Lauren Kleinman, founder of Dreamday PR and co-founder of The Quality Edit, got her first taste of affiliate agencies in 2015, when she was on the founding team at Ritual, a direct to consumer vitamin company. At Ritual, she managed the company’s PR strategy and agencies. She was also searching for an affiliate agency but couldn’t find one she trusted with the premium supplement that did not discount. On the PR side, Lauren worked with several top-tier agencies, but none of them understood the impact editorial inclusions had on the bottom line of the company. “It felt like we were only getting halfway there,” Kleinman said. At the time, PR agencies did not understand affiliate marketing, and the coupon and loyalty publishers that affiliate agencies were offering did not have the audience Ritual was looking for.
Ritual’s partnership with Buzzfeed was one of the company’s first affiliate partnerships with content commerce publishers. For Kleinman, a light bulb went off. She saw they were utilizing affiliate links and the testimonial was performing so well–accomplishing brand storytelling while also driving clicks and revenue.
“In the background, I saw that publishing was evolving from traditional to commerce, and there were learnings on what could be done differently on the affiliate and PR side,” Kleinman said. That’s when she started to look at how the company could “meet publishers where they’re at and help them to understand the business opportunity in partnering with brands in a direct capacity,” she said, adding that’s what she felt was missing from PR agencies. Additionally, she saw a chance to editorially highlight what was interesting or new about the brand.
“Performance PR,” a term dubbed by Kleinman and one that is pending trademark, is the answer to what she was searching for years earlier. At its core, performance PR “sits at the intersection of affiliate marketing focused on top-tier publishers and commerce and consumer PR,” according to Kleinman. Dreamday is working to modernize traditional PR into one holistic scope, because the team sees affiliate and PR as interwoven and synergistic.
The main catalyst that has made performance PR grow is the rise of content commerce and mass media publishers like CNN, Forbes and Condé Nast doubling down on their affiliate revenue operations. These publishers were higher up in the funnel than traditional affiliate industry veterans and came from highly-influential, legacy titles. “A lot of luxury brands, or brands that are really building a specific identity, are very tuned into the top of funnel placements,” said Jessy Klein Fofana, the founder of LaRue PR. “This approach of storytelling to affiliate has worked really well for the brands that are really protective of a specific identity and storyline for their company or business.”
In addition, traditional media companies have grown to expect affiliate pitches when hearing from agencies, whether on the PR or the affiliate side. “For a long time [with] those media pubs, there was a wall between commerce and content and it was really hard to work with,” said Jamie Birch, founder of JEB Commerce. “That wall has come down, and now if someone wants content, the first question the editorial team asks is ‘what is your affiliate program?’ We have to work with those media companies a little different, but a lot is the same.” There is now a clear and inherent value in combining these two tactics.
Pitching and publisher interaction are the main ways that differentiate performance PR agencies from traditional affiliate or PR agencies. Assembling a contact list of both editorial and affiliate managers is essential for performance PR agencies to ensure you get the information where it’s needed. “A traditional PR agency would only be pitching traditional PR contacts, sometimes commerce contacts as well, but they’re definitely not focusing on affiliate marketing contacts–relationships I have been building for the past 8+ years,” Kleinman said.
Secondly, Dreamday is focused on editorial and awareness value, while still communicating why partnering with the brand is a smart business decision. “Most affiliate agencies are really cut and dry with their pitches,” Kleinman said. “They will share that you can partner with this brand and receive this commission rate, but nothing is exciting or interesting about why you’d want to partner with the brand. Our pitches are concise but editorialized, so it provides a lot more context and is just a lot more compelling.”
Finally, there is always a business component to the pitch. “We pitch commerce editors [on] what’s interesting about the brand,” Kleinman said. “We always include affiliate links. We understand how to be competitive with our offer based on the success that we’ve had with that publication on behalf of that brand, so we’re not really walking into the pitch blind,” Kleinman said. Performance PR agencies are seeing growing interest for their services because they are merging together the lists of both affiliate managers and editorial staffers and painting a larger business and editorial picture.
