Throughout affiliate’s 20+ year evolution, one tenet remains constant: affiliate has always encompassed and embraced the gamut of marketing tactics. From coupons to search arbitrage to product reviews, affiliate marketing has long been a monetisation tool for all types of marketers. The channel’s uniqueness is anchored in its utility and application across varied mediums and distribution mechanisms. This uniqueness is an important consideration to inherently understanding the channel and its value.
Affiliate can take many shapes. Consider an influencer whose curated outfit-of-the-day that is monetised through affiliate links driving consumer discovery; or an article on a commerce-content destination monetising product recommendations in concert with affiliate; or price-savvy consumers who are midway through their shopping journey that may be incented to purchase and convert as a result of affiliate monetisation that lives in the form cashback.
The point is that despite what some may think about affiliate being a last-click channel, affiliate marketing can live at any point of the consumer journey, from driving discovery to consideration, to decision—and beyond. In fact, a recent Performance Marketing Association (PMA) study (aptly named “The Affiliate Marketing” study), indicated that content and bloggers had the largest share of US spend in 2018.
Affiliate marketing’s uniqueness, or versatility, lies in its ability to live in any content medium and to be distributed through a multitude of marketing channels. But it’s this same uniqueness that also prevented the channel from earning a position as a primary sales channel in the marketer’s mix. The versatility didn’t translate, and further clouded marketer understanding of the actual value affiliate marketing provided. Specifically, marketers struggled to understand how to measure affiliate value, how to use the channel to their advantage, and how to cultivate expertise. This problem still exists today.
While many in this industry are familiar with the confusion and to a degree, the apprehension that surrounds the channel, this isn’t founded on opinion: It is rooted in fact. Very recently, we commissioned research with Forrester Consulting—who confirmed this notion for us. More than 170 executive-level (C-suite) marketers were surveyed, with most citing a lack of channel understanding as what inhibits full optimisation of affiliate. There is a real struggle to understand how to measure the channel’s value and well-established history of bias that has caused marketers to prioritise the channels they know—the traditional (paid) primary sales channels—and de-prioritise the affiliate channel.
So, while we definitively know the problem surrounding affiliate is one of misunderstanding, why then is there a concerted effort to veil that problem rather than address it head-on? Specifically, there is an open dialogue and debate about the employment of the name ‘affiliate’ vs. ‘partnership’ marketing. Partnership or partner marketing makes the case that there are two sects of publishers co-existing inside the channel: affiliates and partners. Affiliates fall into the coupon and loyalty categories while the rest of the publisher types are lumped into the “partner” category (think: influencers and content-focused publishers). But is it fair to classify “affiliates” and “partners” differently or place them into separate performance categories? I would argue that it is both unfair to the affiliate and inaccurate to the value of affiliate marketing. After all, with such a large segment of spending—the largest—belonging to content publishers and bloggers according to the PMA report, how can they not be considered affiliates?
The attempt to rebrand the channel—to re-christen affiliate marketing as partner or partnership marketing—is not a solution to the problem that exists. But to realistically answer the burning question of whether “partner” marketing is an evolving model or just a load of nonsense, in short, it’s really neither.
The benefit of a long tenure in this industry has shown us that affiliate perceptions have little to do with naming conventions and everything to do with key stakeholders’ education and exposure to the affiliate channel. Calling affiliate marketing anything else now, only serves to create confusion by adding a “new” category with a “new” name and all the same problems.
Truth be told, in the midst of the back and forth over what to call the channel, we’re missing the real and obvious problem that exists. Instead, we’re ignoring it, hoping that renaming it will erase some of the stigmas attached. Yet the evidence that Forrester and the PMA uncovered supports just one productive ideology. Far from simply renaming the channel that won’t serve to solve any of these real problems, we have a common collective and vested interest to capture the attention of the C-suite and educate them on affiliate marketing. Until we do that, this issue will remain in the channel—whether newly minted or not.
As leaders in the affiliate space, we all need to be mindful of words: What we say matters. Words have weighted meaning and when applied in a given context, aim to shape—or reshape—the way in which we translate concepts. By adding nuance to the affiliate channel through labelling it anything other than what it actually is, perhaps only serves to further convolute an already hard-to-perceptually-decipher channel.
At the heart of the matter, the evolution of affiliate is not in the partner composition or in the labels. It’s in technology. Why are we seeing a rise of content and news publishers contributing to affiliate revenue? It’s because of the technological advancements happening that allow a brand to assign commission credit where they deem appropriate. For the longest time, last-click was the only model used. Not anymore. Now a brand can assign spend that aligns to their attribution model and where they see publishers having the biggest value and impact.
Perhaps in lieu of a new channel moniker, we instead find common ground and unite in trying to overcome the problems that actually exist. Let’s roll our sleeves and look pragmatically at this situation. Let’s address the root problems and challenges in our industry, including a more comprehensive channel understanding, and address them collectively, head-on.
Bottomline: Address the problem at hand (marketer education), rather than taking the easy way out by renaming a channel that fought tirelessly to earn its rightful seat at the marketing table.