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If you are an affiliate manager you face something of a dilemma: how to attract a range of good quality affiliates to your programme without becoming bogged down in managing the issues that this multitude of relationships may present?

Affiliate marketing is something of a bottomless pit: it is not a question of performing a set number of tasks; there is always more you can do, which can very quickly swallow up a large amount of your time.

For one, there will always be affiliates applying to join your programme which you must either accept or reject. At the same time you will need to go out and actively recruit new affiliates that represent a good fit with your brand and are likely to drive high-quality customers through your programme.

But something of a trend has emerged recently in the UK affiliate industry whereby certain advertisers have taken the view that one way to manage their affiliate programmes is to remove large numbers of non-revenue generating affiliates.

The slightly sinister terms ‘cleanse’ and ‘cull’ have been used to describe these moves. Alongside this practice, many programmes have been hidden on affiliate networks, or their existing affiliate memberships audited to assess their value and check for compliance.

Each of these initiatives share the same aim of making the task of affiliate management easier. They can be framed in the context of a debate which can be characterised as one of plurality versus control:

  • is it good or bad to have a programme that has lots of affiliates? 
  • Does a larger programme mean there are inherently greater risks of something going wrong? 
  • Do the number of affiliate relationships to be managed produces diminishing returns? 
  • In what practical ways can a programme be run to deal with some of these issues?
Approving affiliates

The first line of defence is the programme description that affiliates will see prior to applying to join.

Being clear from the outset about what kinds of affiliates you are looking to attract and what kind of activity is acceptable helps prevent issues arising further down the line, making the task of approving affiliates onto your programme more manageable, and makes it less likely that you will ultimately have to remove affiliates from it.

The Affiliate Marketing Council of the IAB has produced an Ethical Merchant Charter with some examples of what to think about including when writing this.

When approving affiliates, of key importance is to have absolute visibility over what they intend to do for you and how. Ensure that they have specified a site URL on which you will feature, for example, or if they intend to promote through email that you sign-off on all content about your brand prior to it being sent.

In order to achieve this, manual rather than automatic affiliate approval is advisable. It may take extra time to vet each application, particularly so in the immediate post-launch period, but that time is worth it in gaining assurance over the long-term about the kinds of affiliates you will be working with.

Removing affiliates 

On the other hand, whilst there might be a number of reasons why you would want to remove affiliates from your programme, two of these should be advised against.

Firstly, that an affiliate is dormant (i.e., non-revenue generating) is not really sufficient grounds to take them off the programme without their consent. There might be a number of reasons why they are not referring sales, and these should be explored by communicating with the affiliate.

After all, an affiliate driving a high number of clicks or impressions is still a valuable partner, and re-engagement is surely preferable to removal. Sales volume should not be seen as the only metric of value by which to judge activity.

Secondly, removing affiliates purely in an attempt to improve the programme’s statistics is also an ill-conceived tactic. In the first place, affiliates are not stupid: the publically-visible information on a programme’s performance – conversion rates, EPCs, etc – are just a few amongst many factors that affiliates consider to be indicative of the health of a programme.

Many others – such as the percentage of approved orders, commission levels or payment speed – have little or no relation to the make-up of the affiliate membership. If there was a ‘golden rule’ about affiliate removals therefore, it would be to contact and consult with the affiliates concerned before attempting to pull the plug.

The worrying trend to ‘culling’ affiliates from advertisers’ programmes should be opposed, and it is therefore encouraging that the issue is currently being debated at the level of the IAB’s Affiliate Marketing Council.

Ultimately, it is an advertiser’s choice which affiliates they wish to work with and how. The manner in which they address this question can however go a long way to determining the perception of their programme amongst affiliates, and therefore the likelihood of its long-term success.

