The New Affiliate Marketing: How Influencers Are Changing the Game
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Affiliate marketing is evolving from a strategy driven by website clicks to one that seeks to cultivate high-quality leads from not just the web, but also social channels. As social leaders with the power to inspire both sales and loyalty, influencers are becoming a powerful component of successful affiliate campaigns.
While affiliate marketing has been around for many years, influencer marketing by comparison has seemingly popped up overnight. This new industry is, however, hot on the heels of ‘affiliate’ and is closing the gap between web traffic conversion (traditionally affiliate) and social traffic conversion (influencer). Both types of marketing rely on referral promotion to drive traffic, sales and reach new target audiences. As these digital marketing strategies intersect, affiliate marketing must remain relevant. This may in fact be one of its biggest challenges yet.
As social media becomes increasingly shopper-friendly and bloggers drop their websites for Instagram fame, affiliate marketing is facing a critical transition. After previously relying on “publishers” to drive traffic for clients as part of an affiliate program, affiliate-focused agencies must now quickly get up to speed on new tactics, social platforms, and strategies to serve brands who are now seeking more comprehensive results from a diverse range of channels – not just web. With consumers swiping up on Instagram Stories to shop the looks of their favorite style bloggers and social media influencers, these once-untraditional platforms are increasingly becoming the norm.
"Affiliate marketers who are still invested only in website publishers and “clicks” are missing out on new customers and business."
Meanwhile, influencer collaborations, once seen as a strategy distinct from affiliate programs, has edged ever closer toward modern affiliate marketing. Savvy affiliate marketers are leading a powerful trend toward more thoughtful, relationship-focused influencer campaigns that leverage social media stars with a strong online presence to drive awareness, lead generation, sales and loyalty. The tracking and measurement of influencer collaborations is also becoming increasingly more sophisticated and in line with traditional affiliate marketing measurement and tracking. Although ‘Brand Awareness’ is the hallmark of a successful influencer marketing campaign, it is no longer the single measure used to track the return on investment from influencer campaigns. The main distinction now between affiliate and influencer marketing is simply the channel itself and the way the influencer is paid. Affiliate marketing is often web traffic paid based on performance (CPA) and influencer marketing is often social traffic paid upfront as flat fees. Brands now have visibility into the same metrics for both strategies and options around how they choose to pay influencers. They can access indicators of performance and traffic via Google Analytics for web based publishes and Instagram Insights for social based publishers. Despite these similarities, influencer and affiliate marketing are still referred to as two separate strategies and are often managed by different teams in the same organisation.
In this article, we’ll explore why influencers matter so much to affiliate marketing, and how to incorporate both into your marketing strategy.
"Savvy affiliate marketers are leading a powerful trend toward more thoughtful, relationship-focused campaigns that leverage influencers to drive awareness, interest, sales and loyalty."
Let’s start by examining what affiliate marketing used to be:
The evolution of Affiliate vs Influencer Marketing: Let’s start with the old affiliate
When affiliate marketing began, the concept was simple. Marketers gave trackable links to online publishers, and when a reader made a click or a purchase, the publisher earned a commission. In 1996, the year Amazon popularized this style of pay per click affiliate marketing, the tracking capabilities felt revolutionary. This kind of transparency had never existed before. Publishers soon recognized an opportunity to monetize their content without soliciting advertisers, and brands recognized an opportunity to guarantee that their marketing dollars were tied to sales.
Curious to see how influencers can help your own affiliate marketing efforts? Get in touch for personalised advice.
More than 20 years later, the Amazon Associate program is one of the largest in the world, but tracking clicks is hardly groundbreaking. In an era where brands have increasingly powerful tools to understand customer behavior, many are no longer satisfied with campaigns that focus on one-off purchases without the chance to develop longer-term relationships. More than a way to add incremental sales, brands want to attract shoppers who are likely to become loyal customers. This is just one reason why social media influencers have become so important. Not only are influencers more effective than traditional publishers at inspiring action (studies show that 92% of consumers trust influencers more than banner ads), but they are also quicker to adapt to evolving consumer behavior.
The shift from desktop to mobile is one poignant example. As smartphones surpass desktops, shoppers have stopped clicking and started swiping.
"As smartphones surpass desktops, shoppers have stopped clicking and started swiping."
Consumers are no longer exiting their favorite apps to visit eCommerce sites, opting instead to utilise features like the “swipe up” functionality on Instagram Stories to shop without interrupting their browsing experience.
Through our own collaborations, we are finding that the “swipe up” feature on Instagram Stories (only available to Instagram accounts with more than 10k followers) has been wildly successful in terms of boosting sales and strengthening brand loyalty - a primary goal and brand focus for many of our retail partners. Recently, a leading international retailer reported a 33% increase in product sales the day after an Instagram Story with a swipe up to the brand’s ecommerce site was posted. In another notable example, Arielle Charnas, the blogger and successful Instagram Influencer behind Something Navy, exclusively used Instagram Stories to announce her collaboration with Nordstrom -- a collection that sold out in just 24 hours.
These results, combined with a steady increase in active users on Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube and other social channels, suggest that shoppers are embracing the mobile shopping experience. This means that marketers must update their strategies to incorporate more than just affiliate marketing in order to reap the benefits of influencers.
