Choosing an Affiliate Network Provider

My October 6 article on affiliate resources and U.K. networks prompted more readers than usual to offer feedback. Particularly common were questions from would-be affiliate marketers looking for guidance in differentiating between providers. Their questions were simple: How do I pick one? What really matters in making the decision? Since the article was posted, such concerns cropped up in conversation at I-Advertising’s excellent discussion list.

Five networks dominate affiliate marketing: ClickTrade, Commission Junction, Dynamic Trade, Be Free, and LinkShare. I’ve personally managed affiliate programs at the first three, and I’ve worked with people who have managed programs at the latter two. The networks share much in common. To decide which might work best for you, you should focus on several key areas.

Exclusivity

The issue of exclusivity is an absolute showstopper and should be your first concern. At last check, Be Free and LinkShare required exclusive performance-marketing partner status. Anything exclusive is a bad idea, especially since Forrester says some 54 percent of all online marketing dollars will be earmarked for performance marketing by 2004. The legal counsel I’ve received says that if you are a Be Free or LinkShare merchant and later run a campaign with the likes of a ValueClick, GoTo.com, ePod, or whatever gets invented in the coming years, the standard Be Free and LinkShare agreements could hold you in violation, never mind if you want to join a second affiliate network like Commission Junction, Dynamic Trade, or ClickTrade. Be very careful.

Time and Money

The next area of focus is your wallet in terms of hard dollars and payroll. On this count, Be Free, Dynamic Trade, and LinkShare are expensive at around $5,000. Commission Junction’s is $800, and ClickTrade is free.

Costs really start to add up in monthly minimums, check writing fees, affiliate recruiting fees, banner serving fees, account rep fees, and so on. It’s all the ` la carte stuff that can fatten the final tab. Be Free and LinkShare have well-deserved reputations of charging for lots of extras. In particular, watch out for banner serving fees. One program I’m familiar with was paying $0.45 CPM to have its banners served in addition to all the other fees and commissions it was paying. So much for pay for performance. Dynamic Trade, ClickTrade, and Commission Junction include everything for one price.

But time might be a bigger issue for you than money; the last thing you want is an expensive solution that’s going to consume half your tech department in an eight-week implementation. I have yet to meet a Be Free or LinkShare merchant who didn’t complain about the onerous implementation. I’ve had the Commission Junction service up and running in under two hours. Dynamic Trade and ClickTrade are just about as easy. It’s the difference between an ASP and a software license.

Support

You want real help on the other end of your phone calls and emails. You want a network that’s proactive in responding to affiliates. I’ve found Dynamic Trade and Commission Junction strong in this area. ClickTrade is terrible — and unapologetic about it.

Feedback from colleagues about Be Free and LinkShare has ranged from high praise to sharp criticism. What I’ve heard is that if you get the right rep, Be Free and LinkShare are world class. LinkShare in particular has a core of excellent account reps, and many merchants are pleased to sing the company’s praises.

Fraud

Finally, what may seem like an odd criterion is don’t overlook the dangers of fraud. On this front, most networks are surprisingly quiet, with LinkShare and Commission Junction the exceptions.

You’ve got a number of options; weighing these factors I’ve outlined should help you choose the network that’s best for you. If you want to check the pulse of affiliates, just hang out on the message boards at ReveNews.com. And of course, you could always try to build a program yourself.

Good luck — no matter what option you choose!

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