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What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, if you had said full funnel affiliate, people would have thought you meant a partnership program for funnels created by the Full Company. Fast-forward ten years, and the term signals a revolution in how brands and publishers work together with affiliate marketing.

Key Takeaways:

  • Full-funnel affiliate planning represents a major step forward for our channel and its role in the overall marketing mix.
  • While more complex than conversion-centric planning, it applies the same principles of strategy-first, partner alignment, and clear communication of goals, performance, and optimization measures.
  • By setting the right goals for each customer journey phase, we can define strategies, partner mix, programs, and offers to maximize affiliate impact at every customer touchpoint.
  • Rich customer data and personalization dramatically improve success for full-funnel initiatives.
  • The right approach ensures fair value and compensation for all, ultimately enhancing sales and revenue growth.

Our field has arrived as a strategy to impact consumers at every stage of the conversion journey. In 2024, nearly every brand and network talks about full funnel. But delivering on the promise is much more challenging than saying the words. It takes innovative, change agent affiliate leaders to make it happen. As shapers of the industry, Rakuten Advertising is fortunate to work with many of the most imaginative and innovative leaders across advertisers, publishers, and the agency sector. At PI Live Miami, we brought four of these bright lights together for a roundtable discussion of what it means to unlock the value of affiliate up and down the conversion journey:

Cara Browning, Digital Marketing Manager Affiliate, Urban Outfitters

John Szendiuch, Head of Partnerships, Checkmate

Addison Wolff, Sr Manager Partnership Development, Capital One Shopping

Megan Taylor, Director of Client Services, Rakuten Advertising (moderator)

Here are highlights of what they shared.

Goal Setting for Full-Funnel Impact

To take a full-funnel approach to the channel, you need the freedom to allocate resources to partners and programs that reach consumers before conversion. While traditional performance marketing focuses primarily on sales or lead conversion metrics, full-funnel marketing takes a broader view. We set goals for partners and programs based on when they will likely impact consumers. For example:

  • Top of the funnel (TOFU): Increase website traffic
  • Middle of the funnel (MOFU): Generate more qualified leads 
  • Bottom of the funnel (BOFU): Boost conversion rate

This holistic approach ensures a healthy flow of customers through the funnel, nurturing prospects and building brand affinity rather than just pushing for immediate sales. The full funnel is built on the premise that increasing awareness and consideration will ultimately maximize the number of people who convert.

Cara Browning, Digital Marketing Manager – Affiliate for Urban Outfitters, noted, “From an upper funnel perspective, we’ve been able to set up different commission rates for different affiliates, making sure any priority content partners are being offered high and competitive rates. In the lower funnel, we’ve been able to implement campaigns with commission rates based on the business value of different audience segments.”

Strategic Planning

For full funnel planning to work, your program must choose and reward partners based on their success in achieving the appropriate business goals for their phase in the journey. Many brands have confronted this challenge when adding content partners to their programs because these sites are less likely to drive an immediate transaction than, say, a coupon site. Their value impacts different stages in the funnel.

While the term “conversion journey” better reflects each customer's unique path to conversion, the funnel analogy reminds us that brands want to deliver a marketing program where large numbers of shoppers enter the buying cycle at the top, with each successive phase converting as many as possible. We want a path to conversion shaped like a smooth funnel without bottlenecks.

 —--

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Content partners, for example, have achieved broad adoption because they attract more potential buyers who can be converted later.

Megan Taylor, Director of Client Services at Rakuten Advertising, noted that upper and mid-funnel partner segments have grown dramatically over the past several years. “We’ve seen a dramatic expansion of partner types globally as clients recognize the power of our channel to drive outcomes at every stage of the journey. For example, many clients have embraced premium content and influencer partners for their value in awareness building and consideration phases.”

As forward-thinking brands have moved toward full funnel management, they’ve confronted the challenge of ensuring early-stage publishers make enough money to continue participating in a program. Some brands achieve this through flat fee payments, tenancies, and split commissioning. In contrast, others stay focused on last-click but offer early-stage partners far higher commissions, so the relatively small number of immediate sales they drive will justify all of their work.

Exclusive offer codes have also helped top-of-funnel partners earn more. Said Cara Browning, “One thing that has been beneficial to our program is offering exclusive codes to our upper funnel partners. It’s helped to increase conversions because the consumer knows the offer can’t be found anywhere else.” Such offers may or may not be redeemed immediately, but readers are more likely to seek out the offer from that publisher when they are ready to buy.

Even publishers traditionally associated with bottom-funnel conversions recognize that brands want to grow their buying funnels and have created new products to extend their business into earlier journey phases. Addison Wolfe of Capital One Shopping noted, “Our first-party relationships with millions of shoppers enable us to identify ideal prospects for advertisers and target them with awareness and consideration messages. We’re there for our members and brands at every step.”

