Over the last 20 or so years, I’ve seen many “interesting” opinions on what to look for to find the best affiliate program where you can make money.
Some people recommend you go for the highest payouts, and others will say network earnings per click (EPCs) are vital.
Unless you’re intercepting the store or service provider’s traffic, these could be warning signs and not signals that the affiliate program is good. And this is why I’m writing this post.
“What is the best affiliate program?” is one of the most common questions I get asked when speaking at conferences – especially publisher and SEO ones.
So, I’d like to share seven of the most important factors I look at before promoting an affiliate program or when I have two good potentials and cannot determine which to test first.
In addition to metrics, you’ll also learn the reasons why each matters and, in many cases, how to test and see if it will apply to your situation.
This is how you can find an affiliate program with the best chance of making money.
This list isn’t in order, except for the first one. Before we jump in, I mention “testing” a lot throughout. The most basic affiliate tracking test is:
- Click your affiliate link.
- Add products to the cart.
- Checkout like a customer would.
- See if the commission shows up in your account.
Do not get distracted by cash back, coupons, multiple payments being available, ads running across the site for other companies or brands, etc. The goal is to see if basic tracking is working, not attribution testing.
Now here’s the list of what I look for when selecting affiliate programs, and what I recommend you look for, too.
1. Responsive Managers
The most important thing before joining an affiliate program is to write to an affiliate manager through the contact information in the network.
In the email, introduce yourself, share why you’re a good match, and how you’ll provide value to the brand.
It can also be a good idea to ask a few questions about the program and tracking so you can gauge their skill and knowledge level. Plus, asking questions gives the affiliate manager a reason to respond.
If the affiliate manager or point of contact does not respond within two business days, move on.
If an affiliate manager is not responsive when you’re trying to send them business, what happens when tracking breaks or sales go missing?
If they don’t respond to you when things are good, you can bet you’ll be ignored when they are bad.
And affiliate program problems happen regularly. The only exception to joining without a response is if the affiliate manager is on vacation and you get an auto-responder.
In this situation, set a reminder to check your email two days after their return.
When asking questions, choose yours wisely. Some affiliates will ask if there are product samples, vanity codes, etc.
But remember that affiliate programs are not meant for you to get free products; they’re for you to drive customers to a store and earn commissions.
Asking upfront and without driving sales first can make you look like you’re joining for free product and not serious.
Share your business plan with the manager using the product, and avoid saying you’ll “do a review.” Doing a review gives you fewer opportunities to make money in the long run and has much less value for the brand than a “how to” guide or solution-oriented content.
Other questions to ask can include that you’re looking for marketing strategies, any backup tracking systems that are used, how they account for cross-device tracking in the affiliate program, and what the attribution lines look like or where you’ll fall on the attribution lines if you join.
When the affiliate manager responds, ask for specifics if you want to understand their skill and knowledge levels. But this is not vital to your success in the program.
If the manager is a marketing strategist and gives you specific details vs. generic statements, this is a very good sign. Good affiliate managers will look at your site and give you ways to improve or drive sales from the get-go.
They’ll never say, “Add a link,” “Use a coupon code,” or, “Do a review.”
If the answer is not specific and does not have examples or details, the person likely does not know marketing and is hoping you won’t know or question them. It isn’t their fault; many companies put entry-level people into the affiliate manager role.
Or the company doesn’t see the affiliate marketing channel as high-value and high-impact, so they don’t want to pay for a marketing strategist or generalist.
The main thing is that you get a response.
Don’t count the program or affiliate manager out for not having knowledge – being a strategic marketer is your job, not theirs.
2. Audience Demographic Matches
There’s no shortage of stores that sell cell phones or t-shirts, but the places you can send your traffic to will have different target audience demographics and selling points that speak to those audiences.
If you send your traffic to the wrong experience, you’ll likely see a lower conversion rate and make less money.
