Should Affiliate Managers Be Affiliates?

Most affiliates that I know are reluctant to share their sites with other affiliates for a number of reasons, including worry over their ideas being stolen. I wasn’t particularly concerned until a couple of years ago when I spoke to someone at a conference about my newly launched site. I went into specifics about the niche and my monetization strategy. A week later I was shocked to receive a Google alert about a new site that was almost like mine. Even more upsetting, I discovered that the site was launched by the person I spoke to at the conference—not just another affiliate, but one of my affiliate managers.

Ever since that experience, I’ve become a little jaded and protective of my sites before they launch, including what I share with other affiliates and affiliate managers. At the same time I have to trust affiliate managers and outsourced program managers (OPMs) in order to get their cooperation in helping me monetize those sites. How do I handle that if I know the affiliate manager is also a fellow affiliate?

As evidenced in a recent ABestWeb thread, we do not have a clear industry standard for people wearing multiple “hats.” I can certainly understand situations where an affiliate manager would be an affiliate, too:

  • A successful affiliate gets hired by a merchant as an OPM. Should she shut down her sites immediately, losing revenue, when she’s unsure that the OPM job will last?
  • Affiliate managers promote products they use on their personal blogs, and it’s less about a niche or vertical and more about personal recommendations.
  • An affiliate does consulting for a merchant or OPM, but not as part of the day-to-day affiliate promotions and recruitment.
  • An affiliate manager has a site unrelated to the affiliate vertical and he or she doesn’t hide that fact.
  • The affiliate manager wants to have a couple of test sites and merchants to see how different networks operate.

I know saying this will anger a lot of affiliate managers, but affiliates need to know when their affiliate managers are also acting as affiliates. For example I genuinely respect that Jason Rubacky, Affiliate Development Manager for ShareASale, builds sites for testing, but along with being transparent about it, he sets himself at a zero commission because it’s more about the education, which he also shares with the community, than making money as an affiliate.

In the absence of transparency and disclosure, an affiliate may end up in a situation where the affiliate manager on the next promotion actually owns a competing site and the affiliate doesn’t know it. Who bears the burden of responsibility? Should the affiliate manager disclose his affiliate role in the same or a different vertical? Should the affiliate research an affiliate manager to see if the company blog lists affiliate links or sites?

Much of affiliate marketing is based on trust. We have to trust that networks are tracking sales. We have to trust that merchants will pay us after we send them converting traffic.

We also have to trust that our affiliate managers are not working against us or taking our ideas for their own. I’d like to think this approach is the standard, but unfortunately I’ve seen otherwise firsthand.

The more open we are about this topic, the more likely affiliate managers, OPMs, and network employees are going to disclose their sites rather than risk getting “caught” and slammed on blogs and forums. In addition, affiliates will know they need to be more cautious about disclosing ideas to affiliate managers whom they do not trust 100 percent. What’s your opinion? Should affiliate managers also be affiliates? What special circumstances or limitations should apply?

About Tricia Meyer

Tricia Meyer is the owner of SunshineRewards.com, HelpingMomsConnect.com, and a number of niche sites (including co-owning Wine Club Reviews and Ratings). She writes and speaks about marketing to women, monetizing blogs, and the basics of affiliate marketing. Tricia is a graduate of Ball State University and the Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington. You can find her on Twitter @sunshinetricia.

29 Responses to Should Affiliate Managers Be Affiliates?

  1. Greg Hoffman says:

    Great article and I agree with Tricia 100% that the more this is discussed in the open, the better it will be for the entire industry.

  2. Whew Tricia, I think you just opened up a can of worms. (Mainly because you’re 100% right.) Regardless of what any OPM’s or AM’s say, it presents an intrinsic conflict of interest when they are also affiliates. Any reasonably savvy affiliate will not be as forthcoming about sharing and pitching marketing strategies with another affiliate as they might be while securing contract terms with an affiliate manager, OPM or merchant.

    Even if “at the moment” that said affiliate is wearing their OPM hat; it just isn’t a good long-term business success strategy to share all the ins and outs of your own business strategies with a potential competitor. It’s not even just a matter of trust – it also raises issues proprietary information.

    I don’t think it’s possible to completely mitigate this potential conflict of interest.

    • TriciaMeyer says:

      You are definitely right about the “can of worms” and mainly because many affiliates would never even think to consider that an affiliate manager/OPM/network employee might also be a competitor. I am anxious to hear from the other side of the argument to see how they respond to our concerns.

