My earliest blog post here, from November 2009, discusses my personal brand of affiliate management. Ever since then, I’ve been very open about my strategies and evolving philosophies on how to best manage affiliate programs. I’ve published two ebooks of affiliate management advice and spoken at many affiliate-related conferences, giving other managers tips and tricks on how to succeed. Nine years since that first blog post, my goal here is to distill all that into 10 commandments that all affiliate managers should follow. This works for any industry or niche, but it’s much more geared to those with minimal experience in affiliate marketing, especially company owners who launch without a plan or a manager in place.
I. Thou shalt answer emails promptly
We constantly hear affiliates complain about other managers not answering messages. Affiliates have questions and it shouldn’t matter if they are a multi-million dollar corporate affiliate or a new blogger. It’s common courtesy and excellent customer service to hit reply and then respond in a timely manner. (I realize affiliates are just as bad at answering emails but you have to keep trying.)
II. Thou shalt talk to other managers
Don’t live in a bubble. You don’t have all the answers; none of us do. Every week I talk with affiliate managers who have been doing this job for up to 20 years. Everything changes and we keep each other up to date with best practices and ideas. Some of them are my competitors. Others are in-house managers with various backgrounds. We all want to do a better job. So we keep in touch. If you want to talk with me comment below or send me a message. If we aren’t a good match, I’ll give you other sources to find your colleagues. It’s not just about finding a mentor, it’s networking because this industry is all about relationships.
III. Attend events of thy industry
Go, find your people and mingle. Affiliate Summit is a must, at least once a year. I’ve attended 18 Affiliate Summits since 2006 and each time I walk away with something useful to help my programs. The educational sessions can be a great source for affiliate management advice as well. The speakers are nearly always — I’ve never seen one who isn’t — eager to answer questions one on one after their presentation. I’ve also attended network conferences such as ShareASale ThinkTank, CJU, and Rakuten (Linkshare) Symposium. Whichever network you use, they should have some sort of annual gathering. For the last few years, we’ve sponsored and spoken at the Type-A conference. This has been an excellent chance to meet new affiliates and share experiences.
IV. Understand how thy affiliates promote
Just because an affiliate sends you sales doesn’t mean they are the right affiliates for your program. As the affiliate manager, you need to fully understand their methods of promotion. This also means you need to have a strict affiliate agreement with enforcement in place. But you can start by looking at their referring traffic. If you have robust paid search and social media ad campaigns in place, you don’t want to see traffic coming from Google or Facebook. Understand how their traffic could be driving up your costs. You also need to monitor behavior in promotions. One of the largest affiliates in the world, Ebates, won’t stand down to other affiliate traffic. So if you cultivate a new affiliate and they put their heart and soul into promoting your brand, it’s possible they can lose a percentage of their sales to Ebates when those customers take the cash back option. Affiliates will always fit in at least one known bucket. Know how to treat those buckets. For us, this dictates the commission rate affiliates are paid and how sales are attributed within the channel.
V. Thou shalt advocate for both sides
The company pays the affiliate manager. But that doesn’t mean a manager should blindly obey the boss’s dictates or rules. You need to be an advocate for your affiliates. Give them as many resources and opportunities as possible to help you sell more products. The worst PR you can receive in the affiliate industry is dropping commission or changing cookie windows from months to days or days to hours without any transparency or communication. Don’t do anything to piss off your partners. On the other side, fraud happens. Keep a close eye on the program by monitoring the application process and weeding out suspicious affiliates before they have a chance to get active. Your job is also to protect the brand by spot-checking promotions and making sure affiliates are abiding by the rules. One small example: one of our clients is The California Wine Club, note The California Wine Club. We make sure affiliates always include “The” because that’s the brand name. Fight for both sides.
VI. Thou shalt manage expectations
The affiliate program is going to grow at its own pace. If your month-over-month and/or year-over-year growth is double digits, count yourself lucky. The odds, however, are never going to be in your favor for exponential triple- or quadruple-digit growth. If your bosses are demanding affiliates to be active immediately and change the shape of the overall sales for the company, you are doomed. If you are doing everything you can to grow the program and it doesn’t, everyone needs to be prepared for that. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.
VII. Thou shalt never stop optimizing
Too many programs are launched with no one continually optimizing the many moving parts. The bread becomes stale if you let it sit on the counter. The Apogee audit checklist has 25 checkpoints for optimization. This includes the bio page, autoresponders, trigger campaigns, creative links and banners, keywords, commission rules, datafeed and relevant KPIs. All of these items and many more should be tested and refreshed quarterly at least. Numbers change. Products come and go; so do banners and landing pages. If these items aren’t optimized, affiliates will see it and consider the program dead or dying. They window shop constantly so keep the best image possible.
VIII. Thou shalt be honest and professional
Affiliates were burned many times before they met you. They need to feel comfortable working with you and they want to make sure they get paid for an honest day’s work. Transparency is key here along with strong communication. Do not let them find out your tracking hasn’t worked for the last month and you kept it a secret. If you have a problem with their promotions, tell them why. This might be the most important bit of affiliate management advice on the list, really. Honesty and professionalism: your time in this industry is measured by it. Remember too, your sense of humor will not always translate well by email. (Written by a reformed Gorilla.)
IX. Thou shalt teach thy affiliates best practices
For many years, we told affiliates we could only teach them how to promote our client’s products. We couldn’t teach them how to be better affiliates. When recruiting tools advanced a few years ago, we saw a huge number of affiliates joining but never sending one click. Two of our core tasks now are affiliate education and activation. New affiliates do not know about datafeed tools, link shorteners, how to find links or how to run reports. I want to enable them to become better affiliates in all the programs they join. That helps other managers and the industry overall. Take an active role in educating affiliates to make more money.
X. Recruiting never ends, folks. Strap in. Seriously.
It doesn’t matter if you are using a third-party tool, an in-house database or if you are sweating it out by hitting the pavement to find new partners. Today’s affiliates might not be here tomorrow. Recruiting new affiliates is the primary goal of every program. You cannot just launch a program and wait for them to find you. Recruiting has to be proactive and constant. Some of the best bloggers in the ShareASale system earned their first checks with my program, Flirty Home. Today, some of them are too busy to promote us and others simply gave up over the years. Affiliates are people and they have limited attention spans. They might have huge success with you this month but next month, they’ve moved on to another project. A year from now when you contact them, they might not even own the domain anymore. Never stop recruiting.
Affiliate Management Advice for 2018: Now It’s Your Turn
There you have it; that’s my affiliate management advice, Ten Commandments-style, in no particular order. I want to hear from you.
Do you agree? Disagree?
What questions would you like to ask?
Do you have anything to add?
Your opportunity lies in the comments below.