What was already a growing digital skills gap has quickly escalated in a competitive job market—especially for companies in high-growth industries such as performance marketing.
At Acceleration Partners (AP), a partnership marketing firm in one of the fastest-growing areas of digital marketing, we recruit talent to manage affiliate programs across the globe for industry-leading brands. Even before the pandemic began accelerating digital marketing initiatives, finding qualified candidates to fill an ever-increasing number of openings for account managers was a challenge. Part of the reason is that the work requires strong client services and communications skills, strategic and innovative thinking, an aptitude toward data and analytics, as well as a strong pulse on the latest industry trends. In short, managing partnership marketing programs involves a unique combination of experience and capabilities, and historically, it has been challenging to find talent ready to hit the ground running.
One of my favorite sayings is by Milton Berle, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” In 2017, Acceleration Partners decided to address this skills gap by developing talent ourselves. We started our Affiliate Academy, a unique training program designed for professionals with client services and digital marketing expertise, who ideally have worked at an agency before, but with little to no affiliate experience. Since its inception, Affiliate Academy has evolved a highly skilled team with the knowledge and expertise to meet clients’ needs in any industry vertical.
Academy participants are hired into cohorts, and each group goes through an intensive three-month-long training program. They are provided with hands-on experience in a highly supervised environment focused on learning and development.
The first five weeks of Affiliate Academy are dedicated to training, with no client responsibilities, under the supervision of a Training manager. These first weeks feature structured, guided training leveraging a blended learning approach, including eLearning, hands-on learning, shadowing, and instructor-led training. This portion of the training program concludes with a more intensive “virtual onsite” consisting of virtual instructor-led training, hands-on learning, and role-plays, culminating in a final capstone project. This project demonstrates what participants learned from the program and where they may need to focus their development as they shift to the on-the-job portion of the training program for the remaining two months.
By the end of the program, Affiliate Academy graduates have in-depth knowledge on strategically managing affiliate partners and providing high-value service to clients. At the same time, AP has addressed its skills gap and fulfilled its hiring goals by developing our own account managers.
5 Best Practices
For other companies facing similar talent gap challenges and considering launching their own training programs, here are the top five best practices that we put to work for our Affiliate Academy:
- Establish clear program goals and objectives.
By setting clear program goals and objectives from the start, you can determine what success looks like and ensure alignment and support from your leadership team. This also helps key stakeholders understand the relevant roles, responsibilities, and skills you need to focus on, which can help identify the right components for your program design and curriculum.
- Design program and develop curriculum.
The next step is to build out the program structure, including the timeline, curriculum, assignments, assessments, and feedback opportunities. When thinking about the delivery method, a blended learning approach that balances learner preferences is typically most successful. We include as much hands-on learning as possible, as most people learn best by doing. When possible, leverage subject matter experts and have a training plan that identifies who will facilitate (internally, externally, or both).
- Target the right candidates.
Before you start recruiting, make sure you know which skills and experience typically lead to success in the role. Additionally, look for new team members who are a fit for your company’s core values, as they tend to be leading indicators of success. It’s critical to consistently evaluate program graduates against performance over time to ensure you are targeting the right profile, making any tweaks as needed.
- Set clear expectations and outcomes.
As you recruit candidates for your program, clearly communicate what the program entails, as well as what’s expected of them after they complete the training program. Be up front about whether there will be continued on-the-job training and if they are expected to perform the job right away. Outlining a 30-, 60-, and 90-day plan can help ensure managers and teams are aligned around performance expectations.
- Measure and improve.
Develop key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the success of the program and to identify areas to excel and improve. At AP, we gather feedback from all those involved and measure everything from training comprehension and job performance to manager and employee feedback and retention and promotion rates. This helps to provide insight into participants’ needs and comprehension, allowing us to pivot the curriculum in real time. Measuring outcomes over the long term helps us to determine the success of the program, including whether participants go on to advance within the organization or if they have longer tenure.
Marketing industry leaders predict that affiliate marketing will become a large part of the online marketing mix for the world’s leading companies; however, growth in this area will be limited by the shortage of raw talent to serve the needs of the industry, brands, and agencies. Acceleration Partners is rising to that challenge by using our own Affiliate Academy to develop the skilled talent we could not find in the marketplace. In doing so, we’ve built a team of highly qualified and intensely loyal employees. There is no question that the up-front investment in this training has paid off and Academy participants will continue to grow into senior roles, driving even more value and providing AP with a competitive advantage.