Current digital trends like influencer marketing, location-based marketing, and mobile ad blocking have resulted in lots of changes for affiliate marketing this year. And considering the updates to Google’s search algorithm — pages full of links is no longer SEO-friendly — even less traffic is funneled to websites run by affiliate marketers. Using social media marketing as a strategy has also become less effective; social networks are shifting to a model where marketers have to pay to reach their audiences.
As a result of these trends and changes, affiliates need to change their strategy. Here is a closer look at these challenges and how affiliates can address them.
Google’s search engine
For nearly a decade, savvy and motivated performance marketers relied on figuring out Google’s secret sauce to get a page one ranking in order to drive more traffic. Search engine optimization, or SEO, was a key strategy any performance marketer had to master. Since Google’s search engine typically accounted for 64% of desktop search queries, everyone had to optimize their sites for Google. Or spend efforts in less competitive environments like Yahoo or Bing.
This meant paying attention to page titles, headers, and keyword density on pages. The problem with this approach is that many websites started to look as though they were written for search engines, rather than real human beings. Starting in 2011 with their Panda Update, Google has incrementally but radically changed how their search algorithm works. A year later, when Google introduced their Penguin Update, websites with irrelevant or poor quality backlinks were penalized. Oops.
This was good news for the normies (consumers) — the people actually using Google’s search engine — but it was challenging and pretty annoying for many affiliates, who were dependent on Google search traffic. In an environment where margins are razor-thin, affiliates were forced to spend considerably more time crafting highly engaging content.
Things are only getting more difficult for performance marketers who rely on organic traffic from Google.
Social media marketing
Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest account for some of the rest of that traffic. But as soon as publishers and affiliates set up and optimize their social media campaigns, the rules change.
Facebook is the world’s number-one social referrer; their share rate is 38.3% compared to Google’s 35.8%. But over the past few years, Facebook has been slowly limiting reach of the number of Facebook users who will actually see a specific promotional post in their feeds.
Mobile ad blocking
About 20% of monthly active users in the U.S. have installed ad blocking software. In fact, in 2016, the growth rate of new users downloading and installing mobile ad blockers has more than tripled.
For affiliates, this poses a challenge. Many of the ad networks that affiliates rely on to send traffic and leads are not being seen by consumers. Some publishers, like Forbes, are blocking consumers who block ads. This means that affiliates, just like publishers and advertisers, must adapt.
Is affiliate marketing going away?
These obstacles lead to one big question: is affiliate marketing a dying strategy? The short answer is no. While it’s impossible to predict the future, it seems likely that there will still be opportunities to engage affiliates as part of a successful online strategy.
Partnering with affiliates and performance marketers will always be attractive for advertisers simply because it makes sense: advertisers only pay for results. On top of that, affiliates shoulder many of the risks by investing time and money in finding sources of quality traffic, and then figuring out how to convert that traffic into leads and sales.
Working with affiliates continues to be a powerful strategy for advertisers to diversify their marketing efforts while enjoying better ROI.
Still, the most successful affiliates know how to adapt to these new challenges.
How affiliates can adapt to changing online conditions
It’s going to be difficult for affiliate marketers if they keep using the same strategies, such as SEO, blogging, and social media, to generate traffic. But they can take different tactics to improve their reach and receive better engagement from their audiences.
1. Diversify your strategies
Affiliates should focus on learning and experimenting with new strategies every day. For example, media buying (purchasing targeted online audiences through ad placements on websites and in mobile apps) is a discipline that has been mastered by the very few, but very successful affiliates. This means there’s an opportunity for more affiliates to capitalize on this tactic.
There are a few other easy tips you can pick up. Try creating redirects, growing your email list, and only promoting quality services and products.
2. Know your audience
Affiliates must have a deep understanding of their target consumers. In the past, affiliates have relied on a few strategies to reach a broadly defined audience. In an increasingly competitive landscape, a targeted approach will be more effective.
Affiliates must know all about their audience: what they need, what they care about, where they spend time online, what messages speak to them best, and more. Continuous testing is one way to learn this information. The more data affiliates have, the more specific and targeted they can make their offering. And they’ll be in a better position to achieve their goals.
3. Focus on quality
As search engines become more refined and more precise in terms of how they deliver search results, both merchants and affiliates alike must commit to quality. For affiliates, this means providing relevant, up-to-date content in a user-friendly environment.
For merchants, it means offering a high-quality product that meets the needs of their target market, in a way that’s more convenient than what the competition offers.
A final word
Though affiliate marketers now operate in a more challenging environment, affiliates can learn to adapt. And as online marketing matures, performance marketers who zero in on quality and excellence will ensure the success of their businesses. Get better or get bitter.
Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she led a variety of marketing and communications projects at San Francisco startups. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After living nearly a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned to her home of Charleston, SC, where you can find her enjoying the sun and salt water with her family.