How Online Instrument Retailer Sweetwater Built Their Affiliate Program

Sweetwater, an e-commerce site that focuses on musical instruments and professional audio equipment, is betting on a custom affiliate link program to fuel its next phase of growth.

The online retailer, which caters to professional and amateur musicians, has been around since the early 1980s. However, it has only been in recent years that the company has looked to social media and the affiliate marketing.

Sweetwater’s marketing team created the affiliate program pilot in late 2019, starting with around 20 creators and publishers. The program officially launched in early 2020 and membership has since grown to 500 accounts. It also saw 60% year-over-year growth from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the same period in 2021. The company credits the affiliate program – coinciding at a time when more and more people were experimenting new hobbies during the pandemic – for helping Sweetwater surpass $1 billion in sales in 2020. Additionally, the affiliate program has become a major customer acquisition channel due to the influx of people getting into musical hobbies during the pandemic, according to Sweetwater.

Identifying and recruiting the right creators

“Selling musical instruments and professional audio equipment through online influencers is very different from clothing or accessories,” said Sweetwater Engagement Manager Tyler Grooms. This, he said, is because many amateur and professional musicians want in-depth tutorials, not just product recommendations. “Even if you see an influencer using a cool new guitar, if you don’t play guitar, it doesn’t do much for you,” he noted.

The idea behind the affiliate strategy was to respond directly to the level of each musician, both their expertise and their social networks, Grooms said. This led Sweetwater to create a bonus and commission based linking program that tracks both customer acquisition and sales conversions. Additionally, influencer follower count is not an important factor for Sweetwater’s affiliate partnerships. “We work with creators with as few as 5,000 subscribers, which we believe is more successful at converting customers than a Sweetwater namedrop by a major chain,” Grooms said. Some of the program’s biggest partners include Guitar World, as well as YouTube channels like the guitarist Riffs, Barbs, and Gear and drummer Casey Cooper.

“We’ve been a retail destination for professional musicians for decades, and it’s given us an organic base of influencers,” Grooms said. To develop the affiliate program, Grooms and the marketing team worked with Sweetwater’s team of 600 sales engineers to recruit interested creators. “We are musicians and members of the online music community ourselves, so we are constantly finding great new partners and inviting them into our program,” Grooms said. The program is also attracting some interest from creators and referrals from existing members.

Personalized campaigns

Like other brand ambassador programs, the Affiliate Marketing Team facilitates the content creation process and rewards creators based on impressions and conversions.

One aspect that sets Sweetwater’s affiliate program apart, Grooms said, is the extensive collaboration process. “We’re thinking about fun concepts to highlight gear in the content they create,” he said, noting that sometimes it takes multiple Zoom meetings to facilitate. A recent collaboration involved guitarist Marty Schwartz visit the headquarters of Sweetwater in Indiana, where he surprised a number of his fans with lessons and product giveaways.

The company doesn’t ask creators to read bullet points, but instead Sweetwater’s marketing team finds the products musicians want to try before recommending them to their audience, Grooms said. Sweetwater has also built a self-service software system, which “Allows creators to create links, access payments, monitor performance, and see how their work affects the commissions they earn,” Grooms said.

Sweetwater’s marketing team works with product manufacturers to get products to specific creators in time for their content to roll out. “We provide hardware or pay a fee for embedding the product in the video,” Grooms said. This can range from specialist microphone requests for a vocal technique video, to keyboards or recording equipment. “For example, if they are [creator] starting to record a Nirvana song, we send them the guitar of their choice to make a video showcasing the process,” Grooms said.

Members of the program receive a 7% commission on sales, as well as the opportunity to earn a cash bonus if they attract a new customer without an ad-supported campaign. Sweetwater’s trackable links show “if a secondary ad helped make the sale,” Grooms said, in which the creator doesn’t earn the extra bonus.

One arm of the affiliate marketing team is dedicated to high influence channels like YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok. Another offers to display advertisements on publishers such as music review websites and trade magazines. Electronic DJs, in particular, have been popular on Twitch during the pandemic’s digital concert boom, with some affiliate creators doing 4-hour streams, Grooms said. “But YouTube is the biggest piece of the pie because computer viewing is a natural fit for educational music content,” he said.

Test younger platforms

According to Sweetwater, the affiliate program’s growth is outpacing the growth reported by its other marketing channels, such as paid display and retargeting ads. For 2022, the company wants to grow the program by tapping into the booming audience for TikTok and Snapchat music content.

“We want to woo a younger demographic on these channels, but we’re currently looking at what prices this group is comfortable with,” Grooms said. The affiliate program currently has 15 accounts on TikTok, but is gradually expanding the type of content the team wants to sponsor, Grooms said. “We don’t want to categorize TikTok musicians by assuming they only need entry-level equipment,” he explained.

This coming year, Sweetwater also wants to expand the affiliate program by adding new channels of various genres. The next wave of creators will focus on band and orchestra related content to help promote Sweetwater’s new store which focuses on weed and string instruments, Grooms said.

Outside of Sweetwater, personalized influencer programs are becoming increasingly popular among influencers and brands, especially among more niche retailers. Another such site that develops an affiliate program is Elfster, an organization service from Secret Santa.

Justin Kline, co-founder of influencer marketing agency Markerly, said the more crowded influencer marketing becomes, the harder it is for retailers to stand out. The reality is that you may be wasting your time and money because, yes, your brand is seen by a lot of eyeballs, but a lot of them may 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 necessarily those who have high-profile millions of followers.

For Sweetwater, the program helps the retailer keep up 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 are now making money from paid ads and sponsored content, instead of vying for a record deal. . “We want to create a revenue share model to support this group of creators.”