How The Affiliate Landscape Has Evolved in 20 years

How The Affiliate Landscape Has Evolved in 20 Years

Innovation in Digital Marketing has accelerated at lightning speed over the last 20 years. The evolution of search, mainstream adoption of social media, and rise of the mobile era has put brands right in front of their customers across a multitude of channels, creating even more touch points and marketing opportunities.

So as the year draws to a close, we wanted to find out where the affiliate and partner marketing channel has been, and where it’s heading next, and who better to tell us than our Global Associate Director, Louise James who recently celebrated her 20-year Silverbean anniversary.

Take it away Lou…


Mobile First

It’s the year 2003 and I’m starting my new job at Silverbean HQ. I’m working with a tower PC that has to remain in the office (it was huge, and “WFH” was certainly not an acronym then!), “Google It” was only just becoming a common phrase, and dial up internet was starting to be quickly replaced with the faster broadband alternative.

And, I have my beloved Nokia mobile phone with me, which has the Snake game as entertainment, but no internet access and no camera (!).

So it’s only natural that all of my early work here was purely desktop based advertising – generally through offer publishers, review sites and content supported by banner advertising. 

Fast forward just a few years from 2003 and the affiliate industry is quickly pivoting, adapting to the freedom and technology that our mobile phones are starting to give to us. The focus shifted from mainly desktop based marketing to creating mobile friendly websites, updating tracking technology to capture sales on mobile and then, a little later, to track cross device and in-app purchases. 

Mobile was a catalytic change for the industry that opened up the social media takeover. 


The Social Media Takeover

There was no Instagram or TikTok in the early stages of my career. My first foray into social media was on MySpace, closely followed by Facebook – simply as a way to connect with my friends and family.

And now, these creator channels are prime for brands to a) engage with their audience, b) target potential new customers with the right data, and c) to build brand awareness. They’ve become an integral part of our affiliate and partnership mix, with not only the ability to tangibly track the performance of an ad campaign, but to also ensure a brand is hitting its target audience through the use of accurate demographic data. 

In fact, Silverbean was one of the first agencies to spot the opportunity with the “swipe up to shop” call to action on Instagram stories, placing a trackable network link behind said action. This allowed the team to report data back to our clients on the tangible success of a campaign that was, then, outside of the norm.

The evolution of written blog posts, to YouTube videos, to Instagram photos to TikTok shorts, has supported the expansion and elevation of the affiliate channel, creating a wider partner ecosystem. 


Wider Partner Ecosystem

The affiliate mix has evolved so much over the years, to not only include social channels as mentioned earlier, but also online newspaper and magazine publications, closed user groups, card linking opportunities, charity, technology and Brand to Brand. 

The latter of which has been a real step change for the industry, taking our knowledge of working with clients x partners, and elevating that information to place like minded brands, with similar audiences, together for a mutually beneficial gain. It opens up huge opportunities for the channel to expand its reach, once again showing the tangible results of a campaign and continuing to show the deep strength of the channel. 

With such a wide and varying mix of partners to work with, at all stages of the sales funnel, it was inevitable that the customer journey evolved.


The Customer Journey Evolved

With the scale of social media and an expanding affiliate mix, the channel very quickly became an integral part of the customer journey at all points, not just the perceived last click at purchase point. 

At Silverbean, we built out our first customer journey planner to include such aspects as motive, research, evaluation, selection to final purchase (and then what needs to happen post purchase to start the cycle again). And the affiliate channel could hit all of these journey milestones, in some form – and hit them well!

But with so many touch points, the need for improved technology arose – we need to track all of this, right?


Advancing Technology

My very first client didn’t utilise a network or a SaaS platform to track, report and pay their affiliate. It was all done in-house, manually and therefore very admin heavy, reporting only on last click. 

Now, we can track pretty much anything we’d like, at any point in the customer journey, with the right parameters in place. Cross device, product level, offline to online, first/last/any click. We can truly and tangibly see the impact the affiliate channel has in a customer’s decision making process, from motive through to research, through to selection – and can reward our partners appropriately for their impact at certain stages. 

We have more information than ever to make data-led decisions, some of which is often overlooked. There’s more test and learn activity happening across the agency than ever before, where the team has spotted a dial movement in a data set, honed in on this and presented a strong case to amplify the campaign. 

There’s more tangible evidence for our teams to use now, that we just simply didn’t have access to in those early days, which really does support our seat at the table. 


Our Seat at The Budget Table

As a result of this evolution over the years, the affiliate and partner marketing channel has, in my opinion, the best seat at the digital marketing budget table than it ever has. I feel it’s ok to say the channel was overlooked somewhat, at the start of my career – it was relatively unknown. Now, there’s a real spotlight on the channel – with our clients actively supporting our teams in budget conversations and requests due the aforementioned data led analysis and tangible results vs spend.


My Final Thoughts

A lot has changed in 20 years – of course it has. But, what hasn’t changed? The fundamentals of affiliate marketing, and that is connection – building and maintaining relationships across the industry. I still remember my first “A4U Get 2 Gether” – we could all fit on a fairly small boat cruising down the Thames. I’m still friends with some of those in attendance, and made connections that have lasted across the years. Now, there’s huge events and awards ceremonies across the globe, recognising all of the groundbreaking and boundary pushing work that happens in our industry – and long may that continue. 


I started this article showcasing how the industry pivoted as mobile marketing emerged. That’s what this channel is brilliant at – moving and pivoting to the opportunities that present themselves as technology evolves.  And as we continue to do so, I look forward to seeing the changes in the next 20 years.

Louise James

Louise James
14 Dec 2023