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10 Tips for Your Affiliate Program

10 Tips for Your Affiliate Program Shawn Collins

There are many ways to make your affiliate program stand out and get noticed by affiliates. But some affiliate programs stand out for the wrong reasons. You see, it’s good to be a diaper dandy of affiliate marketing, but not so good to stand out as a red diaper baby. But enough of the Dennis Miller esoterica, let’s discuss the nuts and bolts of getting your affiliate program in the spotlight.

Affiliates sometimes have a short www.memory (http://www.lyricsfreak.com/a/alan-jackson/5274.html), so you’ve got to constantly take steps to get your affiliate program noticed for recruitment and later re-noticed for retention. I’ve got a ten step plan to help you make this happen.

1. Make your affiliate program better than the rest

What would you say if a prospective affiliate asked you why they should join your affiliate program? Most affiliate managers don’t have a quick answer for this. Ask yourself what are the three reasons an affiliate should pick your program over your competitors and formulate an elevator pitch

Some highlights you might like to include are your conversion rate, average sale amount, EPC, top ten monthly affiliate earnings, suggested keywords for the PPC search engines and details on your data feed (this last is not applicable to all affiliate programs). If your numbers don’t look stellar, start working on repairing them.

2. Inbox to outbox in 24 hours flat

The speed with which you respond to affiliate queries tells them a lot about what you think of them. If you reply right away or at least within 24 hours, affiliates realize that they are one of your priorities. But if you can’t by bothered by emails from affiliates and they get pushed to the eternal back-burner, your affiliates are going to move on.

If you are overburdened and can simply not get back to them, first, you’ve got to quit whining and organize yourself -- we’re all busy. Second, consider setting up an auto-responder that lets the affiliates know when they can expect to hear from you. If you set up response time expectations, your affiliates will appreciate it.

3. Issue a press release

No, do not put out one of those pedestrian press releases that announce your affiliate program. You know that no media outlet cares about the launch of the 18,847th affiliate program, right? Now I say that after having issued those dopey program launch press releases myself. Nobody cares.

Instead, make a provocative press release that positions your company as a leader and gives some news, or pseudo news, that is timely and appealing. For instance, I put out a press release for my client, InstrumentPro, right before Black Friday, “Top Ten Holiday Musical Instrument Gift Ideas for the Musician Announced at Start of Holiday Shopping Season.”  The purpose is to better position the company as a leader during the holiday season to make the affiliate program more appealing to affiliates. And it got lots of affiliate links built in to track the consumer response.
4. Teach yourself HTML and use it

There are two really good reasons for you to learn HTML, or at least learn how to write it with Dreamweaver, FrontPage or another HTML editor. First, in order to make your affiliate program better, you ought to become an affiliate yourself. This way, you can walk in the shoes of your affiliates to get a better idea of their needs. But also, you will be better equipped to help them troubleshoot minor technical issues.

And when you’ve learned how to create your own site, you ought to apply to your competitors, so you can have a look at their messaging and creative.

5. Always tend to the cream

All affiliates are equal, but some are more equal. The top performing affiliates, the cream of your program, should be given an extra level of attention. Offer to provide custom reporting to them, call to ask if there is anything you can do for them, and generally make yourself available for whatever they need.

Generally, affiliate programs operate on the 80/20 rule, or worse. I would say most programs are running more in the league of 98/2. So you’ve got to take care of that 2 percent by any means necessary. There are lots of alternatives for them out there, so make your affiliate program more attractive to them. Don’t be afraid to budget for a holiday gift for them.

6. Ask what they want

Sounds simple, right? Just ask affiliates what they want, and then give it to them. I am frequently asked what affiliates want, and I respond, “Why don’t you ask them?” Too few affiliate managers bother to do this.

I covered this issue in a recent post to my blog, where I first emphasized that each program is unique, so there is not a universal answer to what makes affiliates happy. However, there are lots of basic components for a program, like return days, linking types, and commission structures that will make affiliates happier with your program.

7. Keep your program out there

Affiliates go to the affiliate marketing message boards for information about affiliate programs. It’s important to keep tabs on the various message boards to understand the trends in affiliate marketing, as well as maintaining visibility for your affiliate program.

Make an effort to participate in the boards and forums, but only if you have something to say. If you exhibit yourself as a helpful resource, that’s a great advertisement for you as an affiliate manager. But if you just post for the sake of it, the transparent attempt to market your program will show.

8. Advertise to recruit

You cannot have too much exposure for your affiliate program. You’ve got to try and reach affiliates at as many touch points as possible, and paid advertising can aid this effort. Many affiliate programs have long used Google Adwords and Overture to target niche affiliates. Throw down $100 for an account at each of those sites, run some recruiting ads and track the results.

