Q&A Session: Sherry Hsieh
Sherry Hsieh Q&A Session is happening on August 1st, 2019 at 10:00 AM PST (1:00 PM EST)
Sherry Hsieh is the Director of Affiliate Partnerships at CheapOair and OneTravel, under the parent company Fareportal. She oversees a portfolio of affiliate programs and leads the affiliate team globally to manage a rigorous framework for growing affiliate networks and marketplaces.
Previously, Sherry led audience engagement and revenue growth for travel and luxury brands at Meredith Corporation, formerly Time Inc., including Travel + Leisure
Sherry graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in Management and holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Film Studies from Vanderbilt University.
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Sherry Hsieh Transcript
Hi everyone, I’m thrilled to be here, and thank you for having me! Happy to answer any questions you have, particularly in my background and experience.
What does an average day look like for you?
Typically, I start the day with a daily standup with my immediate team. We go over priorities for the day, how we are pacing against our KPIs, and everyone brings up ideas, shares successes, and helps each other with challenges. I would have pre-scheduled meetings with our affiliate networks, new and existing publishers, and internal stakeholders to discuss performance, set expectations, agree on what we want to achieve together and the approach to take. The rest of the day may be focusing on strategizing our affiliate partnerships by looking into data and gathering insights, in addition to brainstorming creative ways to maximize ROI.
Alright, so: what are the most annoying things you have to deal with daily?
Breaking down barriers based on what affiliate partnerships mean to different teams and to external partners. Affiliate marketing can take place in various forms, such as there are many ways to share profits among partners, in addition to numerous business models, some focusing on CPA and some may have a CPC budget, partners may have conflicting business goals resulting in failed partnerships which happens often.
What’s one great story you have of a partnership you nailed?
In recent months, we started a partnership with Affirm to allow travelers to pay for flights overtime on CheapOair.com and OneTravel.com. This payment method integration offers a new way of financing and further taps into markets that were previously less targeted. Our users can see their spending limit and monthly payment upfront prior to searching for their travel options, which can help make travel more affordable.
What do you feel is the most challenging part of your job?
Affiliate marketing is evolving at a rapid speed. Staying ahead and expecting what comes next can be a great but exciting challenge. It can take a few weeks to a few months to gain traction with one partner and to build sizable profits, which can be difficult when there are short-term KPIs to meet. Additionally, the success of a partnership depends on both parties involved. There will be times that things fall outside of one’s control.
How do you work with other companies in the same segment (hotels, car rentals, etc)
The beauty of affiliate partnerships is that anyone can be your partner instead of your competitor. It is possible to find ways to build scale based on combined business resources. For example, we can work together with another travel company to reach each other’s user groups. It can work particularly well if we have different business goals to meet, let’s say one looking to increase ticket sales and one looking to sell ancillary products.
What commonalities have you found in common with marketing tactics/strategies between the beauty industry and travel?
Both the beauty and travel industries focus on selling lifestyles and may focus more on experience than products directly. The two industries have high- and low-margin markets coexist, which implies that marketing is particularly important in these businesses to define targeted consumers, respective markets, and how the products are packaged and promoted.
How do you set yourself apart from all the competition? What are some examples of how you are different? Have you seen that this is a good selling point for you?
To highlight how we are different from other similar Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and our unique business value. For example, CheapOair focuses on flights vs. other OTAs that may target hotels. Our publishers earn commissions from us when a booking is confirmed rather than post-trip consumption, which means that our partners don’t have to wait for months to get paid if a trip is months away. As I have worked on affiliate partnerships on both advertiser and publisher sides, I understand it is crucial to pinpoint what matters more to both parties, and it works well when both sides’ interests are considered simultaneously.
So, where do you think Google will stop? Are they going to become a travel agency?
It depends on how Google chooses to play in this space. As of now, our metasearch team who focuses on price comparison is working with Google to give users the option to either book their trips without leaving Google or to direct traffic to our sites to complete bookings. As we learn further about consumer behaviors as time evolves, the online travel booking experience will continue shifting to meet market demands.
If you were starting a company in the travel space today. Where would you focus in terms of acquiring travel-minded consumers? If you were starting a travel deals newsletter and wanted to drive signups what marketing channel would you use?
During my time at Travel + Leisure, we started a Travel Deals newsletter which became one of the most profitable newsletter products we monetized. In terms of driving new subscribers, we leveraged on-site and off-site placements. For on-site, the newsletter product was heavily promoted among deal-type content. We also targeted inbound traffic based on user activities on site. If we were able to identify a user, we can serve up different newsletter product offerings depending on if the person already subscribed to one of our newsletters. For off-site, we worked with high-affinity brands to leverage the other party’s user group. Additionally, sweepstakes were used to collect email addresses in exchange for winning prizes.
What tools do you use to effectively communicate strategies to a large team?
Face-to-face meetings or at least using webcams among geographically dispersed team really helps communication and to get direct feedback based on body language. I regularly ask for feedback to adjust how I communicate to ensure the message is received in an intended way. When time permits, I like to break down a large team into smaller teams for meetings to get deeper insights and to tap into unique areas that certain groups may not be comfortable sharing with other departments, or certain strategies that may not be applicable to all. That way, I can also tailor ideas to a more comprehensible way based on the group’s background and knowledge of the topic.
