Big days in our lives stick out, and one that’s stuck with me is the day I received an email from 1-800-Pet-Meds telling me to take a look at ABestWeb (ABW).
1-800-Pet-Meds asked me to join their affiliate program at a time when the LinkShare affiliate network seemed unaware it needed to respond to affiliate help tickets. Â Given my past experience, I explained that I had no interest in putting a link to any LinkShare merchant on my site. Thatâ€™s when their affiliate manager told me that other affiliates who felt the same way had joined ABW, an affiliate forum dedicated to industry discussions.
ABW showed me that I wasn’t alone. I knew there were other ethical affiliates out there, but the networks, like LinkShare and Commission Junction, didn’t provide a means to find them. ABW proved life changing. It provided a community, a sense of belonging, a place to share knowledge. I’ve always stated that every penny I’ve earned over the last 20 years came as a direct result of either ABW, Affiliate Summit (which I discovered through ABW), and my own entrepreneurial skills.
Remember the first time you made your own test sale and it didn’t track? Do you remember thinking if your own sale didn’t track, how many others exist that youâ€™ll never know about? For me, it was like being punched in the stomach. At ABW all of us with that feeling were brought together to focus as a group on improving industry standards.
Back then ABW was the only affiliate-oriented forum. Run by Haiko de Poel, it operated on very black and white terms. Everything was divided into two buckets: ethical or thievery. There was no gray area.
Through ABW, affiliates gained a voice with the networks. Due to sheer numbers and tenacity, merchants and networks were forced to listen. As a group, we were relentless and on numerous occasions we were able to bring about reluctant change to the industry.
For example, itâ€™s simple for merchants to cut an affiliateâ€™s commissions. And if smart affiliates drop a merchant that doesnâ€™t pay for every referral there are always hundreds more naive affiliates ready to place the merchant’s links.
An ethical affiliate Â would complain to the network in addition to dropping the merchant. But remember who pays the network: the merchant. And so it used to be that the network always sided with the merchant.
It was only through ABW that affiliates finally had a combined voice with the authority to force the networks to monitor tracking and compliance. De Poel understood that creating â€œtechnical support trouble ticketsâ€ wasnâ€™t enough to get the networksâ€™ attention. He encouraged ABW members to be outspoken and boisterous against those who werenâ€™t playing fair.Â On the flip side he squashed external sources and insisted that ABW be the sole sanctioned source of affiliate discourse. Such moves made him a polarizing figure in our industry.
Roundtable Goes Corporate
Two years ago, de Poel sold ABW to iNet. While only he knows the real reason, several theories exist:
He saw the writing on the wall about the growing influence of Facebook and Twitter and cashed out while he could get top dollar.
Affiliates as a group became too loud, too much of an unruly mob, so we weren’t being taken seriously anymore.
My personal take: The Performance Marketing Association (PMA) was formed around the time of the sale. If it succeeded, there could be serious industry discussions somewhere other than ABW, and that was taboo. In my experience, discussions on ABW voicing support for the PMA or their intent to fight the fledgling nexus tax movement led to public push back, criticism, and eventual banishment from ABW.
Despite his polarizing influence, de Poel firmly believed in outing the baddies. He will always have everyone’s respect for his unswerving philosophy but, he sold to a for-profit corporation.
After the sale, it was immediately clear that iNet didn’t care about the members. Instead they focused on creating content to sell advertising space. Rather than contributing to a cause (e.g., improving conditions for affiliates), we were posting and iNet was profiting from our words. Between the people who were banned and those that didn’t want to post for a corporation’s profits, participation in ABW dropped and the content value of the posts dropped dramatically.
iNet chose Michael Coley as de Poel’s replacement. Coley is probably tied with Brian Littleton, President of ShareASale, as the most respected, grounded, and above-board person in the affiliate industry. It was a great choice and probably the only choice. His presence modified the forum and the pendulum swung 180 degrees to, “No yelling. No name calling.” Even if you posted video proof of someone stealing your commissions, you had to say it professionally.
In theory, the friendly, professional route should have worked. In practice, without fear of intimidation, merchants and networks went back to walking all over their affiliate base and the forum became bland.
Coley unbanned myself and most of the others, but reading the occasional post showed a lot of, “Hi, I’m New Here,” threads and merchant spam. I started a few threads that said, “‘Merchant A’ screwed me and here’s why,” but the only responses were, “You should work with a different merchant. That will show ‘Merchant A’ he was wrong!” Unfortunately, unless there’s a load roar, thereâ€™s no reason for Merchant AÂ to change or even come to ABW to respond.
A few days ago, iNet fired Coley and replaced him with Chuck Hamrick, an Outsourced Program Manager (OPM). I’ve known Hamrick for many years and have nothing against him. And he’s only been on the job two days, so no one has the right to say what he will or won’t do at the helm.
But an OPM as the admin for an affiliate forum is a blatant conflict of interest. If iNet doesn’t see that, then they should not own an affiliate forum. If they do see it, then there’s even more reason to run away. It’s not about Hamrick: it’s about his conflicting job titles.
Our Very Own Watergate Tapes
Within moments of iNet posting the change chaos rained down in the forum and emails started hitting my inbox. People were IP blocked. Resignation posts were apparently deleted. The color green, indicating someone is a moderator, wasn’t changed even though they has posted their resignation from the forum in places other than ABW.
By chance, I was viewing the thread when the “Snowfinch” email was posted. This is our version of the Watergate Tapes or WikiLeaks. Snowfinch consists of purported emails from Hamrick to iNet planning a coup to overthrow Coley and admitting that iNet creates and uses forum content for its own profit. The emails go on to admit that iNet hired what it calls an editor to create controversial content and then hand it over to a member to post, thereby creating instant content. For them, more content equals more advertising equals higher profits. Of course, the post was deleted almost immediately, but many people got screenshots and it’s already all over the Internet. Besides deleting the post, the new ABW leadership closed the thread completely thereby stopping any discussion about “The New ABW” on their own forum.
Of course Coley’s final post is very telling of just how far things of changed.
All of this makes me wonder if the new ABW lied about IP-blocking members whose posts they didn’t like (there were allegations but all were denied)? Did they lie about the current status of moderators? Did Hamrick plot against Coley? And does it matter? iNet has shown time and again they don’t have the affiliate’s best interest at heart. And they’ve shown that bullying, deleting, and blocking are how they want to run their new vision of open discussions to further affiliate marketing.
And so it all comes back to how ethics play in the affiliate channel. If affiliates like the current ABW model, they will post, the forum will thrive, and iNet will recoup their investment. And if affiliates don’t like iNet’s control and business practices, they will find other forums.
Like many who owe their success to ABW, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for them and will always root for them. But they need to learn Â to adapt to the rapidly changing web.