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.