This year has really taken off as far as affiliate marketing after I quit my job in November to focus on affiliate and influencer marketing. I've advised several small businesses on setting up an affiliate program or even managing an affiliate program. In addition I've recruited bloggers (lifestyle bloggers specifically) to join affiliate programs in behalf of brands. I guess you could say I found my niche referring bloggers and managing that part of the affiliate relationship.
Bloggers or “content affiliates” (as they are called in the affiliate world) can be gold for affiliate managers because they provide unique high quality content and they have an audience. They're a little bit different than traditional affiliates who often hide away and don't want to reveal their identity (they might get copied). You can wait for content affiliates (bloggers) to come to you or you can actively seek them out. Good luck on getting them to come to you! Most bloggers are used to being paid up front in addition to a percent of sales. I must add that it can be well worth that investment – if you know how to select bloggers who have a following that trusts and buys based on their recommendations.
To get started you'll need a way to track sales from bloggers. Note that most of the links are affiliate links.
Track Sales with An Affiliate Program
To engage bloggers you need to set up an affiliate program. It can be really basic or it can be sophisticated. I have one client who uses a code and that's how we track sales. We give a discount code unique to our blog and they send a check for sales that are generated each month. Another one (a baseball team) tracks sales manually (they call in to order or order through a website I set up on Shopify). There must be high trust in these transactions and for both of these clients there is and everyone has been honest and fair. They are also very small programs. To scale you need to move from a free affiliate marketing solution to affiliate marketing software.
Many companies just starting out need to use affiliate software to track purchases that come from posts or social media updates from content affiliates. Most of my clients are smaller businesses who cannot afford to join an affiliate network yet (there are good reasons to as you expand). This way I can see what I've earned, get reports, and get links to specific products. It keeps everyone honest and is a record of all sales and leads.
Referral Program vs. Affiliate Program
Most people set up a referral program that is only an affiliate program (which pays bloggers when someone uses an affiliate link to make a purchase). This is not the same as a referral program that gives your customer a discount or payment for referring a new customer. Zulily is a program that has both. See http://www.zulily.com/invite/refer for an example of a referral program. You can use a site like Referral Saasquatch http://www.referralsaasquatch.com which is $500 a month for a referral program. The difference is one is just promoting to earn credit at the store and is likely a customer. The affiliate actively promotes and has an audience and original content and is motivated to earn money from their influence.
What Affiliate Software Does
On a basic level, affiliate software does the following:
- Generating Tracking Codes: To track clicks, leads and sales you need a unique URL to give to your affiliates. This URL has the campaign number, affiliate id and more. Top affiliate marketing software takes care of generating unique URLs not only to your home page but to all of your products. You never have to send the URLs to your affiliate, they can log on and get them at any time.
- Tracking Time and Location: Tracks time and location of impression, click, lead and sale.
- Tracking Source: Tracks source of the click, lead or sale. So did that sale come from Facebook, a specific blog post or URL? Is SEO, reviews, coupons or other type of promotion working? This is how you know what is working so you can focus on it.
- Tracking Affiliate: Tracks to help you see the performance of each affiliate. Then you can reward your top affiliates and do things to motivate inactive or low performing affiliates.
- Fraud Detection: Fraud is a big issue that you need to combat. This feature detects the possible fraud attempts by publishers. There are too many possible fraud activities to detail here. As your program expands and depending on how careful you are about adding affiliates and seeing what they are doing, this becomes more and more important.
- Provide Reports You get reports for both your business and for the affiliate to show what money is owed and program results.
- Keeps track of what is owed and paid. At any given time an affiliate can log in to see what they have made so far this month. They can see payments paid and owed, what you're paying each affiliate, etc.
Top Affiliate Software
Every affiliate software I've used or researched is different on how they price their offering. Some offer unlimited affiliates but you pay on number of tracking requests.
Questions to Ask:
- Will the affiliate software integrate with your other software (shopping cart, etc)?
- Who will host the software and how much will it cost? Do not forget the cost of hosting the banners, ads and other images that you will give affiliates to promote your products.
- Do they offer tech support (this is a big one – most offer limited support, just by email or forum)?
- Is there a commitment or contract?
- What is my total overall cost?
- Will you need to hire an outside tech consultant or company to install and set up the software?
- Is there an API that you can integrate with or customize for your site?
- Does it have recurring commissions if you pay out on a monthly subscription?
- Can it track recurring commissions?
- Can you pay out more than one tier?
You can expect all of the software I review to do these things, so beyond that what should you look for? I'm often asked what is the best affiliate software for my small business? Here's what I would recommend: these are options I've used, recommended, or researched and feel are the top.
Looking for the cheapest most basic option for a small business? Read my post about Affiliatly.