The New Affiliate Marketing: More Control, Stronger Relationships
As brands evolve their strategies to focus less on incremental sales and more on customer loyalty, the affiliate product has also evolved. One downside of traditional affiliate marketing as a stand-alone strategy is that marketers have had little control over who represents their brand and how their messages are conveyed. Publishers use affiliate links without input or direction, and brands don’t always have control over who actually uses their links. This presents a challenge for marketers looking to run a cohesive marketing campaign with a consistent brand message. Most marketers understand the need to give publishers the freedom to use their own voice, but many are also finding that exposure without a strategy is not enough to achieve their long-term campaign goals.
If brands want to see long-term results from their affiliate marketing efforts, they must find ways to exert control over both the message and the messenger alike. Incorporating influencers allows brands to standardize important components such as calls-to-action, hashtags and social handles, while giving them a way to hand-select who represents them. As affiliate marketing evolves, many brands are also seeking to develop direct and ongoing relationships with the publishers who are performing for the brand against key metrics such as clicks and sales.
Affiliate networks have been slow to build their own influencer offering, which has resulted in influencer subnetworks emerging to support the needs of affiliate advertisers who are looking to work with more content partners through their affiliate program. One downside to this is the lack of transparency in these subnetworks. In many cases, advertisers and the affiliate network themselves have no insight into which influencers are actually performing for their brands and via which channels. This results in frustration for brands who are rightly looking to identify their highest performing partners and build an ongoing relationship with them.
Advertisers strongly value partnerships, according to recent Forrester survey which revealed a preference for affiliate networks that encouraged direct relationships and supported strategic collaboration over networks that supplied access alone. As veterans of strategic collaboration, influencers are poised to become increasingly important to brands as social-first publishers. In many cases, brands are reporting the influencer channel as the highest-performing source of new customer acquisition.
"As veterans of strategic collaboration, influencers are poised to become increasingly important to brands as social-first publishers."
The New Influencer Marketing: More Transparent and Effective
Affiliate marketing isn’t the only strategy to have evolved recently. Influencer marketing has undergone a makeover of its own, becoming more transparent, more streamlined and more effective. If you have felt in the past that influencers do not offer the same transparency or sales-driven results as affiliate publishers, you might be pleasantly surprised by recent updates and changes in the industry.
Managers now have access to powerful metrics that can help them identify the best influencers for their brand. They can analyse audience demographics, determine whether influencers are likely to help them rank more highly on search engines, and even track sales through affiliate links or directly using pixel tracking. We are also thrilled to announce that with Shopping Links, you can now view the Instagram Insights of many influencers in our network, allowing you to see their actual reach and impressions over the last 28 days, their audience demographics including countries, cities and gender, and follower growth over time. We have long provided Google Analytics data that details these metrics for an influencers blog traffic, but this is the first time that brands can see an equivalent level of detail for Instagram. Access to this type of data has the potential to fundamentally change the marketing industry and how we measure and track not only the success but the return on our investment.
Want to see our Instagram Insights in action? Schedule a demo.
Influencer marketing has also become more streamlined, with platforms such as Shopping Links allowing you to quickly identify the right influencers based on detailed search parameters, post your requirements, and browse influencers who have expressed interest in your brand. Utilising influencer marketing platforms eliminates the need to perform your own research or outreach, and makes influencer marketing an easy and scalable complement to your affiliate marketing campaigns. We work with some of the world’s leading affiliate marketing agencies, who have seen great success when incorporating influencers into their existing strategies.
"Utilising influencer marketing platforms eliminates the need to perform your own research or outreach, and makes influencer marketing an easy and scalable complement to affiliate campaigns."
Nordtrom Rack’s recent partnership with Shopping Links is an outstanding example how influencer marketing can be coupled with affiliate marketing to drive not only brand awareness but also traffic and sales. By utilising the Shopping Links Influencer marketplace, Nordstrom Rack was able to simplify the process of identifying and gifting influencers at scale. Individually-selected Influencers created a series of social media posts supported with blog posts to showcase Nordstrom Rack’s products to more than 500,000 potential customers.
Shopping Links worked with the team at Pepperjam to identify a number of influencers who met not only the traffic requirements but were the right fit in terms of audience and brand alignment – all within Nordstrom Rack’s affiliate marketing budget. A total of three fashion and lifestyle influencers provided increased awareness, traffic and sales together with a boost in brand recognition – without the need for more costly traditional advertising methods.
To be a leader in affiliate marketing, networks and agencies must recognize that advertisers are seeking more than just one-off leads or incremental sales. They want advocates and storytellers who can engage potential shoppers, demonstrate vertical expertise, and strengthen brand loyalty to inspire a long-term relationship. Influencers allow brands to take advantage of all the benefits of affiliate marketing, including transparency and guaranteed exposure, while adding the power to connect with shoppers and strengthen brand affinity. Affiliate marketing is a proven channel, strengthened by its access to data and quantifiable results. The opportunity is now for both advertisers and their affiliate networks to embrace influencer marketing and make it as cost-effective and transparent as they have affiliate marketing. In this case the whole – affiliate marketing and influencer marketing - is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
If you want to take the guesswork out of collaborating with influencers, Shopping Links can help, from choosing the right influencer from our personally vetted network of 14,000+ bloggers, to managing strategic product seeding and gifting collaborations. To request a demo, or to contribute to any of our future stories, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Instagram at @shoppinglinks