The Web Is Reanimating Its Affiliate Networks

Hey, Readers. Welcome to the AdExchanger Commerce weekly.
Today, we examine a microcosm of the affiliate marketing and ecommerce business in the form of CNN Underscored, the news company’s product-selling site and content marketing unit.
If you think your Q4 is busy, just imagine operating a gift guide and shopping recommendation site right now.
“This is our Super Bowl,” says Mike Bruno, VP of CNN Digital, Commerce.
Prime Day is like the Rose Bowl, perhaps, according to Bruno. But the holiday shopping season is when the major leaguers crown their champs.

Bruno’s been running CNN Underscored, its ecommerce publishing and product review business, for almost five years. He has a background in publishing and commerce, having joined CNN from The Points Guy, an affiliate-driven site owned by Red Ventures.
Affiliate marketing and ecommerce are a hoped-for third pillar of revenue for many large publishers. For instance, The New York Times acquired Wirecutter, and The Wall Street Journal launched its version, called Buy Side.
But what are the opportunities for affiliate marketing revenue in the eyes of cash-strapped news publishers? We talked to Bruno to find out more.
AdExchanger: What are the elements of the CNN commerce business?
MIKE BRUNO: The majority of the revenue is Underscored. That’s the core.
We have added businesses. We have a coupons business to help people find discounts for retailers they’re interested in. We do some licensing if we make a recommendation and someone wants to use that content and license it from us.


AdExchanger Daily
Get our editors’ roundup delivered to your inbox every weekday.

And third is the content business. We do sponsored content on Underscored, as well as using our social channels and increasingly looking to video for that. Something we’ve honed on our backend is our data reporting – to provide really good, specific data on the value that they get working with us.
What do you mean by that?
For one thing, it could even just be things like purchase rate based on engagement, or what elements of the campaign were effective. Was it social media, search, video or a different channel? Was it related to a specific trend or audience? What parts of the campaign were people engaging with? Was there a particular message that was effective?
What do you see as the growth opportunities for affiliate marketing and ecommerce?
For digital media in general, there’s some saturation. We see it all the time that, across the web, user growth is slowed. We’ve reached a point where most people are digital. There’s not the tailwind of people coming online.
But we’ve also seen that there’s still headroom in the ecommerce space. We’re still finding our ways to grow. And some of it comes back to the brand. We’re going to have that inherent trust placed on us just by carrying the CNN moniker.
Some new areas, too, are video and social. Those are trickier to monetize. That’s not unique to the affiliate space.
But we have powerful reach and engagement on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and others. Those are all very big for us organically, as we chase down those opportunities.
What does “chasing down those opportunities” look like?
We hired a dedicated video resource late last year, for example. We’re going to push on creating organic video for our site, for social and for YouTube.
We’re seeing those platforms all lean into affiliates because they see for themselves the potential opportunities. But, in the meantime, we need to be able to communicate the value of these products to people on those platforms as well as we do with text and images on our website.
What can the social platforms enable for you by leaning into affiliate marketing that isn’t available right now?
There’s an affiliate program on YouTube we’re taking part in, which is new for both parties. And the economics and user flow of affiliate is a little bit different than perhaps an influencer-to-brand-type arrangement.
The affiliate network gives us more useful reach and the ability to inform editorial in greater detail what the audience wants and is responding to.
You used to be able to push a URL, which could be an affiliate link, into a video, so it was displayed. Or you could paste the affiliate link in the account bio. But it wasn’t a natively displayed affiliate link that’s part of the video. It’s not forced, but organically integrated.
And then, on the payment flow, it reduces friction, compared to, say, an accordion unit that someone has to click through to get there.
The on-platform transactional stuff we’re excited to see mature.
This interview has been edited and condensed

Recommended For You