Post Affiliate Pro
Post Affiliate Pro is a solid choice. It's what I often recommend and it's what I use as an affiliate too. It’s harder to implement and that's probably the biggest hurdle for a small business. While it's affordable, there are some parts that you have to do to set it up yourself. If you don't have someone to do the tech part, you may need to hire someone. Post Affiliate Pro is much more affordable for those just starting out. Prices starts at $49/month and even the most expensive option is just $99 a month. This is what I use an affiliate for private programs (not in an affiliate network).
Post Affiliate Pro provides the software as a service so it is hosted on their servers and you pay for it monthly but you will not have any file or database access. You can upload images and ads. With the hosted with us accounts you pay month to month so there isn't a contract. For the Ultimate $99/month account if you use the Full Integration service and decide to downgrade after the integration is complete, you have to pay the difference of integration cost, or stay on the plan for at least 3 months.
Post Affiliate Pro offers three basic packages, and they all allow unlimited affiliates. The $99/month ultimate package raises the tracking cap to 10,000,000, and adds integration service (which means the Post Affiliate Pro team will fully integrate the app with every part of your site). All of these plans include hosting on the Post Affiliate Pro servers, but if you want to host it on your own server, you can buy a license for the app for a one-time fee starting at $299.
Another feature that I just love is the ability to make multiple tiers – so you can pay bloggers a commission and then pay them for referring their friends to join your program (the second tier). Some are a one time payment and others are a percent of what the referred blogger generates in sales.
iDevAffiliate is another top affiliate marketing software option. Ideal for anyone who has a Shopify, Bigcommerce, Weebly, or Squarespace store. For $399 one time they install it for you and have a ton of other benefits (that's what I'd do). However, there are plans starting at just $39/month that include hosting. They do not limit the number of affiliates or have a contract on any of their plans, making them a very attractive offering when you're not sure how your program will perform. Check out affiliate software by idevaffiliate. You can add professional installation to any of the options for an additional charge. I would do that for sure! AppSumo (my favorite deal site for businesses) uses iDevaffiliate for their affiliate program.
iDevAffiliate is my second choice for a small business.
I'm not as familiar with these affiliate software solutions, I'm including them so you have other options.
Starting at just $69 a month this is a good option for a small business and it has unlimited tiers. You can even run it like an MLM program. One drawback is that payments are not automatic. The system tells you how much needs to be paid to each affiliate. You can click the “PayPal” option to have it run through PayPal or you can state that you did it “Manually/Via Check” and send a check. That will be a pain if you have a large program.
This top affiliate software is used by Nume and other lifestyle brands. I would recommend this to a larger company that is in the fashion or beauty niche. Their branding and look/feel of their interface is top notch. However, I didn’t love the cost even with discounts offered. $1500 implementation fee, $1500 + fees per month. They do require a contract. For this reason I stopped researching Cake – it was too expensive for my clients. At that price I believe many should look into joining a network.
HasOffers is very strong with mobile and has a minimalistic interface that's easy to use. Pricing is $279/month or $799 a month and they have a free 30 day trial. They have so many customizations possible and have a very robust solution. I'd say this software would be a good choice if you are sure you don't want to join an affiliate network. It is very robust and they can do practically anything you need.
When polling business owners about affiliate software, I got this response:
I evaluated several affiliate platforms…having spoken with several friends who owned affiliate networks, Cake and HasOffers were clearly the best…I ended up choosing HasOffers. It's more intuitive to use from a network and publisher perspective. In terms of actual functionality they're both very good and comprehensive and it's unlikely that If you're doing mobile they were the 1st to track conversions on mobile. It's unlikely that there's any requirement either platform won't cover unless you have an edge case. HasOffers may be more robust for mobile postback tracking as they were first to adopt and also operate mobileapptracking.com.
Terms and Conditions of Your Affiliate Program
After you choose an affiliate program, then you need to create an Operating Agreement/Terms and Conditions that states:
What is allowed or not allowed in your program.
Legalities. What types of affiliates (cashback affiliates allowed?)
Can people use your branded keywords for advertisements?
Do you allow paid ads of any kind (outline which ones and any rules)?
Terms of payment, how commissions are calculated and paid.
Commission Rate or payment per lead
Branded Keywords Bidding Allowed?
Website restrictions (for example, if you allow gambling sites, obscenity, nudity, etc.)
PPC bidding, advertising or rules for buying traffic
Top Affiliate Management Books
Once you set up an affiliate program, you need to communicate with your affiliates. They are essentially your online sales team so give them information about sales, products, campaigns, etc. to keep them motivated and generating sales. There's a lot to learn! I have worked with so many programs and have made money from programs that were well run and from those that sort of ran themselves. However, I prefer to work with people who know what they are doing.
To learn more about managing an affiliate program, I recommend that you learn from experts. Check out these affiliate marketing books by my friends who are veterans and experts in the affiliate marketing management niche:
Climbing the Affiliate Management Wall: How Merchants and Managers Find Growth Through the Affiliate Marketing Channel by Greg Hoffman. This book is focused on managing programs on ShareASale in particular.
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