The price of the cell phone or shirt may matter to your audience, and both vendors are discounted pricing, but the user experience for conversion rates also includes:
- Selling points.
- Return policies.
- Free shipping.
- Press coverage.
If these elements do not match your referral’s needs, they may not convert as well as a store that does.
This is why it is important to find out who the main customer base of each retailer or service provider is.
Pro tip: You can find your demographics within your analytics package and share how to find this data with the affiliate manager. This helps the affiliate manager learn something new and makes you a marketing resource for them. Being their trusted resource gives you more opportunities to grow in the program.
If you don’t know how to use analytics, no problem. Start by surveying your own audience on your site using forms, pop-ups, and newsletter blasts to find out what is important to them.
Ask them about price points, or if they’re willing to pay more for things like security and stability (IT), luxury, and service (hotel stays or clothing). Maybe free shipping offers matter more than a percentage off, or it could be variations and options like colors, sizes, and expedited shipping (important for last-minute gifts or deadlines).
By knowing what matters to your audience and your visitor demographics, you can better match their needs to the affiliate programs you promote. This could lead to an increase in conversions and your income.
Example: Let’s pretend we have two affiliate programs, A and B.
- Affiliate program A has the best price and a higher payout but no money-back guarantee or free shipping.
- Provider B offers free shipping and a 30-day money-back guarantee but a slightly lower payout. Program B lists these selling points by the “Add to cart” button.
Even though program A’s payout is higher and the price point is better, B may meet the needs of your audience more and convert better, helping you earn more money.
And don’t forget the discounted price may mean a lower AOV. If the commission is percentage-based and not a flat payout, that lowers your earnings.
This could mean the higher price point with a lower percentage could have higher commissions in the end.
The deciding factor here is a better demographic match with age, income, rural/urban/suburban, etc., and the trust builders.
3. Live Chat & Traffic Leaks
Some things often not considered are live chat and traffic leaks.
A traffic leak is when you send your traffic to the merchant, and the merchant allows it to leave their website or makes it very easy for your referral to click another affiliate’s links.
Years ago, some big box retailers used to have people place orders online and then pay in person when they picked them up at the store.
This caused your commissions not to be tracked, which is why they were considered a leak.
But I haven’t seen this in a long time.
I am seeing more customer service and live chat taking orders and, in some cases, potentially bypassing the affiliate tracking.
Here’s how I test and see if there’s a leak or overwrite.
Go to each affiliate program you’re considering joining and look for customer support, especially live chat features. Start a conversation with support and/or live chat and ask if they can take your order.
If live chat or phone support takes the order and you do not use the shopping cart, your sale will likely not be tracked. In some cases (not very often, though), live chat may give the user a link to click on, which can add a touch point and override affiliate tracking.
More commonly, live chat may process the order without your browser or device being in the loop. When that happens, the live chat vendor gets credit for the sale, and you don’t get your commission.
Not all live chats take orders and bypass the shopping cart, and sometimes phone support will help you but require you to go through the shopping cart.
As long as the sale stays in the cart and through your affiliate tracking, you should be fine. But you’ll need to test.
- Click your link, open a live chat window, and ask the questions a customer would ask.
- See if live chat can take your order, and if they do, let them make the purchase.
- Now check the network and see if you did or did not get the commission. Many networks are in real-time; if they aren’t, give the time required for it to show. Some affiliate programs still do a daily batch process that feeds sales data every 24 hours.
- If the commission did or did not show up, you have your answer on live chat being a leak.
Pro tip: If you’re going to cancel the order because you were testing, let the affiliate manager know you were doing a test before joining so you don’t start off on a bad note.
Bonus tip: I don’t recommend canceling the sale. Having the product on hand lets you speak from real-life experience, which is important for any review content and building E-E-A-T. You can take photos with the product in hand and create videos that show the solutions are real and can be done.
There are other forms of leaks. It could be when the user searches for a coupon and does a Google search at checkout.
