Stephanie Harris is the owner & CEO of PartnerCentric, the largest woman-owned performance marketing agency in the US. A veteran of the space, Stephanie got her start as an award-winning affiliate program manager, personally managing at one time some of the largest programs in the PartnerCentric portfolio today. Her tenure in the industry, and philosophy that in order to lead you have to know how to do every role, has given her a comprehensive view of the industry as well as the ability to propel it forward with vision, innovation and drive.
She has been named a PerformanceIN Top 50 Industry Player three times and has held multiple speaking and moderating engagements at industry conferences such as Affiliate Summit (East and West), CardCon and Capital One’s Women in Business Panel. Her writing has been featured in FeedFront magazine, PerformanceIN and numerous other publications, and you may hear her speak on trends in leadership, culture-building, and the future of affiliate marketing through social networks such as Forbes Agency Council and LinkedIn.
Stephanie Harris lives in New York with her husband and four children.
What is your superpower and how did it help you start and build Partner Centric?
So I think that we ladies in the world, like definitely Second guess ourselves a lot. And I think my superpower is just like following my instincts and, you know, betting on myself in, in all situations.
Like I just feel that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. We’re all trying to figure it out. There’s never a stupid question I can ask and, you know, I can navigate this world with the, you know common sense that, you know, I see everyone else use and, and it will be okay. So I think that that has really allowed me to take chances and take risks and, you know, just take the bull by the horns.
What is your origin story with Partner Centric – we would love to know how you got started in the affiliate marketing space?
Okay, so everyone that’s in affiliate and probably everyone that’s also an influencer at this point.
We, I think many people fall into it sort of by happenstance. Affiliate is something that I certainly fell into by happenstance. I was a. Business an English major at Binghamton university. And I thought I wanted to be in publishing because that seemed like the sexy version of those two majors. And we all know that they don’t pay well, but I had done a internship while I was in Binghamton for.
PR firm upstate. And they had me work on a Catholic charities website because I think she was doing PR I think the woman was doing pro bono work for this charity. She was like, let me have this college intern. Do the website work. So I developed like an online portfolio. And so when I applied for internships at Scholastic Inc, and other publishing houses for the summer, I submitted this online portfolio and they put me into what they called the software group at Scholastic for a summer internship because I had this website experience and the person who I was paired up with and their department, she was launching the first affiliate program for Scholastic.
This was. 2000 2001. So like very beginning of affiliate, just going to stop. So everyone knows. Cause I was on the tech side and you would pretty much be the only woman in a room. Yes. Yes. There was any room. Yeah. Yes. Well the, the, my like boss and I’m putting it in quotes fingers. You guys can see it. Was also a woman and I’m still very close with her today.
And she was a great mentor and she actually became a client, a partner centric. So years and years and years later of mine. But she, you know, she was like, listen, launch the affiliate programs for scholastics classic teacher store. They had a few other properties, you know, we don’t really know what we’re doing with this stuff, but see what you can do this summer with it.
And I love that. I did a great job with it, launched on LinkShare, which became Rakhi tan. And I went back full time after I graduated and continued that work and affiliate. I start fell into it and continued and affiliate from the time I graduated college. So it’s just been all I’ve ever done. The business only ever did affiliate marketing.
And I can tell you a little. About how I came to have this business from being that young Scholastic employee. So I was there for two years in house. I got married. I wanted to find something that could provide me more flexibility. I wanted to work from home. So in 2006, I started working for two brothers.
The shaft brothers who started an outsource program management company, which is, you know, a company you hire when you’re in-house and you want to run an affiliate effort, but you don’t have the head count to hire someone for it. And so I worked remote for these two brothers and we built this business that was called chef consulting.
There was an acquisition of a business called partner centric. So became chef partner centric. I ran. Everything in that business. I took over that business as CEO in 2015. So I spent nine years. They had decided. Ah, as like chairman sort of thing, like didn’t want to be in day-to-day operations anymore.
