How to create and capture demand in affiliate marketing with Chris Walker
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Welcome to the affiliate BI podcast. I'm chatting with Chris Walker, who's the CEO and founder of refine labs. And he's also the host of the revenue vitals podcast, which I'm an avid listener of, he's got over a hundred thousand followers on LinkedIn and Chris welcome to the
John, thanks for having me. An interesting topic here. So looking forward to seeing where this takes us. Awesome. Me too.
First question for people that are in affiliate marketing, that don't know you too well, what do you do at refine labs and tell us about your company
Hey everyone. My name is Chris Walker.
For those of you that don't know me, I'm an entrepreneur, a business owner, a marketer, a salesperson. When you own a business, you kind of do all the jobs. And so I find myself to be just a well rounded entrepreneur and business person. The way that I've come up to that stage is through product.
Management and marketing and operations. And so that's sort of where my background leads, but in general, I've, I've built an eight figure company. We have a large team. We work with more than 250 B2B SaaS companies. We've been in business for about four and a half years. And now we're moving into the next phase where instead of just like seeing the pattern at 10 companies in a row and me communicating that back, which is why my message resonates so much with the market is because I'm not making this stuff up.
I just see it in real life, see the patterns and then recognize that it applies to a lot of people and now taking that to the next level by leveraging scientific principles and data to actually demonstrate these things to executives and investors and leaders in a data backed scientific way that hasn't been done before.
That gives people confidence and clarity in what they should be doing in their go to market. Okay.
In the B2B space, you're credited with coining term self attribution as a smarter means of tracking leads and sales.
Do you think this concept could be applied to the B2C affiliate marketing space where the majority of the industry heavily relies on like cookies and last click attribution models?
So just to be clear, I didn't, like, invent this concept companies, both B2B and B2C have been doing this for decades asking, how did you hear about us collecting information directly from their target customers to determine, or at least have another input of data to determine what's working and what's not and how to allocate investments.
I don't believe that this is necessarily a better way than using digital touchpoint attribution. I just think that it's a different way that gives you an entirely different view. And when we think about driving our go to market strategy, I think we need two things. We need inputs based on standardized data that everyone on the executive team can look at and everyone on the downstream team can look at and say, we all agree on these numbers just like we all agree on our P and L.
And then we need customer data. We need direct information from customers through primary market research, through self reported attribution, through win loss analysis, through. Asking on the first call and sales meetings and other forms of primary market research where your customers feed you data about what's working and what's not.
And I'm just calling out to all the B2B companies that this idea of primary customer data and using it to drive your go to market is basically not happening right now. Companies use customer insights to build their product, to determine the product roadmap, but they don't do it to dictate how they make go to market decisions, which I think is a huge miss.
And another reason why a lot of B2B companies all do the same dumb shit, because it all revolves around the one. Sort of myopic measurement model that they use using digital touchpoint attribution, whether they use multi touch or a U shape or a W shape or first touch, it doesn't really matter. It's just missing a lot of key elements that don't come directly from your customers.
And so could you use this in the affiliate space? Like, I think, yeah, you could. I think traditionally people use either coupon codes, last click attribution, things like that. I think that you could do it, but I also believe that self reported attribution or how would you hear about us is typically going to tell you what created the demand, not what captured the demand.
And so affiliates I find to be, you know, they can create demand, but a lot of affiliates are, are more in the demand capture game. And so depending on sort of where you play in that space, like influence, I think if you did influencers on TikTok and Instagram, you would get that stuff and self reported attribution for B2C.
I'm not sure you would get it from an affiliate blog that's linking out to get an affiliate commission. So it really depends on your use case. I
I think you articulate it perfectly. It's actually affiliates are part of the demand capture. And maybe that's why it might be helpful for companies to actually put that field in their place where it's like, we know the coupon code is going to say you came from the affiliate, but what was the leading driver?
Was it your friend saying, Hey, I heard about this coupon code. And I actually believe this is completely missing an affiliate marketing. I know for a lot of the tracking tools that exist, I can't think of a single one that, that really has these things built into it, unless it's the, the operator side?
