Episode #2- The Performance Marketing Spotlight w/ with Alexis Caldwell

About Our Guest

Alexis Caldwell serves as Executive Director, Business Development and Partnerships at Forbes. A 15-year veteran of digital marketing and #startuplife, Alexis works closely with all major affiliate networks, serves on industry advisory boards and has close ties with thousands of online retailers, publishers and tech partners, thus constantly keeping her finger on the pulse of partner marketing. Alexis has also appeared on CNN, ABC, FOX, CBS and a variety of other media outlets as an online shopping expert.


On Episode #2 of Performance Marketing Spotlight, Alexis Caldwell, Executive Director of Business Development and Partnerships at Forbes, joins the podcast where we take a deep dive into the topic of Attribution. Our guest speaker emphasizes that the type of program being used should determine how Attribution is commissioned. Partnership marketing is also discussed, as relationships are key for success in the affiliate channel. We’ll hear about our guest’s almost seven years of experience at Reward Style LTK in various roles, and how they’re now developing ways for brands to create performance-based, branded content while still maintaining editorial integrity at Forbes. The importance of Attribution models that are program specific and custom to the particular type of customer being driven to the site is emphasized, along with the growth potential and evolving misconceptions of affiliate marketing. Join us for this insightful discussion on Performance Marketing Spotlight.


Speaker A [00:00:00]:

You. Hello and welcome to the performance marketing spotlight. I’m your host, Marshall Nyman, founder and CEO of NYMO and Co. Each episode, I will be bringing you someone with deep experience in the performance marketing space where they will highlight their experiences within the industry. Today I have Alexis Caldwell.

Speaker B [00:00:24]:

Hello. Hey, Marshall, thanks so much for having me.

Speaker A [00:00:29]:

Welcome to the podcast. Super excited to have you today. So let’s get right to it. Why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience so they can get to know you a bit?

Speaker B [00:00:37]:

Yeah, for sure. My name is Alexis Caldwell. I’ve been in the affiliate space for over 15 years. I am currently the Executive Director of Business Development and Partnerships at Forbes. A lot of that is affiliate related, some of it’s not, but generally speaking, that’s a big focus for me. But I’ve worked on the publisher side almost exclusively, but like, lots of different publisher models. So everything from coupon and deal to comparison shopping engine to toolbars to conversion rate optimization to influencer marketing. So kind of been all over the.

Speaker A [00:01:21]:

Place, keep it interesting. But I guess you’ve been at a few different publishers and they all do different types of work. So it’s kind of, I guess, interesting to move to another place and start to build something different.

Speaker B [00:01:36]:

It is, and it’s great, too, because one of the most foundational things about performance marketing are obviously the partnerships. I mean, you and I have worked together for a zillion years, which is why this is so much fun. And so it’s great because even though I’ve been at a few different publishers over the years, a lot of those relationships are the same, or I’ll be working with the same people, but they’ll also have moved to a different advertiser or to a network. One of the things I always tell my team members, wherever I am is the toes you step on today could be connected to the ass you kiss tomorrow. So be nice to everyone because you never know, especially an affiliate, like, where people are going to end up.

Speaker A [00:02:26]:

That’s a great line. I think that’s a good point. And it really just leads into partnership marketing. I think with everything going on with AI today, everybody’s like, hey, people are going to be replaced and going to affiliate summit a few weeks ago and just getting FaceTime with people, you realize, like, with partnership marketing there is a huge element of FaceTime, and it’s building those relationships over time and being in the industry for almost as long as you have a few years less. But you start to get those relationships with people over time and they move from one company to the next, and it’s always fun to kind of rekindle those relationships and see where the new partnership could take you. So would love to hear a little bit about your experience at Reward Style LTK. I know you were there for almost seven years and worked in quite a few various roles and that’s where we first met. Would love to hear a little bit about your experience there.

Speaker B [00:03:19]:

Yeah, absolutely. So LTK formerly known as Reward Style and like to know, it is arguably the largest and most successful monetization platform for lifestyle creators. And I was there for, like you said, almost seven years. I started out managing kind of all of our relationships with affiliate networks and then into a broader biz dev role, and then I moved into managing the entire brand sales team. So basically partnering with brands to kind of educate them about the opportunities of investing in influencer marketing and how it could move the needle for their business and how it could help them rebrand their business, help them launch new product and really get in front of consumers where those new consumers were. And the great thing about the LTK technology is it’s platform agnostic. So we were able to engage creators whether they were on Instagram or TikTok or YouTube, you name it. So it was a fantastic place to be an amazing team and the business just continues to grow and I’m still very close to the business, so I love cheering from the sidelines.

