Here An Affiliate, There An Affiliate, Everywhere An Affiliate, An Affiliate… Can you say that 10 times fast?
Every time I talk with a company about strategies to grow their business, the idea of developing an affiliate program is a major element of the discussion. Why not? It should be a no brainer, right? They can make money “off of us” simply by sending customers our way. And with Twitter and social media, this should be easy, right? Well…maybe.
In these days of Twitter, Facebook and social networks, it’s easy to get your name out. You’ll even get some good references and mentions, and there is clearly value in building a cadre of Twitter followers and Facebook fans. But when it comes to driving business, these social media relationships are pretty informal, almost like flirting. Flirting is ok for branding. To develop a productive partner or affiliate program requires the development of intimate working relationships that go beyond the casual. When you give them the attention they need, affiliate partners can truly share in a win-win relationship.
Everyone wants to be an affiliate, and we all want them. It’s relatively easy to set up a program with Commission Junction or Linkshare, where sites can simply sign up to be your partner. However, once you launch a program you quickly learn the challenge. Unless you pay careful attention, you’ll generally find that 80% of these “partners” will end up costing you more than they return in value. Some of them will start bidding up the price of your brand name for paid placement (despite your contract terms to the contrary). Others may create a scam which results in a lot of purchases, followed by a lot of returns. Others will simply be needy and require too much of your time. But alas, there will be a few who can truly help increase your sales.
So how should you move forward? Although it’s tempting, don’t just accept anyone to be an affiliate. Having a lot of affiliates may create links to help with SEO rankings, but they will cost you in terms of time, energy, and risk of control of your brand. If links are your goal, you’re better off creating your own feeder sites. Only accept affiliates whose sites make sense to you, meaning that they are a portal of products like yours, or they sell complementary products, and they can bring unique value to your sales process.
Once you identify them, it is important to stay in touch with your key affiliates. They are, in fact, another sales channel. Thus, they need to have insights into your business, new products, and special deals. Before the internet, annual partner/affiliate sales meetings were important. (My wife even knows this, as she’ll always remember how we had to cut our honeymoon short so I could make it back for one of these events!). Today, you don’t need big events, but you still need to be available and communicative. For major (meaning they sell a lot) partnerships, face to face meetings are still important.
I also believe that to make an affiliate program work well, you need a dedicated internal affiliate sales manager. This has to be someone who is creative and resourceful. The manager needs to provide feedback and let your partners know how they’re doing, and hopefully how big a check they are going to get each month. Affiliates often have unique ideas of ways to sell your product. Your manager has to have the knowledge and judgement to be able to either go with the vision, or explain why it is not acceptable. Ideally, you are as key to the affiliate’s income stream as they are to yours, so they need to know you are available when they need you.
At the end of the day, the success of an affiliate program has more to do with quality than quantity. A properly managed affiliate program can drive tremendous new business opportunities your way. A poorly managed program will just eat up your energy and time, with little or no sales results.