Updated August 2022
The differences and similarities between affiliates, influencers, and brand ambassadors are subtle, and it’s easy to confuse them. In the simplest terms, they are all people with an audience — just like you and me — that forge partnerships with brands for some compensatory reason, be it free product, small commissions or discounts.
You might even be surprised to learn that one person can be an affiliate, an influencer and a brand ambassador at the same time. Crazy, huh?
That’s because each of these programs have one goal in common: partnering with passionate people to promote your brand to their audience.
In this article, we will further define and explain the key points of differentiation between affiliate, influencer, and brand ambassador, so you can make informed choices about which is most appropriate to your brand’s goals.
What are the key differences between affiliates, influencers and brand ambassadors?
If there is something you should take away from this article, it’s this: you shouldn’t pay too much attention to the labels of the people you will be working with. Labels are arbitrary and fluid. Focus instead on your marketing goals and the best way to reach them through partnerships.
In most cases, these terms are somewhat interchangeable.
What really matters is how your brand utilizes them in support of your programs.
These are the key points of this article:
- If someone has an audience of over 1000 followers on any social media platform, they are de-facto influencers. We can drill down even further and categorize these individuals based on follower count and audience reach.
- If you collaborate with influencers or non-influencers on a long-term basis on online or offline marketing activities, they becomebrand ambassadors. This is a key difference. Influencers, in the broadest sense, are conversation starters. They can ignite initial enthusiasm about a product or service, but brand ambassadors continue those conversations. Why? Because your best ambassadors are your current customers and employees.
- If you collaborate with influencers/brand ambassadors using affiliate links, they can also be called affiliates. Affiliates earn a small commission via trackable links for each sale they drive to your site. Programs often make use of affiliate codes in support of content-focused brand ambassadors — and as you’ve seen, brand ambassadors and affiliates are often one-in-the-same.
What is an influencer?
Let’s start with the most common terms.
An influencer is someone who has the ability to affect people’s decisions based on the audience’s opinions of him or her. Sound familiar? It should. Affecting decisions lies at the heart of marketing strategy.
That is essentially what an influencer is. It’s all about their audience and their influence on them.
But they don’t necessarily need a huge audience to be considered influencers. In fact, there are six commonly used categories of influencers based on their follower counts:
- Nano-influencers: 1,000 – 10,000
- Micro-influencers: 10,000 – 50,000
- Mid-tier influencers: 50,000 – 500,000
- Macro-influencers: 500,000 – 1 million
- Mega-influencers: 1 million – 5 million
- Celebrity influencers: Over 5 million followers
Today, small micro influencers are becoming very popular for brands because they feel more authentic to audiences than big macro influencers, and they are worth considering for your campaigns.
Typical influencer marketing campaigns generally work this way:
A brand pays (or otherwise compensates in some manner) an influencer to create 1 or 2 pieces of content endorsing a product or service.
After that, the campaign is over. Big ” I” influencer campaigns are very transactional in nature and aren’t designed for long-term, sustainable collaboration.
However, brands are also realizing that long-term collaborations are more beneficial and more effective.
When this happens, the influencers can now be considered brand ambassadors as well. In addition, if affiliate links are used in the strategy, they can also be called affiliates.
More on these two things below.
What is an affiliate?
An affiliate is a person that gets rewarded by a brand for getting new customers through the affiliate’s own marketing efforts.
These marketing efforts mainly include online activities such as creating social media content or writing blog posts. It’s all up to the affiliate to decide what content to create.
The main differences between influencer marketing and affiliate marketing are that the latter is performance-based and uses affiliate links.
Affiliate links are unique links given to affiliates that direct to a specific product or service on a website. They allow affiliate management software to track the number of people that clicked on a specific link and how many of those clicks resulted in a sale.
Sometimes these links have a cookie that tracks the clicks and sales for a particular time period with the purpose of giving affiliates a better deal.
Affiliates then earn a commission established by the brand for every sale they generate from their marketing efforts and links.
Having an audience isn’t always a requirement to become an affiliate, although it certainly helps. However, without an audience, they won’t successfully earn commissions at any measurable rate.
Successful affiliates have an established audience in their social media platform of preference, so that would qualify them as influencers as well. And since you work with affiliates on a long-term basis, they could also qualify as brand ambassadors.
Make sense? As you can see, the terms can shift based on use-case and how your program develops overtime. Often, we see brands focused exclusively on affiliate marketing pivot and embrace brand ambassadors as part of their overall marketing strategy.
What is a brand ambassador?
A brand ambassador is a person who is hired to represent a brand in a positive light and, by doing so, increase brand awareness and sales. They might not have massive social media followings, but they are authorities in their own way. These informal spokespeople keep your brand top-of-mind with their audiences without the overt “buy this” messaging which can dominate traditional influencer programs.
Basically, anyone can be a brand ambassador if the brand determines them to be a good fit. It’s common to see brand ambassador programs made up of customers, employees, influencers, and even students without many followers, because they align with the ethos of the brand.
This is what makes ambassador marketing programs so effective. Brands can hire hundreds of ambassadors (or have open enrollment) that feel authentic to their target demographics, and by extension, tap into new customers. T
Brand ambassadors can participate in online activities such as creating social media content, just like affiliates or influencers. However, they can also participate in offline activities, like hosting events, classes, experiential marketing tactics and so on.
Additionally, ambassadors can be rewarded for their tasks with free products, discounts, cash payments, or commissions.
As you can see, brand ambassadors are influencers due to the fact that they have an audience. Also, if you use affiliate links to track and reward members, then you have a brand ambassador affiliate program.
Now that you know exactly what affiliates, influencers, and brand ambassadors are, it’s time to start identifying your goals and planning the ideal program.
As we mentioned before, they’re all about partnering with people to drive awareness and sales in key demographics. So instead of thinking about definitions, focus on creating a strategy that fits your marketing goals.
So what should you be thinking about?
Based on the current trends for these types of programs:
- Find influencers of any size that actually love your products or services.
- Focus on being authentic, building a community, and building the relationship with your customers.
- Run short-term influencer marketing campaigns for driving awareness when launching a product or service.
- Partner with creators on a long-term basis for conversions, building your community, and generating consistent user generated content.
- Use affiliate links in case you want to pay for performance.
- Consider other compensation methods.