Start-Up Guide to Affiliate Program Management: How to Build & Manage Your Program

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No one gets into business to watch it fail. Any equation for success includes profitability in the final accounting.

If you want to see a powerful conversion rate on your products and services, and if you want to serve customers the best you can, you need to promote your product to the masses with digital marketing strategies and know-how, no exceptions.

There are, of course, multiple marketing strategies to increase a company’s target audience, overall presence, and profitability. Tactics such as inbound marketing, social media influencer partnership, and in-house sales are all great for growing an e-commerce business.

One of the most overlooked strategies is affiliate marketing, a crowdsourcing approach to getting your products in front of people you might not otherwise reach. Statistics don’t lie: affiliate program management – the act of working with others to market your products in exchange for a cut – is hugely popular today.

“Affiliate marketing is the #2 marketing strategy that publishers use to generate revenue, behind only Google AdSense,” says Backlinko, adding that “40% of U.S. merchants cited affiliate programs as their top customer acquisition channel.”

Plus, “59.32% of affiliates promote B2C products.” That means you’ve got pretty even odds of successful affiliate partner outreach whether you’re B2B or B2C.

That doesn’t mean people necessarily know how to start an affiliate program, though. According to the same source, “22% of CMOs cited affiliate marketing as the area of marketing they are least knowledgeable.” If that’s you, it’s time to take a look at what affiliate management is, how affiliate programs work, and how to manage yours successfully.

What is Affiliate Management?

Affiliate management is the process of maintaining your affiliate network to prioritize top-performing strategies as well as support each affiliate or provider in your network. It also involves managing your suite of online marketing channels, which will vary depending on the types of affiliate strategies, softwares, and tools that you use.

How Do Affiliate Programs Work?

Affiliate programs follow the same basic principle no matter what product or service you sell: A blogger or influencer posts about your offerings on their platform. When a reader or follower takes an action because of the affiliate’s promotion – e.g. clicking a link, signing up through a form on your site, or making a purchase – they earn a small commission from that lead or sale.

This works for both you and the affiliate, because you get more traffic and they get a business model. The right affiliate can not only make a good living from their work, but they can also single handedly drive thousands of dollars (or more) in potential business your way.

This marketing strategy has another benefit as well. Because affiliate partners often create their own photos and videos, you get an inexpensive source of media. They’re often willing to give it to you for free in exchange for attribution on your social channels, if you have a decent following. If not, you can pay them additional small amounts to create content for you.

Considerations When Building an Affiliate Program

Before you can be successful with affiliate program management, you need to make several decisions about how you’ll approach it upfront. These include:

Which Products to Promote

First and foremost, which products or services will you promote? Managers differ in their approaches, such as:

  • Promoting only the most profitable offerings, trusting that they will drag the overall site performance and ranking upward
  • Giving all products and services time in the limelight
  • Highlighting new items above all others
  • Promoting the items that get the most search traffic, even if they don’t sell the best
  • Prioritizing products that get a lot of evergreen market traction
  • Running A/B tests to see which perform best, then predominantly promoting them

In most cases, it’s advised to select only a few products to promote when first starting out. As your program grows and your affiliate network becomes stronger, you can branch out to begin promoting more products.

How Products Should be Promoted

Many people just starting out with an affiliate marketing program wonder how best to promote their products. For instance, are there certain rules pertaining to which platforms can or cannot be used, which imagery should be used, or what verbiage should be used?

This will all depend on the strategies and guidance you, the affiliate manager, put in place. Consider creating guidelines such as:

  • Verbiage: Make sure to give your affiliates clear guidelines about what they can and cannot say. That includes legal limitations, such as promising cures or other claims (e.g. “this is the best snake oil you’ll ever come across!”). Here’s where some pre-written copy and a list of no-nos can help your affiliates share your product without getting you in hot water.
  • Photos/imagery: Affiliate success depends heavily on well-curated images. Many companies choose to hand out visual collateral, while others give affiliates guidelines for what to create instead. If you allow your promoters to create their own photos and videos, let them know what can and can’t be featured in the background, symbolism to avoid, etc. If you like, you can tell them what you’re looking for in product imagery for a chance to share their photo on your own socials, giving them exposure. Sending templates that they can plug their own images into is especially helpful.
  • Promoting multiple brands in the same post/image: Are your partners allowed to feature more than one brand in a photo or write-up? If not, you’ll need to let them know. If so, what kinds of brands are you okay sharing the spotlight with? Which go against your morals and politics, and absolutely cannot be mentioned anywhere near your own brand?
  • Promotional platforms: Where and how can affiliates post? On their own blogs only? On Instagram and Pinterest, but not LinkedIn? On all social media platforms? Are they allowed to run paid ads on these platforms, or on a search engine, or would paid ads compete against your existing PPC efforts and drive up your costs?

Remember, your affiliates’ goal is to promote your brand and products as effectively as possible so as to maximize their cut. That is their primary motivation, so they’re unlikely to feel offended or controlled by clear, actionable instructions. Provide them, and you’ll both benefit.

