Season 02 / Episode 028
The Merging of PR and Affiliate with Cristina Velocci
With Cristina Velocci - VP of Content Development, SHE Media
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The merging of Affiliate Marketing and Public Relations continues and today’s guest, Cristina Velocci, is at the forefront of this exciting new development. Cristina is the VP, Content Development at SHE Media and straddles the worlds of editorial and commerce as well as anyone in our space.
In today’s episode, Cristina and I talk about her career, what it’s like to go through several layoffs, how she migrated her career from media to commerce and how she manages through change and the importance of adaptability and flexibility in her career and her current role.
And we also talk a ton about the merging of Affiliate and PR.
You’ll enjoy this episode if you:
- are a PR agency trying to figure this new world out
- are a Brand wanting to increase your acquisition through content affiliates
- are a publisher and want to learn how to adapt to an ever changing landscape
It’s chock full of amazing information that is super relevant to our world today.
We also discuss some of the PR and Affiliate content we produce at JEBCommerce.
About Our Guest
Cristina Velocci has been with SHE Media since 2015, when she joined as STYLECASTER’s Managing Editor. She served as the Director of Editorial Operations on SheKnows and STYLECASTER for three years before transitioning to her current role, where she oversees e-commerce partnerships and strategy, and supports all brands in the portfolio with an emphasis on Soaps.com and STYLECASTER. Prior to joining the company, Velocci held editorial staff positions at both print and digital publications including StyleBistro, Time Out New York and Doubledown Media. She has been a lifestyle journalist for more than a decade, and has written for publications including Family Circle, Latina, Parents.com and Metro, and has done television segments for Good Day New York and WPIX11.
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[00:00:49] JB: Welcome to the Profitable Performance Marketing podcast. I am Jamie Birch, your host of the show and Founder and CEO of JEB Commerce, your award-winning affiliate management agency. As you can tell, I’m excited for this podcast today. We’ve got a phenomenal guest. Before we get into who she is and what we talk about, just want to let you know, hey, Q4 is on its way. It is here. We’re recording this when back to school is just getting started here in the beginning of August. We’re all looking forward to that.
But you’ll probably be listening to this while we are all preparing for the ever important Q4 season. So while you are doing that, if you need help developing your affiliate strategy or you need help to figure out exactly what you need to do to maximize revenue and ROI and your customer acquisition costs, then definitely reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to spend some time with you to figure out your strategy and help you determine what you need to do going forward.
Also, we have developed a list of content for you that is directly related to our guest and the topics we discussed today and what you’re probably seeing in the industries. What we’ve seen is public relations and affiliate marketing are starting to emerge. So you can go to jebcommerce.com/pr. There you will be able to listen to podcast episodes and read a multitude of articles on this topic, so you can learn exactly what this means to you, what you should be doing, and what’s available. So it’s a great space, if you’re a PR agency trying to figure out affiliate marketing, if you’re a brand trying to figure out how these go together, or if you’re a publisher trying to figure out what’s going on. So definitely go to jebcommerce.com/pr for all your PR and affiliate research needs.
Now today’s guest is Cristina Velocci. Cristina comes to affiliate marketing through a really unique background. She started out as a journalist, and did a lot in print, and then migrated, and pivoted to commerce and editorial. She now is the VP of content development at SHE Media, and this is an amazing podcast. I had so much fun listening to how Cristina pivoted throughout her career, saw changes happening, and so much more.
But we really dive into the change that’s happening in the space where PR and affiliates are merging. We dive into, as a content creator, what she needs from brands to produce. We dive into TikTok. We dive into a bunch of things that if you’re trying to figure out how you acquire new customers, how you work with content affiliates, how brands figure out the PR affiliate thing, and it’d be really useful for PR agencies to figure out how you can utilize affiliate management and what’s going on. There are a couple of things that Cristina talks about that I think are earth-shattering for both of those channels.
So definitely, listen to this podcast. You are going to, one, just really enjoy this conversation with Cristina in here. But you’re going to learn a ton of what it takes to work with affiliates and publishers like this, and also what’s happening in the PR and affiliate space. So I’m going to shut up. Get out of my way, so you can listen to my conversation with Cristina Velocci.
[00:04:27] Jamie Birch: Well, good morning, Cristina. Thank you for joining me on the Profitable Performance Marketing podcast. I don’t know why I named the podcast with three Ps. I always have trouble saying it. But I’m very excited to have you on the podcast. Welcome to the show.
[00:04:41] Cristina Velocci: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
[00:04:43] JB: Yeah. I really appreciate your willingness to reschedule around my family’s crazy life and things that have gone on this summer.
[00:04:52] CV: Of course. I’m so glad that we finally got to do this. I’m so sorry that you’ve been going through all those things. I also have a family. I get it, the way that it goes, and I’m glad that everything is okay. That’s most important.
[00:05:03] JB: Yeah, yeah. For our listeners, my wife had a horse accident and got a concussion and a broken nose. So Cristina and I had to reschedule so that I could help her get back to 100%. But everything is good. If you listen to our podcast, you’ll know that this is not the first accident or hospital visit with horses. It’s like anything else that you do, especially we do something on an animal that has a mind of its own, and it can always be a little crazy. So you just never know. But everything is good, and I appreciate your –
[00:05:36] CV: She literally got back up on that horse.
[00:05:39] JB: She did. She literally has. Yeah. This weekend, we have a show. This will be her first show on a new horse, and so yeah. Definitely getting back in the saddle metaphorically and literally, so awesome. I’d love to hear […] your background and how you came to affiliate marketing because it’s a really unique journey, and I think it has a lot of relevance to the changes in the industry today. So tell me like where did you start your career, and talk to me about the journey to get to affiliate marketing?
[00:06:16] CV: Yeah. So I started my career in print journalism, magazines, totally different world from affiliate marketing in the digital space. I worked for a portfolio of luxury lifestyle magazines early in my career called Trader Monthly, Dealmaker, and Private Air. I did lots of luxury lifestyle coverage. From there, I went to Time Out New York Magazine, which was a weekly magazine. I covered all sorts of things to do in New York, food, Broadway shows, bars, interviewing people. I got […] my hands dirty with reporting.
