In the past two decades, I’ve come across various opinions on how to identify a profitable affiliate program. Some suggest aiming for the highest payouts, while others emphasize network earnings per click (EPCs). However, unless you have a way to divert the store or service provider’s traffic, these factors may not necessarily indicate the quality of the affiliate program. This is the motivation behind my decision to write this post.
One of the most frequently asked questions is, “What is the best affiliate program?”
In response, I’d like to outline seven key factors I consider before promoting an affiliate program or when faced with the choice of testing two promising options.
In addition to discussing these metrics, I will also delve into the significance of each factor and, in many instances, offer guidance on how to evaluate whether they are relevant to your specific situation.
This guide will help you identify an affiliate program with the highest potential for generating income.
Key Considerations When Choosing Affiliate Programs
Before we dive into the list, it’s important to note that testing plays a significant role in this process. The fundamental affiliate tracking test involves the following steps:
- Click your affiliate link.
- Add products to the cart.
- Complete the checkout process as a typical customer would.
- Verify if the commission appears in your account.
It’s crucial not to be sidetracked by other factors such as cashback offers, coupons, multiple payment options, or ads promoting other companies or brands on the site.
The primary objective is to ensure that basic tracking is functioning correctly, without delving into attribution testing.
Now, here’s the list of what I consider when choosing affiliate programs, and what I recommend you look for as well.
7-Point Checklist To Find Best Affiliate Programs
Here is the list of 7 points that you should keep in mind while finding the top affiliate programs.
1: Contact the Affiliate Manager
Before enrolling in an affiliate program, it’s crucial to get in touch with the affiliate manager via the provided contact details. In your email, introduce yourself, explain why you’re a suitable match, and outline how you intend to benefit the brand.
Additionally, consider asking a couple of questions about the program and tracking to assess their expertise. It also serves as a reason for the affiliate manager to respond.
If you don’t receive a response from the affiliate manager or point of contact within two business days, it’s advisable to explore other options.
When reaching out to an affiliate manager to send them potential business, it’s essential to consider the repercussions of their responsiveness. If they don’t engage when everything is going well, it’s likely they won’t prioritize you when problems arise, such as tracking issues or missing sales.
When posing questions, be selective and strategic. Some affiliates inquire about product samples, exclusive codes, and related matters.
It’s important to remember that affiliate programs are not intended for acquiring free products; they’re designed to drive customers to a store and earn commissions.
Asking upfront for free products, without demonstrating your ability to drive sales, can give the impression that you’re not serious about the partnership.
When communicating with the affiliate manager, share your business plan and how you intend to use their product. Avoid mentioning that you’ll “do a review,” as this may limit your long-term earning potential and offer less value to the brand than creating solution-oriented content.
You can also inquire about marketing strategies, backup tracking systems, cross-device tracking methods, and your position on the attribution lines within the affiliate program.
When the affiliate manager responds, consider asking for specific information to gauge their level of skill and knowledge. While this isn’t crucial for your success in the program, it can provide valuable insights.
A proficient affiliate manager with marketing expertise will offer detailed and specific guidance rather than generic advice. They will assess your website and provide suggestions for enhancing it or boosting sales right from the start.
Effective affiliate managers won’t simply suggest, “Add a link,” “Use a coupon code,” or “Do a review.”
If the response lacks specificity and doesn’t include examples or details, it’s possible that the person may not possess strong marketing knowledge. This isn’t necessarily their fault, as some companies place entry-level individuals in affiliate manager roles.
So, the key takeaway here is that receiving a response is crucial.
It’s important not to discount a program or affiliate manager just because they may lack marketing knowledge. Being a strategic marketer is your role, not theirs.
2: Audience Demographics
Numerous stores offer items like cell phones or t-shirts. However, the destinations where you direct your traffic will cater to distinct audience demographics and unique selling points that resonate with those audiences.
Sending your traffic to the wrong destination may result in lower conversion rates and reduced earnings.
While the price of the cell phone or shirt is significant to your audience, the user experience affecting conversion rates encompasses various factors, such as:
- Selling points.
- Return policies.
- Free shipping.
- Press coverage.
- And more.
If these elements don’t align with your referral’s needs, their conversion rate may not be as high as with a store that caters to those needs.
Hence, it’s crucial to identify the primary customer base of each retailer or service provider to ensure a good match.
Pro Tip: You can discover key information about your audience in your analytics tool and share this data with your affiliate manager. This not only helps them gain new insights but also positions you as a valuable marketing resource for them. Building this trust can open up more growth opportunities within the affiliate program.
