Are You Taking a Data-Driven Approach to Affiliate Marketing?

By William Hamer-Jones, VP of Partnerships & Affiliate, Matterkind

With a history spanning three decades, it’s no wonder affiliate marketing has gone through some fundamental transformations in its time. The vouchers, loyalty points, blogs and comparison sites that emerged in the 2000s still have their place in the affiliate landscape of today – but standing tall beside them are newer landmarks like mobile, influencer marketing, large-scale media, and brand-to-brand partnerships. The spread of partners has evolved, and so too have the channels available to them. Likewise, the digital touchpoints between brands and people have proliferated and changed beyond recognition.

But I’d like to focus on what I see as the biggest driver of maturity in this space: Data. The growth of big data has been behind the largest marketing shifts in the 21st century. And affiliate marketing is no exception.

The days of finger-in-the-air guesstimation are over. Data has made affiliate marketing more accountable and transparent than ever. Brands, platforms, and affiliates have become more sophisticated, which has enabled a data-driven approach in all the right places: personalization, measurement, attribution, and more.

The key to outcome-based marketing

The big story here is that data-driven affiliate marketing unlocks an outcome-based future – where your affiliate marketing spend can be tied to concrete, predictable revenue. Particularly, when integrated with other marketing channels, allowing brands to gain full visibility of affiliate and cross-channel interactions with people. Data opens up the door for more strategic moves, tighter audience reach, and measurable results.

Brands across a range of sectors can embrace the affiliate marketing revolution for revenue returns. Retail, travel, and direct-to-consumer have seen significant gains. Then there’s financial services and fintech, which are seeing huge growth potential. Comparison sites like NerdWallet and popular blogs such as The Motley Fool have been natural (and profitable) affiliate partners for fintech brands. When it comes to startups as well as long-established brands in the finance space, trust is key. Recommendations from trusted publishers and other affiliates can be the difference between failure and success.

That said, data is empowering fintech brands by reducing their reliance on comparison and review sites, or newer affiliate platforms like Credit Karma. It’s never good to put all your eggs in one basket, and harnessing data is opening up fresh ways for brands to reach new people and drive traffic to their websites.

The barriers to data-driven affiliate marketing

It’s not always easy to implement an effective data-driven affiliate program. Challenges persist – including technology limitations. Reporting, accreditation flexibility, and attribution are all historical challenges brands have faced within the affiliate channel. Brands often don’t know where to turn to build, track, and optimize their affiliate programs for this outcome-based future.

Siloed channels are another pitfall. When data and insights aren’t shared or measured across affiliate channels, brands are left in the dark on their true, overall performance. While lack of a cross-channel approach can also mean inconsistent messaging to potential customers, inconsistent commercial models, paying out twice for the same sale, and even potentially doubling up on efforts with partners and channels.

Reaching the right people, at the right time is the aim in affiliate marketing. But it can be next-to-impossible without the right capabilities and accurate customer persona building. You need to know who your audience is, where they’re at, and work with affiliate partners that are relevant to your customers.

This aligns closely with another challenge – lack of partner diversity. Brands can be overly reliant on a small number of partners to drive 90% of their sales. But working with a more diverse range of partners helps to minimize risk, casts a wider net to attract new audiences, touches people in every part of their customer journey, and can generate more revenue for that all important bottom line.

Your data-driven affiliate opportunity

Although the challenges are many, so too, are the opportunities. To transcend the above pitfalls, a robust data-driven approach is needed. It’s data that reveals which partners are valuable, how valuable they are, and how much lifetime value the customers they reach ultimately bring to your brand. It’s data that shows which partners make the initial introduction to your brand, and which close the deal. And it’s data that flags the actions that aren’t leading to measurable business benefits, so you can avoid putting your money into places yielding low returns.

With data, you can better manage situations where two or more affiliates or marketing channels are involved in customer acquisition. And you can better understand where your affiliate partners and other channels are regularly working in tandem to drive conversions. Once you know the partners and programs delivering the goods, you can build better relationships with them and prepare for bigger wins in the future.

Building relationships for long-term value

With all this talk of data, it’s important not to lose sight of another crucial component: Relationship. Affiliate marketing isn’t the same as other addressable advertising initiatives – where you can throw money into reaching a specific audience with a specific ad and expect to see instant results. It’s a slow-burning medium. Because it requires authentic, trusting relationships between your customers and your affiliate partners. And real relationships take time. But they also reap bigger rewards in the long term, too.

Affiliate partners with a data-savvy and people-centered approach should be your first port of call when it comes to navigating a landscape where consumer trust isn’t easily won. Get it right and you’ll unlock the ability to make real connections to real people and integrate affiliate marketing with your wider marketing mix for valuable, measurable outcomes.

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