Yeah, I mean affiliate by definition is highly transactional. And so in a transactional model, you typically use a transactional measurement model, which is like, Hey, I referred you this customer. You use my coupon code or different things like that. And if like a Martech, let's just say like 6 cents hired me to do that shit for them.
I would, I wouldn't none of my stuff would ever show up. None of my stuff ever shows up in last click attribution or through a coupon code or something like that. Cause I don't operate transactionally. And so all of my stuff would be more equivalent to an influencer or key opinion leader that you're going to need a different measurement model to use which is why companies struggle with a partner channel.
Affiliates could be considered one stream of a partner or a nearbound motion. And B2B companies struggle with it a lot because the measurement model was only built across like transactional demand capture.
Do you think there's maybe a way like my thought process on this is that there's a lot of companies that when they're dealing with millions and millions of customers or signups that having that single field is kind of.
cumbersome, like you're asking for data that's not going to be consistent. But I remember listening to some other podcasts where the company Lavender, where they're talking about what were some of the common attribution answers, and a lot of them had the word will in it for Will Aiken. So I'm just wondering if you think maybe we're already at the place where AI tools could possibly sift out. Millions and millions of rows of data and maybe actually come up with better insights than what we can do.
Like we don't want to do that manually. Of course. Yeah. Like as a Rev one before AI was on the scene in 2021, middle of 2021, we started doing it. We used automation that looked at, and if it wrecked, if it said, Chris for Chris Walker.
In it, it would automatically categorize it in that area. And so we had like manual automation or automation doing this in 2021 and all the way through till now. Now with the rise of AI, the ability to analyze all that data and conduct sentiment analysis and things like that. And that may be presented in a way that executives feel is equivalent or at least believable.
As the same way they look at their visible report, which is. And so, yeah, I do think that AI will easily be able to do this
One of your podcast. I remember listening to a story, how you said like hundreds of years ago, people bought from each other through referrals, word of mouth. And I'm just wondering if maybe you think people today are distracted on the tech side.
I know in B2B everyone's kind of jumped towards the tools where they've ignored that personal touch of like, where did you really hear about us? I'm just wondering if you think maybe affiliate sites kind of have a bit of that problem where some of their sites are maybe too corporate or too soulless, and they're not really putting a person or something meaningful behind it.
Got a little secret for everybody. Maybe a hundred years ago, people bought through word of mouth and referrals. And guess what? Today, it still happens. Just, it still happens. And it's the biggest driver of business growth. And it's the biggest driver of lowering customer acquisition costs. And it's a signal that you're doing a lot of things right.
The difference is that word of mouth has fundamentally changed over the past 20 years, especially over the past five with the dramatic scale and maturity of the internet. So in 1995, you could just tell your kids, your, your kids, friends, parents about the thing that you like at the T ball game. And now 25 years later, you could post it on LinkedIn and a hundred thousand people are going to see it within the next hour, you go viral on Tik TOK and 8 million people see it.
And it drives incredible business growth. And that's happened over and over again. Or you post a podcast and people listen to that podcast for two years. And over time start to really believe and trust you. And so the idea of word of mouth has fundamentally changed over the past 20 years, which is the core difference.
I really think that we need to make a split here when we talk about this between influencers or key opinion leaders in a. Affiliates. They're really two very different things with different motions that require different ways of measuring success. Affiliates play at the bottom of the funnel and try and make a small transaction fee for a referral.
Influencers start at the top and create the demand that drives accelerated business growth and accelerated Word of mouth. Affiliates are not driving word of mouth. They're not. You might get. You might get a byproduct of word of mouth when they go through an affiliate, buy the product, have success, and they talk about it.
But you'll rarely get the scale of word of mouth that an influencer or a key opinion lead, a key opinion leader creates that ultimately creates demand and drives business growth. So, I think for for the affiliate game, I think that you have to be thinking about, do I need, do I need business expansion?
Do I need to expand my capabilities and services in order to not just play at the bottom of the funnel when someone searches this category, and I'm going to continue to try and win on Google being a top three results so they can click my link and I can get 10 percent of the sale. And instead of playing that game, which over time SEO is going to change and it's going to leave your business vulnerable.
