Performance marketers are no different. The ones moving forward in this space are doing more than rolling with the industry's unique set of punches - they are reinventing the practice of performance marketing altogether. They continue to defeat the rogue affiliates who stretch, bend and break the unspoken code of ethics just to gain a quick buck, and they stay one step ahead of the ever-changing digital landscape. It's those performance marketing professionals who also keep the industry moving forward - contributing to Forrester Research's forecast that the performance marketing space will reach $4 billion this year - a significant increase from the $1.9 billion it generated five years ago.
It's also those performance marketers who know that, despite the rest of the digital world still thumbing their virtual noses at the term 'affiliate,' the popular marketing tactic isn't going anywhere and that, most recently, content marketing is to thank. Rising Above a Notorious Reputation
Bad reputations are nearly impossible to overcome, and performance marketers know this better than anyone. Many Internet professionals associate affiliates with dishonesty, lack of transparency, and the use of black hat tactics and techniques, which strain the relationships between advertisers and publishers.
"If you ask a CMO, 'hey do you like affiliate marketing as part of your marketing mix?' I think you're going to get very different answers," said Drew Thorne-Thomsen, vice president of business development and partnerships at Invoca. "But, in general, a CMO doesn't love the word affiliate."
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With a reputation that precedes them, performance marketers must work diligently to prove their value as advertising partners. According to Thorne-Thomsen, performance marketers can rise above the industry's bad name by differentiating their practice from advertisers' other marketing initiatives.
Many performance marketers have found that the best way to separate their strategies from those of the advertisers they work with (and other affiliates) is by targeting smaller, niche markets (e.g. Californian moms, owners of Siamese cats, hockey enthusiasts, etc.). Advertisers usually have strategies in place to reach the Net's broader audience but look to affiliates for help infiltrating smaller, more topically focused communities. In order to have success within a niche market, performance marketers must first obtain authority, and content marketing can help.
Content marketing has, in fact, already helped many professionals build authority. By writing blog posts, creating videos or posting to social media with highly specific topics (to name a few methods), they are sending signals to their audiences (whether that's customers, the search engines or prospective advertisers) that they are trusted information sources on certain topics. There are, however, full-time positions dedicated to content marketing, meaning it can be time intensive and frustrating for those just getting involved.
Luckily, there are numerous tools available that can help performance marketers generate topic ideas and produce better performing content. Content marketing software Scribe, for instance, helps content creators find subjects that are relevant to their audiences, while a tool like InboundWriter guides writers to optimize their copy for better placement in the search results (consumers, after all, have to find the content).
What performance marketers need to do when targeting niche markets, however, is to narrow down audience segments. Say, for example, a publisher within the pet industry has decided to participate in a performance marketing campaign to promote a puzzle toy for dogs. Rather than creating a blog post that targets general dog owners, like "Top Toys for Dogs" or "Toys for Smart Dogs," performance marketers should focus on narrower, long-tail search queries that are intent based and relevant to a particular dog enthusiast community.
To begin, the publisher could research the smartest dog breeds to narrow down the prospective audience pool. This is a good place to start because a dog owner who is passionate about his pet's specific breed is more likely to search for (and purchase) products that will enhance his canine's intelligence. From that research, the publisher can create content directly related to those breeds, such as an infographic titled "5 Toys that Work Your Border Collie's Brain" or a blog post about "7 Activities to Keep Australian Shepherds Busy." Then, the puzzle can be promoted with banner ads on the Web pages, as well as through affiliate or direct sponsored links within the content.
Essentially, the secret to success is to create enough quality content (what readers actually want to read) to become an authoritative figure in the niche over time. In doing so, publishers will gain trust from their audiences and will be more persuasive when it comes to influencing purchasing decisions. Moreover, becoming authoritative in smaller communities will help performance marketers overcome another challenge in the industry - ranking in the search results.
Performance marketers have had a tumultuous relationship with search engines over the years, particularly with Google. This is because Google's algorithm updates, like Panda and Penguin, have had a major impact on many affiliate site rankings.
"Google Panda was aimed at penalizing the use of thin and duplicated content on a site," said Matt Swan, client strategist for Affiliate Window. "Prior to Panda, a site could rank well using scraped content or the automation of pages with only minor changes in the content.
"The Panda release heavily impacted comparison sites and other automated, content sites on the network due to their setup of having multiple similar pages. However, content rich, engaging, websites, such as detailed review sites or blogs, have benefited from the Panda release."
Swan explains that the Google Penguin update also focused on purging websites from the results that were using illicit linking techniques. Following these updates, it has been more difficult for small-scale affiliate sites to rank on Google's search engine result pages.
What performance marketers need to keep in mind when it comes to Google, is that the search engine is committed to delivering the most valuable content to its searchers, which means that sites with thin content and unnatural links will continue to be pushed down in the rankings. The only remaining plan of action is to create unique, quality content on a consistent basis (always thinking of the reader first, not the search engines). That said, performance marketers can become less reliant on search by seeking other ways to connect with prospects, such as through email or, everyone's new favorite way to communicate, social (just yet another opportunity to market content).
Social media networks can not only provide performance marketers with the tools needed to expand the reach of content and affiliate offerings, but also to further establish their authority within niche communities.
At the very least, performance marketers need to equip all of their content pages with social sharing icons, which can easily be done with platforms like AddThis and ShareThis. Another sharing tool worth checking out is Click to Tweet (or an alternative like Spredd.it). This simple and straightforward tool enables publishers to write and track the message that they want others to share, enabling site visitors to distribute pre-made messages with just one click.
