What to Ask Merchants Before Joining an Affiliate Program

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Affiliate Summit is in less than two weeks and there are a lot of questions in different blogging and influencer groups about how to know which merchants (stores or retailers) to partner with.  Below you’ll find a series of questions you can ask to find out if the affiliate program is good for bloggers, YouTubers and social media influencers, or if you should politely pass on the opportunity.

Underneath the bulleted list you’ll find a series of detailed answers and what to listen for in the vendors’ responses.   One thing that is important to note is that even if there are issues in the program or with the manager, there are almost always solutions so don’t just say no if one of the issues comes up.  These questions also work great for other shows or just evaluating a program in general…they aren’t show specific.

Questions to ask affiliate managers before joining a program:

  • Which states do you have to block for nexus?
  • Do you work with coupon affiliates?
    • How is attribution set up?
  • How can we track my sales from Instagram?
  • Is cross device tracking set up?
    • What specific actions will track across devices?
  • Can I get a product for review?
  • Do you offer media buys or sponsored posts?
  • How is the affiliate channel attributed with other channels?
  • Do you work with adware?
    • Which adware affiliates have you declined and why?
  • What network/s are you on?

(please note that all external links are my affiliate links and I’ll earn a commission if you shop through them)

Getting a response with actual details is important since some people (especially just out of college) may agree with you, even if they don’t know the answer.  Never settle for a generic one in this channel.  It is literally your money on the line.  On that same note, “I don’t know the answer right now, but let me research and I’ll find out for you” is a good response too.  If they follow up after then even better.  You found an affiliate manager who is willing and ready to work with you.

Which states do you have to block for nexus?

This is an important first question.  If the merchant cannot work with you because of nexus, then you’ll be wasting time in the meeting since you cannot promote them.  If they have any hesitation or look confused about nexus, be cautious because you may get removed without warning in the future if you live in a nexus state and they weren’t aware of issues.

Nexus laws have been the reason for many affiliates losing their revenue streams from the affiliate channel so it’s important to stay up to date with your state and laws.  I use the PMA to keep up to date but some of the good affiliate networks will have resources as well for both affiliates and merchants.

Do you work with coupon affiliates?

If a merchant says yes to this, ask in what capacity.  They could be working with ones only for newsletters or in categories but do not allow coupon sites that rank for their trademarks.  It is important to know when a coupon site could be bad for you and when you don’t have to worry.  That’s why it’s important to get an explanation of how the merchant works with coupon websites.  Give them this example.

If I send a visitor to your store, but your affiliate program works with affiliates that show up for their store name or URL + coupons, that affiliate may replace my tracking cookie with their own and I will not get the commission.  What protections do you have in place for me?

If the affiliate manager doesn’t know what you’re talking about or you don’t trust their answer, test it for yourself.  Go to Google and type the site’s URL + coupons and hit search.  Go to the websites showing up and see if they have active affiliate links.  If they do, you may lose some of your commissions to these affiliates.  If you’re curious why, here’s how it works.

You write a blog post and send a visitor to the merchant.  That visitor gets to checkout and sees the coupon code box.  They go to Google and search to find a deal.  As they click to reveal a code or go back to claim the deal, they could be clicking on another affiliate’s link.  Many programs rely on last click attribution and if this is the case, that affiliate may now replace your tracking with theirs and you will no longer get paid.  But there are some safeguards if the program has a proactive manager.  The follow up question in italics below is a good one to ask if you still want to work with them.

How is attribution set up?

Some programs will have attribution lines where if you are a top of the funnel partner and there is a coupon site at the end of the sale, you get full credit or you split your commission with them.  It is important to test and make sure this works as there are a lot of outliers in the logic that could prevent you from getting paid.

Click your link to make a purchase, then go to the coupon site and click through their link and code.  Make the purchase.  If the commission shows up in your account, they have it set up right.  If it doesn’t, then you should let the affiliate manager know and possibly move on.  Other outliers could be review sites, trademark bidders, adware affiliates, multiple networks, etc… but don’t worry about those for now.

