Treat Me Right

Before I begin, let me just say that I’m appalled — absolutely appalled. A few weeks ago, I estimated that of the approximately 5,000 merchants currently running affiliate programs, maybe 10 percent get meaningful results. My latest research has me rethinking that estimate. It now appears to be far worse. At best, 7.7 percent of merchants seem to care about their programs. It could be closer to 4.5 percent. And maybe as low as 0.6 percent. Ouch!


My latest project started with a visit to, the administrative interface used by Be Free affiliates. And while the rest of this article looks at the responses from just Be Free merchants, spot checks at LinkShare and Commission Junction reveal similar merchant apathy. Conclusion: My findings are not unique to Be Free. Across the board the majority of merchants just don’t get it. (However, I do have a Be Free-specific gripe. Among’s list of “Merchants Using Be Free” are AltaVista, Mercata, Google, and Rolling Stone, all of which have terminated their programs.)

From within, I applied to just about every program of which I was not already an affiliate. I purposely didn’t join programs that were from countries whose language I don’t speak (e.g., Germany). That left out about 16 non-U.S. Be Free merchants. (For more on international affiliate programs, see my earlier story “Affiliate Marketing Goes International.”) Since I was already a member of 92 different Be Free affiliate programs and lists about 382 programs, I estimate that I applied to 274 affiliate programs.

Program Applications Submitted
Application Responses Received
– Number of “Reply To” Bounces
– Number w/ Name
– Number w/ Name, Email, and Phone
– Number w/ Complete Signature

The Results

Over the course of the next three days, I received 156 “welcome” emails from merchants eager to have me join their ranks. However, this means as many as 100 merchants didn’t respond to my request to join within the first 72 hours. (That’s a topic for another article.) The welcome email is typical:

    Dear Joel,

    Welcome to the Affiliate Program! Your account has been approved, and you can begin setting up links immediately at

    -Your log on username will be sent to you in a separate email. If you have forgotten your password, please go to and click on “Trouble Logging On?”

    -Check out our affiliate site at for instructions on setting up your site.

    -Read the “Getting Started” page for an overview, and then use the Automatic Link Generator from the “Creating Links” page.

    -Once you have established your links, you will be ready to earn your commissions.

    -The commission structure is currently set at 8 percent of sale. Payments will be made on a quarterly basis with a threshold of $50. If at the end of the quarter your commission amount has not reached the $50 minimum, the total amount will be rolled over to the next quarter.

    If you have further questions or comments, please email us at We are here to help!

    Thanks again for joining our program. We look forward to working with you!

    Best regards, Affiliate Team

Best Regards, Management?

Do you notice anything wrong with that email? Who signs a welcome letter to a new employee “Best regards, Management,” which is basically what Vans did? And Vans isn’t alone. Of the 156 responses I received, only 12 merchants had the decency to include the name of a real, live person I could talk to. Of these 12 merchants, only 7 included a personal email address and a phone number.

The Bounce List

Worse, I tried replying to the welcome emails of each and every merchant. Get this: The “reply to” address on 11 of the programs did NOT work. My emails bounced! Offenders include Time,,, ImproveNet,, People, Espotting, Sports Illustrated for Women, Hewlett-Packard, 3Com, and Lens Express. How are we supposed to build a relationship if I can’t even contact you?

The Short List

The short list of merchants whose welcome email featured a name, email address, and phone number includes, Digital Goods, TickerTel, Etera,, Blue Nile, and ClubMom.

Overall, the best email signature out of all 156 responses came from ClubMom, whose affiliate program is run by fellow ClickZ columnist Shawn Collins. His signature to new affiliates looks just like the signature he uses when we exchange personal emails. And isn’t that the way it should be?

Running a successful affiliate program is about managing lots of details that collectively make a huge difference. Responding to affiliate requests and getting your welcome email right are two early indicators of just what you think of me as an affiliate. Treat me like a real person, and you may be surprised at the results.

Unfortunately, my research seems to indicate that just more than half of merchants care enough about their programs to even respond to new affiliate applications within the first three days. Of those merchants who do respond, only 4.5 percent to 7.7 percent care enough to tell me who they are and how to contact them personally.

Come on. Can’t we do better? If not, I suspect the Dead List will only grow.

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