So I became CEO of that business in 2015, right after I had my third baby. So I have like a two week old and I got this big promotion. I was very excited and. At the end of 2016 after having done that for a year, almost two years I approached them about wanting to, you know, fully buy them out of that business.
I felt it was really important for the ownership to be really present. I had ideas about what I wanted to do with that business. And so we completed that acquisition in early 2017 and it became partners. So I created a business called partner centric Inc. Out of those assets. That is unbelievable.
Yeah. So it’s been five years as partner centric, Inc.
What advice would you give to all the female entrepreneurs out there who have tuned in for this episode?
So I would say from the female perspective, I think that I definitely shocked them with approaching them.
I was nine months pregnant with my fourth and final baby. So I don’t think that I don’t think, I don’t think people in general think that. Women are looking to take on things like that, or to take those risks or even done their due diligence about what it would take to take those steps. So that conversation was very much like, well, you know, Stephanie, do you know how much money you’re going to need?
You know, if you’re even able to do this, if we do this, you can’t go back. Like you can’t just go back to being a CEO. If it doesn’t work out, like where is this? You know? But like I said earlier, I think you got to bet on yourself. And I, I think all entrepreneurs, women especially need to come with their I’s dotted and their T’s crossed, like, do your due diligence, do your homework before you, you know, take that plunge so that you have the answers for the questions, or like we were talking about earlier.
You ask whatever you don’t understand without any apology until you feel comfortable with what you’re taking on. I think women apologize. We apologize a lot. I have three daughters and I find that they also do it even at like young ages and, you know, I’m regularly say.
To my oldest, she was in sixth grade. Like you don’t have to apologize for the space you’re taking up. You know, she bumps into someone accidentally it’s, I’m sorry. But even if they bumped into her and it’s like, you, you have a right to stand there. Like someone else bumped into you don’t have to just apologize for standing there.
And I just think that’s like the epitome of, you know, what we’re conditioned to do, or even if, you know entrepreneurs and business leaders. When we w when we are not happy with how something is going, like, I just had something this morning where I was not happy with something, and I I’m writing out this email.
Like, I don’t want to see this happening now. Like I started it by saying, I’m sorry. To say this, but, and then I erase it cause it’s like, even though I still, like, after I sent it, you know, you have whatever feelings you have. Like, you don’t want to come down on people. You want people to want to do the job, but you also have a standard you want to uphold.
And, and just that balancing act is very difficult. It’s so hard. It’s so hard. Cause then you also want to be nice to everyone. Like we’re nice girls.
You have a gaggle of kids. How has being a CEO and business owner impacted them?
Well, you know, kids don’t care. Kids are like the great equalizer.
It’s like you know, I finished a meeting yesterday at six 30 and then I have what, you know, we call like second shift. You know, my waitressing duty is in my kitchen with, you know, chicken nuggets, corn, you have to eat your salad. You got to do, you know, the yelling about homework not being done yet. Who has to read to me, you know, they’re still, they’re still on, you know, elementary school age.
And You know, it’s, I would say that my kids probably don’t want to go into the kind of business I’m in. I think they see it as like mommy’s on the phone a lot, or mommy’s on zoom a lot. Mommy’s talking a lot for what she does, but don’t really understand it. But I think what they do see is that they come first.
But I also have other things in my life that are a priority for me, and that I have people that depend on me for other things. And so, you know, one of the things that became really important during like the height of COVID when everybody was home, was teaching my kids that, you know, they can have a, have a need, but I can address it.
After I’m done with something, unless they’re like bleeding or bang their head wall or whatever it is. And, and, and that taught us both patients cause like I had to be more patient with them and, and it was hard for them to share me, you know, once they were home all day long and seeing me through my office door and I wasn’t accessible, you know, we had to find a balance with each other.
So I think that. You know, the whole balancing, like you were saying before, there is no such thing, but at least kids, you know, especially with their parents working from home, we’re able to see that, like you got to share mom sometimes, you know, I feel like seeing a mom work. For me, it’s made my kid just like, it’s like, he’s like a tougher kid.