I remember going to Harlem and having to interview people who had no desire to talk to me to put together a neighborhood profile, for instance, or lots and lots of really hardcore fact checking, and then started getting my feet wet editing. I kind of grew up at that magazine. I made a switch from the features department to the shopping and style section. So that’s where I started to get into fashion and beauty.
I was at Time Out New York for about five years and kind of started to see the writing on the wall that magazines were maybe losing their luster and being usurped by digital media. So I have always approached the media industry, with the perspective of this is what I want to do. I love what I do, but it’s also incredibly volatile. So I’ve always had it in the back of my head. I’m going to do this as long as I possibly can, and I also have to be willing to pivot and to sort of study the industry.
That’s what I’ve always done throughout my career. I read a ton of […] industry news. I saw that a lot of magazine editors at the time were kind of jumping ship from magazines to work for brands. That was a very popular thing to do. But I really was like, “I need to learn digital.” So at that point, I left to go to a tech focus company called Livingly Media and became a deputy editor of StyleBistro, which is a fashion and beauty site online.
I ran a team for the first time, was getting my hands dirty in performance and metrics and Google Analytics for the very first time, which was a really unique experience for somebody in magazines. You would put something to bed, right? You ship the issue off to print, and it was kind of like your content went to black hole. You had no idea what the reception was like if anybody was reading it.
But then, of course, in the digital space, it’s this instantaneous feedback, which can be very addictive and also is very much affiliate marketing. Is that on steroids, I would say. So, yeah, I’ve gotten to the digital space that way, was there until a company relocated to California. The New York staff, we were all laid off. Not the first time that that had happened for me. Double Down Media, my first company, went under during the financial collapse in 2008. So it was really interesting to be at financial titles during that time. It was kind of like being when Rome was burning, like being there on the ground.
[00:09:08] JB: Wow. So you’ve had a couple major industry things in your career. One is the “death of print” and migrating to digital, the financial collapse. You seem a very positive forward-thinking person. How did you keep that positivity and keep moving forward throughout those, like I would say in our lifetime, monumental shifts?
[00:09:32] CV: Yeah. I’ve always kind of stayed very curious, and kind of a generalist, I would say, is the through line of my career. So I have covered pretty much every vertical you could think of from travel to food, to fashion, to beauty, to general features to […] finance. I’ve covered real estate. I’ve covered so many different things and probably intentionally because I’m always looking for that next door of how am I going to pivot. How am I going to stay relevant? How am I going to […] keep working in the industry that I love? What’s going to be my next step, and what is going to get me there?
I always stay very, very curious. I love learning every single facet of a job. Even if you talk to people at my current company, like I have taught myself how to program verticals on our sites. That’s generally a tech ticket. But like I am very good to roll up your sleeves and just figure it out, not afraid to break stuff. Just I love to learn and I love to stay curious. So, yeah, it’s always served me well to kind of be nimble. It allows me to pivot in many, many different directions. It’s kept my doors open. That’s just kind of part of my personality, I guess.
It maybe comes from […] PTSD and fear of this […] very relentless industry. It will discard you very easily and quickly, and it pivots and changes so rapidly. So I always try to sprint ahead of it. I feel like that’s where it comes from.
[00:11:08] JB: Yeah. Because you answered a question I was going to ask, and I love as we’re discovering about career changes and movements, and we’re going to – I want to ask a question about pivoting, where that comes from. Is that like PTSD from the print industry or digital in general or like –
[00:11:26] CV: Yeah. Like maybe layoffs are so common. I’ve watched so many of them. I’ve been part of some of them. I know what it feels like. Yeah. I love media. I love writing. I love editing. I love being creative. But it will totally trip you […] up, yeah. So I want to stay as much as I can. If I’ve got to be creative and shape shift in order to do that, that’s what I’d do. Yes.
[00:11:52] JB: That’s awesome. I remember in high school, I took a journalism class, and I fell in love with it, and I stayed with it. That’s one of the things I thought I wanted to do. My instructor was a journalist, and I remember her as she’s teaching us about all this. That’s also what she taught, like you’re going to bounce. You’re going to change. You’re going to be let go. This is the industry in general.
Then I thought “I want to do something different because of that” and then went into the dot-com world during a time where everything was blowing up and everyone was getting laid off and all of that. So I never did avoid that. So after Livingly Media, what was the rest of your career to date?
[00:12:32] CV: Yeah. So I got laid off. I kind of started to look for my next thing. I came across a managing editor role at StyleCaster, which is one of the brands that SHE Media, the current company that I work for, owns. I was lucky enough to land that gig, and I was kind of the person who made sure that the trains ran on time, making sure that everybody was hitting their production goals and their timestamps, and creating the style guide, and working on branded content for the first time, which is a very important moment and kind of what I have gone on to do.
I was very focused on the creative aspect of branded content and the post-sale kind of execution, making sure that what we were selling through to clients was going to make sense for the brand, editorially. So that’s kind of what I started doing there. I did that for, I want to say, about a year and a half before I got promoted to Director of Editorial Operations, which was essentially the same thing across SheKnows and StyleCaster. So SheKnows is another brand in the SHE Media portfolio.
Then last year, I got another promotion to my current role as VP of Content Development, and that’s – In 2020 is where my career got very interesting and kind of hit this […] turbocharged path because a couple of things happened. So I would say in December of 2019 is kind of when I started working on affiliate and commerce. I would say that an important thing to know about SHE Media, so that’s […] women’s lifestyle, digital lifestyle media company that owns SheKnows, StyleCaster, Soaps, and BlogHer. Those are the four sites in the portfolio.
We were purchased by Penske Media Corporation or PMC, a much larger media company that owns so many brands, Rolling Stone, Footwear News, WWD, Hollywood Reporter, Variety Vibe, like you name it. They have so many wonderful legacy titles. So we’re purchased by them, and they were savvier with affiliate marketing. They have spy.com, which is a purely commerce affiliate-focused site.
Then they looked at our portfolio, and they said, “You have a huge opportunity here with StyleCaster to be doing affiliate commerce.” We’ve never done anything really before July 2019, I would say. So we started off with SkimLinks and Amazon Associates, and we’re creating shopping content. Then that December, we joined the Amazon Onsites Program. At that point, our CEO of SHE Media said, “We need somebody to really be kind of the lead strategist, some stakeholder on this area of business. Cristina, I want you on this.”
