Affiliate marketing is no longer a side-hustle for publishers, netting only a few pennies on the dollar when readers click a buy button. As online shopping behaviors have matured, retailers have been increasing their spend in areas beyond search and display advertising.

This systemic change is offering up new opportunities for publishers to develop content-and-commerce models and build relationships with advertisers that are less about impressions and more about conversions.

In August, Buzzfeed’s food vertical, Tasty, launched a partnership with Walmart that provides Tasty app users with “shoppable recipes,” allowing them to add the ingredient lists from any video directly into an online Walmart grocery cart for pickup or delivery.

“Walmart is a great partner, and this works strategically across many monetization channels,” says Nilla Ali, VP of strategic partnerships at Buzzfeed. “This is different from advertising. It is very much down-funnel and integrated with content.”

Similarly, at tech news and review site Digital Trends, HP was looking for a way to boost sales during off-peak months. The site hosted a high-end laptop giveaway to engage audiences, promoted editor’s picks of HP items via social posts and its daily live video show, and “did gangbusters on the product sales side,” says Digital Trends‘ VP of commerce, Lynda Mann.

Many publishers cite The New York Times’ 2016 ($30-million dollar) acquisition of affiliate-fueled product review site Wirecutter as a turning point that stamped the Gray Lady’s imprimatur on a marginal performance model.

Wirecutter is even deeply integrating that model back into The Times with a new advertising campaign for a multi-merchant retailer that dynamically feeds its editor’s picks and pricing into a flex-frame ad unit.

“It’s the first time our teams have collaborated together,” says Leilani Han, director of business development and partnerships at Wirecutter. “It’s a unique way we are bringing elements of performance marketing combined with our authority in product recommendations to our parent company’s ad units.”

From impressions to conversions

Conversions? Moving product? Gangbuster sales? If this doesn’t sound like the traditional publisher language around impressions, reach and frequency, that’s because in many ways digital channels and affiliate models are helping to change the conversation between media companies and clients.

“Advertisers want to do more things that are optimized at conversions and that fall beyond advertising,” says Ali, and the dramatic changes in retail are helping to drive this new respect for affiliate models.

Amazon and emerging direct-to-consumer challenger brands pressured many retailers to look past search and display and find new ways to get into the real consumer path to purchase, which often begins with publisher content.

“We get 50 emails a day,” says Mann. “Name the brand—literally everybody. It has changed the conversation. Now it is how we sell products together.”

Ali concurs. “In today’s world, a lot of advertising dollars are shifting towards affiliate. It’s no longer seen as passive acquisition but an active one that requires a strategy.”

In fact, this new environment allows publishers to package and price campaigns in new and interesting ways and negotiate more favorable revenue sharing partnerships with.

At Wirecutter, Han finds “the savvier marketers are coming to the table with offers around exclusive deals, custom landing pages and adjusting attribution rules to help us service our readers and improve their conversion rates with us.”

Affiliate link accompanying a product review on Wirecutter.

What’s the affiliate plan?

Now more than ever, publishers need to think about not only the form, but also the aim of their affiliate portfolio.

Amazon sent shock waves through the industry by cutting many of its commission rates a little more than two years ago. In fairness, many publishers indicate the cuts were less dramatic than first speculated, and Amazon has since proven to be willing to negotiate with larger media partners. Nevertheless, its ability to make such significant impacts on a publisher’s top line—for better or worse—served as a wake-up call to diversify.

“Even if you develop retail partnerships, you are talking about very big players and any change in rates is going to be a big hit,” says Digital Trends’ Mann, who also previously served as business development director at Wirecutter. “[We] make sure we are evenly balanced—both on affiliate partnerships but also on product category.”

Digital Trends’ affiliate programs are also attached to services, experiences and education. This was borne out by a surprising alignment discovered between its readers and the ESPN+ subscription streaming service, which, following a small affiliate test, has now become one of their top ten partners.

In monetizing these larger relationships, sites need to price and package them beyond a simple fractional commission rate.

“We have to build a sustainable business,” argues Buzzfeed’s Ali. “We are giving up space. We look at the opportunity cost of picking one retailer over another or not driving to five different retailers.”

At the highest level, companies like Buzzfeed are developing bespoke relationships, like the Walmart partnership, that Ali feels create new experiences that serve both retailers and consumers by eliminating friction from the shopping process.

As the affiliate economy grows and matures, media companies seem to be finding themselves in an unexpected (perhaps unfamiliar) position of leverage. After struggling against ad dollars flowing to the massive platform oligopoly, success in the affiliate space helps demonstrate the overall value of well-curated content and context.

Ali feels that affiliate performance even helps increase the overall value proposition of other advertising at Buzzfeed. It’s not about affiliate taking a larger share of publisher revenue; “it likely increases the size of the pie.”

For Wirecutter, the affiliate model has been freeing. “Rather than partners dictating the direction we take for future growth, we look to whether we’re servicing our needs to determine how we build upon our portfolio and strategy,” says Han.

It also attaches publisher revenue streams to the ebbs and flows of real sea of the digital economy—e-commerce. On Amazon’s Prime Day, for instance, Ali saw clickthrough rates on Buzzfeed’s affiliate links skyrocket seven-times higher than usual.

Han notes that the importance of affiliate models for publishers is clear in their increasingly successful involvement in massive consumer events like Prime Day and “Singles’ Day,” a major shopping holiday in China.

“Content publishers have had a huge part in both of these events’ success,” Han says.

Staying balanced and getting credit

While lucrative and growing fast, affiliate models continue to challenge church and state traditions. Talk of optimizing conversions against content are still fighting words for many editors and will always raise questions about the integrity of content decisions.

“We’re in a performance-based channel,” says Han. “It’s always a balancing act trying to consider readers’ needs as well as both parties’ growth and efficiency goals.”

And as publishers of many sorts crowd in, there is even more pressure to perform. A tech specialist like Digital Trends, for instance, is now competing with CNN or Bustle’s affiliate programs for Sony’s budget, says Mann.

At the same time, more traditional content publishers have to contend with a sea of “cashback” sites that lure consumers with rewards and loyalty and deliver huge returns to merchants. Many savvy buyers will get review and guide info from a trusted publisher only to go to a cashback site to hit the buy button.

Han says that content publishers often offer advertisers a greater opportunity to get new customers with greater lifetime value.

“But when you’re competing against someone who can deliver a twenty-to-one return on ad spend, it can take time to help affiliate managers look beyond to the big picture,” Mann adds.

Also, while many advertisers are finally recognizing the role that trusted content plays in the consumer journey, the affiliate industry has not solved for crediting the role multiple publishers play in a fragmented and multi-touch path to purchase.

“Attribution is what is holding this back from growing as fast as it can,” says Ali.

The growth of affiliate models indicates how far publishers have come in being recognized and credited for the purchase decisions most of us make. It offers media the opportunity to leverage digital media to their advantage after years of seeing these channels diffuse and divert revenue from traditional content.

Yet, the frustrating last-click dynamic of the digital environment remains. That is, whoever is the last player to influence a consumer in their complex journey ultimately wins the commission.

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Publishers Look Beyond the Buy Button to Capitalize on Affiliate Revenue