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Affiliate Marketing Survival Strategies

Affiliate marketing can be an exciting and often frustrating experience. For those of you who are wanting to make a living from promoting other companies products and services, unless you are very fortunate, the road will be long and hard - fraught with traps for the unsuspecting.

How do I know this? I've been there - I've been involved with affiliate marketing at both ends of the spectrum for over a decade now. While it does have its challenges, it can be one of the most enjoyable ways to make a living or supplement your income.

This article is not about how to generate massive revenue in a short space of time. It's about working through problems with honest merchants and also strategies for catching out dishonest ones. You'd be surprised at the number of affiliates who generate sales, yet never see a dime for their efforts. This article is also useful to merchants in the process of implementing an affiliate program, so that they may be able to avoid getting on the wrong side of affiliates.

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Joined a great affiliate program - but no commissions?

So you've signed up with what appears to be a great affiliate program that really suits your target audience. You've developed strategies, selected banners and other marketing materials and published them up on your site. Perhaps you've gone that one step further and published reviews, articles and tutorials on subjects related to your merchants to lead people to examine their services. 

You know that the pages and ads are generating views and clickthroughs. Yet for all this effort, and after a couple of months, you are still yet to see a return for your investment of time and the use of your valuable web site space. What could be wrong?

The following are some of the most common issues affecting leads and sales commissions.

Soggy Cookies

Many merchants use cookies to track your referrals. In relation to affiliate programs, it's basically just a small text file sent to the visitor's computer and stored, containing information such which site referred them. 

As most people don't purchase on the first visit to a site, a cookie allows for potential referrals to be "tagged" with your affiliate ID so if they should purchase on a future visit, you will be still credited for the lead or sale.

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Cookie durations vary from merchant to merchant, some last as little as a single session, others last for years. Of course, the longer the cookie duration, the better.

Where cookie tracking methods are employed, several things can go wrong:

  • The person your refer flushes out their cookies on a regular basis - nothing much you can do there.

  • The person you refer has cookie blocking software operating; or has browser security levels set so high that cookies are rejected - again, there's not much you can do in this situation.

  • The killer - the affiliate program software used by the merchant is not functioning correctly and isn't setting cookies at all!

Some merchants who really understand the affiliate game will use more than just cookies - IP and session tracking can also be added as additional fail-safes.

The last scenario happens more regularly than you may think. Bear in mind that it's usually not an intentional "problem". Many merchants don't have the technical skills to spot this kind of thing. They employ programmers or buy out-of-the-box solutions for their affiliate programs and trust that they function correctly.

It's very important that before you invest any serious time and energy into promoting a merchant program that you test to see if the cookie setting function is working correctly and that the "expire" date is correct.

This is a simple task. Click on one of the affiliate links supplied to you and then:

- if you're using Internet Explorer, check your browser cookie cache folder. 

Look for this:

Cookie:yourcomputername@merchantsite.com/

or

Cookie:yourcomputername@www.merchantsite.com/

Right mouse button click on the cookie, and click "open". There will likely be gobbledegook in the file, but you should see your affiliate ID in there.

- if you're using Firefox, it's even easier. After clicking the link and while on the resulting page, simply go to "Tools" on the menu bar, then select "Page Info", then "View cookies". In the content field, you should see your affiliate ID.

Be sure to examine the expire date as well. 

If you can't find the cookie, it would be a good idea to contact the merchant and ask for assistance.  When approaching merchants, be polite and respectful - take an "innocent until proven guilty" approach as they may not be aware of the situation. By you notifying them, you'll not only be saving your own sales commissions, but also those of many other affiliates.

Multiple Payment Methods

If you have joined an affiliate program through a network that also processes payments of products on behalf of merchants, it is not uncommon for merchants to offer customers multiple payment methods. It's great for customers, but not for affiliates. Here's an example:

Merchant X uses software distribution company Y as one of their distributors. You join company Y as an affiliate as they have a wide range of products/services from various merchants to choose from. You aren't aware that Merchant X also uses software distribution companies A,B,C  for the same product - each processing payments for the merchant.  The person you refer via the company Y affiliate network purchase a product from Merchant X but uses the company B payment method. The end result can be no commission for you!  Worse still, I have seen some merchants advertise their products on some affiliate networks, but don't even offer payment options for that network!

Before you begin advertising any products or services as an affiliate of a network that also processes orders, check the merchant site carefully. If in doubt, contact the merchant before expending any further energy, no matter how good the commission rate is. 50% of $0.00 is still zero.

Phone payments

Another point to be aware of is that many merchants offer telephone sales as well - how will your commission be tracked if the transaction occurs over the phone?

Increasing numbers of merchants off pre-sales phone lines, which is a great idea - the problem occurs if the sales staff also take orders over the phone.  In some industries I've worked in, particularly where there is a high ticket price on items, the vast majority of sales are phone orders.