And so knowing that do I need to shift to a add a different service or add a different layer to my service that includes demand creation and influencing people before they're considering buying before they're going to Google? That would be, if I was in the affiliate space, that would be my game right now.
Next question is kind of going in a different direction, and I've got an engineering background, so I'd like to ask this one, where you've gone to school for engineering, and you've pivoted in your career a few times, where I think you've realized what you were good at and what you liked to do, and you moved away from engineering.
And I'm kind of wanting to ask, what advice would you have for people that kind of struggle to find their purpose, or find their mission statement, or find... Something else of, you know, what they think they want to do.
Yeah, so first off, I believe that I continue to use my engineering skills and degree every day.
Right now I'm looking at statistics. I'm re engineering how companies think about their data model inside of their CRM, how we use that to create large scale statistics that create data backed insights that help us make better decisions. And so I still think that all those things that I learned are directly applicable to the things that I'm doing.
I'm just applying them in. In a new or untraditional way to the B2B go to market space. And what was, and then it was, what was the second part of the question? It's
Just like how people kind of navigate, like like in my experience, I mean, I've been an engineer, but I've done non engineering stuff for about 20 years and I'm now going back into it, my own company.
And, you know, when I listened to your story, I'm like, I wish I kind of figured that out sooner than later. And I think there's a lot of people that just go through life, struggling to. Define what they really want to do and they just stay unhappy, but they can't really get out of their own head and focus on just kind of look at the big picture and go, what else should I be doing?
Yeah, I think this is this is a multifaceted question. A couple of things that I'll say here. I think that your like mindset and your perspective across the world drives or influences the amount of opportunity that you see around yourself. And so when I started to like break out and really get into like my own, my own space where I felt very comfortable and where I think my talents aligned with a really important business problem was when I when I stopped taking or stopped thinking about my life traditionally.
Like I need to go through this, my career ladder must be like linear, where I go from manager to senior manager, to director, to senior director, to VP, to senior VP, and then 20 years later, I'm a CMO and that's just like not the path that I would take, and if people look at my career path, they would literally be like, I, like, what is this guy doing?
This, this career path doesn't make sense. First, he's in manufacturing, then he's over here doing product management, now he's doing demand gen, now he runs a company. What does this guy think he's doing? And in reality. Those multitude of experiences in different industries doing different jobs sets you up to be a much better business leader, a much better executive, a much better leader than someone that goes through that traditional career path, it could specialize and then tries to grow my my own perspective.
I also think that you get there a lot faster. And so I think one is about not following what the societal norms tell you to do and start leaning in a lot to the things that you think are right, or the things that you believe in. So that's one. I think another, another thing is that like I, I knew what I wanted to do from the beginning when I was 22.
I was like, I want to own my own company by 35. I ended up doing it at 28. So I did it much faster than I originally expected, which is probably another learning. But I knew what I wanted to do. And so my, when I was intentional, when I worked at the companies about the things that I was doing and what I wanted to learn and how I could get those different skills and how I could find my way into executive meetings when I was 23 years old and start to observe how people are making decisions and understand finance.
I built a couple of e commerce companies on the side between 2012 and 2018 that created a lot more experience in being an actual entrepreneur where you make like fundamental mistakes in the business and then you learn from them. So that you, when you start your real business, like I did at refine labs, you don't make fundamental simple mistakes like cashflow management and other things.
And I think it's about having that, like having that drive and having that vision. What do you want? What do you want the, your life to look like? And then knowing that and being intentional about the professional situations that you put yourself in, what you do on the side as a quote unquote side hustle.
You can start your own business. You can watch Netflix for six hours every night. You decide. And neither one is right or wrong for that matter. It's just about doing what you think is right for you. So those are some of the things that I would say.
That's awesome. In my experience. I mean, I graduated from engineering and then I got into professional gambling.
So you want to talk about going off on a tangent. And everything you said is pretty interesting. And I can reflect on that of taking, you know, a good 20 years of doing different jobs and going, I know the skill is helpful doing SEO, doing design, doing conversion rate optimization, but it was luckily for me, I kind of found a passion project that took that experience and said, I don't want to do these things full time, but I do think they're valuable and things that I can build upon along the way.
