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Managing Long-Tail Affiliate Performance

Posted on 6.30.2013

:: By Matt Swan, Client Strategist for Affiliate Window ::

Why Long-Tail Publishers are Key, How Advertisers Can Win Their Attention

There are two opposing attitudes that characterize advertisers’ current sentiments about the composition of their affiliate programs.

On one side, brands with mature programs are becoming less comfortable with their reliance on just a handful of big-name publishers for the vast majority of sales and are eager for their long tail to contribute more. On the other, they believe that in order to achieve or exceed performance targets, it is easier to increase sales from the top volume- drivers than it is to spend resources engaging affiliates from the long tail.

Both sentiments are understandable. Why have an affiliate program with thousands of partners if only a small proportion are producing significant enough sales volumes to justify the resources allocated to the channel? Nevertheless, research shows that if you add sales from all of the long tail, it often equals that of one high-performing affiliate publisher. The question for advertisers becomes how to tap into this volume.

Rethinking Long Tail

Let’s look at examples of two programs, both in the fashion retail sector, and examine what has made their strategies for engaging and optimizing the long tail successful. The common factor is that they rethought their long-tail strategies.

The long tail needs to be regarded differently and judged against different metrics than those used on top performers. Rather than looking at the proportion of overall sales the long tail contribute, it is more appropriate to review month-over-month growth in sales from the long tail, as time is a neutral benchmark, opposed to total percentage. Secondly, long-tail engagement is a long-term project, so any strategy needs to be divided between quickwin tactics and a commitment to ongoing optimization.

Short Term

Let’s begin with an analysis of the low-converting affiliates on these retail programs. Seeing that many of the partners were content-rich and relevant sites that represented a good brand fit for the advertiser, efforts were focused on helping these long-tail affiliates improve their conversion rates. Several quick-win tactics proved beneficial.

The first step involved effective communication: finding out precisely what these affiliates needed. Advertisers should expect long-tail sites to be more demanding in their content and creative requirements. Clear guidelines on what can be said on their sites helps to maintain compliance, while flexibility in producing creative in unusual sizes or formats gave them the necessary tools to start promoting successfully. Going one-step further, co-branded creative is still incredibly under-utilized in the affiliate channel for long-tail sites, despite its effectiveness.

Efforts to win publishers over as brand champions, for example with free products in return for writing reviews or by offering prizes of gift vouchers in return for the best affiliate content each month, have also proven to be successful quick-win tactics for other advertisers in the past.

These campaigns resulted in a significant increase in the proportion of revenue-driving long-tail affiliates on one of the retail programs from 7 percent to 11 percent over a four-month period immediately following the program launch. Another saw a three-fold increase in active affiliates from just 3 percent of the affiliate mix to 9 percent. Finally, it is worth remembering that long-tail partners are strong generators of traffic, as well as sales.

Long Term

Mobilizing the affiliate long tail requires long-term commitment and unfortunately the same tactics may not work for each affiliate in this group. A lack of short-term influence is characteristic of the long tail. Instead of the peaks that characterize top volume-drivers, growth amongst the long tail will be much less pronounced. These affiliates are slower burners, and a successful strategy will be proven by gradual, year-on-year improvements rather than the rapid volume uplifts characteristic of the top performers as marketing campaigns (e.g. newsletters) are initiated.

Understanding this, it’s key to implement an ongoing strategy of long-tail optimization for all. This can involve encouraging ongoing affiliate engagement through rollouts of an affiliate portal, an affiliate toolkit for banner and copy requirements and special promotions to deepen long-tail affiliates’ engagement with the brands. Coupling this with continued recruitment (focusing on key content sites) and an ongoing analysis of where such sites could be given assistance in converting their traffic, are the essential tools for long-tail engagement.

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