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Jan 30, 2006
How To

Three Pragmatic Tactics to Boost Your Affiliate Program -- From a Top-Rated Merchant

SUMMARY: According to MarketingSherpa study data of 187 merchant-side marketers running affiliate programs, fewer than 5% of affiliates in the average program bring in more than 75% of revenues. We suspect some merchants aren't trying hard enough to help their affiliates perform. Want some inspiration to rev up your program? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Uniblue, a top merchant in the cut-throat online software vertical. Yes, includes creative ad samples.
In the $6.5 billion affiliate marketing industry, some programs are more equal than others.

With 3,000 affiliates generating some 50% of sales of its PC backup and security software, Uniblue makes a point of having a "personal" relationship with every one of its partners. That means ongoing dialog with the affiliate website marketing team, customized ads and messaging and constant analysis of the effectiveness of the relationship.

Why bother spending so much energy on an affiliate? "It's much less expensive to keep the partners you have than invest in new ones," explains Gordon Penza, Uniblue's Online Partner Manager.

That approach seems to be working. Uniblue's main products, including WinTasks and WinBackup, have claimed top seller positions on its affiliate network -- competing with 20,000 other software products -- and have remained there for months on end.

If your affiliate program boasts quantity over quality, think again. Here's what we learned from Uniblue.

Tactic #1. Survey your current affiliate program

When Uniblue decided to revamp its affiliate program two years ago, the first thing they did was try to build better relationships with the affiliates they already had. Some of the affiliates are one-person operations with stellar websites and target audiences perfect for Uniblue. Other affiliates may be small to mid-sized businesses. But each gets "personalized" attention.

In a MarketingSherpa Affiliate and Merchant Survey taken in August 2005, only 7% of merchants were focusing on their current and most profitable affiliates. Most were out there looking for new ones -- this, despite the fact these same merchants conceded to 75% of their revenue coming from fewer than 5% of their affiliates.

o Personal communication

Penza warns that failing to communicate with the best affiliates is one of the biggest mistakes merchants can make. Uniblue has an affiliate team whose main purpose is to massage the affiliate relationships. But we're not talking form letters here. Each of the four people on the team makes phone calls, sends regular emails and keeps affiliates on a "friendship level" wherever possible.

But how do you decide which of 3,000 different affiliates to put the most relationship-building energy into?

o Assess target audience

Overall Web traffic size isn't everything. A site with fewer monthly visitors could be a far better performing affiliate than one with extremely high traffic, if the target audience is right.

"We don't really have a threshold," says Penza, "or one big thing [that determines who we'll take]." It's all about how targeted the site is, how strong its brand relationship with visitors is (will they buy anything the site recommends, are they recurring enthusiasts or newbie visitors?). And what type -- psychographic, demographic and shopper-style -- of audience it reaches.

If the affiliate's target audience closely matches the target audience of Uniblue's product, that website is "preferred more than others," regardless of how big or small the traffic stream.

o Assess website quality and traffic ranking

The layout quality and design of the site also comes into play. Uniblue seeks to enhance its own reputation by partnering with professional-looking websites and can often tell how effective an affiliate will be by the amount of effort it gives to its website.

"If you see a website getting updated every week or every day, you can tell if a person is working hard on it," says Penza. Uniblue also gauges the success potential of an affiliate by assessing its ranking for related niche terms through Alexa, Technorati and Google among other tools.

o Make sure the affiliate works as hard as you do

Every affiliate gets a fair chance from the start. There's no real grace period, according to Penza, but an affiliate needs to hold up its end of the relationship. If the partner stops responding to emails or phone calls, chances are they'll get dropped. "It's not a one-way job," says Penza. "It's a give-and-take relationship."

Tactic #2. Staff a substantial in-house affiliate team

Even large merchants often have only one staffer dedicated to affiliate management. This leads to generic relationship programs such as a one-size-fits-all email newsletter to affiliates as well as generic creative, such as one-size-fits-all banners for affiliates.

Penza decided to take the reverse approach. His in-house affiliate management team includes four full-timers. In addition, the in-house creative and PR team has six staffers.

In effect, the team functions as an in-house ad agency supporting 3,000 different clients. They recognize that although all 3,000 clients are marketing the same Uniblue product lines, that doesn't mean the same creative or tactics will work for all. In fact, differentiated marketing messages might work best to attract the very different audiences who each might be attracted to purchase.

Instead of sending thousands of affiliates generic content and ads, these two teams work together to create -- and track results of -- customized content for every top performing affiliate as well as every affiliate they suspect could be a top performer with a bit more work.

Tactic #3. Content is king

Most of the creatives on Uniblue's team are in the PR department, unusual in an age when many software companies are turning to "cutting edge" creative such as streaming videos and eye-catching graphics.

Instead, Penza feels writers make the best online ad creatives. "We believe much more in content than in big adverts or banners. We try to move away from big color and graphics. We always try to be more informative with articles or different text ads," he explains. "The more content there is, and the more you try to adjust it to the face of the audience, the more successful it will be."

o "Recommended" ads

Many of the ads and articles Uniblue's team creates lead with an official looking "Recommended" or "Editor's Pick" icon. This plays off the trusted advisory relationship many affiliates have with their audiences. Plus, the notion helps in-house copywriters to focus on factual benefit information about the product rather than fluffy sales hype.

o Change benefit headlines for different audiences

"There's no secret formula. You have to look at each website and see what the best fit is for that particular one."

Take WinTasks, for example, a product that controls the running processes of your computer. "If we're promoting it in a process library on, say, PC Pitstop or another website like that," says Penza, "those people are very technical so we have to send out a technical message to them." On a non-technical website, the message needs to be simplified and accessible to mainstream users.

If the site serves multiple demographics, Uniblue creates Google AdSense-style sets of text-link ads that contain three mini-ads each with its own headline. (See link to samples below.) All three of the text links or text ads may actually be selling the same exact product, but each contains keywords designed to appeal to very different audiences' needs.

o Control email spam by requiring content

Although Uniblue allows affiliates to promote its offerings via ads, articles and text-links in their email newsletters, Penza does not allow affiliates to run dedicated email blasts on its behalf. This reduces the worry about email spam being associated with Uniblue's name, while continuing to stress the fact that its high-value content sells.

o Content to educate affiliates themselves

Penza sometimes runs into affiliates with unrealistic expectations about making money very quickly. To those he advises, "You can't just have one advert on a site with no traffic and expect to make thousands of dollars a month. It's like any profession; you have to work real hard in order to succeed."

In order to educate affiliates on that front, Penza himself wrote a 320-page book, 'Affiliate Insider.'

o Measure success

Success is measured in sales results and inquiries. If an affiliate runs an article in its newsletter, for example, and suddenly a bunch of sales come through their website, clearly the content was successful.

Uniblue also keeps track of inquiries affiliates receive as a result of content or advertising. Why? Because perhaps an ad or article works, but then the landing page falls flat.

Sometimes an affiliate seems like a sure bet but the sales don't reflect that. A whopping 32% of merchants report that it is "very common" to have affiliates with "irrelevant content that produces low-quality leads." Another 37% say it's "somewhat common." (MarketingSherpa Affiliate and Merchant Survey, August 2005)

Rather than ditching the affiliate, however, Uniblue first examines its own message. Perhaps the ads or emails they've created for that audience just aren't effective.

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples - Uniblue's ads for various affiliates:

Past MarketingSherpa article, ' Affiliate Summit 2006 Wrap-Up Report -- Commissions to Reach $6.5 Billion in 2006':

Digital River, software marketing affiliate program used by Uniblue:

Affiliate Insider, proprietary publication mentioned by Penza:


See Also:

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