Yeah. And, and having the the confidence, I think is what it is, having the confidence to go and do different things that you've never done before, like figuring out how to do Lean Six Sigma when I was 23 years old, or figuring out how to launch a product when I was 25, when I'd never done it before, and being able to do that, get the learnings, know that you can do it and figure it out.
I think that having that resiliency and openness to new things is really important. I think a lot of people think. That when they go and do something new, that immediately they're going to be good at it. Or that, or that if they're not good at it, that it's not meant for them. Everybody sucks at everything the first time they do it.
Sure, people have natural talent and size and skills and things like that, but everybody sucks the first time they do a lot of things. And so being able to have that mindset that, I can go out and do this, I'm going to suck at the beginning, but if I stay at it, I'm going to be able to figure it out. I think that that having that mindset is critically important.
I use that in all different areas of my life currently as I try new things, recognizing that I don't have it figured out yet. Things aren't going to go my way. Sometimes I'm going to quote unquote fail, AKA do something and get a result and learn. So I, again, it all comes back to mindset and perspective.
I've heard you push back on people questioning if you should have an owned audience, say over a LinkedIn audience, where I've heard you say something along the lines that you wouldn't be as well known on LinkedIn if you hadn't have made that risk. So I kind of want to get your take on own audiences for both B2B and what do you think about B2C?
Yeah, just to be clear, the people saying like don't rent your audience from LinkedIn build and owned audience are the same people that own the platforms that you build your own audience on and therefore their position is clearly biased. The real answer is both. The real answer is both. I have 130,000 followers on LinkedIn, probably more than that.
Now I have 2 million downloads on our podcast over the past four years. And the reality is that the people listening to this podcast that know me. Would never know me if I just built a fucking email list and wrote blogs, you would have never discovered me. And it's a whole different game. And so, and so all of those followers on the quote unquote rented channels, which are not rented they're owned.
I own my LinkedIn profile just like an email database. And on the email database side, we have a 50,000 person email database. And we use that to get people to events and set up new information, keep people up to date and things like that. Email just becomes another distribution channel, just like LinkedIn is for content.
And those distribution channels have different dynamics. Email's changing, just like LinkedIn's algorithm's changing. Email open rates continue to decline. So much spam coming out of sales engagement platforms that like, reply rates and response rates and all those things are going down. More things are hitting spam.
The algorithms in email are getting better. It's the exact same fucking thing as a LinkedIn audience. Except that you can track whether they opened your email or not personally. So, I feel pretty passionately about this. The real answer is both, it's not either or. But you'll never get... The like big successful email audience if you don't use the other channels to create attention where there's significant reach.
The difference between email and LinkedIn is that in 2019 when I posted on LinkedIn, a million people saw my post, and that doesn't happen in email. I don't send one email and then people, when I have no followers, they forward it to a million people. It doesn't work like that. And so you need to understand the different use cases for, for these two different mediums and understand that they're just, they're simply both just distribution channels.
So that's what I would say there.
That's a very compressed personal branding masterclass right there on the topics of LinkedIn, YouTube video and podcasts. Do you think these channels are going to have more power in affiliate marketing?
Yeah, maybe like I, I think it's hard to say, let me say, let me talk about some of the things that I would say. So YouTube Shorts is becoming a powerful SEO engine.
Google is showing YouTube Shorts at the top of search rankings to the level where we do zero SEO at my company. And I'm showing up number one on key terms like sales velocity versus sales cycle length. Do, using, and what shows up is a YouTube Shorts video on YouTube. Owned shorts, which is owned by Google who owns the S the SEO.
And so that's one thing to be aware of is that YouTube shorts become getting more put into search less. It's not all blogs anymore. It's a lot more content coming from other owned properties that Google owns. I think that YouTube as a regular, regular channel, landscape, YouTube desktop version, more than shorts mobile version is a strong affiliate channel and always has been.
You can get that. You can do like sort of product features. You can do call to action at the end. You can get a lot of people to, to watch a video and then link out. That's a core part of an affiliate motion. TikTok can be an interest, like all these different social media platforms with like content based algorithms.
