Affiliate Program Multiplicity

On various stages of their involvement with the affiliate marketing channel, merchants look in the direction of launching affiliate programs for the same products on multiple networks. The most common reasoning for this being that by so doing they will expand their affiliate reach, significantly improving chances of recruiting powerful affiliates across different networks.

Such an approach is fueled by two main misconceptions. First, they believe affiliate networks play a significant role in affiliate recruitment. Second, they think there are different superaffiliates on different networks.

As a rule, affiliate networks don’t provide merchants with affiliate recruitment services – at least, not by default. While many networks do offer their advertisers opportunities and tools to recruit the network-based affiliates, they don’t handle the recruitment campaigns for merchants.

Therefore, in the majority of cases, joining an affiliate network doesn’t equate to tapping into the network’s resources for affiliate recruitment.

And it’s important to underscore that serious affiliates would normally have active accounts with several major affiliate networks. When they don’t, it’s not problematic for any affiliate to join a new network. If and when the merchant’s proposition is truly attractive and fits into an individual affiliate’s sphere of interests, the latter will likely consider joining a new affiliate network.

Finally, I must warn merchants from presupposing that once they have started a program on an affiliate network, loaded their TOS, email templates, creatives and product feed, they can just sit back, relax and watch the program self-develop.

There is no such thing as auto-piloted marketing. In fact, by running an affiliate program in such a manner, merchants open the program up to affiliates that can hurt the development of the program, hindering the sign-up of new affiliates by their very presence in the program. I call this a phenomenon of merchant naïveté.

Ecological naïveté is a tendency of animal species living on isolated islands to lose both wariness of potential predators, and defensive behaviors to stand against the threats they may impose. By analogy, I use the term merchant naïveté to characterize advertisers that start/run their affiliate programs first, without any clearly outlined terms of service (naïvely entrusting the promotion of their brand to whomever decides to join their program) and second, without any affiliate program manager to actually manage the program (naïvely presupposing that it is the affiliate network’s responsibility to manage it).

Both of these facts can (and often do) lead to disaster. The affiliate program then becomes vulnerable to an array of affiliates who specifically hunt for such merchants, and I will illustrate this in a bit more detail in the following.

Bad Affiliates
Now that we have discussed the question of affiliate recruitment/management and the affiliate networks’ (minimal) role in it, it’s important to look into something that I believe to be the single most problematic thing about running an affiliate program on multiple networks.

While the potential conflicts in the mechanisms of tracking and reporting are resolvable, there’s another factor that can only be dealt with if an affiliate program is being run by a dedicated and knowledgeable affiliate program manager. I am referring back to the problem of unethical affiliate behavior.

The more widely spread forms of it are: affiliate parasitism through adware, toolbars, and other similar downloadable software; forced clicks / cookie stuffing; stealing coupons exclusive to individual affiliates; and violating the merchant’s paid search restrictions (or when the merchant has not listed any, bidding exclusively on the merchant’s trademarks, domain name(s), and every possible misspelling and variation of them).

Let’s look at an example. When a merchant runs a program on affiliate networks A and B, and Network B allows for any type of unethical affiliate behavior, both Network A and Network B affiliates suffer. The reason for this is the “last cookie wins” rule, which is still the prevailing method of attributing affiliate commissions. In dual network scenarios this essentially means that affiliates are competing with each other not only within one network, but across all networks on which the merchant has chosen to run their affiliate program. If, on either of the two networks, there are affiliates who are employing unethical methods, they negatively affect affiliates on both networks.

Rotten Apple
Additionally, regardless of Network A’s ethical stance, there is practically nothing that the network can do to prevent the unethical affiliate behavior of a Network B affiliate, which affects the revenue of Network A’s affiliates as well. Unless the merchant/affiliate program manager of the program that is run on both networks is ethical, collaborative and willing to police and weed out the unethical affiliates from Network B, the problematic affiliate will hurt all.

The sad reality is that in many instances both affiliate program managers and affiliate networks – being financially stimulated by the quick results that some of the unethical affiliate practices can yield – choose to keep the unethical affiliates in the program, thereby hurting the overall development of the larger affiliate campaign.

The bottom line is that there is nothing inherently wrong in running an affiliate campaign on two or more affiliate networks. It is, nevertheless, imperative for the advertisers to clearly understand the risks and threats potentially involved in running such campaigns.

In the majority of cases I advocate a single affiliate platform approach. If, however, a merchant decides to explore the opportunities beyond one network, it’s important to be cognizant of the threats and practice a proactive and preventive affiliate program management.