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Successfully implementing an affiliate program

Starting an affiliate program can be daunting for beginners but also for experienced affiliate marketers. This guideline has helped thousands of digital marketers with implementing affiliate marketing successfully.

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Can I start my own affiliate marketing program?

Affiliate marketing is a well established digital marketing channel. It doesn’t matter whether your company needs more leads, sales, app installs or traffic. Anybody with an online business can implement affiliate marketing. Starting affiliate marketing requires some technical knowledge about your app or website, however you don’t need a large marketing budget. This guideline will help you to start your own affiliate marketing program, step by step!

How do affiliates get paid?

Affiliates are publishers, influencers or bloggers that promote your brand by using unique tracking links on the internet. Every time someone clicks on that link, it’s registered by your affiliate management software. When the click generates a conversion (i.e. makes a purchase) within a predetermined time frame known as the cookie time, the affiliate earns a commission. The standard cookietime is 30 days, but there are examples of much shorter and longer cookie times. Besides defining the cookie time for your affiliate program, you need to decide about who ‘wins’ the commission in the case there are multiple affiliates that can be attributed to the purchase. We explained this matter more thoroughly in tip 4. Define the type of partners you want to work with and (publisher) guidelines.

How do I start an affiliate program for free?

Many people have heard about affiliate marketing, and understand that in this marketing channel advertisers typically only pay for the sales that are generated. This is one of the main reasons why affiliate marketing is so popular. It’s not surprising that over the years many entrepreneurs and digital marketers have asked us if you can start an affiliate campaign without money. The short answer to that question is: no. 

The reason why there is no way to start your own affiliate marketing campaign for free, is because you need  affiliate management software for your affiliate operation. The minimal cost of launching an affiliate campaign is determined by the set-up and license fee that’s required by the affiliate network of white label affiliate software you have chosen. 

How much does it cost to set up an affiliate program?

Besides the (obvious) cost for running affiliate software, there are more costs you need to take into account. 

  • Affiliate marketer salary (50 -100k)
  • Initial one-time affiliate software setup fee (1-5k)
  • Monthly license software fees for affiliate software, SEO tools, CRM software(100-2k)
  • CPX (Cost per sale, Cost per lead, Cost per Acquisition etc.)
  • Quarterly branding budget for tenancy / fixed fees
  • Travel expenses for attending industry related events and affiliate conferences, creating promotional products and organizing business lunches.

8 Tips to Launch Your Affiliate Program

How do you successfully implement an affiliate program? And how do you start an affiliate program? Over the past 5 years our team has launched and implemented hundreds of international, multi -million dollar global affiliate programs. No two businesses are the same, but we wanted to share with you these 8 universal tips for launching a partner program. 

So, if you are ready to start your affiliate program please pay attention to this checklist. It contains fundamental do’s and don’ts that will help you launch your affiliate campaign successfully.

1. Set clear goals

Someone once said: ‘ a goal without a deadline is just a dream’. So before starting your affiliate program you need to create a forecast and plan a budget. Does your revenue grow, decline or is static over time? Bear in mind seasonality and churn rates. Define key performance indicators, a.k.a. Northstar KPIs, to measure what is success. In affiliate marketing common metrics and commission structures are performance based: CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost), CPS ( Cost Per Sale), CPL ( Cost Per Lead) CPA ( Cost Per Action) and RevShare % ( A percentage of the revenue is shared with the affiliate).

Don’t forget your soft KPIs such as the conversion rate, EPC (average earnings per click for affiliates), number of clicks and building awareness and brand authority. This will help you estimate return on ad spend, but also determine the optimal commission structure for your program. Think about incentives, conversion attribution rules and how many partners / referrals / affiliates you need to acquire.

  • Create a forecast (bear in mind seasonality / churn)
  • What are your Northstar KPIs?
  • Determine a commission structure and budget

2. Choosing affiliate management software

Partner marketing platforms or affiliate marketing software offer solutions that automate workflows across your affiliate program: payments, fraud prevention, performance tracking, publisher acquisition, promotional tools etc. 

If you do not have the technical expertise to build your own affiliate marketing system, there are two types of (preferred) affiliate marketing software solutions to choose from: 

  • White Label Affiliate Software
  • Affiliate Network Software

Both options offer similar technical solutions, the main difference is in the cost structure and branding for your company. Suppliers of white label affiliate software are pure SaaS companies: you pay a fixed monthly subscription fee to use the software and you can upgrade your plan to get access to support. The primary benefit of using a white label affiliate management app is you don’t keep anybody else’s logo visible to outsiders, meaning you can provide a fully branded experience for your affiliate users. Secondly, by the time the performance of your campaign reaches a mature stage your cost will most likely be lower compared to running an affiliate campaign with a network.

Affiliate networks typically operate based purely on performance, also known as pay to play or no cure no pay, meaning brands that sign up with the network share part of their total publisher commission (as a margin or markup) with the network. In some cases a small initial set-up fee, low monthly license- or traffic-fees may apply. But those costs are much lower compared to fees charged by white label affiliate software apps. 

