Tips To Build a Successful Affiliate Marketing Program From the Start

Sam Larner Jun 2, 2023

An affiliate marketing program is a marketing strategy in which a brand partners with a third-party called publishers, or affiliates, to promote its products or services in exchange for a commission on sales.

These programs represent a core strategy for growing your revenue and expanding your brand’s reach, but without a strong, established framework to guide them, they can quickly become unwieldy to manage. However, with a little extra due diligence and planning up front, these programs can become seamless and highly profitable extensions of your own sales efforts.

If you’re looking to improve your affiliate marketing strategy, there are a few key areas to evaluate. Let’s take a look at a few areas where a little extra attention and coordination can go a long way to improving the effectiveness of your efforts. 

Establish Brand Standards and Implement Tools to Adhere to Them In Your Affiliate Program Terms

Every good affiliate marketing program requires clear terms and conditions, many of which govern what affiliates can and cannot say in ad copy. Unfortunately, many affiliate marketing programs run into challenges when these terms and conditions either aren’t clearly defined or are poorly communicated to affiliates at the onset of an engagement.

As a part of affiliate marketing, many companies will want to restrict the language that can be used in relation to their brands. For example, a luxury brand might want to avoid terminology like “cheap” or “discount,” in order to preserve the integrity of their brands. These kinds of restrictions need to be fully baked when establishing affiliate relationships and clearly communicated to all parties. 

But don’t stop there: Make sure your program is implementing and requiring the tools that simplify enforcement of these terms and conditions. Negative keyword matching in PPC campaigns can prove vital in this regard. For example, if you do not allow brand-bidding in paid search, you can require that your affiliates include your brand terms as negative keywords in their campaigns. This simple step prevents search engines from broad matching a affiliate ads onto searches containing your brand.

In addition to requiring the use of negative keywords in PPC campaigns, here are a few additional points to include in your affiliate program terms and conditions. 

Avoid allowing the use of trademarked terms in domain names, subdomains, usernames, etc.

Allowing an affiliate to use your trademarks in any sort of internet naming system may create confusion for customers or create other issues for you down the line.

Directly address incentive marketing programs.

Consider the different forms of incentive marketing and clearly state which forms are not allowed, establishing a clear framework for sign-off by the brand.

Require disclosure.

Any “material connection” between an endorser/affiliate and an advertiser – especially a connection that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give the endorsement – should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, unless it is already clear from the context of the communication.

Prohibited website content.

If there are types of content that you don’t want your brand promoted alongside (adult content, hate-speech, etc.), identify it in your agreement.

Require CAN-SPAM compliant email.

If you allow your affiliates to email your affiliate links, require that every email be CAN-SPAM compliant.

Include the ability to delay and withhold payment.

Your agreement should also grant you the right to withhold payments to affiliates in the instance of suspected violations to the affiliate program terms and conditions. Verification of fraud can take several weeks to produce. By delaying payments, you give yourself the time to investigate.

Implement Consistent Affiliate Communication Standards

A good affiliate marketing program is built on clear communication, and that includes being consistent in how you notify affiliates of agreement violations. Too often, when program violations are detected, brands do not have an established process for notifying, warning and correcting affiliates. Rather, communications might be sent by multiple team members, with conflicting messages, or affiliates might be inconsistently handled when it comes to repeated violations. 

By establishing a clear system of responsibility and communication for issuing violation warnings, brands can save a lot of headaches in their affiliate marketing programs. For example, an initial violation should trigger a clear warning communication. A second violation may include a penalty (one that was outlined in the initial T&Cs), such as a commission reduction. A third violation may constitute removal from the program. 

Of course, monitoring for violations can not only be difficult but also time consuming, so brands might want to consider implementing solutions to automate the identification and alleviation of the problem. This was the route taken by footwear brand Xero Shoes when it began suspecting there were affiliates the brand had been paying that had been violating their terms of service. Some affiliates were making higher than expected commissions in the paid search channel. At the same time, Xero's cost-per-clicks (CPCs) were growing. That resulted in duplicitous ad spend for the brand.

A thorough review of the situation uncovered that Xero Shoes was averaging 11,000-12,000 ad hijacking violations per week. Through use of a software portal that automates detection and identification of affiliates that are not abiding by program rules, affiliate IDs in violation are now automatically flagged for Xero Shoes. Now, the brand can save precious time and resources—as well as save money by avoiding duplicate ad spend—that can be reallocated to building the strategy and insight necessary to maintain their brand integrity and grow their affiliate program with confidence.

Approving Affiliate Applications

Finally, it’s worth noting that a strong front door can be one of the most effective ways of preventing abusive affiliates from ever entering your program. Many affiliate networks allow brands to “auto-approve” affiliates, a tool that dramatically reduces the time a marketer t needs to spend looking through hundreds of affiliate applications. But using auto-approve almost guarantees that abusive affiliates will enter your program.

One way to head-off abusive affiliates from the start is to interview every affiliate that applies to your program. Many affiliates who intend to defraud you will not want to respond to emails, let alone talk on the phone. Interviewing all your applicants, however, can take a lot of time and may not seem like the best use of it, especially given that many affiliates never end up making a sale for your company. To save on time, some companies make contact with an affiliate as soon as they have made their first sale. Affiliates whom you cannot reach, avoid your calls, or don’t respond to email may very well be up to something suspicious.

Another option that some brands implement is to send an auto-response email to all applicants asking for more information on who they are and how they intend to represent the brand and drive sales. This additional hurdle to approval will deter many abusive affiliates. Brands can also tap into lists of affiliates who have been abusive in the past, as well as information about other merchants’ experience with specific affiliates.

Where to Start

In looking to enhance the value of your affiliate programs, there are a few steps you can take today: 

  • Review your T&Cs to ensure they’re comprehensive and protect your brand sufficiently. If not, it’s time to tackle a rewrite with the above-listed criteria in hand.
  • Review your affiliate communication protocols for when violations are detected and ensure consistency across your affiliates.
  • Review your process for welcoming affiliates into your program and ensure there are protections in place to screen for bad actors. 


In Summary

The tips shared in this article represent the basic prerequisites for an effective, efficient affiliate marketing program. If your affiliate program is running less than smoothly, they’re most likely the first places you should look for to make improvements. 

Remember these key points. 

  • Establish clear brand standards. Define your language and standards. Make sure affiliates adhere to these standards. Our affiliate compliance guide will help with this. 
  • Implement consistent partner communication. Have clear process for notifying, warning, correcting affiliates.
  • Approve affiliate applications carefully. Interview all affiliate applicants, send auto-responses, tap into lists.
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