Phase-Based Targeting

The full-funnel has enormous implications for audience targeting. In traditional affiliate planning, the focus is on finding in-market shoppers ready to transact. With full-funnel planning, the right targeting varies based on the various stages in the customer journey. Lookalike audiences, buyer cohorts like lapsed buyers, and new target audiences become particularly valuable options. Said Cara Browning, "As audience segments and targeting have become even more important in our strategy, we’ve been implementing short- and long-term testing models into our planning. The idea is to support our business goals in ways we have never been able to before.”

Full-Funnel Partner Selection

With a full-funnel affiliate, partner selection becomes more complex and nuanced. While traditional partner evaluation focuses on conversion rates, contextual relevance, and their track record at driving traffic at scale, full-funnel planning leverages different partner selection criteria based on the funnel stage. By leveraging different selection criteria, advertisers can identify new partners and additional solutions from their existing publishers. For example, focusing on potential reach and traffic could prompt a brand to add a mega influencer with millions of followers to a program. It might also be a great rationale for adding a homepage tenancy to their program with a loyalty partner.

However, regardless of the buying phase, audience demographics and composition must be aligned. Urban Outfitters’ Cara Browning stated, “Our core demo is Gen Z, so when evaluating new partners, we must ensure we can reach that audience. We also examine the publisher opportunity holistically. What offerings do they have that apply to us? Are they great for our core growth objectives, or do they offer unique solutions for more specific business goals and challenges?”

Partner Communication Challenges for Full-Funnel Management

Our speakers noted that the key to success is clear communication between brands, agencies, and partners. Ask almost any publisher, and they’ll tell you that many brands do a poor job of communicating their goals to publishers, which makes it more difficult for them to deliver on KPIs. Publishers have a deep understanding of their traffic and audiences and can tailor a program based on an advertiser's specific business goals.

For shopping assistant partner Checkmate, understanding a client’s goals ensures that a program is tailored to achieve the desired results. Offerings range from tools to target existing buyers to approaches that identify new prospects or reward loyalty; the right mix of program elements is fully aligned with business needs. John Szendiuch, Checkmate Head of Partnerships, said, “Our shopping assistant was built to serve needs at every customer journey phase. We’re facilitating end-to-end shopping experiences and can shape our offering exactly what clients want.”

Personalization Impacts Results in Every Phase

Personalized messaging can be particularly powerful when brands are focused on boosting awareness and consideration. It tailors the story to a shopper’s specific needs.

Capital One Shopping’s Addison Wolfe noted that personalization’s benefits transcend buyer stages. “Personalization helps move more people at every point in the conversion journey. First-party customer data power better targeting and messaging for better performance at every point.” 

Capital One Shopping is an early adopter of Rakuten Advertising’s Audience Engine offering, which streamlines using publisher data for more precise targeting and tailored messaging. Launched last fall, Audience Engine has been our fastest-adopted solution ever. Rakuten Advertising’s Megan Taylor noted, “With full third-party cookie deprecation coming, the value and importance of driving marketing performance and precision through publisher data has climbed dramatically.”

Full-Funnel Measurement and Optimization

All of our speakers noted how having access to tools that can measure a broad range of metrics simplifies program management and ensures a single source of truth. For brands and publishers, having data validated by a third-party source like an affiliate platform creates greater trust and accountability. It ensures that partnerships up and down the funnel can deliver mutual benefit.

Said Checkmate’s Szendiutch, “Data is the currency of performance across every stage. The metrics may vary, but having the right data to measure and optimize performance is critical for any initiative.

Conclusions

Full funnel planning elevates our channel to its rightful place as a core marketing strategy. While it’s more complex than confining affiliate’s impact to the final steps in the conversion path, it better reflects the tremendous value we can deliver as affiliate and partnership leaders. By starting with the right goals, you can orchestrate a program that maximizes the number of people progressing through the stages and driving maximum performance for advertisers.

 —--

New eGuide! It’s time to fix your funnel!

Rakuten’s newest content for affiliate managers offers a way to address blockages in the path to conversion that distort results. Get your guide on the Rakuten site now.

GET THE GUIDE>>

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Full funnel planning enables affiliate leaders to advocate for increased investment and helps the publisher community grow by unlocking the channel’s full potential. If you’d like more information on full-funnel affiliate planning, our team would love to help. Reach out now for more information.

Holly Brim is Vice President of Marketing for Rakuten Advertising.

About Rakuten Advertising

Rakuten Advertising delivers performance-driven, brand-driven, and people-driven ad solutions that help the world’s top brands connect with unique, highly engaged audiences – from first impression to final sale. Backed by industry-leading technology, global media properties, and the largest, high-quality partner network, Rakuten Advertising taps into decades of data and experience to develop the strategies and ad experiences that will drive engagement, sales, loyalty, and beyond. A leader in the industry since its beginnings, Rakuten Advertising is a division of Rakuten Group, Inc. (4755: TOKYO), one of the world’s leading internet service companies. The company is headquartered in San Mateo, California, with offices throughout EMEA, APAC, LATAM, and North America. Learn more at RakutenAdvertising.com.