Two opposing attitudes characterise advertisers’ current sentiments about the makeup of their affiliate programmes. On the one hand, brands with mature programmes are increasingly uncomfortable with their reliance on just a handful of big-name affiliates for the vast majority of their sales, and are therefore eager for their long tail to contribute more. On the other hand, they believe that in pursuit of targets it is easier to increase sales from the top volume-drivers than it is to spend time and resource engaging affiliates from the long tail.
Both sentiments are understandable. Why have an affiliate programme with thousands of members if only a handful are producing significant enough sales volumes to justify the resource allocated to the channel? But, as research by Affiliate Window Client Strategist Matt Swan has shown, added together sales from the long tail equal those of a top 10 affiliate. The question for advertisers therefore is how to tap into this volume? For most, long tail engagement not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.
The importance of a dual approach
This article will draw on the examples of two programmes run by LBi bigmouthmedia and examine what has made our strategies for engaging and optimising the long tail successful. The common factor we share is a dual approach. This dual approach has two considerations. Firstly, that the long tail needs to be treated differently and judged against different metrics to those of the top performers. This means that rather than looking at the proportion of overall sales the long tail contribute, it is more relevant to look at month-on-month growth in sales from the long tail, as time is a more neutral benchmark than percentage of overall sales. Secondly, long tail engagement is a long-term project, so any strategy needs to be split between tactics for ‘quick wins’ on one hand and a commitment to ongoing optimisation on the other.
At LBi bigmouthmedia we began with an analysis of our low converting affiliates. Seeing that many of these were were content-rich and relevant sites which represented a good brand fit for the client, we focused our efforts on helping these long tail affiliates improve their conversion rates. Several ‘quick win’ tactics can prove effective here. The first step involves effective communication: finding out precisely what these affiliates need.
Advertisers should expect long tail sites to be more demanding in their requirements around copy and creative than other affiliates. Clear guidelines on what they can say on their sites help maintain compliance, whilst flexibility in producing creative in unusual sizes or formats gives them the tools to start promoting. Going one-step further, co-branded creative is still massively under-utilised in the affiliate channel for long tail sites, even though its effectiveness has been well-documented.
Efforts to win a publisher over as brand champions, such as with free products in return for writing reviews, or by offering prizes of gift vouchers in return for the best affiliate content each month, have also proven to be successful ‘quick win’ tactics for other advertisers in the past.
These quick win tactics resulted in a significant increase in the proportion of revenue-driving long tail affiliates on one of LBi bigmouthmedia’s campaigns from 7% to 11% over a 4 month period post-launch. Another saw a three-fold increase in active affiliates from just 3% of the affiliate mix to 9% from 2010-11. Finally, it is worth remembering that long tail partners are strong generators of traffic as well as sales, having accounted for 25% of traffic to LBi bigmouthmedia’s programmes in 2011.
That said, mobilising the affiliate long tail requires long term commitment and unfortunately the same tactics may not work for each affiliate in this group. Indeed, a lack of short-term influence is characteristic of the long tail. Instead of the peaks and troughs that characterise top volume-drivers, growth amongst the long tail will be much less pronounced. These affiliates are slower burners, and a successful strategy will be proven by gradual, year-on-year improvements rather than the rapid volume uplifts characteristic of the top performers as their newsletters are sent out.
Understanding this, at LBi bigmouthmedia we implemented an ongoing strategy of long tail optimisation for two of our clients. These revolved around encouraging ongoing affiliate engagement through rollouts of an affiliate portal, an affiliate ‘toolkit’ for banner and copy requirements, and Affiliate Days to deepen long tail affiliates’ engagement with the brands. This was coupled with continued recruitment focused on key content sites deemed to be on-brand and an ongoing analysis of where such sites could be given assistance in converting their traffic.
For more on successful long tail engagement strategies – and suggestions as to what changes might be necessary to the way such sites are recognised and rewarded –download Owen Hewitson’s presentation from last year’s A4U Expo London, ‘Making the Long Tail Wag’.