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To completely thrive with social, however, performance marketers can't rely on batch-and-blast methods; they must actually interact with their audiences on social networks. For example, instead of posting link after link about dog puzzles, publishers can create a sense of community by posting other types of pet-related content (even if it's not from their own sites) and interacting with the content of others. For help finding the right audience to interact with, performance marketers can leverage tools like ManageFlitter, which offers filters to help users find relevant people to follow on Twitter, as well as the optimal times to post based on follower activity. For a crash course on social - basically everything you want to to ask but are afraid to, like how to get followers - head to wsm.co/101social.
Another way to establish authority on the Web is by participating in conversations in a variety of social places, such as Facebook pages and groups, Google+ Communities, forums and Q&A sites like Quora. These types of interactions help publishers increase visibility, improve relevance and establish themselves as trustworthy within a niche, which is likely to lead to a better pay off when it comes to promoting affiliate offers.
Social strategies can be further amplified through advertising on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which offer robust targeting options. Both social networks enable users to target prospects based on demographics, while Facebook also enables targeting based on interests and behaviors, and Twitter offers audience filtering through keywords and negative keywords. That being said, performance marketers should be cautious when it comes to advertising offers on social networks, as promoted content that does not convert will be an ROI setback.
When it comes to earning commission, one of the top challenges performance marketers face is attribution, which has been a topic of conversation in the affiliate industry for years. Currently, the most common attribution model is "last click," where performance marketers earn commission when they are the last touchpoint prior to conversion.
Last-click attribution leads many performance marketers to target the bottom of the conversion funnel, as time spent influencing a sale alone doesn't always earn them revenue. Advertisers, for the most part, have grievances when it comes to affiliates hanging out at the bottom of the funnel, because they feel like the affiliate is earning commission for a sale that other marketing initiatives had greater influence over.
To combat this problem, Rakuten LinkShare's Adam Weiss thinks that advertisers should track influence to see the value that performance marketers actually provide as partners within the purchase funnel.
"When you combine channels, they support each other," Weiss said. "So it's not always all or nothing. You might find that there's a click on display and then a click on affiliate. Together the likelihood for conversion is higher than just one or the other. So I really feel like the channels support each other."
Affiliate Window's Swan notes that affiliate network reporting can show advertisers how many sales publishers influence (discover 50 top performance marketing platforms at wsm.co/50topaff). This can lead advertisers to consider different types of attribution models, such as value attribution.
"It is important to change the mindset that the channel is purely a conversion channel. There is also evidence to suggest the channel can initiate sales too," said Swan. "The challenge for affiliates is to showcase their worth beyond simply being the final interaction in the path to purchase. Content sites can have a significant influence on consumers in the research phase of their journey for example - as can price comparison sites."
Value attribution takes elements beyond the click into consideration, such as lifetime customer value or churn rate. This allows publishers to showcase their influence on sales outside of conversions, which can help them secure tenancy deals or higher commission rates to compensate for the additional value they provided advertisers. There are also a variety of other attribution models that advertisers can consider, such as first click or multi-attribution.
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Although affiliates can't necessarily change an advertiser's attribution model, they can create a content strategy that addresses every stage within the customer lifecycle, which both proves their value and gives them a better chance at earning the commission. For example, a blog post titled "What is a Doggie Puzzle?" addresses the awareness stage, while a video that shows how dogs interact with the puzzle addresses the learning stage. Plus, by leveraging recommendation technology like BrightInfo, affiliates can better guide prospects through the customer journey with content endorsements that are based on visitor behavior and intent. After the customer spends time with the affiliate's content types, they are more likely to visit the publisher's site when it is time to purchase, which is when the publisher can close the sale with a coupon or special promotion.
While the attribution debate is likely to continue for a long time, a topic that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later is mobile.
Mobile is shaking up the digital world, and the affiliate industry is no exception. Publishers who want to capitalize on this trend, however, must have a mobile presence (e.g. a mobile website, mobile app or responsive design) to reach mobile consumers. Moreover, they must ensure cross-device tracking technology is set in place if they want to profit from promoting affiliate offers on this channel.
Luckily, many of the larger affiliate networks, including Affiliate Window and Rakuten LinkShare, have focused on tracking mobile sales so that publishers are properly compensated. It is also important that both advertiser and publishers keep in mind that as mobile users continue to consume content in multiple ways, more actions can be counted as conversions on mobile devices, such as customer phone calls and app downloads.
Much of the mobile challenge, however, relies on advertisers alone. This is because the traffic that a publisher sends to an advertiser's site is unlikely to convert if the site is not optimized for mobile.
"Mobile has really proven itself to be the new 'it' channel that's harboring the most potential," said Paige Coho, Medical Guardian's affiliate marketing coordinator. "I think that many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around the idea of mobile being used as one of the primary prospect touchpoints. In terms of leveraging its use within the affiliate space, both merchants and publishers alike will have to make program adjustments to things like site functionality and product display strategy in an effort to optimize user experience and drive conversions."
While the future of affiliate marketing looks bright, unforeseen challenges are always lurking around the digital corner. Whether the challenge comes in the form of new Google algorithms or new technology like wearable devices, the performance marketers who continue to prosper and be of value to the industry are those who carve out a niche for themselves and meet the demands of those smaller advertisers by creating valuable content that addresses every stage of the customer journey.