Affiliate Program Management and Affiliate Marketing Leadership

Are you thinking that your successful affiliate program launch, affiliate recruitment, and affiliate communication strategy have earned you the right to take a break and enjoy your success? Don’t!

Long-term results and performance are not possible without active and ongoing affiliate program management and, most importantly, affiliate leadership.

Affiliate marketing leadershipIn other words, your affiliate program will need constant management, and your affiliates will really need not pure supervision but a true leader to follow. You can provide these yourself, hire someone to do it outsourcing your program’s management, or, maybe even combine in-house and outsourced affiliate management solutions.

As we’ve mentioned many a time in the past, running your affiliate program on autopilot or forgetting to put a dedicated manager in the program “driver’s seat” would be a huge mistake. How do you avoid this mistake and ensure effective affiliate program management and affiliate leadership?

Acclaimed affiliate management expert Geno Prussakov authored numerous thorough and easy-to-follow resources, like his Affiliate Program Management: An Hour A Day, and this intuitive LinkedIn Learning course. We have also compiled an in-depth affiliate marketing and management guide for merchants from our most popular blog posts on the topic

As we’ve mentioned on several occasions, the five pillars of affiliate program management are:

  1. Affiliate onboarding (or recruitment)
  2. Activation of onboarded affiliates
  3. Policing of affiliate compliance (with your program’s Ts & Cs)
  4. Communication with affiliates
  5. Affiliate program optimization

Obviously, the first four refer to your affiliates. The last one refers to your affiliate program but should be based on your observations and results connected to the first four pillars. Optimizing your affiliate marketing program will involve optimizing not only your affiliate recruitment, activation, policing, and communication strategy, but also: your creatives and landing pages, your affiliate incentives and your customer-facing offers, and much much more.

One of the keys to successful affiliate program management (and optimization) lies in categorizing your affiliates. Prussakov recommends it in his aforementioned book as an important step to developing custom approaches for each group and maximizing program management effectiveness. Although many affiliate program managers prefer to see their affiliates as a single group and deal with them accordingly, affiliate categorization is beneficial and can be done in several ways.

How to Categorize Affiliates

Segmenting affiliatesAs mentioned above, you may categorize affiliates based on several criteria, and we will review the most popular five of them in the following lines: affiliates’ activity, their promotion method(s), vertical of focus, size, and target area. Let’s look into each of these in greater detail.

1. By Activity Level

You should categorize your affiliates based on how active they are in your program and what results they drive if any. This way, you can reach out to them and provide custom advice and solutions for them to improve their activity and boost their performance. You should have at least three categories:

  • Stagnant affiliates – This category should include those who have joined your program but are not actively promoting your products and/or services. They should be the target of your affiliate activation/motivation efforts.
  • Traffic-driving affiliates – This category should include affiliates who are driving traffic to your merchant websites but fail to drive leads and sales. Your goal is to find out why that traffic fails to convert and take measures. The low or zero conversion rate could mean two things: a) those affiliates lure visitors to your website with false promises or incentives, or b) you should work on improving your website conversion rate.
  • Leads/sales-producing affiliates – This category should include affiliates who are driving some performance. You should focus on keeping them engaged and motivated, on helping them obtain even better results. Also, you can analyze the activity of your top-performing affiliates and use your findings to help other affiliates drive similar performances.

Geno proposes yet another way to categorize affiliates by their activity level, starting from the Objectives-Performance matrix of Goldschmidt, Junghagen, and Harris. It involves looking at the correspondence between your affiliates’ objectives and their performance.

The Correspondence Between Affiliate Objectives and Performance

As marketers, your affiliates have the following objectives: exposure, recognition, attitude, and exchange. Their performance depends on their ability to drive the following end-user responses: attention, interest, desire, action. It can be measured by four variables: impressions, clicks, leads, and sales.

If you analyze the correspondence between your affiliates’ objectives and their performance, you will notice that some of them create just impressions. Others drive hits as well. Some drive both hits and leads, and only a few drive all of the above and sales. If you only remunerate sales, you can skip categories referring to leads.

2. By Primary Promotion Method

Another way to categorize affiliates is based on how they promote your products or services. Geno Prussakov identifies 18 types of affiliates but chances are yours only fit into a couple of categories, like:

Having your affiliates categorized this way lets you provide them with custom creatives and information to help boost their performance and, implicitly, your sales.

3. By Vertical of Focus

Some of your affiliates will only promote a specific category of products or services. Knowing which category they focus on, you can reach out to them with specific deals, creatives, and information. Most will appreciate your personalized approach.

For example, as an online fashion merchant, you may have affiliates who focus on a specific category or brand (shoes & handbags, designer clothing, etc.). Knowing their category lets you send them communications that cater to their specific interests (new product launches, category discounts, brand-specific promotions, etc.).

