Have you thought about leveraging your current client base, or other influencers in your field, to help build your brand?
Referrals and word-of-mouth campaigns can be powerful assets to marketers. People tend to trust recommendations from people they know or trust well before they believe in any marketing messages that your brand might put out. This is the ultimate source of social proof that they’re looking for.
As a business, how do you encourage your current clients, or other important influencers to put the good word out for your brand? Some will do this anyway, especially if you’ve really delighted them, but often a bit of encouragement to spread the word goes a long way.
This is where affiliate programs come in. These can be any form of arrangement where you pay or provide incentives to people to perform actions that benefit your business, such as making a sale or referring a qualified lead. As such, you may also hear this referred to as “performance marketing,” because reward is based on performance.
Here’s how affiliate programs can work for you:
Types of affiliate programs
There are several different types of programs out there, but the bottom line of all of them is that the referrer gets some kind of reward for their effort. That might be in the form of an affiliate commission, or, in the case of some SaaS businesses, that reward is a hefty discount or free usage for the referrer.
Here are some examples:
Retail – Retail affiliate programs are accounting for huge amounts of revenue, especially for the bigger companies that use them. Typically, affiliates get paid a percentage of each sale they make, for example, the Amazon affiliate program in the UK offers up to 10% commission. This type of setup is now extending to many technology or SaaS businesses who operate online. WPEngine is a good example, offering significant incentives for successful referrals.
Information products – Digital products, such as ebooks, software or educational courses, are popular for affiliate programs. By far the largest affiliate network for information products is Clickbank, where affiliate commissions often reach 75%. ClickBank has over 100,000 affiliates and millions of products.
Lead generation – Financial services, insurance companies and law firms are among the industries that favour lead generation programs. It’s easy to see why – they can pay upwards of £50 for a single lead, which can deliver good returns when you consider how much you pay annually for these kinds of services. Depending on the industry, a “lead” may include a working email address, home address, or a phone number.
At its core, affiliate marketing is about the relationships between three parties: the advertiser (owner of the product or service), the publisher (the individual or company promoting the product or service) and the consumer who takes action to buy or join up.
Why use affiliate programs
“In sales, a referral is the key to the door of resistance.” – Bo Bennett, Author of Year To Success.
Our focus here is on the B2B market, but you’ll see affiliate marketing is huge in B2C as well, with companies like Amazon and Zappos driving significant revenue through affiliate sales. Investment app Acorns encourages referrals by paying money into user’s investment accounts when they refer someone who signs up, while many websites and bloggers make income by recommending products or displaying banners and taking a cut of sales.
Companies are using affiliate programs quite simply because they work. Among the benefits of affiliate programs outlined in the video below is an important statistic for the B2B space: 92% of B2B buyers are influenced by word of mouth when making their decision to buy:
Here are some other important “why’s” for affiliate programs:
You only pay for results. How many paid marketing campaigns have you been through where results were disappointing? The thing is, you still had to pay for those results, including clicks on PPC ads. If your affiliates don’t deliver results, they quite simply don’t get paid. Has Google ever sent you a cheque giving you your money back for AdWords campaigns that didn’t yield results? Nope, me neither.
Save time on advertising. Advertising campaigns take work. You need to be constantly monitoring and tweaking campaigns to get the best possible results. In the case of affiliate marketing, if you’ve chosen effective partners, they will do the advertising work for you. Your administrative work will be in setting up your affiliate program and sending out payments.
Improve your SEO. Having a lot of affiliates means having a lot more backlinks to your website, and backlinks are widely regarded as the biggest SEO ranking factor.
You can leverage other people’s audiences. It takes a lot of hard work building up your own audience of any size, and even then, large companies still look for ways to tap into the audiences that other influencers have. Finding a few popular influencers to partner with can generate significant revenue. Many companies find that three to five “super affiliates” generate 50% of their affiliate program revenue.
“Affiliate” or “Partner?”
There tends to be something about the word “affiliate” that has negative connotations, particularly among the critical minds of the tech and business communities. Perhaps it’s because there have been many different incarnations of affiliate marketing in the last few years, with some being seen as not much more than a slick sales pitch, and others offering virtually no value for the efforts of the affiliate.
With this in mind, sometimes you’ll see the term “partner” used, or perhaps even “reseller” where it makes sense.
How to use affiliate programs
The mechanics of your affiliate (or partner, or reseller) program depend upon the sales cycle of your software, the price and the complexity of putting it into the enterprise. The more complex, the longer the sales cycle takes and the decision to buy may take several months. You have to know your conversion path, offer, and how long it takes to close a sale so that you’re able to devise a fair, transparent program.
