with neon drinks, talks of ‘Consumer Duty’ and a panel to capture the flourishing sector in affiliate marketing. The panel reaffirmed that while content really is the first touch point with consumers, explainer content is what users are really looking for from financial services.

Laura Adamson, Senior Affiliate Marketing Manager at HSBC outlined some of the biggest challenges to PMW once the panel had ended: “Everyone just wants the short term sale and the last touch one. Other channels have a better understanding in terms of their role in the funnel. But affiliate marketing, I feel like you have to fight to get it out of the bottom [of the funnel], last click basis. That's something we struggle with a bit.” 

Maria Carmen Picornell, Senior Affiliate Manager at Cleo, agreed: “It’s educating people that affiliates can work anywhere in the touch point. It's now no longer just last click. In my experience when people previously think of affiliates, it's always been, ‘oh, it's voucher, it's cashback'. It has that kind of stigma. But not anymore, it's grown.

“Other channels such as social media come in at a very specific part in the user journey. But that user journey can also be affiliates if it's paid for in a CPA or you work through your affiliate program and attribution. Affiliates now come in and out across different touch points.”  

Adamson from HSBC continued: “It can be social partners or tapping into the social channels of price comparison site partners. So again, where do we blur that line between affiliate, social channels and display?

“When you're talking about content in theory, you heard Margaret ​​Smith [from Times Money Maker] talking today about how explainer content works best in conjunction with display advertising on her site. So again, is that display or is it affiliate? It is a very interesting space to be in, we've got lovely synergy in our world in terms of the channels, but I now start to struggle with what affiliate marketing is anymore because it's not one thing.”

To hear affiliate experts from large financial corporations struggle to define what it is they do is a little concerning to a B2B journalist. But are blurred lines and synergies across not only performance channels but performance and branding channels as well, actually a good thing?

“It's a good thing if you keep up with it,” confessed Adamson. “There's a lot that happens in those other channels that require specialist knowledge that probably I don't have in the same way that a display expert or a social expert would do.

“It's always hard to do, but the perfect marketing department has a lovely synergy between the brand advertising and the more traditional, acquisition-focused [channels]. But it's hard when we are getting into the realms of budgets tightening. How do you prove the value of each and the different tracking methodologies? But there's always a place for it all to work beautifully in synergy together.”

"The perfect marketing department has a lovely synergy between the brand advertising and the more traditional, acquisition-focused [channels]. But it's hard when we are getting into the realms of budgets tightening. How do you prove the value of each and the different tracking methodologies?"

“HSBC very much believes in the affiliate marketing channel,” said Adamson. “It's now just bringing that journey so that we don't become too overly reliant on it. People can get too caught up in the sales trackability aspect of it and make sure that marketing mix is kept. That's what we struggle with more than the buy-in for the channel.”

Picornell from Cleo added: “We've had this discussion internally at Cleo because we do so much with content that even though it's paid for in CPA and it's technically affiliate marketing, should it actually be moved more into general brand marketing or should it be more moved more into PR because you are it's driving that first touch point instead of that conversion.

“For performance marketing, you need that high impact and return on investment. It's refreshing to hear that you can have that content and still get that ROI. It's just that education piece because affiliate marketing doesn’t know what it is anymore because everything is melded together.”

Agency versus in-house – how do you decide?

Financial services may be a sector to watch in the affiliate space, but it stands alone and envious of other marketers when it comes to compliance. Risk is not encouraged with so much at stake, so how can marketers remain confident?

Rakuten boasted of a new dedicated compliance team at the event, demonstrating the need and benefit of outsourcing the specialist knowledge that would be costly to have as an internal resource.

Even HSBC needs advice. Adamson explained: “We are a hybrid, so we work directly with certain big providers where the relationship benefits from it being direct. We work through a specialist financial services affiliate marketing agency for the rest. They are an extension of my team and very much involved with a lot of the business decisions with very open conversations, and they pick up a lot of the work that a team internally would do.

“My affiliate marketing agency has an entire auditing team that I could not resource if I had to hire internally. So there's a lot of added value there.

“They also come to me when they hear about new regulations to make sure it isn't fully understood, like Consumer Duty. Obviously we heard about it too, but it's very reassuring to know that the people in your team fully live and breathe and understand this regulated world because mistakes mean incidents. It's not the same as other industries.” 

Picornell also divulged: “This year we decided to grow Cleo in a more traditional affiliate marketing sense. So we worked with a SaaS platform and an agency, and we decided after an ROP to move with Rakuten. We are US based, and Rakuten in the US are one of the biggest financial affiliate agencies that you can work with. So in order to take our affiliate program to the next level, instead of managing everything in-house, we made Rakuten an extended part of our team to help take that affiliate program and those relationships to the next level and expand our pool of publishers that we work with.”

To end the interview after a day of networking with the glamorous marketers from Stella McCartney and Estee Lauder, Adamson shared a truth: “No one knows the pain of working in financial services until you work in financial services.

“It took me a few years to see past all of these other affiliate experts in other industries that can do a lot more because they're not as regulated. That being said, it's very important for us not to get too red taped in our own head and fall into the mentality of ‘we can't do that because it's too hard’.

"It's very important for us not to get too red taped in our own head and fall into the mentality of ‘we can't do that because it's too hard’."

“So sometimes it is very useful to talk to the other industries and reinvigorate yourself to say ‘actually that might be worth us pushing through. Even if it's not normal for financial services, they're doing it, so can we do it?’”

All marketing channels, whether originally performance or branding, can cross the borders and blur the lines. In fact, as competition grows it is the risks taken, the borders jumped, and synergies made that can have the most impact with consumers. The channels that challenge their own definitions and can be used with versatility across the user journey, are going to stand the longest during economic uncertainties.