Network Spotlight: CJ Affiliate’s Sean Longman on COVID-19 Impact + the Future of Affiliate

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In the fast-moving world of affiliate marketing, if you plan to adapt and evolve along with the industry, you better establish some great relationships.

We at Advertise Purple know we’re only as strong as the organizations we partner with, especially affiliate networks. We’ve worked together with CJ Affiliate since the inception of our agency, when to many, the affiliate channel felt like uncharted territory.

They supported us then and continue to support us to this day, due to the success we’ve both been able to achieve and share.

As far as agency-network collaboration is concerned, Advertise Purple and CJ Affiliate’s symbiotic relationship stands the test of time. Certainly, in large part due to daily communication, collaboration, and the sharing of insights and expertise from both ends.

Sean Longman, VP of Sales and Business Development at CJ based in sunny Santa Barbara, California, was kind enough to discuss, from his perspective, the following:

  • Some key insights into COVID-19’s effect on the market
  • His breadth of experience in affiliate 
  • Misconceptions about the space
  • The strength of the channel 
  • Tips for small to medium sized brands looking to develop a program 
  • Why Ad Purp and CJ work so well together
  • Where we go from here.

It was great to humanize one of the biggest networks in affiliate marketing, and we’re happy to have been able to pick Sean to give us his take. Hope you enjoy learning from an expert in the industry who has been doing this for a very long time.

So, let’s jump right into it.

Q: Can you describe how you ended up in affiliate marketing, and specifically how you landed at CJ?

A: In 2008 I was working in the Real Estate industry as owner of an Appraisal business when the financial collapse occurred. My phone, along with everyone else I knew in the industry, stopped ringing, so I knew it was time to make change. I paused to think about what I wanted in a career, and a long-term growth industry was at the top of the list. I did not want to start a new career in a field that could disappear overnight. I researched several industries and almost settled on health care but decided e-commerce was a better choice.

How I landed at CJ is like how many people get jobs, I knew somebody who worked there. My roommate from my freshman year at college had been at CJ for a year and said it was a great place to work. I was eager to get back to the central coast of California, CJ was in beautiful Santa Barbara and appeared to be poised for a long run in e-commerce. Thankfully, everything lined up and it’s been a great 12 years!

Q: What was affiliate marketing like when you first got into it? How did it compare to now?

A: When I first started in affiliate it felt more “mom and pop” to me. Of course, that was not entirely true as large brands and affiliates have been active in affiliate for a long time, but it felt smaller. I recall working with affiliates that were literally a family business being run out of a garage. In many ways affiliate marketing has matured substantially since I started but I’m still very pleased to be a part of an industry that allows small businesses and entrepreneurs to grow and thrive.

If I think about what has persisted between when I started and now, I will say relationships and the human touch have and will always be a critical component. The channel is a strong driver of ROAS, is a great testing ground, is always changing, and those things have remained constant. What has changed is the sophistication and expertise found in the channel now. The use of advanced analytics and data is allowing for smarter decisions. Things like mobile and app tracking, channel attribution, cross-device, GDPR, flexible commissioning, etc., were not as significant of topics when I first started compared to now.

Q: In your mind, what are some major advantages to affiliate as opposed to other digital marketing methods? And in your mind, what has allowed affiliate to grow faster than all other digital channels?

A: In affiliate a brand/merchant pays a partner/affiliate for a desired outcome (lead, sale, booking, application, etc.) and only when that outcome happens. That is performance marketing. When compared to buying eyeballs in display or hoping a large email drop converts, affiliate is a much smarter channel to invest in

Another significant advantage affiliate has is the breadth and scale of available distribution. Brands can work with deal sites, large content providers, social influencers, comparison engines, paid search partners, cart abandonment technology providers…all in one, safe, efficient, data driven, ROI positive channel. Additionally, the scale of available partnership types gives brands the opportunity to engage their desired consumer in every stage of their online journey (research, consideration, purchase, loyalty loop, etc.).

The advantages of affiliate have driven brands to shift budget from other channels into affiliate. Affiliate shoppers convert at a higher rate, spend more per order, and purchase more frequently than other channels. All if it leads to a continued shift of investing more in affiliate than other channels.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about the affiliate marketing world?

A: For a 20+ year old, established industry, I’m still shocked by some of the lingering misconceptions about affiliate marketing. I still hear “oh affiliate, you mean pop-ups?” or “isn’t that just stealing clicks?”. There also remains the misconception that affiliate is only coupon and deal sites, which is far from the truth. Affiliate has evolved into a complete eco-system of varied partnership opportunities, far from the banner farm years!

CJ recently addressed the question of “is affiliate incremental?” with a massive study. The results are in, it is incremental, find out for yourself here and here!

Q: What’s the most difficult barrier to entry to creating a highly successful affiliate program?

