Content Publishers Made 2020 a Transformative Year for the Business of Partnerships

By Maura Smith, Chief Marketing Officer, Partnerize

2020 was a strenuous year for performance marketers. It demanded that we pay close attention to waves of economic impact — and the sorts of consumer lifestyle and commerce behavioral shifts that such rolling impact would force. Ultimately, marketers had to remain open to potential business model adjustments. It was not a year for the idle. But, those who stayed vigilant, observant and nimble on the course found a way to reset and thrive. Perhaps nowhere within marketing was this more true than with affiliate marketing.

Over the course of the tumultuous year, we observed that content publisher partners experienced material year-over-year growth despite it all, a trend that validated their very emergence as key contributors in the affiliate marketing channel. These publishers were proving the channel’s promise at a whole new level, by virtue of their capacity to deliver despite such economic disruption.

The year effectively delivered a milestone in the channel’s journey to earn its seat at the CMO’s table, with content publishers and a newfound level of appreciation for outcome-based models very much driving this groundswell. It’s worth a closer look at how, as we collectively look to build on this momentum in 2021 and beyond. As well as what’s next.

Here’s the news: it’s not complicated. Understanding “how” brands used content publisher partners to unlock growth in 2020, essentially comes down to mindset — open-mindedness, fearlessness and proactivity in a few key areas. Here are several areas of growth marketers’ collective mindset shift that ultimately sparked remarkable growth in the category. And, they are within any marketer’s capacity for change.

Brands embraced affiliate platform innovation and automation in general. If brands had been on the fence or waiting for more widespread proof of concept — it seemed 2020 was the year that levels of innovation and the value of automation truly became more or less self-evident. This was the year that brands leaned in and truly availed themselves of the affiliate marketing options — workflow, utility, data analytics, technological — that would allow them to unlock profitability at scale. During such a tumultuous year, with change being the only constant, time was particularly precious. Automation was vital.

Engaging in influencer partner discovery/recruitment. In a year where legacy habits and complacency could no longer stand, brands were willing to endeavor more seriously into “discovery,” letting go of assumptions about the most productive partner types for their business, opening their minds to letting the data inform the expansion of their partnership. From our vantage point, we saw that they expanded their minds to the idea of leveraging and testing affiliate with influencers, securing proof of concept prior to full investment. Fortunately, today’s solutions allow for the swiftest, most methodical version of this process.

Getting serious about content partner optimization. On that same note, never has there been such a clear rejection of set-it-and-forget-it. Optimization was the order of the day in 2020. With initial indications, by our own team’s observation via our platform and analysis, that content publishers as a type were yielding outcomes, the most observant and nimble marketers, attended to optimization, using data to expand on their most productive relationships and optimize off the program, anything or any partner that was not working. Optimization tactics relied heavily on data as the guide, so that one may tweak investment and allocation by partner type and respective audience composition.

Being open to new content partner types and audience diversification. And finally, within this open mindset and a newfound appetite for “discovery,” the very principle of diversification should become the norm. For the enlightened, it was clear that there’s more leverage in a mix. Isolation only gets one so far. A focus on exploring content partner types and thoughtfully diversifying (while optimizing of course) that mix at any given time, very much became the play in 2020.

For all the successes in this arena last year, it’s safe to assume that those practitioners who achieved those successes, will replicate their newly minted strategies and profitable tactical routines. But, because evolution is the order of the era, and we must continue to adapt, it’s key to boil it down to takeaways that others may learn from and replicate. There’s, even more, we can do in 2021 and beyond if we zero in, in the simplest of terms, on what we learned when it comes to embracing affiliate’s transformation:

  1. Don’t gloss over the best in innovation and automation the industry has to offer by simply checking the box and engaging any given provider — tap into the most progressive automated solutions.
  2. Understand there is vast opportunity outside of your line of sight. Allow for ongoing discovery, and suit up to recruit, at scale.
  3. A good partner yields outcomes. Optimized partner yields profitable, scalable ones.
  4. Isolation is a limitation. There is leverage in diversity.

Sure, some of this may require a marketer to engage a new solution provider or increase investment in enterprise tools and solutions. It may require a greater level of corporate commitment to partnership in general. But, at the heart of it all, it’s pretty simple: open up, diversify and be where the consumers are, focusing wholly on outcomes. 2020 proved there’s a scalable business model for that.

Marketers engaging with affiliate and content learned in 2020 that paying on a performance basis offered more stability and a safe haven than that of other marketing channels, and that approach benefited their businesses. Consumers spent more time online with content in 2020, and marketers who focused on being present and optimizing their own presence, paying only for outcomes, during these particularly fluid times, drove game-changing business results.  If a marketer can ensure placement in these channels on a pay for performance basis, during a crazy time, why wouldn’t they invest more in whatever ‘that’ is going forward?