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Originally published in Modern Retail

Over the past year, three forces have converged in a way that has completely upended the old model of digital advertising and the path to customer acquisition. If that sounds tectonic, it is. What’s more, the landscape is already reshaping itself. 

Buying (everything) online

The first of these forces is well-documented. The pandemic accelerated a pre-existing shift toward online buying and expanded it into unprecedented product and service categories. During COVID, we learned not only how to buy everything online, but also how to discover, research, and compare options in new ways. Authentic reviews and customer ratings grew in influence and empowered shoppers. 

The discerning online consumer

That consumer autonomy and empowerment is vector number two. With online buying now a way of life vs a novelty, consumers go online searching for trustworthy content before making buying decisions, and they want three things: information, entertainment, and social proof. They are deliberate in their decision-making and look for the most credible and authentic voices and resources to guide purchases. They are not finding that from advertising. That brings us to vector number three.

The mutation of digital advertising into a monster

In the early days of digital advertising, a desire for rich engagement led to increasingly disruptive formats designed to capture and hold attention. The unintended consequence was a poor user experience.  Distracting digital ad formats were designed to interrupt the online experience, not enhance it, and they were definitely not designed to inform or validate. Audience-based targeting enabled marketers to serve up relevant ads, but it also made consumers feel stalked. The ad blocking backlash was swift, and in 2020, 1 in 4 consumers reported using one. 

What are advertisers without advertising? 

All that said, brands still need to reach new customers, drive sales, and grow. But growth can’t compromise the online experience or thrive at the expense of consumer trust. The modern brand must find new ways to deliver information, entertainment, and social proof. Fortunately, that combination already exists in the form of affiliate marketing

Instead of creating in-your-face ad campaigns that alienate the customer, brands can form affiliate relationships with trusted content creators, publishers, peer businesses, and more. Influencers, bloggers, and media sites are all proven players in this partnership ecosystem, which meets the needs of modern online consumers and marketers alike. In fact, the beauty of the ecosystem is that it works for everyone.

Affiliate partnerships drive both revenue and advocacy

Modern and mature affiliate relationships drive growth because they allow brands to engage with audiences in a way that puts customer needs front and center.

Here’s an example. Say you’re a consumer looking online for a new mattress. You want information about different mattress brands so you can determine which one is the best fit. You’ll likely seek out editorial reviews or videos (information) made by content creators you trust and enjoy (social proof and entertainment). 

In this case, the mattress company is meeting all of your needs, increasing the chance you’ll become a customer and a fan.

In contrast, imagine that while you’re reading the review article about mattresses, a pop-up video starts playing in the sidebar (with audio if you’re really unlucky). How was that a good user experience? Did it educate or give you social proof? Was it relevant to you? Most important: how did it make you feel about the brand that interrupted your research? 

Incentives aligned around a positive experience

The partnership model benefits everyone involved, in part because everyone’s incentives are aligned to the same goals: keeping the consumer happy.

For example, publishers are incentivized to provide quality content that readers trust, which reflects well on brand partners. In a B2B affiliate partnership, no business is willing to damage its own customer relationships for the sake of a commission, so the referral must be relevant to the consumer and bring value. Think Spotify and Ticketmaster or Rastelli’s and Sun Basket, for example. 

A soft landing in the partnership economy

Consumers gravitate to the most frictionless experience possible. So if you want to capture new customers, earn their trust by meeting their needs. When you’re authentic and helpful in your approach to marketing, you create happy customers who are brand advocates. 

A great place to discover all the types of affiliate partnerships out there and start your affiliate marketing journey is with The ultimate guide to affiliate marketing. Or explore courses at the Partnerships Experiences Academy, a free resource for online training ranging from the basics of influencer partnerships to advanced attribution techniques. 

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