Did you hear that having an affiliate marketing program benefits your brand but you don’t know how to approach your affiliate program launch? Don’t worry! This post will guide you through the process, step-by-step, and, if you get stuck anywhere, I’ll be happy to help.
The 10 Steps to a Perfect Affiliate Program Launch
1. Evaluate Your Website for Leaks
Leaks create opportunities for affiliate-referred traffic to be monetized without rewarding the affiliate. They include:
- Phone number
- Chat support
- AdSense units
- Amazon widgets
- Links to other websites
If you have these on your website, either remove them or find a way to track them. Before joining your affiliate marketing program, any publisher will check your website. If they see any of the above, they will choose not to join or, maybe, test to see if you make any efforts to track phone, chat, social media, and other types of referrals.
I’ve seen publishers warn others on affiliate marketing groups that a certain merchant takes orders by chat or phone and should not be promoted. You certainly do not want something like that to happen at or immediately after your affiliate program launch. Therefore, before beginning to work on your affiliate program launch, make sure you have an affiliate-friendly landing page.
2. Study Your Competition
Considering that over 80% of merchants resort to affiliate marketing to promote their products and services, it is safe to assume that many of your competitors do the same. This means that you will be competing for the same affiliates and you need to come up with a similar, preferably better offer. You cannot do that if you don’t know what your competitors are offering, so engage in competitive intelligence.
To find out, do a quick Google Search for “[competitor name] affiliate program”. Another option is to check their websites for links to their affiliate program page. Software merchants often link to their partner or affiliate program page in their main menu. Product manufacturers include the links in their website footer.
Aspects to Consider for Your Own Affiliate Program Launch
- Platform: Are your competitors running their affiliate program on an affiliate network or in-house? What network or affiliate tracking software have they chosen?
- Program details: What commissions are your competitors paying: percentage-based or flat amounts? Do they offer sign-up bonuses and commission increases based on performance? What is their tracking gap or cookie life? What is their average order and commission amount?
- Creatives: What type and how many creatives do your competitors make available: banners, text links, videos, datafeeds?
- Program Agreement: Do your affiliates allow PPC advertising on branded keywords? Do they work with coupon affiliates and, if they do, under what terms?
Some of these details will not be available upfront, so you may have to create a publisher account and join your main competitors’ affiliate programs. It will be worth it, as you’ll have to make decisions related to all of the above and implement them for your own affiliate program launch, and you can’t offer better terms than your competitors’ if you don’t know what they are offering.
3. Create a Dedicated Email Address
When creating your merchant account with the affiliate network and when recruiting affiliates (we’ll get there, don’t worry), it helps to have a dedicated email address. Set it up as firstname.lastname@example.org (Yahoo, Gmail, and other free email addresses won’t look good in your affiliates’ eyes). To avoid having your messages end up in the receiver’s spam folder, use your name or that of the person who will be managing your affiliate program as sender name.
4. Choose the Platform for Your Affiliate Program Launch
In theory, you can choose between joining an affiliate marketing network and running your affiliate program in-house. However, since this is your first affiliate program launch, I recommend that you join an affiliate network. It will be easier, cheaper, and support is available in case you get stuck.
If you’ve followed my advice on studying your competition, you already have an idea of which platform would be best for you. Depending on your niche, chances are it’s ShareASale, as it’s currently the biggest platform in the U.S., hosting 6,200+ affiliate programs.
Before you head to their merchant sign-up page, put your finances in order! Your affiliate program launch will involve some expenses. I’ve reviewed the costs of running an affiliate marketing program here. On ShareASale, your affiliate program launch will bring about a network access fee of $550. You will also have to pay transaction fees (20% of affiliate payouts, minimum $35/month).
5. Decide on Program Details
You’ve already spied on your competitors, so you know how much they pay to their affiliates and under which terms. In order for your affiliate program launch to be successful, you need to come up with an attractive offer, preferably more attractive than the offer of your network competitors:
It can be a flat amount or a percentage of the order value, to be paid to all affiliates that refer sales for which you haven’t set up different commission rules. If you offer subscription-based services, you may have to choose between one-off and recurring payments. Some merchants choose to pay different commissions for new and returning customers. It is also possible to divide commissions between two or more affiliates when they’re involved in the same transaction or to ignore last-minute involvement of some affiliates.
You want to motivate your affiliates to sell as much as possible, so offer them bonuses or commission increases when they reach certain thresholds either on the number of sales or on the sales value.
First Sale(s) Bonus
It is a great way to motivate affiliates to put up your links and start promoting you as soon as possible. It can be a percentage of the order value or a flat amount, and you can offer it for only a limited amount of time, like 30 days.
Commission Structure for Select Affiliates
Some affiliates have higher potential and impact than others (top reviewers, niche publications, influencers, etc.). Especially when they are already promoting your competitors, you need to offer them a personalized commission plan, higher than your standard.
Some networks, like ShareASale, offer you the possibility to send private invitations to select publishers to join your affiliate program. When you do, it is important to give them an immediate reason to accept your invitation. With time, you will also notice that some affiliates do not actively promote you, despite having joined your affiliate program, so it helps to tempt them with some time-limited incentives.
Tracking Gap or Cookie Life
As a merchant, you get to decide for how long you want your affiliate’s referrals to be tracked and rewarded. Beyond that period, even if a buyer who clicked an affiliate link completes a purchase, the affiliate won’t receive a commission for it. You can set the tracking gap at several days, months, or even one year (remember to match or exceed your competitors’). Cookie life extensions are a great way to motivate affiliates without actually losing anything, as statistics show that most purchases take place within the first days from the affiliate click.
