By Lyndsay Menzies, UK Managing Director of bigmouthmedia, Europe's largest independent digital marketing agency.
It's a question that I get asked a lot. Affiliate marketing has been around for years, but the sector is still surrounded by so many myths and misconceptions, a lot of businesses seem to be put off from investigating a strategy that can deliver major dividends if you get your approach right.
It's a shame, because they're missing an enormous opportunity. The UK affiliate market is growing fast - hiking in value by 45% annually - and while the total value of sales currently stands at a whopping £3 billion in Britain alone, all the indications are that this lucrative sector is only going to get bigger in the years to come.
In a nutshell, affiliate marketing is the art of paying people to sell your products and services on your behalf. The best known example is Amazon, which has a huge network of blogs and websites displaying its wares, and every day thousands of commission-led sales are made through this complex web of small time retailers.
While Amazon is big enough to run its own affiliate scheme most companies are not. Instead, most use an affiliate network to provide the tracking links, pay the thousands of affiliated sellers and manage all the ins and outs involved.
At bigmouthmedia we've found that affiliate marketing is an incredibly effective low-risk, pay-on-results sales tool. It's also a complex landscape with multiple network options however - each with its own set of strengths, scope and technologies - so needs to be done well.
It's by no means impossible though. Just watch out for pitfalls and keep a steady hand at the tiller, and you'll be set to reap the rewards.
For starters, don't sign up to any affiliate marketing agency that puts a binding long-term contract in front of you. If you don't get the results you want first time around, you have to be free to take your business elsewhere.
When selecting an affiliate marketing agency you should also remember that in order to buy them, people have to be able to find your products online first. So make sure that your affiliate agency has a proven, successful search strategy and while you're at it; check that they won't end up directly competing with any PPC campaign you might be running.
Similarly, beware of affiliate agencies where there are hidden setup or account costs and make sure that they have the technical expertise to market your product across a variety of territories and languages.
It's worth ensuring that your partner of choice uses only ethical affiliates too, because the handful that do indulge in dodgy practices are best avoided by any credible business.
Rather than risk these pitfalls, many companies prefer to use the services of an agency to manage their affiliate activity. Obviously as managing director of a major digital marketing agency I'd hardly recommend against that, but there are some steps you should take to ensure that you get the best out of the relationship.
Make sure your affiliate agency offers agreements with trusted, quality affiliates only.
Nothing will destroy your reputation quicker than poorly selected partners, and you should also ensure that they operate a clear and robust set of PPC rules for affiliates to follow.
While affiliate schemes can be extremely beneficial, getting it wrong could prove disastrous, so make sure your chosen agency partner offers synergy with your display advertising, the expertise to ensure a message-consistent campaign that ties in with all your other marketing activities and demonstrable technical knowledge of how to deal with scumware, brand-squatting, keyword hijacking and screen-scraping.
In short: don't settle for a service that offers little more than account management, because you need to know that your interests are being looked after on a number of levels.
If your agency can deliver all that, you should have high expectations of the relationship. While the partnership must obviously result in reduced in-house manpower requirements, they should also be able to demonstrate clear savings resulting from efficient management and be in a position to provide full transparency and management of payments.
A good agency will offer you a team with many years of affiliate network experience across multiple networks and territories, so demand high standards.
If they're not providing maximised conversion rates, payment on results and integrating affiliates activity with search strategies to let you corner your market budgets then quite frankly - you shouldn't be dealing with them.
Finally, keep in mind that although someone else may be dealing with the day-to-day stuff, the affiliates on the network are your virtual sales force.
Ply them with incentives, inform them of your other marketing activities and be flexible on commission structures, because big-hitting super affiliates know what they're worth and if you're good to them they'll certainly be good for your business.
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