What is the role of an affiliate network?

Rachel Said
September 5, 2023
What is the role of an affiliate network?

The role of affiliate agencies Vs affiliate networks:

Resourcing the time it takes to effectively manage an affiliate programme is one of the most common reasons we encounter for affiliate activity being left to passively run. Affiliate programmes are set up with the best intentions, but due to the resources required to effectively optimise the activity, it becomes a maintenance job - validations quickly done and a few approvals here and there.

Unlike in other channels where there are automated ways to run some low level activity with minimal input. Every partner on an affiliate programme will require its own optimisation based on their own business model, rates, objectives and tools. It is obviously unfeasible to optimise every partner in this way, but it still requires someone to actively decide which partners will benefit from this targeted input. 

Most brands' first port of call into affiliate marketing will be linking up with an affiliate network to actually ensure they can track and pay the affiliates they partner with. An affiliate network enables the activity to actually happen seamlessly (in most cases!) through consistently evolving technology and a full end to end payment system for all parties. Beyond tech and payment, networks provide brands the connection to 1000s of affiliates already signed up to their database and to a wealth of insight garnered off the scale of the activity they track for brands. 

Networks do offer account management services - this varies depending on the SLA, fees and the size of the brand. Brands will often be offered more service as they grow and expand. For most brands entering affiliate marketing the service offered will be more self-managed to break down the barriers of cost to get started and provide more of a troubleshooting-style support that a brand must then optimise directly. This then leads to a very important question - where will the rest of the resource come from?

Some brands will upskill internally and resource as they go utilising the network tools to run their programme themselves. Others may leave the channel as previously mentioned to run at a low level. Brands who know the channel is a key potential growth area for them may turn externally to an affiliate agency partner to provide the time and expertise missing within their own team. 

Affiliate agencies typically do not own their own tracking (some may white label platforms however to run accounts), but mainly they will use affiliate networks or SAS platforms to track activity whilst they optimise and manage campaigns directly themselves. Agencies take on the responsibility of running the programme but also of providing the strategic direction of how to make the most of the channel. The service offered by a good affiliate agency will include the following: 

  • Proactively growing a programme to a brands’ KPIs
  • Taking a key role in understanding a brands’ business to deliver a programme that aligns to that
  • Using channel and wider industry knowledge to continuously evolve the programme 
  • The ability to understand how to best leverage technology to enhance the programme 
  • The delivery of best practice for all parties - brand, network and affiliate 
  • Cross-channel insight - this is more relevant to agencies who manage multiple brand channels 
  • An agency may also take a more hands-on role in forecasting and budget management to deliver campaigns to set ROI or move budget within a wider channel mix 

It is not to say networks will not do any of that, but a core part of what you are paying for in being part of a network is their technology, advancements in tracking and operational management. Therefore set SLA’s are typical that provide more general support and guidance.

If after reading all of that, you are now thinking you need to consider how to optimise and resource your own affiliate activity, these are the key areas it's important to work through:

  1. What SLA do you have with your network - if its not clear in the contract, ask
  2. Outside of this SLA what are you team doing directly themselves?
  3. How is your affiliate programme performing? This might be the time to consider getting an audit from an agency to understand the potential for your brand.
  4. If you then identify you need more service outside of what you can support in house, define what the service is you need. For example if you are looking at admin support to send newsletters, validate sales and do approvals, this may be more suited to increasing your package with a network partner. However if you want to develop your longer term channel strategy and recruit missing partners, you will be better looking at dedicated agencies that can support you longer term. 

An affiliate programme should make up 15 to 20% of your marketing mix, a really well optimised and mature one could be much more. Seeing these results is directly linked to the investment of not just money but also time to resource your partners. 

Think carefully about where that time comes from, ‘set and forget’ will not yield the results you want in affiliates longer term.

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