As the customer hasn't gone through the online checkout process, the sale is not tracked. If you see sales phone numbers posted on a merchant's site, ask the merchant how ordering is handled. In some cases the sales staff will just coach the customer through the online checkout process, which is fine - the sale will be tracked. 

Some people don't like affiliate links

Affiliate links can be very easy to spot, especially if they link directly to the merchant, e.g:

http://www.xyz12345.com/affiliate.htm?aid=65544w 

A link target can be viewed by moving your mouse over a link and viewing your browser status bar. Some of your site visitors will refuse to click on affiliate links, or they'll just type the merchant site address directly into their browser address bar. Affiliate links should be cloaked with JavaScript to remove the affiliate ID from view. Any merchant who really cares about his affiliates will happily introduce this function to his program - it's a relatively simple task depending on the software they are using to control their program.

If they aren't able to do so, you can do it yourself, learn more about affiliate link methods in this tutorial that also contains some free scripts:

Just another quick point on affiliate links - make sure that they always open in a new window - that way your visitors won't be totally lost from your site.

Decoy products and services

This strategy used by some merchants really stinks. Some affiliate programs are offered only on particular items which act as decoys. When your referred visitor arrives on the site, they are immediately distracted by other offerings.  This is not always apparent on your first visit to the merchants site.

Stealware, parasiteware, scumware

Stealware overwrites affiliate tracking codes, replaces affiliate cookies on a users computer or "overlays" links on a web site with another affiliates tracking link - resulting in payments going to another party. The problem is quite rampant and is discussed further in this article. When reviewing a merchant's program; check for clauses in the terms relating to these sorts of activities - most good merchants will explicitly state they do not allow affiliates to use these methods. If nothing is mentioned, contact the merchant for clarification.

Poor site structure

A merchant can have the best products around, but if the site and ordering process is difficult to navigate, this will heavily impact on sales. Take a look around the site and offer the merchant suggestions as to how to improve the sales process. A good merchant will dive on this information as it's free consultancy :).

Lack of affiliate account interface

Good affiliate software is so cheap these days, no merchant offering a program really has an excuse not to have an interface available for affiliates where they can monitor their traffic and sales performance. 

In the many years I have been involved in affiliate marketing, I have rarely had any success with a merchant who says; "we don't have an affiliate interface, but we track everything at our end and send you a monthly report". That's simply not good enough. As an affiliate you want to be able to check your progress as it helps you tweak your copy and approach. Affiliate arrangements without an account interface should be avoided.

Be pro-active in this - tell a merchant why you won't join their program; perhaps point them to this article or my affiliate software reviews and guide. It may be that they feel implementing affiliate software is too complex; which it really isn't these days. You'll be doing them a favor by flagging the issue as I can guarantee many other good potential affiliates will be turned away by there not being an interface.

Dead links

This happens a lot! As the number of affiliate programs you join increases, it's really easy to lose track of them; particularly if you're only getting occasional sales. But it's a sale here and there from various programs that can really add up. It's not unusual for merchants to change their tracking software or affiliate network and while they'll usually notify affiliates of any changes, if you're busy these notifications are easy to miss. It really pays to click on your own affiliate links from time to time, just to ensure that they are functioning correctly. 

Are you losing affiliate commissions to bad links?

Far superior to standard link checking software, Affiliate Link Checker has been designed with affiliate marketers in mind!

If you don't have time to check your own affiliate links daily, consider a service such as Affiliate Link Checker. It's far more than normal link checking software. It can handle multiple redirects, detect terms such as "out of stock" on pages and a host of other flags. If Affiliate Link Checker detects a problem, it will email you to warn you of the issue.

Monitor your affiliate arrangements

As the years go by, I find myself spending increasing time monitoring the merchants I work with - it's very necessary. I would like to believe that the vast majority of merchants are honest, but there are some sharp operators who just don't give a damn and I try to weed these companies out as soon as possible. They view affiliates as annoyances rather than important business partners. You'll identify these people very quickly, slow to respond and usually quite rude.

Even the most honest merchant has problems with their affiliate software from time to time, so it's important to be vigilant and regularly check cookies and merchant sites for changes that may affect your commissions. If ever in doubt, ask - but ask nicely. Never make accusations until you have all the information.

Yes, you can make a decent living as an affiliate, you may even generate substantial income very quickly - but the reality is that in the start-up stages it can be very hard work, but persevere as the rewards can been sweet. I hope these strategies and the following resources assist you in achieving your online goals!

Affiliate marketing - resources

Working with merchants

Successful Affiliate Marketing

The Best Banner Networks

Generating revenue from Popunder Advertising

Run an affiliate program? Need more affiliates?

Protecting commissions with improved linking methods

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
Web Marketing, Internet Development & Ecommerce Resources
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