February 2011 is perhaps the starting point for any discussion of the current role of content in performance marketing. Google’s then roll out of the Panda update was the search giant’s first systemic step towards emphasising the value of pure, quality content in terms of its rankings and which penalised what it deemed ‘thin sites’, low on quality and sometimes guilty of ‘black hat’ tactics that attempted to manipulate their way to the top of valuable search queries. For both advertisers and publishers alike, this was a new dawn and the upshot was that many brands were forced to rethink their approach online, moving content plans to the very core of their online and indeed affiliate strategy.
Whilst the initial rollout saw varying degrees of collateral damage with some unwarranted casualties seeing huge drop-offs in their natural traffic, the update seems to have had the desired effect and forced all digital natives to place a new value on providing content for their audiences that is both relevant and valuable. This is equally true within the performance marketing channel, and if anything, has arguably added a new legitimacy to an environment which may previously have been seen by some as slightly murky; littered with banner farms, keyword-stuffed review sites and dodgy discount code providers. Now, to ensure consistent traffic levels, affiliate sites of all persuasions are compelled to think of their audiences rather than their rankings first, and to consider what value they can add to the customer journey.
Though some may always see the repositioning of the search goalposts as a negative, the focus on content by Google has to some extent been a boon to affiliates who are in the perfect position to take advantage of it. As independent mediators between consumers and brands their notional objectivity and insight is precisely what online users demand during the pre-purchase phase of the customer journey. Content marketing provides the perfect tool for affiliates to exploit this. It is by no means an easy task, but by producing a consistent stream of relevant, valuable and insightful content on a subject area, affiliates can benefit in various ways. They can develop trust with their audience, engage new traffic niches, foster relationships and generate links and referrals from other authoritative sources. Content affiliates can also develop their own brand identity and personality, and by doing so encourage the ‘virality’ of the content they share. There is much to be gained, and in a back-to-front kind of way all this can culminate in ever greater performance for both affiliates and the brands they work with. Invariably the traffic coming their way is more numerous, more qualified and more disposed to converting.
The subsequent updates that Google has rolled out since 2011 have sought to refine and extend much of what the original Panda update started. With an ever more nuanced understanding of what users are searching for online the role of content has changed dramatically and for affiliates and their brand partners it is an essential component of any effective performance marketing relationship.