How can we track my sales from Instagram?

There are numerous ways to track instagram.  You can use coupon codes that are set to your account only, there’s a clickable link in your profile and a few others.  If the manager cannot name at least two of them immediately, you may want to consult someone else for strategy and then help them to implement it for their own programs.  No, it isn’t your job to teach them, but if you want to work with them you may have to.

Is cross device tracking set up?

This is one of the most important questions, especially if you’re a social media influencer.  Cross device tracking is being able to track when someone changes from a mobile phone to a desktop computer or a tablet to another device to make a purchase.  Cookies do not work because when you change devices, the cookie is no longer set on the new device’s browser.

If the mobile experience or the majority of customers shop through a desktop, but your website or social media traffic is mostly mobile, then this is a large potential issue for you. That’s why if they say yes it is set up, ask the next question.

What specific actions will track across devices?

This question is asking how their cross device tracking is set up and when/where/how is the unique identifier collected.  To track across devices you need a unique identifier.

It could be an email address, a social media login that passes contact info, a name and a zipcode combination, ip addresses, etc…  The merchant then needs to store the indentifier in a database with your unique affiliate ID.  They also have to set logic to fire that back to the network during the remainder of the cookie life.  Ask the manager what they’re doing since it is enabled and to give a couple of examples of ways it works for their site specifically.  If they cannot answer this in detail, chances are they do not have it set up.

Can I get a product for review?

Don’t be afraid to ask for a product, but also be prepared to be told no.  This is common.  Affiliate managers get pitched regularly just like you get PR pitches all of the time.  With my programs I scan your site to see if you have relevant traffic that we know converts.  If you’re willing to add us to those pages then I probably will give you something.  If you do not currently have something then I’ll help you, coach you and work with you to build the traffic and then get you some product.

Hint – read this post about making money with product reviews.  You don’t want to just review the company or the product.  

Do you offer media buys or sponsored posts?

It doesn’t hurt to ask this, but I can guarantee you’ll immediately be on the manager’s bad side if you ask.  In affiliate marketing you’re working on a rev share, not a pay per post basis.  So why am I recommending you ask?

Gather information about how many sales you get per new post, social media share, etc… and track it by niche or product type.  Your website traffic and stats, social media following, etc… is not relevant when doing sponsored content in a tracked channel because the sponsored content isn’t the run of the site and will not reach everyone who follows you.

Having sales data per sponsored content however makes a case and lets the merchant create an estimated ROAS.  If you want help gathering this, we can meet at the show and I’ll walk you through it.  It’s extremely easy to do.

If you approach me and say for XYZ brand I drove 20 sales with an AOV of $20 and for ABC I drove 15 with an AOV of $100 through a series of 1 blog post, 2 Facebook shares and an Instagram story, my ears will be opened and I’m more likely to say yes…even if it is a break even price because it could be customer acquisition for my client.

How is the affiliate channel attributed with other channels?

I had the very sad discovery this year as to why I stopped earning commissions with some of the marketing tools I promote and also discovered why I didn’t convert or my sales didn’t track for others.  There’s a trend (mostly in the B2B marketing and business space) to do first channel attribution and set a really long cookie.

That sounds great, but it is very bad for you as an affiliate.

When I’m presenting at workshops and some conferences, I may mention a tool.  When I do, people go to the website to see it.  Then at the end of my presentation I may do a follow up with a tools like where they click my link.  Because they first got to the site through a direct type in when I mentioned the tool or demoed it, direct traffic gets the credit and I don’t get paid.  If they did a Google or Bing search to find it, SEO gets the sale and I don’t get credit even though I introduced the customer and I was the first point of contact.  If there is a 10 year cookie on this, then for the next 10 years I still won’t get credit…i.e. you’re never getting paid.

Another reason why this is bad is if you’re using coupon codes to track.  The person hits the site through a direct type in or click from your email, but doesn’t enter the coupon code until after.  Because of the direct type in, you are not the initial referral and you may not get credit, even if they use your unique code.  That is a bit more extreme, but if it is always first channel wins, then it could happen.

