Affiliate Recruitment Strategies and Practices

By , November 6, 2007

Once a new affiliate program is launched, these are the most common strategies for recruiting new affiliates; I assume this work will be done initially by a single full-time affiliate manager.

    1. Create Compelling Affiliate Content: The “affiliate information page” on MerchantName.com should not be an afterthought, but should be carefully designed to “sell” the affiliate program to prospective affiliates (without “hype”). It should also set realistic expectations for affiliates (for example, don’t display charts showing what an affiliate would earn by referring 100 new sales per week).
    2. Carefully plan the wording of the “affiliate network” program description. The ShareASale interface for this is “kludgy, but very flexible and powerful,” and your affiliate manager will want to explore many other merchant’s descriptions to identify an appropriate format and text for the ShareASale program description page.
    3. Notify Existing Customers: Most merchants choose to notify and invite their own customers first to a new affiliate program. Your existing customers are certainly “strong prospects” to become affiliates. You may also find strong “endorsement language” from current customers that you may later use on your affiliate-recruitment page. Finally, your existing customers are probably more likely than other affiliates to notice mistakes, which could then be fixed before “public launch” of the affiliate program.
    4. Most merchants include the announcement in a regular newsletter, but some prefer to send a separate email; it’s often a good idea to notify a small group of customers first, then gradually increase the size of each emailing to avoid overwhelming the affiliate manager. (As with any email solicitation, use care; some merchants have “stale” email data that may include disgruntled former customers and long-expired contact information.)
    5. Post announcements, where permitted, on relevant online forums and discussion groups (always checking to insure compliance with the board’s rules). This work may be done by your firm’s affiliate manager or “web evangelist.”
      • It is absolutely crucial that the affiliate manager never “post first, and ask questions later.” Forum spamming would alienate key prospects – and negative discussion threads about such practices will survive for many years.
      • It can take from 5 to 15 minutes (or longer) to identify the “appropriate” format for a post on a particular forum; an average of 10 minutes per forum is probably a conservative estimate, and 30% to 50% of forums may not permit free announcements of this type.
    6. Submit to “affiliate program directories”: There are three or four dozen “legitimate” affiliate directories (such as www.Associate-Programs.com) which are actually used by webmasters who are seeking to identify affiliate programs to join. Since the audience of these sites are essentially 100% webmasters, and since listings are free on most of these sites, this is a “no-brainer.”
      • The wording of each submission should be carefully considered, and not quickly drafted “on the spot.” Over time, the affiliate manager will create 3 to 5 “boilerplate” texts describing the affiliate program, but will almost always modify the text slightly for each unique submission.
      • Some of these directories require a “reciprocal link or listing,” which can usually be granted by creating a separate “webmaster resources” page which is linked from the affiliate-program-information page on the merchant’s web site. (However, the affiliate manager should not “trade” links directly from the affiliate-information page, especially links that might lead “our” affiliates to learn about programs offered by competitors.)
    7. Buy Very Little Advertising: In general, buying online advertising on most “webmaster forums” and “affiliate directories” is not worthwhile because of the extremely high cost. Two major exceptions:
      • One online forum, “ABestWeb.com,” does not permit a merchant to submit posts about their affiliate program unless the merchant has paid ($50 or $75) for a “New Program Announcement.” This is usually worthwhile, both because ABestWeb draws an audience of “serious affiliates” and because ABW is well-ranked by Google. In addition, only after advertiser has paid for a “new program announcement” is an advertiser’s representative permitted to identify the company in other ABW posts (but not as a “signature” until that privilege is separately “earned”).
      • Many “webmaster information” and “webmaster forum” sites, and some “affiliate directory” and “affiliate forum” sites, participate in “Google AdSense” so that merchants can obtain exposure on those sites using the Google AdWords Content Network (with liberal use of the Site Exclusion Tool). I would certainly recommend creation of a separate AdWords campaign to promote the new affiliate program, in addition to any campaigns targeting consumers.
    8. Individual Recruitment: The single most important source of successful affiliates is a direct invitation from the program manager to the site owner or advertising manager.
    9. Identifying Prospective Affiliates:The first step in “recruiting” is to identify a list of “affiliate categories,” and then to create a list of “prospective affiliate sites” within each category.
