In my eight years of helping brands form influencer and content relationships in the affiliate channel, I’ve observed a familiar cycle: an affiliate team sets out to test with influencers, they dip their toes in the water with big expectations, scratch their heads over perceived lackluster results, and decide that it just didn’t work.
The problem here is that fixating on a very narrow view of success excludes valuable partnerships and prevents long term growth. It’s this “affiliate tunnel vision” – even subtle versions of it – that lead affiliate teams to sabotage their influencer marketing efforts by setting the wrong goals, comparing performance against established programme top performers, and giving up way too quickly.
Even if influencers never make it into your top ten, they’re still an essential part of a holistic, well rounded affiliate programme. This article highlights the reason influencers and “traditional” affiliates should co-exist in your affiliate programme, why the affiliate channel is so well positioned to make the most of influencer marketing, and how influencers and “traditional” affiliate models like loyalty, coupon and deal and cashback differ to better understand how to work them into your affiliate strategy.
The reason influencers and traditional affiliates should co-exist in your strategy
Besides the obvious benefits of influencers and content creators – brand awareness, social engagement, third-party endorsement, social proof, new customers, beautiful photos and storytelling (I could go on!) – a big reason to include influencers in your programme is the part they play in the customer journey.
In Google’s study, Decoding Decisions: Making Sense of the Messy Middle, the messy middle is described as the space between the trigger and purchase, a place where “consumers loop between exploring and evaluating the options available to them until they are ready to purchase”. This crucial period of shopping deliberation takes place in a world of unlimited choice and information, meaning that consumers use an endless number of touchpoints when making a purchase decision. Google counted more than 15 types of touchpoints in their shopping observations, including many that overlap with or include influencers and creators: review sites, video sharing sites, social media, and blogging sites.
It makes sense to be present in as many customer paths as possible, and Google agrees: “Presence can be all it takes to shift preferences in the messy middle. There’s power in just showing up at the right moment. And this effect is visible across every category we tested.” Investing in partners with influence (vs only last-click top performers) strengthens your strategy overall, benefits all publishers, and the entire programme sees a lift as a result.
Why you should run influencer programmes through affiliate
Yes, it makes sense to diversify – but maybe you’re wondering why influencer partnerships should go through the affiliate channel. According to eMarketer, 79% of US marketers struggle with measuring influencer marketing. In that sense, influencer and affiliate marketing make the perfect pair – affiliate has powerful tracking capabilities, deep data, tools, and easy payment and invoicing. Marketers gain the ability to go deeper with their metrics and report on clicks, sales, new customers, understand the customer journey, and even measure cross-device. Influencers gain a view into how the products, brands, and links they promote are resonating with their audience in real-time, allowing them to make data-driven decisions about what they share and how – something that’s sorely missing in other channels.
In addition, the always-on nature of affiliate encourages influencers to share more often about your brand between campaigns or activations. Jess Keys, the blogger behind The Golden Girl says, “I’ll have partners that I worked with two years ago and they’re amazing brand partners, but maybe they just don’t have the budget to pay for a sponsorship right now. However, I still love them, and I’m incentivised to keep sharing about them because I can earn commission.”
Though of course, once you pull these partners into affiliate, a lot of advertisers fall into the trap of “affiliate tunnel vision”. A better approach is to think about influencers as a separate channel within your affiliate programme. Bucket them together on a single programme term or sort them into publisher groups based on different personas or criteria to track success with realistic benchmarks. Focus on growing and nurturing that group of partners. Of course, the most helpful thing you can do is to master how to approach this publisher persona properly.
Some differences between influencers and traditional affiliates
If you want to see success from influencers in your affiliate programme, it’s imperative to understand their unique characteristics. It may go without saying but comparing “traditional” affiliates and influencers can feel a bit like making sweeping generalisations. All publisher personas are unique, and many publishers don’t fall explicitly within their category. For this exercise, I’m classifying the “traditional” affiliate as coupon and deal or loyalty publishers, and influencers are classified as bloggers, social media influencers, and vloggers.
While traditional affiliates have varying complexities in business models (i.e. display, direct relationships), a significant portion of their business tends to be built around affiliate. They’re familiar with the industry and its intricacies and usually have teams that are specifically focused on managing affiliate brand relationships. The prevalence of these partnerships means that affiliate teams speak the same language as their tried and true partners.
