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Brands who burn their bridges and leave behind angry affiliates risk losing valuable social media allies, writes Andrew Girdwood.
Let's start with two quick recaps.
Affiliate Marketing is the deployment of a second, commission led sales force. I strongly believe that managed affiliate campaigns are better than those left to fend for themselves. Some brands have had absolutely horrible experiences with affiliate marketing and companies that have dispatched teams of highly motivated but poorly managed sales people have had dire experiences too.
Affiliates are website owners that drive traffic through to your site via a tracking mechanism, and earn an appropriate commission should that traffic turn into a lead, action or sale.
Social Media is the term given to the collective voice of the internet's bloggers, tagging sites like delicious and furl, social news sites like digg and newsvine, online communities, forums, chatrooms and the comment sections in ‘web-wise' newspapers like the Telegraph.
Here's the thing; affiliates are very active in the social media landscape.
How Affiliates Affect Social Media
When an affiliate marketing campaign is running well, your affiliates are motivated to defend your brand. An affiliate that is lucky enough to earn a revenue stream from you should have no reason to watch your brand get dragged through the mud. This affiliate has every reason to support you and protect their revenue stream.
Successful affiliates are pretty smart people. If your brand is being treated unfairly, then successful affiliates are the very people capable of injecting an eloquent observation of that injustice into the social media collective.
If an affiliate decides to defend you online then that's natural. That's its choice and its call. Your ally has stepped forward for you. This would not be you trying to subvert a forum discussion. This would be an established member of the forum deciding to put forward their argument. There is possibly an argument here which wonders whether affiliates that do this, and do this well, could be on a higher commission tier.
Affiliates tend to be savvy bloggers and social news site participants too. If an affiliate has reason to extol the virtues of your products of services (ie, it's also trying to sell your products and services) then they will.
On the other hand, if an affiliate has been left angered and annoyed after a campaign closed without final payments being made, then it should not come as a surprise when your brand name appears in a forum thread detailing everything the affiliate believes you have done wrong.
Affiliates can be valuable partners when it comes to broadcasting a message. One simple win is to ensure that affiliates are told of new products and services. Why not include affiliates in the distribution of an online press announcement/release? If you want to see websites talking about your new product by Wednesday then you can count on some of your affiliates to be the quickest to respond and respond with the incentive to sell the new product.
For example, if you wish your brand to be synonymous with launching the world's first holographic phone then let your affiliates know of the launch. No doubt you've channelled money into an offline campaign, an online campaign and suitably prepped your PR agency. An email to your affiliates is a very small action on top of all that work and a very good way to let these clued up social media players know about the phone.
Influential forums like the a4uforum allow the affiliate marketing community to quickly share news. Good news and incentives spread quickly and bad news spreads too.
It is fair to say that affiliates can have a negative effect on your social media optimisation plans too. For example, if poor affiliate management is put in place then all it takes is one rogue affiliate to aggressively spam broadcast your brand or unique product and you could well end up with forums all round the internet complaining about you. Affiliate management is the solution here – just as sales team supervision is.
Motivating the Right Affiliates
After E-consultancy's particularly successful Digital Cream this year I found myself in the pub and talking to the affiliate manager of a very large computer hardware company. This particular company wanted to push its high end PCs designed for the gaming market. I knew the affiliate program; it was structured so that the top end affiliates (those that managed plenty of sales) enjoyed slightly higher commission.
"Why don’t you offer the slightly higher commission to gaming forums and fan sites," I suggested. I thought it was a fair point. Most affiliate networks are pretty flexible when it comes to structures like that. This approach would either result in more gaming communities being exposed to the marketing message or it would result in the affiliate campaign continuing as normal.
Competitions can also work well for both the merchant and the affiliates. One of my favourite competitions came from an American company selling latex Halloween masks. They offered up a few hundred dollars in vouchers to the affiliate who had the spookiest website in place for Halloween. For some websites this was all the encouragement they needed to re-skin temporarily for Halloween. The Halloween mask merchant (and the affiliates) benefited from the increased conversions the spooky sites generated.
Ensuring affiliates can communicate with you and your agency is also advantageous. Everyone loses if there is a bug on your site; customers have a bad experience, affiliates risk losing commission and you risk losing sales. By allowing affiliates to report bugs quickly to you (such as a dedicated email address) you help affiliates protect their commissions and benefit from bugs being reported straight to you. This is often better than public forum discussions which detail problems with your site.
Burning bridges is generally a bad thing to do. Upsetting vocal communities on the internet is also generally a bad thing to do.
If you've found that your affiliate marketing campaign simply has no juice, that it does not seem to be worth the effort then try to avoid yanking the plug and doing a runner. Instead, ask some questions about your affiliate programme...
How has the campaign been managed? What has the communication with the affiliates been like?
Could the addition or removal of some affiliates, offers, networks or rules and regulations make a difference?
Is it possible to look at the affiliate marketing campaign as a supporting effort to your social media actions? You may well have some well placed allies out there on the wild wild web.
Andrew Girdwood is the head of search at Bigmouthmedia .