The person leaves the store to find a code, clicks a coupon affiliate’s link, and if attribution is not set up correctly, you lose the commission at the last second.
The store could have external ads within their own site driving your referrals to a new site where they convert.
If the person doesn’t come back and convert within the cookie life or wipes your tracking, you lose the commissions – even if they come back and buy.
Companies with multiple brands may link to those brands as navigational elements, and if the programs do not use the same tracking system and merchant IDs to commission you across shopping carts, you could lose sales to the other brands.
Some networks like ShareASale make it easy with their stores connect feature. I believe Impact and Everflow offer easy multi-cart integrations too.
Let’s look at an example. Please note that I have never or at least not recently (within the last 10 years), worked with the Gap, seen its tracking, or asked the company about it.
The example below is because I needed a brand that has its other stores linked from the header. It does not mean Gap’s affiliate program is bad or isn’t tracking across stores.
It is big enough to have cross-brand tracking, which would be a huge benefit to its affiliates, but I have personally never tested this – so again, test for yourself.
The test here is to:
- Join the Gap affiliate program.
- Click from the Gap website to Banana Republic or Old Navy.
- Make a purchase at Banana Republic or Old Navy and see if the commission shows up in your account for Gap.
- If it does, that means the brand is tracking across the brands, and you likely get a commission no matter which of its brands it sends your referrals to.
I’m not using my current clients because none are actively doing this, and this is not a self-promotional post. That’s why I chose Gap. I have no relationship with the company (as far as I know), and I love Banana Republic. It makes amazing T-shirts.
And there are more types of leaks.
Multi-payment software service providers have joined affiliate programs and are installed in a merchant’s checkout as a benefit to the customer.
Brands that have marketplaces and allow clicks to go external are also leaks.
You could find that the marketplace or certain SKUs within the marketplace are not commissionable, but the products are the ones you’re promoting. It’s not a leak, but it is similar.
These are all normal things and are part of the industry.
But don’t panic; most single network programs can set up protections for your commissions, which is why we test. Each store and each program is different and makes decisions based on their goals. They’re doing what they feel is right for them, and that is okay.
It is your job to test and see where the commission goes so you can protect your own revenue stream. Leaks and end-of-sale partners are part of the ecosystem; they’re not going anywhere.
It doesn’t mean they are good or bad. The brand makes decisions for the brand’s best interest, and you need to make decisions based on yours.
You have no shortage of affiliate programs you can promote, so don’t get discouraged if one is filled with leaks and does not have attribution set up correctly.
Pro-tip: Ask for higher commissions after attribution testing if the commissioning lines don’t work.
If you’re a top funnel partner and you introduce customers to the brand (this is different than new to file), your touch points are the most valuable because you control where the user goes and which brands they learn about – not if they make a final purchase. Without you, the store doesn’t get the sale at all.
4. High Payouts Are Not Always Better
Higher commissions do not mean more money or that it is a good affiliate program.
Sometimes they mean the program is in shambles, the company is desperate for sales, or they’re about to churn and burn.
That is an extreme situation, but it happens.
Other times they have to make up for leaks and low conversion rates.
There are also mixed payment models to consider. Here are two examples. One is real life from my old music niche site; the other is something I’ve tested over the years and used as selling points for affiliate recruitment.
Example 1: Real life
I was lured into trying to sell tickets to shows with a really nice custom commission from a couple of ticket vendors. I barely made anything promoting the tickets, even though the traffic was reviews of shows and had a high intent to purchase.
A smaller program offered me less than $0.30 per verified lead for the same traffic. I wasn’t making money on tickets, so I said why not. It turns out my traffic did convert on the lead program, and after a while, they upped me to a dollar or a few dollars per conversion because the quality was good.
Yes, a $300 ticket to a show would have been a nice commission, but I wasn’t earning it.
My money came from a program with the smallest payout in the space.
