When looking to launch an affiliate program for your DTC company or gain additional affiliate distribution for your company, website, or offer, there are a multitude of options to consider to do it right. Everyone wants to grow a large, productive affiliate program for their company, who doesn’t, but cutting through the misconceptions can be difficult for many companies. I will discuss the affiliate network options you have for your DTC company and what I think is a good strategy to pursue in order to grow your affiliate marketing efforts as quickly as possible. Only through hard work and having an actual strategy in place to grow your affiliate program can you really hope to have a large, productive affiliate program for your company or site. All affiliate programs grow over time if you do the right things to achieve program growth. Make sure your website is a great “converting” place where the traffic affiliates generate will have a high conversion rate, otherwise your program won’t grow like it should. Do your part to make sure your affiliates make money promoting your company and it will grow much quicker than if you don’t make an effort to improve your conversion rate.
The Big Affiliate Networks – Why I Prefer CJ Affiliate
The first place to consider setting up your affiliate program is with one of the “major” affiliate networks like Commission Junction, Linkshare/Rakuten, Impact, and Shareasale (there are others). The nice thing about the major networks is you have complete publisher transparency, i.e. you know who your affiliates are and how they generally promote affiliate programs. Most networks also provide referring url data so you know where the traffic is coming from, which is good if you are concerned with controlling the quality of sites promoting your company or offer. My personal favorite affiliate network is CJ Affiliate (CJ) for a few reasons. CJ has a great tracking platform that has been quite reliable over the years. CJ has a wealth of diverse “affiliate/publishers” you can prospect from in their database, allowing you the ability to send recruiting emails to particular countries and categories of affiliates. They have a great email system that allows you to send newsletters and promotions to your affiliate base without cost, and the deliverability is good. CJ also allows you to recruit affiliates into the program by sending them “offers” to join your program which they may or may not accept (must be followed up with), but the option to do this is great. You have to know who the affiliates are in order to do this, so most DTC brands aren’t able to do this effectively without using an “OPM” or affiliate management agency. The other major affiliate networks do have good affiliates and good platforms, I have just personally found that CJ has a higher level of publisher quality, quantity, and tracking consistency. All companies that are serious about growing a large, productive affiliate program, over-time, should launch on CJ and possibly 1 or 2 other major networks, but you have to really watch duplication of order IDs across networks when you run on multiple affiliate networks and have logic coded into your site to prevent paying out on the same order in more than one network. If you do CJ right, it should be the only affiliate network you ever need in my opinion. However, others in the affiliate management industry may disagree and prefer other networks. The great thing is, there’s more competition than ever among the affiliate networks which is pushing them to advance their technologies and tools. So that can only mean more innovation for the future.
Recently, Shopify has done integrations with some of the big affiliate networks like CJ Affiliate and Impact, which should make it easier to tap into their affiliate networks.
Companies with an “offer” that pays a flat fee or engaging in lead generation may want to consider “CPA Networks” or cost-per-acquisition affiliate networks, as opposed to the major networks. One of the issues with CPA networks is that they don’t give you that publisher transparency to know and interact with all of your affiliate-publishers personally, so there isn’t really any actual affiliate management or cultivating the program that can go on. This is fine for some companies with CPA offers, but most medium to large size companies and ecommerce companies tend to shy away from CPA networks due to the fact that you can’t work with your affiliate base personally or send newsletters promoting deals. However, some companies don’t mind this as long as the network is producing good sales or leads, so CPA Networks do work well for certain companies and offers. You have to have a really good process in place to verify any leads or sales that come in through an affiliate network so you can prevent fraud from occurring. Making a “welcome call’ to each order generated by an affiliate network source is usually a good idea to prevent any funny business from going on in your program or paying out on non-valid sales.
Inhouse Affiliate Tracking Platforms
The 3rd option is running your own private affiliate network. Operating your own affiliate network can be a great idea because you can recruit affiliate partners directly and work with them one-on-one because you get their phone number and other contact information. Private networks don’t inherently have any affiliates, so you have to mobilize a force to recruit good affiliate partners through a lot of outreach to relevant websites and blogs. I recommend platforms like: HitPath, Tune, idevaffiliate, everflow, tapaffiliate, and a few others, for running your own private network because they are reliable, feature-rich, and extremely cost-effective usually. I usually recommend operating a private affiliate network in conjunction with a program on a major affiliate network for the best results. When you run your own network you have to prospect for your affiliates and partners, they certainly won’t come to you unless you make the affiliate sign-up link visible on your website or email your previous customers. You have to proactively contact relevant websites and ask them if they want to be your affiliate, which has to be done with a lot of tact and strategy to be effective. You can also advertise in the search engines for niche affiliates that would be a good fit for your affiliate program. You can also turn your customers into affiliate marketers by offering them your affiliate program to join. The way to really get production out of this type of scenario is to have really good affiliate management in place that can follow-up with everyone that joins and make sure they can access your banners and links and incorporate them into their website, blog, or newsletter promotions. Really effective affiliate managers are able to work with affiliates and publishers to make them better affiliates by doing things like: analyzing their website, providing helpful feedback, and providing resources that will help affiliates to do what they do better and more effectively. However, the vast majority of affiliate managers and even affiliate management agencies (OPMs) don’t have the background or knowledge base to be able to really help their affiliates be better affiliates. Affiliate managers should know how to be an affiliate themselves and be able to help affiliates with whatever they may need. They should also be available 24/7 to respond to questions, which most unfortunately do not.
