Launching and Relaunching Affiliate Programs.

The life of an interactive agency can be chaotic at times. Through the course of business from month to month, you tend to launch or relaunch affiliate programs often as you bring on new clients. Since I am spending a good deal of time with two new clients this month, I thought it would be a great idea to share some of the main things you need to remember when launching or relaunching a new affiliate program. So here we go….

Factory Card & Party Outlet’s affiliate program went live in August. It typically takes 30 days or so to launch an affiliate program, but due to seasonal time constraints (FactoryCard.com sells Halloween costumes, party supplies, decor and accessories, along with year-round products) the time line was crunched by a few days. In hindsight, I’m overwhelmed just thinking of all the important things we had to do and all the tasks that could not be dropped. Here is a sample of my launch checklist:

1. The Process: In order to get all the stuff done that you need to prior to launching an affiliate program, one needs to prepare the process. Develop a list and timeline for each activity that needs to be done. Everything from setting up tracking, to developing recruiting emails; from advertising to banner development, get all these activities down and assign a due date. I like to start with the end date in mind, and work each activity backwards from that. You may want to use the RASCI method to assign people to each task. R = Who is Responsible to get this task done, A = Who is R Accountable to (who signs off that this is done), S = Who needs to provide Support for the task, C = Who needs to be Consulted with in regards to this task (they may have information or expertise necessary to complete), and I = Who need to be informed of this task’s progress, completion etc.

2. Industry Analysis: Before you determine some of the most important aspects of your new affiliate program, it’s a great idea to take a good look around the industry and see what your competitors are doing. Take a look at their commissions structures. How are they compensating their affiliates? Do they have higher tiers for performance? Do they offer a hybrid lead and per sale deal? What type of return days (cookie days) do they offer? Look at the creative they have available. Do they have standard sizes? Are they featuring more products or are they focusing on a certain marketing message? What type of products are they focusing on? That can tell you where their big money makers are. What type of tools do they offer their affiliates? Then, don’t stop at your direct competitors. Look through your category as well as other top affiliate programs. Remember, you are not only competing with other widget sellers (or in Factory Card & Party Outlet’s case, party supplies and Halloween stores), you are competing with all the other affiliate offers that are available to the top partners. So make sure you are competitive.

3. Commission Structure: Factory Card is a pretty straight-forward retail site – all affiliates earn commission on sales of their products (as opposed to per-lead deals or hybrid options). So a commission on sales of 8%, as an intro offer, was pretty easy to determine. After looking at your competitors, you’ll have a good idea of what type of structure affiliates will be expecting. Also take a hard look at your margins and internal costs. This exercise may show you more about your company than just your affiliate program. If a competitor is able to reward affiliates with 20% and you can only give 5%, maybe your overall cost structures are out of whack. Remember that super affiliates typically warrant a higher commission, so don’t go public with the most that you are able to give. Reserve a portion for top performers.

4. Search Policy: This is a big area that you need to spend some time on. If you know exactly where you stand in regards to what and how your affiliates can bid on and where, you’ll be ahead of the game. I personally take the same stance as many here on Revenews, don’t blindly allow your affiliates to bid on your terms (or just prohibit it outright), but work with them. Develop a partnership with PPC affiliates and work the inventory together. Get as much shelf space for each term as you can and attract as many new customers as possible. Factory Card & Party Outlet allows affiliates to bid, provided they receive permission first. If you want to coordinate your search efforts with your partners, you’ll all need to know what everyone, internally and externally, is doing.. Whatever your plan, put it in writing so that when you are recruiting and promoting your program, you know exactly what is acceptable and what is not. Do your research if you are not familiar with this area. Making a change once you are up and running, and having to therefore ask affiliates to change their marketing campaigns, will only provide frustration and ill will from your partners.

5. Resources and Tools: This is an area that a lot of programs fall down on. In order for your partners to perform as well as possible, you need to provide them with the proper tools. We launched a datafeed and store creator for Factory Card a few days after the initial launch. The ability for your affiliates to know what inventory you have is vital in so many ways. PPC affiliates need this information to build out their lists. Many affiliates also use these to create stores on their sites and entirely new sites dedicated to your products. Ease and functionality are important. Another good resource for your affiliates is your affiliate portal. You can check out a few of our examples: Factory Card & Party Outlet, Hilton Hotels, Star Decorating, MyWinesDirect. Providing your affiliates with adequate information on your program is vital. Go beyond just a FAQ and Terms and Conditions, and give them some education resources, listings of your top categories and products and a good way to get a hold of you.

6. Communications: Each affiliate prefers a certain way to receive information from you. Try to have as many options available to them. Last year we launched ConverseonAffiliates.com as a central location for blogs for each of our clients. It’s been very successful. Plan your communications out. How will you communicate with each of your affiliates? Forums? Conference Calls? Newsletters? I do suggest doing nothing less than a newsletter, you have to keep them informed. I see some merchants are using RSS feeds as well as weekly video spots for their affiliates to download and keep things up to date.

7. Recruiting Plan: So, your program is almost live and now you need affiliates to take notice. What do you do? You develop a solid recruiting plan!. Here are some basics: Post a link to your affiliate site on your company’s home page. Take out some ads on Revenews, AffiliateTip.com and Affiliate Programs.com. You may also want to look at ABestWeb as a venue to recruit affiliates. You’ll need to make somewhat of a public splash so that everyone knows you are around. Then figure out how you are going to identify top affiliates and stick to it. I’d definitely search for terms related to your products and see that is out there. Look at all networking opportunities too, don’t ignore conferences such as Affiliate Summit. This is a great way to meet affiliates and gain the opportunity to sell yourself and your company to them. Once you have identified some top partners, how will you contact them? Don’t shy away from all forms of communicating. Direct mail (yes, snail mail works!), phone calling and emailing are especially effective when used together. And as Jeremy Palmer pointed out, a gift will help you get noticed amid the clutter and also allows you to introduce the affiliate to your product.