Like he’s like, wait, my mom is like, really like moving mountains here. And so I think it makes them tougher. And one of the things that I had to do, and I only have one, so it’s month, day, year, there’s no sharing. But one of the things that I realized during COVID was like, We’re going to treat every weekend, like a vacation.
Like, I don’t want to be like, oh, doing errant, like every time I’d get on the phone with them, well, we’re doing errands, we’re doing errands and going to the cleaners, I’m going to the, and so we try to literally make every weekend, like something crazy that we’re going to do. And whether it was, we dyed our hair blue one weekend, or we went, you know, we did a ton of kayaking, but we try, I try to make it feel like everything.
This weekend’s vacation. What are we doing? And it didn’t have to be something big, like went to a rock climbing wall. It was like, you know, but he felt, you know, so I think but I do think that having a mom as a CEO, especially it would be girls is just an incredible gift that you’re giving them. I’m about to cry.
Well, I, I love that. I love that you were doing that. I think that you know, as moms, they, you know, we, there are different gender roles and we all try and have balance with our partners and our spouses. But they come to us. My kids definitely come to me more. I’m more present in the house, even if I’m working.
And they come to me for the nurturing and the support and, and that kind of thing. And then if you’re stressed because of something that’s going on with work, you have to figure out how to like, turn that off enough to be able to give them that. And sometimes you, sometimes you can’t and sometimes what they’re learning is.
You know, we’re human also. And see, now I could cry. Cause I’m thinking about like, you know, I think my girls especially do definitely talk about what they want to be when they grow up. They want to be a mom and they want to be a mom who also owns like my little one wants to own a makeup salon one day, you know, she’s very into makeup and whatever.
Because they think. You know, you can, you can, you know, quote you at all. And, and my concern for them ultimately is that they see a realistic picture of that. So they don’t have like unrealistic expectations of themselves in trying to accomplish all of those things. You know, they want a family. I think that’s wonderful.
I want them to do that. I just want them, you know, I think one of the things as women that we really beat ourselves up about is just. Not being enough for any one of those things at any given time. Like something always has to give. Yeah. Yeah. There, we could go on for like a whole other hour talking about.
What did affiliate marketing look like when you got started in the space?
I think that, I think the industry grew up around coupon and loyalty of it all. It was definitely like in the beginning of the industry, people trying to navigate shopping on the internet, a lot of these mom and pops.
Affiliate faith popped up that were sharing coupons deals. They were able to find if you were willing to shop online, because that was like how we incentivize people to actually shop online. Back in the early two thousands was through getting a better deal online than what you can get in the store. And that’s, those were the early affiliates.
That’s how it really became more of a coupon center. Industry. And then over time, you know, that is just really evolved, especially with the advent of, you know, Instagram check, tack YouTube the digital press we’ll even call it like USA today. Dot com forums.com. Good housekeeping.com where they used to really only have.
You know, traditional advertising partners on there, you know, article pages now it’s all affiliate links. I mean, now if you’re a PR agency and you’re pitching a story to these digital press editors, and you’re saying, I want you to write on good housekeeping.com about these couches that can be delivered to your house.
They’re going to say, does that company have an affiliate program? Because if not, we’re not even going to consider it. They still go through the editorial staff to be able to monetize the lengths because after COVID a lot of those traditional advertising budgets dried up and it forced a lot of these digital press websites to supplement with, they used to be getting from like straight up, you know, Yeah to instead also have these affiliate links.
And so in a way, you know, it’s added to legitimacy and relevancy of the affiliate space, like never before, certainly like the social media influencers, you know, so many brands want to push that effort through the performance channel because they would rather pay, you know, on a backed out CPA, then all these like flat upfront fees.
But. You know, there’s a balancing act there too. So it has added a lot of relevancy to the channel. There’s so many different avenues for these performance-based relationships that are not just coupon and loyalty anymore.
