Lots of companies launch affiliate programs because, let's face it, affiliate marketing is low cost and low risk. And while that is true, it's also true that affiliate campaigns perform at their peak when they're optimized using top-of-the-funnel and mid-funnel strategies. This post will help you learn 7 tactics to have a profitable affiliate program that reduces your risk, helps you prevent your SEO from being damaged and keeps your bottom line intact.

1. Coupon sites

This is the elephant in the room.  The biggest argument you’ll hear now is that they’re sending XY% new customers. That is a false metric networks, managers and affiliate agencies like to throw out because it sounds good.  DO NOT FALL FOR THIS.

Ask yourself “Did the coupon site introduce the new customer to you or did it intercept the customer at checkout?”.   You can find this a few ways (do not use the network tracking since they are not inclusive of PPC, media, SEO, internal newsletters, etc…) by looking at the time from the click to the time to close.  If the average time is much lower than normal customers, then chances are they poached your shopping cart by ranking for your URL or Brand + modifiers like “coupons”.   Basically, if the average customer turns into a sale in 10 minutes, but the coupon site’s visitors are closing in 5 minutes, there’s a good chance they’re intercepting the new customer at your shopping cart instead of sending a new customer like your manager claims.

The next thing to look at is conversion rates.  If they have a magically high conversion rate, this is also normally a sign that they’re bottom of the funnel by intercepting the end user as they are checking out.  If it was possible to have a conversion rate 2X – 10X your normal site’s conversion, then why wouldn’t you spend all of your money there.

A third way to tell is if the coupon sites sales and traffic match your own sites patterns.  If you have a large spike in sales and those coupon sites match the pattern, chances are they are intercepting your own traffic and not sending new customers, but are intercepting them.

The sure fire way to tell if a coupon site is bringing in new customers or intercepting new customers at checkout is to pull a full attribution line.  Look to see how many coupon site sales start on the coupon site without having been to your site, clicked on your ads or found you through another path before they got their click.  If they are the original referrer and there is nothing before them in the path, that is when they are adding value.

Coupon sites can be good and add value by including you in newsletters, pages that show up for terms like Halloween coupons or Christmas sales, but make sure they are acting as top of the funnel and not intercepting people checking out of your store.

2. Data feeds

If you provide product data to affiliates, make sure you have one version that is for the database on your website and one version that is for partners, shopping engines and affiliates.  If you are sending out the same image names, descriptions and feed data that you use on your own site, you’re now making your own unique content not so unique.

Your product descriptions will appear on other sites.  Your images will appear elsewhere and if those sites are more authoritative, they may outrank you.  By having a second version of your feed that is used for external sites, you can help to prevent some of these issues.

The traditional way of doing this is to manually change the data -- spreadsheet by spreadsheet -- to maintain unique content for each channel while also maintaining unique content for your own site. Needless to say, this can become burdensome. The easy way is to use a data feed management software to manipulate the data and automate some of the more tedious tasks.

3. PPC to Find Partners

If you’re running PPC ads on Google, Bing, Baidu or wherever your company is based, pull a report of keywords that are profitable, barely profitable or that are not profitable (but have conversions).  Now take these phrases and look in the search engines for websites that show up.  Each of these is a potential partner.  There’s one big catch though.

A lot of times they will be competing sites or other stores.  That’s where you use modifiers.  By adding additional words like “reviews”, “where can I”, “how do I” (if you want to find content that uses the product or service as a solution) and even “what are the best prices for” you should now find sites that make great potential partners.  By having the search volume, AOV and conversion rates from your PPC campaigns, you can even give them a potential ROI by becoming a partner.

4. Cross Promote With Complementary Companies

One of the most successful and quickest wins with affiliate program management is to cross promote with complementary companies.  If you sell baby clothing and you find a company that sells baby sunglasses, joining each other’s programs and promoting each other in equal ways can boost your sales and exposure.  This is also top of the funnel.

Another way to do it is to use your social media channels.  If you both have roughly 50K followers and 10% are active, why not share each other’s promotions on your channels and track through affiliate links.  You can both earn and learn about what your audiences like, are looking for and possibly find new products and lines to move into.

5. Go to Industry Events to Recruit

If you’re looking for new affiliates, go to your industry and niche events.  If you sell spices or cooking supplies, food shows and houseware shows are perfect.  If you have a hotel or sell travel insurance, travel blogging expos can be great.  Anyone who has a press pass or media badge is a potential backlink for SEO or affiliate.  They create content, probably cover content similar to your services and are a perfect target to go after.

6. Know Your Backlinks to Prevent SEO Damage

Have an updated list of backlinks that you check regularly.  Affiliate links are not backlinks and if your affiliate manager or agency recruits websites that replace your backlinks, you could lose your SEO rankings.  This not only hurts the SEO channel, but traffic that would have come through those backlinks for free will now cost you commissions when sales occur.

Make sure your affiliate managers submit a list of sites they are reaching out to each week either before or after and that you share a list of do not contact sites with them so that your link profile is not in danger.  You can pull your backlinks using Google’s Search Console for free.  There are other tools which will also pull links Google isn’t showing you if you want to be more complete and accurate.

7. Look for More Opportunities

Many of your affiliates will have newsletters, pages or posts that rank well for relevant terms and may have an editorial calendar.  If they are driving sales and have an audience match, spend some time each week or each month looking where you are not currently listed and where you have room to grow the relationship.  Building the relationship with current partners is almost always easier than building new ones.  You can also learn some new things to make the program better for everyone.

Affiliate programs can be your most profitable channels.  The trick is to make sure you do not have partners poaching your customers as they look for coupon codes at checkout or that abuse your trademarks.  This comes from proper and knowledgeable affiliate program management.  You’ll not only learn new strategies that you can apply to your own company’s channels by working with top of the funnel partners, but as you learn new tricks, you can share them with your partners as well.

As they grow, you’ll grow too. Win, win.