  3. as a merchant it think it is important for us to see the publisher side of things, know what the correspondence looks like, understand issues etc. But it shouldn’t be done to compete with partners and should be done openly.

  4. I am an Affiliate Manager and am totally upfront with my publishers about the sites that my company owns. In fact, I use them as examples of successful placements and marketing tactics. I feel like I don’t have any affiliates that are hesitant to tell me anything about their sites or ideas because I don’t hesitate to tell them about what we do and our plans for the future.

  5. When I was managing affiliate programs, I would create sites in the verticals to apply and promote competitors for intel through my campaigns, such as their conversion rate, creative, etc.

    I ran this through my regular affiliate accounts in my name. In my case, I was just putting out relevant, original content.

    I never hid the fact that I was an affiliate, and I think that’s a totally reasonable request to ask of an affiliate manager.

    But would you expect them to divulge their urls? I would think they would have the same concerns as you about people trying to copy them.

    On another note, I think it’s great experience for an affiliate manager to put in time as an affiliate, so they can better understand the wants and needs of affiliates.

    • TriciaMeyer says:

      That’s an interesting concept of joining competitors’ affiliate programs to gain intel as an affiliate manager. I would never have thought about that.

      I do agree that the only real benefit to having an affiliate manager be an affiliate is that they learn the perspective of the affiliate to become a better affiliate manager. I would just rather see those to functions done at different times.

  6. Blake Ensign says:

    Dr. John C. Maxwell describes wealth generation in terms of survival, security and significance. Most everyday folks family, friends and neighbors tend to fall into the first two categories. But folks in the significant categories didn’t get there alone and have learned how to build life-long conversations and friendly teams that share the responsiblity and the rewards. Right now the world seems to be operating on the idea of WIFM, what’s in it for me. When in truth, the only way to achieve more is sharing and attributing what we learn. There’s two types of affiliates, those who only think about what they gain and those who really think about how to make ta difference in other people’s lives.

  7. Peter W Arbuckle says:

    The reality is that in some cases managers see their affiliates making much more money than they are — and with less responsibility in terms of having to go to an office, etc. They also have access to much more information in many cases about the products, words they can optimize relating to new opportunities ahead of the affiliate. These are some of the reasons why this happens. To be honest, I can’t blame them and it’s naive to think it doesn’t happen. Ideally, a manager is going to use his experience to create a site in another niche and the good networks don’t allow their managers to participate at all, which is both a good and bad thing.

  8. I think its an inherent conflict of interest.

  9. Billy Kay says:

    When I became a merchant, I thought the forums would light up with threads about me being both an affiliate and a merchant. Nothing! I was amazed. As someone pointed out, this business is about trust. Apparently, I’ve earned some over the years. There are many people who wear several hats in this biz… over time, we know who to partner with and who to avoid. All My Best, Billy Kay

    • TriciaMeyer says:

      You are absolutely right that this business is about trust. I think the best lesson for me was not to trust automatically (as I tend to do) but make the affiliate managers earn my trust. And many have, thankfully.

      • Billy Kay says:

        As an affiliate, I LOVE building websites – just to see if an idea is as good as it sounds in my head. When I became a merchant, Loxly made me give up all my big brand sites. I just gave them for free to people I know. I thought she’d let me at least continue to build my highly targeted mini niche websites. NOPE! When we had those contests that gave away free websites to our affiliates, it was really just so I could still do what I love. And, the links I put on those niche sites all lead to my merchant site, so everyone wins. And, it got people to look at the niche sites, and some people made their own – giving it their own spin – and now some of my best affiliates are using the techniques I touted during the contests. Any time you can get an affiliate thinking and inspired, the industry wins. All My Best, Billy Kay

  10. Rexanne says:

    Good article Tricia and an issue that absolutely needs to be clarified although I don’t think there’s an “absolute” solution.

    Some affiliate managers and OPMs hide their affiliate activities by building sites in their wife’s, husband’s, significant other’s names and we have no idea they are competing with us. The problem is when an affiliate manager has access to our data and knows the keywords that are making us money. I’ve had an OPM build an affiliate site around a niche I was doing very well in. This OPM knew my data because I was making good money with one of his merchants in the niche. This is pure greed and I have since stopped working with this OPM and any merchant he manages because I don’t trust him. I know he is greedy and after “all he can get” without regard to the long-term backlash of his actions.

    An OPM or affiliate manager who is also playing at being an affiliate is doing so at the expense of managing his merchant’s programs. The time needed to build an affiliate site takes away from the time he/she is supposed to be managing things for the merchant who is paying for their service. If a manager concentrates on helping the affiliates succeed, they are doing their job. When they are trying to make money on the side by competing with their affiliates, there is no clearly defined sense of purpose.

