Member Exclusive   //   December 4, 2023

As affiliate marketing gets competitive, a new brand playbook emerges

With the end-of-year busy shopping season here, affiliate marketing is ramping up among e-commerce brands. 

Over the past couple of years, affiliate marketing has become an integral part of brands’ marketing playbook. They’ve found that partnering with affiliate publishers not only brings in a new revenue stream, but also adds an air of credibility, depending on the outlet. In turn, the competition is fierce ahead of the holidays to land placement on coveted guides like Oprah’s Favorite Things.

However, with the rush toward affiliate marketing in the last few years, it’s become more challenging for brands to stand out in these partner campaigns. In turn, the public relations agencies that help brands with affiliate partnerships are doing more training and building out dedicated teams to help their clients nab placements in top publications. Other young startups are holding off on investing heavily in affiliate programs until they have enough brand awareness to be able to focus on building relationships with well-known national publications.

A shift toward “performance PR” created a gold rush

High-traffic, high-conversion affiliate sales aren’t as simple as sharing a link with an editor anymore. 

Kailia O’Connor, the founder of KMO Consulting who runs the training program Affiliate PR Club, said that as recently as 2020 affiliate programs were still fairly new among e-commerce brands. At the time, O’Connor said, “publishing groups had small commerce teams headed by one affiliate manager, and the focus was heavily on high-revenue articles that were restocks mixed with high demand, brand-focused, celebrity focused or new product launch.”

As an example, this would include headlines like “the leggings that Jessica Simpson loves to wear” or “the moisturizer that sold out five times is finally back in stock.” “These standalone pieces would generate anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000 dollars an article for products, with an AOV ranging from $12 to $100 dollars,” O’Connor said of the brands’ sales. “It was certainly quality over quantity then.” These articles would typically run in high-traffic publications like People magazine or Allure, with sales being generated over a number of months’ time.

But now, integrating SEO with affiliate links has become lucrative, especially as Google increased algorithm requirements in regards to demonstrating a site’s EEAT (expertise, experience, trust and authoritativeness). By receiving readers through Google search, publishers can now take customers through the entire sales funnel, O’Connor said. “Now, instead of creating new content, affiliates’ focus and strategy is geared toward evergreen content featuring searchable keywords.” This way, their outlets can rank higher in Google results as they consistently update their articles. 

“If DTC brands weren’t prioritizing their affiliate growth channel or had one in Q4 2021, they felt it economically,” she said, leading to a massive increase in DTC brands starting or investing more in their affiliate programs. O’Connor said she has trained over 200 PR professionals in the past two years alone. “PR agency brand clients are requesting affiliate support and investing in it, so the agencies are forced to learn it or lose them.”

Julianne Fraser, founder and CEO of digital marketing consultancy Dialogue NYC — which has worked with brands like Sakara Life, Brooklinen and Olipop — agreed that affiliate PR requires a dedicated team that pitches publications with monetary incentive to include the brand in product roundups, gift guides and other themed content. 

But while creator-affiliate platforms like ShopMy, ShareaSale or LiketoKnowit allow for easy distribution of funds to creators, Fraser said, “we’ve found that the most successful affiliate programs require relationship building above and beyond a monetary incentive.”

Brands shifting to sophisticated affiliate models

Personalization is an important aspect of generating actual sales from being included in publishers’ affiliate content. 

Sexual wellness brand Foria has been growing its affiliate network over the past few years as a move to diversify its marketing mix outside of paid channels like Meta and TikTok.

Foria co-founder and CEO Jon Brandon told Modern Retail the company now has several team members dedicated to growing this channel. “Affiliate is a particularly important channel for us given the myriad of challenges we face in terms of the ‘policing’ of our ingredients and sexual wellness products on social channels,” Brandon said. “We can often communicate more authentically via the affiliate.”  

When promoting sexual wellness products, companies like Foria often resort to careful language and sexual euphemism to describe their products. Brandon said using the trusted expert voices of hand-picked affiliates helps bypass some of these barriers — “and is an effective way to communicate the benefits that our products provide to consumers.” Some of Foria’s popular affiliate partners include Cosmo, Vice and Well+Good.

However, Brandon said, standing out in this channel “requires generous affiliate commissions and personalized attention” to each partner. As such, Brandon said Foria works with each affiliate “to understand their needs and are willing to provide custom offers to help them effectively reach their communities.”

Overall, Brandon said, delivering high-converting assets to publishers is a major factor in acquiring audience members as customers. “We invest in split testing our creative and passing the best assets on to our affiliates to support them in promoting Foria,” he said.

A daunting task

With a growing competition to land quality affiliate content, younger DTC brands are also contemplating how best to tackle this channel. 

Candle brand Apollo, which launched in 2021, has been cautious in approaching affiliate marketing in its early days. Apollo founder James Napoli said that while the company has a small affiliate program, the marketing model has not been a direct focus or main strategy for obtaining media coverage. As a relatively new company, Napoli said Apollo is still focusing on raising awareness through tailoring PR pitches for publications that highlight the brand story and product offerings with the goal of landing organic placements. “If requested by a publication, we share a link to our affiliate program but it is not something we lead with,” he said.  

Beyond major publications, Napoli said that currently Apollo is being “choiceful” about its affiliate application process, “as we prefer to have fewer quality partners rather than risk brand reputation with a larger pool of unknown or untested affiliates.” 

Apollo’s candle line is on the higher-end, prompting the company to target specific publishers whose readership overlaps with the brand’s target audience — for example, published content that focuses on travel, luxury lifestyle and interior design. Some of the publications Apollo has appeared in include Elle, Who What Wear and Forbes. “And we keep a close eye on other brands that the publication features to make sure there is an affinity,” Napoli said. 

Indeed, Dialogue NYC’s Fraser said this is one reason why affiliate marketing “is not for all brands,” adding that brands have to entrust the media partners with sharing promotional code and a discounted acquisition offer. “This can diminish the brand of luxury and certain lifestyle companies,” she said.

One newly-launched direct-to-consumer brand, Mrs. Momma Bear, is holding off on building an affiliate program, at least for now. The women’s workwear brand launched in July, and is primarily focused on acquiring customers through physical pop-ups in Houston, Texas and Aspen, Colorado. Founder Lee Evans Lee said the fashion line is made with activewear fabrics, which can be difficult to introduce to new audiences through affiliate content alone. “It requires a touch and feel to understand the value proposition,” she said. “I also knew I wanted a relationship with each customer.”

As a still unknown brand, Lee said that putting dollars toward affiliates and paying out commission is a risk. It would also require hiring a full service agency to handle pitching and affiliate account management, which is expensive for a bootstrapped brand.

For some brands, affiliate marketing remains part of the earned media strategy — as opposed to performance marketing. “We see our efforts in this space as an investment in our brand, rather than a conversion or reach play,” Napoli said.

But just as brands feel like they may have found the right affiliate playbook, there are more changes on the horizon that could force them ot shift strategies.

“There’s another massive shift happening early Q4 next year, with Google and Apple removing third-party cookie tracking – that will greatly impact the affiliate landscape,” O’Connor said. By then, brands will have to navigate the changes with their publisher partners when they see the sales numbers change from previous years. “The key to survival in this channel is adaptation,” O’Connor said.