In October 2005, the E-commerce Director at Thompson Cigar took a chance and hired me as the internet marketing manager. I'm grateful to Mike Masse for that opportunity. It was during my time at this job that I discovered the power of affiliate marketing.
I knew some basics because my business mentor, Denise O'Berry, talked to me about it several years before. I was an affiliate for her at one point, promoting a B2B product.
As I learned more about each responsibility this job had, I found myself drawn to affiliate marketing. All I had to do was reach out to affiliates to talk to them about their needs, and I would see an immediate impact on sales. If Connie from FlamingoWorld.com needed a coupon, she would get it and sales followed like magic.
It was during this time I started to network in the affiliate marketing industry. I joined ABestWeb.com on July 13, 2006 to learn from the experts. I also started reading affiliate marketing blogs. An OPM, Jamie Birch, reached out to me to see if my program needed assistance. We were on the Performics network, which was later bought by DoubleClick and then by Google, who rebranded it Google Affiliate Network (GAN), and subsequently shut it down in 2013. Jamie offered me a free ticket to an industry conference that was coming up in Orlando, Florida, called Affiliate Summit (disclosure: affiliate link). I had already started reading some of the tips from Shawn Collins and his partner Missy Ward. I was a little hesitant about leaning on a vendor, Jamie, that could potentially replace me as an affiliate manager. But I was eager to network. In hindsight, we should have hired his team because I was too busy managing paid search, shopping comparison engines, search engine optimization, email and CPA offers for all the brands.
While I was at Affiliate Summit East 2006 (ASE06) in Orlando, I met with a representative from Linkshare. Over the next few months I was under heavy pressure to grow the affiliate channel and if that meant migrating to Linkshare, then so be it. This was my first failure as an affiliate manager. We should have gone to ShareASale. Life would have been so much better. I didn't have strong enough relationships with affiliates that mattered to realize the move was not going to be popular. It was destined to fail. All the bells and whistles I learned about at the Linkshare Symposium that year were merchant friendly, but not necessarily affiliate friendly.
The next job was Director of Affiliates at the Kowabunga network. I give credit to Rachel Honoway for that opportunity. There it was my duty to bring new affiliates to the network and to the programs we hosted. By this time, I had a basic grasp of affiliate marketing and had purchased a box kit at ASE06 called The Affiliate Manager, 1st Edition: How to Build and Manage an Unstoppable Online Sales Force. The kit included videos, workbooks and a massive three-ring binder with lots of great information. I shared this with the new affiliate managers I oversaw and sent them on their way to recruit new affiliates. They did a great job. But the glory days of the Kowabunga network were behind us and I once again failed to show growth.
One of the hardest lessons I learned was how hard recruiting new affiliates to a program, or even to a network, can be. Finding relevant affiliates takes time, resources and precisely the right tailored pitch at the right time. Even today, creating new affiliates is a challenge. It seems they either get it or they don't.
I had the opportunity while at Kowabunga to attend another Affiliate Summit East, this time in Miami (ASE07). Even a Florida boy like me couldn't tolerate the oppressive heat and humidity during the night time activities. I probably missed out on some great networking opportunities at a time when real friendships were being formed by others in the industry. Affiliate Summit, Commission Junction University, ShareASale ThinkTank and Linkshare Symposium were proving themselves as must-attend events throughout the year. OPMs were perfecting their pitches and growing their databases with larger merchants in diverse networks while exhibiting and speaking at these conferences.
My freelance affiliate management days were the real awakening. I worked for two competing OPM agencies and learned different styles from each. I enjoyed the work-from-home aspect and developed a solid foundation on how to be disciplined enough to deliver results from a comfy blue chair, rather than a cubicle. Thank you, Wade Tonkin for introducing me to Roger Snow.
It was also during this time when I had the flexibility to really dive into the online forums such as ABestWeb and start learning more about my craft. I was infected by the old school mentality of right versus wrong in the industry. Veteran affiliates and managers would spend the entire day and night debating the merits of affiliates, managers, and merchants. I really started to side with the underdogs; the poor, shafted, content and datafeed affiliates that spent all their time producing promotions only to have their sales swiped at the last second by nefarious competitors.
I got myself in trouble several times by entering the fray without the wit and intelligence to battle with these anonymous muckrakers, but the education was invaluable. One of them was Daniel M. Clark, now the Tech Manager at GHC. What I learned, and it’s as true today, was that content was truly king. Affiliates that use adware, software, toolbars or created fake coupons were not adding value to the channel. I started to look at every single affiliate and the model they represented, then I looked at every transaction, and then talked to the merchant about the value of those customers. I started to recognize the differences and that I should be managing differently. Not all sales are good sales. Not all top affiliates are good affiliates. I needed to find a balance between making the playing field fair for affiliates and managing expectations with the companies that paid my bills.
Greg Hoffman Consulting started with one client. An affiliate I had worked with and finally met at ShareASale ThinkTank 2008 introduced me to a merchant that needed help. The affiliate was Cindy Ballard, now the Vice President of Operations at GHC. I was ready to head out on my own and be my own boss. Luckily, the program I was managing was an old one on ShareASale and had a solid foundation with several thousand affiliates with at least four hundred active with clicks each month. I had instant access to a broad base of affiliates with different models and I paid attention to what worked and what didn't.
I have since attended every ShareASale ThinkTank and Affiliate Summit. I've spoken multiple times as host, moderator, panelist and solo presenter. I met my best friends at these events and have built a solid team over the years. As an agency, we were selected as the winners of the Affiliate Summit “Best OPM/Agency” Pinnacle Award in 2014 and our streak of being voted Best OPM on ABestWeb stands at five years in a row.
The lessons I learned along the way and the beatings I withstood from bosses, merchants, and affiliates all taught me to stay honest and ethical. Even since starting GHC my stance has evolved on many topics, especially coupons. That's the point of being an affiliate manager. You have to evolve, even if that means shedding some of the myths and beliefs you held earlier taught by people you looked up to. Affiliate program management isn't an easy job. You have to pick sides. You have to be consistent and firm with your decisions while being flexible enough to work with new information as you take it in. Your strategy determines the profitability of the merchant and the success of the affiliates.