Speaker A [00:04:55]:

Yeah, you were basically there before influencer marketing blew up. It was like the early phases where people really didn’t know anything about how it would work and just kind of figuring it out. I remember sitting with you, it was probably almost ten years ago, an affiliate summit, and you were telling me about the offering there and so it’s definitely evolved a lot. And I know they just now kind of rebranded to LTK. They are in quite a few of our affiliate programs. They’ve been a great affiliate for us too. So that’s great to hear about your experience there. I know you started originally at another publisher. I’d love to hear how you got started in the industry and your experience there.

Speaker B [00:05:30]:

Yeah, I was a history major in college, but I finished my requirements pretty early on, so I just had some extra credits to fill. And randomly the university I went to didn’t have a business program specifically, but they started offering a couple of businessish classes and one of them was called The Art of the CEO like Business Strategy. And we got to do pitches and invent products and sell them to frats. It was see who could make the most money. It was really fun. And the professor actually introduced me to a guy that he was mentoring who was trying to hire his first full time team member and basically leave his full time job to start a business. And I met this guy and he was trying to explain the business to me and I was like, I have no idea what you’re talking about. But there was something about his Dynamism and his excitement where I was like, this is a train, I need to get on, and it turned out it was a coupon and deal. Publisher Surfmyads.com has been in the space forever. Owns and operates sites like Promo Codes.com, Couponwinner, Coupons, CA, other sites in Europe as well. We also dabbled in the toolbar space and the comparison shopping engine space for a little while, did a lot of different things. But yeah, I was one of the very first hires for that company. It was like, myself and some interns, and we ended up growing the business to overall 50 people in three offices. So it was an incredible experience. I was there for seven years as well, and it was just a really cool bootstrapped scrappy situation where we had to just figure it out.

Speaker A [00:07:52]:

I get that. That was like my first experience in affiliate marketing. And I was laughing when you were saying somebody was trying to explain it to you and you weren’t really sure what it was. And that brings me to a flashback when one of my friends that I grew up with was Telly B. He just started working in affiliate marketing, and we just graduated college, and I just didn’t understand what he was trying to explain to me. But it sounded like that early phase where things were about to really take off, and he was working at Click Booth, which was one of the early affiliate marketing networks. So I just always think about that, where he was trying to explain to me. Just never got it, and then ended up in the space.

Speaker B [00:08:32]:

For sure. I feel like every time I have to explain to a family member or my parents what my job is, I’m like, It’s just shopping online, don’t worry about it.

Speaker A [00:08:47]:

I always tell people I help people buy stuff online. I think that’s the simplest thing, but kind of going into that, helping people buy things online. So you’ve worked on the coupon side, you’ve worked on the influencer side, and now you’re on a content side of things. So I’d love to hear just a little bit about what you’ve been doing at Forbes. I know when you came in there, you were telling me affiliate wasn’t really a big part of the business, and that’s something that you’ve been taking on.

Speaker B [00:09:16]:

Yeah, I’ve been at Forbes for a little over a year now, and when I joined, there was kind of an existing affiliate business. It was pretty small. It was exclusive to a section of Forbes called Forbes Vetted, which is kind of our product review and recommendation site for Forbes, akin to a wire cutter or that kind of thing. And we just have grown the business so much. We have an entire editorial team who is super committed to testing and trying and identifying the best things to recommend to the Forbes audience, which is a really unique audience. And we have crazy AOVs. We sell really high ticket items. Our audience has very high household income, lots of I mean, some of our best selling categories are, like, engagement rings and treadmills, stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily think would be something that would convert on a last click basis. But people are actually coming to Forbes Vetted to make some of those purchasing decisions because they have so much trust in the quality of the editorial content that our team is creating. So that has been growing. The output from our editorial team and the volume of content that they’re creating and the different categories that we’re starting to cover now. We just launched Travel is growing. And then as kind of a result of the excitement from our brand partners, they wanted to figure out, okay, how do I get included? How can I be part of Forbes content? And so we’ve been kind of developing new ways for them to create branded content that’s performance based and identify ways to incorporate them into some of our preexisting content, where it is endemic to their type of product. So trying to come up with ways for our brands to be able to get in front of the Forbes audience while still maintaining our editorial integrity.

Speaker A [00:11:49]:

Yeah, I think that’s like a big piece of just where affiliate shifting now with content is that editorial integrity is a really big piece. I think it was before. Just write content, get it out now. It’s really like, is the product reviewed? How did you review it? What other products did you look at? People are looking for more in depth information. I think the consumer is a little bit smarter now, so I think that’s a good direction to head in because that’s what people are looking for. They want somebody they can trust. So as far as partners, what would you say is a successful partner on your site? Or what would you look for in a brand that would potentially be a successful partner?

