Growing Your Affiliate Program: A Guide For Modern DTC Brands
Affiliate marketing is still a misunderstood channel among many growth marketers. This guide sets out to prove the value of affiliate for modern DTC brands.
For years, “affiliate” has been a dirty word among growth marketers. Affiliate marketing still brings to mind sketchy fraudsters, outdated blogs, and coupon sites that cannibalize revenue. For whatever reason, it’s one of the only marketing channels that has never really entered the mainstream, despite the fact that most brands report their affiliate program making up 5-20% of total revenue. Most heads of growth know shockingly little about affiliate marketing and tend to deprioritize it out of the gate, dismissing it as a niche channel.
The truth is the affiliate ecosystem has grown and flourished tremendously in the last 10 years due to the rise of new media formats, monetization models, and independent publishers. There are hundreds of unique affiliates ready to drive results for your brand on a fixed CPA model - you just have to know where to look. This begs the question...
What Affiliates Should I Be Working With?
It’s incredibly important to educate yourself on the affiliate universe as a whole. There are a wide array of different affiliate types, and most marketers don’t even know that they exist. Here are a few of my most favorite “slept on” affiliate categories:
There are dozens of mobile apps and online marketplaces with literally millions of active users looking to redeem the points that they earn in-app on exclusive brand offers. Every single one of these apps is a point of discovery for your brand. Miles, for example, is a travel app in which users receive points for miles they accumulate during their daily commute. The Miles interface to redeem these points, looks like this:
That’s a digital billboard reaching thousands of users with your brand right on it - all for a fixed CPA with little to no up-front media cost.
There are tons of different versions of this rewards redemption model. Other affiliates in this category include Drop, Beneplace and Tapjoy. Reaching their audiences is often just a matter of reaching out to their sales team and flipping a switch.
Email Prospecting Publishers
Imagine if you could send an email right to the inbox of thousands of untapped potential customers who have opted to receive offers from brands in your specific category. Sure, you can sponsor a newsletter, but why risk the massive up-front costs of paid media in the event that the partnership doesn’t perform how you expect?
The affiliate world has a fixed-CPA option that has been a massive under-the-radar source of growth for DTC brands for years. Third-party email prospecting affiliates own large lists of compliant, opt-in email addresses. They onboard brands after agreeing upon a fixed CPA + promotional offer, and send mail campaigns introducing your brand to thousands of customers in your target demographic. Examples of agencies with this offering include Madrivo, Amobee, and BrandX Ads. This is a great way to reach new audiences while only paying per conversion.
“Long Tail” Independent Publishers
When it comes to working with content affiliates, marketers often find that the only publishers worth reaching out to are massive behemoths - Hearst, Meredith, etc. - that are very difficult to gain traction with from a PR perspective. While this is true, and the lines between PR and affiliate continue to blur with each passing day, there are tons of other more accessible publishers who can offer your brand valuable SEO. They’re called comparison sites.
These are independent publishers who compete with the big fish by specializing in a very specific niche. Examples of this are My Subscription Addiction, Mommyhood101, and The Mattress Nerd. Search for something specific to your brand’s niche. Let’s say you sell razors. A quick search for “best men’s razor” reveals the following results at the top of the SERP:
What do you see? A bunch of big, hard to reach publishers. Scroll right on past the big fish - that’s PR territory and not where you’ll find the chance to grow your affiliate program. What you want is something like result #7 on page 1 of the SERP:
Toolsofmen.com is an example of a publisher that’s getting a high volume of traffic to a valuable subject for your brand, but likely isn’t receiving as many pitches from brands. In fact, a quick search reveals that it’s being run by one person. Your pitch to the founder of toolsofmen.com is far more likely to receive a response than if you were to pitch, say, the Grooming editor at Esquire.
Nearly every ecommerce category has a large volume of these long-tail publishers. Search for your highest volume and most relevant KWs, collect a list of prospects on page 1 and 2 of the SERP, and reach out to all of them. You can offer them a compelling commission, perhaps an exclusive discount for their audience, or free product to sample and review. I guarantee you hear back from at least a handful.