      • The affiliate manager should never “delete” information from the “recruitment database,” but should instead flag certain sites or data as invalid. For example, if a site carries porn images, illegal MP3 files, or improper “pop-up” and “pop-under” ads, the affiliate manager should note this, to avoid any need to re-visit the site if it is later discovered through another source. Similarly, invalid or non-working email contact information should be retained so that nobody wastes time “re-discovering” the invalid address.
      • Once an affiliate has applied or enrolled, the “prospect” database should reflect this, to prevent “re-solicitation” and to avoid using “stale” contact information. The affiliate network should generally have the “best contact information” for each affiliate, and most affiliates do not send “email change notices” to individual merchants.
      • I’ve been mostly satisfied with a program called “Arelis,” which is now a module within “IBP” (Internet Business Promoter, from Axandra.com), for identifying “potential prospects” and then sending a personalized solicitation letter. However, this program includes functions and features that I consider “abusive,” and could easily be used improperly – so it should only be used very carefully.
    10. Prioritize Prospects: During the “identification” process, and refined during the “review” process below, the affiliate manager must assign a “priority” to each “category” of affiliates, and then to each affiliate. Over time, the affiliate manager will develop and update a “top 100 prospects” and perhaps a “top 500 prospects” list, for use in follow-up efforts.
    11. Reviewing Sites:It is absolutely essential to manually inspect each “prospect” site.
      • Use a separate computer: Inevitably, some “prospective affiliate” sites will turn out to be “evil,” including some sites that will attempt to execute malicious scripts or download BHOs or other “malware” to the user’s computer. Although most such attempts fail, a prudent affiliate manager should avoid using a computer that contains “sensitive data” for affiliate recruitment, and should make frequent, redundant backups.
      • Don’t solicit non-commercial sites: Any list of “prospects” may also contain “false matches,” including sites that don’t carry advertising, and it’s important not to solicit these sites inappropriately. The affiliate manager should exclude “.edu” and “.org” domains from solicitation unless there are clear signs that a specific site is actually commercial in nature.
      • Use of WHOIS Data: Domain-registration data should not be a primary part of the site review process, and the affiliate manager should not send email to email addresses listed in WHOIS records unless no other email address is listed on the web site.
      • Don’t “guess” at email addresses: One feature of the IBP program is that if it is unable to determine a valid email address, it uses info@domain.com as the presumptive email contact. I suggest that the affiliate manager not use this address unless it is actually posted on the web site, as the use of invalid info@ addresses is likely to be a factor used by spam-filtering algorithms to identify spam-source domains.
      • Identifying Multi-Domain Owners: The “recruiter” will quickly realize that many different sites may be operated by a single entity, and if separate emails are sent for each site, the recipient will object to the “spam.” Even when ownership is not discernable, the affiliate manager should be able to identify “domain families” which use similar or identical content across multiple domains. Some of these publishers will become “top prospects,” while others may be identified as “Made-for-AdSense” domain farmers with little or no value as affiliates. No matter what, the affiliate manager must not send multiple email solicitations to a single firm, even if that firm owns dozens or hundreds of relevant web sites, unless the connection between those sites cannot be discerned through reasonable site review.
      • Opportunities: During the “site review,” the affiliate manager may discover related opportunities, such as a “free directory listing” on a site, or lists of similar or related sites to be added to the recruitment list.
      • Site Exclusion: Whenever the affiliate manager discovers a site that should definitely be excluded from the affiliate program, that information should be saved to avoid wasting time re-visiting the site in the future. (This is especially important for sites that attempt to download “malware” to the user’s computer.) Depending on how these sites are identified in your database, you may wish to merge all or part of this list with your “site exclusion list” for AdWords and other advertising.
    12. Affiliate-Solicitation Email: It is crucial to personalize each solicitation letter so that the webmaster does not view it as “mail-merge,” “boilerplate” or “spam.” This “personalization” should be combined with the “site review” process.
      • You must decide whether your “affiliate solicitation email” is “unsolicited commercial email” subject to the CAN-SPAM law, state laws, FTC regulations, and your own company policies.
        • My general view is that a commercial site that carries paid advertising “impliedly solicits offers of paid advertising,” and affiliate solicitation emails are rarely treated as “spam” by recipients.
