Leadership Perspectives

Affiliate Program Partnership: Go All-In. Get More Personal. And Own It All the Way.

Becky Doles

Affiliate program partnership

This article was originally published on PerformanceIn.com.

In the current economic climate, instead of casting a wide net and pumping budget into the duopolistic marketing machines, it may be time to think more intentionally with your advertising dollar. Consider shifting your ad spend to a more strategic, low-risk channel such as performance marketing. Take a step back and rethink who you partner with and how you partner with them. Perhaps, go deep and enlist a small but meaningful group of trusted partnerships to collaborate and get true traction. These should be partners you know by first name and can work with on a one-one-one basis to identify your ideal collective audiences.

(Wait? Did I just say, collective? Yup, more on that later.) 

It’s time to take ownership of your best relationships. Own the relationships directly (through an in-house program, for example) or indirectly (via a network) — it doesn’t matter. But be a relationship steward, not a control freak. Provide your partners with the tools and data to give them autonomy, but build in shared accountability. These special partners are the pick of your portfolio. Set them up for success. 

In this type of arrangement, you and your partner own the outcomes together, end-to-end. Sure, the alignment of incentives is technically what affiliate marketing is all about, but it doesn’t always look that way in practice. Why do it? A smaller group of high-quality partnerships can lead to greater audience insight and more profitable campaigns for brands — and more targeted and personalized offers for consumers. 

Here’s how to make one-to-one partnerships work for you.

Owning the Strategy Together: Collective Thinking

The Collective Customer

The first step is to create a truly shared understanding of your collective customer. Given that the partner is responsible for helping you source this customer, you have to come to terms with the fact that this is a customer you share with your partner. Maybe not forever, but perhaps so — it’s up to the customer. 

If you are all-in, you’ve already bought into the notion that the partnership drives incremental value. (Otherwise, why bother?) That value originates in the information gaps that a consumer simply cannot fill through you (or your website) alone. These gaps could be a comparison against your competitors, or an unbiased assessment of your product or service, or a recommendation from a friend. Letting go of the question of “whose customer” he or she may be frees you to work together for the collective customer. 

Once you confirm your ideal collective customers with your partners, they should share some of their most insightful data about those customers, like the qualities that indicate a repeat buyer, or signs that point to a subscription renewal. If they’re good, your partners will know more about what it takes to land these consumers than you do. They may know which types of users increasingly invest in your products or services, which advocate your brand to their friends, which go to your competitors, and even what incentives are most effective in generating interest for different personas. Think about all of the ways you can use this valuable information to improve your profitability. 

Moments of Truth

With that collective knowledge, you should work backwards, together. This means asking your partners: 

  • Where do you find audiences?
  • What keywords do you use?
  • What were these customers looking for?
  • What offers ‘sealed the deal’?
  • Where can you find more that look like them? 
  • And, most importantly, “What was the ‘moment of truth’ that caused them to seek out your site?” 

If you have a great relationship with your partner, these questions can reveal learnings that you otherwise wouldn’t find. Expect to have these conversations often, and not with the intention to steal your partner’s secret sauce, but rather to work harder to help them find you more customers, faster. 

While you’re at it, look at the profitability of acquiring different types of customers through this partner. Can you provide them with enough offers and data to enable them to serve the right offer at the moment of truth? Consider working together on a test plan to see which offers resonate best with which audiences, looking at trends such as user behavior, user motivation, and media consumption. 

Your Commitments

With the true collective customer in mind, sit down with your partner and set objectives and KPIs for acquiring them. This means treating your partner as an extension of your business, sharing your business goals, and being transparent about what you need from them. How do you make it worth your partner’s while to invest their time and energy into achieving your goals? A good place to start is explaining the tactics you’re already using to attract these customers and what a successful partnership means to you. 

Policy Busters

Once plans are established, think about the barriers that could stand in the way of your top partners and their ability to achieve your goals. Ask yourself, “For my top partners, do the policies I have in place work in concert or in opposition with their practices?” Not saying to redefine your moral compass, but to take a good hard look in the mirror and assess what rules you are asking your top partners to work around. Consider what it would mean to remove some of that friction. 

When I ran a network (a few years back), we used to call this exercise “policy-busters.” I recommend you try a similar exercise in a whiteboard session with your team. Some policies are relics because no one took the time to periodically review them or question them. For the top partners who are working hard for you, can you find marketing policies, customer service policies, and pricing policies that need a second look? 


Speaking of policies, take a good look at your pricing policies and payout structures to make sure your rewards are commensurate with the actions your partners are asked to take. The harder the ask, the higher the pay. For example, are they willing to create custom experiences and integrations with your site? If you need net-new customers, can you double the payout? If you are looking to reward loyalty, can you set up a payout that incentivizes quality or product adoption? 

Owning the Execution: Tools and Data

If you go all-in with a partner, you have to ensure you provide the necessary tools and data to help them personalize an offer at the moment of truth. This is not an easy one to solve. 

For example, if partners are going to target customers in real time, what information do they need to make to serve a distinct ad live. What kinds of pipes (e.g., APIs, integrations) are required to help your partners segment their audiences for you (e.g., new vs. existing customers)? What is required to test offers? What data do they need to create custom audiences? This kind of personalization is only possible when you are collectively owning the process of growing customers with your partners. 

Owning the Optimization: Operating Rhythm Mentality

And lastly, it is about a commitment to change. With great data comes great responsibility. As in a commitment to ask the right questions and figure out what is working, what is not, and iterating. This is what it’s all about. 

Think about how often you review data together. Think about how often you will review the data. And think about holding each other accountable to taking actions that move the relationship forward on a quarterly basis. Carve out the time, commit to an operating rhythm, and invest in each other’s success. That’s how one-to-one partnerships are done. 

To learn more about building an operating rhythm with a small group of high-quality partnerships, watch my new webinar, “Taking Ownership of Publisher Growth.” You’ll hear best practices and advice from me and Chris Tradgett, co-founder and CMO of Publisher Discovery, on how to set your program up for success with a steady pipeline of partnerships. Click here to watch now.

For more entertaining discussions on affiliate marketing, you can also check out my recent podcast appearances:

Becky Doles

Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she handled content strategy and marketing communications at several tech startups in the Bay Area. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned home to Charleston, SC, where you can find her strolling through Hampton Park with her pup and enjoying the simple things between adventures with friends and family.

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