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.