Originally published on ClickZ
What were we thinking? Since the early days of the channel, we’ve cursed our affiliate programs with the “marketing” label. We’ve always seen it as affiliate marketing run by affiliate marketers, essentially an alt version of paid media where other people, companies, or websites advertise your products on a performance basis.
The problem is that our affiliates (those people, companies, and websites) are not at all like paid media. Where we got it wrong was in thinking that you could just turn this channel on the same way you could flip a switch and get traffic from paid search. Affiliates are autonomous, not algorithms, and working with them requires perfecting a relationship, not a spreadsheet. So by relegating our affiliates to the marketing department, we’ve been going about it all wrong.
Flex your biz dev
Imagine, for example, you’re looking to hire someone to run your affiliate program. You receive two resumes. One applicant has great experience in digital marketing, and the other in business development. Which do you hire? Many in the space would choose the one with a marketing background, because . . . marketing, right?
But if you look closer at that resume, you see a set of skills vital to marketing channels like paid search: Optimizing bids, reconciling spreadsheets, setting up programmatic display buys, and maybe writing campaign ad copy. Some of those skills might come into play if you’re an affiliate professional, but they are not what make the superstars shine.
Then, check out the business development resume. If it’s any good, it’s all about relationship building: Discovering, negotiating, and nurturing partnerships for growth and profit. Now we’re talking affiliate.
The real affiliate rockstar is the person on the phone all day, pitching the program to prospective affiliates, building relationships, and brainstorming with existing ones. They’re networking, they’re researching potential partners, and they’re negotiating contracts. What they’re not doing is treating affiliates as a plug-and-play, set-it-and-forget-it traffic generator. Instead, they are investing the time to collaborate with affiliates and turn them into high-value partners.
Like business development, the affiliate channel is about identifying individuals and business partners who can successfully promote your business. It’s about recruiting them, contracting them, and then maintaining and managing the relationship for continued performance growth. And thinking of affiliate as a traditional marketing channel has led many down the wrong path, toward mediocrity and away from explosive growth. That’s held affiliate back, but it’s not any inherent weakness. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Research over the past two years has confirmed that partnerships of all kinds, affiliate included, have enormous potential to drive growth. The most mature programs contribute an average of 28% of overall revenue for companies. But until we recognize partnerships as a growth engine distinct from sales and marketing, we are constraining its potential to grow businesses and, as a result, to launch great careers.
Change the mindset and the org chart
Affiliate doesn’t lack for qualified people, they’re everywhere — in-house programs, agencies, and networks. But we continue to limit their impact by putting affiliate programs in a marketing bucket. Even repackaging affiliate as “partner marketing” as some have done fails to solve the main problem, which is that affiliate should never have been the CMO’s bailiwick in the first place. Where it belongs is starring in a broader partnership organization under a Chief Growth Officer (CGO) or even better, a Chief Partnerships Officer (CPsO), and, given its profit potential, within earshot of the CEO.
While traditional sales and marketing channels have lost much of their sway with consumers who now have unlimited research and reviews at their fingertips, referral partnerships as a growth channel are exploding. So is the need for professionals who can harness a more collaborative, authentic, and relationship-based skill set. Stronger and more authentic relationships with affiliates are more akin to influencer and brand ambassador partnerships and can deliver much more than traffic. Done right, they create:
- Greater brand loyalty and retention of high-performing partners
- Improved performance across your entire partner network, not just the top few
- Increased revenue from a wider portfolio of partners using customized payment models and rewards
- Greater content quality and brand alignment through improved communication
And finally, while affiliate marketing was once considered a wild west of iffy behavior, affiliate partnerships are more likely to garner consumer trust. If you nurture relationships with authentic affiliate partners that have already built trust with your target demographic, you benefit from the halo. Put simply, if someone hears about your product from someone they trust, they’re already more likely to trust that your product is worth buying. It’s true of influencer marketing, and it’s true of affiliate partnerships.
How to pivot to partnership
Whether you’re already running an affiliate partnership program or want to kick things off right, take off your marketing hat.
Here’s what that might look like:
- Recruit and/or train your affiliate teams to be partnership gurus, armed with tools and skills for the entire partnership life cycle, from recruiting to communication
- Invest in partnership automation so your human efforts can focus on managing relationships and keeping lines of communication open
- Don’t exploit partners or potential affiliates; be transparent with data and pay fairly based on value
- Remember: Keywords don’t have feelings, but partners do, and when you show flexibility, adaptability, transparency, and appreciation for your affiliates (even when pandemics strike) you will be rewarded with loyalty, creativity, allegiance, and results.
No shade to the CMO, but start looking at and working with affiliates as partners to your business instead of inventory, and you’ll unleash both their full potential and your own full potential as a growth driver at your organization.