Eight unusual paths to affiliate marketing success

Supposedly, there is a well-worn set of pathways to success in affiliate marketing. I see lots of common advice and tactics shared for publishers and advertisers. 

Thanks to some great partners, our affiliate and referral marketing programs have grown year after year. And also thanks to those partners, we haven't followed many “conventional” paths in affiliate marketing on the way to growth.

These paths can work for both advertisers and publishers. My experience is from the advertiser side of things, but I've seen our best publishing partners succeed by walking the same paths. 

I hope this post challenges your thinking and helps you create some alternate paths of your own on the way to affiliate marketing success.

1. If success is quick or sudden, worry.

Maybe a new partner takes off like a rocket. Or, even more concerning, a middling partner suddenly delivers big results out of nowhere.

Don’t celebrate. Worry about why it is happening.

Slow and steady growth tells you things are happening methodically and authentically. As an advertiser, when you see huge sales spikes, you have to investigate. Hopefully, you have a good relationships and can have open conversations about the tactics driving rapid growth.

And if you don't get a clear answer … see guideline #5. 

2. Build direct relationships. Don’t hire affiliate agencies or join affiliate networks.

Direct relationships trump all. Middlemen -- affiliate networks and affiliate agencies -- make it harder to build strong and direct relationships.

The agencies and networks may well help you add new partners quickly. They can also help root out fraud to some degree. The agencies tell you you need them to police the networks for you -- even though both parties generally earn commissions on every sale. 

The best way to add new partners and root out fraud is to know exactly who you are working with. The foundation for any successful business partnership lies in the relationship. This is harder to do with a middleman in between. Not impossible, but harder. 

Recruit and develop your own relationships as much as you can. Use your own tracking and infrastructure if you can. Move slowly. Understand how you can bring the most value to your partner to create the best possible situation for both parties.

3. Get great at writing.

You can’t succeed as a publisher or advertiser if you can’t write.

If you’re an advertiser, you need to write compelling copy to spark relationships with new publishers. You need to publish clear and concise guidelines about the marketing tactics you encourage and those you won’t tolerate. You need to provide publishers with content and offers that are captivating to audiences. 

And obviously, if you're a publisher, content is everything. Delivering value to your audience through sharp writing is everything. 

So write well. Practice, test, refine.

And the easiest way to get better at writing?

Read. Fiction books. Non-fiction books. High-quality web content. Read a ton and with variety.

Read every day. Write every day. Repeat. 

4. Don’t race to create a huge stable of partners.

Some publishers use spyware (or “toolbars”) to siphon off web traffic already headed to an advertiser's site, then take margin for a sale the advertiser was about to get anyway. Often, the customer doesn't even know this is happening. They are just searching, a simple redirect occurs, and they arrive at the same destination, but are now classified as an affiliate customer.

This is one way advertisers get gamed. There are others.

If you ramp your program quickly, fraud in all its forms is hard to monitor.  Know the people you partner with. Then do everything you can to help your partners maximize their success. Slowly.

5. Be slow to partner and quick to walk away.

Whether an advertiser or a publisher, you are the company you keep.

Anybody can make an honest mistake once. (Lord knows I'm a living testament to that truth.) But if someone makes a “mistake” two or more times -- underhanded tactics, violation of your affiliate rules, uncommunicated changes in commission structure -- they will probably do it ten times.

I’ve learned the hard way. I still learn the hard way, because I hate giving up.

You don’t have to learn the hard way. Get out if there are repeated problems with a partner.

6. Understand your customer. And keep learning about her.

If you're an advertiser and unsure who to partner with, look to your customer. Who is she? What is she interested in? What behaviors and research does she undertake before buying your product?

Customer insight will guide you to the right partners.

As a publisher, survey your audience. What are they struggling with? What products and services do they value? Your audience will guide you toward the right advertisers.

Let customers show you the way.

7. Be real about incrementality. Then get better at it.

Not all affiliate sales are incremental. Some sales are siphoned off from other marketing channels. Some sales come from people who would’ve bought from you regardless.

