In the marketing world, the former silos of earned and paid media have melted into a difficult-to-navigate integrated mash. Yet earned media is still the gold standard of all marketing, providing valuable, objective word-of-mouth marketing for everything from startups to Nike, Amazon and Coke. Bill Gates has been quoted as saying that if he were down to his last dollar, he would spend it on PR.
For publicists who do PR for products, this world has changed radically and now requires understanding how affiliate marketing works. As product launch specialists, my company has been at the forefront of these changes, and I am here to demystify the landscape of affiliate marketing as it relates to PR.
What Is Affiliate Marketing?
Affiliate marketing is the use of automated links in an editorial environment so that the outlet that reports on a product can be paid on commission. Have you ever noticed a “shop” button at the bottom of an article or a live link in the copy? That is affiliate.
Gift guides, product roundups and product reviews, once the Valhalla areas of earned media opportunity, have been taken over by affiliate.
Today, 40% of reporters my company pitches simply will not report without an affiliate program. Some reporters will kindly say, “We need an affiliate link to include you,” but most will just maddeningly ignore your pitches. If you are lucky, they will forward your pitch to their publication’s e-commerce department, a new set of contacts every publicist must build.
While this is not a surprise to most PR pros, how it works can be unclear and is the subject of endless debate in the professional publicity community.
There are three general categories of affiliate publishers: mass media, bloggers/influencers and specialized affiliate networks. As publicists, we are most interested in mass media for the famed third-party endorsement. Affiliate networks like Demand.io or Shoplinks are powerful for sales. Influencers and bloggers usually do not produce mass sales (unless their last name is Kardashian) but can be used strategically for awareness.
How Editorial Brands Got Into The Paid Game
Of course, it is no longer possible for a print magazine to survive selling ads for six-figure rates. The big magazine publishers like Condé Nast, Hearst and Meredith have done a great job of monetizing editorial—more so than television networks, which are struggling to reimagine television.
Meredith’s affiliate arm is called Dotdash and manages affiliate marketing for hundreds of their titles, including Better Homes & Gardens, People and Real Simple. Condé Nast has an e-commerce division for their titles, which include Glamour, GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue and WIRED. Some publications have created their own affiliate channels, like USA Today’s Reviewed.com.
How each media outlet does the editorial/affiliate dance is completely unique. Some, like Reviewed.com, invite lab-testing for everything they report on. It is a murky world to navigate, as publishers insist they are making objective choices for what products to cover, yet the relationship is still fundamentally pay-to-play.
How Some Legendary Reporters Made The Jump from Editorial To Paid
This trend isn’t entirely new. Some legendary reporters began monetizing products a long time ago. One of the first was the West Coast editor of Lucky magazine, Marlien Rentmeester, who created a shoppable fashion blog called Le Catch in 2011. The venerable food editor of the New York Times, Amanda Hesser, saw the writing on the wall in 2009 and created Food52. Since 2000, publicists have vied for the attention of Adam Glassman, who oversaw the coveted “O List” at O, The Oprah Magazine. Now he has become a product expert, heading monetized product curation pieces for the magazine and now also for TV shows like EXTRA.
Television networks, like magazines, can no longer sustain themselves selling bookended commercials around content, so they now monetize anything commercial through product integrations in their programming. Some have leveraged their media brands online, such as CNN, which created a hybrid between integration and an affiliate program called CNN underscored. A virtual online catalog, underscored offers approved products a “review” from a bonafide CNN reporter that includes affiliate links, so they earn commissions.
Affiliate Marketing For PR Pros
How does a PR pro navigate this world?
The first rule of thumb is to insist that product clients have an affiliate program; if they do not, set it up for them. When publicists set up affiliate programs for product companies, this provides an added revenue stream on top of the typical PR agency service retainer.
Newer, smaller brands will have to start on ShareASale, which costs only $500 to sign up and does not require previous e-commerce experience. This platform, owned by Awin, is the biggest globally. (Full disclosure: My company uses this platform often, though we also use others and have no paid affiliation with any platform.) Skimlinks is similar to ShareASale, hosting a universe of merchants and publishers, but smaller, with a 4% versus 24% market share. If your e-commerce business is already robust and you have a larger budget ($10,000+/month), consider Impact, Commission Junction or Rakuten.
If you want to work with influencers only, consider LTK, a.k.a. Like to Know (formerly RewardStyle), but their rates start at $2,500 just to get on the platform, and you need to have an affiliate program already in place.
Depending on your market, you might consider specialty affiliate networks, such as Dealmoon, which reaches millions of luxury-loving Chinese-language shoppers; it is a super affiliate for high-end brands like Gucci, Ferragamo, YSL and Marc Jacobs. (If you did not know already, Chinese-language shoppers are “the engine of worldwide growth in luxury spending,” according to McKinsey & Company, and China is set to become the largest luxury market worldwide by 2025.)
For publicists entering the affiliate game, there is a lot to learn. The best way to get up to speed is to actively participate in the affiliate community; my company makes sure to attend the Affiliate Summit in Las Vegas annually. We hope to see you there.