Affiliate Vs Partner – What’s in a Name?

Published by Chris Tradgett 26 February, 2020

So are they Affiliates or Partners?

PartnersWe’ve read a lot of discussion in social forums, blog posts and conference sessions about the use of the term affiliate and/or partner marketing. ‘Affiliate vs Partner’ was even the Keynote panel session at Affiliate Summit West this year – and even that was inconclusive.

So, what’s the best way to describe the advertiser to publisher relationships in performance marketing. It’s worth taking a look at why this appears to be such a bone of contention for some in the industry. We’ll also take a view on where we should move this particular debate towards.

After all, whatever we call a thing – we all understand what we mean even when the names may be slightly different; Pavement / Sidewalk – Eggplant / Aubergine – the thing itself is the same! There has been a fair amount written and spoken over the last four or five years, some measured, some quite forthright for or against particular terminology. So why are we still discussing it?

“Affiliate Marketing”

Affiliate Marketing as a term has been in use for well over 20 years now; and has been adopted into several other areas. Indeed it has morphed into meaning a lot of different things to different people. The word ‘affiliate’ itself goes back way before online advertising, in the 18th century the term being coined from a Latin root, being used to describe ‘bringing into close association’. That description makes perfect sense. Affiliate is also widely adopted as a term to describe other commercial relationships in both the finance and legal worlds.

The adoption of the term affiliate in the context of online referral marketing happened with the start of PC Flowers & Gifts in 1985; followed on by CDnow and Amazon. That usage has led naturally to the more widespread usage..

As a term however, it has been adopted and used in several other areas. When you visit Affiliate Summit you’ll see that there are all sorts of ‘affiliates’. That ranges from what we all understand in the mainstream – right through the darker recesses of ‘LeadGen’ and even to ‘Multi-Level-Marketing’. The common denominator is that the relationship is monetized by a performance-based payment from an advertiser.

Partner Marketing

So why the push by some to replace the older term affiliate with partner marketing? It’s fair to say there are a number of factors to take in here.

Volvo Celebrates Safety with FamiliesPartner marketing was originally used to describe the collaborative relationships between global brands. We see many examples of promotions between major credit cards and airlines, and consumer brands with the world of entertainment. That usage has developed and extended over time to a far wider range of partnerships.

Econsultancy suggested in 2017 there are 10 different types of Partner Marketing which included ‘affiliate’ as one of the disciplines. If we take their set of descriptions, it’s clear to see that there’s a real difference between CPA affiliate, licensing and sponsorship. They all serve the same end purpose; presenting a brand’s proposition via a partner connection, however the monetization or formalization of that partnership is set up.

We should also consider that there are some very large affiliate publishers, such as Honey, Topcashback and Ebates. These are very different organisations to the ‘old school’ affiliates of 15 years or more ago. Referring to the affiliate relationship as a partnership makes perfect sense in this case. It’s a stretch to extend this to smaller one-page affiliate sites – or publishers only running short term leadgen campaigns.

Developing Technology

There have been major developments in marketing technology, bringing hugely improved and integrated processes. These are all designed to ensure accurate tracking and attribution. More brands are looking to dilute the effect of coupon and cashback affiliates and develop their relationships with more content based publishers.

Discovering those publishers most relevant to a brand is one of the toughest tasks for an affiliate manager. We are playing our part with our new platform in trying to make finding and engaging with them a lot simpler.

A natural progression?

So now the two terms are being used by advertisers to describe slightly different relationships. An example can be seen in – who have over 100,000 direct affiliates, plus other affiliates and partners via network tracking. They also have a smaller number of partners, which will include many of the more complex meta partnerships. Even Twitch describes and categorizes publishers using the two terms to separate individual publishers from more corporate ‘partners’

In the last few years the term ‘performance marketing’ is increasingly used to describe this discipline. That term has also extended in scope to also encompass programmatic display and other channels. Influencer marketing is also adopting some of the performance characteristics, which makes it even harder to pin down a definitive description.

We can argue that there are no pure ‘marketing silos’ in the wider online advertising industry. Indeed, Geno Prussakov asserts that none of the models, affiliate, influencer or partner should be seen as separate channels any more. There is so much crossover now. Influencers use affiliate links, affiliates levy placement fees and combinations of payment models that better reflect each publishers’ value to a brand advertiser.

For some writers, the adoption of new terminology is a natural development. Simple affiliate marketing has morphed into a broader performance marketing. That though is too simplistic a view – it just reflects that there are in fact so many ways of measuring and rewarding for performance.

An Ongoing Discussion

It’s clear that this will be a discussion, debate or argument that will run and run. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a conference session in a year or two tackling the same question yet again. Whatever it is called, it is clear that affiliation and partnerships are incredibly valuable for publishers and brands alike. No doubt it will also continue to grow in importance for all online brands.

How To Find More Affiliates or Partners

The Publisher Discovery platform is the ideal technology for finding and recruiting new publisher partners. To try it out for yourself, take out a trial and see how it can work for you:

Try it Now



Chris Tradgett

Get Started