These days bargain hunting online is almost second nature for many and the last couple of years have seen ‘couponing’ soar in popularity. There have also been a raft of consumer-focused articles, extolling the virtues of the practice in the last few months and usage is higher than ever. But as with anything, apply too much pressure and cracks will start to appear, or in the case of voucher codes, gaping crevices, and we’re putting the blame firmly at the door of affiliate sites.
It’s not in our nature to be killjoys – we see real value in rewarding existing customers and attracting potential customers with discount vouchers and we regularly create special offers and discount coupons. However, as the trend grows, so too does our concern about how customers get their hands on these discount codes.
In short, we see voucher affiliate sites as a potential minefield. The Affiliate Marketing Council created the Voucher Code of Conduct, and first established best practice guidelines in 2009, but experience suggests their weight is nominal.
From a business perspective, voucher affiliates offer very little long or even short-term value. It is very unusual for our customers to start their purchasing journey at a voucher affiliate site, meaning acquisition numbers are next to nothing. Those who do arrive on a hungryhouse platform via that route often offer very little value to us. Despite bringing in a few additional transactions, we cannot create lasting relationships with couponing customers; they are not seeking to establish long-term loyalty, simply hopping around to find the best deal.
More often, customers search for voucher codes when they are almost at the end of their purchase journey, a heartbeat away from entering their card details. Imagine you are a shopkeeper and a customer is about to pay; suddenly someone catches their eye and they duck out the back door into the car park, where they purchase a voucher code from a guy loitering behind the bins, before coming back and stumping up the (reduced) balance. Fine, there’s nothing you can do about that, you knew there were some discount codes out there. But now imagine your horror when the loitering chap sidles in and asks you to pay him for providing the voucher to the customer – who was about to make the purchase anyway.
This is the real-world equivalent of online voucher affiliate sites, which ‘sidle around’ on the internet looking for clicks. However, there is not just one guy online, but thousands and thousands of pages, elbowing for consumer attention. Most affiliate sites use web scrapers to track down codes to post on high-ranking SEO pages. There is no filter to ensure a code is legitimate, valid or even real, and once an invalid code is published, those same scrapers mean it can be replicated over 100s of sites.
From a consumer perspective this practice is unscrupulous. Voucher affiliates that post expired, or even false codes are not seeking the best deals for consumers. Forum style sites want ad revenue, and click-to-reveal sites are simply looking for the holy tracking cookie that injects them into the conversion funnel and makes it appear as though a customer made their purchase thanks to them, thus racking up a nice little sales commission. Neither care about a better deal for the consumer, and neither care that they are clearly flouting the Code of Conduct’s rule: “When a code has expired it must either be removed or the fact that it has expired must be clearly stated in writing, not simply by listing the expiry date.”
And the value for us, or the customer? Nil. The cost? High – up to 53% of calls our customer care team receives are from disgruntled customers complaining that a (non-existent/ expired/ irrelevant) code they found online does not work at checkout.
Of course, it is not fair or even justifiable to tar all networks with the same brush, but what is the solution? Leaving aside the use of voucher affiliates as an acquisition channel (as I mentioned, this adds little value for us) there are a few options.
Along with multiple other ecommerce platforms, we have cut ties with many ‘abusive’ affiliate sites, ending the payment program we had in place – this has no impact on our traffic numbers or conversion rates, and the codes, real or otherwise, continue to appear, with removal requests falling on deaf ears.
We sometimes produce one-use-only unique codes when running voucher campaigns. These are unshareable (although indiscriminate affiliate cookie hunters will share anyway) and easier to track. However, not all online merchants have the product capability to create these exclusive codes so this route is not an option.
One of the most fail-safe ways for ecommerce managers to approach couponing, which keeps customers happy, keeps the purchasing journey in-tact and keeps codes in control is to implement the ‘Macy’s solution’. Simply stick a ‘find one now’ link next to your promo box, and create a pop-up window, displaying all your most relevant and recent offers and voucher codes. This solution is easy, requires very little product development and eradicates all need for coupon hunting customers to leave the site and unlock those dreaded coupon cookies.
I would be interested to hear of other innovative solutions ecommerce sites have developed in a bid to avoid the abuse of ‘cowboy’ voucher affiliates and ensure customers get the best deals possible through the best user experience, because couponing is not going away and nor are the ‘bad guys’.
Alice Mrongovius is marketing director at hungryhouse