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If you’ve been around digital marketing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the early days of affiliate marketing referred to as the “Wild West.” There was a time when affiliate marketing was pretty lawless—plagued by fraud and policed by no one. But with all the sophisticated tracking technology now available, things have changed drastically. We wanted to hear from experts about where things stand in affiliate marketing today. 

Affiliates are one of the main types of partnerships that Impact’s Partnership CloudTM manages from start to end. To learn more about why and how affiliate partnerships are one of the strongest models for helping leading brands drive high-quality leads for their business, Impact’s Wilhelm Co, Channel Partnerships Success Manager, sat down with Sarah Johnson Dayes, Chief Client Officer, from global partner marketing agency Acceleration Partners, an Impact Premier Partner.

Read on to find out more in our inaugural post in our “Ask the Experts” blog series!

Wilhelm: Where did upper-funnel affiliate marketing get its bad reputation in the first place?

Sarah: Up until the past decade or so, there was very little industry oversight of the affiliate ecosystem. When no one is paying much attention, bad actors can take over. In addition, there was almost zero tracking transparency, making it hard for brands to tell the difference between quality leads being generated and dead-ends before they paid their partners a commission. As a result, there was a lot of trade in low-quality, fraudulent leads, so marketers understandably soured on the whole concept.

Wilhelm: What’s changed?

Sarah: In a word: technology. There are many new tools and verification techniques available now, which means multiple ways to confidently verify leads and avoid fraud. That’s played an essential role in helping the affiliate model reemerge as a way to bring in legitimate, high-quality leads in a scalable way. 

The verification steps and compensation structures that exist today help deter questionable partners. What’s more, these tools help brands ensure each lead is tracked and confirmed before payment is made. When a partner brings about a desired action, and that behavior is carefully tracked, delivered, verified and validated by the brand, only then is payment made to the partner.

Wilhelm: What’s the difference between a lead program partnership and any other kind of affiliate partnership?

Sarah: In the context of affiliate marketing, leads are really just data—typically some piece of valuable upper-funnel information about a potential customer. However, the leads delivered still need to be nurtured on the side of the brand’s internal marketing and sales processes. This differs from paying partners for generating an actual sale or action farther down the funnel that does not need to be nurtured in the same way.

There are hybrids, of course. Some brands create an incremental lead generation strategy, offering a small commission for qualified leads, with larger commissions offered for paying customers. Two-tiered commission structures can be a great way to encourage lead program partners to attract the exact prospect desired.

Wilhelm: So a “lead” can mean different things to different companies?

Sarah: Absolutely. The concept of a lead is much more flexible than it used to be and really just signifies a piece of data input that is significant to a brand or enterprise. 

For one company a lead could be an email submission, an app download, or a completed form. Others might be looking for something as concrete as a free trial sign-up or a debit/credit card link in an app. The desired action can be anything the brand thinks conveys a genuine interest in its products or services. 

Wilhelm: How can you be sure your partner’s leads are high quality? 

Sarah: Transparency is the key, and a good lead partner will work with you to provide the quality verification you need. 

In our experience, two of the most useful pieces of validation that brands can ask for are traffic sources and ad placement information. Lead program partners can provide sub-ID or referring URL data to ensure brands know where traffic is coming from. They can also show detailed placement coverage before a placement is live.

It’s also smart to structure commission payouts to promote quality over quantity. You want partners who are aligned with your objectives and who will deliver the types of leads that meet your goals. Focusing first on just a few affiliate partners that can drive high-quality leads on a steady basis and building deliberately from that foundation, is the best way to get high conversion rates and maximum ROI. That’s very different from the volume = value model we saw in the past.

Wilhelm: What should an enterprise look for in a solid lead program partner?

Sarah: Lead program partners come in all shapes and sizes and can promote your brand through a wide variety of methods. They typically have an audience through their own web content, social media activity, email lists, SEO or other online activity. They include everyone from bloggers and product review sites to publisher networks, content affiliates, and active social media posters.

CPA networks are one of the highest performing generators of leads. They connect brands with multiple partners who can then leverage multiple promotional methods to reach the right audience for the brand, including mobile, display, social, search, and more. They are also positioned in a variety of verticals and offer brands access to many different types of partnership opportunities.

Review sites are another high-performing lead program partner type. They compare various products to help consumers make informed decisions when choosing a product or service and often cover specialized verticals. For example, finance sites that focus on things like credit cards, mortgages, or debt. Or business sites that focus on things like web hosting or software. That specialization allows you to target your campaign and get the most relevant leads.

Content sites can be another valuable lead program partner. They specialize in providing consumers with information and resources on a given topic. Advertisers often work with content partners to build brand awareness and educate their consumers on everything from their specialty niche to the release of a new product.

Wilhelm: What a great summary of where things stand in the world of lead program partnerships! Thank you so much for sharing your expertise. 

At Impact, we are ready to help you find, track, and scale your lead program partnerships—reach out to us at

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