Speaker B [00:12:32]:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. And because we’re still in sort of, like, our early phases, we’re kind of figuring it out. And so really, our best partners are the ones who are along for the ride and are willing to test and kind of figure it out with us. We’re able to kind of circle the wagons and share data with each other, keep each other updated on what’s coming down the pipeline in terms of new products, maybe they’re launching or events that we have coming up that would make sense for them to be a key sponsor of. Really, the best partners just across the board, in my experience, are the ones who are willing to test and try new things and also really consider our feedback. So one of the key differentiators that I’ve found in terms of successful or not successful campaigns, especially in the last six months for Forbes, have been when a brand comes to us and they’re like, we have to be included in this story. This is the place that we want. This is the product we want, do what we’re saying. And the reality is we know our audience a lot better. We know how well that story performs. We know what the reader is looking for when they’re coming to that page. And maybe there’s a different story that might actually be a better fit for that particular product to get the row as that they’re looking for or to achieve the branding and orders goals that they’re trying to achieve. So really, when brands allow us to guide them and take the lead in terms of strategy, that’s when we tend to see the most success.

Speaker A [00:14:31]:

I mean, I always say publishers know their sites the best, so I wouldn’t want to push something on them that they’re going to say isn’t going to perform. You really want to lean on the expert on what they see is working for them. So I think that’s an important call out that you’re making.

Speaker B [00:14:44]:

Yeah. And in affiliate in general, we always want partnerships to be long term, right. Like, churn and burn does not fly in this space and we have to continue to prove value. And so if we’re just taking orders like a fast food restaurant, we’re not going to be able to retain clients and drive success without giving them the full strategic treatment that they are paying for.

Speaker A [00:15:16]:

Yeah. It seems like long term partnerships are really the key to anything in this channel. Short term isn’t really going to drive the results. So I think that’s an important call. And I think just from what I’m seeing as far as brands that are being successful in the affiliate channel, I think you have to have a unique offering. It seems like brands that if it’s a product that already exists and there’s not something that really is going to catch people’s attention, it’s just not going to take off, at least on the content side from what I’ve seen. So that’s what I’m looking for in a brand, to put them in front of a publisher knowing that if it’s not interesting to me, it’s probably not going to be interesting to the publisher or the consumer. So that’s one of those things that I think is important, is having that really unique angle for the brand and the product so the publisher can highlight that.

Speaker B [00:16:05]:

Absolutely. And that’s one of the great things. Our team, as the business team for Vetted, we can make recommendations to our editorial team and say, like, hey, we just partnered with this brand. Consider them for the update. For the pickleball article. A friend of mine launched a pickleball line and I was like, hey, check out this chic brand of pickleball paddles. But ultimately they’re going to decide. But we do our best to pitch brands that are cool and interesting, especially Marshall. Your brands are so awesome and just really appealing and just really fit. A lot of the Forbes demographics and kind of are really interesting to our audience. So it makes it really easy for us to pitch that stuff to our editors.

Speaker A [00:17:04]:

Yes, that’s why we focus on that. I wouldn’t say makes the job easier, but it allows you to deliver more results. It’s harder to deliver results when there isn’t something that’s unique and interesting. So definitely great feedback on all of that would be curious just to hear what is something that you’re seeing as a major misconception in the performance marketing space.

Speaker B [00:17:30]:

Oh my gosh, this is such a can of worms. I’m sure you feel the same way. Performance marketing, affiliate marketing has been the redheaded stepchild of marketing channels for so long. But the reality is a lot has been done to shift that perception and I think the rise of content and the fact that players who are really big 100 year old brands like Forbes for example, are playing in the affiliate game or giving it, lending more credence to it. But I would say one of the things that I’m actually excited about in terms of the larger macroeconomic situation that’s going on right now, which obviously is very uncertain and scary performance marketing, affiliate marketing is generally like the budgets don’t get cut as quickly as branding and awareness and PR because they are driving a return. And because that is so measurable what we’re doing. And so I feel a little insulated just like a tad from some of the potential downturn implications. But I’m an optimist in working through the last recession. Being at a coupon and deal website was like bananas because everyone was trying to save money. And so we were the first affiliate publisher to actually put out TV commercials and do radio spots. And before we hired someone who is media trained, I went and did TV interviews all over the country to promote how to use coupons online, educate the public. I think that to your question, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. But I think that it’s continuing to evolve and is becoming more positively recognized in terms of being a value driver for businesses.