So I, again, love to learn, very adaptable, […] to pivot a lot. My company offers me a lot of opportunities in that way. So you’ll see like I get –
[00:15:19] JB: Yeah. I was just going to say, I remember in our prep call, you said either airdropping Cristina into these areas.
[00:15:25] CV: Yes. I have gotten, yeah, like airlifted into certain areas where it’s almost like a SWAT team. Somebody go figure this thing out and get sea legs going. So I do that a lot. Yeah. December 2019 was kind of where I was like, “Okay. Commerce person, go figure this thing out.” Like I said, it was kind of bare bones. There was a lot of emphasis on Amazon’s Onsites Program, which was just starting at the time and kind of blew up in 2020.
But then the pandemic happened. So while I’m kind of learning affiliate, teaching myself commerce, and just learning that space, the pandemic happens. So Stockholm is one of the sites in our portfolio. The entire site is structured around spoiling, recapping, pontificating around new episodes of daytime television shows.
[00:16:15] JB: Gotcha.
[00:16:16] CV: In the pandemic, everything was shut down. There were no more new episodes, and the site just took a nosedive because the users were very, very loyal. Now, really didn’t have as much of a reason to go to the site daily. So it’s a very important site in our portfolio. So the CEO said, “Cristina, go figure this out. See what’s – Look under the hood. What can we do to get this back and up and running?”
At the time, I was […] wracked with nerves and anxiety. I’ve never watched a soap opera in my entire life. I was like, “If you want this thing to fail, you’re going to put me in there.” I don’t know. Then I just kind of started looking and tinkering under the hood, and looking at their traffic, and kind of reading the tea leaves, and saying, “Okay. Well, galleries do really well for them. This is where all the top traffic is. What would happen if we started embedding galleries and making more evergreen galleries?”
Real estate is really popular for them. Anytime a soap opera star either bought or sold a property, they love to gawk. So let’s do that whenever we can. I just kind of studied –
[00:17:22] JB: So talk to – Before we continue, because I love this story, for those that don’t know what a gallery is, what’s a gallery?
[00:17:29] CV: A gallery is a slideshow. It is just a meaty piece of content that you click through. So imagine like a picture-driven piece of content, essentially.
[00:17:39] JB: So when they get a new piece of real estate, then it’s like, “Okay, time for a go.”
[00:17:43] CV: Yeah. We basically knew that was something to look for. It was an opportunity to jump on anytime. A piece of news broke with a soap star and real estate. We would get the images, and it would just do really well. Then there [weren’t] storylines to write about anymore. But the actors were still active on social media. Most celebrities at that time, they weren’t going to events or being interviewed in public forums anymore. There were no paparazzi. But like social media was it. That’s where the news was happening.
I kind of applied that formula with Soaps. I said, “Okay, this person announced that they’re having a baby. Let’s see what would happen if we covered their personal lives,” and it blew up. So, yeah, basically, we were able to kind of figure out these new strategies, content forms, that kind of not only brought the site back to where it was but better now than it ever has been before, which is kind of incredible, from somebody who did not know anything about Days of Our Lives or General Hospital before. I learned all of the key players’ names, and it was fun. It was really fun for me to do and work with that team.
[00:18:57] JB: I think this podcast could be three hours. I have so many questions. But when you mentioned the Soaps thing on our prep call, I remember watching General Hospital with either my mother or father 40 years ago, and I watched it recently. I think I was at a hotel before the pandemic, maybe after, and I saw it on, and I was like, “No way. That’s Luke and Laura again. This is a 40-year storyline. It’s the same people.” You could come into it.
But anyway, so I don’t know where to go. But there are so many questions. So the problems to an opportunity, do you – That was – Honestly, a lot of people could look at that problem and go, “Well, nothing’s going on. It’s the pandemic. There’s no Soaps. There’s nothing to talk about. Let’s just wait this out. What do we need to do to be alive and to be standing when this is over?” You didn’t do that.
So we’re kind of entering a lot of uncertainty now too. The problems we had starting in March 2020, they are echoing. Honestly, this is like another or unintended consequence of all that, of now there is content out there that people aren’t interacting with. But now, there’s even more. That continues to happen. Are we entering a recession? What’s going to happen in the world right now? There’s elections coming up. There’s a lot of, I think, angst. How did you approach that and look at it as an opportunity and kind of walk through that? What’s your process for that?
[00:20:25] CV: Yeah. I think it is data-driven always, right? So like I was saying, the first thing I did was I looked at their Google Analytics account, and I wanted to see what is organically happening here. What are the patterns in the data? What are the points that the data is telling me? What narrative and throughlines am I seeing? I think kind of how this soap story and my journey with commerce and affiliate are actually very similar because it’s a lot of self-teaching of just what is this thing that I’ve never encountered before, soap operas and affiliate marketing? What are the things that I need to learn about? What are the key players? How do these things work? Looking at data and performance.
But then also, it is all so much tied to human psychology. It’s fascinating because, again, data will tell you page views or clicks or conversions are all kind of the same thing, where your users are telling you what they’re interested in and how they’re responding to your content. So, basically, like there are certain ways of presenting content that tug at people’s emotions or psyche or interests, and kind of will always perform. It’s these tropes, right? So for Soaps, it was personal news or real estate. Then there are tropes within commerce content, even, that were like, “Wow, this type of content will always win the day.”
It is very, very similar, those two projects, where you’re basically studying performance and learning what triggers are going to appeal to your audience and what they’re most interested in and kind of following that through, if that makes sense.
[00:22:20] JB: No, it does. I think what I’ve seen through from – I’ve been through two recessions and now whatever you want to call the grand experiment that we’ve been through. The thing I see people get hung up on is feelings and emotions, and they get locked into this is – I can’t do anything about the pandemic. So what do I – Hands up in the air kind of thing and your approach of […] dive into the data.
I’ve always thought that I have the belief I can find the way, and I have no idea what that’s going to be. But the data is going to show me the path through the forest or several paths, and it sounds like you take a very similar approach.
[00:23:05] CV: Yeah, yeah. I mean, even – So talking about […] the current market where we’re going, there’s a way to adapt to changing consumer behavior, patterns, trends, etc., at least from a publisher’s perspective, right? For instance, when the pandemic hit, masks were like it for commerce content. It was the commission-driving opportunity out there because no one had masks. They needed to buy them, and there were ample merchants that we were directly partnered with that we could link to, and it would drive sales conversions.