Both traditional PR and affiliate businesses have moved into a performance PR model in the last few years. LaRue PR has been around since 2006, but the requests for affiliate marketing started trickling in about five years ago, said Klein Fofana. Klein Fofana, a PR veteran, quickly jumped to learn more and hear about what the affiliate marketing industry had to offer for her growing business. In the beginning, the answer was relatively simple. Whether it was an editor asking if an advertiser was on ShareASale, or a client asking for a better understanding of what affiliate is, Klein Fofana said the team worked to find the answer. “In a gorilla-style way, we started to familiarize ourselves,” she said. “For quite a while, we just stayed there, helping out our clients or contacts and forging a relationship between those top-of-funnel publishers and brands,” she said.
Since then, LaRue PR has grown into a full-service affiliate and PR agency, bringing together earned media and affiliate in one house. “I was helped along because our clients would come to us and say ‘Oh, we have an affiliate marketing agency and they are great at mid and lower funnel, but they struggle at the top of the funnel and I don’t know why.’ I think some of our PR muscle helped close the gap on that top-of-funnel content and that made a real difference in their overarching strategy,” Klein Fofana said.
The same can be said on the affiliate side, with JEB Commerce focusing more on performance PR in recent years. “About 2-3 years ago, we noticed a change happening, because clients were wanting more than just bottom-funnel affiliate activity: They wanted the affiliates to drive brand awareness,” said Jamie Birch, CEO and Chief Incremental Officer at JEB Commerce. “We re-tooled over the last two years pretty significantly to take into account this need to do PR through the affiliate program and then track PR through the affiliate program, so that’s what we do,” Birch said.
Birch recognized these two worlds were colliding and hired Blagica Bottigliero in November 2021 as the Director of Affiliate Marketing. Bottigliero, a digital marketing veteran with 20-plus years of experience, will be tasked with adding additional services for JEB’s clients that play in the world of traditional PR. “She was a strategic hire because I don’t think affiliate and PR will be two things anymore,” Birch said. “She is firmly planted in both of those worlds, which is what you need.”
These performance PR agencies aim to do two things in particular: Influence top-of-funnel content and drive performance for the brand. This starts at the beginning of their recruitment process with the clients they are taking on. “I think we’re really good at picking clients and we are very selective as an agency – we’re surgical about the clients we take on, we only take clients we can only create the best case studies for and we know are going to resonate with our publishers,” Kleinman said. For Dreamday, that means “picking a lot of the clients that are giftable, mission-driven, have strong founder stories, have an amazing product fit. When we get the product into an editor’s hand, we know that they’re going to love it because we’ve tried and tested ourselves,” Kleinman said. “Those are the brands we want to represent.”
Along the same vein of giftable or Instagrammable products that Dreamday likes to represent, this also plays out well when it comes to their relationships with publishers. Going into the holidays, one strategy could include identifying the five best performing publishers of the year for the brand and offering exclusive discount codes for their audience, Kleinman said.
Not only does Dreamday prefer to work with advertisers that will resonate well with publisher audiences, but the top revenue-generating publishers for these brands can also expect to be rewarded with perks that entice publishers to continue covering the product or brand. “Different insight-driven things like that, it goes back to meeting publishers where they’re at and trying to form those mutually beneficial partnerships where it’s a win-win on both sides,” Kleinman said.
The inherent benefit that performance PR presents is combining both PR and affiliate for a brand in one house. Both LaRue and Dreamday structure their teams with both PR and affiliate professionals that work together to collaborate for each side of their performance PR strategy. “If you’ve been in PR at all, there’s a taboo that you need to know the editor you’re pitching. You need to know what they’re covering and read what they write,” Klein Fofana said. “You never want the same person from the agency pitch the same editor from different sides, so we really want to make sure that’s something we’re sticklers on: the affiliate manager on the affiliate side is talking to the affiliate manager on the publisher side, but the earned account execs, we want them to be talking the commerce editors. It’s just a little bit of choreography for a complicated dance that we are figuring out.”