Sub-affiliate networks are more of a must-have than a hidden affiliate growth hack. Most large publishers can’t be bothered to manage hundreds of individual affiliate relationships with every brand they could conceivably promote, so they leverage sub-affiliate networks to handle the nuts and bolts of their partnerships and simplify their monetization. For example, let’s say Condé Nast decides to do a 20 item listicle roundup of the best Mother’s Day gifts. Rather than joining the affiliate programs of each of the 20 brands, they simply use Skimlinks, one of the largest sub-affiliate networks, to turn their list of gift recommendations into monetizable affiliate links. This is why it’s incredibly important to onboard sub-affiliate networks like Skimlinks. If an editor at a major publication comes across your product, but they can’t easily create an affiliate link to your site, it might disincentivize them to cover your brand.
Not only that, but sub-affiliate networks can serve as a point of discovery for your brand. One of the most important metrics for affiliates is earning per click, or EPC. Many sub-affiliate networks promote brands with the highest EPCs internally to their network of publishers. They might also bucket you into one of their easily navigable merchant categories, or feature you in a newsletter to their affiliates as an up-and-coming merchant on their network. It’s a great way to easily share your offer to hundreds of potential affiliates without having to form a direct relationship with them.
Some other sub-affiliate network examples are Button, a sub-affiliate network for mobile apps, LTK (formerly RewardStyle), a sub-affiliate network for influencers, and VigLink, a competitor to SkimLinks.
How Do I Find New Affiliates?
This is the million dollar question. It’s very easy to feel like you’re banging your head against the wall or shouting into the void when trying to find affiliates who are actually willing to work with you and provide incremental value. This article should have provided you with several jumping off points, but if you want to continue to scale your program, I recommend the following strategies:
www.publisherdiscovery.com is a great, affordable tool that will save you hours of time and immediately give you a list of relevant affiliates to prospect. All you do is give them some info on your brand, enter the domains of your closest direct competitors, and they crawl the web to find every single affiliate in each respective competitor’s affiliate programs. You can even view shared affiliates across programs, and do a gap analysis of your own program!
The most valuable partners I’ve ever come across I got from simply reaching out to other affiliate managers. Leverage LinkedIn, Slack communities and your own network to connect with marketers who have affiliate experience. They’re typically more than happy to give you tips on publishers that have worked well for them.
Your Affiliate Vendor
Whether you’re using ShareASale, Impact, Rakuten or one of the dozens of other affiliate solutions on the market, the vast majority of them offer an internal tool to recruit affiliates. Impact has one of the more robust offerings - their internal marketplace has a wide variety of categories and criteria filters to find the perfect list of publishers. ShareASale has a category-based recruiting tool as well that can be a great jumping off point to find publishers. While response rates can be low when recruiting through affiliate platforms, you can at least formulate an affiliate shortlist before finding direct email addresses using a tool like hunter.io to personalize your outreach a bit more.
Don’t forget to put a link to your affiliate program application in the footer of your website! You want to be discoverable to anyone who has an audience that is interested in promoting your brand. You can periodically send an email to your customers letting them know that you have an affiliate program, or even set up a referral program where you reward affiliates for referring your brand to other affiliates!
The most important thing to remember about growing an affiliate program is that it takes time. It won’t happen overnight, and you probably won’t immediately onboard any game-changing affiliates who will double your program size overnight. It’s a long game with a lot of long-tail partners who slowly but surely add up to significant volume. Once you have that volume, affiliate will become your favorite source of growth. You can rest easy knowing that your CPAs won’t fluctuate drastically like they do on paid social. In fact, affiliate programs often have a lower CPA and higher AOV than any other top-of-funnel growth channels.
If you’re looking for help growing your affiliate program or just want to say hi, feel free to reach out or hit me up on Twitter! I’d love to hear from you and love to connect with fellow marketers.