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    The innovations most needed in today’s affiliate space

    The affiliate and partner marketing space has a long history of talking to itself. If we want to become more, it’s time for that to change. And that starts with some painful honesty. 

    We can’t just idly pen winding bylines or keep speaking to the same faces in the echo chamber of our conference circuit and industry forums. This is a self-described “relationship” channel, but “relationships” within this relatively isolated ecosystem won’t get the attention of the people we need to lean in (i.e., the CEO and CMO). They aren’t at our awards, they aren’t talking about us on their earnings calls and they are not recognizing our value with its ultimate measure (i.e., increased spend on par with the opportunity). I also believe that evangelism in the absence of introspection does us all (and ultimately the consumer) an incalculable disservice. 

    In the affiliate space, we have to bravely look inward, take on the tough conversations and get real about the new work that needs to be done, as the industry context continues to change. There will always be new work, as there should be. The prevailing good news is that affiliate enjoys the benefit of stark contrast. And it’s only getting starker as we reject the shadow of the giants and step into the light.

    Primary channels like Facebook and Google will only continue to hike the costs for advertisers, even as measurability declines as tracking transparency thoroughly erodes Facebook’s measurement capabilities. Marketers will continue to seek alternatives and this makes our ecosystem increasingly vital within the desired cost-effective marketing mix. The macroeconomic climate in front of us will only serve to accelerate this. As such and as stewards of this proposition, we are duty-bound to continue to push to resolve our historical deficiencies and get beyond them, proving the alternatives to these shadowy giants in the process. Work, of course, remains to overcome any historic stigma around this channel, so that it will be thoughtfully considered as part of an overall full-funnel strategy, whether it’s for acquisition or branding. But it can and should be done.

    The pulse check on all of this motivation should be that of our target client: that top executive charged with growth. And it speaks to where we need to go. Gartner conducted a CMO survey a couple of months ago and partnership and affiliate isn’t even considered part of the digital media spend bucket where 72 percent of the budgets are going. 

    Why are we not a presumed part of the digital spend? The answer is because a portion of CMOs don’t think of it that way. We know this. But it is time to finally figure out why—and at the same time get on top of our creative and audience and predictive data capability shortcomings and catch ourselves up to the rest of the digital mix. We commit to overcoming these shortcomings rather than just deciding that they don’t matter. We’ve already seen how whitewashing failures, or even just weaknesses, can unduly hold us back.

    Addressing Our Vulnerabilities

    In my most recent article, I discussed the areas where the affiliate and partner channel must continue to press forward in order to earn its place at the C-suite table where marketing and business decisions are being made. These are areas where our industry’s collective collaboration and enthusiasm can begin to change the conversation. But we can’t stop there. 

    There are two very important areas where we absolutely are not there yet—where the real work needs to happen. One is creative. The text link just won’t get us the distribution opportunity that creates more channel inventory. We’re not paid search. We need performance content (think UGC imagery and video, product feed sourced images and consumer reviews) combined together in an asset library enabling dynamic creative optimization (DCO).

    The other area where we’re lacking can be broadly characterized as our lingering lack of auction-like functionality. Together, these are critical building blocks to support a heightened need to assist our brand partners in acquiring first-party data and our supply-side partners with the ability to actively manage yield or revenue per thousand pages in publisher parlance. The willingness of a brand to pay a premium commission rate alone does not guarantee the highest yield to the partner promoting that offer. We have a dynamic in our category very akin to the SERP (search engine results page) where the relationship between the commission rate available and the probability of a conversion underpin the formula to maximize yield from affiliate placements. If we want more distribution of our offers (the only way to increase category spend), automating the predictive yield calculations using deep datasets and intelligence is a core requirement. As it stands, we are not on par with the greater digital ecosystem at the juncture of mechanics and media economics—and it is holding us back. 

    As we keep collective, steady focus on evolving the model, reimagining and expanding partner types and achieving things like DCO and suitable auction-esque functionality in the space, the questions remain: How do we finally break through to full establishment within the mix? What’s the key to getting inside with the CMO and not having to sing for our supper? How do we take possession of something as rightfully ours?

    I say it is as simple as recognizing and appreciating this moment in time, this juncture. The needs of the marketer and the content creators have never been more aligned with what our category is capable of delivering. Brand marketing and performance marketing are converging quickly, driven by the fundamental change of the power shift from the brand to the consumer. 

    The growth channels of paid social and paid search have reached the point of diminishing returns for many brands and many more are approaching that barrier to future growth. The partner ecosystem has recognized that performance and partner revenue represent the growth engine that will power their go-forward growth without destroying their user experience. And this isn’t only true or relevant in economic heydays when marketing budgets are expanding, even bloated. In fact, you can effectively argue that this channel’s mettle has been stress tested during economic turmoil, only to emerge a stalwart in the marketing mix due to its predictable, outcome-driven model. However, economic safety can’t lead the channel back to what it once was, with discount-driven publisher tactics perpetuating the last-click reputation of affiliate marketing. 

    This is our moment. The requirements are clear. The future of affiliate requires scaling a highly trained, professionalized resource base, establishing full transparency and making a commitment to brand safety and fraud prevention. We must provide consistent measurement methodologies, relevant creative, data-driven optimization and yield management and an unrelenting focus on delivering the operating leverage that is created at the intersection of diversified partner scale, automation of workflows and outcome-based pricing models.  

    In other words, it’s time to get to work.

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