A Primer to Setting Up Your Own Affiliate Marketing Program

A Primer to Setting Up Your Own Affiliate Marketing Program

Raise your hand if you would like to get extra revenue with an ROI of 1300%, that is for every dollar you invest you get back 14. What if, once the system were set up, it was fairly easy to maintain and continue making more money?

I don’t know about you but I would LOVE to have such a system in place. What I’m talking about of course is affiliate marketing. Or as it’s being used more and more nowadays – performance marketing.

We’ll be looking at affiliate marketing from an merchant view point. How to be successful at running your own affiliate program. How other people have used affiliates, what are potential affiliates looking at when deciding on which products and services to promote, what software is out there, how to keep affiliates happy and much, much more.

But first, let’s get something straight…

What Exactly Is Affiliate Marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a performance based form of marketing – You as the merchant have a product/service to sell and me as the affiliate/partner am promoting your stuff for a piece of the action.

You as the merchant decide how big a commission to pay and you only pay me when you have verified that the sale has indeed been made. If you have a “money back” guarantee, then after that period is over.

How Affiliate Sales Have Grown In Recent Years

context-of-online-affiliate-marketingscreenshot of Internet Advertising Bureau UK Slideshare

According to a study done by PwC and Internet Advertising Bureau UK, online affiliate marketing revenue has grown from £8 Billion in extra revenue for merchants in 2012 to £13 billion (that’s around $13.7 and $22.2 billion respectively) in 2013.

What’s even more important, ROI from online affiliate marketing for merchants has grown 21% year-over-year. From £11 (~$19) to £14 (~$24) for every £1 spent.

Real World Examples of Revenue Growth By Adding an Affiliate Program

crazy-for-bargain-sleepwear-screenshotscreenshot of CrazyForBargains.com, an online sleepwear store

CrazyForBargains is a family owned retailer of quality sleepwear. They wanted to diversify their revenue streams and decided on giving affiliate marketing a try.

After unsuccessfully running the program themselves for a while, they hired an outsourced program manager to manage the program and used an affiliate network to find new affiliates & manage the technology part of the program. After that affiliate sales took off.

Today, they are getting 11% of their overall revenue from their performance marketing efforts with hopes that it will increase to 20%. Part of their success is their decision to pay 12% commission on completed sales coupled with a 365-day cookie – meaning that affiliates are getting paid on any repeat purchases that are made within one year.

“An affiliate program is a long term investment, don’t expect overnight success”

Melissa Canepa Murphy, CrazyForBargains.com owner


image source

Not Only For Online Stores

Depenhams, an English department store, was able to drive significant amount of people to claim in-store vouchers through an affiliate network. In fact, affiliates accounted for 57% of in-store purchases for that campaign.

It’s clear there is good money to be made with affiliate marketing if you know what you’re doing. So let’s learn how to setup and run one in 3 steps:

  1. Understanding the costs involved with starting up and choosing the platform to run the program
  2. Understanding how commissions work
  3. Launching and running your affiliate program

Step 1 – Understanding The Costs Involved With Setting Up An Affiliate Program

screenshot-of-HasOffersscreenshot of HasOffers.com

First thing to understand in affiliate marketing is the costs side of thing. Generally speaking, these can be divided into 3 bigger areas:

  1. Management costs – we need someone, like an affiliate program manager, to keep an eye on and run the affiliate program
  2. Platform costs – to run affiliate marketing, we need software or an affiliate network to help with the day-to-day stuff
  3. Creative costs – someone needs to design creative materials banners, videos, landing pages and more for the program.

Affiliate Program Cost #1 – The Cost To Manage The Program

One of the most important pieces of the puzzle. You need someone who’ll be responsible for the day-to-day running and up-keeping of the program. The affiliate manager will manage tasks like recruitment of affiliates, general communication with affiliates, designing policies, optimization of the program, reports, newsletters and more.

When it comes to finding that person, you have 2 options. You can either create a new position inside your company or use an outsourced program manager (OPM) – basically hire a company to take over the management side of your affiliate program.

Which way to go depends largely on your company size, the products/services you sell, your revenue numbers and more. It’s good to calculate what it would cost in-house and what an OPM would cost taking into account different benefits that both of them bring.


