After a torrid few months that saw the world brought to a standstill by Covid-19, everyone is desperately searching for signs that we are out of the woods, both personally and professionally.

With ad forecasts now being revised up marginally from earlier predictions, businesses are finally allowing themselves to look beyond the week-to-week and start planning for a post-Covid return to something resembling normality.

Last month, as part of our Impact Growth 2020 series of events, I hosted a webinar that sought to explore whether the storm is indeed behind us and, if so, what the next steps are in our quest for a return to a strong and successful marketing industry.

Joining me for the session were Emily Creswell, Affiliate Lead at HelloFresh, Neil Robbins, CEO of digital marketing agency Silverbean, and Andrew Turner, Commercial Director of Performance Media Agency NMPi.

The conversation provided much debate as our three speakers shared a range of experiences and predictions from their positions in distinct corners of the industry.

Indeed, the overarching question of the session, with which we kicked off, saw three very different points of view on where in the grand scheme of this global crisis we currently stand.

The storm

“From an affiliate marketing perspective there was no storm for us to deal with,” said Neil Robbins. “Unless it was a travel and leisure sector client, we’ve only seen significant growth across all territories. From our perspective there were no burning issues for us to be concerned about.”

Yet on the brand side, it is a very different story. As the UK fought over supermarket stockpiling and grocery delivery slots, meal delivery service HelloFresh found itself struggling unable to cope with demand.

“Covid saw a huge surge in sales for HelloFresh,” said Emily Cresswell, “but we were not necessarily prepared for that. We had to close checkouts and shut down our marketing activity, which had a huge impact for media partners and initially saw a big backlash from stakeholders.”

But the business, which Cresswell admits was a victim of its own success, is committed to learning from its experiences. She added: “I believe we are heading towards the end of one storm, but we anticipate a lot of significant challenges to face that we are now making sure we’re prepared for. We’re implementing strategies and initiatives now to make sure that we know how to handle this situation when we come to the next storm.”

But it was the performance model approach to marketing that the likes of NMPi found saved them from feeling a greater impact of the pandemic.

Andrew Turner shared his experience: “Where we have been able to deliver on a performance model we’ve been able to stretch across as many channels as possible, targeting higher up the funnel, which previously wouldn’t have worked on a tight acquisition cost, which is exciting. Suddenly it has opened itself up.”

Essential communication

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us all, from the top of government right down to businesses and individuals, it is the importance of keeping open channels of communication.

The speed with which circumstances were changing – often sparked by unexpected political decisions – forced all our speakers to review the way they worked.

Cresswell said: “We tried to communicate openly as much as possible with partners, which was previously missing from the business. It’s easy to think of a partner as someone doing something for you, especially lower funnel affiliates, but Covid has shown more than ever the importance of mutually beneficial partnerships.

“We’re now in the process of putting in some best practice processes so people aren’t just hearing from us when we want something or have some bad news. We definitely ruffled a few feathers in the way we went about things. Moving forward we need to value all partners.”

Communicating with partners also extends to sharing learnings and helping advise customers as they try to navigate these uncharted waters, which will pay dividends down the line.

Silverbean’s Robbins believes it’s a reminder to value the partnerships you have. He said: “That hasn’t always been the case in the affiliate marketing sector. This is a sustainable, stable channel and brands that are serious about this channel have realised the importance of it.”

Taking a long-term view is something that all our panellists advised, particularly when it is hard to forecast long-term. While transparency and immediacy is critical in a fast paced environment, this should be balanced with the demand for profitability and KPIs.

Diversification into partner marketing

With this in mind, our speakers were asked what place diversification has in the affiliate marketing model.

Cresswell sees diversification as a natural development for affiliate marketing.

She said: “We’ve always tried to push the boundaries of what the term affiliates means. Personally, I’d like to absorb all channels into affiliates and expand the meaning of the term because it doesn’t stand for that much on its own. We recognise that investing in new types of media partners and diversification in our traffic source invests in us as a business as well.”

Turner agreed, saying: “When you’re living in a volatile world, not knowing what’s around the corner, diversification is one of the best ways to protect ourselves”, while Robbins strongly believes there is an appetite for diversification.

He said: “Within the affiliate/partner channel we are advocating for diversification. Up until Covid we were starting to see demand for brand-to-brand partnerships and more interest in influencer content. We expect that to continue; diversification within the partner mix is absolutely critical.”

But as far as the immediate future is concerned, all three of my guests are expecting the unexpected.

What’s next?

At NMPi, Turner is conducting some post-COVID analysis in preparation for another spike in the pandemic. He said: “We are anticipating a second wave, and documenting what went well versus what didn’t in preparation for that as we head into the colder winter months.”

While over at HelloFresh, Cresswell said they have various contingency plans in place: “We’re more prepared with plans for different scenarios that could come from this. We need to be very reactive to initial trends and action things quicker but we’re also planning for what is next to come in affiliate marketing – I think we’ll see new, different types of affiliates with potential new audiences plus a new mindset of consumers and how they shop.”

Meanwhile at Silverbean Robbins is keeping his eye on overseas markets, where he has seen a rapidly growing interest in recent weeks, particularly in Australia, as European brands look to expand partnerships and affiliate marketing programmes. But it is in the maturity of the channel as a whole where he would like the focus to lie for everyone in the industry.

He said: “I hope the channel starts to take more responsibility to communicate the wonderful opportunities that exist. There’s too few people talking about that. We need to be advocating and promoting some of the many wonderful things that can be done if we are to grow and diversify the channel.”

And it was on that positive note that we began to draw the session to a close, with a very real feeling that, of all marketing channels, partnerships is emerging from the storm in a good place. We may have some more turbulence ahead, but what is clear is that everyone is keen to learn from past experiences, be in the strongest possible shape to tackle whatever lies ahead and that together we can continue to grow and diversify the partnership marketing channel for the future — whatever that looks like.