Network Spotlight: Rakuten Advertising’s Cary Pierce on Affiliate Marketing

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I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Rakuten Advertising’s Agency Services Manager Cary Pierce, who’s based out of Tampa, Florida and was able to discuss working in the field of affiliate marketing during both normal times and the times we’re in now – which are clearly not normal.

We discussed the challenges presented by today’s circumstances, but we also were able to highlight the ways affiliate can withstand even tough times and can help brands continue to thrive even in a global pandemic.

We mentioned the partnership Rakuten Advertising and Advertise Purple have, which has been a longstanding one over the past decade. And Cary made some really interesting predictions about Q4 and the future of affiliate even beyond the craziness of 2020.

i hope you enjoy!

Q: What’s your title and role at Rakuten Advertising?

A: I am a manager on the Agency Services team, working out of our Tampa office.

Q: How did you end up in affiliate marketing and what about it was attractive to you?

A: I took a pretty circuitous route, actually. I was working in real estate when the industry took a downturn. From there, I got an opportunity to move over to economic gardening with local government. Part of my focus was working with midsize and larger companies to help them grow their business and thereby the local economy. I helped local companies learn more about online marketing, paid search, social, and affiliate marketing.

I enjoyed this part of my role so much that I decided to find other opportunities to work with brands to help them build their performance marketing campaigns. That is how I ended up working for an affiliate marketing agency before moving to Rakuten Advertising. My role now is to advise and assist our Agency Partners to successfully manage their programs on our network.

Q: COVID-19 has clearly been the main topic of discussion in 2020. How has Rakuten Advertising fared and adjusted to the spreading virus and chaotic times?

A:  Rakuten Advertising committed itself from the start of the pandemic to ensuring that our employees were safe and that our partners were informed. It is an immense credit to our tech resource and infrastructure teams that thousands of employees were able to seamlessly transition from working out of dozens of offices around the globe to working from our living rooms, home offices and kitchen tables. The pandemic impacted different advertisers in different ways, similar to how it has impacted all of us in our personal lives differently. Knowing this, our teams made it a priority to tailor strategies to individual needs so that our clients were able to adjust to rapidly changing conditions and continue to achieve their affiliate marketing goals.  Additionally, to provide real-time data to our partners on worldwide consumer trends during quarantine, our marketing team created a global COVID-19 resource center and delivered weekly emails to our partners with data and resources to keep them informed.

Q: What are some predictions you have for Q4, which is of course a major time under normal circumstances but might look a little different this year?

To your point, this holiday season is going to be unlike any we’ve ever seen before. The good news — data from our New Rules report shows that 74% of holiday shoppers in the US will either increase or not change their holiday spending compared to last year, which means that brands are going to have plenty of opportunity to win over shoppers who are in a purchasing mindset. We are still expecting Q4 to be the busiest of the year, and Cyber Week will likely drive the greatest share of overall sales. That being said, there are a number of ways that this year is going to be different.

Here are some trends we’re expecting to see:

  • A longer holiday shopping season: A number of high-profile retailers have already announced plans to offer Black Friday-like deals in early October. That, in turn, is likely going to pique the interest of shoppers who may not wait until the last minute to get their holiday shopping done. I think we will see an expansion of shopping and conversions outside of the highpoint of Cyber Week.
  • Shipping cutoffs will be earlier: Part of the reason why brands are looking to extend the holiday shopping season is because of uncertainties around the last mile. Rather than offer a last-minute holiday shipping deadline, we expect that brands are going to put their “Get it by Christmas” shipping date earlier in the season than it’s been in recent years. The logic here is that it’s better to set the expectations upfront by giving yourself a larger margin for error rather than offering a later last-minute shipping date and running the risk of disappointing a shopper during the most crucial shopping period of the year.
  • More curbside pickup: One of the rules in our New Rules holiday report is “Meet customers at the curb.” We are expecting more shoppers to take advantage of curbside pickup this year. Those stores that were early adopters of curbside pickup have fine-tuned the offering to make it more customer friendly. Curbside pickup gives shoppers the convenience of being able to pick something up at the store without having to go in, which appeals to those who may still be uncomfortable being around large groups of people for an extended period of time.

