If you’re looking to grow your affiliate programme by recruiting affiliates through a nifty affiliate network, welcome to 1998. If you want to grow your revenue through synergistic partnerships, which may also include affiliates, welcome to performance marketing.

Affiliate or partner?

I know, I know. They’re just words and everyone says ‘affiliate’ anyway, and nobody really cares and those who do should just get over it, right?

Wrong. This isn’t just semantics.

Ok, yes, early coupon sites and shady players painted the word affiliate in a negative light back in the day and plenty of people simply don’t want to be called affiliates any longer. That alone is fair enough – stop insulting the folks who are driving your bonus.

But again, this isn’t just semantics. There are real differences between how ‘affiliate’ and ‘partner’ programmes are managed. For instance, one tends to be judged by the size of the programme’s network; the other by the quality of the network. One requires continuous recruiting and onboarding to grab long-tail revenue; the other, a continuous generation of creative ideas, content and strategies to drive loyal revenue. One tends to be focused on deals and coupons; the other on brand value. One engages their network through mass emails; the other engages their extended team through individual and small group conversations. One relationship is owned by the network; the other, owned directly by the brand, with workflows managed by the platform. One is more about a repeatable process; the other, about relationships. One is… well, you get the picture.

The point is, there is definitely a difference between working with an affiliate versus a partner. And it is tangible.

Types of partnerships

Technically, an affiliate is a type of partner, though I do find myself saying things like ‘partners and affiliates’ to distinguish the two. In my mind (and in many others’) traditional affiliates tend to be last-click contributors like coupon, loyalty and price comparison sites, while partners can sit anywhere on the funnel and rarely benefit from last click crediting, even when they deserve it.

Bloggers and other content sites used to be considered ‘traditional affiliates’ simply because they had to join an affiliate network to get paid. But once tracking technology gave us visibility into the full consumer journey beyond the last click, we discovered that many content sites – those producing truly valuable content – were contributing to conversions much more than we realised and weren’t being rewarded for their incremental value.

In many ways, this puts many content sites, particularly those with a strong following and brand affinity, in the category of influencer. And these influencers, by the way, can be managed and paid on the same platform alongside traditional affiliates, so long as the platform offers flexible payment options beyond last click CPA, such as recurring fees and CPC.

Social influencers, who successfully promote brands across social platforms and may not even have a blog, are who typically come to mind when we think of influencers but don’t stop there. Consultants and analysts who rely on your product are absolutely influencers. And book authors who write about your industry definitely fit in this category.

And then there’s this overarching term we hear quite often: ‘non-traditional partners’.

Non-traditional partners

If affiliates are traditional partners, ‘non-traditional’ partners are essentially any individual or company who wouldn’t or couldn’t join an affiliate network or partner marketplace, but who would absolutely promote a brand if it synergistically made sense to do so. Under this definition, influencers are often referred to as non-traditional partners.

I’m not sure how I feel about the term ‘non-traditional partner’ and I hope the industry comes up with something better as this relationship becomes more, well, traditional, but it’s certainly better than ‘affiliate’, so I’ll leave it alone. What I’m more interested in doing is sharing some real-world examples that will hopefully open your mind to partners you may not have thought to consider and whose onboarding, workflows and payments can be managed on the right performance marketing platform, just as easily as a traditional affiliate.

Professional athletes

Athletes are an easy example. It’s highly unlikely that a professional athlete – or even a popular fitness instructor with a large social following – would join an affiliate network or a SaaS platform’s marketplace. But brands partner with both types of athletes all the time and pay them for their influence and endorsements.

And here’s the thing: fitness brands have always known that their athletes influence fans’ preferences, yet they haven’t always known how much. As a result, they couldn’t tell whether they were over- or under-paying for their contribution or how to maximise their efforts.

Performance marketing platforms that offer referral-based tracking alongside partner-based contracting and workflows provide fitness brands with the ability to track and manage all areas of their athlete’s online contribution as well as some areas of their offline contribution.

By learning how their athletes contribute to sales, brands can adjust their strategies to better optimise their collaboration and remunerate their partner appropriately.

University and booksellers

The internet didn’t exist when I was in college, but if it did, I would not have wanted to see banner ads on my university’s website. And I certainly wouldn’t want my university referred to as an affiliate.

That said, if I signed up for classes online and were given a landing page of the exact books I needed for my classes, that would have saved me the enormous hassle of trying to find the books, the time spent waiting and the pain of having to take the bus across town to the other bookstore thanks to the typical out-of-stock-issues.

So long as the university was transparent in their dealings and the professors weren’t getting kickbacks (i.e. the books were chosen because they were the right books for the class), I would be ok knowing the university partnered with a portfolio of relevant book suppliers and publishers to provide that service. I would be even more ok with it if they funnelled their earnings directly into the student centre or healthier eats at the dining hall.

Whether the bookseller and university chose to partner via CPA, fixed fee or even no fee at all, providing mutual benefit while avoiding any and all perceived conflict, both parties can manage the contracting, product distribution and reporting in one system – conveniently, the same system the booksellers use to pay their content partners and coupon affiliates, as well as manage and sync their product catalogue feeds.

New ideas

Imagine you sell laptops, productivity software or other work-related products for entrepreneurs and small businesses. You’ve hit a plateau working with affiliates and are looking to expand beyond bloggers and comparison sites. What kinds of partnerships might make sense?

What about forging a synergistic relationship with co-working spaces and chambers of commerce? Neither are likely to join an affiliate network or partner marketplace, but both would benefit from direct partnerships with brands that let them offer discounted products to their members.

Making it work

There are three main points I hope you walk away with.

When it comes to growing your performance program, think outside the box. Think about who your customer is and what type of membership or programme they might join or organically be a part of. Next, consider whether and how that group’s leader/owner/influencer would benefit from your products or services and how you can partner to provide a valuable and synergistic offering.

Don’t set it and forget it. Work together as true partners and focus your combined efforts on providing thoughtful solutions that make sense for their members, attendees or fans.

Your true, synergistic partners are not affiliates. Set expectations on both sides of the relationship and let them know you recognise their valuable contribution by referring to them as partners.