[00:23:44] JB: Yeah, and a ton of content ideas around it.
[00:23:45] CV: It was masks, hand sanitizer. Then it was like hand creams because people’s hands were dry. There were all these needs that arose from that point in time, where the days were another really amazing category to come out of that. How random but, yeah, because toilet paper shortages, right? So it was like responding to whatever was happening in the market, and then, what is the solution to whatever that is happening?
I think more recently, definitely, and again I’m really big on reading industry news and reports all over the place, and so the kind of trend moving forward is consumers are a lot more cost-conscious. So how do we respond to that? For us, even with – Prime Day is a really good example. This is a macro example that’s not unique to SHE Media. Consumer Electronics was very soft for Prime Day this year, and that makes total sense because that’s a big ticket item, where it’s not a necessity. It’s discretionary spending. It wasn’t as popular.
Where they really saw a lot of performance was consumable goods like beauty products, especially on the lower end, deals for necessities or household items that people are going to need to buy. So just kind of understanding like, well, where are people going to spend their money, and how do […] we respond to them as a publisher, serving their needs? But also, at the end of the day, I got goals to meet.
[00:25:13] JB: Oh, yeah. Here’s the bottom line.
[00:25:16] CV: How am I going to get there by adapting to what’s happening in the world around us? So it’ll be interesting. It’ll definitely be very interesting moving forward to see where that goes.
[00:25:28] JB: Okay. I have one more question not about commerce and content, but more about how you’ve handled some of these changes. Then we’re going to dive into the rest of that. But you’ve been laid off several times. I’ve been laid off several times. I think if you’ve made it past 10 years of your career, you probably have one of those. There’s a trend now, especially in tech companies. But I’ve seen it in other places. I’m seeing a lot of, hey, looking for work. This company laid off.
For our listeners, who may be going through that right now or will go through that, what do you think are the keys to keep moving forward, to find the next gig? How did you handle it, and what would you tell those people who are going through that or going to go through that?
[00:26:13] CV: Yeah. One thing that I have been able to do with my industry and what I do is freelancing. So the very beginning of my career, when I was just starting out and working at that magazine company, I still freelance wrote on the side because, A, I was kind of trying to figure out where my passions and interests were, what sort of direction I wanted to take my writing, and just trying my hand at a whole bunch of things to try to figure that out.
But then, B, I was creating a portfolio that would kind of hedge, right? That’s actually what helped me get my job at Time Out New York was the fact that I was writing reviews of bars and restaurants for Metro New York and like the AM New York and Metromix, which no longer exists, and all of these online sites that reviewed things in the city. I had a vast knowledge of New York City because of my freelancing. So that’s kept me nimble.
When I lost my job at StyleBistro, I freelanced and I actually was freelancing for SheKnows, before I even got the job at StyleCaster. I think that the two were unrelated, but it has given me some extra income, built up my portfolio, built on my connections, and kind of […] bridged the gap, if you will. I think that a lot of companies, if they’re cutting budgets with full-time hires, they might still have needs for contractors. So trying to look for those opportunities is probably one of my best recommendations for all of those reasons. Yeah.
It’s what I’ve done, I think, like every single time I’ve been between gigs is try to look out for those freelance gigs to just sort of broaden my network, build my portfolio, keep myself busy and generating income until I land my nest gig, essentially.
[00:28:03] JB: What I think a huge asset you’re sharing with a lot of our industry that isn’t used to this is a portfolio. That’s natural for your space to have a portfolio. In times like this, and I’ve seen this with employees at JEB and throughout our industry, that concept of a portfolio isn’t top of mind. So I heard portfolio and then network. Your connections are super big. I can say that in the layoffs that I’ve had, and I went through three, those two things were hugely important.
To be able to easily share like, “Here’s my work. Here are my blue chip stories. Here’s the successes I’ve had,” and then be able to have a very broad network to do that in and freelance to keep that network building and income coming in. That’s awesome. I think that’s a really timely discussion right now.
Let’s get back to branded content and affiliate marketing. So when the industry started to move to branded content, and the example that I think of is Gimlet Media. You said you listen to podcasts, so you probably know who they are. They started maybe a couple years ago to do branded podcasts. I remember there was a discussion in the community [like] this – Even amongst them, they shared like, “Do we do this?” When the industry started to shift to look at branded content and being paid for that, was that a difficult move for the industry to make for print?
[00:29:37] JB: Thank you for listening to the Profitable Performance Marketing podcast. Hopefully, you are finding this episode as intriguing as we have. Now, one of the things we are talking about a lot at JEBCommerce is the merging of public relations and affiliate marketing. Maybe you’ve seen this happening. Maybe you’re a PR agency trying to figure out just what all this is and how you can take advantage of it.
Well, if you’re a brand, you’re an affiliate, or you’re a PR agency trying to figure out what this new world looks like, we’ve got a ton of content for you. You can go to jebcommerce.com/pr. There you’ll find podcast episodes that walk us through this new change, as well as a ton of content talking about the technology that’s available, the similarities between pitching for PR and recruiting affiliates are, and really what you should be doing to take advantage of this exciting new change. Go to jebcommerce.com/pr. If you need any help deciphering and figuring out your next step in this exciting new development, then please contact us at email@example.com. We will jump on a call and walk you through the whole process.
Then what we can do for PR agencies and brands to take advantage of this, we actually have a service level for each of you, and we can help definitely take advantage of that. Help you track, acquire new customers, increase your reach, and adapt to things very, very quickly. So check that out at jebcommerce.com/pr, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, back to our episode.
[00:31:22] CV: I think that’s always been a part of print in some way because I think this is a really fascinating kind of evolution, the evolution of branded content and the relation to content. So the old modality with print is: big advertiser comes in, spends a lot of money on those glossy pages. Kind of the quiet, hidden secret was that if L’Oreal was spending a lot of money in Allure, well, the editorial team, even though it could be very church and state, was still kind of expected to include a lot of those L’Oreal products in their editorial coverage.
It kind of was this blurred line in print. But I do think that they kind of were more effectively able to keep it church and state, where editorial was editorial. Sponsored and ad sales, they were very different, but there was always kind of this quiet support of advertisers in the books. In digital, yeah, I would say that, again, traditionally, it has been you have a branded content team who creates branded content, is working on very top of funnel awareness campaigns for these big advertisers that just kind of want to get the word out about their product.
