11 November, 2020

Lessons Learned 1: Nilla Ali, SVP Buzzfeed. How are affiliate models changing the way we drive innovation?

Erik Wallin
CEO at Northfork

When BuzzFeed set out to explore shoppable recipes for its Tasty app, the search led to a unique affiliate partnership with Walmart and recipe shopping technology provider Northfork. The arrangement has resulted in considerable success for Tasty and in an optimised experience for the app’s end users — which was the whole point of the project.

Such a largescale and complex working arrangement inevitably produced a number of learning points. Two years on from the intense, week-long sprint that kicked off the project, Northfork Co-founder Erik Wallin sat down with Nilla Ali, Senior Vice President, Commerce at BuzzFeed, to look back on Tasty’s success and tease out the lessons learned.

Using affiliate partnerships to drive innovation

The project goal was clear from the outset. BuzzFeed, Northfork and Walmart set out to create new consumer behaviour through Tasty. BuzzFeed knew that a high percentage of Tasty users who looked at recipes ended up making them at home. But there was a gap between them reading the recipe and making it — so BuzzFeed set out to fill that gap by connecting shoppable recipes with grocery provision.

The goal was to create an environment that delivered really strong conversion from content to action, via a frictionless experience for the end user. That meant driving positive consumer behaviour through an innovative affiliate partnership between BuzzFeed, Northfork and Walmart. BuzzFeed’s Nilla Ali comments:

“With an affiliate arrangement of this scale, we knew we had the potential to innovate but there were also complexities to address — things like product availability and accuracy. We set out with a clear goal and with metrics around rates of adoption, engagement and conversion to measure the project’s success. The whole project allowed us to use each organisation’s expertise to innovate much faster than would have been possible individually.”

Five years ago, the affiliate space was packed with cashback and coupon schemes. Now, with content-driven affiliate partnerships in place, the industry is very different. As such, BuzzFeed set out to create a unique affiliate model for the Tasty project.

Common practice is to use a straight revenue sharing model, but with innovation on this scale, the opportunity cost can be huge, particularly when shifting revenue to something that’s unproven. This led BuzzFeed and Northfork to agree a working model that blended revenue sharing with a minimum guarantee. The approach helped to de-risk the project for all parties and deliver a guarantee that cost and time spent would be covered. It also facilitated the benefits of success being shared between all stakeholders.

The fresh approach to the affiliate model has ensured that each stakeholder is incentivised to achieve success and to continue pushing. Northfork Co-founder Erik Wallin observes:

“We listened to BuzzFeed and understood from the outset how important affiliates were to what they were trying to achieve. We also understood precisely where Northfork’s shoppable recipe expertise slotted into the partnership. Listening to your partners in this way and understanding their motivations and pressure points is essential if you’re going to help them reach their goals.”

One key lesson to come out of the partnership was the importance of keeping communication channels open. The right communication structures meant that each partner felt accountable for success and part of a larger team. Everyone knew from the outset who the key decision-makers were and how to connect with them. During the early part of the project, meetings were held daily, ensuring that everyone was clear on the expectations.

Keeping those communication channels open meant that any issues which arose — and with a project of this scale, there will always be surprises and roadblocks to deal with — could be addressed swiftly. It also meant that the project could proceed smoothly, without it becoming a distraction from business as usual for either Walmart, BuzzFeed or Northfork.

“The partnership ultimately benefited the end user by delivering what they wanted,” explains BuzzFeed’s Nilla Ali. “They just didn’t know that they wanted it! This affiliate arrangement is giving users the inspiration to take the mundanity out of meal planning. The app surprises and delights but also delivers at a practical level by reducing the time and energy that families have to commit to answering the question of what’s for dinner.”

Changing consumer behaviour at scale is always ambitious, but the pace at which BuzzFeed, Walmart and Northfork got the Tasty partnership live is testament to the strength of the arrangement.

BuzzFeed’s expertise centres around food and recipes, Walmart’s around groceries and Northfork’s around digital grocery shopping behaviour and the tech that enables it. Each organisation had a clear role and place within the partnership, meaning that they could grow the project together while leaning on each other’s expertise. This was key in dealing with issues such as inventory management and the nuances of real time transactions.

Of course, such a strong affiliate arrangement also helped to drive a positive customer experience, which was essential to enabling the change in consumer behaviour.

“Only the right affiliate partnership, structured in the right way, could have delivered the results we’ve seen with Tasty,” concludes Northfork’s Erik Wallin. “It required a positive return on investment for all of those involved. Key to this was having a clear focus from the outset, for each partner and for the project as a whole. That kind of shared focus can be a powerful tool in keeping the project on track.”

The Tasty partnership between BuzzFeed, Northfork and Walmart delivered a huge range of learning points. Some of the key lessons include:

About the author

Erik Wallin
CEO at Northfork

Erik is co-founder of Northfork, he has a long experience of the grocery industry within marketing and sales. Before Northfork, Erik founded BagHitch a P2P transportation service.