Then eventually, I shut the site down because I was starting my agency, and the site got hacked through a plugin vulnerability and killed readership. (Queue the violin and pity party.)
Suppose program A has a 25% commission and program B has a 40% commission. Both websites have equal audience experience and conversion rates, and both have a 90-day tracking gap.
The one difference is that program A is using database tracking and not cookies, so once the customer is locked into your account, those commissions are yours.
If customers reorder every 60 to 70 days, then program A is actually paying roughly 50% because of the second purchase in the timeframe. And the same thing applies to recurring commissions.
Let’s pretend program A is 10% recurring and program B is 40% one-time. If the average life of the customer is five years, then program A can be more profitable, especially if prices increase. You’ll earn 10% five times vs 40% one time.
This is very common in B2B programs and SAAS.
Program B is great for short bursts of revenue, but program A sets you up for consistent long-term revenue and more money overall.
With all else equal, and if program A doesn’t close, A is more profitable than B because the total earned is more than the single payout.
5. Affiliate Program EPCs Are Skewed Metrics
A big red flag for me is a high network EPC. EPC normally means earnings per click. When the network EPC is high, you can bet something fishy is going on.
Go to Google or Bing and type the brand name + coupons in. Look at the PPC ads and the organic results.
You’ll likely find these are active affiliates, which is inflating the numbers because an affiliate click at the end of the checkout will always have abnormally high conversion rates.
These partners inflate the EPC, and if attribution isn’t set up correctly, you may lose a portion of your sales to these affiliates even though you rightfully earned the commission. That is why it is a red flag and why you should test.
And the same applies to low EPCs. If the program has a low network EPC there could be tracking or conversion issues. But don’t count it out.
Use the short and long-term EPCs. I’ve had situations where our EPC dropped substantially on one timeframe but not the other.
We had a large emailer do a blast that decimated the EPC numbers, and then the numbers returned to normal over the next few months as the email campaign impact was offset.
The only EPC number that matters is your personal one.
Once you’ve joined the program and sent a few hundred visitors, look to see what your EPC is. If you’re in multiple similar programs, look to see where you’re converting best.
Your personal EPCs are where you can begin testing and eliminating to find the most profitable affiliate program for your specific audience.
And remember, as your site grows and your audience gets larger, or you attract new types of SEO keywords and demographics, EPCs shift. Do a comparison once a month or once a quarter to see if they’re changing, and adjust your links accordingly.
Pro tip: Ask the affiliate manager for the SKUs and products you’re selling with color and size variations. If there’s a heavy “skew” towards a specific “SKU” variation, change the images in your promotions out to the ones your referrals buy more often.
This could increase your clickthroughs and sales numbers. I.e., if you’re promoting the pink and large version, but everyone is shopping for green and medium, try the green and medium one instead.
6. Multiple Affiliate Programs And Multiple Networks
Find out if there is a private program, second network, or sub-affiliate networks that are not part of the main program. Brands don’t want to pay two commissions on the same sale, so only one affiliate network will normally win out.
This is where attribution and touch point based commissioning no longer work and where affiliate managers may not fully understand why.
Let’s pretend we have two networks, A and B. Here are a couple scenarios.
You are on Network A and did a video about how to install a fridge and recommended a specific wrench.
You sent a customer to the store for the wrench, and they have attribution testing so that an end-of-sale touch point like a coupon site showing up for “Brand + coupons” cannot overwrite your commission. But that coupon site is actually in Network B.
If the shopping cart, not the affiliate network, does not automatically commission Network A, and also the top funnel click in Network A, you lost your commission to the coupon site in Network B.
Network A will not be able to track it back because the shopping cart is not set up for touch point commissioning. You earned that commission, but because the program is on two networks, you lose the commission even though the network you are on is set up correctly.
Remember, Network A being set up with proper tracking and commissioning doesn’t matter because the shopping cart is missing the correct logic code.
You promote a general product and send a customer from your listcicle to the store through Network A. Network B is where the review partners are.
