Spill the Beans | Annabel Gray & Sarah Kelly

“Success is going to be so different every time. It’s just about two areas at that high level: how is success defined as part of your wider acquisition strategy? And then how is success defined uniquely for your program and your business?”

– Sarah Kelly, marketing director at Partnerize

In her latest interview for Spill the Beans, our associate director Australia, Annabel Gray, spoke to Sarah Kelly, marketing director at Partnerize. They looked back at the rollercoaster that was 2020, and talked about what 2021 has in store for the affiliate and partnership marketing channel.

Before we start, could you please introduce yourself and share a little bit about your role?

My name is Sarah Kelly. I am the marketing director for the Asia Pacific region here at Partnerize.  I’m responsible for Australia, Southeast Asia, China and Japan. So quite a diverse region, but a really exciting one.

I’ve been with Partnerize for the last four years. It’s my job to work closely with our customers, partners, agency partners, like yourself, to collaborate on campaigns and different materials. But I think more importantly, it’s my job to help educate the market. So really to grow not only the presence of Partnerize, but very much the industry in itself.

Affiliate marketing has evolved over the years, what does the term affiliate and partnership marketing mean to you now?

It’s a funny one, I’ve been with Partnerize for four years now. It was one of the first things I noticed when I joined this industry – people like to have this conversation about ‘is it affiliate or partner marketing?’

I think that even four years on, it’s the same conversation still happening quite regularly. And I find it really interesting. I think that from Partnerize’s perspective, we do talk about it as partner marketing, and I think there’s a key reason why. And that’s never ever to take away from what affiliate marketing is, because affiliate marketing is still the backbone of any partner program. Those affiliates are brands themselves, they’re huge, and they’re always going to be that core pillar of your program.

But the model for affiliates has worked so well that it’s made marketers then go out and bring in other types of partnerships into that same outcome-based model. And that means that it’s grown to be partnerships, or partner marketing. I actually think it’s just as important for the affiliate partners to be pushing that message as well.

Gone are the days where it was the old school, one-way partnership where I’d go to X partner and say, hey, I want this, do it for me, great, I’ll give you this much CPA. Now, it’s very much a two-way partnership. It’s about collaborating together, aligning our goals, really understanding each other. And I think pushing the term partnership and partner marketing kind of helps fuel that and helps push the industry further forward.

What does success within partnerships look like to you?

I think it’s such an interesting question. I mean, obviously, being in marketing I write a lot of content and success and defining it is something that I try to talk about quite a lot, because it’s so unique, it’s so different for everyone.

Whereas, back in the day, it probably was very simple. It was to grow revenue by X percent. But this channel has evolved so much that the way we define success is just so different now. And I think that’s, that’s one of the things I love working at Partnerize is, you’re right, we do have such diverse customers.

We’ve got everyone from fashion retailers to foreign exchange to airlines to buy now pay later, it’s all so different. So you can’t possibly define success in the same way for all of those types of brands.

Something that we have been talking a lot about lately at Partnerize is defining a success above success. So whilst you will have your own sort of unique goals and metrics, like then kind of elevating this channel to something bigger.

Something that we’ve been talking to customers about quite recently, at the end of last year and start of this year, has been ‘how is your affiliate partnership program defined to be successful alongside your other channels?’. For example, especially here in Australia, a lot of the people who manage these programs, they don’t just manage partnerships, they manage paid search, or SEO, or social or multitude of other digital acquisition channels…

Those channels are fantastic, but they’re getting more and more expensive, and the ROAS is getting lower and lower year after year. 

Something that we have been putting to market is the modern marketer. And that’s going… ‘How do I take something like Partnership, which has great ROAS, is very outcome based, and take some of the profit from that and help it to fund my other acquisition channels so that success is across the board?’ 

Once you’ve achieved that level, it’s then really diving down into, okay, what’s unique to me, what specifically do I want to achieve in my business?’ For example our customer Farfetch, won the Best Performance Marketing Campaign for APAC (at the IPMAs). And the reason they won was because their success metrics for that campaign were just so different. But they have a really established affiliate program, and they wanted to take that model and use it for their media partners and bring them in.

And they did that very well, it helped them to win the award! And I think that that is the prime example of what I’ve just said. That’s going to be super different to if you’re an airline, if you’re Virgin Australia that started to bounce back this year. Or if you’re a Buy Now Pay Later that’s new into the channel, success is going to be so different every time. It’s just about two areas at that high level: how is success defined as part of your wider acquisition strategy? And then how is success defined uniquely for your program and your business?

You touched on the Modern Marketer there and looking at integrated channels. How do you see this level of integration used across the different regions?

It’s a little bit different in every region. Australia is still obviously very heavily reliant on Google and Facebook, but the affiliate partnerships channel is driving 30% of online revenue for some of our customers. Which is massive.

So, while we still need to be focused on those other channels, because it’s all about acquisition, it’s about recognising that this channel is really outperforming and it’s outcome based, that’s why people flock to it. It’s very scalable. 

