An important skill set for marketers is being able to assess and assimilate new digital marketing technologies. In no time at all new ecosystems sprout up around the latest fad or buzzword. The current digital darling, influencer marketing, generates the usual set of questions and unknowns. Should it be fully embraced or is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
Through our channel’s affiliate filter, influencer marketing’s positioning generates a sense of déjà vu. Alan Partridge fans may remember when long-suffering assistant Lyn tries, and fails, to persuade him to swap his car for a Mini Metro. When Lyn adds that it is now called a Rover Metro, Alan snaps back “they’ve rebadged it you fool”. In many ways, influencer marketing feels similarly ‘rebadged’ from what anyone working affiliate side has typically known over the years as, well, affiliate marketing.
For those unfamiliar with the affiliate business model, advertisers can access a wide variety of digital business models from price comparison, bloggers and social media to voucher sites and loyalty platforms, with the one common thread being the payment on performance business model.
The beauty of the channel has always been that it represents minimal risk for advertisers, providing an environment to try a range of online activity with little or no incurred marketing costs. The ‘why’ for advertisers has always been ‘why not’?
The long-standing bedrock for the affiliate channel has been the army of bloggers and content sites that offer advertisers a window to their engaged users. But we live in an age where talk of brand advocates and influencers (or as I read recently ‘change agents’) can obfuscate what more switched on brands understand, and that is they can tap into this rich seam of content through existing marketing channels. But they must be willing to adopt a flexible and new approach to how they work.
Let us consider what we mean by influencer marketing because this sits at the very heart of the issue. Surely it is quite simple, ‘influencers’ are just individuals or companies who have access to an engaged audience they can share stuff with. What I have just written could actually just be another definition of affiliates.
The time and investment from an advertiser’s perspective is in identifying, contacting and maintaining a positive relationship with these influencers. There are challenges that have to be acknowledged. Affiliate marketing is time-intensive and can drain resource for sometimes minimal output (if that output is measured solely though sales). Similarly by measuring outcomes much of the marketing effort, clicks, interactions and impressions can be ignored where obvious value is added. Also, many of these influencers may not be running their blogs or social media channels as a full time job so contacting them in a timely way can be tricky.
For brands that have recognised the affiliate channel can address increasing demands for a dedicated influencer strategy, their approach is starting to pay dividends. One of the largest retailers we work with has an ecommerce operation that sells fitness supplements. They know there are a number of individuals with a huge social media presence who have the power to push their products to an audience receptive to recommendations. They partner with a handful of these advocates offering a combination of commission payments, free products and occasional tenancy placements in return for coverage across a series of social and blogger channels. It is obviously important that affiliates remain authentic. Disingenuously endorsing products they would never use themselves could have a detrimental impact both on their relationship with their audience as well as harming the brand.
Topshop is another brand that gets it. A couple of years ago, it aligned its acquisition approach through the affiliate channel with its internal PR and marketing teams to ensure it was having consistent conversations with those fashion bloggers with the power to showcase its latest ranges. Topshop launched a dedicated blogger hub where content could be shared and ran dedicated events around key seasonal trading periods. It also became more creative with its payments, a fundamental consideration at the heart of the issue.
Topshop identified around 10 fashion sites it wanted to feature its clothes. In return for additional coverage it would pay each site a ‘top up’ payment when they drove intent that ultimately led to a sale they didn’t convert. In other words, it knew the last-click cost-per acquisition model that the affiliate channel is premised on can prove problematic for many content sites. And that’s because they act as sale enablers, a window into product ranges that people would otherwise be unaware of. They pique interest, stimulate initial intent but they do not always drive the ultimate conversion.
“Brands that recognised the affiliate channel can address increasing demands for a dedicated influencer strategy are seeing dividends“
By being flexible with their commercial model, they were able to reward a group of previously unengaged affiliates and send a clear signal that they valued their marketing efforts. Advertisers frequently forget the cost of the sale they have to pay through the affiliate channel often ignores the higher marketing spend affiliates have borne in order to drive the transaction.
More enlightened affiliate marketers are trying to drive this message home. The long tail of affiliates, influencers, brand advocates or whatever new marketing spin the industry wants to put on them, is the most in-demand affiliate segment but ironically advertisers are doing little to make many of their online marketing efforts financially viable.
Now is the time for brands to take a two-stage approach to their affiliate campaigns. For those affiliates focused on the conversion, stick to the tried and tested last-click, cost-per-sale model. It works. But for those affiliates premised at an earlier stage in the purchase cycle, let’s get creative with payments and recognise the wider contribution. By taking an intelligent approach to commission payments overall campaign return on investment doesn’t have to suffer and affiliate programmes become a truer reflection of the channel’s diversity.
So for those marketers curious about influencer marketing, look no further, you’re probably already doing it. But in order to accelerate your efforts, let’s work together to offer more sophisticated solutions and in doing so acknowledge affiliate marketing as the first and foremost influencer channel.