If you’re not familiar with using analytics, no worries. You can start by directly asking your website visitors about their preferences through forms, pop-ups, or newsletters. Find out what matters to them, like pricing, willingness to pay extra for security, luxury, or exceptional service (for businesses like hotels or clothing).
Maybe they value free shipping more than discounts, or perhaps they appreciate product options such as colors, sizes, and expedited shipping, which can be crucial for last-minute gifts or meeting deadlines.
Understanding your audience’s preferences and demographics enables you to align their needs with the affiliate programs you promote. This alignment can result in increased conversions and higher earnings.
For instance, let’s consider two affiliate programs, A and B.
Affiliate Program A offers the best price and a higher payout, but it lacks a money-back guarantee and free shipping.
Affiliate program B, on the other hand, provides free shipping and a 30-day money-back guarantee, although the payout is slightly lower. Program B highlights these advantages near the ‘Add to Cart’ button.
In this scenario, despite program A offering a higher payout and better pricing, program B may better cater to your audience’s preferences and lead to improved conversion rates, ultimately helping you earn more income.
Additionally, it’s important to consider that a discounted price might result in a lower Average Order Value (AOV). If your commission is based on a percentage and not a fixed payout, this can reduce your earnings.
Conversely, a higher price point with a lower percentage commission could ultimately yield higher commissions. The key determinant here is a better alignment with your audience’s demographics, such as age, income, and whether they reside in rural, urban, or suburban areas, along with trust-building factors.
3: Live Chat and Traffic Leaks
Two aspects that are sometimes overlooked are live chat and traffic leaks.
A ‘traffic leak’ occurs when you direct your website visitors to a merchant, and that merchant either lets the traffic exit their site or makes it very simple for your referrals to click on another affiliate’s links.
In the past, some major retail stores allowed customers to place orders online and then pay in person when picking up the items at the store. This practice led to untracked commissions, which were considered a ‘leak.’ However, this approach has become less common in recent years.
Instead, I’ve observed an increase in customer service and live chat channels being used to facilitate orders, potentially bypassing affiliate tracking. To test for leaks or overwrites, follow these steps:
- When considering joining an affiliate program, visit their website.
- Pay particular attention to customer support, especially live chat features.
- Initiate a conversation with the support or live chat team.
- Inquire whether they can assist you in placing an order.
This test will help you determine if there’s a possibility of untracked commissions due to the customer service or live chat process.
Be aware that if you place an order through live chat or phone support without using the shopping cart, there’s a high likelihood that your sale won’t be tracked.
In some instances, although not very common, live chat might provide the user with a link to click on, which can add an additional touch point and potentially override affiliate tracking.
More frequently, live chat may handle the order without your browser or device being directly involved. In such cases, the credit for the sale goes to the live chat vendor, and you won’t receive your commission.
It’s important to note that not all live chats bypass the shopping cart, and sometimes phone support may assist you but still require you to use the shopping cart for the order.
How to Track Your Commissions?
To ensure your commissions are tracked properly, it’s essential to test the process. Follow these steps:
- Click on your affiliate link.
- Initiate a live chat session and ask the questions a customer would typically ask.
- Check if the live chat can process your order, and if they do, allow them to complete the purchase.
Afterward, monitor the affiliate network to see if your commission appears. Many networks provide real-time tracking. If not, give it the time it requires, as some affiliate programs update their sales data every 24 hours.
If you notice the commission didn’t appear, it indicates that live chat may be a source of leakage.
Pro Tip: If you’re testing and plan to cancel the order, inform the affiliate manager in advance to avoid any misunderstandings.
Bonus tip: Instead of canceling the sale, consider keeping the product. This allows you to speak from personal experience, which is valuable for creating review content and establishing E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness). You can take photos with the product and create videos that showcase real solutions and their effectiveness.
4: High Payouts Aren’t Always the Best
Having higher commissions doesn’t necessarily equate to more earnings or a favorable affiliate program. In some cases, high payouts might be a red flag.
It could indicate that the program is in disarray, the company is desperate for sales, or they are on the verge of failure. While this is an extreme situation, it does happen.
In other instances, high payouts might be an attempt to compensate for issues like traffic leaks and low conversion rates. It’s also important to consider various payment models. Let me provide two examples:
I once tried promoting tickets to shows with a generous custom commission from a couple of ticket vendors. Surprisingly, I barely earned anything despite having high-intent traffic due to show reviews.
A smaller program offered me less than $0.30 per verified lead for the same traffic. I decided to give it a shot and discovered that my traffic converted well with the lead program.