8. Launch Promotions: Think of this as your “Grand Opening”! How many grand openings do you see with no consumer offer? Not many successful ones. Launch with a great consumer offer. Affiliates will be more apt to try a new program if you have a discount associated with it. Remember, you want them to devote a piece of real estate to your new and unproven program, so give them a little more to work with. I’d also encourage you to have sales promotions for affiliates. Something to the effect of “the first affiliate to $10,000 in sales will receive a $1,000 bonus.” With affiliates, cash is king.

9. Ongoing Sales Promos and Consumer Offers: Launching a program can be pretty daunting, but don’t stop just at the launch. You have a whole year (and more!) to think about. If you are one of Factory Card & Party Outlet’s affiliates, you’ve seen that we are pushing Halloween products almost exclusively at the moment. And that may be true to an extent, but we know that we have another 10 months out of the year to get ready for. The plan is already in place to push party supplies, children’s party products, sports products, fall party supplies, spring products and more all year long. A comprehensive plan will keep you on task and make sure your affiliates have all that they need when they need it. Make sure you update your banners and creative, monthly contests, education on top sellers as often as possible. The more you can schedule out, the easier it is going to be. Once you get this thing off the ground you are going to be going 100mph between recruiting affiliates, getting them links, testing any new partnerships, answering questions, getting your partners active and so many other things, if you don’t have at least a 6 month plan you will miss sales opportunities. The more planning you do the better.

That’s some of the most important things I think you should focus on when launching an affiliate program. New programs can be tough, but keep focused, get your plan together and stick to it and you’ll do fine.

Most of the above information also pertains to re-launching a program. We recently re-launched TaylorGifts.com and ShopGetOrganized.com, two Commission Junction programs. We went through the same basic processes. We launched some new tools and resources, a blog to keep affiliates up to date, and a cool datafeed tool. It’s always good to re-evaluate your program from time to time, look at all your creative, get the lay of the land competition wise and give your program a tune up. With an existing program you are able to spend some time looking at past performers and seeing who has fallen out. Identify some of those partners and develop a plan to get them excited about the program again and producing for you. It may be as simple as reaching out to them or as in depth as creating custom creative for them.

So there you are. My $.02 on program launches and relaunches (or really more like $45, that was a long one).

About Jamie Birch

Jamie E. Birch is the owner and principal of JEBCommerce. Almost ten years ago, he began as a Search Engine Guru and has extensive experience in all aspects of Internet Marketing, specializing in Affiliate Marketing Management. Excelling at performance marketing initiatives at several national, publicly traded retailers and online service providers, Jamie’s work has expanded and evolved. Today, it includes all facets of online marketing: email projects, paid search campaigns, customer retention programs and more. His clients range from Zappos to Doba.com. Jamie also blogs at NewsforAffiliates.com
You can find Jamie on Twitter:@JamieEBirch.

Twitter: JamieBcomm

11 Responses to Launching and Relaunching Affiliate Programs.

  1. Nice primer, Jamie – useful for seasoned veterans and newbies alike.

  2. Great stuff Jamie, my process is a stack of word docs and excel spreadsheets. One new angle is to use online PR and social networking to get the word out. If there are already 50 competitors in the category then it is hard to get noticed. Creating a PR buzz can get your head about the crowd and encourage affiliates to try your program.

  3. Brook Schaaf says:

    Nice overview, Jamie. A good reminder of how much work it is to launch an affiliate program.

  4. Cliff says:

    Even though I am a total affiliate marketing newbie, I do have a lot of good skills and the drive to succeed…and I am not afraid of taking bold action. The detailed info that you have provided will surely be helpful in my new endeavors.

    I have started My Super Affiliate Journey website at http://www.mysuperaffiliatejourney.com to track what happens. Check it out if you can.

    Cliff
    PS I have just started to get some traffic and clicks on my very first AdSense site at http://www.onlinetradingsecretsrevealed.com . I am pretty excited about that as well. I cannot wait for the multiple streams of income to start flowing.

  5. Peter Koning says:

    Good stuff Jamie. Where in the process do you select an appropriate affiliate network or tracking platform?

  6. Beth Kirsch says:

    Really nice overview Jamie, proves once again, why you're one of the best in the biz. 🙂

  7. Very exhaustive and wonderfully written article. Sure, it is lot of work to start one's own successful affiliate program. You should also include "Product design and development" – which again starts from marketing research.

  8. Very informative post. However, for the newbies there is one more hurdle – that is of getting traffic to their website.

  9. Nice article Jamie. It starts the conversation on showing the complexity of what's required to launch a program.

    It surprizes me that many companies still opt to go it alone when they launch an affiliate channel, rather than calling in a specialist consulting company. One word you used resonated with me: 'relaunch'.

    It would be far less neccessary for us to 'relaunch' and 'revitalize' affiliate programs if they were set up with more thought and research put into the initial planning.

    It seems that many merchants still shoot from the hip – rather than implemeting sustainable, viable, market related, innovate & research based programs that encourage publishers to promote them. (like I know us good OPM's do- After all we're paid to perform!)

    Perhaps it's time for an industry voice to promote our business values? hmmm, i feel a blog entry coming…..

  10. Ronald Marva says:

    This is a very interesting article for Merchants and start-up Affiliate Manager. This had been a great guide for me and I believe it will be the same for most people in the industry. I would be implementing most of the ideas here as I proceed to develop our business for Vertical Market site and the SouthBeach Supplement sites.

  11. Olivier says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am very happy I came accross at this time as I am planning a launch in a few months!