        • The “affiliate solicitation” email should be evaluated for its potential to trigger “spam filters,” including both keywords, disclaimer language, and formatting.
        • In the past, my usual practice has been to use an email title such as “Advertising on SiteName.com” but a few webmasters say it’s “deceptive” for an affiliate solicitation. More recently, I’ve used a longer title, such as “Advertising on SiteName.com (MerchantName affiliate program),” with fewer complaints.
        • The affiliate-solicitation email should concisely identify your company and your affiliate program, and clearly explain why this program is right for this particular site. Direct references to current content on the affiliate site will be most effective (e.g. “I notice that your site appears to carry affiliate ads for [MerchantX.com], which I understand pays [e.g. 10% commission] on sales, but I believe you could earn more from our program since we offer [details of offer] as well as lower product pricing than [MerchantX].”)
      • Disclosure of Data: Some affiliate managers may choose to disclose some statistical information in the solicitation email, in follow-up solicitations, or in responses to inquiries by affiliates. Most affiliates would like to know a merchant’s conversion rate for “similar sites” which are already in the affiliate program; but this is usually considered proprietary data, and even when it is disclosed, cynical affiliates assume it’s not genuine. My practice, when serving as interim affiliate manager, has always been to discuss statistical information only in telephone conversations.
      • Use of Separate Email Accounts or Domains: All email from the “affiliate manager” should come from a “role account” (affiliates@MerchantName.com) and not from an individual’s email account at the company. (I’m not suggesting that you conceal the identity of the affiliate manager, but that you maintain separate “role” accounts that will remain consistent through future transitions.)
        • The affiliates@MerchantName.com account should not be an “alias,” but a separate email account, so that replies don’t substitute the individual’s email address for the “role” address.
        • In addition, it may be advisible to create separate email addresses for different aspects of the “affiliate manager role,” both to facilitate filtering of replies, and to anticipate transitions. For example, affiliate-recruiting@MerchantName.com and affiliate-newsletter@MerchantName.com might be set up as aliases for affiliates@MerchantName.com so that they could later be split as separate email accounts. Some merchants create a separate email alias such as shareasale@MerchantName.com for communications with the affiliate network (and for “Contact Merchant” emails forwarded by the affiliate network on behalf of affiliates).
      • Another option to consider is use of a separate domain for the affiliate program. Some merchants use a subdomain (such as affiliates.MerchantName.com), usually for in-house affiliate programs, and a few merchants actually create a separate domain (such as MerchantName-affiliates.com) for use by the affiliate manager.
      • You may face “special issues” if you will use a CRM solution to process communications with affiliates. Consider this decision carefully.
    13. Record-Keeping: It’s important to keep track of which sites have been solicited (and when), to avoid annoying webmasters with repetitive solicitations and to facilitate appropriate follow-up. If a reply is received, this should be tracked to avoid sending an inappropriate “follow-up” message; if a “bounce” message is received, this should also be tracked.
    14. Follow-Up: Affiliates are increasingly “hard to contact,” in part because many are flooded with all kinds of solicitations.
      • Email Follow-Up: Due to a combination of spam filters, address masking, expired email addresses, and simple “email overload,” 70% to 90% of all affiliate-solicitation emails sent will never actually be read. A follow-up email after several weeks might generate a few positive responses, but the response rate to “follow-up emails” will be almost zero. (I have found follow-ups at six-month intervals to produce “some” positive responses.)
      • Telephone Follow-Up: The affiliate manager should attempt to personally call at least the “top 100” prospective affiliates. It may be impossible to identify a working phone number for 50% to 70% of prospective affiliates, and messages might never be returned.
      • Tangible Mailing Follow-Up: As competition for affiliates’ attention has increased, many merchants have found it more effective to use a “physical mailing” to affiliates, usually “something more than a letter.” For merchants who sell tangible products, this often includes “sampling” (sending a sample product, or an offer to send a free product of the affiliate’s choice). For service merchants, this can often be more challenging (using “advertising specialty” items as “samples”) but could still be quite effective.
      • Sampling/Endorsement Strategy: As noted above, an affiliate “endorsement” is likely to be far more effective than a mere “link,” so a key part of affiliate recruitment should be aimed at “bringing affiliates over” as customers. In addition to “sampling,” some strategies to encourage affiliates to become customers might include discounting: affiliates could be offered lower prices, free shipping, waiver of setup fees, and/or could be offered the ability to earn commissions on their own transactions. (Some “discounts” might be conditioned on the inclusion of a home-page link to MerchantName.com.)
