On today’s episode, Kunle is joined by Kaila O’Connor, Founder & CEO of KMO Consulting, a consulting agency that uses affiliate marketing with PR to get brands into top-tier high-traffic websites.
Growing up in a small town and thought to have been bound for a musical career, Kaila’s career shifted after a minor subject, PR 101, led her to affiliate marketing. After talking to affiliate managers, she was able to learn about affiliate marketing and its ins and outs. Having too many clients, she started her own business, KMO Consulting.
Kaila shares the platforms she was using that are helpful as well for DTC brands who are looking to set up their affiliate program. KMO Consulting, while being exclusively DTC for now, is also seeing its expansion into the B2B space.
In this episode, Kunle and Kaila talk about the connection and importance of affiliate marketing and SEO. This is a compelling episode for DTC brands as well as B2Bs looking to enhance their exposure, revenue, brand awareness, and funnel impressions.
Here is a summary of some of the most important points made:
On today’s interview, Kunle and Kaila discuss:
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On this episode, you’re going to find out how to use top-tier high-traffic media outlets at super affiliates for your DTC eCommerce business. This is a great episode you do not want to miss.
Welcome to the 2X eCommerce Podcast show. This is the podcast dedicated to rapid growth in online retail. In this episode, we’re going to be talking with Kaila O’Connor. She’s a PR consultant with a twist. She does affiliate marketing with PR. She gets brands’ PR on top-tier high-traffic websites with either magazine backgrounds like Cosmopolitan and Vogue or more new stuff like BuzzFeed and the rest of them.
They tend to have shopping or holiday lists, “These are the best sunglasses you can get with your money.” She plugs your products into those lists. You get top-line PR and then you get affiliate links. You get them signed up for your affiliate program and she sets everything up. It’s an interesting way of driving revenue, driving exposure, driving brand awareness, and top funnel impressions. This is a great episode. I enjoyed the conversation. I got a lot from this. Affiliate marketing always speaks traditionally to PR. This is affiliate PR, top-line. Enjoy this episode.
Kaila, welcome to the 2X eCommerce Podcast.
Thanks for having me.
It’s great to have you. You run a unique affiliate PR agency with DTC. We’ll get into detail about it. It is starting to be a thing. You’re forging that pioneering spirit into doing two things, media coverage on the one hand and affiliate marketing on the other. Before we jump into all of that, I want to know who you are. What childhood did you have? How has that linked to who you are and where you are now?
It’s important to start that both my parents were music teachers and they still are. I started dance performance at age 2. I’ve always been on a stage. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, in Minnesota. When you grow up in a small town, you look at your parents and you’re like, “It’s a no-brainer. I’m the oldest of the three. I’ll go to college and be a music teacher.” Within the first year, I was like, “I do not want to teach but maybe I want to perform.”
I spent my first year at a school in South Dakota. I was like, “I don’t want to teach.” I then transferred late the summer before my sophomore year to a private music conservatory in Columbus, Ohio for music performance to try that out. I needed a minor with that major. Because I transferred so late, PR 101 was the only class available. There was one spot. I was late. I’m a procrastinator over here.
I took that course and I was like, “PR is like performing but talking in a sense.” When I would perform, it’s like a story aspect to it. You’re bringing on a character. You’re having a character comes to life. I then transferred for a third time in the second half of my sophomore year to Mankato, Minnesota where I got my mass communications degree there. That’s what got me into the PR space.
I spent the first decade of my career working for various PR agencies. I worked primarily with big B2B corporations and pitching trade publications. My life took me to Los Angeles where I thought I was going to have my dream job working in health care. Three months in, I was like, “This is not for me.” I was working on pharmaceuticals and that wasn’t a passion of mine. I left that job and started freelancing and that’s when I had my first direct-to-consumer brands that I was pitching media in Q4 of 2019.
I was doing everything right, researching custom pitches, and it was crickets. Looking back, the thing working against me was the timing. I might have been a little bit behind in terms of gift guides but I was still curious. It sucked the joy out of PR from me at that point. I was at a point where I was going to quit PR.
That led me into being open to a recruiter that landed in my LinkedIn inbox looking for someone with PR experience to join a creative agency that acquired an affiliate marketing channel. I took that job without even knowing what affiliate marketing was. I’m like, “I’m curious.” They want me because I have PR experience. The last ten years won’t go to waste.
