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Marketing - what quality affiliates & publishers want from affiliate programs

If you're thinking of starting up an affiliate program for your company, or perhaps you're just getting into affiliate marketing as a publisher; the points for consideration below may be of value to you. 

In most affiliate programs, the top few percent of affiliates generate the vast majority of sales; so you want as many quality, or "super" affiliates participating in your program as possible.

So what do these super affiliates want? The following are some of the features that quality affiliates look for when deciding on programs to participate in.

Recommended affiliate management software 
Used and recommended by Michael - Post Affiliate Pro.
Amazing range of features, economically priced, quick and easy to implement!
Read my review

Solid product and merchant site

Before you contemplate implementing an affiliate program, ensure that your product is rock solid and your site is presentable. Affiliates (aka publishers) don't want to send valuable traffic to pages that won't convert or to products that don't work. Learn more about creating effective landing pages.

Trustworthy company

Take the position of the affiliate for a moment and visit your site's company profile pages. Do these pages provide enough information to instill confidence in a potential affiliate that your company is trustworthy? 

The affiliate marketing industry is rife with stories of unscrupulous merchants offering great commission levels and then not paying on referrals; so it's understandable that many publishers are a little gun-shy.

Good affiliates really check over a company before joining a program; especially if they are going to be giving you broad coverage on their site, which is what you'll want. Particularly in regards to your affiliate program, put a face to the name of whomever will be managing it. Many of the principles of reassuring customers apply to reassuring affiliates.

Communication

It's a good idea to have a dedicated point of contact for your affiliate program and that person is prompt in responding to affiliate inquiries. Affiliates shouldn't be viewed as annoying, they are important partners in your business. 

If you should strike problems in your program, be up front about it rather than defensive. Most quality publishers are quite forgiving when it comes to glitches as long as you're honest about it and resolve the issue.

A regular newsletter can help remind affiliates of your existence - many affiliates sign up to programs and then get side-tracked; never actually getting around to publishing up promo material. A newsletter also helps instill more confidence in your affiliate network that you're proactive and the program is evolving. If you decide to offer an affiliate newsletter, flaunt this on your program details page.

If you receive feedback from your affiliates about improving the program; consider it carefully. Bear in mind that good publishers are masters of their trade. If they suggest something to you, then there's usually very good logic behind it. You want increased sales, they want increased sales - everyone wins :).

Residual (recurring commisisons)

High one-time payouts can be a good way of attracting attention, but if you can; offer a residual commission option too; i.e. a percentage of the customers payments paid to the affiliate on an ongoing basis. 

Offering residual commissions is especially attractive when in relation to high value subscription services. Quality affiliates know that one of the keys to success in the affiliate marketing game is to build up multiple residual income streams which can help see them through the lean times. 

Residual commissions are most successful when based on the life of the account rather than a set period.

If possible, when calculating commission rates, don't just base it on the industry norm - take a look at your own customer lifetime value figures. You want to offer publishers the best deal possible, but not to the point where the clients they refer won't turn a profit for you.

Avoid the MLM stigma

2nd tier commissions, i.e. commissions paid on sales made by an affiliate who was referred by another publisher, are a great option to include in your program; but offering 3rd tier and beyond commission levels may give the impression that your program is MLM (multi-level marketing); aka network marketing. In essence, it would be. There have been so many scam MLM schemes both on and off the web in recent years that these types of commission structures can really scare off potential affiliates. 

Some affiliate program directories refuse to list programs with commission levels beyond the second tier and if you're using PayPal to pay commissions, you may find they close your account. PayPal is particularly sensitive to merchants who run multiple level commission programs due to the MLM stigma. Learn more about MLM.

Promotional material

It's great to have attractive banners, but not if they weigh in at 100kb. Bear in mind that banners etc. can bog down an affiliate's site page load time; so keep your creatives pretty, but keep them light. Some publishers are adverse to using any sort of graphical banner, so it's important to include options such as basic text links.

Quality affiliates are very busy people - the more brain strain you can take out of the development of promotional material, the better. Further to banners and links, many affiliates find promo page content such as as paragraphs or full articles very useful. Often, they'll edit the text to suit their own purposes, but by providing these materials to them greatly decreases the amount of time they spend in developing pages.

XML feeds are also being used by an increasing number of merchants - these feeds basically provide a copy of your stores products that you can update, and those updates are reflected on the publisher's site in real time. 

Reporting and tracking

This is *very* important. Publishers really need an interface where they can monitor their progress 24/7. It's certainly not enough to send out a monthly report via email as this doesn't allow the affiliate to make tweaks to their promotion on-the-fly based on their performance. 

There's also the trust factor - quality affiliates are somewhat skittish by nature; usually because of previous experiences where they've been screwed by a merchant. The transparency that a reporting interface offers provides affiliates with a level of reassurance. Read some affiliate software reviews.

