Monday, June 24, 2013

Cross Digital: As affiliate networks become marketing agencies

Last year we discussed whether Affiliate Window was a network or a performance agency.

In general the word “performance” is used where affiliate once was as the industry has grown and become inclusive of more strategies and solutions. The question then is whether Affiliate Window was an agency.

The new "Cross Digital" - Hub and Spoke
That’s not to say that the affiliate industry has won the “war” to own the term performance. The Cannes Lions brigade will still use “performance” to mean any aspect of digital marketing in which the client is expecting tangible results from. To them “performance” is anything that is not client commissioned art/creative.

This week Rakuten LinkShare has announced a new approach and is moving in the same direction as Affiliate Window. It’ll eventually become Rakuten Marketing and that will likely include not just the old Rakuten LinkShare (affiliate) but also Rakuten MediaForge (display and re-targeting) as well as lead generation and PPC services.

The move is, in part, inspired by the fact that more of Rakuten’s clients use a different number of platforms with the company. Scott Allen, a New York based VP, said that more than 50 clients used affiliate marketing as well as their display and re-targeting services.

So is this “cross digital”?

Cross digital, if you’ve not encountered the term, is one of those awkward phrases used to describe agencies, solutions and sometimes individuals with skill sets that extend beyond one service area like SEO or affiliates to more than just one. The “more” is generally undefined meaning that agencies, solutions and some individuals will claim to be cross digital if they feel confident in two service areas whereas others will aspire to the full gambit of digital services before applying the title. That’s the historic definition, anyway.

That means Rakuten LinkShare has become part of a cross digital solution in the umbrella group known as Rakuten Marketing. The group still isn’t fully cross digital though as it specialises in paid media solutions – missing out earned media solutions like SEO and Social or owned media like Analytics and Conversation Optimisation. Actually, SEO isn’t just earned media, it’s largely earned media but that’s a discussion for another post.

What few claimant to the “cross digital” title has generally intended to include in the description or aspire to are the supporting services that enable digital marketing to happen; services like hosting, design, build and production. It’s certainly also rare for any agency, or former affiliate network, to talk cross digital and then talk about video, in-game ads or transmedia.

I think it is pretty much impossible to be fully cross digital if you’re simply counting digital services. There are always new areas of digital marketing opening up and the boundaries of responsibilities seem always to be flux.

The debate is whether you’re a specialist or not. In either case you must be an expert. Clients do not appoint agencies that don’t have the expertise to solve the problems they’ve been hired to tackle.

If you’re not a specialist then what are you? Are you a generalist? The term doesn’t seem very flattering and asks the question; can generalists be expert?

The trend seems to be to use the word “agency” instead. That’s why we’re seeing affiliate networks recognising that their emit has grown, that they’re more than a network and so have become “performance agencies”. They’re also performance agencies with some strong cross digital skills.

That’s why I think the historic use of “cross digital” is wrong. It shouldn’t be about counting services. You can’t count the services because the boundaries change, the services evolve and new areas are invented.

If the industry wants to keep the term then the definition needs to change. I propose that a more meaningful way of thinking about “cross digital” is to ask whether the agency can integrate its tactics and solutions with the work that other digital agencies are doing.

The new definition of “cross digital” would then put the emphasis on the ability to share data, work with others and to use expertise in your service area to amply other campaigns.

A cross digital agency is part of the hub-and-spoke model for structure and resourcing.

Does that mean affiliate networks growing to become rounder digital agencies are cross digital? Yes, if they share data, work with other agencies and therefore act as either hub or spoke it means they are.

Image credit: Jason Finch

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