The year was 2003. After working in publishing for nearly five years, I decided it was time for a change. As “digital marketing” was just becoming a thing, I went looking for a job in that realm and was lucky enough to find a position as an Assistant Affiliate Manager.
Up until I was hired, I had never even heard of affiliate marketing. Back then, brands spent most of their online budget on display ads that appeared on AOL (gasp!) or MSN. Search budgets were still growing, and Google was not yet the behemoth it is today.
While affiliate marketing was seen as a cost-effective way to generate revenue, establish partnerships and increase brand reach, it was still an afterthought. I, however, saw it as a new and exciting industry that offered a lot more value than it was being given credit for. Fortunately, it’s come a long way in the past 14 years – and changed a lot in the process.
Here are a few interesting tidbits that show how much affiliate has changed:
- Program Size. Most programs sought to add affiliates quickly (some even used auto approval!) and the size of an affiliate program was often an important talking point at company meetings and in the media. Today, it’s about quality over quantity. The best affiliate programs carefully select their affiliate partners and consistently cull their list to ensure they are only working with quality, brand-aligned partners.
- Content Partnerships. In the early days, the industry was still trying to figure out how to work with bloggers, who were also new to the marketing landscape. Most blogs did not monetize their traffic and were hesitant to work with affiliate programs. Today, most high-performing programs that are effective at driving incremental revenue work with a lot of content affiliates.
- Social Media – Like blogging in the early 2000s, social media was also a new kid on the block. Facebook wasn’t started until 2004 and Twitter was created in 2006. As such, social media as a channel was not seen as a player in the affiliate space. Today, there are some content affiliates who distribute their content solely via social. They leverage Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and others to connect with their followers and promote brands in thoughtful, creative ways.
- Mobile – Not only was affiliate tracking on mobile devices nonexistent, so were smart phones and smart devices. Fun fact. I had a Sanyo SCP-5300 flip phone at the time. I thought I was cutting edge because it had a camera! While many affiliate programs are still trying to figure out how exactly to leverage mobile in their marketing efforts, the technology to do so has come a long way.
- Paid Placements. When I first started in the industry, only a few large affiliates had “rate cards” and charged “slotting fees” to brands for premium placements. Today, paid placements are commonplace and dynamic. Most serious affiliates have a range of placement options they offer to brands to advertise on their website or blog.
- Affiliate Networks. CJ and LinkShare (now Rakuten) were really the top players in the space when I started as an assistant affiliate manager. ShareASale was just coming on to the scene and SaaS platforms were barely even a twinkle in an affiliate program’s eye. Today, brands have more variety to choose from in terms of the technology they use to properly track performance, manage payouts to affiliates, etc.
- Tracking Technology. Speaking of tracking, in those early days, there was no way to track new customers, specific coupons, or drill down into attribution. Today, a program couldn’t even run effectively and efficiently if it didn’t have those capabilities.
- Training: In order to understand affiliate marketing, it was learn as you go. There were no courses or content available to help train people on how to be an affiliate program manager. While the industry still lacks a strong, formalized training process, there are companies like Acceleration Partners, who are trying to fill that gap. AP has implemented a training program that allows people with digital marketing and client service experience to learn what affiliate marketing is, how it fits into the larger world of digital marketing and how they can best serve and support companies that have an affiliate marketing program.
Today, Affiliate is an integral part of a brand’s digital strategy. In many cases it drives a strong percentage of online revenue and also contributes to KPI’s such as new customer acquisition.
Over the years, I have managed programs for brands on their in-house affiliate team, at agencies, and as an outsourced affiliate manager. I have also managed programs of different business models in a variety of verticals. After 13+ years, I can still say honestly that I learn something new every day and am continually impressed by the new associates and managers serving in the industry. I wish I had their wealth of knowledge when I first started.
If my long history in the affiliate marketing space has taught me anything, it’s that we can all expect it to bring new and exciting developments to the future of marketing.