An established platform connecting brands with publishers. This platform allows publishers like bloggers or influencers to advertise their services.
The companies that use this network browse it for affiliates who can highlight the brand’s goods and services. The publishers working with the company are typically given digital cookies to embed in product links. They earn a small commission if customers click the link or buy the item before the cookie expires.
Affiliate marketing started taking off as a promotional strategy in the early 2010s. Since then, it has rapidly grown into an extremely popular way of generating online revenue and driving affiliate partner sales.
What is an affiliate network?
An affiliate network is a platform that connects merchants with publishers through affiliate programs.
So what’s the difference between an affiliate network and an affiliate?
An affiliate marketing network is just a platform that connects companies and entrepreneurs. The affiliates are the bloggers, influencers, social media content creators, and more who refer customers over to the company and its products. They are compensated with a commission or finder’s fee.
What is the purpose of an affiliate network?
On the companies’ side of the equation, top affiliate networks let them extend their reach and grow brand awareness in a competitive marketplace.
Meanwhile, affiliate marketers may earn a commission in exchange for highlighting products and services that their audience may be interested in. The national or global affiliate network is the bridge between the two.
Affiliate networks help companies and entrepreneurs find each other. Many of the biggest affiliate networks also offer extra features. These can include a streamlined payment process, convenient communication channels, and offer certain legal protections for both sides.
What does an affiliate program look like in practical use?
Amazon Associates is a well-known example. Entrepreneurs who are accepted into Amazon’s affiliate program can earn a commission for most things sold on the website. These affiliates in Amazon's affiliate program distribute links to its products that have an embedded digital cookie.
If a customer clicks the link and purchases something, these associates get a small percentage of that sale.
That percentage is a flat rate that varies depending on a product category. For instance, grocery items are at a 5% fee rate, but luxury beauty supplies are paid at a 10% rate.
This commission extends beyond what the customer clicked on. The associate will get a commission for almost anything the customer decides to buy while the cookie is active.
What are the benefits of affiliate networks?
Although we just talked about one of the giants in the marketplace, you don’t need to be Amazon to use affiliate marketing for ecommerce.
In fact, carefully selected affiliates can do a lot for small businesses and those that provide niche products.
Top affiliate networks offer real value in terms of increasing exposure, providing predictable expenses, moving between affiliate programs as your needs change, and automating many parts of the process.
Increased reach and exposure
Affiliate networks are built around one core function. They help affiliates and brands find each other quickly and efficiently. A good match is a win-win for both sides.
Affiliate marketers get a small commission. They also connect their audiences to valuable goods and services. This builds the publisher’s reputation as a solid source for information.
Meanwhile, businesses may need the signal boost to get noticed in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Consumers are over-saturated with advertising and can tune out more traditional ad campaigns. Personal recommendations and pre-curated lists hold more weight with them.
Take e-books as an example. Very few people simply click on the ‘mystery novels’ section of an online bookshop. There could be hundreds of thousands of titles available.
Instead, customers may look for a list of ‘top 10 mysteries inspired by true crimes’ and click an outbound link on the one that sounds best. The middleman here, the affiliate blogger who created the list and attracted traffic to it, is a key part of bringing eyes to the product.
Commission-based earning potential
Commissions are one of the more stable and predictable ways to build awareness of your brand and products. Traditional ad campaigns can get expensive quickly if you’re bidding on keywords. It’s not an exact science what each keyword or impression will cost you.
Commissions work differently. Your company doesn’t pay out if the links aren’t generating attention and clicks. You’re essentially paying your affiliates to take on the labor of attracting customer attention. This frees up your time to focus on your next product launch or develop other social media strategies.
Access to multiple affiliate programs
There are dozens of reputable and effective affiliate networks out there that offer a variety of affiliate programs. These have different features and limitations.
For instance, some are exceptionally mobile-friendly. Others may offer you more in-depth tracking. Certain affiliate programs focus on a certain market niche, and their affiliates have a deep understanding of that portion of the customer base.
This variety can seem overwhelming at first. However, it can be a very good thing, especially for businesses just starting out with affiliates. Your company can join several platforms to get a feel for what they offer. You may discover new directions to take your company's ad campaigns in.