Competent Proactive Affiliate Management
Regardless of where you grow your affiliate channel you need to have competent, pro-active affiliate managers minding the fort. If you launch in a major network without good affiliate management your program may not grow at all and seriously disappoint you. There are a few options for managing your affiliates, i.e. in-house managers, outsourced affiliate managers (OPMs, or hiring an affiliate manager from the affiliate industry. In-house managers can be good if they know what they are doing, have HTML and web skills, and have some experience with the affiliate landscape, otherwise they won’t know how to handle issues and you may get burned by fraud if they aren’t watching it closely enough. Outsourced affiliate managers can be a great option if you use the right company (like Experience Advertising) with connections and good strategies for growing the program. Hiring an experienced affiliate manager can be a good idea if you hire the right person that doesn’t have too many preconceived notions about how to manage your affiliates. Whomever you use to manager your affiliates, make sure they are experienced in web promotions, HTML, SEO, and Social Media. Also, they should be really nice, friendly, and a good social networker, so they can build great partnerships with your affiliate base. Affiliate managers should be really proactive people that aren’t afraid to pick up the phone or get on a video call and speak to an affiliate about how to effectively promote the company through various online marketing strategies. In fact, good affiliate managers should be encouraging affiliates to call them to discuss how to effectively promote the program. If this isn’t the case, you are falling short with your affiliate managers and therefore your affiliates won’t increase participation and production.
Affiliate Recruiting Outreach
Recruiting new affiliates and publishers into your affiliate programs is one of the most difficult tasks involved in growing your affiliate marketing channel. It requires a tremendous amount of outreach to relevant websites, bloggers in your niche, influencers that may be a good fit, and even other companies that you can become reciprocal affiliates with (known as Partner Marketing). There are many potential websites and such to contact, so there you need to know who to contact and approach them in the best possible way. It’s actually incredibly difficult to convince non-affiliates to become your affiliate. Oftentimes, you have to send them free products or even pay them just to become your affiliate (advanced technique but very effective). I’ve been involved in affiliate recruiting for 15+ years and what I’ve learned is that relevance is key, as well as the approach is key. You shouldn’t be even reaching out to potential affiliates until you have improved your website’s conversion rate, otherwise they won’t make any commissions and therefore will be disappointed. So a major effort should go into your CRO (conversion rate optimization) before you start reaching out. Once ready, you need to contact 500-1000 potential affiliates per month to be doing it with enough emphasis to produce a good result over time. You really only need a few decent affiliates per month to come on board and start producing to justify all the work it takes to conduct the affiliate outreach. My agency does this on a daily basis, but most agencies and inhouse affiliate managers don’t reach out enough, not nearly enough to move the needle. But, if you want to really grow your affiliate channel it has to be done. So make it happen or bring in an agency that can commit to that much outreach on an affordable basis. You likely won’t find it outside of my agency, that’s the reality.
Affiliate Commissioning Considerations
Another really critical aspect of running an affiliate program is in how you commission your affiliates. We believe that you should compensate your affiliates and publishers based on the type of affiliate they are and how “they do what they do.” It’s really important to know exactly how all of your affiliates and publishers are actually producing their sales, or in some instances getting attributed/credited sales. Different affiliates have different methods for getting credit for sales. You have to know how they do what they do so you can decide how much value that method holds for you and therefore what you want to pay them commision rate wise. For instance, if a coupon code affiliate is merely capitalizing on your website traffic Googling for a coupon code prior to purchase, you may consider paying on the lower end. That goes for any affiliate type that capitalizes on your website’s traffic. That being said, they help convert customers and tend to have a good LTV so they therefore justify their existence in your affiliate program, and can look like good producers. Just understand how they operate so you can calculate the ROI and their value long term. On the flipside of traffic-type, would be relevant bloggers or relevant influencers that would be driving only new customers to your website. These affiliates/publishers should be paid as much as you can possibly pay as a commission since they are driving 100% new customers. The caveat is that their traffic will convert less well so you therefore must work harder to convert their traffic into sales on your website. You have to go over and above by amping up the value and offer on the affiliate’s landing page on your website.
All and all, launching and running an affiliate program on an affiliate network is a great idea for most companies. Keep your expectations in check and plan to grow it year-over-year strategically. Don’t be afraid to invest into your affiliate program by launching on major networks, running contests, bonusing producers, and other promotions to create excitement among your affiliates so they try to promote the company moreso. Running an affiliate program should be a fun and exciting endeavour that grows over time through the right management strategies and principles. It can be a very profitable channel for companies with little risk because everything is on a performance basis.
Now get out there and launch your affiliate program!