Running up that hill: trials and tribulations of a US affiliate startup

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Will Armitage expected some obstacles to launching and scaling an independent affiliate business in the US, but not how utterly frustrating these would prove. In the first of a new five-part series, he shares his experiences of dealing with US sportsbooks’ onboarding headaches and the lack of performance data provided to affiliates.

I’ve chosen the theme of Running up that Hill for this series of articles about launching and running an independent affiliate in the nascent US market (am I controversial in thinking the Placebo cover is better than Kate Bush’s original version of this great song?! Ed: yes, and wrong!)

From experience, any startup will face a wide array of challenges, both foreseen and not. All of them require a lot of energy and exertions to navigate or overcome.

In this series, I shall outline where the largest hindrances lie. Given they all sit beyond our control, there is nothing to be done to tackle them head-on!

These really are the most frustrating aspects of running a business. You can do as much optimisation as possible at your own end; yet, in an industry where one is beholden to the efficiency of one’s partner in converting their traffic, there is nothing you can do to help prospective customers to make that final step to become a depositing and playing customer. It really can be as draining and tiring as running up some hill!

You can probably sense what is the subject of my first bugbear, which leaves affiliates in the US sports betting affiliation space grumbling about “what if..?”

Onboarding headaches

Affiliates spend a vast amount of time, money and energy to attract valuable potential customers to push on to sportsbooks around the world, but none more so that in the US.

Much is written about the huge potential of this market and the quantum of money flowing through the industry is indeed eye-watering. It will only increase from here as the decade progresses. However, not much is written about a much less glamorous theme in onboarding funnels and conversions!

Ecommerce and online subscription businesses spend a huge amount of focus and UX testing on onboarding and channelling their audience to become transactional customers.

Yet, a combination of regulation and the sportsbooks’ different priorities result in a major speedbump for prospective customers when they attempt to sign up for a sportsbook for the first time.

Online trading businesses excel at onboarding customers as smoothly and as quickly as possible. In my time in that industry, if your new client doesn’t transact in the first three days after opening an account, 80% of the time they would never trade. It is vital to make the process as smooth and as simple as possible.

The sportsbooks clearly don’t make the rules for what information is required when a new client is signing up! If they did, it would be as straightforward as opening an account with Amazon! Instead, they have been dealt a bad hand with social security numbers, bank details and more besides needing to be completed during the onboarding process.

Science is noting the decreasing attention span of humanity and every extra step which a company imposes on its users when form-filling sees more potential customers fall out of the funnel. Yes, the sportsbooks can and should be doing more initial onboarding optimisation, but the stringent nature of what needs to be recorded makes their life hard.

So, this is something every affiliate must bear in mind. Your work is not done just because you have attracted an interested party and pushed them to a particular operator. It is far from a slam-dunk that the person becomes a FTD!

I’ll touch more in my next article about the sportsbooks’ changing goalposts making affiliates lives harder. One theme of that will be product managers striving to secure tech resource for projects, both new and old.

Lack of data

This leads me onto a second point of frustration for affiliates which rests at the doors of operators; a lack of performance data at the individual bettor level.

Whether in other industries or other countries within the sports betting world, there is often the sense of greater collaboration from a data perspective. The partners who receive affiliate traffic are more than happy to share performance data.

“This cohort of clients you sent us last month with this specific xyz tracking link have blown it out of the water since they have been onboarded! Please could you send us a load more of those such customers. We would very much appreciate it. We don’t know where you found them, but we’re really stoked that you did. Hell, we’d be prepared to increase both your CPAs and rev share percentages!”

This is a conversation which is commonplace around the globe when a business is using affiliates as part of their broad client acquisition strategy. This is very much not a stereotypical conversation with the US sportsbooks!

Rather, stateside, the conversation between affiliate and affiliate program might go a little like this: “Hi there! We’d love to know more about the calibre of customer that we are sending over to you. Which channels are working best for us? Are some converting better than others? Are there any nuggets which you could share about our traffic so that we can optimise and leverage on our end to the ultimate benefit of you, American Sportsbook?!”

“Afraid not!”

It would take a brilliant and powerful sponsor within the Project Planning Group at a major sportsbook to push “Give our affiliates better data tracking and reconciliation information” high up the list of must-do tasks! At the moment, as I shall discuss next time, they have a lot on their plates and I don’t see this sensible request from the US sports betting affiliate industry being actioned any time soon. Here’s hoping I’m proved wrong!

Will Armitage
Will Armitage
spent 12 years working for IG Group (IGG.L), the world’s leading spread betting company; firstly, on the dealing desk before moving into management where he ended up as Head of Europe. After leaving IG, he worked for a US wine start-up, Lot18, in which he was an investor. Since then, he has been an active angel investor, mentor and entrepreneur. He co-founded his latest start-up, BestOdds, in January 2021, with the website going live in August of last year.

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

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