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The future of publishers and affiliate marketing in times of search with AI

Whilst it’s uncertain times for many publishers, for those dependent on affiliate revenue the threat looms larger – in short, how can affiliate marketing maintain its success without a user clicking an affiliate link? Nicky Senyard, CEO and Founder of Fintel Connect, argues that the AI future might not be as gloomy as people fear…the key is in the approach that publishers take.

We recently saw Google launch Gemini, an AI model that promises to outpower ChatGPT, created by Open AI. The multinational tech company is currently in a race with Microsoft to develop the best AI-assisted search experience. 

With the advancements of Google Search Generative Experience (SGE), and Microsoft’s improved Bing almost capable of answering queries without users accessing direct articles, publishers are seeing these changes in search engines as a challenge in attracting organic traffic.

The question then becomes: how will affiliate marketing maintain its success without a user clicking an affiliate link?

There is no doubt that these rapid advances will reshape the way search engines work, and publishers everywhere who rely heavily on search traffic to get readers are concerned about the impact it could have on their revenue from affiliate marketing. 

While experts estimate AI in search could mean 20% to 80% less traffic for publishers, other statistics show that we may be overestimating its impact. According to an Ipsos poll made this year, only 22% of US adults trust AI-generated search results; the rest don’t consider it trustworthy, at least not yet.

The future of publishers and affiliate marketing in times of AI-assisted search might be uncertain, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a gloomy future.

Affiliates are resilient

As someone who has been in the affiliate marketing space since its birth 20 years ago, I can say that affiliates are not going anywhere. We tend to forget that before SGE, Bing, and Chat GPT, publishers had to adapt to the many social media platforms that appeared on the market.  

Back then, publishers with affiliate businesses were worried that Facebook and other social media platforms would cannibalize the space. However, they learned to adapt and capitalize on social media as another way to communicate with their audience. 

The key is in the approach that publishers take. Those who see AI as a tool to extend their reach and who study its strengths and weaknesses will find a way to include it in their business in the most useful way possible. For those who see it only as a threat, the future might not be as bright.

AI-Search is top-of-the-funnel content

When Google presented SGE in May, they described it as a way for consumers to get a “quick lay of the land and then dive deeper with links to articles.” This means that AI-enabled search will focus on doing the heavy lifting of piecing together information for consumers, but the links stay.  

SGE and Bing offer top-of-the-funnel content to consumers, the type of content that doesn’t try to sell but instead educates, or helps with answers, which is great for creating awareness about a brand, service, or product. 

When consumers want to buy, they will do the same as consumers did 20 years ago: they will compare and check for more than one trustworthy source. That’s where publishers and affiliate marketing work best. Affiliate marketing offers bottom-of-the-funnel content, which is the content consumers look for when they are ready to make a purchase.

Trustworthy content is the key

Search engines might use AI now, but they look for the same as before: the most relevant content for consumers doing the queries on the other side. If they offer poor content to what the consumer is looking for, they risk losing them to their competitors.  

Publishers are natural storytellers; they know how to create compelling content that is relevant and valuable for their readers. As search engines become more intelligent, the relevancy and quality of content will remain the top-ranking factor. 

Another factor to consider is that audiences are not only looking for information; what they are looking for is a trustworthy source behind that information, and that is why affiliate marketing could never be replaced by AI-assisted search. In the end, humans like to get recommendations from other humans, especially if they have expertise in the topic they are searching for. 

An opportunity to diversify

Whether publishers are against or in favor of AI, we can all agree it’s here to stay. As it happens with every big substantial change, those who learn how to adapt will prevail. Publishers with great content will find a way to attract readers, while those who only focus on “hacking” search algorithms without offering valuable content will likely disappear.

Bing and SGE might change the landscape for publishers doing affiliate marketing, but every change also comes with an opportunity to innovate. Although diversified traffic sources are the first strategy publishers follow in times of AI, they can also consider diversifying the products and services they promote through affiliate marketing. Publishers should add regulated verticals such as financial services to their affiliate business. With all the regulations involved in the financial sector, the need for accurate information is higher. Publishers that have been able to build their credibility and expertise have a great chance to succeed.

Look closely at AI, but closer to your audience

As with any sector, publishers should keep track of the rapid changes in AI to adapt accordingly, but we need to remember that at the center of every publisher’s business is their audience, and they are the ones they should look closer to. In the end, a publisher’s audience will influence how they want to interact with publishers and consume their content.

At Fintel Connect, we specialize in performance marketing for financial institutions. Over the last few years, we’ve have witnessed a significant increase in content creators producing video content and podcasts in addition to more traditional mediums. Similarly, many of the banks and credit unions we work with have specifically incorporated publishers that produce video and podcast content. These financial institutions have recognized that modern channels are an ideal way of reaching Generation Z customers. 

The only thing predictable about the future is that the digital world will continue to grow, as will the multitude of ways to find and consume information. With time, it will expand beyond search engines and AI. The best way for us to stay as relevant industry participants will be for us to adapt to the changes.  

Nicky Senyard
CEO and Founder of Fintel Connect

Fintel Connect is a performance marketing company that helps banks and fintechs acquire net new customers in a results-based way. We help financial institutions do this through our network of financially-focused digital outlets (websites, blogs) and influencers, which promote the financial institutions’ products and services. Our technology gives banks and fintechs the tools to track and measure these real customers sign-ups and understand where their marketing budget are really working.