What makes for a good Affiliate Program?
Affiliate programs (also frequently called referral or associate programs) have grown today to become one of the most popular ways for you to earn an income from your web site's traffic. Most affiliate programs are designed to allow you to simply set up and begin earning commissions on visitors and sales you refer. However, the quality of the programs, and the results you will see, very greatly from program to program, making it important to choose wisely which are best for you and your site. It is the purpose of this article to help sort through many of the programs, and offer assistance in determining what to look for.
My personal experience with affiliate programs goes back over a year and a half, pretty long in Internet terms, when I started a program for my current employer (which is not one of the programs discussed below, or listed anywhere on my web site). Over this period, I researched many of the affiliate programs available on the Internet, experimented with my company's own, and tried to best determine what works best not only for us, but also for the webmasters who partner with us. From my experiences, here are several of the top factors you should take into consideration:
1. Stability of the company and program
What I found to be the one of highest priorities for most webmasters is the stability of the affiliate program, and the company. This should be one of your top considerations when evaluating programs. Is the company stable and financially sound? Do they offer assistance with promoting the opportunity? And, do they pay in a timely fashion? Often, webmasters have been lured in by offers of high commissions, only to find out they will never see a paycheck, despite referring hundreds, or even thousands, of visitors.
An example of this is CyberThrill casinos. They have, and continue to, woo webmasters with promises of $0.20 per click-through, well above industry standards. Many who have partnered with CyberThrill referred hundreds of dollars worth of visitors, but never saw a single paycheck. Most had their accounts 'frozen' for using 'illegal methods to increase click-throughs' and their subsequent complaints and pleas of innocence were ignored. So, first and foremost, be sure you can trust the merchant who runs the affiliate program. If it looks like they threw their web site up in a few days, they probably did, and be aware that they might take it down just as quick.
2. Synergies with your site
I am a big proponent of this. All too often, I see sites sign up for every affiliate program they can, figuring if they make a few bucks on each, that they will be profitable. For a select few, this may very well work. However, for most sites it will not, and many cases you will turn off your audience because of the 'over-commercialization' of your site. As you are considering the various affiliate programs available, be sure to consider what exactly your audience, your visitors, might be interested in clicking on, and eventually buying.
For example, if your site caters to a general audience, then perhaps general affiliate programs such as Amazon, CDNow, or Reel.com (movies) will be effective. Or perhaps Spree, which allows you to sell books, CDs, music, flowers, and gifts all through one program. If your site only caters to auto enthusiasts, programs such as AutoWeb and Carprices.com might be excellent money-makers. If your audience is comprised of hardcore techies, then software.net may be your best choice. The key is to not just think of the affiliate program as a way for you to make some easy money, but rather an extension of your web site--a service you offer your visitors to help them find the products or services they are interested in, at good prices, and with a merchant they can trust.
3. Commission Tracking
An important aspect to consider is whether or not the affiliate program offers some way for you to track your sales, and even the number of visitors you refer. There are several ways this can be accomplished, such as real-time, online reports showing you sales and your commissions. Or perhaps sales can be tracked through a simple email each time you receive a new customer. This can be very important for allowing you to test and evaluate the effectiveness of the program, make comparisons with other programs or advertising opportunities, and give you piece of mind that you are receiving what is fairly do.
Virtualis, a web hosting service, offers excellent online reports that tell you the date of sale, what you sold, and what your share is. software.net sends out weekly reports by email detailing the sales and commissions you made. Spree, on the other hand, recently has come under fire for their lack of reports. To rectify this they are now working to add full commission tracking for all members in the near future.
4. Opportunity for Repeat Business
As any business person knows, a business can not generally survive on one-time purchases. Instead you have to find ways to not only attract new customers, but also keep the ones you have. This is also very true with affiliate programs. One of the largest complaints many webmasters have had with programs such as Amazon and CDNow, is that they refer a customer once, see their $1-2 commission, but in the process the customer bookmarked the Amazon or CDNow home page. The next time the customer is interested in buying a book, they return to the home page through the bookmark, and the webmaster never sees another penny.
Several programs have tried to alleviate this. Programs such as Virtualis and Freedomstarr (FCI) avoid this problem by offering services (web hosting and long distance, respectively) which customers, once signed up for, use month after month. This allows Virtualis and FCI to pay residual commissions. This helps turn average programs into exceptional opportunities, because you can earn for months, perhaps even years, on referrals you made in your first, and subsequent months.
Spree has also combated this problem creatively. Using cookie technology, they track all sales, and, assuming the customers you refer visit Spree at least once per year and don't delete the cookie somehow, give commissions on any purchases the customers make FOR LIFE. So, even if they link from your site to Spree just once, you will earn commissions on their purchases, even if they bookmarked the Spree home page and never visit your site again.
In summary, it is important to look at all of these main factors and several others, including the commission rates they pay (I didn't discuss this because they are generally easily comparable), the frequency of payment checks (they generally range from weekly to quarterly), and/or the minimum dollar value you must accumulate before receiving a check (they range from nothing to $100). A couple of other important factors: be wary of any program the requires a payment or 'membership fee' for you to act as an affiliate. And, be sure to check what method they use to track sales themselves. Programs that require the visitor to remember your name, or your site's name, and enter it in when ordering, will result in many lost commissions.
So, where do you find information on these programs? There are several sources. The most common route is to visit the company who offers the affiliate program, and look for a link such as 'Join our affiliate program' or 'Webmasters earn $ with a link'. Alternately, my web site, ClickQuick, offers in-depth reviews on the variety of programs available, and offers other suggestions, tips, and resources to assist with making the right choices, promoting your site and affiliate programs, and maximizing your income potential. Additionally, feel free to contact me by email should you have specific questions.
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