One of the marketing success stories of the past 12 months has been the meteoric rise of 'super-affiliates', sites that, although brands in their own right, are geared toward driving sales for others. Yet, while price-comparison sites such as Comparethemarket and Gocompare as well as voucher-code sites, including Quidco and Rpoints have gained mass-market appeal, brands have mixed feelings about both propositions.
A recent IAB study showed that more than 50% of the UK's online population use price-comparison sites, so if brands neglect the channel, they could miss out a significant chunk of their target market.
The near-ubiquity of Comparethemarket's meerkat brand mascot (right) is further evidence of how these sites have emerged from obscurity to become deal-brokers in markets from utilities to holidays.
Between them, three of the biggest players - Confused.com, Gocompare and the Moneysupermarket group - spent more than £60m on ads in 2009, according to Nielsen.They are clearly doing something right, yet some brands remain sceptical, accusing the super-affiliates of cannibalising sales.
For finance and utility brands, which base their offering on price, they are an ideal way to drive sales and supplement marketing budgets. For others, the issue is more complex.
Direct Line and Aviva are the most high-profile examples of brands that have opted not to do so. They are reluctant to give price-comparison sites commission for sales they believe they can generate themselves.
Love or loathe price-comparison sites, though, marketers are becoming increasingly pragmatic about their benefits.
Chris Jansen, group commercial director at British Gas, believes their influence will only grow. 'The bigger comparison sites are an important piece of the marketing landscape. In the energy industry, more than 30% of customers looking to switch suppliers gather information online before making a final decision,' he says.
However, some marketers claim that such sites fail to reflect the true value of a brand's offer by focusing solely on price.
'Many consumers have the impression that price-comparison sites compare all the products on the market and we need to educate them that this is simply not true,' says Direct Line marketing director Mike Tildesley.
Some brands have chosen simply to ignore price-comparison sites. Ryanair, the bullish low-cost Irish airline, took issue with them for allegedly displaying inflated prices for its tickets. At one point, it threatened to cancel bookings made through those sites and encouraged consumers to book only directly.
However, James Briscoe, managing director of digital media agency Unique Digital, warns against brands adopting this approach. 'Advertisers who dismiss price-comparison sites before investigating the market can only lose out and are being very naive,' he says.
Indeed, Ryanair has since abandoned its policy and deals for the airline are now widespread across a range of sites.
For those brands and consumers that remain sceptical about price-comparison sites, the good news is that the Office of Fair Trading has launched an investigation into them.
This is likely to highlight those that offer a genuine comparison of prices rather than promoting the deals from which they can earn most commission.
The shakeout from this could convince refuseniks to sign up, but some are unlikely to be swayed until an algorithm is devised that takes into account the full value of the deals on offer.
Quidco pro quo
A similar quandary exists in relation to cashback and voucher-code websites. Quidco is the biggest such site in the UK. It has more than 800,000 users and has signed up 1800 retailers. Unlike price-comparison sites, it makes money from an upfront £5 fee that it takes from the consumer and gives commission received from retailers straight back to its users.
Founded in 2005, Quidco really took off in the recession and claims to give, on average, annual cashback of £262.36 per member. Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, Tesco and Apple are among the participating retailers.
Peter Rowe, managing director of affiliate network Affilinet, believes voucher-code sites can offer value to both shoppers and brands. 'They offer marketers great traction with consumers where used intelligently,' he says.
There is no doubt that, while significant investment is required to form strong relationships with these sites, they represent the future of affiliate marketing. However, marketers should beware of ceding too much control to super-affiliates.
For a more in-depth look at affiliate marketing, don't miss the next issue of Revolution, free with Marketing on 5 May.