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What do advertisers want to see from their affiliate programmes?

Generally speaking, they ask two things: firstly, that the largest possible proportion of their affiliate base is active in driving sales revenue; secondly, that there be a constant feed of good quality new affiliates coming onto the programme to actively promote them.

The affiliate divide

Traditionally though, a divide is noticeable on most affiliate programmes between the top performing affiliates, those that drive over 90% of the programme’s sales, and a sizeable long-tail of affiliates joined to the programme but which either bring in very few sales (and only infrequently), or which are sometimes entirely inactive.

In some respects, this picture is completely natural. Many factors go into making a good affiliate and some will always be better than others. But why do we see this pattern emerge so quickly after a programme launches and remain the case sometimes for years after?

Even if the emergence of a two-tier affiliate programme is a natural evolution, how does the way programmes are usually managed entrench the divide between, on one hand, large, established, affiliates which receive all the advertiser’s attention, and a long tail of small revenue drivers or entirely inactive affiliates on the other?

More widely, what can it tell us about the state of the affiliate industry, and how it has developed over time?

In some ways it should not be a surprise that the top affiliates in the UK are likely to be the top affiliates on all kinds of programmes. But some have viewed this as a lack of variety or an over-reliance on certain types of affiliate models (cashback and voucher codes are often cited).

However, surely this is true only to the extent that the advertiser wants it to be. Credit should be given to any affiliate that has succeeded in building their business into a brand that is, in some cases, bigger than the advertisers they promote.

Is there is a deficit of good quality new affiliates?

Given the growth of the web and the way affiliates bemoan the number of competitors saturating even the smallest niches, this seems unlikely.

Rather, could it be that the focus is concentrated on the existing big players, perhaps something which networks could do more to challenge, which serves to ingrain the divide between the top performers and the long-tail.

One of the effects of this divide is to encourage some advertisers to either abandon the long tail and focus on the top players (sometimes through an in-house programme rather than via a network), or to remove the long tail from the programme entirely to give the appearance that the proportion of active affiliates has increased.

There are of course internal reasons why an advertiser might take these approaches. The temptation to sacrifice the long tail, rather than attempt to engage and mobilise them, might put the affiliate manager in a better position to make the case for the channel as a whole.

There are also, so the argument goes, fewer relationships to handle, which means fewer potential issues, especially in the face of an anticipated increase in scrutiny from the ASA following a recent extension to its remit. But there are also good reasons why advertisers should avoid forced choice.

The divide between affiliates could be symptomatic of a problem at the level of how the relationship between advertisers and affiliates is forged. Specifically, in the way that affiliates are identified, engaged with and recruited onto a programme.

It will no longer be enough for the network to help maintain existing relationships with large affiliates but to provide insight into the value of the long-tail, from where advertisers will expect future growth on their programmes to come.

Owen Hewitson

Published 6 April, 2011 by Owen Hewitson

Owen Hewitson is Client Strategist at Affiliate Window and a contributor to Econsultancy.

8 more posts from this author

Comments (3)


Robin Moore

For me the problem is a mixture of poor commission allocation and poor customer service.

Over the last year I have received a number of emails from affiliate networks (representing their merchants) stating that they are "working with a small number of affiliates that are driving good volumes of sales." This is a kick in the teeth after I've spent time building up content on my websites, getting in the web visitors and offering a full market of merchants to choose from in the respective market vertical (I do product comparison).... fair to say, I find it odd to remove affiliates based on sales. In my opinion it would be better to look at the brand exposure a site offers a merchant, make an assesment of whether the exposure is positive. I would monitor via the number of inbound clicks from each affiliate website.

As a responsible webmaster (and affiliate), I can't take down a merchant simply because they don't want to deal with me - I have a responsibility to my web visitors to offer the broadest possible marketplace offering. I therefore, continue to promote merchants even after I have been removed from a program. And I don't see any networks/merchants rushing to thank me for promoting them after the commission relationship has ended. I doubt anyone is even monitoring web traffic from 'non partners' and actively going out and engaging with potential partners (whether within or outside the affiliate networks).

I have also found communications and commission validation from some networks to be poor. I see a large number of sales/leads approved only to then vanish with no explanation. Networks tend to have one to one relationships with super affiliates and 'push' marketing material to everyone else.... that seems to be pretty lazy to me.

If there is an affiliate divide - the cause is the merchants and networks neglet of everyone but the biggest partners.

Perhaps a fix is for merchants to engage with low sales but higher levels of traffic affiliates with a 'monthly sponsorship' payment as a gesture of good will towards affiliates that are pushing the brand but not making sales..... its not too disimilar to link rental (did I just say that out loud?).

If affilliate marketing, display agencies and SEO teams could talk to one another... the industry could benefit from some integration too.

over 5 years ago


Jason Dale

We've been around a long time in AM, and the divide between top and everyone else is (imo) huge now.... so huge I'm not sure if we have a long term future using the obvious affiliate networks - at least for retailers.

Merchants follow the money and as an affiliate it's hard to get the attention of a merchant when we're looking at a handful of sales to satisfy what we want from AM and Mr Moneysaving, Mr Vouchercodes and Mr Cashback are going for serious volumes.

That's fine - it's hard to justify taking the time of someone who is sorting a deal with an affiliate who does sales vs one who can get users into a site but can't get them to spend anything :o(

But then we often don't need such a close relationship with affiliate managers. With good creative, feeds and communications we could get by a little better.

And one huge problem is that merchants/networks don't give affiliates the tools they could work with. Granted there are various bits and bobs about - but it's all (imo) a bit of a mess or hidden away or worse still abandoned once a new person comes in on a program.

I've complained about the quality of voucher code feeds for example - and still they're poorly managed at source. Information sent in streams and streams of emails (free delivery, offers) never gets in feeds (so much easier for affiliates). Why I have no idea!

The first network to sort out this issue (imo) - perhaps even create content units with them - would benefit greatly from their 90% in the shadows.

Culling is an issue - one network I think must have a "decide to be our affiliate randomiser" for their fashion retailers - you just don't know if you're in/out. We don't use that network, there's no point even trying to get started.

Even at basics you can go on to a lot of progams and find out of date creative.

The emails we get sent range in quality - from the brilliantly crafted and useable to just a pointless list of links saying "here's some products" to inspire.

Imo networks/merchants could do more to help affiliates without necessarily engaging direct as they would with the big boys/girls. It shouldn't require that much effort either.

over 5 years ago


Peter Birganza

I read your article and i found only one problem in that regarding affiliated divide. The answer is very simple to solve this problem that if there is an affiliate divide, the only cause according to me is the merchants.
Perhaps a fix is for merchants to engage with low sales but higher levels of traffic affiliates with a 'monthly sponsorship' payment as a gesture of good will towards affiliates that are pushing the brand but not making and developing a good sales. It would be much easy for you to understand.
If affiliate marketing, display agencies and SEO teams could talk to one another, the industry could benefit from some integration too. I hope it would be the right answer for your query.

over 5 years ago

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