What Kind of Affiliates You’ll Bring Onboard

Not all affiliate marketers are created equal. In fact, there are three basic types, and they vary significantly in terms of their profitability and success. These are:

  • Unattached affiliates – These folks don’t have much or anything to do with your business niche. For instance, their blog could be about real estate, whereas you sell sweaters. As such, their readers are somewhat but not very likely to be in a sweater-buying mood when they come to their site.
  • Related affiliates – With a related affiliate, you have a better chance of attracting the consumer’s eye and seeing positive conversion rates. That’s because their content is already related to yours. For instance, they talk about fashion and you sell sweaters.
  • Involved affiliates – This is the best type of affiliate. They love your products, use them, take their own photos and videos, and actively promote them on your site. Their readers and followers, who admire them, are invested in their word, and so are more likely to take actions such as clicks, scrolls, signups, and purchases.

It’s worth pointing out that if you’re going to experience affiliate fraud, where people try to get you to pay them for useless or bot-generated traffic, it’s likeliest to come from unattached affiliates. For that reason, it’s usually worth cultivating successful affiliate relationships with people who genuinely care about the products, even if that does take more time and effort.

Which Commission Structures to Utilize

The next set of questions you need to answer relate to your commissions. In other words, how will your affiliates get paid for each referral or sale?

You can use various goals and metrics to set your commission rates. For example, you can pay per view, per click, per signup, or per purchase. For each of these, you can set a different commission rate, depending on how valuable the action was. (I.e. a purchase is more valuable than a view, though both are parts of the sales funnel.)

Alternatively, you could set up a revenue share structure, paying out a small percentage of the new customer’s monthly bill for a certain period of time, rather than a larger one-time commission payment. While the event-based commissions described here are certainly the norm, affiliate managers truly have several options for affiliate payout structures, and are limited only by their imaginations.

How & When Commissions are Paid

Lastly, you’ll want to decide the logistics of actually making those commission payments, as this is important information your affiliates will want from the beginning. You need to decide:

  • How are commissions paid, and how frequently?
  • Are they paid via direct bank transfer, via PayPal, or another service?
  • Are they paid the first workday of every month, a specific number of days after a sale, or after the trial period for a product (e.g. software) ends and the user becomes a paying customer?

However you choose to do it is fine, you just need to have set rules so that affiliates know what they’re getting into. Serious affiliate partners treat it like a business – or at least a side hustle – and will need to feel reassured before they put time into marketing your product that it will be worth it for them.

CTA: Want to join ThriveCart's affiliate marketing program? Sign up today!

Advantages and Disadvantages of Running an Affiliate Marketing Program

While affiliates can be a fantastic resource for bringing in new customers, program management can be time-consuming. However, if you find the right affiliate marketing solutions, you can mitigate the costs and energy involved to make it worth it.

First, let’s discuss some of the other advantages and disadvantages of running an affiliate program.

Affiliate Program Advantages

An affiliate marketing program provides numerous benefits, including the following:

  • Increases new customer traffic and conversion rates It’s hard to get traffic to your site. When you use bloggers and influencers to help you, you effectively widen the scope by a factor of 10, 100, or more.
  • Low-cost strategy – Advertising is a large line item in any marketing budget, but affiliate marketing only pays out for successful clicks, leads, and/or sign-ups. That lowers the barrier to entry for even small businesses to engage in affiliate program management, because you don’t have to pay that much upfront.
  • Low-risk strategy – Affiliate marketing is also low-risk. In the worst-case scenario, an affiliate may do something to tarnish their reputation. But, as they’re not actually a part of your company, it’s relatively easy to distance yourself in this scenario. In addition, since you don’t need to commit a ton of resources to an affiliate marketing program upfront, you don’t have to worry about it not panning out. If it’s not for you, you can move on without having put a lot of skin in the game.
  • Increases brand awareness Affiliate marketing can majorly support your brand awareness efforts. By using others to market your goods, you can widen the scope of your audience on an ongoing basis, showcasing new products and top-sellers alike, and getting the word out to tons of potential new customers.
  • Tools to help – There are several affiliate marketing management tools that integrate seamlessly with your existing eCommerce set-up. Some, like ThriveCart, even add extra services, like conversion optimization and boosting average customer purchases.

Before diving in headfirst into developing an affiliate program, though, it’s important to consider the disadvantages of affiliate programs too.

Affiliate Program Disadvantages

Running an affiliate marketing program does require you to keep an eye out for potential downsides, such as:

  • Possible exposure to affiliate partner drama – As discussed above, an affiliate can get themselves into trouble, and if they do so while promoting your brand, you can get dragged into it. This is relatively easy to plan for, however. Have your PR department prepare some boilerplate about how you work with affiliates, but they do not represent your opinions and you do not represent them legally.
  • Affiliates may value the paycheck more than the brand – With affiliate marketing, your “partners” aren’t full-time employees who care about your brand for the long term. For the most part, they’re just hawking your product for their own benefit. That means you should expect them to act selfishly, disappear, reappear, and try to run the show their own way. If they care about making money, though, then they will take the partnership relatively seriously overall.
  • Revolving door mentality – While the goal is to build long-term relationships, affiliates will come and go. You must expect this in your affiliate marketing program and not put too much emphasis on maintaining the same affiliates over the long haul. Instead, plan to continuously invest time into finding and onboarding new affiliates with fresh enthusiasm and ideas.

