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4 Steps to Optimize Your Affiliate Program Launch

Posted on 10.01.2015

By Jesse Ashkin, Account Director
at Affiliate Window

Affiliate marketing (cost per action or cost per sale) is a form of online advertising that differs from traditional online display (cost per thousand impressions) or search advertising (cost per click) as payment is triggered by an outcome, such as purchasing a product.

In addition to being a highly accountable, low-risk model, affiliate marketing provides online advertisers maximum reach across a broad range of publisher types. From coupon sites and bloggers to loyalty programs and niche forums, each publisher site can give an advertiser access to a customer base with different purchase intents and behaviors.

Affiliate programs can essentially help brands diversify their online efforts, but there are four main steps to take when launching such a program to ensure brands maximize and optimize their efforts.

1. Define Goals

As with any business initiative there should be goals associated with an affiliate program launch. Define these not only for the company, but also for the affiliate network representative as sharing these expectations will ensure clear, focused and effective efforts all around. Defining goals will allow for the network to provide the most relevant recommendations as to who would be the best partners to recruit in order to achieve these goals.

In addition to defining goals, it is also wise to define key performance indicators (KPIs). From an enterprise's perspective, what will indicate successful program performance? Should a brand/advertiser gauge performance based on the amount of traffic driven, the number of orders placed, the value of revenue or the types of products purchased?

2. Know Your Competition

Before an affiliate program is launched, researching the competition will prove useful. A network representative will most likely be able to provide some benchmarks or anonymized data, but if a company is eager to know more, its representative should conduct online searches, and check a competitor's website for a link to its affiliate program page. Some of the key considerations to explore include:

+ Commission Rates and Cookie Length.

What are other programs within the same sector paying publishers and how long do they honor sales for (cookie length)? Knowing this information can help determine if the rates offered are competitive enough to attract publishers and promote one's products over those of the competition.

+ Validation Times.

How often are sales being validated (and thus paid) to affiliates? Keep this in mind when setting up a validation schedule. Managers want to be sure their publishers are being paid regularly (if not faster than the competition) so they can invest back into their business and in promoting their brand.

+ Mobile Solution.

Those launching an affiliate program should without a doubt have a mobile-optimized site with affiliate tracking enabled. Nowadays, most key publishers operate mobile apps, and often require that any partners have a mobile tracking and optimized site available. Knowing whether or not competitors have a mobile-optimized site with affiliate tracking enabled will allow a company to better position itself to publishers.

+ Tools Available for Publishers.

Do competitors offer a product feed? How about seasonal creative, website plugins, widgets, etc.? Do they provide publishers with insights into top-selling products to guide promotional activity? In the competitive affiliate marketing space, the more options to promote products the better. Managers should understand what the market currently offers and ultimately what publishers are expecting from a brand in that vertical. By being better informed brands can better compete across all key performance indicators.

3. Plan Ahead

Do not assume upon launch that publishers will be clamoring to promote a brand. While some publishers can turn around new partnerships fairly quickly, it's best to assume that it will take a new partner about two weeks to get a brand fully listed on their site. To maximize launch, work with a network to produce a publisher target list - a list of websites a company wants to work with. Advertisers should ask their network representative for insights as to who is on the network, requesting introductions via email to identified sites.

Start communicating with key partners before launch to nurture these relationships. Educate the publisher about the brand, the program's unique selling propositions and ask for recommendations on how to be a good partner based on their individual site's needs, as these will vary by site. While speaking with the publishers, advertisers should consult their own promotional calendar for any upcoming seasonal events. Are you a sportswear merchant whose launch will coincide with the college football season? Plan ahead and coordinate increased exposure or launch incentives to make sure the brand is not missing out on any key sales periods.

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4. Define Processes

Once a program is launched there will be general housekeeping tasks that need to be completed on a reoccurring basis to keep the program healthy. To minimize downtime, do not wait on defining the steps for managing this. Advertisers will want to work with their internal teams and network representatives to determine who owns what tasks, and the frequency that these must be completed. Advertisers may also want to reference any service level agreements (SLAs), signed alongside the contract, which outline and address these responsibilities. Key tasks to consider include:

+ Publisher Approvals.

Determine who will be managing the approval of publishers interested in joining the program. How often will these approvals be processed?

+ Sale Validations.

How often will transaction validations be processed? Are there any return windows the network should be conscious of? Are there any network locking periods that advertisers should be aware of in order to process sales accordingly?

+ Communication Strategy.

Understand the tools available, via the network, to communicate with publishers. How often should be publishers be contacted? What should be communicated? Consult the network representative for best practice and recommendations and be sure your own team has been fully trained on how to use these tools, as maintaining communication with publishers is key to a program's success.

+ Commission Strategy.

Confirm default commission rates. Will the program offer private rates for key publishers or throughout key sale periods? Is there budget allocated to placements with key publishers during select periods? Can commissions be awarded on all products or is a tiered commission for specific products being offered?

+ Network Interface Training.

A network's interface can provide a wealth of knowledge on program performance, publisher base and outstanding tasks. Request training from account representatives if unfamiliar with the platform or lack confidence in using a specific tool or report.

Affiliate marketing can be a highly effective revenue stream for a brand, which is why optimizing the program launch through defined goals and processes, competitor benchmarks and thoughtful planning are crucial steps for the viability of such a program.

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