Q: Are there any verticals you have your eye on for Q4 or heading into 2021?

A:  With all of the changes that have taken place this year, we’re expecting to see growth in several categories heading into 2021 for various different reasons.

  • Direct-to-Consumer brands: Digitally native businesses continue to grow in popularity because they offer products that, in many cases, people can’t find anywhere else. And over the past few months, these brands have found success as they are well versed in building completely digital relationships with their customers.  As we approach the holidays consumers are open to discovering new brands and new gift ideas, providing a great opportunity for a DTC brand to introduce themselves to new audiences.
  • Travel: It’s no secret that the travel industry has been hit among the hardest of all verticals. That being said, people have been stuck at home due to social distancing and they are likely starting to feel some sort of cabin fever. Brands that wind up winning during this period will be the ones that stress their safety protocols and get creative when it comes to their marketing mix.

Q: What are some major initiatives that you can talk about for Rakuten Advertising?

A: Earlier this year, we rebranded our business to Rakuten Advertising. This allowed us to combine our performance marketing capabilities with Rakuten Intelligence’s best-in-class consumer insights, while at the same time giving our current and future clients access to ad inventory across Rakuten’s owned and operated media, including Viki and Viber. One major companywide initiative this year and heading into the future is to continue to be a one-stop shop for advertisers and agencies. Combining the shopper insights that Rakuten Intelligence offers along with access to new and emerging advertising tools will empower our clients to make smarter decisions quicker, to target hyper specific audiences that are more likely to convert, and to establish their brand across different channels with the peace of mind that comes with knowing they will receive the high quality service and attention to detail that Rakuten has built its name on.

Another major initiative that we’re focused on is our commitment to helping agencies get even better performance results for their clients. To that end, we launched our Agency Account Manager Certification program. We’ve developed a series of virtual education sessions designed to sharpen the affiliate marketing skills of our agency partners. Upon successful completion of an online exam, agency account managers will receive a certification badge that they can put on their website or other digital channels letting people know about their accomplishment.

Q: The affiliate space is certainly competitive. How has Rakuten Advertising managed to stay at the top of the ecosystem and what does it take to succeed long term?

A: It certainly is competitive for all in the affiliate space. Rakuten Advertising has succeeded for so long because we are constantly innovating and finding new ways to serve our partners.  This includes a strong focus on strategy and service, technology, and our global publisher network.   

We are a true partner to the agencies and brands we work with, ensuring that campaigns are aligned with actual business objectives—whether that is to achieve better margins, focus on new customer acquisition, or improve customer lifetime value.

One thing that we pride ourselves on is the diversity of our publisher network. In recent years, we’ve begun partnering with businesses in sectors that traditionally have not invested as much in affiliate marketing. We have made it a priority to include more publishers that specialize in reaching a diverse set of audiences, as well as increasing the number of influencers and content sites in our network.

Additionally, our financial services compliance team is second to none when it comes to ensuring that our financial advertisers and publishers are minimizing the amount of legal and reputational risk to their brands. This ensures that both sides are protecting existing revenue streams while maximizing the potential of future revenue generating opportunities.

Q: How has it been working with Advertise Purple?

A: It’s really been fun. I’ve been working with Advertise Purple for years now and communicate regularly with teams who help our advertisers and publishers succeed. We’ve not only seen the programs in our network grow with the Advertise Purple team successfully managing them, we have seen the number of programs Advertise Purple runs on our network increase as well. It is that type of success that has led to Advertise Purple being one of only 5 Platinum Agency Partners on our network.

Thanks Cary, really appreciate your time with these questions. We love working with you nd your team at Rakuten!

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