Affiliate marketing can be an easy and cost-effective tactic to drive click-throughs and sales, particularly as the battle for Christmas spend heats up.

But handing over control to a third party partner is not without its challenges. So how can marketers make the most of affiliate marketing without risking their brand reputation?

First and foremost, retailers need to select affiliates that are a good fit for their brand values.

Multichannel retail has led to deeper relationships between consumers and brands, so driving sales through affiliates is a false economy if it detracts from a brand’s reputation.

This also means agreeing the tactics that affiliates will use and ensuring that they align with the brand’s overall marketing plan. It could rule out unsolicited emails or pop-up ads, for example. It also means being sparing with discounts.

Offering discounts through affiliates can be a useful way to engage new customers. But excessive discounting eats into margins, and isn’t always needed.

Marketers can work closely with affiliates to build anticipation for a product at full price, as much as possible.

Affiliate marketing also serves as a practical way to audit your overall marketing strategy.

Marketers can compile data on the type of buyer coming from each affiliate and compare performance to other marketing channels to get an overall feel for what works with different customers.

Marketers can also vary the commission that they pay to incentivise traffic from their most important target groups.

Tweaking the incentive structure can help to drive repeat traffic or attract vocal brand advocates. This encourages affiliates to target these groups and improves return on investment for all parties.

This means that a maternity retailer can offer a better premium for young women in long-term relationships starting their families, rather than older men who might be buying the product as a one-off gift.

Gaming retailers can target young men likely to act as brand advocates rather than those who are more private about their pastimes, or luxury retailers can drive traffic from those whose income better supports cross-selling.

This is good news for publishers too. By paying a premium for the right customers, brands reward third parties when they target their own marketing efforts more effectively.

Removing the emphasis on pure traffic reduces indiscriminate marketing. It encourages publishers to match display ads to content targeting relevant demographics, or even to compile bespoke email lists that target these consumers more effectively.

More than a century ago John Wanamaker lamented that half of his marketing budget was wasted, but he didn’t know which half. The data most marketers now have at their fingertips, coupled with improving attribution methods, mean that for the first time this is no longer the case.

Affiliate marketing has come a long way from deep discounts and unaccountable partnerships. Retailers should now consider it a useful option to build a brand, as well as to drive sales.