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The Ultimate Guide To Affiliate Marketing Trends In 2021

An Ultimate Guide to valley views with mountains as the backdrop, 2021.

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2021 brings us all a new year: one of hope, optimism, resolutions, and plans. But it also brings a great deal of change — much of which is a big thanks to the infamous “2020”.

A lot happened in 2020, but the defining global moment, especially for Americans, was the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases in the U.S. far exceeded 10 million; there were hundreds of thousands of deaths due to the virus; wearing masks became a regularity of everyday life; non-essential workforces transitioned to 100%-remote work.

It had a lot of effects on businesses and Americans. Unemployment hit record numbers and people were struggling to make ends meet — even if they were still working full-time. That led to businesses taking a hit, whether they had to close due to shutdown measures or a serious loss of business driven by people being out of work and not having the funds to make purchases like they once did.

Affiliate marketing saw some shake-ups due to COVID, with more people needing to be digitally marketed to than ever before, but affiliate marketing’s performance remained largely unaffected. If anything, current expectations believe that it — and performance marketing as a whole — saw a significant increase in revenue in 2020. Part of the reason is due to the way the marketing industry was reshaped in 2020:

  • People were shopping from home more than ever.
  • People were spending more consistent time on social media.
  • People watched more YouTube videos than in the past.
  • And much more.

But while it saw its fair share of growth, that’s not to say that affiliate marketing didn’t have it’s rough patches, either. Throughout the year, marketers of businesses affected by the pandemic had to tighten their budgetary belts, making cuts where they could. Certain marketing campaigns were nixed from the 2020 schedule and some affiliates had to be cut, for the time being. In other cases, bonuses became smaller and commissions similarly decreased, meaning every affiliate and affiliate marketer felt the constraints brought on by the pandemic. But how serious were these changes? Did this spell the end of affiliate marketing? Could it recover, even during its notable growth?

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How has affiliate marketing braved the tides? Rather well, to be honest. But not without its side effects. Part of the fallout of 2020 is that what once worked in affiliate marketing will no longer cut it. What does this include? Traditional marketing methods like product reviews and site banners for two. But how is it going to look different, and why?

Well, what we know is that the traditional way of doing things is dead. You’ve probably heard that phrase mentioned sometime in 2020: “There’s no going back,” “We live in a different world now,” “What we once knew will never be the same.” One of your witty friends probably texted this to you once and you, understandably, rolled your eyes. But there is some merit to it.

More people are working from home and many people are out of work. Some have turned to self-employment, particularly by building online followings through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Now that they have a platform, they’re wondering how they can use that following in their favor? Some are considering whether they should try their hand at affiliate marketing.

In other cases, social media sites are reforming their advertising procedures. This has led to some businesses having to rethink how they approach marketing, especially if there are limits on how many ads can be placed on a single page — meaning, “Is it worth hiring affiliates to advertise for us, so we can utilize outreach and beat the algorithm?”

But what are the biggest changes? What’s happened and where will affiliate marketing be going in the coming year? Even if you’ve embarked on the affiliate marketing 101 crash course, you’ll need a refresher for 2021.

As mentioned above, one of the biggest effects felt in the affiliate marketing world was the notable cuts to affiliate commission rates. One of the most discussed situations was Amazon, which drastically slashed commission rates toward the beginning of the pandemic, harming the livelihood of many publishers and affiliates.

Affiliates around the world felt the changes, seeing a clear decrease in their income, causing them to have to go searching for a) other affiliate partnerships and b) other work entirely. For some affiliates, this means that they might be jaded with the market, leading to them avoiding it come 2021. Others might still rely on affiliate marketing, but they’ll be stern about their commission rates, only accepting work with companies who confirm to meet it. Going forward, you’ll have to determine how you can remain competitive in the market, even if rates have generally decreased.

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Online learning saw an exceptional amount of growth in 2020 — that’s not even mentioning all of the schools that transitioned to remote learning. Stuck at home, people turned to platforms like Duolingo, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, and more traditional sites for educational growth. Some learned the finer details of raising an apartment full of plants while others took a Masterclass to learn how to cook; some chose to learn a new language while others buried themselves deeply into learning the craft of creative writing.

