Stephanie Harris, now CEO of the largest women-owned affiliate marketing agency in the U.S., made her way into the industry in, as she puts it, a “haphazard way.”
She was a sophomore in college, studying English and business and aspiring to work in publishing when she landed a summer internship at Scholastic. Harris was assigned to the company’s internet division just as the company was beginning to explore affiliate marketing.
After she graduated, she returned to Scholastic as an in-house affiliate manager before moving on to Schaaf-PartnerCentric, where she was the company’s first account manager. By 2015, she became COO and by early 2017, Harris acquired the business – now called PartnerCentric Inc. – with the goal of investing more heavily in technology.
Since her own time as an account manager, Harris has seen an evolution of the role and the work it entails. She jokes that her team sometimes gets frustrated when they hear her refer to “back in my day” because she knows the landscape is much different now than it was 15 years ago.
“I actually think the job was easier then,” Harris said. “The industry was more innocent and young and there was more of a Wild West thing happening.” The technology was less advanced and the role was about seeing what worked while using a network portal for recruitment and relationship management, she said.
Now, account managers “need their own individual Rolodex” in addition to knowing how to use and apply advanced technology, Harris said. She likens the role of an account manager today to that of a quarterback working with a large team to ensure everything gets done.
Those shifts have been driven by a proliferation of content and changing expectations, Harris said.
“Technology has emerged and there’s a sophistication that has come with it,” she said. “That requires a more diligent and savvy execution of what management means than it did 15 years ago.”
Who an account manager is pitching to has also changed, Harris said. Trying to get an offer in an article about best couches now requires a pitch to an editorial staff at a publisher with an affiliate program.
“You need to be telling the right story and have the right relationships,” Harris said. “The skillset is the same but the tools in your toolbelt are different.”
The other change Harris has noticed: Brands don’t often want to commit to an annual contract anymore.
“We’re all taking a risk doing that, but we have to be really comfortable with your qualification process and projections for how you think that business can do in the landscape,” Harris said, adding that PartnerCentric’s charging model has always been to ask for a retainer with performance incentives.
Even as the industry continues to change, Harris believes there are two soft skills that will always be necessary for success in affiliate marketing: curiosity and savvy. Whether or not you’re an in-house or outsourced manager, you have to understand the whole business. And you must know how to best apply that knowledge in a meaningful way.
“Account managers who are really good at their job create a different campaign every time,” Harris said, adding that that requires approachability and likeability. “This is such a person-centric business even in these big content conglomerates.”
Harris also sees affiliate getting more interest from businesses as the affiliate marketing space grows more mature and the fact that other channels are not performing as well.
“It’s still one of the best investments for your money that you can make from a marketing channel mix,” Harris said.
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