An affiliate application came in recently for a new category of t-shirts we added to 80sTees.com. The application was from a fan site of the new property. I immediately approved them because it was a great match for our new category. I had low expectations because the site didn't look incredibly huge. On day 1 they generated more sales than I would have expected them to generate in 90 days.
I asked the site owner how they found out about us. A friend alerted him to the new category (although he had purchased from us a long time ago). My guess is the friend discovered it by either being on our email list or from a facebook ad. So the path from a customer who was referred by this affiliate goes something like this:
Friend of Fan Site Owner > Fan Site Owner > Fan Site Member
The fan site owner is getting a commission on all the sales he's sending, so on my marketing cost side it looks like the affiliate network is the driver of those sales. But the truth is the real credit for those orders should go to the first point of contact, which is the mysterious "Friend of Fan Site Owner".
So let's assume it was a facebook ad that alerted "Friend". What is my return on the ads? I can tell you that if I look right now at my ROI on those ads I would classify them as poor performers relative to the rest of my ads. But, if I was able to attribute "Friend of Fan Site Owner" to one of those ads now my ROI looks like one of my best ads ever.
I don't know that there is a clean takeaway or action item. No moral to this story other than the numbers don't always tell the whole story when it comes to marketing spend.