Owen Hewitson

Published 25 July, 2011 by Owen Hewitson

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

8 more posts from this author

Comments (11)

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Hero Grigoraki

Hero Grigoraki, Head of Media Product at lastminute.com

sorry to be blunt, but why use the soon to be publlished industry best practice guide for an article?

about 5 years ago

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Roger W Poultney

This works the other way round too: affiliate members should try and find why a particular scheme is not working before leaving !

about 5 years ago

Ching-Har Wong

Ching-Har Wong, Marketing Development Director at ASOS

For me, the key determining factor as to whether an affiliate should stay on the programme is the quality of traffic. At LOVEFiLM, affiliates were measured on their triallist conversion rate i.e. what % of people who signed up for a free trial then went on to become a paying customer. At Voyage Privé, it was how long did the new sign up remain engaged with the twice-weekly newsletter and did they go onto buy. All measured against the blended average across all marketing channels with the generally overall lower quality of the affiliate channel* and volumes taken into consideration.

* compared to channels like TV, PPC and direct mail.

about 5 years ago

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Petra Novak, Online Marketing at Easyspace Ltd

Good point Hero, but some good points made here. I would add on the point about approving affiliates, that some of the networks must have pressure applied to make more affiliate contact details available to a manager to help make an informed choice.

Some are fine and provide all contact details as a matter of course. With my background at buy.at I find using Commission Junction incredibly frustrating offering less than the bare minimum and very close to being a blind network! Perhps that should form part of an Ethical network charter?

If you have made a proper informed choice on approvals, then surely an affiliate driving little traffic or no sales to your site should be viewed as an opportunity to grow than a threat to cull.

about 5 years ago

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Owen Hewitson

Hero – I wrote the Best Practice draft that I think you’re referring to mainly on the subject of affiliate audits, which I don’t cover in the above. I did write a section on removals in the draft, but it’s important to state that the opinions here are my own, not those of the Council: others have lent their thoughts to the Best Practice draft since it was circulated so that when it’s re-drafted and finally released it represents a consensus of opinion amongst the Council (the draft does not contain advice about manual/automatic approvals, for example, which I’ve discussed above). In actual fact, I was writing this article before I started writing the Best Practice document, in response to a debate about affiliate ‘culls’ which has been going on for some time now – check out Vicky Pester’s or Claire Theobald’s recent articles on a4u, for example – rather than audits, which is the bulk of the AMC document.

about 5 years ago

Owen Hewitson

Owen Hewitson, Associate Director at Starcom MediaVest

Hero – I wrote the Best Practice guide you're referring to on the subject of affiliate audits. Although you’re right, I did include a part on affiliate removals, it’s important to state that the above represents my own thoughts, and not those of the Council. Others have added their thoughts to the Best Practice guide so that when it is re-drafted and finally released it represents a consensus of opinion amongst the Council (the document does not give advice on automatic versus manual affiliate approvals as I discuss above, for example, and uses neutral language rather than describing a trend as ‘worrying’ like I have above). In actual fact, I drafted this article before I began writing the Best Practice piece, as a response to a debate that’s been going on for the past 12 months on the subject of affiliate ‘culls’ – check out Vicky Pester or Claire Theobald’s articles on a4u for recent examples.

about 5 years ago

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Rufus Bazley

this subject is getting old fast, the truth behind it as some that has worked as an affiliate, for a network and in major brands marketing teams as well as agency side is you don't get more work from number of affiliate unless they make more sales (in which case it's a good problem).

An affiliate that make no sales = zero work

it's really that simple.

with regards to removing affiliate this should only really be done when they break the rules or a programme.

yes rules to change some times like PPC rules (probably the most common rule to change) and when rules change you should (as a Merchant) contact any PPC affiliate you work with and (i can't stress this enough here) tell them in a nice respectful way.

honestly i see article like this come out nearly every week and there all the same.

isn't it about time the issue of how affiliate make sure they add a true value to the merchant they promote and then continue to improve upon this whilst we also work to educate merchant that see this type of article and think it's a issue when honestly it's really not.

about 5 years ago

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Daniel Powel, Solutions and operations director at Commission Junction

Owen you make some valid points, however, you can’t forget that a good affiliate can leave a network if they feel like there are more productive relationships to be forged elsewhere. There needs to be mutual appreciation between affiliate and brand to ensure a stable and fruitful relationship is built.

