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Creator-led affiliate marketing is the future of e-commerce - if you do it right
May 22, 2023
By Mike Balducci, general manager affiliate, e-commerce and payment solutions
To find the best influencers for your affiliate marketing program, look for posting frequency and links, not likes and followers, says Mike Balducci (general manager affiliate, e-commerce and payment solutions, CreatorIQ).
The skyrocketing growth in e-commerce that took place during the pandemic is over.
After enjoying 20%+ growth rates for over five years, e-commerce activity is falling back to earth, forecast to sink into the single digits thanks to a combination of a post-pandemic shift back into brick-and-mortar stores and an overall pullback in discretionary spending due to a pending recession.
As a result, marketers of all stripes are under pressure to deliver results tied to the bottom line, what some call “performance marketing.” In the creator-led marketing space, that means expanding the goal of creator-led campaigns from general awareness to lower-funnel results - specifically, sales.
Creators to the rescue
One tactic gaining traction is merging creator-led campaigns with affiliate marketing programs, using publisher partners who can promote a brand’s product and earn a commission for the sales that result. Our recent trends report found that 69% of brands incorporate discount codes and other affiliate links in connection with influencer collaborations, and 84% found this to be either a very or somewhat successful strategy.
So while brand awareness will always play an important role and drive tangible value, justifying investment in creator-led campaigns will require more, like ROAS and other metrics that directly correlate to performance outcomes like sales and revenue.
What’s more, social commerce is expected to pose a significant challenge to traditional e-commerce channels. A January 2022 report from Accenture predicted that the global social commerce industry could grow three times as fast as e-commerce, from $492bn in 2021 to $1.2tn by 2025. Driving that growth is the primary audience for creator-led campaigns Gen Z and Millenials — which the same report says will account for 62% of social commerce spending worldwide by 2025.
Fans over followers
But what drives these trends are still organic, authentic experiences generated by creators with loyal, engaged followers. That reality is dictating how brands execute creator-led affiliate campaigns.
For instance, historically brands would evaluate creator partners based on their content and number of followers. But as we examine the results of successful creator-led affiliate campaigns, that’s no longer the primary metrics to evaluate potential creator partners. When it comes to affiliate creator partnerships, other social media metrics have a stronger correlation with sales results.
Our data consistently shows that the smaller the following, the more influence the creator has over their audience and the more likely that associated affiliate campaigns will succeed. Put another way, working with one mega influencer with millions of followers will ultimately net lower affiliate link clicks than working with 100 influencers each with one-tenth the following. The smaller the creator, the better they will likely perform as an affiliate publisher.
We’re talking absolute numbers here, not relative to total following. Some of the top performing creators fall into that nano category with less than 10,000 followers. They're producing tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales results through their affiliate partnerships. They might not have the most followers, but they frequently produce video content that gets viral distribution on Instagram and TikTok. And the more frequency and reach of video on those platforms, the more sales results you get.
Links over likes
When diving deeper into the social metrics for top-performing affiliate influencers across our platform we see some other surprising results. The average number of likes and comments a creator gets on posts typically is the least important factor for affiliate performance. More important is the number of recent posts and the creator’s willingness to work with brands as evidenced in their past posts.
Most traditional influencer marketers will quickly pass over a creator profile containing lots of recent posts with some sponsored posts mixed in, but a very low engagement rate. Yet this could be exactly the kind of high-performing creator profile that affiliate marketers should be inviting to their affiliate creator program, because frequency of posting content and links are a bigger indicator of affiliate performance than follower counts, likes and comments.
What this means for brands pursuing affiliate creator campaigns is the need to work with a powerful influencer discovery tool that can also help manage and partner with hundreds if not thousands of creators at a time based on an affiliate partnership model.
This requires a number of things.
Transparency and integration
First, it requires the ability to integrate your creator management platforms with your affiliate marketing platform so that there’s consistent tracking between them. Tracking clicks and sales is all well and good, but to scale and replicate that success requires granular visibility into what’s driving those sales and clicks. The only way to achieve that is by owning and operating a complete, end-to-end affiliate/creator network yourself.
Affiliate platforms will tell you which creator drove what sale so you know who to pay a commission to. But it can’t tell you much more than that. If all you’re doing is tracking sales, you’re not learning much about how they’re achieved.
A full-funnel view of the complete picture requires integrating your affiliate and creator platforms. Seeing what creators are doing across different social platforms, how they’re promoting your content, and then tracking the results of that activity gives you a much broader view of the social media activity that is driving your conversion results.
It combines the upstream activity of social media activity, publishing, reach, frequency and awareness of the creator’s content, with the lower-stream view of their clicks, sales and performance. That’s full transparency.
Finding and managing creator partners
Second, it means using the intelligence gained from these integrated platforms to discover and recruit more creators to your affiliate effort. Once you’ve identified the creators and the content that drive sales, then you can use creator discovery tools to find other creators with similar audience and social profile characteristics and recruit them into your affiliate creator program.
Remember, it’s a volume game. Working with 100 nano-influencers rather than one mega-influncer requires more search, discovery, and management, but as the numbers show, that effort pays off. The more creators in your program, the better.
But competition is going to be fierce. Recruiting creators is like acquiring customers: they only work with the few brands they love and use every day. Many, if not most, nano-creators are hobbyists. They have loyal followers, but they’re not professional publishers, and they’re certainly not professional affiliate marketers.
They’re not joining affiliate networks and looking for brands to work with, and those who might try are unlikely to succeed. There are too many unfamiliar questions, and confusing interfaces. They don’t know how to find and work with brands inside the affiliate network environment.
Integrating an affiliate network with a creator management platform that’s built with a creator-first mentality not only eases these frictions, but provides a better experience for the brand, the creator, and ultimately the customer. It simplifies and centralizes all the technical components required to deliver a successful creator marketing program for performance objectives, giving brands an easy way to measure and validate creator marketing and grow the number of creators they work with.