Affiliate Networks Explained
An affiliate network acts as an intermediary between advertisers (merchants) and publishers (affiliates). It allows merchants to offer programs and reach larger audiences. It allows affiliates to find and join affiliate programs easily.
For merchants, affiliate network services include promotional tools, tracking technology, reporting tools, and payment processing. For affiliates, benefits include ease of registration to affiliate programs, access to banners and links, payment processing, reporting tools, and access to APIs.
Affiliates can join networks and programs for free whereas there are fees for merchants to participate, for example, onboarding and recurring membership fees. Also, it’s common for networks to charge merchants a percentage of the commissions paid to affiliates, which is known as an “over-ride.”
What to Lookout For
Joining the right affiliate network or networks can be the difference between making thousands or pennies monthly. What are the attributes of top affiliate networks? Excellent networks have these items in common.
- Many reputable companies in the network and avoidance of dodgy businesses. Most affiliates want to promote trustworthy companies, products, and services, so it’s critical that affiliate networks carefully screen advertisers. Building a network of dishonest companies and poorly rated products/services won’t benefit anyone in the long-term, i.e., network, companies, affiliates, and customers.
- A wide selection of companies, categories, products, and services. Naturally, you want to optimize your affiliate activities by matching programs to your target audience for high conversion rates and commissions. To get there, you’ll need to experiment with different programs, which can only happen if the network has many advertisers from which to choose.
- An affiliate-friendly interface and clutter-free dashboard. The goal of any network should be to make navigating its website smooth and seamless, but that’s not always the case. I like to see relevant details, for example, commissions, clicks, conversion rates, and not much else. The color scheme and page layout are critical too. Believe it or not, some affiliate networks make messes of these aspects.
- Customizable reports that make sense and are easy to digest. Much of the information you want regarding performance might be available on the dashboard. However, you may want to drill down to gain more insights. For example, the traffic source that yields the highest commissions such as email, social media, and so on. Everyone wants something different concerning reports, so it’s a matter of the network satisfying most of your needs.
- High program approval rates and turnaround times. Networks don’t circulate approval rates. However, there is no point in being on a network in which your applications get frequently declined (if your network profile doesn’t match advertisers’ requirements, that’s a separate issue). Secondly, program approval/decline turnaround times should be quick. For instance, on one platform, several of my applications spent weeks in pending statuses, which slows down my affiliate marketing activities.
- Excellent customer service. I haven’t called upon customer service very often, but when I have, some networks are more skilled and communicative than others. Also, customer service representatives must be able to problem solve efficiently.
- Deep linking capabilities. Deep linking is the use of a hyperlink that links to a specific, generally searchable or indexed, content on a website. It increases conversion and sales potential. For example, instead of using a generic homepage affiliate link, I will deep link to a specific page on a merchant’s site that relates to my post about search engine optimization. Advertisers decide whether to allow deep linking, but the feature is up to the network.
Generic homepage > http://website.com=affiliateid3162
Deep link and specific page > http://website.com/search-engine-optimization-for-beginners=affiliateid3162
Top Affiliate Networks
Consolidation over the past few years has reduced the playing field to a handful of promising affiliate networks. Here are their details, pros, and cons based on research and my experiences.
FlexOffers is a premier affiliate network that builds mutually profitable relationships between online publishers and well-known advertisers spanning all verticals.
- 11,000+ advertisers
- Many brand name companies and a good selection of merchants for accessories, clothing, consumer electronics, digital products, lifestyle, shopping, travel, and personal finance
- Noticeable investment in their user-interface, dashboard, and website layout
- They offer first-rate reporting and deep linking capabilities
- Their website can be overwhelming and confusing for newbies
- Slow advertiser response times
ShareASale is a retail-focused performance marketing network with over 3,500 different offers to choose. In 2017, they were acquired by Awin, a subsidiary of Europe’s leading digital publisher, Axel Springer.
- 3,500+ advertisers
- A good selection of programs for accessories, clothing, lifestyle, e-learning, and WordPress
- They have an excellent dashboard
- “Power Rank” highlights top programs in their network
- They could attract more high profile, big name merchants
CJ Affiliate by Conversant
CJ Affiliate by Conversant (formerly Commission Junction) provides advanced performance marketing solutions that help marketers increase online leads and sales.
- 2,700+ advertisers
- A good selection of programs for online marketing, personal finance, travel, and web hosting
- They have an excellent advertiser search panel
- Their dashboard could be simplified and more clutter-free
- Their deep linking process can be confusing for newbies
Rakuten Marketing (LinkShare)
Rakuten Marketing is the global leader in integrated marketing solutions.
- 1,000+ advertisers
- A good selection of big brands
- Comprehensive screening of advertisers and publishers
- Their site is easy to navigate and clean
- Affiliates are prioritized way below advertisers
- Their customer service can be slow and inadequate
Amazon Associates is one of the first online affiliate marketing programs. The program has an excellent record of developing solutions to help website owners, Web developers, and Amazon sellers make money.
- Not officially a “network” but there are tens of thousands of products to promote
- Amazon is a global brand and e-commerce leader with many international marketplaces, products, and services
- They offer deep linking capabilities, robust reporting, bounty programs, native shopping ads, and many publisher tools
- They provide access to a link builder plugin for WordPress users
- Low affiliate commission rates that top out at 10 percent
- A 24-hour conversion window for most products (30-day conversion windows are standard for many top-rated programs)
I have little to no experience with the following networks, but they might align with your objectives.
- Affilinet (Part of Awin)
- eBay Partner Network
- Impact Radius (not an affiliate network per se, but it’s good to have an account with them as many merchants use their software)