I started then working at this creative agency. Within the first two weeks, I had phone calls with all the affiliate managers, it’s a new role, at major publishing groups like Meredith Publishing and Condé Nast. They were explaining to me the shift of editorial to where any product roundups, gift guides, etc. The links back to the brand’s websites must be affiliate.
If brands don’t have an affiliate program and PR professionals are pitching them without an affiliate link available, they’re not going to get coverage. A lot of like green lights and a-has went on during my time there. I was able to kind of test the ropes. Ten months into it, I was taking on too many clients. I wanted more quality versus quantity so that’s what drove me to then start my own business, KMO Consulting.
If you never took up the PR 101 course, you pretty much wouldn’t be in the industry.
Who knows where I would be? I was jumping all over the place.
There is magic in performance. I was at the Lion King musical. I don’t do musicals. It’s the shared joy from the audience to the performers there. A relative of mine was on stage. I could see that connection. I was like, “There’s nothing like this crowd to a performer connection be it a musician or an actor.” It’s magical, nonetheless. Would you say you’re exclusively like B2C because products are pushed by direct-to-consumer businesses to consumers who are the audience of his publications?
I would say my work and what I do at KMO are exclusively direct-to-consumer. We’re working with DTC publications that do target us as a consumer versus us reading a trade magazine on marketing tools and solutions. That would be an example of B2B. I could see the space expanding more into the B2B space. Right now, my work is primarily direct-to-consumer.
I have a few things to quiz you about in terms of the features. You mentioned products in terms of product guides, whether it’s gift guides or shopping guides. There are specific products that cater to specific needs or to a certain theme. What about stories? I used to work in international real estate and it was my first foray into digital marketing.
We had an in-house PR person. She was responsible for significant growth in that company because they were always getting featured in a story format in big papers, all the broadsheets here. That translates into phone calls. Sometimes it made or broke mornings in terms of what kept the sales team busy. You do all sorts of covers, stories, and mentions. Is it more difficult to link to an affiliate link from a story? There’s a conflict of interest I would think. I’m not sure.
That question comes up a lot about conflict of interest or, is this advertising and stuff? I’ll touch on all of it. For business profile features or thought leadership pieces that are not pushing a specific product, that would be separate. That would still be non-affiliate organic. When I say non-affiliate, it is probably your homepage URL that’s not a transfer link.
A big part of affiliate PR is SEO. The only reason why I’m bringing up a transfer link is, an affiliate link, because it’s a transfer link, it does not contribute to increasing domain authority or backlinking. There is still a huge need and strategy behind these types of pieces or traditional press release syndications and stuff like that.
Affiliate PR that uses affiliate links, I have seen through pitching my clients when I land feature articles, is a way to take the consumer down the entire journey. Stojo is one of my clients. They’re a sustainable and collapsible coffee mug based in New York City. They were launching food storage containers like bowls for the first time. I remember it is a brand new category for them and I landed a feature article on Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn.
This editor wrote a feature launch story with quotes from the founders. It took anyone reading it from initial brand awareness all the way down to, “I’m going to purchase this product directly onto the brand’s website.” I’ve heard from a lot of editors that it’s a way for new brands or new products to not have to have a ton of brand awareness. They just need a good value proposition to compete with the Nikes or the Adidas of the world.
It’s a pillared strategy whereby one is strictly for wellness domain authority and the other is for performance. It’s the incentive of the publication to drive that performance and that’s why affiliate PR works so well.
It’s still organic. It’s a weird concept. I have to show the editor that whenever I’m pitching, it’s something that their readers are going to want and need and it provides value. I could say, “Please cover this product. I’m going to give you 100% commission.” They’ll still be like, “No. That doesn’t fit with our content and what our readers want to read.” In advertising, you have an insertion order and it’s guaranteed placement. You pay X amount for this placement that’s publishing on this date.
Whereas I’m using affiliate to almost check a box, “This checks a box. We can put this over into the group of products that we can write about because they have an affiliate program. Now let’s see how this product compares against its competitors and we’re going to choose who we want to write about.” It’s not guaranteed placements at all. It’s interesting on the PR side because it’s like pitching an investor. You want to paint the story of the why and how and how much they’re going to make if they cover your product.