Reviews build trust for the consumer but also add a new touch point from a competing affiliate network.
Many times you’ll find split commissions in Network A, where you get 60% and the review partner gets 40%. But because this is a second system, chances are Network B will take the sale because the shopping cart is not set up for conditional logic.
Companies with multiple programs rarely build their shopping cart attribution to the levels needed, and that is the problem. The commissions here likely won’t get split and you won’t earn anything.
You are on Network A and using a subnetwork’s links.
Network B has a click, and the shopping cart is programmed for Network B to lose out to Network A every time. This should be correct.
Currently, the sub-affiliate will get the commission, and you get paid.
Suddenly, another affiliate in Network A or another affiliate in the sub-affiliate network has a click.
Now it is up to two factors outside your control to decide if you earn anything.
- If the sub-network is set up for first-click commissioning and the second click is also in the sub-network, you get the commission. If not, the second click does. This is the likely scenario.
- If the sub-network and the other first-tier affiliate have the same attribution, chances are the sub-network loses out, and you don’t get a commission. (To be fair, the sub-affiliate network doesn’t either).
This is why it is always better to not use subnetworks when you can avoid it. Join the affiliate program directly when you can.
But there are plenty of situations when they are needed, and the sub-affiliate networks can be big time savers and have custom payouts helping you earn more. So don’t count them out.
The only way to know if you’ll get paid is to test.
- Join Network A and click your link, then find an affiliate on Network B and click their link in the same browser window.
- Make a purchase and see if you get the sale. If the sale didn’t appear in your account, write to the manager and ask where it went.
Chances are it’ll be in Network B with the second affiliate, even though you earned that commission.
In the case of the review affiliate, both of you add value, but you introduced the customer and should have earned most of the money. But because there are multiple affiliate programs or multiple networks, you lose.
7. Advanced Tracking
Most affiliate managers are not able to talk about advanced tracking.
It isn’t their job to know how it works, which is unfortunate, and many will give a generic answer.
But don’t settle if they’re just being lazy.
Affiliate managers should be able to get you the technical details from their IT teams. If they cannot, and their answer doesn’t make sense, this is a warning sign they’ll hide other things from you too.
If they say, “I don’t know,” and leave it alone, at least you’ll know they’re honest.
If they say, “I don’t know, but let me ask IT,” then you know they are honest and will try to find a resolution. This speaks volumes about them as a partner.
Advanced tracking is important because tracking technology has to adapt to meet modern standards. Whether it is iOS stripping parameters from emails, or browsers not tracking third-party cookies, the odds are never in your favor as an affiliate marketer.
This is where cross-device tracking comes in – or using IPs, databases, passing unique variables without cookies, and fingerprinting. Talk to the networks and see what level of tracking they have for the affiliate programs on their platform.
Once you know, ask if the programs you want to join are using it. If they are, ask the affiliate manager if you can run some tests.
To test cross-device affiliate program tracking:
- Click your affiliate link on your computer and get to the point where enough data has been gathered.
- Open up your cell phone and finish the purchase without clicking your affiliate link again.
- If the commission tracks back to you, success. If it didn’t, cross-device is not set up correctly and you have an example they can use to fix it.
This is something you can do to be proactive and get on the good side of the affiliate manager. Having a positive relationship with them will go far in how much you can make and your ability to get custom commissions or deals.
There’s a lot more that you can use to determine what the best affiliate programs are, where you can make the most money, and which ones to avoid.
Some networks like ShareASale show you program uptime and downtime to help you see if the program “accidently” shuts down seasonally, and others may allow you to see which have escrow accounts to ensure funding is in place.
Each is important, but only once you’ve narrowed it down and are stuck deciding between two or three top options.
The seven items above will help narrow the field quickly and help set you up for long-term success, which is why they matter the most to me.
I hope this list helps you like it has helped me.
Featured Image: Net Vector/Shutterstock