The best approach to affiliate marketing is one that takes these disadvantages into account and lets them spur you to greater efforts. Leveraging cutting-edge features of affiliate programs, as well as maintaining a learning mindset, will help mitigate them so you don’t have to worry in the long run.

How to Manage a Successful Affiliate Program

Researching and staying informed about the best approaches to affiliate marketing is always important, but nothing beats the sense of accomplishment from actually running the program well.

So, ready to get started? Great! It’s time to learn exactly what steps to take to successfully manage an affiliate program.

1. Recruiting

The best affiliate management approach starts with recruiting affiliates effectively. If you want a lucrative longtime partner program and top-shelf performance marketing, then you need to find new affiliates who will get the job done.

Once you’ve published a landing page or signup page promoting your affiliate program and explaining earnings potentials, you can start finding affiliates to partner with.

There are various places to look, starting with those on social media who dominate the conversation in your industry. Similarly, reach out to influencers who already have a following in your arena. These are two of the best places to start your search for affiliate partners.

Looking for more? Consider sending out affiliate invitations to existing customers and positive reviewers—people who already have or use your product, and who’ve already said they love it.

2. Onboarding

If you want your affiliates to speak properly about your product, they need to know how to do so. Onboarding your new partners allows them to become familiar with the brand’s values and your main products’ features and capabilities. This will provide the foundation of their marketing efforts and ensure that the work account managers put in will bear the best fruit.

The easiest way to get your affiliates up to speed is to make self-guided onboarding materials available through an affiliate dashboard. Consider including everything an affiliate will need, such as marketing materials, boilerplate verbiage, images, videos, social media collateral, and so on – easily accessible upfront.

The right affiliate management software provides affiliate dashboards that are ideal for onboarding and providing future communications—which is our next point in successful affiliate management.

3. Communicating

As with other relationships, transparency is the bedrock of happy affiliate partnerships. If you’re looking for high affiliate performance and affiliate sales, keep the lines of communication open.

That might look like letting them know personally when a new product or service becomes available that they should promote. Or, you can clue them in to what other affiliates are doing that leads to great sales, so that they can be equally successful – which is valuable for both of you.

It’s also important to make your affiliates feel cherished. Although they understand they’re one part of a larger whole, no one wants to feel like a number. Consider personalized thank-you notes, bonuses, and other approaches to rewarding good work. Loyalty programs that incentivize people to bring other affiliates to you, such as second tier commission programs, are also a good idea.

4. Optimizing

As with your website and landing page content, your affiliate strategy needs ongoing optimization too. Check in frequently to review the overall performance of your program, your affiliates’ marketing efforts, and how your management approach is working out. Naturally, in order to know what needs to be optimized, you’ll want to track results and plan goals ahead of time.

These should include:

  • Landing page goals, such as traffic, click-throughs, and conversions
  • Conversion rates of views, clicks, signups, and purchases
  • Social media growth, from followers and subscribers, to impressions and engagement
  • A/B testing of different aspects such as pricing for products, commissions for affiliates, verbiage for affiliates to use, images, and so forth

Successful affiliate marketing is all about optimization, not least because social media and search engine/SEO algorithms change all the time. What worked last year could very well prove counter to your efforts this year, so never get complacent.

Want to dive even deeper into affiliate marketing so you can see the greatest possible success from affiliate program management – and your business as a whole? Check out this handy guide to creating an affiliate program and follow it up with a roundup of strategies that will help you fly right.

Do It All with ThriveCart’s Affiliate Management Tools

Understanding affiliate program management is the first step in building and running a successful affiliate program. Once you do, it’s time to put your new knowledge to work.

The most successful B2B and B2C companies work every angle of affiliate marketing management. For instance, they automate payments to their affiliates, develop strategic affiliate commissions structures, make smart use of coupon codes, and always keep their eyes open for new partners.

From recruiting to onboarding, communicating to optimizing, you need a central dashboard that will give you that ten-thousand-foot view each and every day. Enter ThriveCart.

ThriveCart is a conversion optimization tool that can be used on nearly any eCommerce website where products are sold, in conjunction with the website’s existing shopping cart. It not only enables marketing funnel optimization to boost average order value, but also enables you to create affiliate programs that grow the website’s customer base effortlessly.

How else can our powerful affiliate features help you grow your business? We offer sign-up page creation, centralized affiliate dashboards, and easy drag-and-drop product landing pages for each targeted product. We make it simple for you to create commission structures, provide marketing materials for affiliate use, and roll out automatic commission payments.

All of this, in one place, and for one low, one-time price, with no additional commissions or fees ever.

Want to learn more about how simple affiliate program management can be? Check out ThriveCart today!

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