Speaker A [00:20:03]:

That’s exactly it. I mean, I totally feel that way the last year is affiliates like more respected than it was in the past? I remember when I was first getting into the channel and talking to brands, it was like a hard sell. It was like nobody wanted to do it. It was like the last channel people would jump into and it would be like the first channel they would cut budget with. So now to see that it’s not the first channel that they’re cutting budget with and now that companies are seeing it as a viable channel and it’s not that kind of dark, scary place anymore, I think it’s a really great thing and it’s definitely, I think, primed to really grow over the next few years. And I think a lot of businesses speaking about the recession are going to look at moving some channels to a performance marketing model because it’ll be more cost effective for them. They won’t have to worry about those big upfront budgets that maybe they were used to doing with some of those other channels. So at the end of the day, affiliate is just a means for running marketing. It’s not just a channel so you can run other channel certs. I think there’s a lot probably that’s going to shift in the next few years with the industry and I feel like it’s really primed in a good.

Speaker B [00:21:07]:

Position for that 100%. And I think another thing to your point too, is sort of like the concept of last click and being so low in the funnel and not necessarily adding value. The reality is because affiliate is now used from at the top of the funnel for discovery and all the way down, it can fulfill PR goals, it can fulfill branding goals, it can fulfill a bunch of different marketing submarketing departments goals, not just simply like, quote, unquote, affiliate because there’s so much quality content on so many different platforms. That’s actually measurable in a way that just a radio spot, isn’t necessarily as measurable in terms of direct sales.

Speaker A [00:22:09]:

So you kind of started leading into my last question for you, and I know it’s a hot topic and I’ve heard you speak on in the past, so I figured it’s another good one to bring up. And so you’re talking about Attribution. I get a question about Attribution all the time. I have my opinion on it. I think it just depends on what type of program you have and that’s how you should look at your Attribution. If you have a top of funnel program, then you probably want to commission at the top of the funnel. If you have a bottom of the funnel program, then you have to kind of take a look at where you want to commission or maybe split the commissions. But curious to hear from like a publisher standpoint, what you think about first click versus last click or even split Attribution.

Speaker B [00:22:49]:

Yeah, so I have a love hate relationship with this topic, but I think it’s probably one of the most important, if not the most important nut that just needs to be cracked. But exactly to your point, I completely agree that it’s very program specific. It was so crazy when I was working at LTK, brands would come to us and say, how should we set up our Attribution? What should our Attribution model look like? And that was so funny that they were coming to us as a publisher. Obviously my response is like, we want 100% Attribution if we touched it at any point, we want credit for the sale, which we actually did with a couple of brands and I mean, story for another day, but that was bananas. It’s like 16 X increase in sales. Wild. But that’s not realistic. And also having been on so many different publisher models. I understand that there is value in a lot of these different publisher models, from the top to the bottom of the funnel. They all kind of play their own role in converting a customer. But I think the big question that I always pose to brands whenever they’re asking for feedback on Attribution is, like, who is your target customer? What does that person look like? What is their profile? And then you need to basically build your Attribution to attract that customer. I think Macy’s is a good example. They used to always have coupons, and then at one point, they changed leadership, and they eliminated coupons, and they literally eliminated their customer base because their consumer were coupon clipping like individuals, and they had to bring it back because they completely cut out their key demo. So I think being realistic about who your consumer is and understanding the type of customer that you’re trying to drive to your site and rewarding the channels that drive that particular type of customer to your site more handily than some of the other channels. Sometimes for a program, it doesn’t make sense if their goal is new customer acquisition to work with a certain type of publisher, or if they’re looking for a very premium customer, it doesn’t make sense for them to be positioned on a coupon site. But at the same time, then you have a Macy’s where you won’t have customers if you aren’t working with those partners. So I think it really, in summary, is exactly what you said, very custom to the program, and it’s all about what the consumer profile is that you’re trying to target and making sure you’re awarding the correct affiliates who are actually able to drive that type of customer.

Speaker A [00:26:08]:

Yeah, I think that’s, like, a really important piece of managing a program now is understanding that the whole funnel, where your customers coming and how are you properly attributing, how they’re coming in to those publishers. So definitely, I think a lot more will evolve in the space with that, but definitely interesting to get your take on that. So that’s all the questions I had for today. Big thank you to Alexis from Forbes for joining us on our podcast this week, some really great insights on how Forbes can be a great addition to a performance marketing program. What is the best way for listeners to connect with you?

Speaker B [00:26:46]:

Shoot me a note, a Caldwell@forbes.com, or you can hit me up on LinkedIn. Marshall, thank you so, so much for having me. It’s an honor, and just always such a pleasure catching up with you. So thank you so much.

Speaker A [00:27:02]:

Thanks so much for being my second guest again. Thank you, Alexis. I am Marshall Nyman, the host of the Performance Marketing Spotlight. Thank you for joining us today. We’ll see you next time. Have a great one. Bye.