For bloggers and influencers who seek to capitalise on their followings, affiliate has always been a viable channel to monetise their content. It may have taken a backseat to display, PR, and social media, but it had a seat at the “monetisation” table nonetheless. Recently, affiliate networks and advertisers have taken a renewed interest in content publishers as advertisers’ collective interest in – and appetite for – influencers has further developed. 

As a blogger myself, I am a part of many conversations about the state of monetisation. As a member of CJ Affiliate’s content team, I help hundreds of bloggers and advertisers build relationships. This coexistence gives me a unique perspective on what is working in affiliate and what isn’t, informed both by anecdotal accounts and a wealth of data which tend to corroborate these accounts.  

The takeaway is that, as the blogosphere continues to grow and marketing strategies become more sophisticated and integrated, affiliate has become an increasingly attractive channel for bloggers to monetise quickly and easily. To capitalise on this opportunity, advertisers must take account of how the affiliate ecosystem is evolving with an eye towards how many publishers prefer to operate.

With all that in mind, here are the biggest trends and shifts I have observed from the past year and moving into 2017. 

1. Respect the workflow: Deep linking and automation tools are critical

One of the keys to success in any field is to cater to the needs of your audience. In affiliate, one of the critical understandings is that content publishers hardly ever log in to a network to source their affiliate links. Instead they pull links as they’re creating content, preferably through a bookmarklet, browser extension or automation tool. Networks with simpler tools that don’t require bloggers to change their workflow are prioritised over those that require extra steps. Advertisers on networks without these tools may find that publishers choose to work with them through sub-affiliates that are more user-friendly than going direct.

As a side note, deep linking and other automation tools are even more important when working with large media sites and magazines as they start to dip their toe into the affiliate space. Instead of a single blogger or a small group of contributors, these sites have writers, editors, and commerce managers. Getting everyone on board with complicated procedures for adding links is unlikely, so simple tools that are easy to add to workflow and teach to team members are a must.

2. Forging affiliate relationships with pay-to-play

Increased interest and involvement with affiliate in the influencer space has been evidenced by a 46% increase in publishers in our content programme in 2016. Despite this growth, advertisers must stay mindful of publisher preferences – and sponsored posts, or placements, are still what the vast majority of publishers most desire (as opposed to organic posts). There’s no doubt that they see the opportunity in affiliate revenue, but most publishers (especially influencers) take a content-first approach. Translation: they add organic affiliate links when the content calls for it, not the other way around. Writing what they love is part of why they’re popular, but it can mean organic affiliate linking is the exception rather than the rule.

For advertisers looking to forge new relationships with new publishers, sponsored posts are the easiest and fastest way to get a publisher joined and active. A sponsored post moves you to the front of the line instead of waiting for the publisher to find the right time to talk about you. Sponsored posts also give advertisers greater control over their messaging as they can provide actual content and approve the draft before it goes live. Social amplification is often a component of these sponsored post deals as well.  

A successful sponsored post can show a publisher that their readers respond well to an advertiser, which means more organic linking in the future. But it should be noted that placement fees for sponsored posts vary widely. Advertisers considering these placements should ask publishers for page views and social data as well as examples of previous sponsored posts to make sure the publisher aligns with their goals. Also keep in mind that most content publishers care a lot about brand fit. If they don’t think the content or product is a good fit, money won’t matter.

3. Increased interest in product 

Because content publishers are often paid for posts, sometimes it can be hard to get their interest with product as the only compensation. However, as we’re onboarding more publishers and teaching them how affiliate works, they’re better able to appreciate the value of product for post. From the advertiser’s perspective, product can be a low-budget way to grab a publisher’s attention, as it gives them the chance to put a product or service into action which provides the valuable peer-to-peer style review consumers respond to. It’s hard for bloggers to talk about a brand without this first-hand experience or the custom photography/video they prefer over generic product images. 

We’ve seen product used very effectively as an activation tool and as this trend continues to grow, it is important that advertisers be very clear about their expectations up front and in writing. Bloggers receive many unsolicited products for review consideration, so if providing product is a quid pro quo for a post (as opposed to simply a review) they’ll need to communicate that and come to an agreement first. Advertisers should also be prepared to see products discussed outside of traditional reviews, including personal narratives, creative styling, or social-media-ready images. 

4. New social networks

With 2016 coming to a close, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the flurry of new social platforms now available. Content publishers tend to be early adopters of social platforms, eager to see which work best for their readers and can help them grow their following. More of them are offering – along with their usual social amplification on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram – additional amplification on Snapchat, Instagram Stories, or Facebook Live (most of the publishers who were using Periscope or Meerkat last year have switched to Facebook Live, since the Facebook algorithm gives it a strong preference). 

Advertisers should keep in mind that many social platforms have limited linking ability (particularly Snapchat and Instagram) so they’re not ideal for affiliate but may be included simply to help the publisher drive content to their audiences. When negotiating with content publishers, advertisers should consider optimal social platforms for optimisation and may even want to set aside some budget so the publisher can “boost” their post on platforms that allow it.

5. Flexible (and publisher-friendly) programme terms

Because influencers often limit themselves to only a few partners, if they don’t see the value in a relationship, they may set it aside in favour of one with higher conversion rates. High-cost products can attract content publishers looking for a strong commission. But high price tags tend to mean less impulse buys, a longer wait before purchase, and additional consumer research denying content publishers that last click they need to get paid. Bloggers may find that relationships with these advertisers aren’t paying off and begin to devote their attention to lower priced products and easier sells. 

One easy workaround for advertisers to keep the high-quality traffic and brand-awareness boost these publishers provide is to offer a CPC programme term that shows publishers you value the relationship and the traffic regardless of purchase. 

In the travel vertical, this plays out in a similar way. More and more, publishers are moving away from programmes paying on a completed stay model. Their complaints: they have to wait too long to get paid, it’s hard to effectively gather data when they don’t find out anything about the stay until it’s over, and these agile publishers like to see what’s happening and adjust their content right away. 

Completed stay advertisers are being set aside for CPC advertisers and those that pay a flat fee at time of booking. The flat fee at booking in particular allows publishers to be compensated quickly, gives them the data they need to make site adjustments, and lets the advertiser set a rate that already has the possibility of cancellation built in. 

6. Identifying synergies across marketing channels

When affiliate teams decide to include content and influencers in their publisher base, the most successful brands sync up with other departments within their marketing team who may touch influencers. This may be a social media team, a PR agency, an in-house influencer programme, or a combination of those teams. Working together allows the affiliate team to provide consistent messaging to content publishers and to decide if they want to supplement the existing influencer strategy or if teams want to combine their efforts and run their influencer relationships through the affiliate channel. 

As a supplement, affiliate can be a great place to send publishers interested in working with a brand when the brand has limited resources to start new relationships in their internal programmes. Moving all influencer relationships through affiliate provides increased data on clicks and conversions to help brands identify their strongest influencers, plus the affiliate relationship provides an ongoing incentive for coverage, a big PR goal.

This is consistent with the larger digital marketing trend focusing on cross-device messaging and an omni-channel customer experience. Affiliate no longer needs to be a channel focused largely on promotions. Larger brand initiatives can find a ready pool of partners through affiliate, including the storytelling and social presence of influencers. When one creates an affiliate programme that understands and appeals to influencer needs, it can build a more robust and data-driven digital marketing team.