When Valerie Palmertree, a freelance PR consultant, was working on one of her clients’ “small, sophisticated jewelry brand” to launch a lifestyle magazine website, she thought it was a perfect fit. He had a good relationship with the editor and said the brand “aligned very well” with the outlet’s overall aesthetic and ethos.
But there was a barrier. brand has not yet been part of affiliate networks, platforms that track when readers make purchases, allowing publications to earn commissions on sales when readers click on product links in their articles.
His client, Palmertree says, was wary of giving up a cut of their profits when they were still operating on such a small scale. But after more than a year of trying editorial placements to no avail, he convinced them to try signing up with ShareaSale, an affiliate network that works with top publishers.
“We built it, we introduced the brand, and within a few weeks it was incorporated,” he said.
Offering affiliate links to find a mention in a major online publication has become a demand in today’s media landscape. In Awin and Digiday’s survey of more than 100 brands and agencies, nearly half plan to allocate at least 40 percent of their marketing budget to affiliate programs this year, and 17 percent plan to allocate more than 80 percent.
As the traditional media business model of selling ads has become less profitable, publishers have looked for alternative ways to generate revenue. Affiliate revenue has made up for some of the decline, a trend that has accelerated during the pandemic.
Publishers have put muscle behind these efforts, adding teams tasked with creating shoppable content. Vogue’s masthead lists seven full-time merchandising employees, more than it has on its features team. InStyle has a commercial team of 16, including a dedicated writer for Amazon; there are 13 people in its editorial team. Glamor has a commercial team of four, compared to a traditional fashion editorial team of two. Cosmopolitan employs a buying (another trade term) team of four.
Spokespeople for DotDash Meredith, Hearst and Condé Nast did not respond to requests for comment for the story.
The growing importance of spin-off income to media companies’ bottom lines has fundamentally changed the way fashion editors choose clothes, bags and shoes.
“Editors have a lot more work to do these days,” says Kelsey Ogletree, a journalist and founder of Pitchcraft, a software platform that connects publicists and small businesses with writers and editors. “They think that not only is this product worthy of editorial coverage, but also the potential to make money for their publication.”
However, the increasing importance of affiliates to the bottom line brings with it questions about whether they will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. If a magazine recommends a product, is it because the editor has actually tested and liked the product? Or is it because that product is selling particularly well, or that brand offers a higher commission to the publisher than a competitor?
Those lines have always been blurred. editors have long been encouraged to feature advertisers in photos or other editorial content. But brands, publicists and marketing experts say the connection between conventional advertising and content wasn’t as consuming.
“There’s an expectation with the media that they should be places you can trust for product recommendations, there’s supposed to be a separation of church and state from advertising,” Palmertree said. “It seems like there’s a little bit of a blurred line there now that maybe didn’t exist before.”
The changing landscape
Affiliate links have also created a shift for publicists as they now have to do affiliate placements along with organic press mentions. They are expected to be able to guide their customers through the affiliate onboarding process and then place them in the buying cycles. Holy Grail reviews the product independently.
Last year, Jennifer Bett Communications launched a subsidiary focused specifically on placing clients in link-driven shopping summaries or articles, one of several public relations agencies to build such a team. Also, affiliate marketing agencies have begun hiring more traditional publicists to integrate that aspect into their business, said Parrish Essell, Agency New Business Team Leader at ShareaSale.
Bringing the press and affiliate link placement teams together under one roof results in “higher quality affiliate content,” says JBC CEO Melissa Duren Conner.
Affiliate networks themselves also have direct relationships with publishers, Essel added, who will ask for recommendations on brands with interesting, unique products and an impressive commission.
“The business side and the editorial side used to be really separate,” he said. “What we’re hearing from a lot of our publishing partners is that they … have to work together.”
Affiliate marketing is more time and labor intensive than other forms of marketing, such as paid social, which simply involves creating an ad and uploading it to the platform. Partnerships involve maintaining relationships with publishers and often require the labor of an in-house expert or agency partner.
And it requires giving up the percentage of earnings. publishers often expect or demand up to 20 percent, Essel said, which is higher than what an influencer typically receives.
“Five beauty brands fighting for one spot, what’s keeping them over the edge? Probably the correlated rate,” said Duren Conner.
There are still uncertainties. Zara does not participate in affiliate programs. But many brands feel they have no choice but to play the game.
Otherwise, “there’s just going to be certain stories that you wish you weren’t in,” said Duren Conner. “It’s going to make it more complicated, especially if you’re a young brand.”
There are other ways to secure a coveted media mention, such as through stories that focus on a brand’s history, business strategy or founder, rather than simply encouraging readers to make a purchase.
Although editors often still think about affiliate links, even then.
“The first two years of telling the brand story will determine how well the brand can convert and perform on the affiliate segment,” says affiliate marketing consultant Emma Grace Moon.
Clothing and accessories brand Frances Valentine has waited six years since its 2016 debut to launch a full affiliate program. It was originally intended to raise awareness among influencers, but it also led to an influx of traditional press coverage, says Florence Gilardoni, the company’s director of marketing.
After launching its affiliate program, “it rose as one of the top channels that consistently brings us revenue,” said Gilardoni.
That press coverage paid off for Frances Valentine in several ways. The brand dressed Melissa McCarthy for Booking.com’s Super Bowl ad that aired last month, a high-profile opportunity that Gillardoni said was made possible by increased media attention.
“It’s something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the press coverage for her stylist to notice us,” she said.
For Ginny Shin, director of brand marketing at Calpak, she also found that joining an affiliate network in 2018 encouraged editors to link directly to their site rather than one of their retail partners who always wanted brands.
Before adding an affiliate to its marketing mix, the brand was losing valuable data.
“We don’t see who the customer is, we can’t retarget this audience and grow that business,” he said.
Of course, just as influencers have had to confront the question of the credibility of their recommendations, so have publishers. Shilling on every product that can be converted, whether it’s fit for publication or not, rarely ends well.
“Editor’s picks lose their meaning when they’re driven by affiliate programs,” Ogletree said.