This is a fact, so don't hide from it. Embrace it and work with it.

Guess what? No marketing channel delivers 100% incremental sales.

Search engine marketing doesn’t. Direct mail doesn't. Television? TV is like a broken fire hose that sometimes sprays the correct target.

Yet SEM, direct mail, and TV advertising are smart marketing choices for many companies. Affiliate marketing is often a smart choice, too.

So be real about the fact that not all affiliate sales are incremental. Then continuously get better at “truing up” your affiliate program, whether you're a publisher or advertiser. Make it more targeted, measured, and value-driven by working the guidelines on this list.

Publishers owe it to advertisers to send as much value -- truly incremental sales -- as they can. Advertisers should strive, for the sake of margins and accurate marketing decisions, to continually improve their ability to measure incrementality and attribution.

That’s the long game that builds real value. The game that avoids going for the quick wins that eventually buckle and collapse underneath you.

8. Break from any of these pathways as needed.

Sometimes you can’t build a relationship directly. Or you are resource constrained, and you need an agency. Or you’re new to the game, and a network or agency can help you avoid seedy players by weeding some of them out in advance.

That's fine. By all means, use the resources and expertise of those groups.

For example, we had one very successful affiliate partnership using an agency in the middle. For the right opportunity, I’d do it again. But I prefer to work direct.

That’s the thing about pathways. There are almost always other ways to get to your destination.

Technology changes. The fundamentals of great business partnerships do not.

We’re moving from desktop to mobile to wearables to internables or whatever else. Regardless of platform, successful affiliate partnerships still come down to basic human truths. Be honest. Be likeable. Serve your partners with great value and they will reward you.

Because these are simple human truths, they will never change even as technology does. At least not until the robots take over.

Add this missing ingredient to make your everyday writing more effective

We are all writers.

And no matter what you write — marketing copy, financial presentations, HR documentation, emails to colleagues — you are competing for time and attention against a ceaseless tsunami of content streaming from our TVs, laptops, and phones.

But you can compete. You can get attention. Because so much of that content tsumani consists of low-value, self-involved writing that doesn’t put the reader first.

You can stand out, make everything you write hit with more impact, by simply respecting the reader. Everything we write is an opportunity to put someone else first, which makes our writing a tool to help us meet our goals faster.

Respect for readers improves the outcome

If you truly value your reader, you will find a way to deliver value in everything you write. Entertain a little bit. Use some humor. Enlighten and inspire. Tell a short story that makes the reader the hero. Make your writing matter to the other person.

All the good outcomes we want from our writing — recognition, attention, sales — are more easily achieved when we respect the reader. So much of what I read today in marketing is the verbal equivalent of the selfie stick: LOOK AT ME.

When we write with respect for the reader, we:

  • Value the reader’s time. We clarify our intent and remove superfluous words and thoughts.
  • Make the reader the main point of our writing.
  • Know who the reader is and how to write for them. We don’t spray boring or imprecise content all over the Internet, hoping we manage to ensnare a few of the right fish in a widely-cast net. We don’t CC everyone in the universe on an email that only impacts a few colleagues.

In marketing, I wonder if our growing dependence on data has crowded out the human element. Are we forgetting that our readers — our customers — are actual individuals with far more to process and worry about than our own needs? Do we even care anymore? We work to optimize the outcomes, to push for every minor gain, and forget that optimizing starts with putting the reader first.

I’m guilty, too, in my everyday business writing — a rushed email, a presentation slide that’s too wordy. I miss opportunities to be better.

A tremendous opportunity exists for people and companies who want to slow down just a little, that want invest time and money to craft copy that is more thoughtful, deliberate, and helpful.

In marketing, respect for the reader starts with knowing who the reader is, what she values, and what she is interested in. Where her self-interest lies. It continues with carefully written copy that is thoughtfully produced and ruthlessly edited in the name of respecting the time and interests of the reader. It continues with reviewing the results to see what she is telling us about our work. Then we re-write and edit to keep getting better. The process never ends.

