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Affiliate Programs

By Linda Woods
Friday, November 14, 2003; 4:00pm EST

One of the key elements necessary for attracting top affiliates to your affiliate programs is to create a professional, credible program. With so many dot-coms failing over the past year, good affiliates have become a bit cynical and suspicious about putting out the effort for a merchant who may close shop or cheat them out of their legitimately earned commissions. Putting these concerns to rest is a top priority for good affiliate program managers. Here's a few ways to build trust with your affiliate sales force.

Build Respect & Trust
Making sure that you consider affiliates as your valued outside sales force is one way to start treating your affiliate program like an important part of your overall business strategy, not just an insignificant "add-on" that you give little attention. Building a viable outside sales force requires a "sales manager" (your Affiliate Program Manager), professional sales collateral materials (your links, banners & promos), adequate training (do your affiliates truly understand the benefits & features of your products?), a generous commission structure and recognition and rewards for outstanding sales.

Pay on Time
This seems like an obvious suggestion, but take a look at your Affiliate Program's FAQ. Have you stated perfectly clearly not only what the payout is, but exactly when it is tallied, what constitutes a legitimate payout , when they will be paid and how? A good affiliate program information page will include items like precisely when they are credited with the sale, how or why a sale maybe cancelled, what the "return" days are and how that affects commissions. Also, affiliates need to know when a payout is earned, what day can the affiliate expect payment if their required minimum has been met. Your tracking software gives you access to all the statistics necessary to fulfill these obligations, so make sure you do in a timely manner. Nothing goes farther to establish credibility than a regular, accurate check! When you belong to a network, some of these issues are handled for you, but it should be a visible part of your policy and commitment to affiliates whether you have to handle payouts in-house or through a network.

Commit to Accuracy
The one thing that merchants who run in-house programs must consider is that affiliates need to know that they can trust the statistics being provided by the tracking technology. One of the implied benefits of running your program through a network is that there is a trusted 3rd party to monitor tracking accuracy. This can also be established when you run an in-house system if you make sure your software can provide 24/7 up to the minute details on all transactions and can be easily verified by the affiliate through their admin interface. For example, good affiliates will want to be able to see total sales, as well as the status of individual transactions, like pending sales, reversals or approved sales. They want to be able to "test" the program, by making a purchase through their affiliate link, see it appear on the interface, and then see it listed as reversed or pending when they cancel the sale. In this way, they can be assured that the technology is working for ALL transactions. Very active affiliates will see these accurate and real time statistics as being vital to the health and success of their business.

Adhere to High Standards
Over the past couple of years, a group of dedicated volunteers have formed the Affiliate Union whose aim to develop both a "certification standard" and a way for organizations to implement those standards. They have been working on a "Merchant Certification Checklist" that has been developed by consensus from a board made up of merchants, affiliates, industry consultants and affiliate technology representatives. A few of these points are; having a fair and equitable Affiliate Agreement, providing reasonable notification of substantive changes in payouts, stringent privacy assurances and ethical email practices among other things. Getting an Affiliate Union certification can do much to provide good affiliates with some assurances about a company's dedication and commitment to their affiliate marketing program.

Personalized & Regular Affiliate Communications
Countless programs are out there that rarely, if ever, make a proactive attempt to personally communicate with their affiliates. Perhaps this is due to the sheer numbers of affiliates they have, or the lack of committed management. In either case, this practice does little to allay suspicions in the minds of dedicated affiliates. How can you really trust a "big business" to treat you fairly if you rarely hear from them, and when you do it's a standard message like "Dear Affiliate" and it's signed with the impersonal, "The Affiliate Team". Some networks don't even allow you to send personalized messages to your "sales force" with crucial business correspondence! That's unacceptable and will undermine your efforts to build personal, lucrative relationships with your valued affiliate sales force. Even if you run a very large program, you should have an email delivery system which can send a personalized letter with the affiliates' first name, AND it should be signed with the real name of the person responsible for handling affiliate issues. Also, every effort should be made to stay in regular contact by phone, not just email, with those top performers that drive significant sales to your program.

In closing, a sense of suspicion and distrust has often clouded business relationships between online merchants and affiliates. Both sides are perhaps to blame for many of these misgivings, but if merchants make a bona fide effort to adhere to fair business practices, provide excellent tracking reporting and statistics, communicate well, and make it known that they run their program according to the guidelines set forth by industry groups, like Affiliate Union, they will undoubtedly gain the respect and loyalty of hard working, professional affiliates. Both will benefit financially from this mutually respectful relationship.

Source of Article
Linda Woods started her own consulting business in May 2000, after a 10 month stint with Commission Junction, in the Marketing Department in charge of Affiliate Acquisition and Educational Training. Prior to that she was the Marketing Director for WebStuf, a web design firm, where she specialized in helping smaller companies develop their marketing strategies, including affiliate marketing channels. She has taught E-Commerce classes at University of California at Santa Barbara and writes and speaks extensively on internet marketing strategies. Linda is also available for private consulting contracts of all sizes. You can visit her web site at http://www.partnercentric.com/.


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