Affiliate has gained serious momentum in brand marketing portfolios over the last few years.
It’s especially hot in turbulent economies thanks to its low-risk nature that enables brands to spend only on guaranteed outcomes.
With many brand marketers suddenly affiliate-curious, it seems like a good time to lay out a few critical questions those brands (especially those heavily invested in paid and organic search) should ask to assess the fit of potential affiliate agency partners.
Let’s dig into the questions – and how to interpret some common answers.
Almost all affiliate agencies work with incentive models, but partners who only bill based on revenue share should raise some flags.
On the surface, revenue share sounds smart – only paying when you’re sure of getting something has appeal in a rough economy.
But agencies who are only focused on driving revenue may push for numbers regardless of whether their tactics are good for the brand.
For instance, if you’re selling high-end clothing, you should think twice before giving an affiliate agency carte blanche to work with a range of coupon sites.
You’ll get a rush of revenue in the short term, but the effects on branding and positioning could be detrimental in the long run.
Meanwhile, agencies who work on incentive models as only a part of a bigger partnership structure will naturally care more about fidelity to the brand’s best interests. Their partnership outreach will reflect that.
If branding is important, look for an agency that works according to longer-term performance incentives. This protects the brand and helps you identify agencies confident they can drive success over the long haul.
This is closely related to the previous question: long-term affiliate success depends on relationships and branding.
Interested in upper-funnel, awareness-driving placements with partners like Conde Nast and Hearst? Then you must align with those publications’ yearly editorial calendar – something short-term affiliate contracts won’t accommodate.
More mature affiliate programs require lots of planning and partner development to consider the full purchasing journey.
On the brand side, decisions should be made based on sufficient time, budget, and data – one month won’t provide enough insights to help you assess an agency’s performance.
If you want to dip a toe into affiliate to measure its potential, consider what success should actually look like.
Agencies with short-term contracts will work with coupon and deal sites to produce quick revenue.
But that’s just bottom-of-funnel cherry-picking that will eat into your margin without providing any upper-funnel benefits.
Agencies focused on affiliate marketing will do the equivalent of grading their own homework when it comes to channel attribution. They’ll almost always over-credit affiliate.
Multi-channel agencies will be much more considerate of other channels’ roles in the purchase journey and will generally approach measurement more objectively.
If you’re seriously considering working with an agency that focuses on affiliate, ask for case studies and testimonials from cross-channel agency partners.
This ensures they can play nicely with other channels. (For instance, make sure affiliate teams have a track record of establishing trusted partnerships with search teams) before you make any commitments.
Ask tons of critical questions to assess their perspective on holistic attribution and measurement.
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No matter how many channels an agency offers, ask how they assess the value of their affiliate program, especially if you’re looking to quantify affiliate’s relationship with search.
Linear metrics like revenue don’t have enough nuance to help brands understand affiliate’s incrementality.
Look for more specific areas of measurement like:
An important note here: be extremely skeptical of agencies who offer forecasting on affiliate’s revenue potential during the sales process.
Agencies don’t have the whole picture without knowing factors like inventory, promotional calendars, investment in other marketing channels, and existing attribution models.
In these instances, a forecast may well be an over-promise made purely to close the sale.
Most brands I talk to these days are looking for upper-funnel partnerships.
Conde Nast, Hearst and New York Times-level partnerships are highly coveted. Many agencies will eagerly cite them as part of their offering.
To truly assess the agency’s partner set-up, ask how they optimize those partnerships. For instance, get a sample pitch and ask what the management structure is.
The other follow-up question to lean on here is any emerging partner categories the agency is excited to offer.
If they aren’t offering anything beyond coupon and loyalty partners and the splashy publishers, they might not have the agility to capitalize on some of the emerging affiliate niches taking shape.
Agencies who ask client account managers to handle the publishing outreach are common – but not ideal for the publishers.
This setup leads to a different contact point for each brand in the agency’s affiliate portfolio for the same publisher, with lots of duplicate work and ad hoc communication and little strategic depth.
A dedicated partner team is a much better approach to building publisher relationships. Single points of contact can employ a holistic, strategic approach and get into richer territory like beta testing and thematic alignment.
Brands don’t often have direct relationships with publishers – that’s part of an affiliate agency’s value. If they do, it’s well worth asking the publisher what kind of agency setup leads to their most mutually effective relationships.
Most affiliate agencies will claim to work effectively on every phase of the journey (if they don’t, it should be a non-starter).
The key is to ask a follow-up about how they assess the value of every stage, from discovery to consideration to influence to comparison to close to retention.
Agencies must understand each phase and have a perspective on what’s most important (most often discovery or conversion). Still, they should be open to a healthy conversation about what the brand values most and how they currently measure it.
No matter the answers you get to the above questions, do what you can to validate your candidates through third-party references and sites like Clutch, G2, and even Glassdoor.
Affiliate is definitely far from the wild west landscape it might have been years ago. Still, a few extra questions and references can go a long way in helping you identify a consideration set of truly aligned options.
The post 7 questions brands must ask when assessing affiliate agencies appeared first on Search Engine Land.
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