It's easy to see why retailers are embracing affiliate marketing. The activity can ensure exposure in locations where consumers seek out information or opinion to shape their purchasing decisions, while still protecting the brand.
'Internet shoppers know a good deal when they see one, and many retailers are experiencing a decline in email conversion and online customer acquisition due to the growth of the savvy consumer,' says Mary Keane-Dawson, director at digital management consultancy Reform. 'Voucher-code aggregators and affiliates can capture those consumers because of the depth and breadth of their offers.'
Affiliate marketing is growing in importance among fashion retailers - such purchases are a constant, with consumers buying one or two new pieces each season. Furthermore, fashion-conscious consumers are frequently looking for style advice on blogs, online magazines, price-comparison sites and places where they can read recommendations from style gurus. This means brands need to be putting themselves in front of the consumer at every stage.
'The mixture of affiliate types to work with - from bloggers, voucher codes, shopping aggregators and cashback sites - ensures plenty of potential partnerships depending on the brand's objectives,' says Chris Bishop, founder and managing director of affiliate agency 7thingsmedia and former online acquisition manager for House of Fraser. 'Affiliate marketing is now mainstream - 95 of the recent IMRG/Hitwise Hot Shops List Top 100 have affiliate campaigns, and this trend is replicated across smaller merchants.'
He adds that there is also evidence that affiliates actively increase conversion rates and consumer spend. This, he says, is due to the nature of how affiliates work - they are conducting a large element of the pre-sell of a brand's products, optimising the opportunities for the brand, and therefore themselves, to make more money on each customer.
And unlike sectors such as consumer electronics, fashion brands have larger margins to work with and can strategically incentivise their top affiliates. More recently, a major focus for fashion retailers has been on long-tail engagement - those affiliates that won't necessarily achieve significant sales but which are an important brand partner with dedicated followers.
To assess the affiliate marketing strategies of fashion retailers, Revolution asked Commission Junction's account director, Hardeep Sohal, and its publisher account director, Emmanual Odigan, to review Next and Marks & Spencer. The retailers' use of affiliate marketing was assessed across ten criteria, including programme visibility, commission structure and brand perception (see box).
M&S emerged as the winner, scoring highly for its programme transparency and its communication with affiliates. The retailer uses two networks for its affiliate marketing activity - Affiliate Window and LinkShare - and says it works closely with its partners to find out what works and what doesn't. 'We believe there is value in the affiliate channel and the exposure we can achieve through some of our main partners is unparalleled,' says Jack Lemon, marketing manager at M&S. 'We work closely with our networks to help grow our relationships within the affiliate community.'
Kevin Edwards, strategy director at Affiliate Window, says affiliate marketing will enable any advertiser to tap into a whole range of online activity. The key, he says, is understanding which aspects best fit your brand and working to optimise those elements.
'M&S runs a mature affiliate marketing programme and has well-established relationships with so-called "incentivised sites" - those affiliates offering a voucher, cashback or loyalty reward for purchasing,' he says. 'It has invested considerable time and resources into building close relationships with its top affiliate partners.'
Edwards adds that it is important for M&S to ensure it is visible on major sites, especially during key marketing periods; also vital, he says, is the retailer's effort to continue its dialogue with fashion bloggers in order to guarantee that it is covering the whole spectrum of affiliate activity.
'M&S has also invested in the long tail and the tools and technologies that appeal to a wide affiliate audience,' he says. 'This includes initiatives such as the launch of content widgets that showcase the range of the retailer's products and promotions, and a feed creator powered by FusePump. This allows affiliates to access rich information and review available products from the M&S site, and to see a sample output in a preview screen.'
Penny Mather, marketing director at LinkShare, believes that what matters most is using shopper data and insight to understand how your customers, and those of your competitors, like to shop; also important, she says, is that brands invest in those technologies that best accommodate their needs. Fashion advertisers in the LinkShare UK network saw sales through the affiliate channel grow by 29 per cent in 2011.
'This is where affiliate marketing can add huge value - offering brands a test-bed for technologies, such as mobile voucher codes, and brand presence on up-and-coming blogs without requiring the budget commitments of a self-run programme,' Mather says.