Over time, they increased my commission to a dollar or a few dollars per conversion because of the quality. In this case, the smaller payout program was more profitable.
Let’s consider two programs: Program A with a 25% commission and Program B with a 40% commission. Both have similar audience experience and conversion rates, along with a 90-day tracking gap.
The key difference is that Program A uses database tracking, ensuring commissions once a customer is locked into your account. If customers reorder every 60 to 70 days, Program A effectively pays around 50% because of repeat purchases. This concept applies to recurring commissions as well.
Suppose Program A offers 10% recurring and Program B offers 40% one-time. If the average customer lifecycle is five years, Program A can be more profitable, particularly if prices increase.
You’ll earn 10% five times with Program A, whereas Program B offers 40% just once. This scenario is common in B2B and SaaS programs.
Program B is suitable for short bursts of revenue, while Program A sets you up for consistent long-term revenue, ultimately resulting in more substantial earnings.
When all other factors are equal, and if Program A remains operational, it tends to be more profitable than Program B because the total earnings surpass the single payout.
5: Be Cautious of High Network EPCs
A red flag for me is when a network boasts a high EPC (Earnings Per Click). High EPCs can signal something suspicious. To investigate, do a simple search on Google or Bing using the brand name + coupons.
You’ll likely find pay-per-click (PPC) ads and organic results from active affiliates. These affiliates, particularly those offering coupon codes, tend to drive high conversion rates. Their presence can inflate the network’s EPC, potentially diverting your commissions.
If attribution is not correctly configured, you might lose a portion of your sales to these affiliates, even if you rightfully earned the commission. This is why it’s crucial to test.
The same applies to low EPCs. A program with a low network EPC may have tracking or conversion issues, but don’t dismiss it entirely. Instead, consider short and long-term EPCs. Sometimes, a temporary drop in EPC can be due to external factors like a major email campaign impacting your numbers.
In the end, the EPC that truly matters is your personal one. Once you’ve joined a program and driven a substantial number of visitors, look at your EPC.
If you’re part of multiple similar programs, identify where you’re converting best. Your personal EPCs provide a basis for testing and selecting the most profitable program for your audience.
6: Multiple Affiliate Programs and Networks
Determine if there’s a private program, a second network, or sub-affiliate networks that operate alongside the main program. Brands typically avoid paying double commissions on the same sale, so only one affiliate network typically prevails. This is where attribution and touch-point-based commissioning can get complicated.
Consider two networks, A and B:
Scenario 1: Suppose you’re on Network A and guide a customer to a store through a video. However, a coupon site in Network B appears as an end-of-sale touch point. If the shopping cart isn’t configured for touch-point commissioning, you could lose your commission to the coupon site in Network B.
Scenario 2: If you promote a general product through Network A and reviews are in Network B, commissions can get split in Network A. Network B may take the sale because the shopping cart lacks conditional logic.
Scenario 3: If you use a subnetwork’s links, and both the subnetwork and the first-tier affiliate in Network A have the same attribution, the subnetwork may lose out, and you don’t earn a commission. This is why it’s generally better to avoid subnetworks when possible.
However, sub-affiliate networks can be valuable in specific situations, so don’t disregard them entirely. Testing is the only way to determine if you’ll get paid.
7: Advanced Tracking
Many affiliate managers may not be well-versed in advanced tracking methods, but this knowledge is crucial in modern affiliate marketing. If your affiliate manager can’t provide technical details from their IT teams or offers vague answers, it’s a warning sign.
Tracking technology has to adapt to meet modern standards due to factors like iOS stripping parameters from emails and browsers not tracking third-party cookies.
Cross-device tracking, IP tracking, unique variables, and fingerprinting are important considerations. Ask the affiliate networks about their tracking capabilities and check if the programs you want to join use advanced tracking.
To test cross-device affiliate program tracking, click your affiliate link on your computer, then complete the purchase on your cell phone without clicking the link again.
If the commission tracks back to you, it’s successful. If not, cross-device tracking might not be set up correctly.
Building a positive relationship with the affiliate manager is crucial for success. These seven factors can help you narrow down the best affiliate programs, set you up for long-term success, and ensure you make the most of your affiliate marketing efforts.
Hence, these seven key factors provide essential guidance for affiliate marketers aiming to make informed decisions and achieve long-term success.
By being cautious with EPC, navigating multiple networks, and embracing advanced tracking, you can maximize your profitability and build strong relationships with affiliate programs. These principles are vital for thriving in the dynamic world of affiliate marketing.
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