The fourth quarter is busy for affiliate marketers. Consumers start perusing content and deal sites in October, gathering ideas for holiday shopping. Merchants with affiliate marketing programs will likely see an increase in traffic as affiliates publish new content.
There are many roles in the affiliate marketing industry. Merchants actually sell the products. Affiliates drive traffic to merchants’ sites and receive commissions when those visitors purchase products. Affiliate managers, including outsourced program managers, recruit affiliates, set commissions structures, provide creative content, and otherwise administer the process. And affiliate networks link affiliates with merchants, monitor traffic between them, and arrange commission payments, among other duties.
For this article, I asked participants in each role for recommendations to merchants, to improve sales from their affiliate marketing efforts during the fourth quarter 2016.
Wade Tonkin manages the affiliate program at Fanatics, a retailer of sports apparel and fan gear. Tonkin cautions merchants on purchasing affiliate ad placements. “Make sure that you have a full understanding of the real value of the business your affiliates are driving,” Tonkin told me. “Doing this can be time and labor intensive, but it can make a ton of difference in return-on-investment at a time of year when it really matters.”
Maryellen Garasky of Jane.com, a boutique marketplace for women’s fashion, recommends that merchants review their entire affiliate base. “Identify any and all affiliates that haven’t produced a sale. Find out what it would take to make them produce a sale and get it for them,” says Garasky. She recommends using contests and other promotions to engage inactive affiliates. However, she says the effort shouldn’t stop there.
“Now the important part: Measure and follow-up consistently throughout the quarter and even into the first quarter of 2017. The relationships you build this holiday season will be those you depend on next year,” Garasky emphasizes.
One of the best ways that merchants can drive more sales from affiliates is to provide useful content.
“The most helpful affiliate manager I know sends emails pre-populated with deals that are a good fit for my site, that already have my affiliate codes embedded. That way, I just have to copy them, paste them into a blog post, add an introduction, and publish,” says Heather Mann, owner of DollarStoreCrafts.com.
Mann says she isn’t looking for a fully written piece of content, but rather content that she can easily build upon.
“The most helpful affiliate manager I know sends emails pre-populated with deals that are a good fit for my site…”
Jenny Martin, owner of Southern Savers, a deal site, says merchants should provide affiliates with more advance notice of sales and special offers. She says that affiliates often find out about promotions after the fact. Martin advises incorporating affiliates as part of the launch campaign, and not as an afterthought.
“For Q4, I encourage merchants to get proactive with their affiliate channels and get affiliates as excited about the schedule as the merchants are. Most content affiliate sites have publishing calendars set days or even weeks out. The earlier you can share, the better prepared they can be to help you promote,” Martin advises.
Martin also believes merchants should strive to make affiliates feel like part of the team. After all, affiliates are compensated based on performance, earning commission on completed transactions. “The harder that affiliates work, the more they earn,” Martin says.
Martin also suggests that merchants provide tiered commission rates during the fourth quarter based on volume, using goals that yield bonuses and offering higher commissions on special promotions.
Outsourced Program Managers
An outsourced program manager is a third-party agency that manages an affiliate program on behalf of a merchant. OPMs benefit from broad exposure to strategies across many industries and models.
Karen Garcia, co-founder of Lab6 Media, an OPM, says that mistakes during the fourth quarter can be costly. “The best advice I can give to a retailer is to test everything from an affiliate and consumer perspective. Ensure that the creatives and links you provide to affiliates are current, and that they redirect to appropriate and working landing pages. If you’re utilizing tracking codes for analytics, ensure those codes are correct,” Garcia says.
Garcia also emphasizes testing affiliate tracking pixels, especially if multiple payment methods are in play.
Stephanie Robbins is owner of Robbins Interactive, another OPM. She encourages merchants to look beyond traditional fourth quarter affiliate promotions, such as deals, coupons, and gift guides.
“Augment these plans with unique and innovative campaigns targeting your influencer and content affiliates. For instance, a cosmetic or fashion retailer can go beyond gift guides with campaigns focused on self-care or charity. Content affiliates are often overlooked. However these affiliates reach out to a new customer base for the brand,” Robbins says.
Greg Hoffman is president of Apogee, an OPM. He says that merchants need to lock down any site changes and affiliate program structures early on.
“Make sure you window dress for competitiveness and you make it as easy as possible for affiliates to see fast conversions. Besides adding promotions and answering questions, Q4 should not be a time for any major changes to affiliate programs. The sooner you prepare, the sooner you can react to the appropriate fires,” Hoffman says.
Affiliate networks track traffic between affiliates and merchants, and facilitate reporting and payments. According to Rakuten Marketing, an affiliate network, ecommerce sales on Thanksgiving Day 2015 outpaced both Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Rakuten Marketing also noted shifts in consumer behavior that could impact fourth quarter 2016 strategy.
“We expect the percentage of consumers buying online and picking up in store will be significant again this  holiday selling season,” says Adam Weiss, senior vice president and general manager of Rakuten Marketing. “Retailers that offer in-store pickup need to highlight the option through their affiliate marketing strategies, particularly as shoppers look to influencers and publishers for money saving and stress-reducing tips during the holiday.”
“We expect the percentage of consumers buying online and picking up in store will be significant…”
Weiss also recommends that merchants prioritize reaching consumers on smartphones. “In 2015, mobile accounted for 41 percent of traffic for Rakuten Marketing affiliate clients, and mobile sales were up nearly 60 percent over 2014,” Weiss notes. Weiss expects mobile sales to be even higher in 2016 as a result of increased consumer confidence, improved mobile encryption, and broader adoption of mobile payment solutions.
Chad Waite is a marketing manager with affiliate network AvantLink . He encourages merchants to provide a single set of banners that are continually updated with current promotions.
“This method of campaign management allows affiliates to be confident that the ad they’ve featured on their site will always be automatically and dynamically updated with the latest and rapidly changing promotions for the string of fourth quarter ‘holidays,’ such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, Christmas, and New Year’s Day,” Waite advises. “Let affiliates know that if they place an ad on their site, that ad will be updated with no additional work on their end. The less work for an affiliate to stay relevant, the better.”
Waite also recommends an attribution and commissioning structure. This provides dynamic and equitable commission payouts to all affiliates involved in a clickstream and not just the last click referral.
“Affiliates making referrals earlier in the clickstream are demanding to be included for their valuable impact in converting a visitor to a customer. If your program still operates on a ‘last click wins’ commissioning model, early affiliate referrals are getting cut out of the reward process entirely. Make sure your program is including them in data-driven, dynamic payout models — to keep all affiliates rewarded, happy, and fairly compensated, “ says Waite.