Newspapers Begin Staking Out Affiliate Programs

newspaper affiliate imgAffiliate marketing is old news, but not for newspapers.

Most startup and legacy lifestyle publishers, such as Refinery29 or Condé Nast, and digital-first news companies have had affiliate networks quietly churning out reliable, incremental revenue streams. Now some newspapers, built on crumbling subscription and print advertising pillars, are starting to come around to the idea.

The Charleston-based Post and Courier, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, hired an employee last year to build out an affiliate marketing program, said Chris Zoeller, the paper’s director of strategic marketing.

“We realized it was going to take someone who can evaluate the networks to work with, know how to monitor them and be focused on partners and monetization,” Zoeller said. There are also strategic decisions, like whether to link to a merchant that pays per click or on performance-driven outcomes like sales or leads.

Since then, the Post and Courier has created an online coupon service, online galleries where local businesses can feature products and an affiliate linking program in partnership with the traffic monetization startup VigLink.

Newspapers require a more hands-on partnership to be comfortable with an affiliate linking service, said VigLink founder and CEO Oliver Roup.

One VigLink product sorts through stories and adds affiliate links when the context or keyword indicates a reader is predisposed to making a purchase. It then sources demand from its own pool of online retailers and advertisers, Roup said.

With the Post and Courier, that service is limited to some featured sections but no politics or breaking news, and the text is green to distinguish from typical links placed by the publisher. Sensitive stories also are tagged to block any affiliate links.

VigLink’s link-insertion service isn’t fully automated because the potential for a brand safety snafu still requires a level of human oversight.

“These tools are heuristic, so it’s not perfect,” Roup said, “but we’ve reached a bar where our publishers feel they’re covered.”

Zoeller said newspapers’ hesitance to wade into affiliate linking programs is less about brand safety concerns and more about a longstanding newspaper mandate to serve readers and the community, rather than earning a commission on the sale of products and services.

The biggest difference between managing an affiliate program for a newspaper compared to digital-first or lifestyle publishers, Zoeller said, is that “they likely have a bigger team that’s been focused on this and has more experience.”

Some of the biggest names in print news are also in a test-and-learn phase of affiliate marketing. The New York Times spent more than $30 million last year on the Wirecutter, an online product recommendation company it has begun incorporating into consumer and tech coverage.

“When we were going through referrals for affiliate partners it became clear there aren’t a lot of media companies doing it on the newspaper side,” Zoeller said. “It feels like we’re in fresh territory here.”

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