A: For a small to medium sized brand trying to establish a highly successful affiliate program the biggest barrier is going to be finding publishers and getting mindshare. It can be challenging to create a relationship and get affiliates to engage with, and start promoting a smaller, lessor known brand, than the say a Fortune 1,000 company. My advice would be to create a strong, well thought out and documented business case of why an affiliate should promote your brand. Why will your brand/product mix/service offering both resonate with their consumer base and be a strong converter for the affiliate. Additionally, be persistent, patient, and remember affiliate is a relationship business, build strong partnerships with your affiliates and you’ll be on the path to success.

Another barrier is having the expertise and knowledge needed to run a successful program. Unless a brand has a large, experienced, dedicated, in-house affiliate team, I would recommend utilizing the management services offered by the networks or an experienced agency. Either will work in tandem with a brands marketing division to achieve their goals within affiliate.

Q: What has changed at CJ Affiliate since COVID-19?

A: Aside from the world seemingly being in chaos and the shift to working remote, it has been mostly the same at CJ. We’ve sharpened our pencil as needed and have had to develop different strategies for certain verticals more affected by the COVID-19 crisis, but by and large things remain the same. An interesting change has been the increase in intensity and urgency within affiliate. Brands have not only shifted budget from their brick and mortar to affiliate but have also moved spend from other less ROI positive channels. All of this has meant an increase of focus on affiliate across their organizations.

CJ has been maintaining a “COVID-19 Network & Consumer Trends Report” which is a wealth of information. It can be found here.

Q: If you don’t mind, please describe any opportunities for growth right now for new advertisers looking to launch in CJ, despite negative business press as a result from COVID.

A: The opportunity for growth for new advertisers is to simply launch! COVID-19 has caused a shift in consumer behavior, moving away from brick and mortar to online. For nearly every vertical there has never been a better time to aggressively pursue performance marketing.

Q: Any specific business sectors positioned for massive growth in the next quarter? And through 2020?

A: Due to the shift in consumer behavior, from in-store to online, nearly every sector is currently growing, and we expect that to continue through 2020. Some of the faster growing categories include Food & Drinks, Health & Wellness, Home & Garden, Sports & Fitness, and Games & Toys.

Q: What does the future look like for CJ Affiliate?  What exciting initiatives do you guys have in the crosshairs?

A: The future of CJ Affiliate looks very bright! Now a part of Publicis Groupe, the 3rd largest communications group in the world, CJ will continue to be the world’s leading affiliate network, driving forward with industry leading innovation, best in class data science & analytics, and continued global expansion.

Q: What has it been like partnering with Advertise Purple?

A: Partnering with Advertise Purple has been great! The people at Advertise Purple are terrific to work with, always professional, collaborative, and strategic. One of the things I enjoy most about our partnership is the open line of communication between the two organizations. Advertise Purple is committed to a future of ongoing success in the affiliate channel, it is visible from the top down. They are creating a culture, based on data driven strategy, proprietary tools, and great people, that allows them to deliver top tier affiliate management, and will for years to come.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to see change within the affiliate space?

A: I would like to see affiliate managers, agencies, networks, affiliates, CMO’s, etc., increasingly stand and defend this amazing channel! There is opportunity for tremendous growth in our space so long as the players involved continue to evangelize the space, push for more budget, and use data to prove that this is the best channel to invest in.

Q: What’s some advice you’d give to a merchant looking to start using the affiliate channel?

  • This is not a set it and forget it channel, it requires human resources and time
  • Understand your cost structure and margins and then set your program up, using all the tools a network like CJ provides, so that every transaction through affiliate is profitable
  • Treat your affiliates as an extension of your business. Educate them, provide them what they need to effectively market your brand
  • Be transparent and communicate frequently with your partners with regards to your decisions, direction, and plans
  • Be persistent in creating a diverse portfolio of partnerships
  • Decisions based on data
  • Be patient. A new affiliate program can take 12+ months to really get churning
  • If you don’t have expertise in house, partner with a network or agency for management
  • Continually think about the consumer experience and tailor your initiatives around that and the type of consumer you want
  • Don’t be afraid to test. Test new promotions, test different types of partnerships, test different product mixes. Because affiliate is pay for performance it is a great testing ground
  • Be prepared for change. The affiliate landscape is always changing and requires nimbleness

Q: How do you see affiliates evolving in the next decade?

I see affiliates evolving in several ways over the next 10 years. We will continue to see new types of partners enter the space as well as current media/distribution partners focus and rely more on affiliate. I believe affiliates (and networks) will get more sophisticated in their ability to “speak” to the individual consumer. Affiliates will also continue to evolve in terms of data driven strategy and the level of analytics they are able to provide brands. 

Affiliates will likely be at the forefront of whatever media and delivery mechanisms society gravitates toward, whether that’s virtual reality, new social platforms, connected devices, things we can’t think of now (think what was 10 years ago… a clunky iPod?), affiliates will be there. As the world turns, so do affiliates, so I believe we will continue to see them turn their attention globally and remove borders.

I’m fascinated to see how COVID and the current social movements evolve, what the next 10 years hold, and how affiliate is involved. I truly believe it will be stronger and more important than ever!

Thank you Sean!

 

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