Automated tracking and payment
Affiliate networks don’t stop at introducing companies to potential affiliates. They offer a variety of tools, services, and benefits to track your affiliate campaigns and pay the entrepreneurs. Companies can use tools like payment processing, automated ad tracking, ad campaign reporting tools, and analytics to monetize their current inventory.
Publishers may also lean on these features as they plan out future campaigns. The tracking information lets these companies see which influencers are most effective and what approaches resonate most with an audience.
Meanwhile, those streamlined payment systems help prevent last-minute delays. Any delays could cause a new ad campaign to stumble in those critical first days of building momentum.
What are the different types of affiliate networks?
Affiliate networks vary widely in terms of their offered features and which brands and entrepreneurs they work with.
However, they still fall into three general types: in-house, third-party, and hybrid affiliate networks. The three types offer very different costs and different experiences working with affiliates.
In-house affiliate network
Companies that prefer to do it themselves can build an in-house affiliate network. This approach involves creating and managing your own affiliate program, either individually or as part of a B2B affiliate partner program. You’ll need to:
- Set up the software
- Assign a dedicated affiliate manager
- Check compliance with the relevant laws and regulations
- Reach out to potential entrepreneurs
- Troubleshoot and maintain the tech side of things
- Build relationships with affiliates
- Crunch the data
- Pivot strategy in response to market shifts and changing laws
This is obviously a lot of work for you or your dedicated affiliate manager. It can also be a significant up-front expense. Not every small or beginning business can outlay enough funds and time to develop an in-house affiliate network.
These companies may not have the right people on staff to develop an in-house affiliate network. They will have to hire new staff or work with a freelancer to get the project going.
On the plus side, in-house affiliate networks also offer you the greatest control. If you aren’t happy with the terms or capabilities of the affiliate network platforms you’ve investigated, you can develop your own system.
You can also add exciting new features as they become available instead of waiting for your outside affiliate network to develop them. And finally, despite the initial expense, a fine-tuned and efficient system can be more cost-effective than working with a third party.
Third-party affiliate network
If building everything from scratch is too much of a commitment of time and effort, you may want to look at a third-party partner.
Here, you’re exchanging some control for greater support. The outside party has taken on the burden and risks of:
- developing these platforms
- adding analytics and other features
- addressing IT and legal issues that may crop up
- doing the legwork of finding and vetting affiliates
- researching the market to predict how the industry’s evolving
Third-party affiliates let you skip the affiliate network development stages of an in-house network. Instead, you’re jumping right into building a wider customer base. Some businesses use affiliate networks exclusively, while others eventually move on to one of the other affiliate networks.
Hybrid affiliate network
Companies that want more customization and control, but still value the ease of use of a third-party system, may set up a hybrid affiliate network.
What this looks like can vary. Sometimes it involves buying reliable affiliate network software from a developer. Your business then researches and invites entrepreneurs to join the new platform.
Another approach is to slowly build a list of trusted affiliates while you’re working with third-party affiliate network services.
While you’re increasing brand awareness and moving inventory, you’re also making industry connections and testing site features. What you learn can then be applied to the hybrid affiliate marketing network you’re developing.
Factors to consider
The rapid growth of affiliate programs has led to an equally rapid increase in the number of affiliate networks available.
Which one is right for your brand? Here are a few areas to consider:
Compatibility with your business model
Different types of business models will mesh well with different networks, and a big deciding factor is the pool of entrepreneurs. Some affiliate networks attract mega-influencers, while others have a base of niche-focused affiliates.
Mega-influencers may be best-selling authors, public figures, or big names on social media. Niche affiliates may run blogs or specialist websites or share their expertise through online courses.
Mega-influencers, niche affiliates, and everyone in between these extremes may not be available within the most popular affiliate networks. You’ll need to determine which entrepreneurs are the best fit for your current in-store or online business model. Then you can narrow down the field to affiliate networks that have the right publishers.
Commission structure and payment terms
Transparency is key here. There should be no surprise fees or small print buried in any contracts. This goes for both the brands and the publishers.
However, this isn’t the only important factor to consider as you work out an affiliate marketing budget.