So you see a lot of brands doing it? , I just think it’s crazy and I think it’s crazy specifically that like, yes, you’re going to these, the average consumer, the regular consumers, going to a media site thinking that they’re reading, but they’re actually clicking on affiliate.
Yeah. And you know, so many of them now put this, like, you know, it’s like little disclaimers at the top of the article. Like, you know, are, you know, these links, we may be commission. We may be commissioned for some of the links that you see to products in here, but the, you know, perspective is still an editor.
You know, we choose from an editorial basis. What we, what we want to discuss in this article or something. And so you mentioned something about like the CPA, like Tom does an affiliate, like you guys know, like when I’m working with influencers, like, I don’t know how many sales that person’s going to get and it’s, you know, but you back into the numbers.
How do affiliate marketers back into the numbers to ensure sales conversion before even pushing an offer?
So we. Typically when a client of ours wants to work with influencers, you have to figure out the budget.
As, you know, like a lot of these influencers, if they’re willing to work on a hybrid basis, you know, where you can back out into a CPA also, still want an upfront flat fee for discussing it. In addition to any product that has to be sent to them to do a review or like the fruit, you know, the pro product giveaways, you know, some of them want to offer their exactly, exactly.
You know, I think that the. Platforms have made this conversation a little bit easier because they now have like, you know, those embedded, you know, like if you have a link trades, like click through your, through your link tree or, you know, Instagram has their own, you know, affiliate platform. Now, if you want to embed your links with affiliate links we’ll often try to.
You know, work with them on like specific coupon call is that we are blocking from being used from like other sites. So you’re not clicking or using that code after visiting that influencer page, you’re not going to be able to get, like, if another affiliate picks up that coupon code that such and such, then they don’t get credit for it.
So that helps cut down the noise as to what’s really being generated through that relationship. But it, you know, it’s more of an art than a science, like we can say to a client you want to go after ma millennial moms you know, this is the audience size, this is where, how they typically are converting.
What are the KPIs that we’re trying to look back at often and affiliate, it’s going to be back to like what. I purchased within a certain timeframe afterwards, we also might layer in additional KPIs that like, well, were there additional mentions that you got from these other, you know from, from other people who are linking in to that, you know, who were, who were, you know, adding or mentioning or doing comments on that influencers, you know, posts you know, what was the level of engagement that actually happened after we did that?
And does that give you more of a loyal. Advocacy base for your brand later, but often with affiliate, they really just want to know, like what’s the revenue that was generated from this. And at the end of the day, The higher, the flat, upfront fee, the more difficult the hurdle is to get a return on that.
And so often if they’re not happy, little bit, they see, you know, we are not able to, for that brand work with that influencer again in the future, like, you know, it’s, it’s you can’t just say, well, it’s for PRC. Like it’s just to get your name out there and yeah, in my world, you can, and your world to can in my world, In my world, but many China, you know, many, many businesses try to push that effort through affiliate because they want that accountability.
It’s just that there’s a lot of trial and error and trying to get there. It’s very cause you, and there’s also no rhyme or reason. Some they can push one product and they sell a boatload of them. And the next thing they do is it doesn’t work or one influencer can perform really well. And you think the next one, just like that person, who’s like a lookalike is going to perform well.
And they know.
How do influencers respond to affiliate deals, and do you see a different reaction based on influencer size or category?
I think because it takes a lot of effort for them to create original content. And enthusiasm around what you’re asking them to do. They even the small, even the smaller influencers want some sort of, you know, upfront peanut. I mean, the truth is we’re not going to go after.
Someone who has 200 followers who probably would take free, you know, product instead, because it’s just not enough eyeballs. Like, there’s definitely that sort of like, you know, you don’t want someone of a Kim Kardashian size and only cause you don’t have the budget for it because it’s too broad. It’s too.
It’s too macro. And the conversion on that is not going to be where you need it to be. But if it’s too small, you’re not getting enough traction for what the effort takes to spend the time and the brand’s time to send products and everything. So you know, I think everyone wants something upfront. It’s a matter of like what the combination is upfront versus the commission they’re going to get and how high that commission.