Now, the gap, it’s fascinating the way that it’s going because with affiliate, what I’m basically seeing is a couple of things. Traditional branded content is moving down-funnel. What I mean by that is the idea of advertising has always been and always will be to get somebody to buy your product, right? So in print, we obviously didn’t really have any metrics to gauge other than subscribers, like how many subscribers are seeing your ads in this magazine. Then it moves to digital. All of a sudden, we can measure traffic and impressions. So it’s very awareness top-of-funnel. Like this many people are seeing your content, your ads, etc.
Now, with affiliate, we actually have a way of measuring how many orders and sales a particular piece of content or a publisher is driving. How effective this content is essentially at reaching your goal? So what we’ve been seeing is a lot of the retail companies that used to do traditional branded content have been moving to this affiliate space because, really, what they want to do is drive sales. That’s the KPI. That’s where the budgets are going. That’s kind of where the activity is happening with a lot of the retail brands.
Then I think from the bottom up, so affiliate used to be kind of this unique offering, I would say, for brands. It wasn’t as popular. A lot of publishers weren’t necessarily doing it. We just started doing it in 2019 on our sites, and I would say we’re in the middle. I would say that even publishers now are starting to realize how important this is. It is the next print to digital shift. It is digital to commerce. I really see that as the next kind of shift in the industry.
Once upon a time, it could be a unique hook for a brand to say, “We’re going to pay you commission if you feature our products. You can make extra money by featuring our products.” Now, every single brand out there is an affiliate. If they’re not, I don’t know how they get any coverage, period. I actually feel badly for them because it’s like they’re living in the Dark Ages. The first question that any single one of my editors on my team will ask a brand when they get a pitch is, “Are you on any affiliate networks?” It’s just the way that the industry has shifted and the thinking. It’s just becoming a very important revenue stream for publishers to stay alive.
That now all of a sudden has really leveled the playing field, where [a] small DTC brand is competing with Nordstrom and Amazon and Ulta, and they’re very high conversion rates. So it’s getting really crowded. I mean, I would say that we have thousands of thousands of thousands of direct partnerships with merchants. How on earth would we be able to cover every single one of those? So then here comes these flat-fee campaigns, where it’s this extra incentive for a publisher to cover the brand. They’re buying real estate. They’re guaranteeing coverage on these sites.
It’s really interesting because I know we’re not alone at SHE Media because sometimes people will reply all on an affiliate email with all the publishers on it. I love to be in the room when that happens. It’s fascinating. But some people are just like, “We only will […] do something for flat fee. We don’t even want to talk to you about commission or anything.” They just won’t negotiate. So, yeah, it’s really fascinating to see kind of the approach and mentality that publishers now have. But I do think it comes from keeping up with the Joneses. Like it’s getting really just so competitive. I really do feel for these smaller brands because it’s like, “Okay. Well, Target is buying out all this coverage from X media brand,” and how do you compete with that, right? When these editors are now tasked with creating this content for this mega brand? As a small brand, you want coverage, and it’s like, “Well, why not just link to Amazon?” It’s so hard. I really do feel for them.
I do think that those two things are kind of squashing together and creating this space that we’re now finding ourselves, which is like branded content, flat-fee campaigns in the affiliate landscape.
[00:36:53] JB: I would imagine for a PR agency that is trying to get coverage, for you to say, for an organization, an editor to say, “Are you in an affiliate program,” and they don’t know what that is.
[00:37:05] CV: Right. A lot of them have had to learn it. Yes. I’ve done a lot of calls, actually, with public relations, people, agencies, where they’re like, “Can you just explain this to me because I am getting these questions, and I have to learn this for my client, and what network do you recommend? Do I have to be on a network? What’s the benefit of Amazon versus not?” Like all of these questions? Yeah. Maybe in my next life, I will consult. I don’t know. But, yeah, it’s really interesting.
Then the other question is, well, what’s the role of the affiliate agency versus a PR agency, when they kind of are doing the same thing in a way? That’s another really interesting conflation that’s happening there. Are the PR people going to learn how to be affiliate reps? Are they going to take on some of that responsibility? Or are the affiliate people now acting as PR people? Yeah. That’s another very interesting thing –
[00:38:02] JB: Yeah. That’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing this convergence, and we’re seeing a lot of individuals in both spaces kind of do one of a number of things. First, like panic. I don’t know this other space. What am I going to do? The other, what we see a lot, is, well, this is PR, and this is affiliate. So there are agencies in both realms, just going, “We’re not moving. This is what PR is. This is what affiliate is.” I think that’s becoming a big problem for them.
Then others, and I would put us in this final category, is like, okay, this is, like you said earlier or we were talking about earlier, not a problem, an opportunity. Now, let’s look at the data. Let’s see a path forward. Where agencies like ours are creating packages and service levels and products to work with those PR agencies and equip them to add our portion to what they’re doing. It’s working very well, but it is a very unique time because as we talked to PR agencies, they’re as frightened as some affiliate agencies, and they just don’t know what that is going to look like.
It definitely is creating quite a shakeup in our space, which is one of the reasons I wanted to have you on this podcast. So people in our space can learn about what it’s like. I mean, that statement, no affiliate, no coverage, that is bold. I think, in both of those spaces, both of those channels, PR and affiliate, that is earth-shattering. That is a monumental shift.
[00:39:39] CV: I know, and I see it happen all over the place. Yeah.
[00:39:44] JB: Yeah. So when you – We talk about church and state, between content and commerce. Do you think the content is driven more by commerce now than in the past or it’s just more it has?
[00:39:57] CV: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. This kind of goes back to my earlier point, where traffic is just as important, or it should be, for a digital editor to understand as your affiliate performance because it’s metrics that are telling you what your audience cares about. Yeah. It’s like the numbers tell you they want to read about the Royals, and they want to buy Kate Middleton’s look-alike dress. It’s like all part of the same continuum. I do really think that it is important.
I don’t understand, and I’ve cited this before, how you could have a beauty editor putting together a product round up and have zero clue what will perform and what people care about. At StyleCaster, we know that our audience is obsessed with the ordinary from a traffic perspective and from a conversions perspective. Those two things are very synergistic. We know the brands that our readers – They like Zara is another example, where it’s strong performance, and it’s aligned, right? It’s like they care about the brand. They want to read about it. They want to transact. It’s all part of the same thing. Yeah.
