I’m not much of an affiliate marketer these days but with Affiliate Summit coming up in a few weeks, I’m communicating quite a bit with the affiliate community. I do play in the affiliate game, and as an SEO consultant of course I work closely with affiliates and publishers who work with affiliates. Yes, I have been a “Super Affiliate“, defined as it was defined not by me or some make-money-fast blogger selling Get Rich ebooks, but by the merchants paying the affiliate commissions. So when I saw Jeremy over at Shoemoney try and define Super Affiliate for himself, I read the whole article looking for something close to what I understood Super Affiliate to be. Jeremy did the smart thing - he asked people in the game what was meant by the term “Super Affiliate”. Not too surprisingly, everyone had a different answer. Most were based on some monetary threshold (makes XXX per day/month/whatever). That’s not how I learned it.
So what exactly is a Super Affiliate?
For smaller operations, SEO is Competitive Webmastering. For larger industries/companies, the playing field is more complicated. There are ancillary players (such as SEOs and PPC affiliates) monetizing through mainstream players in that market (the merchants). In larger markets or more competitive niche markets, the merchant may not be ranking competitively or advertising heavily. In those cases merchants may come to rely on affiliates for the Internet marketing (traffic). In a nutshell, that is what Affiliate Marketing is…. online marketing on behalf of someone else, on a commission basis.
So when does an affiliate become a Super Affiliate? The affiliate model works very well as long as the merchant remains the primary industry player for the market. But what if the affiliate controls the market? What happens to the business model of the merchant when the affiliate marketer achieves so much influence over the revenue stream that the merchant has to negotiate with that Super Affiliate directly, in order to keep the traffic?
A Super Affiliate is an affiliate with enough market leverage to warrant significant 1:1 attention from the merchant. A Super Affiliate is a key partner of the merchant. If the Super Affiliate were to pull her traffic from the merchant, the merchant would lose ground in the market, not just referral traffic. Conversely, if a Super Affiliate were to move that traffic to a competing merchant, the market dynamics would shift immediately. This helps explain why Super Affiliates enjoy so much leverage.
I have to admit things have changed quite a bit since I was an active player in the affiliate market. The threat of Super Affiliates was very real, so naturally the market responded to that threat with risk management. Affiliate Networks evolved to retain more control over the referral process, and merchants worked hard to make sure their businesses could better tolerate the risk. Affiliate managers appeared to help companies survive the whims of the 100% profit-oriented Super Affiliates. Pay per click helped merchants as well, once they understood it enough, and the PPC networks helped by imposing additional “controls”. As the world moved on line, web technologies were institutionalized, leaving less opportunity for Super Affiliates to completely dominate unless they, too, evolved.
As it became clear that risk management tools were moving into the hands of merchants, many of the “older” Super Affiliates bundled up their market-owning networks and sold them out to the dominant industry players for serious money. Some actually bought the merchants out and took complete control of the markets they dominated (moving up the food chain). Others simply adapted to the new rules, moving into PPC and working harder for less money, or researching new “market inefficiencies” to exploit. I think many of the revenue threshold based definitions given to Shoemoney represent a modern acceptance of the new rules of the managed affiliate game. The vendor sets the rules, and the affiliate deliver traffic to earn commissions. Despite making serious money, many of those earners are not Super Affiliates.
So I define a Super Affiliate according to the amount of leverage the affiliate has with the vendor paying the commissions. A vendor will look at it’s sources of revenue and decide for itself who is a Super Affiliate. Maybe the top 5 affiliates produce 80% of the online revenues. Maybe the top 50% produce 80%. Or maybe the top 2 affiliates produce 90% of the revenues. In any case, the vendor needs to manage risk, and often that includes special treatment for the top producers (the Super Affiliates). Even with the complicated multi-tiered commission models in place today, Super Affiliates enjoy better terms than the rest of the affiliates contributing traffic to the stream.
So how do you know if you are a Super Affiliate? Ask your vendor ” Am I a Super Affiliate?”, and listen carefully to the response. You might be surprised at what you can learn (hint hint). And if you can’t ask your vendor directly, then you already have your answer. If you are an affiliate and you think the business of affiliate marketing is traffic, I remind you that the business of business is business.
Updated: I was referring to vendors as “publishers” because initially the web publishers hired on SEOs and made deals with affiliate marketers. Nowadays the affiliate networks provide a means for any merchant to sell on the web, the affiliates are called “publishers”, and the vendors are “merchants”. I updated accordingly.