    15. What Not To Do: Merchants frequently identify some “strategies” that superficially appear likely to increase affiliate enrollments, but which are in fact counter-productive.
      • Most commonly, merchants seek to hire “independent contractors,” such as college students, to solicit new affiliates, with payment in the form of a “bounty” for each new affiliate enrolled and/or activated. This strategy always results in abuses, including “bogus web sites” enrolled as affiliates, and more importantly, attracts many spam complaints. (People hired on a “per-enrollment” basis have a strong incentive to “cut corners,” and assign far more value to potential short-term earnings than to the merchant’s long-term reputation.)
      • Don’t buy lists. Someone may offer to “sell you a list of affiliates,” or to “mail to a list of existing affiliates.” Sometimes the list is described as “opt-in” – but it never is, and the inevitable result is an increase in spam complaints and hostility from any “real” prospective affiliates who may be included in the bulk mailing.
      • During the recruitment process, the affiliate manager(s) are quite likely to “try to move faster” by shortening the “site review” process, and possibly by using an “email merge” without careful review of each site and each outgoing email. Again, the inevitable result will be an increase in spam complaints, a reduction in already-low enrollment and activation percentages, and alienation of prospective affiliates.
      • Occasionally, two “non-competing merchants” will cross-promote each other’s affiliate program to their existing affiliates. This is fine if it’s included as one of several items in an affiliate newsletter, but many affiliate resent receiving a separate email from an existing partner that promotes another merchant — and if the two companies exchange their affiliates’ contact information, it’s properly considered an outrage.
    16. Processing Affiliate Applications
      • Auto-Approval: For most merchants, “auto-approval” is the best strategy to encourage immediate “activation” by the largest number of affiliates. Many affiliates seek to join programs because they are creating or modifying a site “at that exact moment,” and if they are not immediately accepted to the merchant’s program, they may never return to post links. Each affiliate network provides options for “auto-approval” of certain affiliates. For example, ShareASale merchants can elect to auto-approve affiliates who enroll using an address in certain English-speaking countries, while delaying approval of affiliates from other countries where fraud and abuses are more common.
      • Review, Approval, and Removal: If affiliates are not “auto-approved,” the affiliate manager should strive to respond to each application within one business day. Even if affiliates are “auto-approved,” it is crucial that the affiliate manager promptly review each new affiliate site, to confirm that there are no “special problems” that might require rejection or removal. In addition, during the site-review process, the affiliate manager can “prioritize” the affiliate’s site, based on factors such as PageRank, Alexa-estimated traffic, topical relevance, and overall professionalism. This will allow for more efficient “follow-up” with affiliates.
      • Weeding Rogues and Parasites: Unfortunately, there are thousands of unscrupulous individuals and dozens of unethical corporations that “break the rules” in an effort to earn money from affiliate programs. By reviewing sites with these problems in mind, and by monitoring forums like ABestWeb and/or subscribing to the AffiliateFairPlay service, a merchant can promptly reject or remove “rogue affiliates” who might poach commissions improperly or damage the merchant’s reputation with consumers or other affiliates.
    17. Special Issue: Spam-Filtering of Affiliate Network Emails: Communication with affiliates is important, but spam filters are a huge problem.
      • Many individuals’ and many companies’ spam filters flag “affiliate network” emails (including an affiliate-application or affiliate-approval notice) as “presumptive spam” because:
        1. The affiliate network sends a large volume of email
        2. ShareASale appends standardized language to every merchant email to identify it as coming from a ShareASale merchant
        3. Emails sent by merchants through the ShareASale system show the merchant’s return address, but are obviously not coming from the mail server associated with the merchant’s domain.
        4. Some affiliate managers don’t choose their language carefully, and include “spam-trigger” keywords or phrases in their emails to affiliates, which may result in the network’s mail server being mis-identified as a “spam source.”
      • Unfortunately, it is generally not advisible to bypass the affiliate network communication system and send emails directly to affiliates, for two reasons:
        1. Affiliates are more likely to update their contact information for the affiliate network (the company that pays them) than for individual merchants; and
