It used to be that the terms “performance marketing” and “affiliate marketing” were interchangeable. Affiliate programs, after all, are the original pay-for-performance model, since affiliate publishing partners are paid a commission in exchange for driving impressions and conversions on behalf of an advertiser.
But while affiliate advertisers may have been the pioneers of performance marketing, the scope of this strategy has broadened in recent years to encompass a range of marketing activities, from lead generation and email marketing to in-app advertising, paid social and search, and more.
As performance marketing goes mainstream, what lessons can practitioners take away from the affiliate model to drive greater results across all types of campaigns?
Here are a few key best practices:
1. Advanced tracking is critical. Because their success depended on it, affiliate advertisers were early adopters of innovative techniques and technologies for performance tracking and analysis. In the early days, payouts to affiliates were based on impressions – which only required a basic measure of how many times an ad was viewed on a publisher’s web page. But as more data has become available, affiliate advertisers began to deploy advanced tracking technology to capture more details about campaign performance. As a result, they can base commissions on tangible actions taken by consumers, such as filling out a lead generation form, making a purchase or downloading a mobile app. Advanced performance tracking technology uses pixel-based tracking links to gather much deeper insight into what happens once a user clicks on an offer. Unlike traditional cookies, which can easily be disabled, pixels are embedded directly into an ad rather than dropped later when a user reaches a final landing page. This means that more data about the events leading to a conversion can be tracked and analyzed, providing valuable information about what works and what doesn’t, which ads are most appealing to specific demographic segments and even what types of creative messaging are most likely to engage audiences.
2. Look beyond the first and last clicks. All marketers want to better understand the customer’s journey to a conversion – a journey that, in today’s fragmented digital landscape, can involve multiple “touch points.” For example, a social media campaign may spark interest in a product, while a display ad increases awareness and an email offer closes the deal. While all are important, some touch points may be more influential than others. Because of the complexities involved in tracking the customer journey across multiple marketing channels, affiliate advertisers started out by focusing disproportionately on either the first or last click. But as advanced tracking technologies have evolved, multi-touch attribution has made it possible for marketers to gain deeper insight into how each touch point contributes to the final result. Attribution helps affiliate advertisers identify and appropriately reward partners that add the greatest value to their campaigns, but it’s also a very valuable tool for all types of digital performance marketers. In a landscape where consumers encounter many marketing messages across multiple channels before converting, tracking the first, last and every click in between empowers better decision making about how to allocate marketing budgets and design campaigns.
3. Timing is everything. Even the most detailed performance tracking is useless if it can’t deliver the goods in real-time. There’s a big difference between understanding why a campaign failed after the fact and being able to change course before a failure occurs. Real-time information about what actions consumers are taking in the moment (for example, Are more clicking on promotion A vs. promotion B?) empowers marketers to adjust and refine campaign strategies even while they are still in progress. The affiliate industry’s razor-thin margins have encouraged marketers to seek any technological advantage possible to improve campaign performance, but the advantages gained with real-time tracking offer benefits that go far beyond pay-for-performance.
4. Keep it simple. With so much available data to analyze, performance marketers need ways to organize and view information in an intuitive and easy-to-digest manner. The affiliate industry has begun to embrace technology that includes advanced data visualization capabilities and the broader performance community is doing the same. Research shows that people process visual data 60,000 times faster than text. The best performance tracking solutions are those that can build immediate and informative visualizations from incoming data for a simple, at-a-glance, real-time view of the most important KPIs.
At the end of the day, every marketer wants to know if their campaigns are generating results, and identify areas in need of improvement, regardless of whether or not they are engaging publishing partners to help. As performance marketing continues to broaden beyond the affiliate channel, the tracking techniques and technologies that have evolved out of affiliate programs are ready-made to help marketers leverage data to make better decisions across a range of digital strategies.