Many online businesses thrive because of their strong affiliate programs. But affiliate programs are also vulnerable to abuse and bad affiliates can hurt the brands of the businesses they promote.

Since last Friday, one of my email accounts has received more than a dozen spam emails promoting FTD.com and I thought this would serve as the perfect example of why affiliate management is so important.

FTD.com, the ecommerce arm of 99 year-old floral service FTD, which is owned by United Online, is gearing up for one of its biggest days of the year – Valentine’s Day – and apparently spammers have been gearing up too.

The 12+ emails I have received in the past 3 days all promote FTD.com’s Valentine’s Day offerings, informing me that I can purchase a beautiful bouquet of flowers for as little as $19.99.

The emails all use the same or similar creative and all claim that I opted in to receiving promotional emails. Several even include the IP addresses I supposedly used when opting in. There’s only one problem: none of the IP addresses listed belong to the ISPs I’ve used. They’re not even from the right country!

Shady domain names such as ambulance-air.org are used for landing pages and unsubscribe requests, while FTD’s postal address is conveniently used for unsubscribe requests sent by postal mail. Clicking on the links in these emails takes me to the FTD.com website via a redirect located on the mafiatrack.com domain name.

This domain belongs to the “Mafia Click Network“, which bills itself as a “private invitation-only network developed for a small group of individuals that control a significant amount of traffic in the online lead generation industry.

Obviously, these emails are nothing more than spam and are almost certainly being sent by the same individual or group of individuals.

Unfortunately, while the senders of this spam will likely go unpunished, it is FTD that will face the consequences of their actions. Although I had not planned to purchase flowers through FTD this Valentine’s Day, the chances that I will ever become an FTD.com customer are now slim to none. Receiving over a dozen spam emails featuring the FTD brand in a few short days simply leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The reality is that as beneficial as they can be, when affiliate programs are managed in such a way that permits egregious abuse, the businesses that operate them are the ones who really suffer. First impressions are invaluable and when businesses operate affiliate programs, they need to understand that they are often putting those first impressions in the hands of their affiliates. When bad apples abuse the affiliate programs, it’s the brand that gets associated with the abuse since we usually have no idea who is engaging in the abuse.

The sad truth is that even if FTD.com has already cut off the affiliate accounts responsible for the spam I received (which seems unlikely as I still received a couple more of these spams last night), the links in these spam emails still work and take me to the FTD.com website, where FTD.com benefits financially if I make a purchase – regardless of whether or not the spam that brought me there will generate a financial reward for the spammers. In other words, FTD.com could disavow this spam but at the end of the day it still benefits financially from it.

Incidents like these are why I have always cautioned friends and associates who have considered creating affiliate programs for their businesses.

In my opinion, having a solid plan in place for affiliate management is absolutely crucial to minimizing the damage that affiliate programs can cause when they are targeted for abuse.

Do I really want third parties handling my marketing? Should I run an open affiliate program or implement stringent policies for screening affiliates? What measures can be taken to identify affiliate abuse and cut it off quickly? How will I react to any abuse in an attempt to mitigate the possible damage to my brand?

These are questions that businesses considering operating affiliate programs must ask. They’re also questions that businesses already operating affiliate programs should ask if they didn’t in the first place.

From verifying affiliates manually to restricting the domains that affiliate links will work on, there are a number of ways to minimize affiliate abuse and more importantly discourage it in the first place. After all, if an affiliate program is known to be difficult to abuse, most scammers will move on to easier targets.

Of course, businesses operating affiliate programs must have a genuine interest in building a reputable program in the first place. If standards and rules are set but not enforced and the only metric evaluated is how many sales affiliates are driving (regardless of how they’re driving them), the affiliate program will most likely be abused and damage to the brand will be likely be done.

From what I can gather from a few quick searches, this isn’t the first time FTD.com’s affiliate program has been abused by spammers and it probably won’t be the last unless FTD wakes up and realizes that its brand is more important than a bunch of hit-and-run sales.