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The automation evaluation: advertisers share the gains and the pains of affiliate automation

(Image credit: Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock)

Automation has transformed the marketing world, changing the structure of departments and the scope of what is possible, as well as retiring the old quote about not knowing which half of your marketing is working. In an automated world, marketers can know exactly the impact their marketing is having - though that doesn’t necessarily mean automation always has the appearance of a straightforward process.

There is a theoretical dilemma, for instance, in how to adapt the powerhouse of automation to the affiliate world. While entirely rooted in the web, the channel remains a fundamentally traditional, relationship-driven business - one that has always sat apart from the more naturally programmatic areas of search and display.

Nonetheless, many advertisers are successfully applying automation to the affiliate channel. On a recent panel session at ASE 2020, three of them - all clients of Impact from industries as diverse as online banking, personal computer hardware and home health and wellness - gave their perspective on the benefits, challenges and perils of partnership automation, and particularly how to accelerate growth without losing the human connection on which partnerships depend. This is what we learned, in eight steps:

The biggest saving is time, time and time again

Among those with relatively established programmers, the overwhelming consensus is that time efficiencies are the single biggest benefit of affiliate automation, Indeed, such savings can often have a decisive effect on the very success of partnerships. “The biggest success story has been the time we have saved and the tasks we have replaced,” says Laura Young, affiliate manager at home testing company LetsGetChecked. “Without that time saved, a lot of our partners just simply wouldn’t have been as successful.” The benefit, she adds, is the ability to reinvest that time in improving the nuts and bolts of campaigns. “We can now work with them to look to enhance the performance and spend time testing and refining. All of that is made possible by automation.”

Automation frees up focus for human contact

Automation allows a brand to work with a far greater number of affiliate partners. And if carefully managed, it can do so without sacrificing - and in fact, often improving - the quality of human communication that remains at the heart of successful affiliate partnerships. ”Is the affiliate industry more human than other channels? Yes,” says Emily Aye, paid acquisition specialist at Starling Bank. “Developing rapport is the number one priority and the human element is essential. We want good partnerships to last for years and we need a good partnership to be optimized, to allow us to resolve issues and build.”

In the case of smaller partners, Aye adds, an initial in-person chat can give way to an ongoing relationship guided largely by ongoing customized and automated reporting. For larger partners, Young suggests, automation can open up a smoother and more fluid way of working, with the opportunity to use automation for tailored reporting at scale, “which helps us to be more reactive and turn around issues faster,” she notes.

But no human process can ever be entirely automated, and much of the art of automation lies in the balance of automated efficiency and human nuance, expertise and discernment. “We are still recruiting on a manual process,” says Aye, “but we use Impact to track which partnerships work well and to allow us to deliver efficiencies.”

Look on the upside

One of the more significant benefits of automation, from the perspective of both marketers and their partners, is the control and predictability it brings to the business of budgeting and rewards. “Budget management is an important part to running the affiliate program, and it allows us to manage the upside,” says Alina Zagaraite, European partnerships manager at Lenovo. “We discuss the targets with our partners and then we add revenue thresholds and we discuss additional payouts - all working towards a more fluid and motivational way of working. It allows us to better anticipate the budgets and predict revenues.”

Heavyweight scale with small teams

For organizations with global reach, partnership automation can put an almost inconceivable amount of marketing activity in the hands of remarkably lean teams. Lenovo is a case in point, says Zagaraite. “Efficiencies have been essential as we are live in 37 countries and there are only two of us to manage it,” she says. “To manage processes is pivotal, with customized and automated reporting. Who is performing? Who is growing? What are the inconsistencies? We are able to quickly identify where these are coming from.”

Don’t stint on the groundwork

There is no point pretending that setting up a complicated system is overnight work, but it is worth taking the time to do it right. Complex automation can result in complex mistakes, and it takes time both to get used to a system and become expert in the platforms. “There have been a few pitfalls,” says Young at LetsGetChecked. “Some came from not putting enough time into upscaling and ensuring everyone was up to speed on new tech. You have to put in the groundwork to make automation work.”

Make the most of the diverse tools available

Automation opens up a veritable toolbox for partnership marketers. Aye at Starling Bank lists numerous functions that would be far more time-consuming without automated processes: seamlessly sharing contracts between different partners; quickly checking numbers at glance; different stages of onboarding that have been dramatically accelerated. “Application automation has sped up the process a lot,” she says.

Thriving in troubled times

In the unprecedented global shake-up of the ongoing pandemic, partnership marketing has scarcely missed a beat, as the world’s needs have changed in an instant and its entire purchasing energy has been directed online. “Our sector has had exponential growth,” says Alina Zagaraite at Lenovo, though she concedes the boom in online computer sales has created interesting issues to work around, including exclusivity deals with online stores and doubled lead times due to supply chain delays. “It opened up opportunities as well,” says Zagaraite. “We started looking for new partners and growing again. And we got more creative around marketing budgets.”

More gains than pains

No process is without its challenges, though the overarching gains in time and efficiency leave a lot of room for troubleshooting any automation niggles, according to all three marketers. “Even if automation only worked 95 per cent of the time I would take it,” says Zagaraite. “It’s been a massive time-saver.”

Young concurs, and isn’t inclined to dwell on occasional sticking points. “In the grand scheme, automation has brought so much to the program, it is easier to focus on positives,” she says. 

Daisy-Blue Tinne, Agency Sales Manager, Impact EMEA