4. By Size

Knowing your super affiliates and your smaller affiliates helps as well. You want to keep the ones in the first category motivated and help the ones in the latter category grow and boost their performance. We will cover how you can do that later in this post.

5. By Target Area

Some of your affiliates may target specific markets.  Knowing who they are and what markets they target could come in handy. If you decide to tap into new markets, provide free shipping to specific regions, or open new location stores, you’ll want to let the right affiliates know.

Once you’ve categorized affiliates, you can move on to profiling. Just like marketers profile buyers and content creators profile their audience, you, too, should profile your affiliates. We’ll discuss why and how you should do it in the following lines.

How to Profile Affiliates

Types of affiliatesIf you’ve followed our advice on categorizing affiliates, your work is half done. Now, you need to find out a little more about the affiliates in each category. If you were profiling customers, your focus should be on their interests, needs, and preferences.

However, since you’re profiling affiliates, you should care more about their pains and troubles as far as your affiliate program and your products or services are concerned. Perhaps they consider your cookie life too short or your commissions too low. Your creatives may not be as affiliate-friendly or as high-converting as you thought they were.

Moreover, certain affiliate categories will drive better performance than others. Your goal is to find out which those categories are and what drives your affiliates’ success. While at it, exploit every opportunities to improve the tools and creatives you make available to your affiliates and, thus, help drive performance.

If you succeed, you can recruit more affiliates from the best-performing categories and, maybe, guide affiliates from other categories to improve their results. Contrary to what you may think, profiling affiliates does not mean compiling endless lists of data. Simply analyze your affiliates’ activity focusing on the following:

  • Website specific
  • Target audience
  • Promotional methods
  • Marketing focus
  • Competitors promoted

As you begin to look into these aspects, you will notice other patterns as well. You will easily identify the affiliate profiles that match your program objectives and brand vision and those that don’t. You can then use those profiles to steer your affiliate recruitment campaigns and personalize your affiliate communications.

As you categorize and profile affiliates, don’t forget to keep an eye for affiliates who could resort to fraud, unethical or prohibited practices. You don’t want such affiliates in your program, as they could cost you money, affiliates, and reputation.

How to Prevent Affiliate Fraud

Affiliate marketing fraudSome affiliates will do whatever it takes to take credit for leads and sales, from spamming to forcing clicks, cookie stuffing, fake incentives, and more. You don’t want such affiliates in your program. Chances are they will rip you off, ruin your reputation, and discourage good affiliates from working with your affiliate program.

Your best bet is to prevent them from joining your program or, if they already did, police them and take measures against the ones who do not comply. to accomplish that, you should:

1. Have Clear Rules and Policies in Place

The first step to preventing affiliate fraud and discouraging bad practices is to have a sound affiliate program agreement in place. We’ve already explained how you can create one and even provided an affiliate agreement template here, so I’m not going to get into further details.

Just make sure that in it, you clearly explain your position regarding trademark use, promotional methods, cookie stuffing, and parasitic behaviors, etc. You should also foresee clear sanctions for affiliates who do not comply with your agreement.

Of course, quite a few affiliates continue to believe that rules are meant to be broken or do not even bother to read agreements. How do you deal with them?

2. Review All Affiliate Applications and Research Applicants before Approving Them

Many merchants make the mistake of automatically approving affiliate applications. Some see no harm in accepting any publisher wanting to promote their programs and services while others allow all affiliates to join and monitor their activity.

No affiliate program manager can be on call 24/7, and a couple of hours are enough for a rogue affiliate to cause damage to a brand and/or other affiliates. Yes, you can withhold their commissions to minimize costs but chances are you will be unable to reverse the harm to your brand and lose valuable affiliates.

Therefore, instead of automatically approving affiliate applications, review them. Find out whether your applicants have active websites, and what marketing methods and traffic-generating methods they use. If you see anything suspicious or cannot find the information you need, reject them.

Announce your rejection by email, explaining your reasons and inviting them to further explain their plans of promoting your brands if they want you to reconsider your decision. This way, if you accidentally reject good affiliates and they are honestly interested in joining your program, they can reapply.

3. Monitor Affiliate Activity and Keep an Eye for Red Flags

If you accidentally approve rogue affiliates into your program, you should have a system in place so as to detect and sanction them. Here are some red flags to keep an eye for:

  • Sudden traffic surges
  • Unusual increases in the number of transactions an affiliate refers
  • Fraudulent transactions (fake leads, stolen credit card numbers, canceled self-referred transactions after commission locking, etc.
  • Referral URLs and website domain names similar to yours or your brand

This will help you identify some rogue affiliates. To catch others and prevent damage to your brand, you should constantly monitor your online reputation. There are tools that can help you with that, like Google Alerts, Mention, Social-Searcher, Reputation Ranger, SentiOne, etc.