I think the main issue with affiliates is one of communication. As you state in your article, “contact and consult with the affiliates concerned before attempting to pull the plug.” I work at Commission Junction and this is a lesson we have learnt as an affiliate network, and one we have tried to build solutions for. Increasing clear and informative communication with your affiliates has the power to transform an underperforming affiliate to your best player, so don’t cull anyone without discussing it first.

If a network is transparent, and if an affiliate can have their questions answered, things tend to be better for both parties. If you don’t speak to your affiliate network, how will you ever learn why it’s not working well or what they think they need to improve?

We’ve started to create portals for our clients, ensuring affiliates have a way of communicating with us - the network, the marketing managers in-house and with each other. It’s helped to ensure full transparency and clarity between all parties and has boosted some of our largest programmes.

It’s a mistake to think you hold all the power with regards to affiliates, talking to your network will reveal problems you didn’t even know needed solving.

about 5 years ago

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Jason Hong

I have to agree 100% that you shouldn't be getting rid of affiliates just because they've been dormant. Instead of starting on a "clean slate" by wiping away the dormant affiliates, you should try to spur their interest.

Maybe they are currently advocating your competitor's products/services, so you can try to change their perception of your brand by communicating directly with them. You'd be surprised how many affiliate managers don't correspond with the affiliates or have any direct contact.

Currently we are running an affiliate contest, where the winner is not determined by the top total sale, but rather the highest increase in percentage. So an affiliate that has 0 sales can still participate and have a great shot at winning. This is the type of activities you need to implement in getting your affiliates to "wake up." If you cancel their accounts altogether, who knows what kinds of backlash may occur.People are crazy these days ;)

about 5 years ago

Hero Grigoraki

Hero Grigoraki, Head of Media Product at lastminute.com

@owen - just think it could have been timed a bit better, so as not to clash with the guide release, that's all. Generally though, I do agree with all your points.

@Ching-Har Wong - I'm sorry, but how the affiliate referred traffic ultimately interacts with your site is down to you and your CRM tactics. I appreciate that if your CRM is generally successful and that a specific demographic is not desired, if you see some affiliates sending you traffic from that demographic, you need to look into it, but the retention and activation rate is not good enough criteria to judge affiliates by as a sole metric.

In my experience, there is only ONE valid argument to back up the need for a cull - branding. Clients being wary of where their brand appears, the brand association with other retailers and generally the brand perception built through certain affiliate sites. Here, there's only one approach: the network MUST provide much more insight into the affiliate and the client needs to move from looking at the matter superficially and dig into the data. Chances are, the site listed isn't the only place the merchant is promoted on - do they know all sites? Seldom. Merchants should also try to establish how these seemingly low brand value affiliates help in the purchase decision and how they fit in the consumer path to conversion.

As a final thought - removing affiliates on a big scale takes up so much admin time that it becomes a worthless task for most cases. It's best if that time is used in a positive way to promote the programme effectively and improve performance. Agencies are also a big contributor to this growing trend - they try to show clients how proactive and busy and protective of the client they are, when in fact they just don't know how to efficiently run affiliate programmes, or just execute client instructions because they don't have enough expertise to reason with the merchant.

There was a good comprehensive article released on the topic by Webgains and easyjet holidays a few weeks ago that makes for a good read too: http://www.affiliates4u.com/news/2011/05/5-reasons-merchants-cull-affiliates-why-theyre-wrong/

about 5 years ago

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jda

I see at the bottom of many online shopping sites (generally fashion) links for affiliate marketing and how to contact the merchant and so forth. Yet, rarely see links to their sites, or banners etc on any blogs or no sponsored links through. The conversation here is discussing hundreds, potentially thousands of affiliates, where are they all?? Secondly, I personally no longer follow RSS feeds, or speed dials to blogs, news sites etc, instead opting to follow on twitter. Has this greatly effected affiliate marketing for you guys? Is there a way to measure click through rate off twitter in connection? For example, influenced tweets or mentions on behalf of the merchant within the programme? Curious, cheers.

almost 5 years ago

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