Now talking about salaries, things get a bit more complicated. Affiliate managers (outsourced or in-house) get generally paid a base salary + a performance bonus. Average salary for in-house managers according to Indeed and Simplyhired is around $65,000.

In reality it could be way higher or way lower depending on the products you’re selling. When Melissa from CrazyForBargains was looking for an OPM she was quoted $2500 – $5000 depending “on whether or not there are performance incentives in place, and on whether additional services are needed such as design and development”.

Affiliate Program Cost #2 – The Cost of Your Technology Platform

When choosing the right platform for you , you have two possibilities. Either go with an affiliate network or use specialized software in-house.

Affiliate networks are like mediators that provide merchants and affiliates with tracking and maintenance solutions to run their affiliate campaigns, making your life easier. Main pros include pre-existing network of affiliates and handling all payments to affiliates.

Existing network of affiliates raise your chances of being randomly discovered on their program directories which can be a good thing. And by not dealing with payments yourself lifts an huge burden from you.

shareasale-screenshotscreenshot of ShareASale.com, an affiliate network

On the downside however, you may have to spend more time “vetting” the quality of the affiliates who join your program as you want to avoid working with marketers who could damage your reputation.

You may also become limited by the software, if you want to get into more advanced applications that extend beyond the online performance channels.

Specialized software on the other hand gives you more freedom and customization options. It can be adapted to fit your needs, interface is generally better and it’s easier to track individual’s performance.

Biggest con of this is that you do not have access to a network of affiliates, which can be a problem when you’re just starting out or have no experience with outreach.

Secondly you are handling all the payments which can be a hassle the bigger your network gets.

cake-screenshotscreenshot of GetCake.com, an in-house affiliate management software

Talking about prices, custom in-house solutions can have higher monthly fees, depending on the quality of the software. However, the trade-off is you do not pay the software company a commission like you would with many of the networks & in many cases, custom integration with third party tools like call tracking software (just as an example) is a lot more seamless.

Taking everything into account, the more you sell the better option in-house solutions are. But you definitely need to do your own calculations & also take into account things like implementation work when going with in-house solution.

Recommended Software & Affiliate Networks:

On the in-house software side of things, we have the following:

There are of course lot more software solutions out there, many of them good. A great place to look at are software lists by respected authors here and here.

For affiliate networks we have:

This is by no means an exhaustive list as there are many more potential networks to consider, do your research and choose the one that fits your needs the best.

As far as affiliates are concerned, they don’t seem to care that much about either you’re on a network or doing it on your own according to data from Affiliate Summit’s 2010 AffStat Report and eConsultancy’s 2009 U.S. Affiliate Census:

prefer-network-or-indedependnt-affiliate-program-affstat-2010screenshot of Affiliate Summit’s 2010 AffStat Report

Affiliate Program Cost #3 – The Cost Of Creative That’ll Sell

To be successful as an affiliate merchant you must provide your affiliates with as much pre-made promotional content as possible. This makes their job easier and they’ll be more motivated to work with you. This includes promo videos, banner creatives, professional product images, landing pages but also email templates, text ads and more.

Having solid creative is what’s going to help your affiliates the most. And when you’re nice to your affiliates, they will be nice to you and that will help you attract even more and better affiliates which translates into more business for you.

FbInfluence, for example, has invested heavily into creating all together 14 different banners that affiliates can use in their promotional efforts:

FbInfluencescreenshot of 3 FbInfluence banner creatives

Paleo Recipe Book takes it even further with 9 sizes of 30 different designs. In addition to banners, they also have videos like this:


It’s not a surprise then, that they are the most popular product in their category on ClickBank when you consider the amount of work that they put into creating different creatives for their affiliates.

Bonus Cost: The Affiliate Landing Page

According to the 2013 Affstat report, the majority of affiliates report discovering new programs through the merchant’s website. This means 2 things.

First that you must make your affiliate program visible on your homepage:

amazon-affiliatescreenshot of Amazon.com

And secondly, affiliate landing page is no different than any other landing page on your site. It’s imperative you’re able to communicate the value your products & your program brings, so they know it’s worth sharing with their audience.

fbinfluence-screenshotscreenshot of FbInfluence affiliate landing page

paleo-recipe-book-landingpagescreenshot of Paleo Recipe Book affiliate landing page

While you can “get away” with not having a well designed custom landing page for your affiliate program, keep in mind, you’re also directly communicating how much time you’re putting into the program. First impressions matter, especially if you’re trying to convince someone to sell your stuff for you.

