Why Marketing Agencies Should Stop Faking Affiliate Practices

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This article was originally published on PerformanceIN.

Recently, we talked to a company that was unhappy with its affiliate program. We weren’t familiar with the digital marketing agency that was managing the program, so we decided to look it up. We discovered that a single junior manager with no prior affiliate management experience was overseeing six programs.

Personally, I think this arrangement borders on malpractice, and I can’t imagine the agency’s clients get the desired results. Unfortunately, as affiliate programs are becoming more widespread, so is this disservice. Marketing agencies are increasingly taking a one-person approach, rather than partnering with firms that are capable of delivering results and being honest about the channels they have experience running.

How does this happen? Well, it’s simple: Agencies hate saying “no” to new business, and clients love sending misguided requests for proposals that ask for management across a number of marketing channels. To win accounts, agencies promise to deliver results in channels in which they don’t have any real expertise.

While agencies may be able to get away with this in other disciplines, it’s very dangerous in affiliate marketing — where they’re effectively licensing the client’s brand and can inadvertently harm its business.

A viable affiliate practice needs a cross section of skills, including recruitment, fraud management, event representation, daily program operation, and creative campaign development. It’s rare for one person to possess this entire skill set, and it’s almost impossible for a few people to cover all the bases across a portfolio of programs. The bottom line: A one- or two-person affiliate practice is a raw deal for clients, employees, and agencies.

The problem with a one-person affiliate practice

Many in-house affiliate managers transition to larger agencies to build out an affiliate practice. Often, they’re spread thin, and their firms don’t understand or support the channel (the “practice” only exists to win the larger request for proposals).

Additionally, they’re expected to do everything for a disjointed portfolio of programs — from high-level client service work to basic program applications — which hinders their performance. It’s very isolating, and inevitably, client satisfaction drops due to a lack of support. We’ve had many people join our team after experiencing this. As a result, their agencies are left holding the bag, and their clients often want to follow them to the new firm.

Their clients may also be surprised to learn that what was pitched as a “practice” is really just a person. These managers can’t realistically drive results comparable to a large team of experienced managers with appropriate infrastructure, training, and support. As a result, programs aren’t aligned with brand standards and are filled with low-quality affiliates (including trademark violators, nefarious toolbar users, cookie stuffers, etc.), which cost clients money.

For example, we worked with a prominent brand that had its global agency manage its affiliate program as part of a larger digital marketing agreement. However, the agency’s affiliate practice only consisted of a few people, who slowly moved to other firms and weren’t replaced.

Eventually, the last person quit, leaving the agency without a single affiliate account manager. The agency had to tell the client that it could no longer service the program, which then languished for six months and cost the client hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was a bad decision to offer affiliate program management in the first place — it risked the agency’s relationship with more lucrative channels.

Affiliate isn’t a channel to simply dabble in. To truly compete, you need a baseline level of experienced team members, as well as supporting infrastructures, partnerships, and technology. If agencies don’t invest in building out real affiliate marketing capabilities, they risk losing valuable clients due to staff turnover and poor performance.

This puts their larger engagement at risk. This risk isn’t worthwhile in a channel in which agencies lack understanding and don’t have best-in-class status. Focus is the hallmark of any successful business, and agencies should have the confidence to say “no” or consider partnering with an experienced affiliate marketing agency. Through a partnership, it’s possible to offer a seamless client experience with an arrangement that will deliver better results.

Affiliate marketing is too complex to be offered by marketing agencies as an add-on service. While clients may prefer to limit their number of vendor relationships, engaging an experienced affiliate marketing agency from the outset will save time and money and ensure that programs are managed properly.

To learn more about what your program should be doing to compete, read our e-book Affiliate Marketing Grows Up.

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