The aforementioned message boards often provide an opportunity to advertise, as well as the affiliate program directories. My personal favorites are AffiliateTip.com (full disclosure -- I run it), AssociatePrograms.com and Refer-it.com 

9. Co-market with other affiliate managers

Each month, when you are writing your affiliate newsletter, you are probably looking for some content. If that’s the case, try making an exchange with another affiliate program for a blurb in their newsletter. This is a great way to get highly engaged affiliates, because they obviously read the affiliate newsletters already.

Another co-marketing technique to consider is to exchange plugs for your affiliate program with another affiliate manager in the form of inserts with the affiliate checks when they go out. You can be assured a 100 percent open rate on that marketing campaign.

10. VIP commissions

Earlier, I touched on tending to the cream of your program. In addition to the points I covered, you’ve also got to budget for a higher rate of commission, a VIP commission, for those big players. They will generally expect the accelerated commission upon joining your program, and by issuing it right away, you’re going to make that super affiliate more likely to give you quality real estate on their site.

Conversely, if you have a one-size-fits-all affiliate commission structure, you might be saddened and surprised to hear that such a setup is affiliate kryptonite. You’ve got to pay to play with the super affiliates.

Ignore these ten steps at your own risk. Make an effort to stand out, and it will be a slam dunk for affiliates to join your program. Stay pat and you can be assured that you’ll be a card-carrying member of the lame affiliate program club.

Shawn Collins is CEO of Shawn Collins Consulting, an affiliate program management agency; Webmaster of the AffiliateTip.com affiliate program directory; and a founder of the Affiliate Summit conference. He authored the book Successful Affiliate Marketing for Merchants and the AffStat affiliate marketing benchmark reports.

Big data

Outside of Wall Street traders and NSA analysts, few industries rival the amount of data collection and analysis that many in the digital marketing space rely upon. Digital marketers rely heavily upon data to drive their decision making, especially when the data can be collected, processed, and executed in real time. These marketers are held accountable for every penny of spend, which means they look at data to inform their media buying, infrastructure investments, and even the kinds of creatives or ads used in a particular campaign. 

In most cases, the idea of "big data" services goes hand in hand with attribution and targeting data.

Top digital marketers have spent hundreds of millions of ad dollars intertwined with millions in analysis to parse through every impression, click, and conversion. Analysts will scour through the data from a variety of angles to find actionable steps in campaign optimization. At its most basic sense, basic ad tech reports should give you a high level overview of a particular channel (e.g., display, search, email, RTB, etc.), but comprehensive analysis takes investment in an internal data analytics group or an attribution vendor (e.g., Convertro, C3 Metrics, Adometry, etc.) to dissect how different pieces of the media mix affect each other. Once a marketer is able to paint a holistic picture of all the touchpoints a user takes before an action is taken, the marketer can adjust media budgets accordingly. For any marketers interested in investing in attribution, see my recent article, "7 common attribution mistakes."  

On the targeting side, big data is brought up when talking about the quantity of data points to use in ad targeting. Ad servers, ad networks, DSPs, third party data providers, and first party data providers leverage big data to fuel their targeting and retargeting efforts through cookie pools or audience segments. Ads that leverage the data become much more valuable because they are being shown to a more relevant audience with a higher likelihood of engagement. For that reason, it is important that big data is coupled with an intelligent system that segments granularly, refreshes frequently, and leverages strong optimization algorithms. The smarter the optimization levers, the better the results. 

One area of digital marketing that particular relies on big data is programmatic buying.

Programmatic buying (DSPs)

Programmatic buying through demand-side platforms (DSPs) allows advertisers to buy media from a collage of ad exchanges through real-time bidding. As the method for accessing exchange based inventory, a DSP will give advertisers more control over what publishers you buy media from, ensure the lowest price for each ad placement bought, and bid on your target audience across any number of websites through the exchanges. This allows advertisers to do things like retarget customers one impression at a time, contextually target, or simply cherry pick websites. 

What started as a place to tap into remnant display ad inventory, ad exchanges have now transformed into a marketplace for video, mobile, social, and even premium inventory for DSPs to tap into. As one of the most significant media innovations of the past five years, the power of programmatic media buying was generally confined to a full-service engagement with a DSP or an ad network. The notable exceptions to this lay with those agencies that have built the infrastructure to support this kind of service.

