Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
The affiliate industry today is growing rapidly, but it’s not simply from the overall increase in consumers shifting their buying habits to ecommerce. Affiliate marketing has long been a staple in most online retailers’ marketing mix, and it’s estimated that affiliate marketing currently accounts for 16% of all online purchases in the U.S. and Canada. Every year, it grows about another 10% according to Statista, and is expected to reach $8.2 billion in 2022.
Now, loyalty and cashback rewards programs built upon the existing “infrastructure” of the affiliate industry are spurring new growth in the affiliate channel.
How affiliate marketing laid the foundation for cashback and loyalty rewards
In the affiliate-marketing advertising model, online retailers pay fees in the form of commissions, most often as a percentage of sales, for referrals from “publisher” web sites. This is also commonly known as revenue sharing, or “rev share.”
Publishers come in many shapes and sizes, including content sites on a specific topic, deal-finder sites, blogs in niche verticals, social-media influencers and more. These publishers promote links to retailer sites in their content in the hopes of driving their audience to those retailers and earning sales commissions from the traffic they drive.
Affiliate-marketing networks such as CJ, Impact, ShareASale and others provide retailers with technology platforms that track referrals from publishers in order to attribute the purchases that result from those referrals to the appropriate publisher and convey rev-share payments from merchants to publishers.
In effect, affiliate networks serve as marketplaces connecting publishers with online retailers, enabling them to create marketing relationships with each other. Publishers join the network so they can access online retailers that are willing to pay them for sales driven by their audience. Online retailers join the network so they can cost-effectively acquire customers and drive incremental sales.
How cashback and loyalty programs run on affiliate networks
The existing affiliate-network tracking platforms provide incredibly efficient infrastructure to power rewards and loyalty programs. Rewards platform and solutions providers are now publishers that participate in affiliate programs with rev-share commissions paid on sales by online retailers. But, unlike traditional affiliate publishers that keep the commissions, rewards and loyalty programs offer part or all of the commissions earned back to consumers (e.g. their audience) in the form of shopping rewards, such as cash back.
These types of cashback rewards programs, powered by the existing affiliate infrastructure, have exploded in popularity in the last few years. Examples of these programs include PayPal’s Honey, Capital One Shopping, Microsoft Rewards, and Acorns Earn, among others.
Why should brands consider adding cashback and rewards programs to their affiliate-marketing channel?
Affiliate-powered coupon and rewards programs benefit rewards providers and consumers in two ways:
Rewards program providers see stronger brand loyalty, better customer retention, lower cost of user acquisition and increased revenue.
Online retailers also benefit directly in several ways.
Increasing conversion rate and reducing shopping cart abandonment
Activating cashback rewards during an online purchase increases the likelihood of the customer completing that purchase. When a shopper activates a cashback incentive at the start of a shopping journey, it acts as a magnet, drawing the customer from the first click to a converted sale.
Globally, the average ecommerce conversion rate is 3.29% (the percent of ecommerce website visitors that complete a purchase). However, according to data from Wildfire Systems, when consumers activate cashback rewards during their online shopping trip, over 15% of them complete the transaction — that’s a 6-10 times increase.
Boosting average order value
The typical order value for retailers in the Wildfire merchant network was historically in the $60 to $70 range when consumers made purchases after visiting the retailers’ site via social-media platforms such as Pinterest and Facebook. But, in Wildfire’s experience, average order value climbs to $130 when customers activate cashback during an online shopping experience. The psychology of “getting a bargain” is at play here.
According to data from CJ, a leading affiliate network, publishers in the loyalty and rewards vertical drive substantially larger transaction size, with 25% higher average order value compared to other publishers in the CJ network based upon the past two years of data.
Improving return on ad spend (ROAS) by shifting budgets
The price of cost-per-click (CPC) and cost-per-1000-impressions (CPM) advertising continues to rise. In fact, pricing in these channels is at an all-time high, according to Tinuiti, a performance marketing agency, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to target social and digital advertising given the evolving legislation relating to privacy and third-party cookies. Furthermore, advertisers’ trust in CPC advertising continues to erode due to the prevalence of click-fraud and bots. The cybersecurity firm CHEQ estimates that bots and fake users now make up a whopping 40% of all online traffic, which is directly detrimental to ROAS for CPC- and CPM-based advertising.
This combination of factors is pushing online retailers to shift budget towards the affiliate channel due to its performance-based model of paying publishers a percentage of the actual ecommerce sale generated. By shifting spend further into the purchase funnel, affiliate marketing presents one of the highest ROAS and lowest risk components of advertisers’ marketing mix. In fact, CJ also noted that in 2021, loyalty and rewards affiliate publishers in its network earned a 34% higher ROAS than other publishers.
Rewards programs have entered the mainstream, and consumers are not just growing accustomed to these benefits, they’re increasingly expecting them. This is a win-win-win for everyone in the ecosystem: Consumers benefit from rewards and discounts, retailers benefit from higher sales conversion and lower ROAS, and the services that offer rewards programs benefit from retention, user acquisition and new revenue streams. You can expect to see a proliferation of rewards and loyalty programs in the form of online-shopping companions as these programs graduate from being differentiators to becoming table stakes.