        2. Some “professional affiliates” who participate in many different affiliate programs use “filtering” so that emails from network merchants are filtered based on the use of specific language in each type of email.
      • “One on one” communications between the affiliate manager and a single affiliate should usually be sent directly to the affiliate, without using the affiliate network’s “contact” system. This would include “activation-related” emails sent within the first weeks of enrollment.
    18. Activation of New Affiliates
      • The “affiliate recruitment” process is actually just the “first step” in a longer process.
      • A small segment of affiliates (especially price-comparison and coupon sites) may use automated tools which “automatically” begin adding the merchant’s links to the affiliate’s sites, as soon as the affiliate is approved or granted datafeed access.
      • The vast majority of affiliates use a more “manual” process for integrating links. Typically, a small minority of “enrolled” affiliates will ever actually post links on their sites, while even fewer will generate meaningful traffic, and fewer still will ever generate any sales.
      • Depending on how affiliates are recruited and “screened” (and specifically, whether “dubious quality” affiliates are approved), the actual “activation percentage” might be less than 1% (if the program is “wide open”), or possibly greater than 50% (if applications are rigorously screened and “not-yet-active” affiliates are removed).
      • In general, an affiliate is considered “active” once a link is posted on the affiliate’s web page, or in some cases once the affiliate launches a PPC search campaign to promote the merchant. However, some merchants interpret the term “activation” to refer only to affiliates who have referred at least one new customer transaction.
      • Try to avoid using the word “inactive” to refer to affiliates who have been approved but have not yet posted links. These affiliates are “active” but have “not yet activated” links to your site.
      • Activation Bonus:Some merchants promise an “activation bonus” or a “first sale bonus.”
        • An “activation bonus” is a modest cash payment (often $5) after the first “click” is detected from the affiliate site to the merchant site (usually this represents the affiliate clicking to verify that the link works). Some “activation bonuses” are only promised for affiliates who post a link before a deadline (often “within 5 business days after approval,” which might create a sense of urgency but may be resented by affiliates who don’t meet the deadline).
        • A “first sale” bonus is usually a more generous cash payment (usually $10 to $20, but sometimes much more), paid in addition to regular commissions. (Some affiliate managers mislead affiliate by using the term “activation bonus” to refer to a “first sale” bonus.)
        • I don’t usually recommend the use of “activation or first-sale bonuses,” because a modest payment provides very little incentive for “successful” affiliates, and creates an extra “manual task” for the affiliate manager. However, some affiliate managers claim positive results from such bonus offers.
        • However, I strongly recommend that larger “activation bonuses” of $50 to $100 (or more) be offered to some “top prospects” – but with specific conditions (including specific page placements and time commitments).
        • Note that when paying “bonuses” through the affiliate network, most merchants will also pay a network fee (20% or 30%) based on the amount transferred.
      • An automated (or semi-automated) sequence of communications may be advisible for new affiliates, and subsequent periodic mailings for other affiliates who have “not yet activated.” Most affiliate networks enable “grouping” or “segmenting” of affiliates by the affiliate manager, so that different mailings can be sent to only a portion of the entire affiliate “pool.”
      • A relatively recent trend has been for the “large” affiliate networks to encourage merchants to remove affiliates from their programs if they have not “activated” within several months after approval. There is actually no legitimate business reason for this, since each inactive affiliate represents a potential “active affiliate” who has already taken the “first step.” (CJ does create its own “perverse incentive” by imposing a charge on emails sent to affiliates, based on the number of affiliates receiving each email.)
      • Some staff at these so-called “top-tier” networks even urge merchants to remove active affiliates who generate traffic with low EPC. (These are affiliates who are sending traffic to the merchant’s site, and sometimes even driving sales, but they are blamed for the low conversion rate that “suppresses” the published network EPC, thereby discouraging other prospective affiliates from enrolling.)
      • The sequence of “steps” to attempt to activate affiliates is quite similar to the steps used to initially “recruit” an affiliate – except that an affiliate who is “enrolled but not yet active” will almost always be more valuable (and deserving of more effort) than a mere “prospective affiliate” who has not yet applied. Some affiliate managers have a policy of personally calling all “enrolled but not yet active” affiliates by telephone.
    19. Managing Affiliates to Maximize Sales
        Periodically checking active affiliate sites for “compliance.”

