Affiliate Marketing: Talk Is Not CHEAP
Running a productive affiliate program hinges on effective communication with your affiliates. Merchants need to listen to feedback from these online partners and be proactive in maintaining contact with them. Affiliates are your online sales force, and as such they often are the experts when it comes to reaching new customers online. They can help you learn what works. But a smart communication strategy starts the dialogue before the affiliate even applies to be part of your program.
To attract top affiliate partners, provide prospective affiliates with as much organized information as possible. In your recruitment communications, clearly delineate the following:
1. Your company and product benefits.
2. Details on your commission structure.
3. What products/services earn or don’t earn commission.
4. Ways affiliates earn commissions (sale, lead, click).
5. Number of return days.
6. Any payment thresholds and the average number of orders it takes to meet this threshold.
7. Who sends the commission payments.
8. A link to your program terms and conditions; highlight any important policies.
9. Your affiliate program benefits, including strengths such as a competitive commission structure, compelling consumer offers, high average order value or conversion rate.
10. Easy to find contact information for your program.
Once affiliates apply to your program, you want to immediately thank them for their interest, remind them of the program details, include a time frame for acceptance into your program, provide a link to your legal terms and share your activation requirements. Giving the prospective affiliate an overview of your company, product and strengths is another opportunity to reinforce the applicant’s decision to partner with you and not your competitor. Many times affiliates will apply to several merchant programs during registration; this is your time to stand out from the crowd by actively courting possible affiliates via organized, persuasive communications.
When you accept an affiliate into your program, congratulate the affiliate on becoming your new business partner, and make sure your initial correspondence provides the affiliate with the insight needed to be successful from the outset. At this point, you want to summarize your commission/offer structure; give tips on how to get started; supply links to current promotions; provide details on top products and brands; and link to your “Create Links” section so the affiliate knows where to get your program’s trackable URLs.
If you decide not to accept an applicant to your affiliate program, be considerate, and include the reason for your refusal. Such up front communication keeps the door open; you never know which applicants will be the next big affiliate.
Finally, if you really want to stand out and activate new partners right away, consider implementing a new affiliate welcome call program. Place a phone call to affiliates within two weeks of their approval and encourage them to begin their promotions.
At the close of each month, merchants should evaluate the activity of affiliates who’ve joined their program and develop a formalized communication plan for improving performance. Define this plan, including time frames, messaging strategy and goals. Put a measurement process in place to evaluate the effectiveness of this plan on a monthly basis. Consider segmenting your affiliates by business model, site focus or performance, and then tailor your messaging strategy to each group accordingly.
For example, thank your order-active affiliates for joining the program, and offer a small token of appreciation for account activation—a product sample, exclusive discount code or electronic gift card. You also might view your program statistics to identify any large affiliates that would qualify for a private offer. Use this group to find out why they’ve had success with your program and what you can do to help them be even more profitable. And if your affiliates in the order-active group continue to show growth, they may be primed for a private offer and ongoing personal contact.
Click-active affiliates may need a little more motivation to start converting sales. One of the more results-oriented activation incentive campaigns is a first-order bonus. Provide these affiliates with a special offer, recommend best converting products and suggest best practices, such as multiple placements of offers or links. Before you present this incentive, however, establish a sales threshold for your bonus. Many merchants will set the limit at 1.5 times their average order value. And once an affiliate meets the first order threshold, you can add in many other carrots—a special gift, bounty, double commission on all orders above the threshold or admission to a private offer. Try innovative campaigns to increase your program activation rates, and continue to monitor the performance of this group. Some will move to order active status, while others may stay at the click-active stage.
Don’t forget to survey affiliates that remain inactive to find out why they are not generating orders. The affiliate could be working with another merchant, desire specific creative, feel your commission structure is not competitive or simply need more information about your products and the benefits of your program. Many affiliates sign up for merchant programs during their registration process, but your program might not fit their business model. Occasionally, merchants will remove inactive affiliates from their programs. Before you take this action, notify the affiliate of your intent. This gives it a final opportunity to put up a link and activate.
Ongoing Communications: Newsletters
According to a 2004 Affstat report, 56 percent of affiliates prefer to get monthly communications. As such, many merchants find success in communicating with affiliates through monthly newsletters.
Newsletters are a good medium to brief affiliates on weekly and monthly promotions. Use your newsletters to give affiliates advanced notice of your retail/marketing calendar and consumer promotions. Highlight new or best converting creative, top products, affiliate incentives, useful content, important policies and, most importantly, your contact information.
Customizing your affiliate communications makes a positive impression and demonstrates your commitment to the affiliate and its business model. For example, you might have a communication strategy based on the affiliate’s business model. Here are some tips to think about.
• Loyalty program affiliates usually need a private offer; this segment tends to have a larger order size, higher conversion rate and loyal customer base. This segment also may need a dedicated contact person from your organization.
• Search affiliates need to understand your search policies. Share recommended products and keywords to help your search affiliates secure more search distribution for you.
• Shopping comparison affiliates need product data feeds. This makes it easier for the affiliate to add your latest product or promotion to its site.
• Coupon affiliates drive volume by merchandising your consumer offers. These affiliates may need an exclusive coupon or special creative to drive conversions. They also need advanced notice of your consumer offers and a clear understanding of start and end dates for different creative or campaigns.
• Niche affiliates require more education on your products/services. They usually have specialized content on their site, so they require more detailed information they can feature, as well as knowledge of how you differ from your competitors.
Other Ongoing Communications
E-mail. Keep affiliate partners up to date on program changes through e-mail. The 2004 Affstat report stated that a full 68 percent of affiliates prefer e-mail communications from affiliate managers. Communicate your brand strategy, key seasons, best converting products and your program offer. Share your retail/marketing calendar with affiliates so they can plan their seasonal campaigns. It’s always a good practice to include specific promotional and product links in your communications with affiliates. Adding a sense of urgency to your communications gets affiliates excited about the offer, resulting in more immediate action on their part.
Resource Centers. Consider providing your affiliates with a central area of information—an affiliate resource center. This can be done either through your network’s interface (in the area where affiliates pick up links for your program) or on your Web site. Your affiliate resource center should highlight all of the important aspects of your program, including: program benefits and a clear explanation of your commission structure; an explanation of the link types you offer; top products and creative; important policies; your marketing calendar; helpful merchandising content; and contact information.
Keep your resource center up to date by highlighting timely affiliate or consumer promotions and important seasons for your business.
In the area where affiliates pick up your links, organize and categorize your creative to make it easy for affiliates to find what they are looking for. Consider categorizing your links to highlight best converting products, specific product categories, seasonal promotions, homepage links, etc.
Events. Take advantage of industry and affiliate network events to meet face to face with new or prospective partners. Consider hosting a dinner or focus group for your top partners surrounding a major event affiliates might attend. In-person opportunities are a great way to build stronger relationships and gain valuable feedback for improving your program.
Online affiliate forums. Some affiliate managers find online affiliate forums a good resource to get ideas and learn more about the affiliate marketing community. You can use these forums to host your own forums and find out if there are any issues with other programs, including your competition’s. Online forums are yet another outlet for announcing upcoming general promotions or sharing your retail/marketing calendar.
Communication Is Key
Finally, be responsive to affiliate inquiries. Make it easy for them to contact you by e-mail and phone. Respond to their questions and requests in a timely manner. This will build loyal relationships and help you improve your program offering.
Kelli Beougher is vice president of distribution at LinkShare Corp., a performance-based marketing company that helps marketers develop and manage affiliate programs. She can be reached at (646) 654-6000.