Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Affiliates for all seasons

Affiliate marketing is not just for Christmas; it can be usefully employed across the entire year.

Last week, I wrote about how marketers can prepare their search activity for Christmas. While search campaigns for the holiday season have been in planning for some time now, there's still a lot that can be achieved in the short time that's left before the slimming season takes over.

So, assuming that search is all sorted now, this week we're going to look at affiliate marketing. Unlike search, there aren't many different strategies needed at Christmas - rather, it's the intensity of competition that demands merchants ramp up their game.

Weakness on the high street is leading more retailers to focus effort and investment on their internet plays, and this fourth quarter is likely to see some of the fiercest rivalry yet, as merchants compete for customers' hard-earned cash.

I'm going to look at three actions that are specific to the season, and at elements of good practice that simply become more important as competition peaks.

First, content affiliates, which run websites with content designed to draw in traffic sourced mostly from natural search. Most will be optimising their sites for Christmas right now so those merchants that can provide them with copy, product ideas and creative in good time will stand more chance of being featured prominently.

Second, some affiliates specialise in Christmas sites and search campaigns aimed directly at consumers looking for seasonal goods. Your existing affiliate relationships may not include these, and it's useful to review coverage to ensure you're represented here.

These specialists look to get their sites up and running three months in advance of the seasonal peak to maximise coverage within the search engines' usual listings. However, many will still be finalising sites over the next few weeks, so there's still time to get materials out to them.

As ever with affiliate marketing, this is about effective communication. The offer itself is one thing, but building a direct relationship with affiliate partners creates lower churn and higher prominence, as well as useful information about what affiliates look for to drive their businesses.

You wouldn't manage a sales force through email alone, and affiliates are no different. They have their own goals, marketplace dynamics and challenges to their businesses. A dialogue with them not only enables them to work more effectively on your behalf, it enables you to shape your offer around what they need: keeping you ahead of the competition.

Third, as with search, if you capture data and indulge in good practice around seasonal activity, it can become a vital resource for future campaigns. Key actions can be recorded and used to build a process that can be applied repeatedly, helping you benefit from the accumulation of experience.

You don't have to wait for Christmas to apply this practice. Valentine's Day, half-term, financial year-end, Easter: all present seasonal opportunities for affiliates, and therefore an opportunity to exercise your model.

Affiliate marketing is a burgeoning sector, which is becoming more complex as its value as a route to market grows. The competitive peak around Christmas will test merchants' capabilities in managing this channel, and a good performance here will provide solid experience for the rest of the year.

Affiliate marketing was a £3bn market in 2007, and it continues to grow quickly as consumers turn to the web for purchases in the tightening economy. Christmas 2008 will be the biggest yet, and there's little time left to grab a piece of the action.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 SECONDS ON ... AFFILIATE MARKETING

- CDNOW was the first non-adult content website to use affiliate activity. In 1994 it launched BuyWeb, allowing users of Geffen Records' artist information site to click-through and purchase music from CDNOW.

- In 1996, Amazon launched an affiliate programme allowing associate sites to publish links to individual products sold by Amazon, or to the Amazon homepage, and to earn commission on subsequent purchases.

- Though several sites had similar pre-existing systems, Amazon applied for a patent in 1997, and was granted it in 2000. In 2001 it purchased CDNOW.

- Affiliate marketing is used most in the gambling, retail and adult content sectors, with mobile phones, finance and travel expected to post the most significant growth.

- The interactive nature of web 2.0 sites such as social networks and blogs has invigorated the channel, allowing marketers to capitalise on users' greater emotional connection with content.

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