    And yeah, trust is key. I, too, tended to blindly trust but have since learned that by being as open as I have been I’ve lost a considerable amount of income to those I thought I could trust.

    I would love to be able to discuss ideas, data and strategy wit my OPMs and affiliate managers. Unfortunately, this trend of double dipping has hurt my trust in the OPM and affiliate manager vertical.

  11. I’m not going to get into “shoulds and shouldn’ts” because that is subjective. I will say that I started as an affiliate (successful one) before I became an AM and then OPM. Vinny started as Affiliate (very successful) before he joined Team Loxly.

    We never promote our own clients as affiliates either during or AFTER managing them. I have had more than one that I would love to have promoted on some small aff sites that I still have up. Most of my sites are being converted to selling my own products and not any affiliate products. Vinny’s sites aren’t in any niche at all that we manage.

    An AM/OPM having experience from being a successful affiliate is a great plus. But they need to make decisions once they “cross that line”.

    I have had merchants that wanted me to be their affiliate, especially after we stopped managing them. Example is I would love to sell tea on my cooking site, and on a tea site I’m launching just because I love the benefits of drinking loose tea. Instead I am planning a series of posters (my own, not through an affiliate program) featuring tea and tea quotes.

    We give affiliates ideas, we don’t take ideas from affiliates. We manage programs and have very little time to devote to our own affiliate sites, especially with a couple of new projects that we have coming up.

    The one site that has some affiliate links on it is Affiliate ABCs. Our clients that are a good fit for that site are posted with straight links. I have had affiliates tell me I should have more aff links on it. I won’t.

    The Team Loxly blog will not have affiliate ads or links on it, just program information. I don’t think it is a good business practice for an OPM blog to have affiliate links on it. But that is my opinion and there are many OPMs that disagree with that and have ads and affiliate links all over their business blogs. It goes along with my theory that a site that is selling a product shouldn’t have leaks to other products. For example, Loxly Gallery will not have links to CafePress or a frame shop. Affiliate links on a business site that is selling a service are a leak just like it would be on a merchant site.

    I’ve been open that I still have some small affiliate sites left, but seriously, between clients and my own products I don’t have time or energy to develop them. Plus NONE are in our niche. Not just not promoting our merchants, but not promoting the niche.

    Every AM/OPM has to live with the decisions they make to run their business. I don’t judge those that don’t work in a way that I think is appropriate, but I will not recommend them or work with them on projects that I will be working with other OPMs on.

    If I was an affiliate instead of an OPM there is a shrinking list of managers/OPMs I would work with.

  12. Janet Dieso says:

    Not an affiliate or AM but have definitely been looking into “your side” of the business hoping to get into something. I have been investigating and talking to both sides of this debate and find this article interesting. As an obvious newcomer, it seems as though the person you were speaking with was a friend as much as your affiliate manager. I would assume that friends in the business often share ideas, and being that there is a common knowledge of the business, I would think a lot of you would also have the same ideas. So really, did she steal your idea as a manager or a friend? I’d say more a friend so perhaps you should just be more careful which friends you share your ideas with – not really concern yourself with affiliate managers that also have affiliate sites since that really wasn’t the underlying problem.

    • TriciaMeyer says:

      First of all, how did you know that it was a “she”? I’m guessing the affiliate manager that pointed you in the direction of this article told you. I was trying not to call the person out publicly. And second, she was not a friend. It was actually the first time that I had ever met her. We were not having a conversation as friends but were talking as colleagues about projects that we were working on. I was looking to get links for the site and asking if she had anything that would work for it.

      And I should “not really concern” myself with affiliate managers that also have affiliate sites? Apparently it’s not just me that is concerned about it. It’s a lot of other respected people in our industry who are concerned as well.

      • Janet Dieso says:

        I followed your link on FB to this article before you unfriended me, absolutely no one directed me to it. My assumption of “she” was on my part – being as the company I know you through has mostly female clients – I had a 50/50 shot at the correct pronoun.

    • Actually this isn’t an isolated incident, and it happens to affiliates that are excited about new ideas and they share with the affiliate manager thinking that affiliate manager can help them with the plan. Instead the manager takes the idea and creates their own site.

      To say the affiliate is at fault for choosing their friends unwisely is seriously insulting.