In the software world, Hubspot is an excellent example of a company that has tailored partner programs based on the complexity of the software and the type of client referring or using it. They are part of a growing trend of medium to larger sized companies who sell more expensive products turning to affiliate programs.
Whereas traditionally, affiliate programs might have been more regularly used for low cost, high-value items (such as in the retail space), there is considerable value to be had for companies with longer sales cycles too.
There are two important keys to the success of any B2B affiliate program. Besides having a desirable product, you need:
- An effective program that is a real incentive for your affiliates.
- The right kind of affiliates for your business.
Here are a few tips for getting those two points right and getting effective results from affiliate programs:
Know your audience
We’ve written previously about the importance of clearly defining your buyer personas. Why is this important for your affiliate program? Because you need to think about who will have the right audience to promote your business to.
You should consider points like:
- How does your audience like to engage?
- Where can they be found online?
- Which influencers are in front of your target audience?
- What will be of value to those influencers as an incentive?
Your affiliate program will be much more effective if it is targeted, so having a clear idea of your desired audience is an important first step.
Decide on your program structure
The structure of your program and the incentives you offer will determine its attractiveness to potential affiliates. This is especially important in the software industry, where sales cycles might be longer. How will you ensure that referrals are correctly tracked and attributed? How will you make it worthwhile for the referrer? Where sales might take a long time to be finalised and of high value to your company, it’s important that your reward affiliates appropriately. An average tends to be 15% to 20% commission.
Affiliate marketing can be quite competitive, so we’d suggest researching your competitors when you are deciding on your program structure. You want to make sure yours at least stacks up against them.
For B2B, typically rewards might be offered for:
Lead generation – A payment per lead generated, such as for directing them to a webinar or to sign up for a free resource. The value to the company, in this case, is being able to connect with the audience of the referrer.
Sales – This is often a percentage paid out per sale, which can be difficult for software companies with longer sales cycles. What’s my incentive if I have to wait for months to see anything for my referrals?
Lead + sales – This is a hybrid of the two above and we prefer it for those long sales cycles. The referrer gets paid something initially for the lead (usually a bit less than what you’d pay if your program was solely about lead generation), then, once the customer has closed, they are paid something for the sale too. This type of program structure helps to drive momentum because affiliates see results faster.
Decide on tracking and promotion
There are three main ways to track affiliate activity:
- Manual tracking – this is only really suitable if your program is simple and only has a few affiliates.
- Tracking software managed in-house. You can either build your own or install third-party software.
- Hire a third party to manage the whole thing. Companies that offer this also take care of customer support; however, you will pay them commission for their work.
We show some relative pros and cons of each method below:
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Find good partners
This is our last point here, but ranks as the most important for the success of your affiliate program. We included this after you’ve spend time devising your program because it’s important to be able to go to those potential partners with an attractive offer.
We recommend a “quality over quantity” approach here and to first carefully define the type of business or individual who you want to do business with. Remember, your brand will be tied with them by association (and of course, they’re thinking vice versa). You might even build a sort of persona for preferred affiliates, much like you do for buyer personas.
An important part of your definition of a “preferred affiliate” should be that their own audience includes (at least in significant numbers), people who you target in your buyer personas. You’re better off having a few affiliates with well-targeted audiences rather than a scattergun approach across many affiliates.
The affiliate marketing business relies on your ability to foster good relationships and efficient partnerships. When writing the book Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth, authors Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares interviewed popular blogger, Maneesh Sethi. Maneesh has made tens of thousands of dollars from being an affiliate and promoting deals to his large audience.
What’s the best way to reach influencers like Maneesh? He mentioned that building a relationship is best. You can help to build relationships with influencers by doing things like:
- Writing engaging content for their blog (guest posting).
- Offering them free access to your product.
- Engaging with their social media channels or blog posts.
- Mentioning them in your own content.
- Reaching out to them personally and offering value of some sort.
Affiliate programs can be great methods for driving business if you are prepared to use them effectively. This means offering an enticing program and being prepared to pay to acquire new customers, as well as building relationships with the right kind of prospective affiliates.
You can choose to use an existing affiliate network where you can access large audiences of affiliates and start immediately, or build up your own program. When you do look to recruit affiliates yourself, the first place to look is among your existing customers.
“We take most of the money that we could have spent on paid advertising and instead put it back into the customer experience. Then we let the customers be our marketing. Historically, our number-one growth driver has been from repeat customers and word-of-mouth.” – Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO.
Build out an affiliate program that will be attractive to your existing clients as they are your best form of promotion.
We’ve created a quick guide to popular affiliate marketing networks. Get your copy here.
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