      • Recommending “site changes” to the publisher. This can be as simple as recommending minor changes to a text link or seeking more favorable placement for an affiliate link – or as complex and risky as suggesting major changes to the site design.
      • Preparing and encouraging use of new “creatives,” such as new versions of a banner or button ad that will work more effectively with a web site’s layout or theme.
      • Requesting “endorsement” language (as appropriate) that would increase clickthroughs and conversions.

The affiliate manager must devote adequate resources (time and attention) to active affiliates. In addition to responding to affiliate inquiries, this must include:

  1. Acquisition Opportunities: In some cases, the affiliate manager will discover that a prospective affiliate site is “stale” or even “defunct,” and the webmaster may not be interested in updating or continuing the site. Such sites should be considered as potential “acquisitions,” if they have some benefit (especially important inbound links or traffic). Some of these sites might be acquired by MerchantName.com or by a subsidiary (a “stealth affiliate”), or the affiliate manager may encourage other affiliates to acquire such sites.


  1. Issues That Might Lead a Merchant to NOT Offer a Public Affiliate Program (Negatives)
  2. Public vs. Private Affiliate Programs
  3. What Factors Do Publishers (Affiliates) Consider When Selecting Advertisers (Merchants)?
  4. Affiliate Technology & Network Choice
  5. My Usual Recommendations (for Merchants planning an affiliate program)
  6. Affiliate Recruitment Strategies and Practices
  7. Captive and Stealth Affiliates
  8. Affiliate Program Policies
  9. Outsourced Program Management (OPM) for Affiliate Programs
  10. Selling the Affiliate Program
  11. Types of Affiliates (Web Publishers)

One Response to “Affiliate Recruitment Strategies and Practices”

  1. Tammy Nozawa says:

    Great article! I have been trying to find new prospect and as you mentioned, it’s been very difficult to contact them via email. I have been sending emails but I am not sure if they are reading them or even getting them. I have been personalizing them, but even with that, its easy for the affiliate to ignore. I would be interested in a more detailed post talking about what a attention getting and effective prospecting email might look like.

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