One important thing to understand is that influencers are balancing multiple income streams and interact with various channels regularly – PR, social, influencer, branding, and affiliate teams all work with influencers. Creators are in such high demand that they’re constantly bombarded by different types of requests from brands and agencies with very different goals and expectations. Additionally, a lot of influencers are small-scale operations, whether they’re managing every aspect of the business themselves, with a small team, or they funnel business requests through an agent or assistant.
Because creators are juggling so many types of requests, be explicit and detailed when sending out requests and communicate to influencers – don’t assume that affiliate is their native language or primary monetisation channel. Make sure to share your goals, expectations, and KPIs upfront (while also being friendly – you’re still building a relationship) and check in with progress throughout.
Bhavin Desai, VP of Product Strategy at CreatorIQ says that “[brands] that do really well are the ones that actually share their goals with their creators. They’re saying, ‘this is what we’re looking to achieve, and this is what good ROI looks like from a brand’s perspective’. And then there’s clarity on both sides around what success looks like, creators are continuing to post and leverage more content, and on the brand side, they’re just getting a much longer lifespan of that relationship by leveraging those data aspects.”
Know that if you’re not working through an affiliate network for your campaign, influencers may not have the same access to data as you do when you’re monitoring success. Keys says, “A really great standard practice would be to check in midway through the campaign and say, ‘Hey, we love your content, thank you! It looks like you’ve had X amount of redemptions’ and let them know how they’re pacing.”
Partnership consideration: user interest vs authenticity
Though some may audit partners with tools like BBB reviews, traditional affiliates are usually open to working with a very wide range of brand categories as it benefits them to have a wealth of brands represented on their site – it brings legitimacy. When justifying putting more effort into a partnership, they’re much more considered, balancing user interest and the value that advertisers will bring to them long term with the amount of work it’ll take on the backend to maintain.
This idea of user experience gets kicked up a notch for influencers when it translates to value-driven authenticity. Influencers base their business on their personal brands, so the partnerships they take on must be a true reflection of who they are, their values, and the values of the community they’ve built.
This means they’re extremely selective about the brands they work with and take on a very limited number of partners. “The second that you post something that you don’t really believe in and you aren’t as enthusiastic about as you’re pretending to be, people see through it and they don’t trust you anymore. I’ve learned that the less partnerships you do, the higher you convert for the ones that you take on”, Keys shares. Maintaining this trust is paramount if creators want their content to perform, and if brands want to see success from these partnerships.
Influencers are unlikely to promote a product or brand without having first-hand experience with it. Says Keys, “I typically won’t take on a partnership unless it’s something that I already use, I’m already a fan of, or something that I’m more than willing to spend a lot of my own money on.”
Finding the perfect brand fit takes effort – there are a lot of tools built to do just this one piece of influencer marketing. One of the most straightforward strategies is to connect with your social team to find the influencers that are already tagging your brand and reaching out to get them joined to your affiliate programme to deepen the partnership – if they use and love your products already, it’s a match! Once you have a partnership in place, collaborate with your influencers. While you know a lot about your brand, they know their audience best and how to showcase your product successfully.
Commission rate is a huge bargaining chip for traditional affiliates – it’s their bread and butter.
Comparatively, if you’ve ever approached influencers before, you may have noticed that they prefer to work through sponsorships or on a campaign basis. A lot of marketers who are simply looking to test may balk at this, but there’s actually a lot of overlap here – placements and integration fees for traditional affiliates are completely normalised and accepted. Keys describes how sponsorships and affiliates work together as complementary and a one-two punch strategy, “I think paid works really well to get over the first hurdle to establish that relationship and establish yourself as a credible partner who really values what your influencer partners bring to the table.”
Influencer marketing is competitive, which means that it’s important to approach prospective partners with a solid offering – a strong commission rate, stellar product, interesting brand story, and budget for a flat fee will take you far. Many influencers prefer long term partnerships to one off campaigns – they feel more authentic – and the results from long term brand ambassadorships build over time as audiences are continually exposed to your brand message. A great way to make the most out of your partnership and encourage more sharing outside of the scope of work? Keys shares this tip, “do the example math for them and say, ‘if you made this many conversions – which is our goal-based on X% commission rate, you’ll make an additional $500 – $1000.”
While there’s a lot of nuances between the personas, at the end of the day, traditional affiliates and influencers both want the same thing: to make sure the customer experience is a good one. Both are integral to a holistic, well rounded affiliate strategy. If you’ve written off including influencers in your affiliate programme, you’re missing out. Affiliate has evolved and the time has come to expand your idea of success to see the bigger picture. After all, building relationships with those touchpoints at every level of the customer journey and being present in the messy middle have never been more important.