Step 2 – Understanding Commissions & How Much To Pay

Talking about commissions, first thing to understand is the model on which the commission is based. There are two main models in use, these are:

  1. Paying commission on a per sale basis
  2. Paying commission on a per lead basis (PPL)

The first one is quite self explanatory and is used the most often. When paying commissions, you can chose to

A.) Increase your sale prices across the board to “buff” the commission price (i.e $10 t-shirts are now raised to be $11.20. Your affiliate makes 12% but your costs remain the same) Jeff Macke of Yahoo Finance explains very bluntly how/why these kind of price increases can be tolerated by the market.

B.) Your prices remain the same & the commission comes out of your profit margin. There are no additional costs passed along to the customer, and if you’re working with good affiliates, the trade-off for decreased profits is a higher volume of inbound customers.

On the other hand, there’s Pay Per Lead. This form of payment is typically reserved for markets where leads are very easy to generate, and the product is either easy to sell – due to limited options or the customer has an immediate need.


Mazda, for example, was able to get 29% more people to test drive their new cars through online lead-gen affiliate campaign. They worked closely with automotive review sites and blogs, offered more and better support than before + gave them more freedom on the creative side.

Additionally, Tommy just the other day was telling me how he was using a relocation calculator to figure out the cost of his upcoming move to Austin & was contacted by 6 different moving companies. Since a single sale for a moving company can be several thousand dollars (and their sales tactics can be quite aggressive) paying anywhere between $35-100 per lead is small, considering the overall lifetime value of their customer.

Pay per lead can work, but it’s  still a bit more problematic because you are giving away money on the possibility of getting a sale in the future – it’s not a sure thing. So you must really know first your own target audience and the audience of your chosen affiliates to make it work for both.

A Word On Average Commissions

According to 2013 AffStat Report on affiliate marketing (page 14), the most important thing for affiliates when choosing a merchant is commissions, so how big should it be for my products/services??

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as average commissions. It depends on so many things like your brand, your financial state, selling physical or info-products and more.

Also things like the support you’re offering to affiliates, supporting creatives you’re offering, affiliate manager and more. It’s not as simple as pay the highest commission and people will love you. For a good case study on how to completely screw up your relationship with affiliates read this article here.

If There Is No “Average” Commission Which To Base Mine On, Then How Can I Come Up With One Myself?


Fortunately there are ways to calculate the commission based on what you’re selling, your profit margin etc. After all, if there is one thing that can make or break your affiliate marketing efforts is commissions – pay too little and no one will want to partner with you, pay too much and you eat into your profit margin. It’s a tricky balancing act to get right.

Geno Prussakov, founder of AM Navigator and one of the most respected voices in affiliate marketing proposes the following model for calculating commissions:

  1. Calculate the maximum commission that you can afford
  2. Do a thorough analysis on what extras competing programs are offering paying on the base level to ensure you’re competitive
  3. Decide on the amount of the maximum commission that you want to leave for bonuses, performance based stuff and private offers
  4. Subtract A from C and you have your base commission

When calculating the maximum commission that you can afford, start with tallying up all the costs involved – things like platform costs, cost of creating creative materials, landing pages and also management costs involved with running such a program. Then take a look at your profit margin and based on all that data, start calculating possible commissions.

Depending on your business you can also offer higher commissions to affiliates that constantly send quality traffic your way. Amazon is doing this with it’s Amazon Associates program. The more people buy through affiliate links, the more commission affiliates will get:

amazon-associates-screenshotscreenshot of Amazon Associates tiered commission model

This kind of tiered commissions model can work even in a situation where you are breaking even on first buy and making money from there on in -as long as the customer lifetime value is higher than what you are paying out in the beginning. In addition, it spurs affiliates on to do an even better job at promoting your products for more piece of the action.

Calculating Commissions In Action

Let’s say I’ve decided to open an online t-shirt shop that sells, well, custom t-shirts that look something like this:

custom-tshirt-designimage source

Since I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible for myself, I go with an drop-shipping solution. In that scenario I’m responsible for coming up with, promoting my designs and taking care of customer service. while my partner, the drop-shipper, will take care of actually making and shipping of the products.