You also need to educate yourself on parasitic and cookie-stuffing behaviors and stay up to date with new developments in the field and their users. You can learn a lot on the subject by joining affiliate marketing forums, as many affiliate marketing managers share their problems and report rogue affiliates there.

4. Take Measures against Rogue Affiliates

As you discover suspicious affiliate behavior or transactions, you want to take measures against them. We recommend adapting those measures to each situation. For small violations, a three-strike approach could work.

For fraudulent referrals, cybersquatting, or parasitic behaviors, an immediate ban of the affiliate from your program would be justified and highly recommended. Needless to say, you should void any commissions earned through policy violations or fraud.

Once you’ve disciplined or eliminated bad affiliates from your program, you can focus on leading the good ones. And yes, besides managing the affiliate program, a competent affiliate program manager will lead affiliates.

Affiliate Leadership Basics

Affiliate marketing leaderThere are many differences between management and leadership, and quite a few scholars have focused on identifying them. My favorite authorities in the field are John Paul Kotter and John C. Maxwell.

Although Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership are a valuable resource, they are too many to list here and not all relevant to our discussion. Kotter’s perspective on leadership and the differences between management and leadership, on the other hand, is definitely worth reviewing.

According to Kotter, management and leadership, although different, are essential to organizational success. While management is all about order and stability, leadership is about adaptive and constructive change. Applied to an affiliate program context, Kotter’s theory could be summarized as follows:

Affiliate Program Management

Affiliate Leadership

Ensure order and consistency among your affiliates

Produce positive change and movement in your program

Plan and budget your affiliate marketing program by:

  • Establishing clear goals
  • Setting milestones
  • Allocating resources
Establish a direction for your affiliates to follow by:

  • Creating a vision
  • Helping them see the big pictures
  • Devising and implementing strategies
Recruit and manage affiliates by:

  • Providing infrastructure through affiliate-network based, in-house solutions, or both
  • Marketing your affiliate program
  • Devising and implementing a sound program agreement
Align affiliates by:

  • Effective communication
  • Engagement and personalization
  • Teamwork
Monitor affiliate activity, improve program performance, and solve problems by:

  • Offering affiliate incentives
  • Developing creatives and solutions to various problems identified along the way
  • Identifying problematic affiliate behaviors and taking measures to correct them
Motivate and inspire affiliates to reach their maximum potential by:

  • Inspiring and energizing them
  • Encouraging their creativity and initiatives and remaining open to their suggestions
  • Helping them overcome obstacles in their promotional activity and satisfying their unmet needs

In Affiliate Management: An Hour A Day, Geno strongly recommends combining management with leadership. Besides providing a list of twenty differences between managers and affiliates, he moves on to characterize a true affiliate leader. According to him, the following four traits are the most valuable:

Most Valuable Characteristics of a Leader

  1. Honesty – For an affiliate program manager, this would mean integrity and trustworthiness, ability to admit and correct mistakes, values and ethics.
  2. Forward-looking – This characteristic implies clear orientation towards the future, vision, well-defined short- and long-term goals.
  3. Inspiring – Affiliates need program managers to set an example, to show enthusiasm, to motivate them and help them move forward.
  4. Competence – Before you can manage an affiliate program or lead affiliates to performance, you need know-how, experience, and skills. You may not have them all from the beginning, but you should work on improving them and overcoming your own limits.

As Geno warns, you don’t become an affiliate leader by being designated an affiliate program manager. You need to emerge as a leader through persistence and communication and strive to become a transformational leader.

This could be easier or more challenging, depending on your personality and charisma. However, it is doable, at least in the context of affiliate marketing and especially if you follow Geno’s advice and focus on the “three Is of effective leadership”, namely:

1. Inspirational Motivation

Inspire your affiliates to adopt your high goals as their own and motivate them to work with you for achieving those goals

2. Intellectual Stimulation

– Work with your affiliates to help them overcome any challenges or problems, by adapting your approach to their level: educate beginners, brainstorm with professionals, etc.

3. Individualized Consideration

Pay attention to the needs of each affiliate, personalize your communications accordingly, and provide individual direction and advice.

If you are determined, committed, persistent, and willing to learn from your mistakes, then you will surely succeed to become the leader your affiliates need. Just keep in mind that the stake is huge and it ranges from sales, leads, and the corresponding commissions to your most valuable affiliates and your brand reputation.

Final Advice on Affiliate Program Management and Affiliate Marketing Leadership

Instead of trying your luck and taking unnecessary risks, you should consider working with professionals, at least in the beginning. It will give you a chance to learn everything you need to know about program management and affiliate leadership, apply what you’ve learned, and improve up to the point where you feel ready to take over. We are here to help in any way that we can.

Besides providing professional affiliate program launch, management, auditing, and affiliate recruitment services, at AM Navigator, we can also train you and your affiliate marketing team to help you reach your full potential. Contact us now to tell us more about your affiliate marketing program and receive personalized advice and recommendations!

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