Over the past few years, agencies have helped DSPs improve their systems to include more transparency, brand safety levers, and optimization tools. However, some of the largest buyers of exchange based inventory still reside with various ad networks. As experts in ad optimization, ad networks possessed the natural competencies to navigate the nuances of exchange based inventory as a natural extension of their own. They were some of the first bidders of exchange inventory to supplement their existing inventory to hit CPA targets, hit more site categories, and expand their retargeting options. As some of the first movers, they accrued substantial experience. 

Building the successful competencies for managing programmatic buying requires three items:

  • Exchange access -- either through proprietary access or a commercial DSP partner. For tips on evaluating these vendors, see "5 ways to pick the perfect vendor."

  • Campaign managers -- those with experience in deploying and optimizing programmatic inventory.

  • Smart learning and optimization algorithms -- being able to go beyond first or third party data segmentation and find winning targets with the right bidding logic.

Luckily, agencies dabbling in buying exchange inventory can build competency fairly quickly as they will have full control over the inventory they bid on. The upside to exchanges is that any deprecation of performance can be quickly corrected, but on the flipside, they have to be carefully monitored. When agencies bid on inventory, they are bidding on every individual impression. So while changes can be made quickly, so can the performance of the campaign. Unlike that of paid search, the programmatic buying controls of DSPs are not as mature.

Paid search has much more predictable bid and pricing mechanisms with more than 12 years of tinkering. This means that once a brand's search campaign has been established, it is easier to have an "always on" strategy with only minor (excluding promotions/holidays campaigns) tweaks than it is with a DSP campaign. Search marketers are bidding on keywords with historical data on a few sites (e.g., Google, Bing, and Yahoo), while those display exchange buyers are bidding on many sites, through many exchanges, for particular individuals or segments. As advice, agencies should not even think about attempting a "set it and forget it" approach to an exchange based campaign or risk that campaign's success. Start small, and take extra special care of the campaign until insights are gained to help you move forward.

Social media

Social media can mean a lot of different things to different people, and in most cases each definition has some degree of accuracy. One of the best ways to look at social media can be summed up in a quote by Seth Godin: "Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell." For agencies, it is important to understand all social media's facets to delivery a story successfully. Once an agency is able to successfully deliver this story, it will be infinitely easy to pitch the value of social media. 

Some top-tiered brands have done a great job developing their Facebook page, developing applications for it, and have acquired some fans who "like" the page. However, after the brands hit their target KPI (usually number of "likes"), they tend to either dismiss the other social media categories or simply cease their social efforts. Others have told me that, "We threw $1000 at Facebook, and it didn't work for us" -- a laughable investment given the budget required to hit the critical mass needed to reach the kind of ROI or brand engagement metrics desired. To put this in perspective, a "test buy" on a display ad network is typically around $10,000 to $20,000 -- 10 to 20 times more than some invested in social. 

To seize this social opportunity, agencies will need to be proficient in some best practices for social, starting with the basics. To get started, agencies will need to become experts at these three social media categories:

  • Owned media -- published content

  • Paid media -- purchased ads

  • Earned media -- free brand coverage

Each category has its own nuances, but the most important aspect to social media is executing a strategy that leverages all of these categories in unison. As an example, Facebook paid advertisements can be very powerful, but simply buying ads will not be as impactful without a coordinated effort with an owned media team (see article "Who should manage your social campaigns"). The team that publishes the brand's Facebook page needs to regularly and predictably publish content that can be amplified through paid media. Further, knowing your audience can dictate the kinds of social activities to pay special attention to (see the Pew Research social media demographic study here). 

Once an agency has identified the areas of focus for the brands it represents, they will need to work with their creative and strategy teams to come up with compelling content for the social channel. Compelling content will not only drive engagement from followers, but it will also drive those followers to share that content with their networks, which expands that brand's reach. A compelling offer could be as simple as a time-sensitive coupon, a contest that must be shared, tweeted, promoted, or pinned, or a referral program in order to redeem. 

For social marketing agencies, there is no shortage of people frequenting social media sites. According to Alexa site rankings, Facebook holds the No. 1 spot as the most trafficked site on the web internationally and holds the No. 2 spot in the U.S. behind Google. Facebook has been the powerhouse of social networking, but it is starting to get some stiff competition from Twitter (No. 11), LinkedIn (No. 12), Pinterest (No. 16), and Tumblr (No. 18). Three out of the four have established ad units that are being purchased for both branding and direct response geared campaigns.

As many in social media agencies will tell their brands, "People may already be discussing your brand on social networks; it is up to you if you want to be a part of the conversation." 

Thomas Moyer is a technical media planner at T3.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Young boy standing and juggling with statistics and graphs" image via Shutterstock.


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