For the transaction, many of them are getting the VIP rates in these programs. They’re getting much higher than what the default is for other partners. Yeah. I mean, it’s just amazing. I mean, so much has changed in this space and I think. You know, you, I think even in the last five months, just influencer rates have tripled.
Like we’re dealing with people like who used to charge a certain rate. And now they’re like, Nope, my rates three times. And like some of it’s it’s because look. Yeah. And at the end of the day, like, I don’t think people think about it. Like, yes, you’re getting a product. These people are taking the pictures, they’re sharing it with their audience.
They’re staging it. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. So yeah, it’s, it’s a crazy process.
Can you walk us through the affiliate marketers’ journey when working with influencers to make shoppable social posts?
We actually are doing, we’re doing a day of learning here at partner centric in three weeks and where we’re trying to get, it’s going to be our first one. And we’re trying to do for our staff, like to support them better in, you know, gaining additional like mastery or expertise and things that are like these new and upcoming trends that you’re talking about.
One of the brainstorming session is actually on the live streaming. Connection to affiliate because we do have, I would say that we don’t, it’s not that clients are coming to us and say, we want you to wrong. Help us manage the like Amazon livestream shopping event that we’re doing. You know, it’s more that we see it as an area of opportunity.
There’s I don’t see. Intertwining with the fiddly. It very much yet. I mean, Amazon associates is that the, the, the people doing that on Amazon are part of the Amazon is those associates and that’s like its own the original affiliate program and platform was the Amazon associates program. You know, but, but we’re definitely watching that a lot.
We’ve done a couple of different like tests with clients who are, you know, are. Really best suited for that to see what the traction will be like from an affiliate perspective, but like jury is still out on that, but I think it is something really that is going to become more and more part of a conversation.
And just like everything else. It’s going to be backed out to a performance basis, something that we’re doing and we’re going to have to figure it out. Yeah. Well, let me know when we do, I’ll keep you posted on my progress as well. I would love to hear. Yeah, so we’re in the same boat, so it’s been lovely.
And so I just am, so I could keep talking to you for the next, you know so thank you for sharing all your insights. And again, congratulations on all the amazing things that you’ve accomplished.
Name an influencer you love to follow but hate to admit you do?
I was, I was thinking about this and I looking at my Instagram feed this morning and the trend that I’m noticing, it’s going to sound very silly, but I follow a lot of. People who used to be on my trashy or non trashy reality shows and laugh. So like I ask people from like teen mom on MTV that I’ve, since last that I follow, I have people like Bethany Frankel from Housewives and the band, or pop some of the Vanderpump people.
And I. What fascinates me. Why am I, why do I follow these people? And I think it fascinates me that they started on like traditional meat. May they, all the power was in with MTV or Bravo or whoever they were nobodies when they got on these platforms. And then through social media, they have a mass like millions of followers and have launched I’ve left those platforms and have launched these like crazy successful.
Businesses without the need for MTV or Bronco or whoever, you know? And so I do, I follow, like I have Chelsea divor, he used to be on teen mom who now has an HGTV show coming out and has like a furniture line and a clothing line. And I’m like, why do I follow this person? Why do I, why do I have them in my feed?
But that’s probably what. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to see like how these people like have evolved and also like, why did we watch them in the first place? And I think in the first place it was like kind of comfort, like, okay. That person’s life is like that mine’s okay. Right. Well, in the team mom example, I, you know, when I had my.
Child. I remember to like flipping channels and tuning into teen mom and be like, okay, I’m doing better than that. Like, I’m not leaving my baby on a counter and she’s falling over. And like, I’m doing better than this 16 year old. Right. Like when I see certain people falling off chairs and I’m like, okay, I got it.
I’m okay. Right. Yeah. Well, thank you. We, we, we share a lot of the same sentiments there, so thank you so much, Stephanie. I can’t wait to see where things go for you. We’ll be watching and please stay in touch. It’s been lovely having you. Thanks for having me.