Affiliate programs vary widely in their structure and terms. For instance, Target’s affiliate program has a volume-based commission structure. Affiliates who move a large volume of items have an increased commission.
Other networks or affiliate programs may pay a different commission percentage depending on what kind of product has been bought. Some pay out monthly. Others pay when a minimum threshold for affiliate commission payouts has been reached.
Affiliate management and support
Look carefully at the specific affiliate platform FAQ page or reach out directly to learn key information like:
- How much support is offered to companies?
- What about the affiliates themselves?
- If something goes down on the affiliate platform, how do you get help?
- How quickly is the problem resolved?
- If your company’s needs change, how do you adjust your plans?
Reputation and reliability
Affiliate marketing networks rely on establishing a good reputation and building brand trust. This starts with the affiliate network itself. When was the affiliate network established? How many entrepreneurs does it work with? Does the affiliate network have experience working with companies of your size and in your niche?
Word of mouth is one of the best strategies here for checking for an established reputation. You can also learn a lot from online reviews. Don’t just look at these reviews in terms of positive and negative experiences. If there was a problem, how was it handled? Were the brands and publishers satisfied by the resolution? Does the network’s CRM strategy work for you?
How to get the most out of your affiliate network
An affiliate network is a powerful tool in your sales strategy. However, tools aren’t necessarily effective if you don’t know how to use them. Your affiliate network is only as effective as your affiliate marketing efforts.
A solid plan doesn’t just detail what promotional material you’re introducing to the public. It should also include a strategy for how to attract and build a strong relationship with the right affiliates. Those relationships can bring your future campaigns to a whole new level of success.
Create a strategic affiliate marketing plan
Are you planning an affiliate marketing blitz and hoping to coordinate with every affiliate to bring up your products on the same day?
Is your strategy to build buzz by starting with smaller publishers and, over weeks, building up to the bigger names? Is your primary goal to increase lead gen, or are you prioritizing brand building?
To get the most from working with affiliate networks, you need to figure out your affiliate marketing plan and how you’ll measure its performance.
Offer competitive commissions and incentives
The influencers with the biggest reach are in demand. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have slots in their planned content for your affiliate marketing campaign. Meanwhile, niche entrepreneurs with a small but loyal audience will be very selective about what they highlight.
How do you attract interest from affiliates that are a great fit for your business? Think about offering incentives, generous commission rates, and other bonuses such as boosting their social media signal. Try to make it clear how working with you is a win for both sides.
Build relationships with affiliates
Business relationships take time to build, but they’re well worth the effort. Signing on with an affiliate is just the first step. You’ll want to go the extra mile, building a productive working relationship, by:
- researching the entrepreneur’s brand, persona, and social media presence
- offering clear rewards, incentives, and commissions
- being transparent about potential problems such as shipment delays
- segmenting email lists so newsletters can be more personalized for the receiver
- communicating openly and answering any questions promptly
- asking for feedback
Provide affiliates with accurate promotional material
Your affiliates need to clearly understand your goods and services to highlight them. Make sure that any promotional material you send out is accurate. Some tips here include:
- If any products are complicated to use, you may want to send the entrepreneur an instructional manual.
- Communication models can help explain how to discuss goods and services with the audience.
- Promotional goods that might be used for technical applications should have accurate specs sheets.
- If there’s an error in the promotional material you distribute, let your affiliate know as soon as possible so they can clarify it to their audience.
- Affiliates who know about your seasonal sales and other deals can tell their viewers, potentially increasing your sales.
Don't overlook affiliate marketing
Affiliate marketing networks are an efficient way for businesses to increase their reach with customers. Your company will also be building good working relationships with entrepreneurs. Many of these networks offer quality analytics and other marketing tools, helping the brands learn what customers respond to.
However, no two affiliate networks are the same. They come with different advantages and limitations. The right style for your business depends on many factors, including company size, your immediate and long-term goals, and the resources you’re willing to invest at this time.
Mailchimp’s comprehensive suite of marketing tools and services can help businesses and entrepreneurs get the most from their affiliate marketing efforts. Affiliates may link to sponsors and manage social media accounts from the same convenient place. Meanwhile, brands can use marketing calendars to monitor current campaigns and plan future ones.