Building an Affiliate Program's Creative Inventory

One of the first tasks for an advertiser starting an affiliate program is to build the creative inventory for future affiliates. And when it comes to creatives, there are plenty of misconceptions that advertisers traditionally bring into the picture. Included are such commonly spread fallacies as: "creatives are banners," "468 x 60 is the most popular banner size," and "catchy banners mean flashing or aggressively animating ones," among dozens of others.

In reality, effective creatives are those that satisfy the needs of your affiliates - and there are many different types and strategies to employing them.

Types of Creatives
First, let's look at the types of creatives commonly used by affiliates. If I were to arrange them in order of popularity, then text links are affiliates' number-one preference, followed by banners, video, widgets, and Flash.

Text Links
Every affiliate program must provide its affiliates with a substantial array of text links. It is also important to underscore what type of a text link works best for affiliates.

The answer may appear to be basic and self-explanatory, but many affiliate program managers overlook it, providing affiliates with text links that only lead to the merchant's homepage. Certain studies of ecommerce usability show that getting from the homepage of the website to the correct product page accounts for over a quarter of all failures. It is also being measured that improved linking - and by extension, enhanced ecommerce site's usability - can double an online merchant's sales.

A website's homepage is one of many ways to enter a site, and frequently its content does not fit the individual needs of each consumer. Provide deep-linked text to affiliates to ensure consumers are landing on the page that matters most to them. Treat deep-linking as one of your main responsibilities. Also, remember two things: text links traditionally convert eight times better (or more) than banner links; and deep-linked text convert two times better than those that are generic.

Affiliates can often improve the quality of the text, but they might not always be able to improve the quality of the link. Therefore it is essential to provide affiliates with as vast a selection of deeply-linked text links as possible, covering as much ground as possible. If you have a website with a total of 10 sections and 49 sub-sections, you should have, at minimum, 70 text links: one for each section, one for each sub-section, one for the homepage, and 10 for each of your bestsellers (leading to specific product pages). Also, whenever possible, provide your affiliates with a method or tool to build their own deep links.

The importance of deep linking applies to banners and other creatives as well.

Banners: Sizes & Mistakes to Avoid
When it comes to banners, Flash, widgets and any other creative that might have a different size, the first question to answer is: What sizes and quantities of creatives do we want in our affiliate program? This is an important question and the answer might vary, depending on whether you are marketing products or services through the affiliate channel. If it is the former, you'll want to pay a special attention to deeplinked text links, and conveniently formatted and well-categorized data feeds, as well as offer generic, and holiday-specific affiliate banners. If, on the other hand, you're providing a service (and you will have no data feed at all), the emphasis on banners will be even stronger, and you will want to have an especially extensive banner inventory. In all cases, providing affiliates with a solid and diverse creative arsenal is a must.

Above is a list of banner sizes that every affiliate program should have. The list is split into four groups of banners: Most popular, most frequently used, and those recommended to have available. For the first group, you'll want to create three to five banners of each size. For the second group, two to three banners. And for the third, one or two of each size.

In part, my recommendations come from the observations of the sizes that affiliates prefer (never underestimate the importance of those 88√ó31 buttons). In addition to these observations, the choice of some other sizes rests directly on the assumption that many webmasters - who will be recruited into your affiliate program - are already monetizing their traffic using Google AdSense. Therefore, it is important to provide them with a banner to upload in place of an AdSense unit (e.g.: 120√ó600 and 160√ó600 skyscrapers).

Keep in mind that some affiliates will need banners of different sizes or color gamma. So, let them know that you are open to creating custom banners for affiliates. If you do not have the in-house capability of handling the creative support, it is easy to outsource such work on an on-demand basis.

When putting together affiliate program banners, there are several important things to remember. First, remember the following 30-60 Rule. The file size of the small- to medium-sized banners does not exceed 30 KB, while large skyscrapers and leaderboards should never exceed 60 KB. The rule is easy to remember as 30 √ó 2 = 60.

Second, it is essential to understand what makes a banner affiliate-friendly. To answer this question, let's look at eight problems that make banners unfriendly and/or useless:

1. Poor graphics
2. Unreadable font(s)
3. Excessive animation
4. Missing call-to-action
5. Poor contrast/brightness balance
6. Grammar mistakes
7. Including a phone number
8. Spelling out the merchant's URL

Points one through six relate to banner's usability. Seven and eight provide potential for "leaks" - ways to bypass a click on banners, therefore edging out the affiliate on a sale. All of the above mistakes decrease the banner's chances for conversion, and should be avoided at all costs.

Lastly, I'll let you in on a secret to creating well-converting creatives and links: Do your due diligence by employing competitive intelligence. Open an affiliate account with the affiliate networks on which your competitors run their affiliate programs. Many affiliate networks allow you to arrange an affiliate program's links by EPC (which usually stands for average affiliate earnings per 100 clicks on a link). Analyze the wording and design of your competitors' best performing links. And only when you have a clear idea of what works well for affiliates in your vertical, get onto the creation of your own banners, widgets, text links and other creatives.

About the Author: Geno Prussakov is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, author of "A Practical Guide to Affiliate Marketing" (2007) and "Online Shopping Through Consumers' Eyes" (2008), popular speaker and affiliate marketing evangelist. Prussakov is the founder of AM Navigator, an outsourced affiliate program management (OPM) company.