Avoiding the Affiliate Graveyard
We’ve all seen that old expression bounce back and forth in renewed strength over the past several years: the only constant is change. These rocky times don’t always elicit the same response from each of us.
Some may want to hold onto what’s worked in the past as a way to ensure stability and a sense of calm to ride out the storm safely. Others take the opportunity to explore new ways of doing business, since the traditional paths seem less certain than ever. There’s no right or wrong here; know thyself, and do what works best for your customers, your business, and your teams.
As for me, I’ve always been one to question the norms. Maybe this is because I feel it’s my duty to stretch my team to reach new heights, or because our clients’ needs are changing and they need new approaches and solutions.
Like most norms—they work for some circumstances, but not all. And knowing the difference is the key to navigating these changing times.
This first became obvious to me when I read W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne’s “Blue Ocean Strategy” several years ago. In this game-changing book, they explore what happens when industries are formed by early adopters—the rules they come up with become the playbook for all eternity. Nobody questions the playbook, even if the rules fail to make sense.
I’ve seen this play out in affiliate when it comes to how brands approach this channel for the first time. In order for any brand to have a fair shake, they need to have some in-house tech support that can help them get set up, they need to apply to join one of the major affiliate networks, and if they don’t have in-house support, they need to invest in some way in order to manage the program – typically by hiring an in-house team or partnering with an agency.
This level of investment alone is a huge barrier to entry for most small and medium enterprises. Many don’t have in-house tech teams, or they are not poised to invest resources in a channel that isn’t yet proven.
Then, there’s the matter of time and patience. Even if a brand does decide the up-front investment is worthwhile, it might take 6-8 weeks for a program to go live, and another month or two to start seeing results. Now you’re four months and thousands of dollars in, and you haven’t yet seen a glimmer of performance results.
These are the obstacles I have seen in my nearly 20 years in the affiliate space. And, as an agency owner, I could not abide by these stop gaps. I think about the hundreds of brands that have come to that same decision, and have ended up in, what I refer to as, “The Affiliate Graveyard.”
Undermanaged and/or forgotten programs that are barely being kept alive.
This graveyard has always really frustrated me. Not only because it misrepresents the value of the affiliate channel—since the revenue generated for these programs is lower than it should be -- but it also provides a skewed perception of the channel to those brands who are poised to see tremendous success as a robust addition to their marketing mix.
So, I started to question everything.
- Why should it take so long to get a new program up and running successfully and is an in-house tech team really required?
- How can technology streamline some of the steps necessary to make a great affiliate program launch faster?
- When is it the right time to bring in an agency partner, and how will that impact the return a brand expects to yield from that investment?
- Where are brands overpaying on commission rates, when the results don’t deliver on expectations?
- Aren’t some of the longstanding attribution metrics just plain wrong? And, why should important brands be tasked with aggregating outside data sets with those they use in-house to make important marketing investment decisions?
Instead of lamenting the norms, I set out to change them. It’s been a challenge to get it right, but over time, I’ve seen more brands walk right in, get their programs launched and optimized quickly, and start seeing returns. Fewer graveyards; more brands sticking around to see how the channel can adapt to the changing marketplace and help them reach their goals.