As we continue to count down the days until PI LIVE Europe 2023, we caught up with Nick Fletcher, Senior Vice President, EMEA at Rakuten Advertising, to discuss the major developments happening at the network, how they are aiding global and European expansion across borders, the future of AI in affiliate, and the integration of influencer marketing.

What are you most looking forward to at PI LIVE this year?

For me, it's a melting pot of affiliate and the performance industry names and faces. I'm just really looking forward to catching up with so many of those people to discuss ideas, innovations, and changes within the industry. 

I think 2024 is going to be a really interesting year for affiliate marketing. There's a lot going on in the digital space in general and I think the channel is going through a bit of a transformative phase and I'm excited to see where the industry takes us in the next 12 to 18 months. I'm sure there'll be a lot of conversation around those topics at PI LIVE next week.

What developments are happening at Rakuten to help brands and publishers outperform in 2024?

There are a couple of big focus areas for us as a business at the moment, and one of them is our Audience Engine. Now this really brings targeting into the affiliate space and I don’t think it's really existed before in the industry. 

I remember distinctly having a conversation with a sort of disgruntled CMO about five or six years ago, and he was always talking frustratedly about affiliate and saying that the concern for him, was that if he looked at his other channels, such as the paid search and programmatic display etc., he can do some quite granular audience targeting through these channels. Although he loved the performance model of affiliate marketing, he really hated the fact that he couldn’t do any sort of granular targeting. Our industry-first Audience Engine brings that into the affiliate channel.

It allows publishers to monetise their own audiences and we know that third-party data is effectively disappearing or has disappeared due to browser changes. So, increasingly, advertisers are going to be looking at their publisher network, the publishers out there who have their own data, and how they can take advantage of that to find the right customer. Sometimes, particularly for luxury brands that we work with, it's finding a needle in a haystack and having targeting that allows you to take advantage of that audience data that our publishers have can really turbo charge and boost your affiliate programme.

The second thing, I don't want to sound like a cliche, but AI. We are going to see a big shift towards the use of AI in performance marketing over the next 12 to 18 months. The Rakuten business at a group level signed a strategic partnership with OpenAI, so we're looking at how we're bringing AI into our business. I think it's going to help brands and publishers. The first iterations are going to be very much about discovery, helping brands and publishers find each other better and more quickly to simplify things, and build those connections, which is ultimately what affiliate marketing is all about. 

I know there are several sessions at PI LIVE next week talking about AI and where that can go, so I'm really excited to be going and to listen to some of that content, but also to talk to people about what we're doing at Rakuten Advertising there.

One of the key themes that is prevalent at PI LIVE this year is global and European expansion. Can you share a bit more about what you’re doing as a network to aid expansion across borders?

From what we can see, Rakuten Advertising is the largest single global affiliate network that is working with multinational advertisers. Helping advertisers expand into new markets is at the forefront of who we are as a business. The great thing about affiliate marketing, it is a relatively low-risk marketing channel, so you can go into a new market and invest relatively small amounts of budget and start getting some direct returns at the back of it because it is an ROI-focused channel. 

It's not to say that you shouldn't be backing up your affiliate marketing with spend in other areas, it's always worth complementing activity with other channels, but it is a risk-free model and I think I'd say to any advertiser looking at expanding into new markets that they should be putting affiliate first and at the forefront of their expansion plans. I’m certainly happy to talk to any advertisers next week that want to talk about expansion, but managing global programmes is in our DNA at Rakuten Advertising.

You mentioned the sessions on AI, but will you be tuning into any other sessions this year at PI LIVE? 

Funnily enough, now you mentioned it Jack, there are a couple of really exciting sessions, that Rakuten Advertising is hosting. 

Partners in Prime: Reward X Rakuten Advertising: We're doing one in partnership with Reward, a really exciting partner that we've been working with for a number of years now. That has a huge amount of audience data and consumer behaviour data, and I think it’s a really exciting publisher in the performance space. I’m looking forward to tuning into that session!

How the Finance Sector Is Hitting the Jackpot with Partnership Marketing: We've got Harry and Kwame from our Finance and Client Services and Sales teams. They're going to be presenting a bit of a workshop on how to get the most out of your finance programmes. Finance is something which we've seen, not only Rakuten Advertising expanding too, but we've seen more and more finance brands expanding into the performance space and opening up affiliate programmes for the first time. I think that's a really exciting channel for potential finance advertisers out there that don't currently have an affiliate programme.

What do you think the hottest trend in affiliate marketing will be for 2024?

I think the other thing that everyone's talking about, at the moment, is the increasing movement of affiliate into the influencer space and content space. I think affiliate marketing has always been a great channel for content, but when influencer first started becoming a channel of its own kind, it was almost separated from affiliate marketing. 

Often influencers would only work on a fixed fee or tenancy basis, or a fixed fee model, but we're starting to see that line blur more and more, so micro influencers are understanding that they can monetise their own original content on a CPA basis and turning to affiliate networks to do that. 

We've got a very strong influencer programme at Rakuten Advertising, we partner with a business called Mavrck that helps us in the discovery side of things, and then we monetise that and use all our commissioning boxer tricks, audience targeting etc. to get the most out of that channel. I think maybe 2023 was the year of influencer, affiliate, and content creators, but we're going to see absolutely more of that and 2024 as well.

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