Not all affiliate marketing programs are created equal.
In fact, a lot of great companies have very poorly run affiliate marketing programs, which publishers come to find out over time. A great brand does not automatically equate to a great program. Case in point, some retailers who are known for their great customer service fail to extend this same mantra to their affiliate partners.
What makes a strong affiliate marketing program is when the brand has a combination of brand awareness, excellent management, and airtight internal logistics. After all, successful and productive affiliate programs run their operations like a company.
As a publisher, it’s in your best interest to be aware of the subtle differences between one brand’s affiliate marketing program and another’s. That awareness will help ensure you don’t make poor decisions when it comes to partnering with brands via their affiliate programs.
Here are five characteristics you should be looking for in a well-run affiliate program as either a publisher or someone who oversees the channel at a high level.
1) Brand awareness
Yes, a merchant’s affiliate marketing program needs brand awareness. But this brand awareness has more to do with how the program treats affiliates, the responsiveness of the managers, and so on. Customer service is how publishers are treated.
A program should clearly convey to the publisher who is running the day-to-day operations of the program and how to get in touch with them. There are many affiliate marketing programs that seek to obfuscate this information by using the term “affiliate team,” and use an email alias instead of using actual names and direct contact information. People want to deal with and develop relationships with real people, not anonymous “teams” or aliases.
For publishers to have transparency and trust, the program needs to make it clear who is involved and who is in charge. No one would ever do a business development deal with an email alias.
2) Great management
Whether they work within an in-house team, an affiliate marketing agency, or an affiliate network, high-performing affiliate programs have knowledgeable, engaged, and talented affiliate managers.
Superior affiliate program management entails having a team that’s dedicated, experienced, enthusiastic, creative, and willing to be a true partner to you. This is often very difficult for most affiliate marketing managers to accomplish as they are spread too thin across multiple channels or programs.
Exceptional in-house teams look like Wade Tonkin and Joe Sousa of Fanatics, Maryellen Livingston Garasky at Jane.com, or the ASOS team in the U.K. All share certain commonalities, including making themselves readily available to publishers, having reputations for being transparent and fair, and appreciation for the affiliate marketing model.
A high-quality agency that gives you a dedicated team can also provide a very similar experience.
3) Trusted tracking and payment reliability
As a baseline, great affiliate marketing programs have proven processes in place to ensure reliable, real-time tracking and timely, predictable payment.
Typically, that requires the team overseeing the affiliate marketing program to partner with an affiliate network (e.g. Shareasale/Awin, Pepperjam, LinkShare, Commission Junction) or a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform (e.g. Has Offers, Partnerize, or Impact). These technology partners should be someone that publishers can trust to to ensure they don’t miss out on sales or commissions as they are monitoring constantly for issues and testing the tracking.
If you are working an affiliate network as a publisher, it’s safer to select networks that guarantee you will be paid on your commission earned by a consistent date each month and that don’t spread “payment risk” to publishers over a long period of time, leaving affiliates holding the bag for merchants who don’t pay their bills.
With SaaS platforms, it’s often the adjustable settings of the program, not inherent limitations of the platform itself, that determine timing of payment, as payments can be made at any interval—even weekly. Make sure the program has a record of paying on time.
4) Transparent policies
Equally important to the aforementioned characteristics is the program’s value of transparency. In any partnership, honesty, transparency, and clear expectations will ensure that your relationship thrives. Therefore, it’s vital that any affiliate marketing program you decide to join makes their terms, conditions, policies, and procedures clear to you.
Too many affiliate marketing programs operate with a kind of “gotcha” philosophy, where the commission rules aren’t clearly stated, such as when programs “dedupe” against other channels or void sales after the fact. Such processes generate distrust, which only serves to sour the relationship between publishers and the brands they are promoting. As a publisher, you want to be confident that the affiliate program you are a part of is invested in your success.
Ultimately, brands can and do have the right to decide the rules of their specific program. While publishers cannot dictate these rules, they can, in certain cases, influence them or vote with their feet if they are clearly stated. The main takeaway is that, no matter what, brands need to clearly and honestly disclose their policies to the publishers in their affiliate program. This is an essential part of having an affiliate marketing partnership that is productive and avoids surprises.
5) Testing budget
Lastly, all the best affiliate marketing programs create a budget for testing and trying new things, knowing that some might fail.
Being open to––and allocating budget for––testing exemplifies the sort of specificity, focus, and diligence that great affiliate programs should possess. Affiliate marketing is a performance-based, data-driven channel, so those engaged in it need to be measuring what works and what doesn’t. What’s more is that, if you never try anything new, you don’t grow or become exposed to new strategies that can move the needle. The best programs set aside 10 to 20 percent of their budget for testing. It amounts to a kind of R&D investment.
I’ve never seen a high-performing program that operates rigidly and without an interest in trying new things. Programs that are only comfortable to wait until something is tried and true tend to grow much slower and don’t gain a competitive advantage.
If you want to maximize your potential in affiliate marketing as either a brand or a publisher, remember that being a great brand and having a great affiliate program are not one and the same.