In the world of digital advertising, there isn’t a more complex character than affiliate marketing. It has an interesting origin, a fall from grace, a self-betterment era and a current-day redemption quest. With a history spanning over two decades, affiliate marketing has a story arc worthy of network TV. However, similar to some classic primetime dramas, there have been times when it’s hard to tell if affiliate marketing is the good guy or the bad guy. But from promoting Amazon listings to leveraging Gen Z influencers, I believe affiliate marketing is the common thread when it comes to reaching a global audience and growing sales.
The Good Times
Affiliate marketing was conceived back around the time when Amazon only sold books and AOL sent free trial CDs by mail. Since then, the concept has largely remained the same. Then, just like now, affiliate marketing was a marketing alternative that offset the risk of traditional ad spend and potentially let product owners or publishers reach a wider, global audience. The product owner would pay the affiliate commission based on an action (typically a sale or a click).
For example, say you have an e-book that you want to sell to a global audience. To reach a larger swath of potential buyers, you can entice affiliates to do the promotion for you and pay them $5 every time they make a sale. I believe this unique distribution structure fundamentally changed the landscape of the internet and helped usher in a booming era of e-commerce.
A Few Bad Apples
Unfortunately, the golden days couldn’t last forever. Due to a small category of risky players and bad apples, affiliate marketing earned itself a less-than-pristine reputation due to fraud and misleading domain names.
Prior to modern affiliate marketing, there was a perceived sense of ease around the industry. Back then, the internet was the “wild west” — largely unregulated and a new frontier for commerce. For these reasons, the bar to entry was lower than, say, a traditional online business or brick-and-mortar storefront, and affiliate marketing began to attract individuals and companies looking to make a quick dollar.
Stronger, Safer, Better Than Before
To counteract these drawbacks, I’ve seen leaders in the affiliate marketing industry work hard to earn the trust of product owners through state-of-the-art fraud protection and secure payment processing. Additionally, tech companies like Facebook have cracked down on scammy advertising, which means affiliate marketing will likely be safer than ever for both product owners, affiliates and consumers. Many affiliate programs put products through stringent compliance reviews prior to accepting them on the platform and encourage product owners to vet and hand-select affiliates.
As the VP of marketing at a company that offers an affiliate marketplace, I believe this kind of control and oversight helps diminish fraudulent activity and thus increases the appeal of the industry — especially as e-commerce retail is growing quarter over quarter due to the current ongoing pandemic. According to U.S. Census data, the total online retail sales for the third quarter of 2020 were estimated at $1,468.9 billion — an increase of 12.0% from the second quarter of 2020. The e-commerce estimate for the third quarter of 2020 increased 36.7% from the third quarter of 2019.
Considering this data, it’s more critical than ever for small businesses and solopreneurs without an established brand or digital marketing experience to create an adaptable plan to bring their offerings online. Affiliate marketing, when done right, can be one of their core growth drivers and help offset their prior reliance on an in-person shopping experience. Even for Fortune 1000 companies equipped for e-commerce, the industry can provide a complimentary channel in their overall marketing plan that can bring a steady and cost-effective stream of new customers.
I believe both of these breeds of companies stand to benefit from the influx in reputable online affiliates, the global growth and exposure affiliates can provide, and the lower cost of affiliate marketing compared to its traditional counterparts.
Affiliate Marketing Done Right
It comes as no surprise that affiliate marketing is now a ubiquitous presence on the web. From internet retailer megaliths to nano-influencers, the referral link allows nearly anyone to earn a buck as long as they follow the rules.
For those who may already have an established brand, one way to integrate affiliate marketing is through an affiliate network or marketplace. An affiliate network allows product owners to set specific commissions, attract affiliates with a base knowledge of the industry, and network with other product owners.
If you’re not convinced yet whether affiliate marketing saves the day or poisons the well, it’s good to keep in mind that adding an affiliate marketing arm to your marketing strategy doesn’t mean that you have to go all in. Many companies choose to limit affiliates to one particular offer that is built for easy promotion and commission tracking.
Other companies may find that the best way to integrate an affiliate marketing channel is by being highly selective with the affiliates they let represent their brand. For some companies, affiliate marketing works best as a joint venture. Consider pairing your offer with a similar offering from a complimentary company.
No matter where you fall on the scale of “strictly brick-and-mortar” to “exclusive online digital deals,” you may be feeling the effects of the shifting buying patterns.
While affiliate marketing may not be the ultimate answer to all e-commerce obstacles, it is one of many tools available to businesses of all shapes and sizes that have to navigate and finesse the ever-changing business landscape and stake off their fair share of the online global market.
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