Next, which works with Affilinet, scored highly for its programme transparency, programme terms and brand perception - the retailer ranked high on many shopping portals, reflecting its popularity with buyers. Its affiliate marketing strategy was less impressive, however, when compared to M&S's, with regards to its use of creative and availability of offers.
M&S's Lemon says that while the retailer has a robust way of measuring the incremental value of certain categories of affiliates on its programme, a watertight method of measuring the incremental revenue for specific offers is needed.
Affiliate Window's Edwards adds that the challenge any brand has is to predict the likely budget for an affiliate marketing campaign.
'All major retailers will want a sense of what they will have to invest in their affiliate programme even though, unlike almost every other channel, the activity is organic, evolving in line with the engagement and flexibility of the retailer and affiliates,' he says.
As Mather outlines, changes in consumer shopping habits are being fuelled by the rise of smartphones, tablets and social-media marketing. 'Consumers are constantly connected. They can take a break from work and shop or chat with their friends about what products they like or don't like. It's a retailer's dream,' she says. 'Brands, however, are in danger of getting left behind, and affiliate marketing ensures they are able to move with the times.'
Increasingly, retailers are looking at affiliates as more than an acquisition channel, recognising the branding they can achieve from being featured on highly trafficked sites. Meanwhile, affiliates are becoming brands in their own right, many of them with more traffic than the major advertisers they promote. They are also multichannel, with mobile apps, newsletters and on-site promotions, and a few of them can even track consumers as they move 'online to offline' via codes and special deals.
It will therefore be increasingly important for advertisers to recognise the value in all this, but also to choose and optimise the elements that are the best fit for their brand.
SUMMARY - MARKS & SPENCER
Marks & Spencer has a transparent and informative affiliate programme, with data on some of the prices that its products are sold for. This enables affiliates to convert their traffic through widgets, product feeds, banners and text links, with a number of widgets in a wide range of sizes and themes. Affiliates are also encouraged to generate more for their brand by incentivising performance, which is the best way to get more out of a programme. The retailer's communication with affiliates is impressive, with affiliates provided with all the relevant contact details. However, M&S could enhance its programme further by informing affiliates if its m-commerce site has an affiliate pixel on the confirmation page, as this would open an additional pool of publishers it could work with.
SUMMARY - NEXT
The Next affiliate programmes look to have a solid foundation with good brand perception; numerous publishers that work with Next have the brand listed close to the top of their web pages and it ranks high on many shopping portals. Its programme transparency scores highly, similar to that for Marks & Spencer. For Next to take its affiliate marketing to the next level, however, it could increase the use of creative and take advantage of widgets and more dynamic creative that will match the look and feel of the Next website. Furthermore, Next could capitalise on the social and mobile boom by allowing affiliates to work with its m-commerce platforms, as well as bridging the online and offline gap by introducing performance incentives for those publishers driving sales in-store.
|Use of affiliate marketing|
|Marks & Spencer||Next|
|Availability of offers||There do not appear to be any recent offers on the forum,||Although Next is visible on publishers that utilise the cashback model (at a lower revenue share of|
|perhaps because M&S does not work with discount sites.||1%), it does not appear to be running any voucher codes/special offers outside standard sales.|
|Basic technical offering||Affiliates can send traffic to the homepage or the destination of their choice||Next allows publishers to deep link to any page on the website, helping|
|via a deep-link generator. However, the programme has only one standard text link for affiliates.||to minimise clicks and maximise conversions.|
|Creative||M&S has nine different widgets in a wide range of sizes and themes.||Next has a wide range of sizes for|
|Although there are no Flash links, there are 15 banner sizes.||the banners available to publishers.|
|Programme terms||M&S has a clear commission structure that is grouped in levels; affiliates are also||Next breaks down commission structure, cookie length, existence|
|made aware of their current tier and that the cookie length is 30 days.||of a product feed and contact details of the account management team.|
|Brand perception||It appears that the brand perception for M&S is the same both offline and online,||The Next affiliate programme has good brand perception. The brand ranks highly|
|although there are more deals for technology online than there are offline.||on many shopping portals, reflecting popularity with buyers.|