Do you work with adware?

Google affiliate adware and you’ll find a ton of posts I wrote about why this is bad for you as an affiliate.  The goal of affiliate adware is to set a cookie.  It could be a toolbar that entices a click after reaching a store.  Sometimes it’ll be a pop up that shows over your blog or on the outbound click to the merchant’s website and forces a redirect which could replace your tracking cookie.  Other times it’ll be a browser extension which offers coupons, deals, cash back or discounts to get the person to click.  All of these may be able to replace your tracking cookies and take your commissions from you.  That’s why it is important to know if they work with it.

If the person hesitates or is confused about the question, they probably do have an adware problem.  If they don’t work with adware, they can normally respond immediately and answer the next question without hesitation.

Which adware affiliates have you declined and why?

Affiliate managers saying they’re on XYZ network is not a good response.  Have them name at least three that they’ve declined who are also on the network where their program is. If they cannot name at least two or three from that network immediately, they are probably trying to fake an answer.

What network/s are you on?

If the program is on multiple networks, just don’t join.  It isn’t worth it.  You’ll have multiple issues mentioned above and there will be others like which network gets credit if there are multiple affiliates?  For example, suppose you send someone through your blog on network A, but network B is where the coupon affiliate who intercepts last minute is.  That affiliate and network gets a click and sets their cookie replacing the command to fire the pixel from network A.  Network B in this case will probably take the commission and you don’t get paid.

Hint – do not fall for attribution commissioning in a single network as a protection here.  If there are multiple networks, having attribution commissioning on network A doesn’t always stop network B from taking the sale.  There needs to be two round of it where the first network in the timeline always gets credit even if B or C have a click.  

You’ll then need a second attribution line that says the original referrer gets credit within the network.  But it actually gets more complicated than that…what if there is a commission for the referrer, mid funnel and coupon site and they’re on two or three networks.  Now you have to set it across three networks, to commission a % to each of the affiliates involved and report them back to individual networks.  I have yet to see a company who does this so if the program is on multiple networks, just don’t bother with it or expect to lose some of your sales.  The only exception for me to this rule is for international and foreign language programs.  

Those are some of the questions that should help you to identify which affiliate programs, managers and agencies you may want to work with.  If you have other questions which could benefit bloggers, social media influencers and YouTubers joining affiliate programs, feel free to leave them in the comments section below with a detailed response.  If you’d like to meet at Affiliate Summit, use my contact form and lets set up a time to meet.

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3 thoughts on “What to Ask Merchants Before Joining an Affiliate Program”

  1. I’m a little late leaving a comment but I just took time to again review this excellent article and information. I began attempting to do affiliate sales about 11 years ago. Even then we had problems with links and sales loss. Now we have many platforms and companies who manage affiliate programs. Losing sales always frustrated at one point when i saw thousands of clicks to various sites. My job was to get them there and their job was to make the sale with their site yet so many never happened. We have to be thankful we have someone like Adam who has been handing us the trade secrets other use to steal our sales.
    I have to wonder how broke some people would be and frustrated with all the many get rich overnight methods and systems and training programs that we have seen every day for years. The best free program ever presented to me was the 30 day challenge. It was an excellent training program that you applied to any product or idea you were promoting. They used a browser called flock and a number of other great tools that made sense of what we were to do. I was pushing the Kindle ebook reader for this project which was at it’s infancy. Just glad to have Adam giving us his expertise in selling products.

  2. I’ve wondered for at least a decade why I have never made the money I used to make with affiliate programs way back when. Now, I have some clues. I knew about affiliate adware but some of the other ways affiliate sales can be stolen were new to me and I did not know about nexus at all.

    I wish someone would come up with a list of in house affiliate programs that do not allow adware. I am probably never going to use the big networks again since all of them are drastically targeted by adware. I used to use commission junction, linkshare and shareasale but earnings dried up on all three over a decade ago and have not come back. It seems affiliate marketing is dead.

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