Although JEB is still considered an affiliate agency, Birch agrees that this is the way the industry is changing. “These are tried and true things and that’s why these two areas are merging because the foundations are so similar. It is about relationships for both of them and you have to know your audience, you have to know the pub and after you get that, you build trust and you get to start testing things with the publisher.”
One strategy for helping publishers see success with agencies has been through attribution channels that reward top-of-funnel publishers. JEB and other affiliate agencies have played with cookie windows for different types of publishers to combat the cannibalization of profit and to show publishers their relationships are lucrative. “You need to protect the introducers so that they are getting credit and you see the credit so they can say I did this thing and it led to this sale and that led to a commission,” Birch said.
Lacie Thompson, founder and CEO at LT Partners, shares a similar strategy, though LT Partners describes itself as a consultative partnerships agency that incorporates performance PR into its service offering. “Where we really set ourselves apart is that we’re building attribution models that give publications credit more often than what they would get on a last-click basis so that there is this flywheel effect: Increased content hits month after month and increased revenue driven from those content hits over a longer period of time,” Thompson said.
LT Partners’ Glasses USA account is a great example of how this strategy works in the real world to entice publishers to cover their brands. In the beginning, the pickup was slow for the account, but over time, they saw business progressively tick up, “The [publishers] are looking at the revenue driven from each of the products they’re featuring, but also they are looking at metrics like effective earnings per click, conversion rate, things like that,” Thompson said. “Digital publications that are savvy about brands in content are going to guide their editors to feature brands that are going to make more money and are performing better.”
Both PR and affiliate agencies are attempting this model of partnerships, but education is a challenge when entering and understanding this new industry. For one, on the affiliate side, teams have to re-train to think about the benefit of top-of-funnel exposure in an industry that has focused on coupon and loyalty historically.
On the traditional PR side, they are tracking exposure for the first time and learning about the appropriate logistics and commission structures for publishers in each part of the marketing funnel. There is no one size fits all commission structure or strategy, and savvy affiliate program managers should be expected to be reactive to cookie windows and commission structures based on where in the funnel a publisher sits.
Hiring for talent is also a challenge. Both LaRue and Dreamday have separate affiliate and PR teams that work in conjunction with each other. This creates redundancy and is something that LaRue is actively trying to cut down on. “The thing that we’re always working to perfect is the marriage between our earned and affiliate teams. What sets LaRue apart is a unified and strategic approach that incorporates both PR and affiliate. We are in constant conversation with our affiliate/pr counterparts across the agency. It’s a very choreographed dance and what we think is part of our 'secret sauce,'" Klein Fofana said.
With any new industry, growing pains are expected, but performance PR has already seen proven success through the hits it can bring in for existing clients and the interest received in new ones. “The quality of hits that we get for our clients, the quantity of hits I think are some of the best that you can get from any agency,” Kleinman said. One example Kleinman points to is the brand Girlfriend Collective, which has brought in $1.3M in affiliate revenue and 150 press hits on average per month since onboarding with their agency. “I don’t know a lot of agencies that are consistently turning out 150 press hits per month for their clients,” Kleinman said. “To have a synergistic, dual-pronged approach between affiliate marketing, focused on top tier publishers, is very unique and rare and that is what a lot of our clients, but not all of them, come to us for.” Performance PR is growing in popularity, and Dreamday frequently has to turn down clients.
“I think what’s happening is a lot of brands have done either PR or Affiliate, maybe they’ve done both, but I think what’s becoming compelling is the idea of doing them together in tandem with a symbiotic approach,” said Klein Fofana, in regard to LaRue’s increased popularity in the last year. “We’re getting a lot of D2C brands coming to us for affiliate that are interested in the PR piece and we’re also getting a lot of brands that know us for PR asking to onboard for affiliate as well,” she said. LaRue’s business comes from word of mouth and referrals from agencies that have different areas of expertise. “I think our timing was good, we started to pivot when the rules began to change with Facebook,” Klein Fofana said. “Brands were trying to figure out what to do with dollars that were allotted elsewhere and saw affiliate in tandem with PR emerging as a really important channel.”
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