Awin ThinkTank UK 2023 provided a feast of insight and food-for-thought, as the industry came together at the midpoint of an exciting and crucial year for affiliate and performance marketing. The panel-led discussions, speaker sessions, and casual conversations revealed a great deal about what’s attracting the attention of publishers, advertisers, networks, and agencies right now, and what the focus points will be, moving towards the pivotal Q4 and year ahead.
Below, we’ve outlined some of the key takeaways from the event, the topics that came up again and again, and what we learned from attending.
Interesting statistics, use cases, and clashing opinions on AI
“We’ve never seen a technology grab more headlines in the history of humanity,” said Rob Berrisford, Founder of Affiliate.ai, in the panel discussion on artificial intelligence. This certainly feels true, and it’s almost getting tedious to talk about, but there really hasn’t been anything like it in recent years.
In the wildly informative closing session, The New Gatekeepers, industry analyst Benedict Evans posited that AI represents a movement into an entirely new technological epoch, the kind of which we haven’t seen for over 20 years – or possibly even more transformative than that. Sasha Haco, Co-Founder and CEO at Unitary, also referred to it as a ‘paradigm shift’, which has unlocked both “scary and exciting” times ahead.
The ambiguity of its future demands debate, but as Evans suggested, nearly all of these predictions are glued to the hypothetical, and many are rooted in personal belief.
That’s not to say that there aren’t tangible and material use cases, concerns, and market trends to be aware of when it comes to AI. The panel discussion highlighted some eyebrow-raising statistics, such as ChatGPT becoming the fastest-growing app of all time, and how searches for the LLM will soon overtake those for TikTok.
This has all generated greater confidence in the technology, which has in turn found more buoyancy in the market, as noted by Daniel Harding, Commercial Director at Envolve Technology. LLMs have already found their footing in the world of content publishing, and new job roles have been created in the process – professional ChatGPT prompters – which are attracting six-figure salaries. The panel reported that clients are more interested in AI now, though only if it can clearly drive better results.
The proliferation of AI-produced content throughout the influencer, creator, and publisher spaces has brought with it some serious challenges. Haco explained how much of this content is published without being checked, and is plagued with ‘AI hallucinations’. These errors can end up creating harmful content, ranging from cases of hate speech and misinformation on one end of the scale, to the shocking and tragic incident of a person taking their own life after consulting a chatbot therapist. “We’re seeing real harm,” Haco said, “Unless we get AI aligned with what we want, it will cause real problems.” With proper regulation in place, Haco argued that AI could open up “exciting” opportunities in the partnerships space, allowing workers to focus on more creative jobs and less admin.
Berrisford expounded on the current benefits of AI with regards to Haco’s latter point, explaining how when used for administrative tasks, LLMs can “turn a 10-minute task into a 30-second task.” Berrisford also said that AI companies do not necessarily need investors, as the technology is so powerful that less manpower is required. “Why would I give away a slug of the company and voting rights when I can run the company with four people?” said Berrisford, “The future will be billion-dollar four-person companies.”
Around the event, attendees offered varying opinions on the role of AI in affiliate and performance marketing; some advocative, some trepidatious, others undecided. The main counter-argument to artificial intelligence that we came across was that affiliate and performance marketing are both people-driven spaces, and this is something that AI will have difficulty replicating – or replacing.
Human relationships still drive success in the channel
“I think (AI) has a place. Some of the repetitive jobs, some of the reporting we do – absolutely. My fear with it is: it will never replace human connection. Relationships start because of the people… Will it make life easier? Yeah, possibly. Will it replace us? Absolutely not.” Ben Helyar, General Manager at NetRev, told us at the event. It’s been a recurring theme across affiliate marketing meet-ups as of late: the centrality of human touch and relationship building to the success of the space.
We asked attendees to give us their ‘affiliate hot takes’, and a number spoke on this. “Think about an affiliate as a partner or an extension of your team. Make sure you invest a fair amount of time in getting to know them,” said Maria Oyelakin, Affiliate & Partnerships Lead at Vodafone.
Interestingly enough, affiliate marketing expert Kevin Edwards has revealed findings from the Affiliate and Publisher Survey, which suggest that ‘affiliates’ prefer the term ‘publisher’, over ‘partner’ or ‘affiliate’, but the sentiment remains the same.
The affiliate space is evolving, but how does it compare to other marketing channels?
Affiliate marketing has grown exponentially in the past few years, transforming from a historically bottom-funnel strategy to a full-funnel approach. Now, publishers can provide just as much value at the top of the funnel, as they can at the bottom.
“That’s a lot of what we’ve been talking about today,” Adam Ross, CEO at Awin, told Hello Partner at the event, “Affiliates and partners really play a role across the entire customer journey, adding huge amounts of value at every point.”
However, educating brands and advertisers about the new opportunities that affiliate marketing presents and changing ingrained perceptions prove to be a hefty undertaking in themselves.
“Dispel the myths you might have about the channel,” Ross continued, “Look at it afresh, and see the huge amounts of opportunity that exist when you partner with the innovative technology and diverse range of partners that are now available through the platform.”Understanding brands’ perception of affiliate marketing, and how it might have changed, was also of interest to Rosalyn Berrisford, Regional Managing Director at Awin. Speaking about what she’d like to see at PI LIVE Europe this year, Berrisford said, “I would love to hear from CMOs, or other senior digital leaders, about how they view the channel – if they care about affiliates versus partnerships – how we sit compared to the other marketing mix, and how we can get them to diversify more spend.”
Did you attend Awin ThinkTank 2023? Get in touch and let us know what your biggest takeaways were from the event.