White Label vs. Affiliate Network Cost
TypeNetworkWhite Label
Start up (one time)$150 – $800$ 1,000 – $3,000
Licence (monthly)$40 – $60$ 750 – $ 2,000
Markup (per transaction)15-30%None
Disclaimer: the data represented in this table is based on averages, pricing may differ considerably under specific circumstances.

The costs of running your affiliate program with a network are therefore lower for small affiliate campaigns compared to large affiliate campaigns. SMBs usually start their affiliate program with the help of a network, whereas global operating ecommerce platforms and mega-brands such as Amazon, eBay and Aliexpress run their partner marketing program on white label affiliate software.

3. Test with paid media first

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. So make sure you don’t use your affiliates for testing your digital marketing campaigns. If the EPC (Earnings Per Click) are disappointing, your new partner will quickly lose interest in your campaign and invest his time in a competing offer that’s outperforming yours. Outch!

It’s never easy to win back their trust, and all your partner acquisition efforts will be wasted! So first play around with A/B tests on Social, SEA and Native Ad Platforms such as Taboola and Outbrain. Offer your partners the winning creatives, and the most optimal landing pages for the best possible conversion rates.

4. Define the type of partners you want to work with and (publisher) guidelines

When you try to be everything to everyone, you become nothing to no one. This universal rule also applies when you are defining the ideal partners for your campaign. Affiliates are specialised in many different types of digital marketing. They are never a homogenous group but it helps to describe the main characteristics and create matching rules and conditions. 

Set up the rules for permitted promotional methods ( i.e Keywordmarketing, Email, Cashback, Loyalty, Coupons, Content, Social), Commissions and pay-out terms and conditions, Cookie duration (for tracking) and clear brand guidelines to protect the brand image throughout all affiliate’s marketing touchpoints.

  • What are ideal partners, and what not?
  • How can affiliates get paid, and when?
  • What digital marketing methods are allowed, and what not?

In example: I have seen a predominantly content focussed affiliate campaign fall apart after the operator allowed one big deal & coupon code website to the program. Because of the LCC-rule (Last Cookie Counts) the latter partner was ‘stealing’ a large portion of the sales that previously were attributed to influencers and bloggers based on the first touchpoints they earned in the customer journey. The various affiliates who contributed to the final purchase, and were not rewarded for their efforts, left the program after a few months and sadly never returned.

New affiliates will always carefully assess your publisher guidelines and the commission structure before deciding to join your program

5. Test your tracking, and test, and test…

The most common reason for partners to become inactive, leave or not join a program at all is a lack of trust in the tracking technology. Remember that one of the most important grounds for successful partnerships is mutual benefit. App and website updates may influence the accuracy of tracking. Browser and app store updates can smash the reliability of tracking. So never stop testing the tracking of your affiliate program!

6. Partner discovery & acquisition

After tracking, this may be the second most important part of successful partner marketing programs. Never, ever, stop acquiring new affiliates. Any affiliate marketer will agree that discovering and recruiting new affiliates is one of the most time-consuming tasks when starting an affiliate program or launching your own affiliate campaign. If you are curious how, please pay attention to some of these ideas:

  1. Map out the top performing content creators based on keyword research. Start with the most obvious terms people use in search engines when they are looking for your product or service, then work your way down to niche keyword combos. Prioritize acquisition based on the monthly traffic volume.
  2. Make a list of KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) in all of the industries and communities that are relevant to your program. Then sort the list based on their metrics such as reach, followers, engagement and views.
  3. Are there strong potential business partners, just waiting to be discovered? Check out Crossbean.com, the global platform for ecosystem-led growth.
  4. Use SEO-tools such as Semrush, Ahrefs and Similarweb to understand what sources your competitors are using to drive growth. Some hidden gems may be interested in switching teams and join your program instead.
  5. Research the best valued and credible media brands that are focused on traditional channels such as print, live events, email and display. Performance based marketing may offer solutions to negotiate smarter advertising deals, i.e. propose a CPA + discounted fixed fee for PR and impressions.

These are just five examples that may help you discover new partners. Our total list counts over 100 ideas and examples for publisher discovery. And it’s ever growing.

7. Get ready to haggle

Not one partner is the same, and in most cases there is a relatively small bunch of affiliates that create a lot more value than the majority. To utilize differences in partner profitability and to manage increased partner profitability you want to offer your top performers special perks such as, co-branded landing pages, dedicated coupon codes, higher commission rates or faster payment terms. It’s common practice to offer super affiliates set-up fees or tenancy fees ( fixed fees for implementing tracking links, or creating new content such as reviews).

  • co-branded landing pages
  • dedicated coupon codes
  • higher commission rates
  • faster payment terms
  • set-up fees / tenancy fees / fixed fees

8. It’s personal

This final tip to launch a successful affiliate program may be last, but is definitely not one to think of least. Once partners are onboarded to an affiliate program, the next stage is often described as publisher management or account management. Experienced affiliate marketers prefer to use the term publisher support. Why? Because people that refer new customers are your fans. So you should treat them in the same way!

Use sophisticated CRM software to document, monitor and plan every step of their journey. Organize a yearly referral get-together. Pick up the phone and actually talk to your affiliates every now and then. Treat affiliate partners as co-workers, as if they are part of your company. Because they are!

  • Publisher support – not management
  • Use CRM software
  • Organize live events
  • Treat affiliates as co-workers

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