So content based on the interests of the content rather than the followers can all be great mediums to get reach and awareness. And the fact that it's now based on the content that you publish, not the followers that you have means the people that see the content are actually interested in it. And so I think that's a really a really interesting development in how social media works.
Traditional platform like LinkedIn hasn't adopted that yet, but if you watch TikTok's doing it. Reels is already in there. Shorts is getting there. If not, they're already LinkedIn will have to make adjustments to their algorithm just based on how all the other platforms follow. They'll probably be two, three, five years behind.
So people don't need to rush out and try and solve this right now.
Coming towards the end in affiliate marketing, there's a lot of people on the operators and affiliate programs that I believe are not using data to their advantage. They're not looking at things like earnings per click. They're not looking at conversion rates, and they're not looking at like data in a detailed way, especially from an attribution point of view.
I'm assuming you see the same thing on the B2B side, and I'm just wondering what's your take on how to get people kind of looking at data in the right way and stop them from having just analysis paralysis.
I would say that everybody's looking at data in some way. Like I, I think that people listening to the podcast at least to the people that I interact with in B2B, like if you said you're not looking at data, they would be like, you're wrong.
I look at data all the time. The question is what data are you looking at and how are you looking at it? The big difference between B2B and B2C for the most part is that in B2C, a conversion is a sale. Somebody went in there, put their credit card in, checked out and you received money in B2B. A conversion is a form fill.
It's intent data coming from an ABM platform. It's somebody registered for your event. It has, it's so far away from an actual transaction in B2B that people over optimize for the event registration or the form fill. Not the actual end result. And so that's the core, the core issue that a lot of B2B companies have is that they use models and frameworks and ways of thinking that come from affiliate marketing or media and publishing companies that make money based on impressions and ad revenue and B2C companies that sell 60 shoes and then take those best practices and try and do that for their a hundred K ACV cybersecurity platform.
And no shit, it doesn't work because buying 60 shoes as one person versus buying 100,000 cyber security platform across an enterprise with, you know, five, seven, 10 different influencers and decision makers in that sale, it's an entirely different motion. And we need entirely different quote on entirely different best practices.
When we think about that.
Last question is, what do you see as the future of affiliate marketing as it intersects with business intelligence?
I think there will always be a place for affiliate marketing, but I think the more powerful of of that would be influencer and key opinion leader marketing at this point, I think that like affiliate marketing, super and still people are making money on it today, but like crushed in the early 2010s, Google era, Google SEO era, where you just rank, you make a list of the top five things you link out with affiliate links and you make that revenue.
As people get their information in different places other than search, which is the same thing that's happening in B2B right now, is that B2B strategies are all built around, just built around Google from a digital standpoint. And where all people are actually getting their information, not going to Google and saying, what should I buy for this anymore?
Top five things for this. Like when I make that search, now I go to TikTok and I search that. Best top restaurants in Austin. Best pairs of shoes for CrossFit. Stuff like that. I make searches on that on Instagram and TikTok now, and I'm not the only one. And the reason is because the content is better, and it's more accurate, and it's more, it's more informative than the blog.
And a lot of the people that are on TikTok doing those things are not making 10 percent when they sell it to you, so it's more honest. And so I think that there, I think that's what I see in the, in the space is that there's based on the movement of how people get information to make all types of different purchases and that move moving away from search and becoming less transactional.
I think that we, as quote unquote, I'm not an affiliate marketer as affiliate marketers need to think about how they move that transition to continue to be at the place that. That is the critical part of a buying decision, which happens other than Google. Most people that get to Google now have already made their decision.
They use Google for navigational search. How do I pass through Google to get to this website that I already wanted to get to? And so I think people need to understand and recognize the dynamics of that, of where the information comes from, comes from, and try to be the most value part, most valuable part of the value chain which is more further upstream now.
So you might not be in affiliate marketing, but if you ever come over to this side, I'm pretty sure you're going to do extremely well. Chris, thank you so much for joining the podcast. How can people get ahold of you?
Awesome. I listen to that podcast all the time. Chris, you thank you so much for this.
Thanks. Thanks for having me