If necessary, take another look at your competitors’ program. Look not only at the flat amounts or percentages they offer as commissions but also at their average order values and average commission amounts. If you cannot afford to match their flat amount commissions and bonuses, you can always set your commissions and bonuses as percentages.
Do your math carefully and make sure you take into account all costs, short-term and long-term ones, and even leave room for some commission increases. The last thing you want is to be forced to drop commissions, as it could cost you affiliates and sales.
6. Put Together Your Program Agreement
Remember when I asked you to check your competitors’ program agreement? It is now time to create your own. I won’t get into details because I’ve already explained its terms and conditions here. Just remember to explicitly regulate paid search campaigns and coupon promotions. Also, prohibit parasitism and other activities that do not add value.
Without a sound affiliate program agreement in place, you let your affiliates cannibalize your program and you risk losing money and having your brand reputation ruined. If you are still not sure what your terms of service should look like, use this affiliate marketing program agreement template and change it as you see fit.
When uploading your agreement to the affiliate network, check their instructions. You may have to upload it in HTML in order to preserve the formatting. Don’t panic! There are free programs, like BlueGriffon, that will convert any text for you.
7. Create Your Merchant Account, Set Up Your Program, and Implement Tracking
Each network has its rules and specifics but, in the end, it is all about filling in your information and adjusting some settings. You do not even have to do everything yourself, as all networks offer support to merchants.
Perhaps the most important part of this step is implementing tracking. In most cases, it means placing a “tracking pixel” or code sequence on your website’s “Thank You” or “Order Confirmation Page”. While the affiliate network tracks clicks following the unique URL assigned to each affiliate, the “tracking pixel” reports the conversion and announces the affiliate network to attribute the agreed commission to the affiliate (or affiliates) who drove the sale.
Just take your time, ask for support if you need it, and double-check everything when you’re done. Place a test transaction and use the affiliate account I recommended creating earlier to apply to your own program and see it through the affiliates’ eyes.
8. Prepare and Upload Your Creatives and Affiliate Communications
Some recommend starting earlier with these and having them ready when you create your merchant account. However, because each network has specific requirements, it may be simpler to wait until your account is ready and follow the network’s instructions.
Creatives Required for Your Affiliate Program Launch
In terms of affiliate program creatives, banners and links are a must. Depending on the type of products and services you offer, coupons, promo codes, a datafeed, and some videos may be required as well. The network will provide you with the means to create the links and with instructions on datafeed format and upload procedure.
For banners, consider providing at least one banner for each of the following sizes:
- 88×31 px button
- 468×60 px
- 125×125 px
- 120×600 px
- 160×600 px
- 120×240 px
- 234×60 px
- 254×331 px
- 728×90 px
- 250×250 px
- 720×300 px
- 300×100 px
- 300×250 px
- 180×150 px
- 300×50 px
- 320×100 px
- 300×75 px
- 300×160 px
Since banners influence conversion and affiliates’ decision of whether to promote you or not, it may be better to leave their creation to professionals. Using your competitors’ for guidance and inspiration is always a good idea. Poorly designed creatives are of no use to your affiliates or to you, so don’t try to cut corners.
Later on, if you get requests for additional banners, honor them and ask for feedback. Some of your affiliates will be experienced marketers, able to recognize or design high-quality creatives. Their advice could prove invaluable and, after all, you share the same interest: to drive as many sales as possible.
Affiliate Communications to Have Ready
Your affiliate program will also need a description, or bio, namely a presentation of you, as the merchant, and of your program details. Keep it short, focusing on what sets you apart from other merchants and on the benefits your affiliates will enjoy by promoting you. This will be the first thing affiliates see when clicking on your program’s network listing.
Before receiving any affiliate applications, it is also advisable to have email auto-responders set up for affiliate application:
I’ve already covered these in detail in my checklist for a successful affiliate program launch.
9. Leverage Network Tools and Resources to Get Your Program off the Ground
Most affiliate networks have a separate section where they list new programs for affiliates looking for merchants to promote. They also have various tools and program boost options, some free, others paid, that can help you recruit your first quality affiliates. Take the time to find out what these are and make the most of them.
Don’t hesitate to ask the network’s support representative if they have any special offers for merchants at their first affiliate program launch. Anything that can help you gain some visibility and recruit some niche-focused, valuable affiliates is important and should be tried. If you just sit and wait for affiliates to fall off the sky, your program is bound to fail. Instead, start marketing your affiliate program, focusing on recruitment and activation.
10. Do Not Put Your Program on Autopilot, Manage It!
Affiliate networks do their best to simplify and automate operations for their merchants. If you browse through your account’s settings, you will notice options to automatically approve or decline affiliates based on various filters. Never choose such options, as they could prove dangerous.
Proactive management of your affiliate program is vital if you want to see long-term results. I’ve explained why and also covered the basics of affiliate program management here. Whether you want to trust an existing employee with management, handle the responsibilities yourself, hire an experienced affiliate program manager or trust an OPM agency like ours to manage it professionally, it is entirely up to you.
For best results, it is, of course, advisable that you work with professionals. It is the only way to avoid dangerous affiliate program mistakes and make sure your program will drive the results you hope for. To keep your affiliate program manager motivated, make sure to include a component-based incentive. If they know what they’re doing, they won’t object.
For example, at AM Navigator, we accept agreements with incredibly low flat rates and mutually beneficial performance-based components. This way, our clients can be sure that the affiliate program management costs they pay reflect the performance of their program and are, therefore, worth covering.
Get Help with Your Affiliate Program Launch!
Despite my best effort to make the above steps as easy to follow as possible, I realize that you may have doubts or questions along the way! Don’t hesitate to share them in a comment below, by email, or, better yet, contact us to schedule a free consultation! We want your first affiliate program launch to be successful and we’ll gladly contribute to its success.