Cookie duration

Top affiliates know that most purchases don't occur on the first click. In fact, many people purchase products days, weeks or even months later after being exposed to them. For this reason, if you're using cookies for tracking referrals, the cookie should be set to expire in a minimum of 90 days. If you set cookies to expire within a week, I can guarantee you'll miss out on recruiting top performing affiliates.

Payment thresholds

Commission payment thresholds should not be set too high - $25 to $50 is the industry standard. Any higher than that and an affiliate can feel it's a little risky to join your program. If you're a small company, many quality affiliates will consider you guilty until proven innocent. That is, you won't gain their trust until their first payment comes through.

If possible, also allow your publishers to be able to set their own custom commission threshold above the minimum you have in place as banking/processing small commission payments may be somewhat a headache for the larger players.

Depending on the structure of your company, you may wish to consider paying out on even lower thresholds than $25/$50. This minimizes the amount of liability your company has towards affiliates at any given time. Using an option such as PayPal does make lower payment thresholds quite viable and combine with the option of custom payment thresholds your payment terms can appeal to a broad range of affiliates.

Payment options

Most affiliate marketers are able to receive payments via PayPal these days - especially those based in Western countries such as the UK, USA, Australia and Canada. If you intend on using PayPal, make arrangements to upload commissions in a batch file and fund your account via eCheck. This will minimize the amount the affiliate needs to pay in PayPal fees when transferring the funds to their own bank accounts. I love using PayPal, but the slice they can take out of commissions paid via normal means can be rather huge.

Even though PayPal payments are very popular with most publishers; it's still wise to also offer a check or bank wire option. If these two options require substantial resources on your part in order to process payments, then raise the minimum payment threshold to suit - it's just important to have at least one popular payment option where the base minimum threshold is $25 - $50 maximum for the reasons mentioned above.

Payment regularity

The norm is NET30 - NET60 (30 - 60 days after the sale). This will allow you time to weed out any fraud and process commissions. If your payment schedule is over NET60, you may find this throws up a red flag to potential affiliates - after all, if you've been paid for the sale already, why shouldn't your affiliates also be paid?

Recommended affiliate management software 
Used and recommended by Michael - Post Affiliate Pro.
Amazing range of features, economically priced, quick and easy to implement!
Read my review

Clear terms

Your program terms should be clear and as brief as possible. If your terms are loaded will legalese and grey areas, this may also scare off potential affiliates.

If you are offering residual commissions, I suggest that in your terms you include something along these lines:

"Recurring commissions are paid for the lifetime of the account, as long as you are actively promoting our services"

Most publishers will accept this without any problem; after all, if they are interested in residual commissions, then that indicates they envision the relationship with your company as a long term arrangement.

Something you want to be very clear on are issues relating to spam and stealware - have a zero tolerance spam policy, but police it fairly. Affiliates using stealware should be terminated with extreme prejudice.

Ensure the policy is highlighted in your terms - not only to alert affiliates, but if there's a case where one of them does spam, irate consumers can see quite clearly that it's a practice your company doesn't tolerate.

The issue of affiliates promoting via email has become a rather hot topic, especially since the precedent was set where a company was fined due the activities of their affiliates. 

Good publishers will still want to legitimately market your products via email using some sort of method, so my advice on this issue is to not allow affiliates to use affiliate links in email marketing, but get them to have a landing page on their site and to drive email sourced traffic to that page first. This can help distance you from the activities of your affiliates to a degree if an unscrupulous partner decides to run a spam campaign.

In the interests of both your affiliates and your company, it's of crucial importance that you have a lawyer look over your program terms before implementation.

Summing it up..

As mentioned in a number of points above, aside from financial incentives, the trust issue in an affiliate program is a huge component. The way an affiliate evaluates a program probably boils down to these two considerations:

- 50% commission on a $100 sale = $0 if there's no sales
- $1000 in commissions = $0 if the company won't pay

Affiliates will monitor their EPC rates carefully; i.e. how much revenue they generate per hundred clicks. If you have a high EPC rate, flaunt it - it will help attract the bigger players.

Remember that a potential affiliate will evaluate your program not just from an publisher standpoint, but from the potential customer angle as well. Balance both sides of the equation in the way you implement a program to prevent initial negative perceptions from occurring, and you'll be well on your way to building up a healthy network of quality affiliates driving appreciable levels of sales of your products.

Related articles

Recruiting and managing affiliates 
MLM - Multi-level marketing
Affiliate marketing - Working with merchants
Tips on becoming a successful affiliate
Affiliate marketing survival strategies
Other affiliate marketing articles by Michael Bloch

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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In the interests of transparency and disclosure, please note that the owner of Taming the Beast.net often receives goods and services mentioned in reviews for free, or may receive payments or affiliate commissions for advertising or referring others to merchants of products and services reviewed.

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