Performance Marketing

The Benefits of Viewing Affiliates as a Branding Channel

Becky Doles

It’s called performance marketing for a reason. You pay only for specific results like sales, leads, or downloads. It’s why the industry has had so much success in the first place—marketers love the extra accountability. So why am I here today talking about “branding”? Does the concept of branding even apply to performance marketing at all?

Before you write me off as a heretic, give me a chance to explain. I’m not here to suggest that branding should be the ultimate goal for performance marketers, I’m not trying to argue that the CMO should take over affiliate management responsibilities, and I’m not going to tell you to start evaluating Coupon-Brand-Bidding-1affiliates with a new set of metrics. My intention is simply to illustrate how it can be beneficial to occasionally look at your affiliates through a different lens.

After all, a change in perspective can always be valuable. Sometimes a set of industry practices, buzzwords, or assumptions actually gets you stuck in certain mode of thinking. By breaking those habits, you can bring some extra creativity and fresh insight to the table. In this case, I thinkthe branding point of view can bring a useful perspective to performance marketers. Branding isn’t a replacement for the traditional performance marketing model, but it can help in several ways:

Paying Attention to How Affiliates Reflect Your Brand

While it’s wonderful to be so deeply focused on results like sales, that framework can lead you down an “ends justify the means” type of path. That approach can carry some unexpected side effects with it. For example, during your approval process you may not choose to inspect affiliates’ content very closely.

Unfortunately, this can leave the gate open for affiliates to post content that’s inaccurate, misrepresents your product or brand, contains inappropriate language, or otherwise reflects poorly on you. That’s not an ideal experience for your customers. They can end up frustrated, annoyed and even alienated—making them less likely to purchase from you down the road.

Of course, it can be difficult to weigh how much damage is truly created here. If affiliates are still managing to drive sales, where do you draw the line on what content they’re allowed to post? That’s up to you to decide. There are arguments to be made on both sides. From one perspective, if it isn’t broken why fix it? But on the other hand, who knows how an affiliate’s misleading content might impact your other marketing channels? These questions are tough, but there’s value in asking them. By considering the overall impact your affiliates are having, your marketing may stand to improve as a whole.

Thinking about the Long Term

On a related note, it may also be helpful to take a step back from obsessing over immediate results. I realize it can be very difficult to do this, especially considering that Affiliate Managers are typically compensated or evaluated based on their program’s revenue performance. Nevertheless, it can be worthwhile to take the long view here.

For example, let’s say your affiliate channel is primarily made up of coupon sites (a typical setup). Let’s also assume that you’re running last click attribution and giving full-rate commissions to coupon sites. What impact does that setup have on the long-term prospects of your affiliate program?

This can discourage new affiliates from joining your program. If coupon sites are going to get full credit for many of the sales that a content affiliate initiates, then why would the content affiliate promote you? How much will they realistically be able to earn? By excluding these value-adding affiliates, you can miss out on significant exposure and sales in the long run. Coupon sites may help you close more sales in the short term, but content affiliates can introduce you to more new customers over time. With the right encouragement, content affiliates can also become true evangelists of your brand. That kind of advocacy and support can be hard to replace, so it’s worth thinking.

Let’s also consider the message that coupons send to your customers. There’s nothing wrong with using them in moderation, but when they’re the bulk of your affiliate program you start to send the message that there’s always another discount around the corner. Over time, you may find that repeat customers refuse to pay full price—holding out for deals instead.

Emphasis on the Customer Journey

Branding typically takes a holistic approach, focusing on the bigger picture instead of minutia. If you start to look at your affiliate program in this way, as a part of the greater marketing whole rather than a siloed tactic, you may start asking some interesting questions about attribution, such as:

  • How does our affiliate channel align with our other marketing channels?

  • What incremental value does our affiliate channel provide that we aren’t getting elsewhere?

  • What crossover, if any, is there between our affiliate marketing channel and other channels?

In some cases, the affiliate channel can actually spill over into other areas without getting the credit. For example, long before I knew about affiliate marketing I would occasionally find myself on affiliate’s site while conducting some product research. Despite learning about a product on an affiliate’s site, I’d often follow by searching for the product on Google instead of clicking the affiliate’s link on their site. Any purchases I made thereafter would get credited to SEO—not to the affiliate channel. On the opposite side of the spectrum, at BrandVerity we’re very accustomed to catching blackhat affiliates cannibalizing brands’ paid search traffic. That’s an outcome that clearly isn’t favorable.

Of course, there are no perfect attribution models. Marketing and the science of human motivation may always preclude that on some level. However, my hope here is that by questioning the interplay of channels, you can make sure that your company’s overall marketing plan is as efficient as possible.

Treating Affiliates as an Extension of Your Brand

There’s certainly a trend towards Affiliate Managers focusing more on the relationship building aspect of their role, but it’s still somewhat common for publishers to get discounted, ignored or neglected. Brands work with many affiliates, and keeping up with all of them at once can be a real challenge. Despite that, it’s worth asking yourself the following: how strongly and convincingly will my affiliate promote me if I don’t make them feel valued? If I treat them like outsiders, why should they care about my brand?

As we mentioned earlier, affiliates can be incredibly productive for you if they’re brand evangelists. If you start to approach them as true marketing partners and build relationships with them, you really enable them to shine.

Becky Doles

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.

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