The Challenges of In-App Mobile Affiliate Marketing

Taking affiliate marketing global on native mobile phone apps is easier said than done, says Will Lovegrove.  

All of the latest market research says that the majority of the world will use the internet via their mobile phone in the future and a significant portion of that via native mobile apps. Affiliate marketing (and its promise of commissions on sales) is an established monetization strategy for websites. So you’d think it would be straight forward for native mobile app developers to exploit affiliate marketing as a revenue stream. Well you’d be wrong. So very wrong.

Native mobile app developers are probably the most creative and innovative software engineers on the planet. They like creating elegant well crafted apps and sublime user experiences. The apps they have built have helped sell millions of tablets and phones. But the streets those developers tread on are not always paved in gold. Developers have to compete and survive in a competitive market. Developer programmes (like Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android) constantly preach the benefits of releasing apps globally into as many International markets as possible. For Developers who struggle to make income from their apps going global seems like a smart move. The problem is that the affiliate marketing world is just not ready for sexy and innovative solutions from high traffic native mobile apps.

Here’s 6 problems that are holding back mobile affiliate marketing and native mobile developers from going global:

Problem number 1: there are not enough mobile compatible affiliate advertiser destinations

So few affiliate advertisers have re-invented themselves in the mobile world and created a mobile alternative destination. If customers cannot complete a purchase on a mobile phone (because it’s impossible to navigate through a regular website on a phones 2” screen) then no commission will be earned. So what’s the point in sending them to that advertiser? The answer is ‘there is no point, so lets not do it’. Advertisers need to wake up to the fact that the world is going mobile. They need to invest in well crafted easy-to-use mobile apps and mobile websites which expose APIs (application programming interfaces) that native mobile app developers can integrate into, select the right product to promote, and then elegantly direct customers to.

Problem number 2: the process of applying to multiple geo-fractured affiliate networks is long, complicated and totally biased towards traditional websites

Going global in the affiliate world means you have to open multiple affiliate accounts with regional affiliate networks like Tradedoubler and LinkShare. Then you have to open accounts with the respective advertisers, via the networks. It’s a long winded difficult administrative process. Some countries require local bank accounts (Japan). Some countries (like China) just don’t have an affiliate network for large advertisers like iTunes. Very often the application process is biased towards websites. E.g. in the application form there’s a field saying: please enter your publisher site URL. So what’s the URL for a native mobile app? There is none. But if you don’t complete the form then you cannot join the network. The only recourse is to continue, get rejected, and then appeal with a written email to the affiliate network. The whole process takes months, and is woefully manual (and totally un-digital).

Problem number 3: how to direct mobile traffic to the right affiliate advertiser

Once you have accounts with multiple networks then you have the immediate problem of how, from within your native mobile app, to select the right network to send your customers too. There’s a neat solution to this problem provided by GeoRiot: a technology that provides a dynamic linking service that automatically selects the correct network to direct your traffic to. GeoRiot is founded by Jesse Lakes, who left a staff position in Apple’s iTunes affiliate team to start his company. If you are serious about going global in affiliate marketing then you should check out GeoRiot.

Problem number 4: how to select the right product to advertise

Not every product that is in your local advertisers online store will be available to every country. This is especially true if you are working with iTunes affiliate marketing programme where music, films and often apps vary from region to region. For example the same Album on sale in iTunes US may be available in iTunes UK, but it will probably have a different ID or UPC. Fortunately GeoRiot comes to the rescue again with helpful tools to check the availability of products in International stores and special ‘decay’ algorithms which will intelligently find the ‘next best product’ to promote in the event your chosen product is not available in the International market.

Problem number 5: avoiding the ‘stutter step’

You will have experienced the ‘stutter step’ if you have ever opened a link, and for a few seconds, your mobile phone or tablet has opened a browser then quickly closed it before opening up iTunes or another app on your device. This is the stutter: the temporary opening of a browser so that a native mobile app can connect to a piece of web tracking software provided by a third party. It’s not a great user experience and simultaneously raises security and privacy concerns in the users mind. There is a solution but it requires software engineer expertise. Apple provide some code samples and support to help developers avoid the stutter step by adjusting their native mobile app’s code base. The solution is listed deep in Apple’s Technical Q&A vaults under QA1629.

Problem number 6: refreshing stale affiliate links in a native mobile app, and creating an excellent user experience

Native mobile apps are deployed onto mobile phones and tablets as software. It’s a completely different technical model than websites, and creates a totally different user experience. If you cannot update and refresh your affiliate links in your mobile app then the value of those links will decay over time. In order to change affiliate links to keep them fresh and relevant for your app’s users it’s necessary to build an affiliate-link content management system, enabled by API (application programming interface) technology.

datownia solves this problem elegantly. (Full disclaimer: datownia is an API-as-a-Service platform created by the writer of this blog post). datownia flips Excel documents stored in Dropbox or Box into webservice APIs. Those APIs can connect to native mobile apps directly, or into a Backend-as-a-Service solution like StackMob. Simply put, a product catalogue of affiliate links can be updated and refreshed simply by editing an Excel document in Dropbox.

Something has to change

At face value implementing mobile affiliate marketing in native mobile apps on a global level can be summed up as “a disproportionately large effort for an unjustified return”. The technical and administrative work effort required to optimise affiliate marketing for native mobile apps is currently too difficult and requires too much time to be reasonably practical for a small company with a small app portfolio. That effectively means affiliate marketing is beyond the reach of every small mobile app developer shop. Which is a great shame because that particular global group of developers is responsible for the mobile phone app revolution which has taken place in the last 5 years. Moreover, it represents a huge lost opportunity for everyone who has a stake in the mobile app economy.

Unless the mobile affiliate barriers which face the publishers of mobile apps are removed or lowered then those publishers remain unmotivated to do the necessary administration and technical work. This roadblock will heap pressure onto the advertisers and their affiliate network partners to simplify and streamline their monetization processes so that the creative power of the global mobile economy (e.g. the small mobile app developer) can direct native app traffic through to advertiser sites in ways which do not risk poor user experiences, bad links, loss of affiliate commission, or require months of administration and software development work to set-up. One thing’s for certain: if the barriers to monetizing global mobile traffic with affiliate networks are not lowered and Internet users continue to migrate away from PCs to mobile then the wheels will come off the affiliate industry in dramatic style. It’s just a question of when.

Will Lovegrove runs an award winning mobile app software company called Release Mobile and recently launched a new cloud based data sharing platform called ‘datownia’.