Affiliate marketing is one of the fastest growing segments of online commerce. Many people often ask me, what is affiliate marketing exactly? The easiest answer I can give is that it is the process by which online businesses give other websites access to tools and marketing collateral to sell products from their website on the company’s behalf. Just to get the terms right, an “affiliate” (i.e. Mike’s Tech Reviews) is a website that sells on behalf of a business, known as a “merchant” (i.e. Best Buy). These affiliates receive a performance (usually 5-10 percent) commission on each sale sent from their affiliate website to the merchant. These days it’s hard to find a major online store that does not have an affiliate program and now smaller companies are getting into the mix. Merchants love affiliate marketing because it creates an online sales force motivated by performance based commissions, effectively extending a merchant’s reach to a whole new client base. Websites with a lot of traffic or a targeted user base see affiliate marketing as a great way to convert visitors into revenue without having to carry products or fulfill orders.
Sounds easy, right? Well, it’s not! This is not a “get rich quick” scheme as many are led to believe. There are many nuances throughout the industry (such as rampant fraud) that you should understand before you take the plunge. To help get your business started, I have created my Do’s and Don’ts list for retailers/merchants who are considering an affiliate marketing program.
Do Join an Affiliate Network
For most top affiliates, it’s just too difficult to manage thousands of one-to-one relationships. The affiliates also worry about getting paid fairly and on time. Joining an affiliate network will give you credibility with top affiliates because the network acts as the escrow agent, providing consolidated reporting and payments to affiliates for multiple programs. They also take care of tax forms and complacence testing to ensure orders are being properly credited. The networks charge a set-up fee and then take a percentage of the commissions that merchants pay to the affiliates, typically 20-30%. You can certainly set up a direct program, but once you have even a handful of affiliates, administering these tasks yourself is just not worth the time or effort. The most popular affiliate networks are Shareasale.com, LinkShare, Commission Junction and Google Affiliate Network.
Do Assign a Dedicated Manager to the Affiliate Channel
Helping others effectively promote your business requires focus, attention and a deep understanding of the nuances of affiliate marketing. This marketing channel is very different from marketing directly to end consumers. It’s a great opportunity to reach new customers, but there are many pitfalls that can threaten a merchant’s selling potential. A dedicated affiliate marketing manager will serve a merchant’s business much the same way a franchiser helps franchisees to perform better. Most small companies find that it’s better to outsource their program to a firm that manages multiple programs simultaneously. It’s not a full-time job, but this ensures a dedicated focus and responsive service for your affiliates. More on this later.
Do Attend an Affiliate Summit
It’s a great way to meet a lot of interesting affiliates and merchants. Simply stated: this is where deals get done. Networking and personal relationships are important to success in affiliate marketing. Check out AffiliateSummit.com for more information on attending.
Do Reward Your Affiliates With a Tiered Commission Structure
The top performing affiliates will want a better commission level and the smart merchants will be set up to reward them with higher commission rates.
Do Be Patient
It can take up to six months to develop meaningful traction through your affiliate program, so don’t be discouraged if results don’t come right away. A lot of the legwork is upfront. However, the rewards come over a multi-year period. Over the long term, merchants should expect affiliate marketing to account for about 5-10 percent of overall sales volume. Keep that in mind if you are a merchant that is just starting to generate revenue, it could make the payback period even longer. However, once you have productive affiliates, they tend to remain that way for years.
Don’t Automatically Assume Big Affiliate Networks Are Better
Affiliate network sites such as LinkShare, Commission Junction and Google Affiliate Network are really suited to larger established merchants (Home Depot, Best Buy, et al). A smaller company (less than $10 million in sales) often becomes very frustrated by their upfront charges, minimum fees and lack of customer support to affiliates. Smaller networks such as Shareasale.com (my favorite), AvantLink and KowaBunga! are great alternatives when starting a new program on a limited budget.
Don’t Get Screwed by Coupon Sites
As mentioned above, there is rampant fraud in affiliate marketing. While some affiliate coupon sites can help create new buyers for merchants, many just take advantage of their natural search engine positions to attract buyers who are already committed customers – even at the point of a sale. They may also bid against you in paid search ads (using clever tricks to make these ads go undetected) and drive up your own marketing costs.
Don’t Assume All Sales Are Good Sales
At Acceleration Partners, we have learned through experience how to identify fraudulent behavior and we carefully monitor our client’s programs to catch bad behavior early on in the relationship with the affiliate. A good “terms and conditions” policy is a critical first step in combating fraud. It also helps to know which affiliate sites are reputable and which ones you should avoid. Outsourced firms who have this knowledge base can save merchants time and aggravation down the road.
Don’t Focus on Quantity of Affiliates
This market exemplifies the 80/20 rule. Most merchant sales will only come from a handful of good affiliates. Don’t get excited about hundreds of websites joining your program, because over half will never send you any leads. Many of the less sophisticated affiliates will actually just waste time and resources. Focus on the big fish. An affiliate who doesn’t start producing traffic within the first few months will likely never become productive. Time should be focused around making good affiliates better and this will drive a large portion of the merchant’s growth. Also, proactive outreach to a targeted affiliate audience is important, because some of the best potential affiliates may never find you.
Don’t Make Unnecessary Mistakes
Consult with someone who has experience setting-up an affiliate program before you launch. There are many repeatable best practices and avoidable pitfalls. Experience with the mechanics of the marketplace can matter more than experience in your specific industry.
If you have any questions or would like to learn more about our affiliate marketing or performance marketing services, please visit see our current Affiliate Programs Under Management. We represent some of the fastest growing programs in the industry.