After doing my research I’ve decided to go with PrintAura who can do what I need them to do for total of $16.75. Taking that and my selling price of $30 and marketing costs into account I end up with this chart per product:

costs-chartexample pie chart of costs associated with t-shirt business

My yearly marketing budget is $3000, and during the year I plan to sell 1200 t-shirt. With this in mind I calculate that my marketing cost per t-shirt is $2.5 or 8.3% of total costs – as I sell more, those will go down but this is the basis.

So profit of 35.8% or 10.75 per t-shirt. I’m willing to sacrifice up to $6 for my affiliate program commissions. This is step A done from calculating commission.

Next, looking at my competition, they are offering $4 – $5 commission per t-shirt. Additionally they provide mediocre creative support in terms of product images, banners and web copy. Step B done.

Step C and D – taking into account what kind of support my competitors offer, I’m confident that I can provide my affiliates with better creative support and thus decide to go with an base commission of $4, that leaves me $2 for bonuses, performance kickers and private offers.

For your products and services the numbers will look for sure different, but this is a basic example for how calculating commissions work in real life.

Step 3 – Launching And Running Your Affiliate Program

It’s time to launch the program but launching it without having any affiliates on-board is kinda dumb – without them we’ll not make any sales.

Recruiting People Into Your Program

abestweb-screenshotscreenshot of ABestWeb, affiliate community forum

Getting affiliates to join your program is mainly all about being visible and active in places where your affiliates are. So places like affiliate networks, affiliate forums, blogs and more. One other idea is to run a PPC campaign for your affiliate program and get affiliates through that.

Also, a good idea would be to join the top affiliate programs in your niche to get an insight into who are top affiliates, what kind of support are they getting, creative and more. Then use that knowledge to put together a comprehensive offer and contact them directly.


The next step is to contact them directly, explaining what you’re about, what you have to offer, what kind of support you’re offering and more. Your goal is to get them to at the very least check out your program and possibly join it.

The next step is to contact them directly, explaining what you’re about, what you have to offer, what kind of support you’re offering and more. Your goal is to get them to at the very least check out your program and possibly join it.

Getting Super Affiliates On-board

Besides your “normal” group of affiliates you have also this other special group – super affiliates. These are the people that can single handedly bring in 50 or more percent of your affiliate revenue. These could include things like coupon and lead-gen (remember Mazda) sites among others.

I really like Geno Prussakov’s definition of an super affiliate as someone who is mature, has potential to drive a lot of sales and is making at least five figures a month in gross profit.

geno prussakov

“It is not unusual for 1-3 such affiliates in the program to be driving 50-70% of all affiliate program’s sales.”

Evgenii “Geno” Prussakov, CEO & Founder of AM Navigator

image credit

They are mature enough to have seen all sides of the business and are using all that knowledge to drive massive sales numbers. According to Geno it is not unlikely to see 1 – 3 super affiliates driving 50 – 70% of total affiliate sales.

They look specifically for programs that have an high conversion rate, along with one that shares a decent percentage of revenue with the affiliate. As with recruiting “normal ” affiliates it’s all about research and preparing a killer offer.

Be Prepared

Your killer offer has to include things like your conversion rate, commissions to your current traffic and creative collateral etc. More often than not, super affiliates will test drive a program to see how it works on their audience. If they’re not happy with the results, they’ll simply drop out. So make sure when you’re approaching them that you have everything ready to go.

Now that we have affiliates, how about keeping them on the program?

Keeping Affiliates Informed – The Affiliate Newsletter

eastern-mountain-sports-newsletterKeeping in mind that you’re likely not the only product your affiliates are promoting, it’s important you remain top of mind when it comes to promoting your stuff. The easiest way to do this is through an affiliate newsletter.

A well designed newsletter may include

  • Statistics on top performers
  • Top new performers
  • Case studies
  • Tips
  • Upcoming promotions
  • New creative
  • New products
  • Changes in commission

Basically anything that makes their life easier & keep them motivated is good. So throwing different contests, promotions, an article or two on some new tip or trick is helpful.