We, personally, and I’ve been a big proponent, since I took over, everyone on my team learns about affiliate. They know how to make affiliate links. They understand the landscape, performance, and that informs their content creation because I don’t understand how the heart can live outside the body.
[00:41:32] JB: I love that analogy. So performance drives content. So there now, publishers, like yourself, are using not just your Google Analytics for traffic. But you’re using sales performance, revenue performance, to indicate audience preferences. Then you’re creating a content calendar of sorts to maximize that.
[00:41:57] CV: Absolutely. Yup.
[00:41:59] JB: Okay. So –
[00:42:01] CV: Especially in lifestyle media too. That’s probably a big distinction, although you’re seeing a lot of news outlets. I don’t know that I know. I need to name them even playing in this space. It’s become such a big moneymaker that even the news outlets have a vertical to this effect. But for lifestyle, how do you talk about lifestyle content without being intertwined with commerce? I mean, as a fashion beauty site, StyleCaster is all about recommending products. There’s just a huge part of that. Yeah. For us, especially, it is intrinsic to what we do.
[00:42:37] JB: Your role as VP of content development and with your background, do you oversee the editorial content and the commerce?
[00:42:47] CV: Yeah, sort of. So my official responsibilities right now are I oversee revenue and strategy for Soaps in StyleCaster. I oversee commerce for all of SHE Media, which is how I get involved in SheKnows. Then I also kind of was instrumental in buildings. We call it Sponsored Affiliate, but these flat-fee campaigns kind of partnered with our VP of Product to put together a rate card at the end of 2020. We’re like, “Let’s see what happens.”
What ended up happening is it’s now an entire revenue stream that has its own goal. It’s become huge. So I kind of helped get that off the ground, have those discussions, and sell those flat-fee campaigns, strategize it. I mean, I’ve literally been like end-to-end on that sort of content, like full service. I’m the Client Services Manager, the seller, the life strategist, the assignor. I’ve done every facet of that kind of world, which the branded content has played really nicely into because I have a full understanding of what are the referral sources that will help get this performance. How do I meld a client’s wishes with editorial, like all of those things?
That experience is serving really well for this next sort of endeavor and chapter, where the industry is going. Yeah. So that is also part of my role. Then I kind of airdrop it into other areas of the business when people kind of tug at me and say, “Can you look at this?” Yeah.
[00:44:15] JB: Yeah. My personality is very similar to what I would love. Just hearing about airdropping into these, I’m like, “Oh, that is what I want to do.” I love doing that.
[00:44:25] CV: It never gets boring. That is so true.
[00:44:27] JB: Yeah, yeah.
[00:44:28] CV: Yeah. But I am equally pitching content ideas for our TikTok channel and saying, “Hey, did you see this new story for straight up entertainment coverage? Then also pitching commerce ideas and getting involved in that as well. So it spans the whole enchilada. Yeah.
[00:44:45] JB: Okay. So let’s talk about pitching. We recently created a whole silo of content on our site for PR agencies and advertisers and publishers who are trying to figure that out. One of the things we wrote about is how similar the pitching of PR and the recruiting of affiliates can be in that messaging.
Talk to me about how you guys prefer to be pitched on these topics because it is very much, like I’m sure you’re getting PR pitches and affiliate recruitment at […] the same time. So tell me about how do you guys prefer to be pitched. What needs to be in there to get noticed?
[00:45:20] CV: Yeah. I will, and this might be to your chagrin. We look at them no differently. It’s information that helps us ideate content and identify what we want to cover. It doesn’t matter what channel it’s coming from, at the end of the day. So that’s number one. We do have a distribution list setup, where it’s my – Anyone on editorial on both sides, who covers commerce in some capacity affiliate at shemedia.com, you guys are welcome to pitch it. So we welcome pitches there. It goes to the whole inbox. If somebody then sees something, they’ll grab it and act on it.
In terms of what do we look for, TikTok, I’m sorry, especially for StyleCaster, it’s a millennial Gen Z audience. If it is going viral on TikTok, we will probably cover it. It is such a strong driver of conversions, not just on the platform, but also for content publishers. We have seen amazing performance on this product is going viral on TikTok, and it’s selling out, and that will pretty much always be a winning formula for us, especially with beauty products. But really, it spans all categories.
What I’m ideating for sponsored affiliate campaigns, the first thing I do is go educate myself about that brand on TikTok. I want to know what the Internet is organically talking about this retailer. Where are their strengths? Where’s the organic interest in this brand? Then basically, like we pair it back to the Internet because not every single person has the same recommendations or seeing the same things on their for you page.
What could be going viral in one pocket of the Internet is maybe not being surfaced to everyone else. So that’s also why it works so well. We want to know if something’s going TikTok viral. We want to know about celebrities who love the product. That’s another thing that like always, always, always works. Each brand has their unique flavor of celebrity that just always performs for them.
On SheKnows, they love Ina Garten. They love Oprah. They love Meghan Markle. They love Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez. It’s just every single person in the universe. I don’t care what site it probably works for you. Jen Garner is beloved as well. StyleCasters like the young, cool crowd like Hailey Bieber and Selena Gomez. Even the Kardashians, sometimes, will still have that clout. So we want to know is this a product that has some sort of hook, celebrity tie in that we could leverage?
If it is a beloved brand like Our Place, just people are so obsessed with that brand or away was like that for a while or some cool of the moment brand. We want to know what’s new. We want to know if you have a sale because that’s always going to be a hook for us. What else do we look for? Like a unique […] solution to a problem. So for instance, I got a pitch about $10 soothing bug bite patches that are available on Amazon. That is something that SheKnows what absolutely try, a low-priced –
[00:48:21] JB: That is something I needed very badly this weekend.
[00:48:25] CV: Hazard of the job is, honestly, probably I have to stop myself, but like I want to buy a lot more things than I actually need. So, yeah, like if something’s available on Amazon, and it’s a good price point, call that out. That’s always really helpful.
