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Building an incentive strategy: How do you incentivise affiliates?

6th Aug 2015
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With a programme up and running, optimism aplenty in the channel, and the peace of mind that only paying on results can offer, it’s easy for brands to make the mistake of sitting back and expecting their affiliate activity to take care of itself.

But affiliate is a unique channel, and while it incorporates elements of display, content and PPC marketing, there are several nuances that mould affiliate marketing’s proposition.

For instance, if you’re looking to run a display ad on a recognised publisher’s site through the standard CPM model, you’ll find no shortage of sites to opt for. Some of the more established publishers even have this running on a self-serve model, thus eradicating any trace of human interference. But affiliate managers have to take a slightly different route to building connections, in that they’re required to attract and hold onto publishers considered suitable for their programme.

Affiliates like to feel valued in their day-to-day work. Many will boast partnerships with a breadth of big-name advertisers who are all vying for sales on the same platform. A seasoned programme manager will hold solid relationships with publishers across their network, from the big incentive sites like voucher and cashback providers, to the bloggers occupying stages of the ‘long tail’.

It’s imperative that these are maintained in order to keep a programme well-oiled and running, which is why a strategy for incentivising affiliates is something worth bearing in mind.

The need for reward

One of the plethora of benefits that having an incentivisation plan brings is the visibility over what worked, what didn’t, and the steps to take thereafter. The ‘one-off’ initiatives will keep things ticking along, but in a month ridden with forecasting for the quarter ahead and other priorities, it’s all too easy to hope that doing little outside from the usual obligations of supplying inventory will bear fruit.

“A lot of companies fall into the trap of assuming that the strength of their brand is enough to secure exposure on top publisher sites,” says Sean Mahon, affiliate manager at UK digital agency Equator. “The major pitfall of most affiliate programmes is that after launch, the momentum is not maintained. In order to maximise the return from your affiliate activity, careful consideration needs to be paid to how you incentivise the affiliates on your programme.”

Beyond an improved recruitment process, incentivisation could result in your brand being favoured above others, an ‘edge’ which opens the door for greater on-site exposure in peak sales periods. Incentivisation breeds loyalty, and when it comes to reasons for a dormant affiliate to get back on board with an advertiser, rewards certainly go a long way.  

In examining the sorts of things to incorporate into your affiliate incentivisation strategy, you must keep the offering simple enough for an affiliate to understand, yet acknowledging that something too basic won’t set you apart. Customisation should be considered where possible. It pays to reward individual affiliates on increases in their performance, regardless of how much this earns in the grand scheme of things.

If you’re struggling for inspiration, here are some of the tried-and-tested ways that you can incentivise publishers on your own programme.

Tiered commission

The focal point of your offering to a publisher is the commission, but if you don’t feel it’s viable to increase your 6% up to a 10% for the long term then you can always venture down the tiered route.

Flexible commission structures allow you to reward affiliates with higher payments in return for them performing above expectations. This more than pays dividends when it comes to pushing specific offers, while the tiered option is also handy for baking your goals into the programme.

Whether you’re after more referrals, earnings or just to push specific items at ideal times - football shirts during a World Cup, for instance - a flexible commission structure is one of the best ways of having an affiliate promote what you really want.

That said, tiered commission is without doubt something that needs a lot of work and attention to detail; a big consideration for those managing a range of performance-based channels for a company.


Regular prizes serve two main purposes: not only are you acknowledging the affiliate’s work with rewards outside of commission, you’re giving them a strong reason to stay loyal to the brand.

When offering prizes or giveaways, it pays to keep it simple with basic rewards like cash for completed actions, or an online voucher for performing well in a key sales period.

You might class your running of competitions for affiliates under the same banner. A word of warning, though: affiliates soon wise up to their inability to win things they’re entered into, especially when they’re competing alongside 10,000 other entrants. It’s vital for the publisher to be in with a realistic chance of walking away with something.  

Content inspiration

As the line between editorial and advertorial blurs ever more, don’t be surprised to see affiliates openly requesting ideas from your own house for content. This is more for brands that have dipped into the ‘native’ element of affiliate, where a paid link can form part of the piece itself.

“Some brands think that they need to chase the bloggers that have the biggest readership, however size isn’t everything: content and style play a huge part,” comments Hannah Johnson, blogger account manager at Rakuten Marketing - home of the Rakuten Affiliate Network. “By providing bloggers with relevant content to post, such as top products to review or even a well-designed advert that sits seamlessly on a blog, brands will build better relationships and can then target the right audience to engage with existing and potential customers.”

As Johnson states, this approach has proven hugely popular among fashion brands - parties that see their affiliates as influencers whose content is considered gospel to the people that read it.

The tools

To take a step back, some brands think so deeply about their next big prize draw or commission that they neglect the things that help affiliates earn: the creative, the popular items or services, the landing pages for those working on a cost per sale.

What use is commission if no-one interacts with your links or banners? A good offering to an affiliate encompasses both monetary gain and the chances they have of accessing it.

Even something running at a low commission can maintain interest from a publisher if it succeeds on enough occasions, so having the fundamentals are an absolute must.

Direct comms

Having regular communication with an affiliate may not appeal more than improved commission or better rewards (to some it can seem off-putting) but it’s a worthwhile technique for getting the best out of a very specific type of publisher.

If you sell a range of products but need certain affiliates to push items which fall in line with the audience they attract, you have to make an effort to learn about their own business. Set aside the time to engulf yourself in an unfamiliar trade via an affiliate and you’re getting to know your would-be customers through the account of people that communicate with them day in, day out.

It’s also wise to think about the constraints some publishers are under, according to Jake Clark, publisher development manager at affiliate network Affiliate Future.

“Many affiliates will pride themselves on the more brands they have the better, but some affiliates will be far more limited in the amount of merchants they are able to promote. As a merchant in this situation you have to think, what can I do to make my programme more attractive to this type of affiliate? What can I do to ensure the publisher pushes my brand as opposed to a competitor?”


There can be no disputing the fact that brand name and reputation can play a huge part in a publisher’s choice of partner. However, considering the billions earned by affiliates in the UK every year, you will have your neighbours for some time yet.

Incentivising the affiliates you use can sometimes equate to a competitive advantage. Having a reward strategy in place is akin to an extra segment of marketing in certain instances; giving you that added push when your programme needs it most.

It may be an external consideration for those with only minor dealings in the channel, standing as a ‘nice to have’ as opposed to a ‘must have’, but the benefits are there to be seen.

Richard Towey is an experienced technology writer currently lending his expertise to the world of digital marketing.  As well as editing an industry publication, he contributes frequently to a range of titles spanning across the performance - or 'results-driven' - side of the marketing mix

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