Gain an advantage

No matter your line of work, you have to persuade with words. You have a share a story with colleagues and get them to buy in. Working on your writing — taking it on as a personal core competency — offers you a strategic advantage.

Start a small writing habit. Write 100 words per day about what you learned the day before. Read more books. Continuously get a little better, and you will gain an advantage.

The business world often — and erroneously — values speed over craft when it comes to writing. But the underlying truth hasn’t changed a bit: people and companies who tell compelling and crisp stories have an advantage over those who can’t be bothered to invest the time or money to write well.

When we respect the reader, we create more respect for ourselves and our companies. When we believe what we have to share is valuable, then we should take the time to write about it in a clear and compelling way that respects those we want to persuade.

The saying is that respect is earned, not given. So be different. Give respect first, and you'll earn far more respect -- and other rewards -- back from your readers, whether they number two or two million. 

On perseverance, in plain sight

It seemed like a treadmill I couldn’t get off of or control. The harder I ran the faster the treadmill went.


We had lost a couple of key accounts at work. The economy was in meltdown mode, and so were the revenue numbers my team was delivering.

I was staggering, trying to forge a new direction, trying to get a foothold that would get our numbers growing again.

And then, every month, the management meetings. Verbal eviscerations in front my peers for another number missed. The conference room was circular, like a Roman arena, and every month it seemed like all gathered round to watch the lions turn me inside out again.

It was humiliating. I was scared. Scared I was going to be tossed out, another piece of flotsam washed out with the economic tide, no ship in sight to throw me a line.

But, my team kept going. We added new accounts and new marketing tactics. We entered more industries. We got better at forging deeper, more meaningful relationships with our partners. We reduced our risk by diversifying, and eventually we grew.

And we grew and grew and grew.

That’s hardly an heroic tale of perseverance. People push through far more every single day with much more at stake. Illness. Family issues. Financial struggles. As I heard recently in some song: “Everybody’s going through something.”

And it’s true. We are all going through something, even a small something, all the time.

Visibility makes perseverance harder

In Fortune magazine, Adam Lashinsky wrote an excellent profile on Apple CEO Tim Cook. But the article is really a profile on perseverance.

As Apple founder Steve Jobs prepared for his death, he was determined to avoid the mistakes made by Walt Disney. Disney left the company without a contingency plan, forcing it stumble in the dark for years after his death.

Jobs developed classes and mechanisms to give permanence to Apple’s critical cultural touchpoints long after he was gone. He groomed a successor in Tim Cook.

Still, all the preparation in the world couldn’t smooth the inevitable turbulence that follows the loss of a legend, even when a company rests on a foundation of almost unfathomable success and cultural significance.

Apple stumbled a bit after Jobs died. Cook stumbled a bit in his new role. Issues piled up. The buggy Apple Maps app put drivers on the road to nowhere. Cook’s first executive hire flamed out quickly. Siri was an airhead.

The media got noisy.

Still, Cook pushed forward, leading the only way he knew how — by being himself.

Shareholders, the media, and hopeful competitors all declared doom. So many looked to make a buck off Cook’s struggles, whether by shorting Apple stock, by writing click-bait headlines, or by introducing “better” copycat products into the marketplace.

As if this noise wasn’t enough, Cook bravely shared that he is gay, and he continues to take a strong position on equality regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. He used (and still uses) his position to create a better world, unafraid of the added heat his advocacy brings.

Cook believed in Apple and who he was as a leader. He didn’t let the noise slow him down or alter his path.

Now, Apple has the media buzzing again for the right reasons. Promising new products and services are emerging. A new watch, a TV service, a new way to pay for things at retail stores. It remains to be seen if all will be smash hits, but Apple is innovating. It is moving forward.

What to remember about ourselves and others

Persevering is hard enough. But when we know the world is watching and wondering — whatever the scale and definition of “the world” might be — it makes the journey that much harder.

“Everybody is going through something.”

It’s true.

We need to remember that when we are on stage, trying to push forward, we’re not alone in our struggles. 

And we need to remember that others are trying to persevere as well. Just a little more kindness might make all the difference.