Then the other really big thing that I think will be super helpful for your audience is if you are pitching a product that is available widely on the Internet, but you really want to get the performance on a direct site or a site that is maybe not one of the big ones, where 90% of the US is shopping organically on this site, tell us why we should buy it there. That’s the kind of solution that I’m always constantly looking for for our sponsored affiliate clients is how am I not only going to get my audience to take action on this product. But how am I going to get them to buy it there at the place the merchant is paying me to figure out that complex problem?
We look for exclusivity. Is this a product launch that’s only happening at this place before everywhere else? Is this an exclusive discount that it’s the cheapest that you can get, and nowhere else on the Internet is going to be able to beat this price? Is there something about this that […] is going to entice me to buy there? Do I have an exclusive code? That can be effective sometimes. Yeah.
So we kind of […] look for those things as a special bundle or size or whatever. We look for those angles because it’s a little bit more complicated than just getting somebody to buy. You’re getting somebody to buy outside of their comfort zone, which is usually for the Amazon and Nordstrom, in our use case, yeah, Or Ulta or Sephora. Yeah.
[00:50:07] JB: Yeah. So one of the things we kind of touched on a little bit there in what you’re saying is direct. So you have worked through having direct relationships through affiliate networks with brands. But you’ve also worked with aggregators through that. So talk to me a little bit about why that has changed and what’s important for you with direct.
[00:50:28] CV: Yes. So like I said, at the top of the show, when we started this, oh, wow, it’s just a different animal. We started with just Amazon Associates, OSP, and Skimlinks. We’re doing shopping roundups, just very basic shopping content, very editorial in nature. We had a lot of eggs in Amazon’s Onsites basket, where we were producing a lot of content for that program, saw gains.
But what always kind of gives me pause, and this is maybe kind of also reflective about myself, right? I don’t like to put my eggs all in one basket. I like to diversify. I like to hedge. I like to make sure that I’m never exposing myself. So when you’re doing so much content for Amazon, you’re at the mercy of their algorithm, especially for Onsites. That was something our publishers went through quite a bit. We saw that. It comes to fruition, right? Where they were no longer prioritizing that program, and publishers saw a dip.
At that moment, I think I kind of took to heart how are we going to diversify. It was starting to set up these direct relationships with brands and various affiliate networks because, okay, if this one is down, then at least this other network or this merchant or whatever could be up. You can kind of spread out your performance.
Then you have direct relationships now, all of a sudden, with these brands and these partners, and you can more easily have these conversations with getting exclusive. You break the news about a product because you’re talking about the brand. You get an exclusive code, it opens up the door for these flat-fee conversations. Just there’s no buffer. It’s just a better relationship, I would say, with the brands on working direct versus an aggregator.
Aggregators have a lot of benefits. Your legs are never broken. They have amazing reporting. At the end of the day, we just felt like it was best for us to move into the direct direction. So now, I mean, there’s not an affiliate network that we don’t operate on. I mean, we’re on Impact, Rakuten, CJ, Awin, Pepperjam, Partnerize. We did Shopify when that was around. Obviously, we’re on Amazon Associates, Skimlinks, Narrative, which is now How, LinkB. I mean, you name it, we’re probably on it. Yeah.
So we’ve definitely seen like, and it’s made a real impact in performance because one month, a network could be up, and another network could be down, and then they sort of all even each other out. But if it were more flat, those ebbs and flows could be really hurtful for publishers. So that was a huge reason why we kind of started to move in that direction.
[00:53:45] JB: Gotcha. So we’re hitting up against time. Just one or two last questions. From your perspective, what makes it difficult to work with a brand?
[00:53:53] CV: Unrealistic expectations maybe.
[00:53:55] JB: Okay, talk to me about that.
[00:53:57] CV: Yeah, yeah. Of like – Okay, I’ll give you a couple on the commission side and then maybe on the paid front. So on the commission side, expecting publishers to generate a certain amount of revenue consistently in a certain time period. Otherwise, you drop them. What a terrible decision because you never know who out of the woodworks can all of a sudden drive a spike for you, right? On a commission basis –
[00:54:24] JB: The Soaps example is a good example of that, right? Airdrop Cristina into this project, and it takes off, and it may have been a year after you had something to do with that content.
[00:54:35] CV: Yeah, yeah. But, yeah, so sometimes I will see affiliate merchants drop partners who aren’t generating a certain amount for them that’s not to their standards. Then it’s […] big mistake huge because if we get dropped well, then we’re not going to cover you anymore. You know what I mean? That’s back to it not being affiliate, or we’re just going to pivot to, okay, you dropped us direct. Can we get you on Skimlinks? We’re still going to monetize it in some fashion. It’s just not going to be an open dialogue anymore.
Then, again, like you don’t know when, okay, we have to turn our attention over here for these commitments, or this is what’s generating revenue for us. But then what if you have something that now we would want to cover and generate success for you, and we no longer have that opportunity to do it? I think it’s very short-sighted. So that’s one thing I would say.
[00:55:27] JB: Yeah. I’ve always looked at it as like having a quiver full of opportunities. You’re not going to use that arrow right now, and maybe you’re in it for a decade. But that opportunity – Like don’t throw –
[00:55:35] CV: It’s closing the door. Yeah.
[00:55:37] JB: It’s closing a door, yeah. Burning a bridge.
[00:55:40] CV: Absolutely, yeah. So that’s one thing. Then I would say on the paid front, it’s kind of like the return on investment. I’ve seen people be very stuck on it needs to be one-to-one, or we wanted our entire investment returned to us. But there’s so much more to it, I would say, especially when you’re working in the content space.
So driving new user acquisition, it’s the brand name awareness. It’s always a part of it with content. So for instance, if you were to spend your campaign dollars on a coupon site, you will make your money back and probably then some. But you’re probably getting somebody whose intent is to search for coupon, lands on that site, and then converts. So you’re getting a user that you were probably already going to get but at a discount, right? That’s usually the behavior of a coupon site.
With a content site, what I like to describe what we do is discovery commerce. We often will convince users to buy something that they may not have been planning to buy or even been aware of, right? There is a level of convincing and discovery and like, again, tapping says to that psychology of like I have to have this thing now for whatever reason. So there is contextualization. There’s a lot more happening there, where […] maybe a conversion didn’t happen, but you’re getting traffic to your site. You’re getting visibility, and that person might come further down the line, right? It’s a longer lifespan of that customer.