From a platform standpoint, you have come across some brands that don’t even have affiliate programs in place. Managing an affiliate program is tough. You need an affiliate manager to do that. From your experience, what are the best platforms you’re seeing for managing affiliate relationships? What is the best setup from a DTC standpoint? This is speaking to the readers who don’t have affiliate marketing set up internally but want to figure out, “How can we get started and what is the structure we should strive towards and the tooling required?”
When it comes to affiliate networks, there are four main ones that I have worked with and recommend and they have different tiers. If you are a brand that is questioning, “Is this right for us?” You want to test it out. ShareASale is the best entry point into affiliate marketing. It’s a month-to-month contract. Even if you don’t touch it, it’s only $35 a month to keep your program live.
There are limited support or tracking parameters. If you’re like, “We’re going to go in. We trust that this is going to be a channel for us,” and you’re willing to invest in a year contract, I would look at Pepperjam, Rakuten, or Impact. Those three are going to have a slower setup process because you’re going to be working with an account person that is truly holding your hand and helping you do it.
With ShareASale, if you know the steps, you can do it yourself and integrate the cart within a couple of days. With Pepperjam, Rakuten, and Impact, you do have those advanced tracking capabilities. If you’re worried about last click and first click attribution and you want to get nitty-gritty into the metrics, I would explore those three networks.
Impact is not my preferred out of the three because it’s a tiered approach to what you pay to the network. You pay a network fee in addition to affiliate commissions. If you jump into a different revenue bracket, it’s hard to project in my opinion. With Rakuten and Pepperjam, you pay 3% of your overall affiliate revenue to the networks. You’re able to estimate and project that a lot easier.
From a DTC platform standpoint, which of the platforms are easy to get started?
ShareASale would be. Online courses are the next phase. Online teaching and education is the next phase that I’m testing out with a client for heavy product-driven content because there are no margins. There’s a little bit more to work with for online learning. With that, I’m finding that my particular client has multiple shopping carts for each of its courses. ShareASale is an example where you’re limited. We went with Rakuten because we’re able to integrate multiple shopping carts. ShareASale only allows for one. If you fill up your cart and check out in one shopping cart on your website, ShareASale is the best and easiest place to start.
Affiliate marketing is fraught with attribution issues. Right now, things are changing. With a decent affiliate manager, they know what to put in place. Even branding bids on Google. There’s no higher intent search query. You don’t google a brand name and search some affiliates. Especially in the past, they have ridden that wave and got easy commissions off the back of it.
From a publishing standpoint, are you seeing marketing dollars being pushed at those articles for more exposure? You already have authority. If People.com or Cosmopolitan has the top tanning sprays to use, everybody trusts those publications. It’s all about that exposure. You don’t want to publish and forget. Are you seeing any circulation and distribution from their parts where they’re doing all the grunt work for the brands and getting those pieces out there well distributed for revenues, exposure, traffic, and eyeballs?
Absolutely. There are two avenues of pure content on the publisher side, one of them is the turn in public. They will still push it out and you could see the bump in revenue. A big part of affiliate content is gift guides. It’s optimizing the content and reappearing in Google results. One is writing about French linen bedding sheets. I’ll google that. It becomes passive income revenue from a roundup that appeared two years ago. They’re still included and it’s up in the Google results. I’ve seen clients do social ads. They drive their audience away from their own channels to this secondary touch point of like, “We’re pushing that. You didn’t find it, it found you. Go to this article and let’s wrap the red bow in the website and convert.”
Once it’s out there, it’s out there. You’re riding off the wave of the authority of ease and their distribution capabilities. The fact that people always find it there, the domain authority sticks in there long term and gets featured on Google, which is interesting. What about team setup? This is from an eCommerce standpoint. If you’re an eCommerce brand, are you seeing their marketing directors or their eCommerce directors taking charge of this? Are you seeing more specialist affiliate marketing roles starting to emerge? I know this is quite nuanced because some brands are more established than others. It’s interesting to see what you’re seeing given the brands you’ve worked with.
I would say that the brands that come to me are almost brand new to affiliate marketing. I work with a lot of outside growth marketers that are either consulting or that’s their role internally. They’re exploiting affiliates and/or combining affiliate PR. It’s almost like affiliate was this forgotten marketing channel that succeeded throughout COVID. It was a win-win scenario, a safe investment into a marketing channel at that time. Pairing it with PR efforts, it becomes a profitable channel if you want to want to get into KPIs.