Remember too, that affiliates are consumers too, so many of the email marketing & email onboarding principles still apply (and may be even more important).

Be Accessible

Another thing is to make sure that you or whoever is running your affiliate program is accessible for questions and help all the time.

That could mean things like instant messengers, forums, SKYPE, some kind of internal system etc. The idea is to always be there when your affiliates have questions and answer them.

When it comes to frequency of updates, affiliates themselves report that they prefer to be contacted either monthly or weekly. With those two groups covering 86% of all responders according to Affstat’s 2010 Affiliate Report:

how-ofter-hear-from-affiliate-program-manager-affstat 2010So a good place to start is to try sending updates every 2 weeks and then, depending on the results, either go faster (weekly) or slower (monthly).


As we’ve seen, affiliate marketing can be a good channel for getting new customers and growing your revenue, if you have taken the time to set it up correctly.

From taking time to select the right affiliates, giving affiliates the creative collateral they need to succeed, being in constant contact with them and of course choosing the right person to manage the program in the first place.


featured image source

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Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for sharing a very informative article. Very useful!

  2. This is my first time i take a look at right listed below. I found such a lot of entertaining stuff inside your blog, particularly the dialogue. From typically the a lot of responses on your site content, I guess I am not typically the only 1 acquiring all of the enjoyment right listed below ! Keep along the great work

  3. Thanks for this.
    But this seems like a very online-oriented, tangible product market. What do you suggest for offline businesses like loans, or plumbers, etc?

    1. Tommy Walker

      Hey Mark, I just saw this, but a lot of the same principles still apply actually.

      For instance, when I was looking for a moving company, I found myself on a “moving calculator” website, entered my information, which was sent to like 7 different places.

      Those different moving companies were most certainly part of an affiliate program with the moving calculator company, and were able to get the information I had submitted through the affiliate to further qualify me themselves.

      So, yes, while this post does have more of an angle towards the tangible product market, the same rule applies (at least for loans). With someone like a plumber, I’d recommend exploring Click-to-Call ads to get in front of people doing searches from their mobile like “Plumber in [city,state]”

  4. Hi,

    great article! We have an explainer video agency and also thought about setting up our own affiliate program.

    The problem is that I’ve read somewhere (I think seomoz) that the affiliate links won’t benefit your SEO. So we discussed internally if it is worth it to get more sales via the affiliate program but at the same time losing a lot of good links because when someone finds out we have an affiliate program they want to use the affiliate link (which has no SEO value).

    It would be very interesting to hear your opinion on this. Do you also see the risk? Is it worth it? Or is there even a chance to get the benefits of both worlds.

    Thank you.

  5. The lady is right, affiliate programs is a long term investment, I’m mother and build a blog for woman that have problems to get pregnant.

  6. As a merchant, I’ve been struggling to get off the ground and get new affiliates to promote for me. I appreciate your very detailed article and the way it breaks down the major elements I need to consider. Thank you!

  7. Mr. Walker-
    Looking for the right person to manage our affiliate networks. Please shoot me a private email if you know any good people in the Tampa area, or are willing to relocate to beautiful Tampa, Florida. Thanks

  8. Well, many niche blogs can earn beautiful amounts of money every month if they found the related advertiser for their niche.
    Organic and paid traffic will always convert well on such blogs.

  9. Hi,
    I have been considering affiliate marketing for my web design company.. however not sure if it’s appropriate or not? What does everyone else think? Currently I rely on social media, email marketing, networking and SEO to bring the customers in. I guess I could get local affiliates, however I have tried before and its hard to find genuine people who actually put the effort in!
    Thanks in advance

  10. Very informative. I’ve been in the affiliate marketing business for many years and find your information right on the target.

  11. The affiliate marketers whoo have been round for several ears are willing to help
    you byy providing you with recommendation.

  12. I’m currently working with Edu-Profit in essay niche.
    Regarding the conversion – they recently made prices update, I don’t know yet how this will impact on the envelope. After all, since the September 10-12 traffic will increase
    The essence of update – they updated prices on one of their sites, and say that new prices already show a 21% and higher conversion boost. And they also made the table instead of calculator.
    Someone else is working with them? I don’t know, believe it or not

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A Primer to Setting Up Your Own Affiliate Marketing Program