If we’re featuring a low order value item, how many […] moisturizers do you think we’re going to be able to drive to […] make back your money? Sometimes, that’s not always possible. So that’s the other thing that I would say. Yeah.
[00:57:19] JB: Gotcha. Gotcha. Okay. Cristina, this has been phenomenal. I have five pages of notes from this and probably 180 additional questions for you that we’re not going to be able to get to today. I’d love to bring you back and talk about some of the questions that were prompted by what we talked about today. But I thank you so much for joining us. This has really been one of my favorite episodes to record. If anyone wants to contact you or follow you, where can they find you?
[00:57:49] CV: Yup. On Twitter and Instagram @cvelocci, and then catch my by lines on SheKnows and StyleCaster.
[00:57:57] JB: Awesome. Well, I will link to those in our show notes. Yeah, thank you so much for joining. I really appreciated your time and your rescheduling. Also, this was a really great conversation, and I’ve enjoyed chatting with you immensely.
[00:58:12] CV: Thanks so much for having me. This was really fun.
[00:58:14] JB: All right.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:58:18] JB: Well, first of all, Cristina, thank you so much for being so easy to work with on rescheduling this recording and for your time today. I really enjoyed getting to know you more. This conversation I think was one of the most enjoyable that I’ve had, but also so important to the PR in the affiliate space right now. This is your experience. What you’re going through and what you talked about is emblematic with what is exactly happening with these two channels right now. So thank you so much.
For our listeners, this merging of affiliate and PR, it’s happening without a doubt. At JEB, we saw this happening several years ago, about the time where Cristina in 2019 saw these branded commerce and these things starting to happen. It’s one of the reasons why we hired our Director of Affiliate Marketing, Blagica, who has as firm a foundation in PR and social marketing as she does in affiliate. So definitely, this is something that we saw changing around the time that Cristina did, and there’s some great things in here.
Definitely, the way that Cristina approaches problems and being airdropped into a new problem becoming an opportunity is great for us all to really remember, as we’re entering in and have been in a period of uncertainty and entering into where we have a recession, no recession. What is this going to look like? The methodology of how she approaches these things is super impactful. It’s definitely good to listen again and the things I heard from her is always curious. Love learning every asset of the job.
If you go back to a lot of our podcast guests, they’re very successful individuals, just like Cristina. That curiosity is something that is a thread that all of them share. Also, we heard networking and a portfolio. So as we’re entering those times, are you networking? Are you building your contact list? That is something that’s super, super important. We definitely talked about […] how she’s managed through layoffs. Right now, there’s a lot of those notices going on right now.
So we talked about the branded content. I love the Soaps example. That’s such a great example of, hey, this thing is happening. It’s directly impacting it. Let’s go to the data first. I love that because that’s one of our four values is data-driven decision making. We can get so caught up in the emotion of the moment. I’ll tell you, I have definitely succumbed to that over the last two years, so many different things changing. We can get caught up in that emotion, and it can lock us. But diving into the data, start with the data.
That’s in my notes. Start with the data, exclamation point. Remove the emotion and let the data walk you through what’s next. How are you going to adapt to changing consumer behavior, to changing macro environment, economic and environmental issues, and what the consumers are doing. You have to adapt to the world. I love that example. So go back. Definitely, listen to that.
Here was maybe the biggest. There’s two things right here. Branded content is moving down-funnel, and affiliate has always been down-funnel. But I will tell you, it’s moving up. So Cristina mentioned how brand content, it started out as awareness and engagement. Now, these content producers can see what happens with revenue. So it’s moving down-funnel, which is increasing its importance. Affiliates are able to provide that final connection between awareness and revenue. Then affiliates are moving up because of that, because they can track that final revenue-producing activity. Now, affiliates are driving up-funnel, so we can see where awareness leads to revenue.
Then I think the biggest thing that she talked about is no affiliates equals no coverage. So for PR agency, this is a big thing for you to be aware of. You have to be in the affiliate network, if you want coverage for your clients. Her editors are asking, “Are you on any affiliate network?” That’s the first question. So if you want to see where affiliates and PR emerging, this is right here, right in this area. It’s getting very crowded, so you have to stay competitive.
Then the other thing is how they – If you go back and listen to some of our other content producers, content affiliates on the podcast, they’ll tell you that they watch what’s going on in society, and they respond and create content and look for partners based on that. Cristina, they look at TikTok. If it’s going viral on TikTok, they’re going to utilize that. So as a brand, are you on TikTok? Are you trending? Are you following it? Are you creating content? What are you doing out there? She goes to TikTok to educate [herself] on the company. What are people talking about?
You can’t not look at social anymore, whether – It’s definitely happening with affiliate. If you want a successful affiliate program, you have to merge these two. You have to be on there. Then interesting commentary on direct relationships with these content producers, how important it can be.
Phenomenal episode. If you found that you liked this episode, please share it on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. Wherever you congregate, please share it. If you know someone who particularly would be interested in this episode, send it on to them, and please leave us a five-star review on the podcast player of your choice, whether that’s Spotify, Stitcher, Apple podcasts, or whichever player you are playing. That goes a long way in getting the word out about this podcast and also helping us find new guests.
If you are trying to figure out what is this merging of affiliate and PR, what is it, how do I take advantage of it, what can an agency like JEB do for you, I definitely want you to go to jebcommerce.com/pr and view that content we’ve created specifically to answer that question. There’s a couple podcasts that you can listen to, as well as some pages. If you’re a PR agency, this is going to be a great primer on what affiliate marketing can do for you. So definitely, if you get through that and you need more information, just contact us at email@example.com. We would love to help you solve for this particular new and exciting opportunity happening in both of these channels, as well as help you get ready for Q4 and then 2023 with your affiliate program. We would love to help.
Now, you can get a hold of us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get some time with me to talk about all these things and whatever issues you have about affiliate marketing that you need. You can go to calendly.com/jamiebirch, and set up 15 minutes to a half hour. No obligation, no charge. I would love to chat with you and help you figure out what your next steps are and answer any questions you have about the channel.
So thank you so much for joining me on today’s episode. This recap was a little longer than they usually are. If you’re still with me, thank you so much. But there were so [many] good things. Cristina, thank you so much. We are always looking for new guests for season three. So if you’d like to be on the podcast or you know someone who is, please email me at email@example.com. Thank you very much for listening and please share this podcast with someone who would benefit from it.