For Australia, this year, it’s very much about getting affiliates and partnerships at the CMO’s table, because that’s where it should be. Now, Southeast Asia, there’s a little bit different, again, because they’re not as reliant on Google and Facebook. As a market, they haven’t embraced affiliates as much as other regions. But where they have, they’re just zooming ahead in terms of innovation, creativity. They’re worlds ahead of everybody else when it comes to mobile and app and their priorities and successes would be a little bit different.

Again, it’s just understanding that people, especially from out of APAC, talk about APAC as one market and one region and it’s really not – it’s so different. It’s so diverse, and that’s one of the best things about it. But it’s also one of the most challenging areas, and I think it’s important to really understand how it’s a bit different in each country, in each market that you’re looking at.

It’s one of the challenges of affiliate, it’s so different business to business, channel to channel and in each of the individual regions as well. It’s not at all a one size fits all.

No, but that’s what makes it so exciting as well. It’s such a great channel to be in, you can do so many interesting things, like have any partnership that you can dream of – I sound a bit like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory here. But any partnership you can dream of, you can do it. And I think that is why people are so excited about this channel and where it’s moving, I think we’re really going to see it explode this year.

Can you share some insights from other advertisers or partners you’ve seen, and how they’ve creatively used the channel over the last 12 months?

Last year was interesting to say the least, and obviously started out a little bit questionable, and a bit terrifying. But I was actually really impressed with how everybody really adapted and innovated so quickly.

I thought it was amazing, and really quite unexpected. We really did start out the year in quite a challenging way. With COVID, Australia closed its borders back in March, and we just didn’t know what was going to happen. And that was quite challenging, especially for the partners more than anybody.

For them, you had a range of advertisers who just turned their programs off. And that’s understandable if we didn’t know what was going to happen. But I think the ones that actually didn’t turn off and tried to work with the partners to find ways to adapt, by the end of the year, were the ones who had been really successful and had also tried some of those creative strategies..

Even from the partner side, if you look at here in Australia, one of the most fun and well-performing partnerships that I saw was ShopBack. And while we were deep in lockdown, wearing the same track pants for the last six days, they launched a virtual Amazing Race. And I just thought that was such an interesting idea. But it was still designed to drive people to ShopBack and drive them therefore onto brands. Very clever, but also very well timed as well.

From the advertiser side, there were so many just amazing partnerships last year, I think people really tried to use the year to think outside the box and use it as a test and learn period. One of my favourites from Australia was definitely The Iconic and Binge. It was just everything a partnership should be, it was still focused on them, promoting Binge as a subscription service.

But it was very much about going, ‘hey, you have been sat in those track pants for six days, it’s probably time you bought some new ones. So here’s a whole great range of clothes that we’ve just launched.’ And it was just amazing. Everybody was talking about it, and everybody was trying to buy it. And it was so creative. It really changed the tone of the year and got people excited again.

Another example, which is quite different, was from the UK. One of our customers, Pizza Hut delivery did a really nice partnership where they offered unique incentives and discounts to the frontline health care workers, those in the NHS and beyond. And for them, obviously that’s not about revenue. It would have helped but it wasn’t about revenue, it was about giving back to the community at the time where they needed the most.

Both of those partnerships are so incredibly different, but they’re both ones I was equally impressed with. I’m hoping to see more of those partnership types as we go through this year as well.

We’ve had a look back at last year, now looking forward, what does the rest of 2021 look like for partnerships?

Well, hopefully, pretty good! We had a tough year last year, and in our industry, it’s based on relationships, it’s based on community, we had a tough year and people banded together. I think that, if anything, we deserve a good year this year, we’ve worked hard! We’ve set some strong foundations for this year to be even better than ever, we’ve all thrived together.

At Partnerize we’ve talked about working directly with partners for quite a long time and I think this year we’ve really seen that. Some of these partners are more than their own brands. And I think this year, we’re going to see people working together even more, and we’re going to see just even more innovation and creativity.

I guess on the flip side of that, and more of a cautionary tale, is that last year, you know, we actually ended up for retail, seeing hyper-growth – it was crazy, and nobody really expected that at all. It definitely changed the way that we shop and our buying behaviour, but that kind of growth isn’t always sustainable. I think it’s something that we do need to be prepared for this year, is that if we want to continue to grow, we need to understand that we can’t drive 80% new customers year on year, all the time.

So it’s a case of going: okay, if I’m an affiliate or partnership marketer, how am I going to be smarter this year, how am I going to continue to grow by raising my margins? Or by really focusing on the partners who drive the most profitable customers?

I think this year, it’s definitely about getting a little bit smarter and how we do those things. And I think they’ll start to just kind of become the norm. 

But to wrap up at least my thoughts for 2021, I think it’s going to be a great year, I’m really quite excited about it and I think we are just going from strength to strength. 

One of my favourite things working at Partnerize is really getting to work with the customers that we do. Everybody is excited about this year, I think it’s going to be huge. And I actually can’t wait to do this again in the start of 2022 and talk about what an amazing year this year was!