A lot of growth marketers are looking at this as a new channel to help launch different products within their business. If they hire KMO, we wear both hats. The product is focused on PR professionals. I do collaborate with some other PR members where they will pitch. I don’t know if that answered your question. I haven’t worked with any clients that have dedicated affiliate marketing. They’re curious and we’re testing this out as a growth perspective for their business.
I was speaking with a colleague about the need for many eCommerce operators to be specific with the SEO help they need. I was like, “An agency that’s good in technical SEO should be hired for just that only.” You find out that technical SEO is a compliance activity. It’s like, “What does Google require our site to do to make it optimal for Google? Have we done that?” It’s like a checklist.
There are also keyword components. That way, you’re trying to discover opportunities from a keyword standpoint. That sets up the foundation there from a technical SEO standpoint. If you want to build domain authority, I was telling him that you need to speak with a content agency and a PR agency that know how to put content together and attract attention. Put content and stories out there that would attract attention.
With the attention of the media, you get those juicy and nice domain authority links. When smaller publishers see that, “This publication has taken this copy.” That leads to more links further down the chain. What’s your take on what I’ve said? What do you think is the place of the modern PR professional to probably fit into that latter basket if you agree?
If there are any PR professionals reading, they’re like, “What? I have to learn affiliate?” From a PR standpoint, I have talked to affiliate managers at multiple different publishing groups. For the majority of them, SEO is one of the most important aspects when pitching a product. I know that Condé Nast, USA Today, and Reviewed.com will not write a feature product review on a product. I’m learning as I go. SEO is a new thing for me. Regardless, there is a number that is required that they need to hit in terms of monthly search volume in order to know that this will benefit their article from an SEO standpoint if they include this brand and this product.
In addition, there are publishers that aren’t allowed to include links back to Amazon that have less than 500 reviews because it will decline their SEO score if they do so. Another area is when PR professionals are sharing product images to share user-generated content, not including some actual consumers taking photos on their iPhones using the actual product because it’s that proof point versus a high-res lifestyle or stock image.
There are a lot of nuances in terms of what editors and publishers need to make sure that their articles are appearing because if their articles aren’t appearing in Google, no one’s reading them. No one’s finding the product and no one’s purchasing the product and they’re not making money. There’s that side of it.
On the PR side, it’s funny that you bring this up because I finished a scope that is for an affiliate PR client. It was for SEO content strategy. One of my colleagues owns his own content agency as well and specializes in SEO. It was nice to partner with him on this. Half of the strategy was owned content, creating shareable owned content that optimizes the website.
The other strategy was working with a content syndication partner like a PR Newswire and consistently releasing stories that are syndicated purely for backlinking, 60 to 80 backlinks per piece, which also helps build brand awareness. If they move forward with that, that’s going to be a test on my end to see how both mirror one another. I do know that affiliate content builds awareness and drives revenue but because it’s a transfer link, it doesn’t always have the best effect on increasing domain authority. That’s where the non-affiliate links are important.
There’s this intersection of content creation and PR. I’ve been involved in campaigns in which the contents were fantastic. It was timely. It was well done. This is graphic content or audio-visual content. The syndication, in terms of getting it to the right editors, writers, journalists, or publications, was missing. If a tree falls in a forest with no one there, did it really fall? Did it make a noise?
I’ve been in other scenarios or campaigns way back whereby both were done well by Hallmark. That campaign was a success because it got the right syndication and the contents were timely. It’s interesting. From a domain authority, I do think that SEO should be split in half. When you say you have an SEO agency, not too many know operators know the difference between technical and domain authority building.
It’s typically pitched in one single pocket to maximize revenue as you can imagine. One of them would just not be executed to its fullest potential. This was interesting. For people who want to find out more about what you guys do in KMO Consulting, your website is KMOWorld.org. You specialize in affiliate PR services, very unique, and training and guided by human design. Are you active on any social media channels? If yes, which one is you most active on?
The consulting Instagram account is @KMO.Consulting. There, you will find a link to the page on KMOWorld.org that does highlight the affiliate PR services for brands. If you’re a PR professional or a service provider and you want to learn affiliate PR, there are training resources and opportunities on that end as well.
Kaila, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the 2X eCommerce Podcast.
Likewise. Thank you so much for having me.