The focus on educational content is important, as it’s a different avenue from simply spending time on a search engine or social media platform. People are using the internet more and more to learn, and that’s something that affiliate marketers need to understand. This could include you leveraging educational partners and teachers to represent your brand, or it could include your brand shifting into the educational space, using your expertise to teach a thing or two. There are no specific limits, but it’s important you integrate online learning into your affiliate strategy going forward.

As mentioned earlier, traditional forms of digital advertising — paid banner ads and search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns — don’t work like they once did. What does this mean to your business? What you once relied on for performance marketing might not work in 2021. This means that changes will have to be made — as your options are to either sink or swim.

People are spending more time online, but engagement has decreased, particularly with traditional digital advertising. To avoid this, you’ll have to consider employing methods of performance marketing instead — email campaigns, social campaigns, affiliate campaigns, collaboration projects, and more. It might be different from what you’re used to, but that’s the world of marketing. The digital world is constantly evolving, and you need to modify your approach to survive.

2020 showed that authenticity matters to most consumers. If a consumer can trust the character of your business, the more likely they are to become a customer. Why is that? Because they can trust you in times of both good and bad. And that trust goes a long way. Establishing a human connection with your customers is important, nowadays, as people want to be seen as they are — people first, customers second.

Even while you’re providing them a product or a service, you should be treating them as a person first and foremost. That includes treating them with respect and being fair with their time and money. You value what they have to say, think, and believe. A simple way to make use of that is through affiliate marketing, particularly by leveraging fellow brands and affiliates who can instill that belief in consumers.

While the pandemic had an effect on business throughout the year, it showed little to no effect on the holiday season. This is an important lesson for affiliate marketers, as it means that seasonality still reigns supreme. Shopping during the holiday season has seen steady growth over the years, and the same was seen in 2020: People were still shopping in-person and shopping more than ever online.

Going forward, you’ll want to keep devoting time and effort to the holiday season, onboarding affiliates for an extra push while utilizing your veteran affiliates to fight for serious gains. This includes supporting holiday sales, promoting holiday-themed content, and consistently reminding consumers about the products you’re promoting for the holidays.

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Consumers love video content — especially Gen Z, 85% of which actively use YouTube for educational and entertainment purposes. This is an incredibly important statistic for affiliates, especially those trying to brave the consistently rising and falling tides. Video content rules, and you need to make sure that you have a grasp of it before it gets the better of you. Interacting with customers across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram Reels can be wide-reaching, with many different approaches hitting the mark. But some choice ways include getting popular influencers to promote your products as pre-roll ads or to integrate your brand into their content.

Another method is developing videos of your own. You can talk about what’s happening at your company, what you’re doing to meet the needs of an ever-changing world, and what your company’s culture and sustainability efforts are like. Affiliates can share your videos on their own profile, whether that’s on YouTube or another social media app, for their followers to see. It’s simple, but it’s an exceptional way to increase your brand engagement.

Automation has been steadily growing in the world of marketing, and it shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. It poses incredible benefits for marketers, as implementations like the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to continue streamlining the sometimes laborious work of marketing. This is going to be an incredible update for affiliate marketers, as it will open up their work schedule for other opportunities. By lightening your load on the front of data management and analysis, you can spend more time developing content for affiliates.

Just as IoT and AI will bring exceptional changes to the world of affiliate marketing, voice recognition is going to bring with it another facet of change. Consumers will be relying more on Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Home, rather than heading directly to YouTube, Spotify, or Google to input their searches. This will require a new approach for affiliate marketers, who will be in desperate need to meet the changes to come. If anything, it will lead to a fast, more efficient means of completing digital searches, and marketers should develop their SEO and affiliate marketing efforts to meet such trends.

No one solution is going to fit the needs of affiliate marketing going forward. If there is one lesson to be learned from 2020 while going into 2021, it’s that change is required. Whatever worked for your business in the past may no longer be the solution. Rather than holding onto it, let it go. Be free of constraint and allow yourself to move with the tide.

The world will continue to change — especially as COVID continues to spread across the country and linger — but you can harness it for your own benefit. Unsure where to start in the process? Begin by evaluating your affiliate marketing program. Where were you at the beginning of 2020 and where are you now? Use that as your North Star, driving you toward future affiliate marketing success.

Special thanks to our friends at Refersion for their insights on this topic.
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