How online instrument retailer Sweetwater created its affiliate program

Sweetwater, an e-commerce site focused on musical instruments and professional audio equipment, is betting on a dedicated affiliate link program to support its next phase of growth.

Catering to both professional and amateur musicians, the online retailer has been around since the early 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the last few years that the company turned to social media and affiliate marketing.

Sweetwater’s marketing team piloted the affiliate program in late 2019, starting with around 20 creators and publishers. The program was officially launched in early 2020 and membership has since grown to 500 accounts. It also experienced 60% year-over-year growth from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the same period of 2021. The company’s affiliate program — coinciding with a time when more people are picking up new hobbies during the pandemic — is helping Sweetwater get through. $1 billion in sales in 2020. Also, according to Sweetwater, the affiliate program has become a major customer acquisition channel during the pandemic as people get into music hobbies.

Identifying and hiring the right creators

“Selling musical instruments and professional sound equipment through online influencers is very different from apparel or accessories,” he said. Sweetwater’s engagement manager, Tyler Grooms. He said this is because many amateur and professional musicians want in-depth tutorials, not just product recommendations. “Even if you see an influencer using a new and cool guitar, it doesn’t mean much to you if you don’t play the guitar,” he said.

Grooms said the idea behind the partnership strategy is to directly appeal to each musician’s level, both their expertise and their social media following. This led Sweetwater to create a bonus and commission-based link program that tracks both customer acquisition and sales conversions. Also, the follower count of influencers is not a major factor for Sweetwater’s affiliates. “We work with creators with as few as 5,000 subscribers, which we think are more successful in converting customers than a large channel’s Sweetwater namedrop,” said Grooms. Some of the biggest partners of the program are Guitar World, as well as YouTube channels such as guitarist Riffs, Beards & Gear and drummer Casey Cooper.

“We’ve been the retail outlet for professional musicians for decades, and this has given us an organic base of influencers,” said Grooms. To create the affiliate program, Grooms and its marketing team worked with Sweetwater’s team of 600 sales engineers to recruit interested creators. “We’re musicians ourselves and members of the online music community, so we’re constantly finding great new partners and inviting them to our program,” said Grooms. The program is also getting some interest from the creators and recommendations from existing members.

Customized campaigns

Like other brand ambassador programs, the affiliate marketing team streamlines the content creation process and rewards creators based on impressions and conversions.

Grooms said that one aspect that sets Sweetwater’s partnership program apart is its extensive collaboration process. “We brainstorm fun concepts to highlight enhancements in their content,” he said, noting that sometimes this requires multiple Zoom meetings to facilitate. A recent collaboration involved guitarist Marty Schwartz visiting Sweetwater’s Indiana headquarters, where he surprised several fans with lessons and product giveaways.

Grooms said the company didn’t ask creators to read bullet points, instead Sweetwater’s marketing team found products that musicians would like to try before recommending it to their audience. Sweetwater has also installed a self-service software system. “It allows creators to create links, access payouts, monitor performance and see how their work impacts the commissions they make,” Grooms said.

Sweetwater’s marketing team works with product manufacturers to deliver products to select creators in a timely manner for content to become available. “We provide hardware or pay a fee for product integration into video,” Grooms said. This can range from special microphone requests to keyboards or recording equipment for a vocal technique video. “For example, if [creator] When we start recording a Nirvana song, we send them the guitar of their choice to make a video showing the process,” said Grooms.

Program members get a 7% sales commission plus a chance to earn a cash bonus if they bring in a new customer without an ad-supported campaign. Sweetwater’s watchable links show “whether a secondary ad helps drive the sale,” Grooms said, with no additional bonuses from the creator.

One arm of the affiliate marketing team is devoted to influencer-heavy channels like YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok. Another is for showing ads on publishers such as music review websites and trade magazines. Grooms said electronic DJs, in particular, were popular on Twitch during the pandemic’s digital concert boom, with some affiliated creators making 4-hour streams. “But YouTube is the biggest piece of the pie because desktop viewing is a natural fit for educational music content,” he said.

Testing younger platforms

According to Sweetwater, the growth of the affiliate program outstrips the growth reported by other marketing channels such as paid viewing and retargeting ads. For 2022, the company looks to grow the program by taking advantage of the burgeoning TikTok and Snapchat music content audience.

“We want to build a younger demographic on these channels, but we understand what price points this group is comfortable with right now,” Grooms said. Grooms said the affiliate program currently has 15 accounts on TikTok, but the team is slowly building the type of content it wants to sponsor. “We don’t want to trap TikTok musicians assuming they only need beginner-level hardware,” he explained.

In the coming year, Sweetwater looks to expand its affiliate program by adding new channels of various genres. Grooms says its next wave of creative will focus on band and orchestral content to help promote Sweetwater’s new shop focused on brass and string instruments.

Apart from Sweetwater, customized influencer programs are becoming more popular with influencers and brands, especially among more niche retailers. Elfster, the secret Santa organization service, is another site that has created an affiliate program.

Justin Kline, co-founder of influencer marketing agency Markerly, said the busier the influencer marketing gets, the harder it is for retailers to stand out. The truth is, you might be wasting your time and money because yes, your brand is seen by lots of eyeballs, but most of them just might not be the right eyeballs,” Kline explained. Instead, affiliate marketing is about finding influencers who are “deeply passionate about your brand’s industry,” Kline said, and not those with millions of wide-ranging followers.

For Sweetwater, the program helps the retailer keep pace with the evolution of the music and instrument category.

“Content creators are the new wave of professional musicians,” Grooms said, noting that many online musicians now make money from paid ads and sponsored content instead of competing for a record contract. “We want to create a revenue-sharing model to support this group of creators.”

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