Did you build CheapOAir’s affiliate program from the ground up or inherit an existing program and help scale it? What pitfalls can you articulate with managing affiliate partnerships?
Prior to joining the company, CheapOair was already active on several affiliate networks. I focused my efforts on building a model to scale up existing partnerships while reducing costs, in addition to identifying new publishers with whom we can work together to see meaningful results. While affiliate marketing is generally considered a low-cost channel, which can bring guaranteed revenue, tapping into paid placements can easily drive up costs if the margin is not maintained. Separately, setting expectations and boundaries with business partners in earlier conversations will help manage relationships more effectively for both parties. It happens quite often that partners may be looking to meet their own KPIs first without incorporating the partner’s business needs, which can create unnecessary friction.
What is search CheapOairs the biggest traffic driver?
Search can broadly include metasearch, organic, and paid search, which brings CheapOair a significant share of traffic.
Is your growth solely / mostly driven by your affiliate stream? What other channels does CheapOAir leverage if any?
Depending on how growth is defined. Different channels are leveraged and work together to meet various business needs. In addition to the search mentioned above, newsletters, display ads, affiliate, social media, call centers, etc. are marketing channels we use to promote across desktop, mobile, and apps.
How can new brands build up a strong network of high impact affiliates? Where’s the best place (outside of your own customer base) to find great affiliates?
Identifying high-affinity brands and partners that share similar brand positioning and audience groups. CheapOair specializes in providing affordable flight options, which attracts users looking to find the best travel deals. To find affiliate partners who can convert well for us, sites that focus on promotions, loyalty programs, and cashback offers are some of our effective partners.
Why do I see you guys never on Google Flights?
We are integrated with Google Flights. Availability will depend on routes and flight options that CheapOair offers.
What’s the benefit of using travel agencies now when people can easily purchase flights online?
There are certainly pros and cons with all the booking options online and offline. CheapOair works with over 450 airlines globally, which can offer unique flight combinations that a single airline may not be able to. Travel agents and professionals can often provide services that save travelers time and efforts to compare travel options themselves, or they may even have access to lower fares that may not be published elsewhere.
Have you had much traction in Canada? What are some of your challenges?
Our CheapOair.ca site has a dedicated affiliate program. Though sales in Canada is not at the scale where the U.S. is today, it’s growing at a much higher rate. By working with publishers who specialize in engaging with Canadian travelers, we have seen significant sales compared to those who promote across borders without tailoring to individual markets. It can be challenging to find many sizable partners to work with comparing to the U.S., and it can take much longer to onboard new publishers who haven’t been exposed to affiliate marketing much.
What changes do you think will come to affiliate marketing in the next 3-5 years?
Strategic partnerships will continue to grow. As companies look to find new revenue streams, affiliate partnerships can create innovative ways to partner with other companies and to scale up. Brands that compete against each other may team up to dominate market share even further. New technologies will change how consumers make purchases, which can affect existing affiliate models to continue evolving.
Some of these referral sources (I’m assuming many are affiliates) are incredible. I’d love to hear about the outreach approach and CRM used (Buzzstream, Pitchbox, etc) to manage follow-ups and sequences.
Many of the partners on this list fall under different teams depending on the business relationships we have. Speaking for affiliate networks specifically, many offer tools to set alerts and auto-trigger responses based on pre-set criteria. Within our team, we also developed a workflow to break down tasks into various steps to be taken care of by assignees. A tool can be helpful but not always necessary.
How do you work with the most common problems in the affiliate space, like fake purchases, copyrighting, fighting spam, affiliates bidding on your keywords on Ads, and other problems you might also find?
We work with our in-house fraud prevention team as well as utilizing external tools to identify and control fraudulent activities when those happen. For copyright violations, we partner with our Legal team and take legal actions when needed. To defeat spam, we partner with our affiliate networks and the respective publishers to track down sources and to remove violating accounts and access. For unapproved bidding on our branded keywords, we use external tools to scan online engines and to take necessary actions to police violations. For the most part, we track down any loopholes that may exist in our systems and develop a SOP to work with internal and external stakeholders to actively prevent the same issue from happening again.
Due to the environmental changes, our planet is facing – have you developed any partnerships to help counteract the impact of the travel industry? If so, what are they?
For every new partner we onboard, we not only look at business returns but also the legitimacy of individual business models. Some of the publishers we work with focusing on social impacts and re-investing the commissions they earn from us into good causes. For example, our partner CouponCause donates a portion of the commission they earn from us to non-profit organizations like charity: water, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Surfrider Foundation, Waves For Water, to name a few.
Do you track affiliates internally or use a third-party platform for it? Any thoughts there?
We use a combination of internal and external tools to gather data and develop insights. Affiliate networks generally have built-in dashboards that provide neutral data points for both advertisers and publishers. When additional data is needed such as specific traffic sources from a publisher, we also work with our external partners to collect information from their end. Internally, we aggregate various data points across affiliate networks and platforms into Power BI dashboards and other proprietary internal dashboards as well. Since tracking may be set up differently for each tool, it’s always a good idea to compare data sources to validate.
Thank you for all the questions and feedback! Feel free to let me know if you have any additional thoughts or need further clarification. Appreciate your participation and looking forward to growing together!
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