  13. I don’t think affiliate managers should be affiliates and compete. Leave it up to your affiliates to get the promotions out there, if you have to resort to building your own affiliates sites you aren’t managing your affiliate program well enough…clearly! Nowadays, a lot of merchants are becoming affiliates themselves which competes in a way but it’s a growing phenomenon and you can’t have it perfect. Just post more content and pages to get more traffic. But in general, affiliate marketing is much bigger in scope than it was 5 or 10 years ago. It’s finally “accepted” as a formidable revenue channel for merchants…as it should be of course. Overall though I think companies are cheap in general with pouring resources and money into their affiliate program. That should change over time…

  14. Pat Grady says:

    i wonder how affs and merchants and networks would feel about an OPM who was caught acting as a trademark poaching ppc affiliate? it’s a zany world we work in.

    if you’re involved in this industry for many years, it’s inevitable that you’ll wear more than one hat… so for me, hat count isn’t important, it all comes down to the ethics of the person calling the shots.

    • In the particular example you mention (hopefully more info on that soon ;)), some affs and merchants might care, but the cynical side of me is doubtful about how much networks would care. I’d go as far as to think that some networks are very aware.

      I agree that it boils down to the ethics of the person calling the shots. Some abuses of conflict of interest are easier to see than others unfortunately.

      It certainly isn’t just AM/OPMs acting as affiliates. Networks act as affiliates as well. Not just CPA networks either. And if you think about it, they can potentially have a larger impact on affiliates if they abuse their multiple hats, it’s just potentially less obvious than when an AM/OPM blantanly steals an affiliates marketing idea or web site.

      We talk about the importance of trust and knowing those we are partnering with frequently. Here is a real life example reflecting that importance.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Great post, Tricia. Sad to hear that the lesson you provided was totally ignored by someone who wanted the fast buck instead, but maybe it’s why the affiliate marketplace has become so closed off.

    While full disclosure might be too much to ask for (for the reason you intimated in your anecdote), even a heads up goes a long way. But to answer the question in your title, Yes and No. Yes, they could be affiliates, but no, not if it means they’re directly competing with the affiliates they’re managing. Because that presents a conflict of interest.

  16. There is also a secondary impact when managers engage in unethical behavior like Tricia experienced undermining trust in the affiliate/manager relationship. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had this discussion with AM/OPMs over the years.

    Affs want programs to be properly policed. The reality in doing an efficient job of policing requires that the manager have a certain degree of information about the affs in their program and promotional methods. I’ve talked with many frustrated managers who did not get responses from affs when there was a compliance concern with the aff traffic. Sometimes the aff was up to no good, but other times the lack of response had more to do with an aff being very protective of their own business model/strategies. And I’ve spent many hours explaining those concerns, which can be legitimate on the affiliate’s part.

    Eroded trust can rear it’s head in many ways and can undermine truly productive relationships.

  17. Jan Carroza says:

    I agree with Shawn. I think it’s important for Affiliate Managers to have the experience of running as an affiliate. A good manager should do homework to know what the competition is doing for their client in terms of payouts and creatives. Knowing how your software and program work differently than others is knowledge key to recruiting affiliates. Like no other medium, affiliate marketing is all about the affiliates you can bring to the table. Managers work hard to find, develop and keep these treasures on their proprietary lists.

    The issue that raises a huge red flag for me is that of disclosure. More importantly, reputation. This is a small business. There is no excuse for bad, unethical behavior and it’s only a matter of time for word to get out. What goes around, comes around. I should expect it would become hard to advance or continue to work in the business when you damage your reputation in this way.

    I think it’s important for Affiliate Managers to be professional and candid about outside interests. The right decision needs to be made in the event of conflicts of interest. Something has to give whether it’s the client, the Affiliate Manager in their position or the inappropriate activity.

    To me, keeping the respect of your community is the key to a successful career. That means protecting your reputation by acting in responsible ways.

  18. […] and affiliate marketing is not excluded. To that end, I asked Greg what he thought of the recent Revenews article that posed the question: can a person be both an affiliate manager and an affiliate at the same […]

  19. Phuketrichard says:

    I am an AM and an affiliate but i would never ever be an affiliate for any of the merchants i represent or have in the past,. Thats just unethical.
    BUt being an affilitae helps the am understand the other side of the coin.
    Like many said,
    its all about trust.

    Richard

  20. Matthew Telfer says:

    I think a policy of discolure is a great idea. In a similar way that traditional advertising agencies won’t take on competing clients, affiliate managers shouldn’t be their own affiliate’s competition with out the affiliate’s knowledge.

    Matthew Telfer
    Heart Internet web hositng
    Marketing manager