For some, their business is struggling because of the impact of COVID-19. For others, their business is thriving but they're struggling to keep up with fulfillment, supply chain disruptions, etc.
We recently published a blog post about why pausing or stopping an affiliate program can have long-term repercussions for brands. Although those perspectives are valid and important for brands to consider, we also appreciate that some brands will decide that pausing or stopping their affiliate program is the best course of action for them to take at this time.
If this is a reality for your program today, but not a decision you intend to make permanent, we cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to be careful, thoughtful, intentional and empathetic in your communications to your affiliate partners.
The HOW you do it often matters more than your decision.
To that extent, we have recently seen examples of communication that some brands have sent to their affiliates/publishers informing them that they were pausing or stopping their program and that they would be setting their affiliate commissions to zero. But how they chose to handle that communication made the situation go from bad to worse.
Just one rushed, poorly communicated email can burn a bridge and undo years of relationship-building your affiliate partners. As things get back to normal, publishers will remember the brands who treated them well and those who did not.
To help guide you in how to communicate with your publishers/partners if you decide to pause your affiliate program, we've put together this list of important Dos and Don'ts:
Leverage your affiliate technology to make informed commission decisions. Lean into your network or SaaS platform technology to make informed decisions about how to adjust publisher commissions. You may find that you can restructure commissions so that you only pay partners on actions that are important to you right now. Many will be happy to adjust on their end as well so that they at least get compensated on something versus nothing. For example, they understand that you may not want to pay commission on toilet paper and hand sanitizer right now.
Communicate with respect and empathy. Whether you send your communication through your affiliate technology provider (network or SaaS), through your agency partner, or direct from your in-house team, show respect and empathy toward your partners.
Recognize that the work they do to generate sales, leads and new customers for your brand is their business; setting their commissions to zero negatively impacts them as well.
E.g. "We realize that this decision has ramifications for you and your business…"
Communicate the why. Your publishers understand that these are trying and uncertain times. But communicating the why behind a decision to change commission, pause or shut down an affiliate program goes a long way. This can be as simple as the approach this brand took:
"[Brand name] is temporarily closing all stores and its online business as of March 25, 2020, for two weeks to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19. For this reason, we are also temporarily pausing our affiliate program."
Communicate as much detail as possible. Aligned with the point above, the more information you can provide your publishers, the better – for their business and the continuity of your long-term relationship with them. Here are some examples of helpful and important information to provide:
- Timeframe: Are you pausing/shutting down your program today? Tomorrow? If possible, give your partners at least 48-hours' notice. Do you have an estimated time when you plan on unpausing your program.
E.g. "We are pausing our affiliate program on Friday, April 3rd – 3 days from now – and are uncertain when we will be able to ramp it back up. Either way, we wanted to give you as much advanced notice as possible."
- Follow-up: Let them know you'll be following up with them and keeping in touch about the status of the business and affiliate program.
E.g. "We're closely evaluating the situation and our team will be checking in with you every few weeks."
- Contact person: Who can/should they contact if they have questions and how?
E.g. "If you have any questions, please reach out to your account manager (or someone they can talk to about the situation) at this email address."
Personalize your communication where possible. Even if you send a general email out via your affiliate technology provider – that's worded respectfully and considerately – it's also important to conduct personalized outreach, especially to your top performers.
Offer to have a call with them – even if you have nothing new to communicate. Simply offering that level of communication shows that you do value your relationship with them and all they've done for your business. This is also vital if you plan on restarting your affiliate program after things have gotten back on track for your business.
Thank your affiliate partners. Even if you forward on the general email that went out on behalf of your brand to all publishers, expressing a simple "thank you for all you've done for our brand" goes a long way.
E.g. "Hi [publisher name], I just want to make sure you saw this newsletter that went out. In addition to X, Y, Z that was outlined in that newsletter, I wanted to personally thank you for all of the traffic and revenue you've driven for our brand. We really value your partnership and hope it's something we can pick up again in the near future."
Be forthcoming about tracking links if they won't receive a commission. If you ultimately decide that you need to pause your affiliate program and set all publisher commissions to zero, then be clear with your partners about what to do with their existing tracking links.
E.g. "Unfortunately, this means we are unable to provide you with commissions at this time. Please remove all active [brand name] links on your site."
It's also essential to clearly communicate with them whether they should expect to receive any commission already earned or if there's a change to that status.
Provide sample messaging that the publisher can give to its users. Receiving an email that you are setting their commissions to 0% is difficult for any publisher. Rarely does this type of decision affect just them. Soften the blow a bit by providing them with some helpful sample messaging that they can share with their users and partners.
E.g. "To help you communicate this change to your users, here is some approved messaging to use..."
Send out a curt, last-minute one-line note that you're expiring your contract with your publishers.
E.g., Sending "Your contract with [brand name]'s affiliate program is expiring on March 25th, 2020" on March 25th, 2020.
This type of communication shows a complete disregard for your partners and all they've done to support your brand and affiliate program. And if it's sent out the same day the contract expires, that makes a bad situation worse; your affiliate partners have no time to find all your links and change them.
Infer to your affiliate partners that setting their commissions to zero is a good thing for them.
E.g. "Your commissions will be set to zero and existing tracking links will still remain live and redirect."
This communicates to the affiliate that the brand is going to continue taking the business their affiliate partners are sending their way, just without paying them, which is both unfair and insulting to the partner. It's like laying someone off and then telling them they can continue to work for free.
If you choose to set affiliate partner commissions to 0%, it's better to pause your entire affiliate program and clearly communicate to your partners that they should remove their links.
Lump your affiliate program in with your other paid media. Affiliate is a relationship-based channel that is structured on a pay-for-performance, cost per action model. It is not the same type of channel as your other paid marketing initiatives that can be easily turned on and off. If the finance team tells you that you are out of budget or need to cut budget, explain to them exactly how the model works.
To better understand this, here's a helpful guide on affiliate marketing vs paid social vs paid search.
In these unprecedented times, a brand's decision to pause their affiliate program is far more understood by partners in this COVID-19 reality than it would be if it came out of nowhere. If you handle your communication respectfully and empathetically, your partners will still be there for you when you are ready to un-pause your affiliate program.
However, if you do not communicate with your affiliate partners in the right way, you will not only find it very difficult to find high-value partners who will want to work with your brand if/when you're ready to ramp it back up in the future, but many publishers are likely to be recruited into the affiliate programs of your competitors and choose to remain with them after this crisis is over.
If you need guidance on how to effectively communicate with affiliate partners if/when changes need to be made to your program, commissions, payment windows, etc., reach out to our team.
Michelle Morgan is Director, Publisher Development at Acceleration Partners.