Building an affiliate network can seem a bit daunting at first, but once things start rolling, you’ll see it’s actually not that hard. Nurturing the affiliates and helping them succeed is another story, but we’ll get to that later…

There’s no shortage of people out there looking to make a little side income, but the single most important part of recruiting affiliates is absolutely crucial: You must have a solid product to begin with. If your product is sub par, not only will you have a hard time selling directly to customers, but affiliates will have no interest referring new customers to you. Remember, the quality of your product will be directly reflected by your affiliate. It’s important you make your affiliates look good and of course, that all starts with the product.

Beyond the product itself, there’s a number of different things you can start doing to recruit and attract more affiliates:

1. Pay Generously & You’ll Get More Interest

We learned this one the hard way. On our very first stab at building an affiliate program, we were admittedly stingy. We were afraid to be too generous and feared we’d end up losing money. This was a mistake. Not only that, but the referral commission offering was complicated. Just have a look at our convoluted initial offer to new affiliates:

BAD: $30 one-time commission, only on annual subscriptions.

This was less-than-ideal for a number of reasons. First off, it was a pretty crappy deal all around. $30 one-time isn’t that interesting to anyone. Everyone wants recurring revenue and you should be happy to share that with your affiliates. Next, it was very confusing (and annoying) to limit commission to only annual plan signups. This stipulation made it hard for affiliates to sell to their audience and also created the potential for them to refer customers and end up getting nothing in return. For example, if an affiliate sent someone our way but they ended up deciding to go on a monthly plan, the affiliate would get a total of $0 in earnings. Worst. Even still, we would sign up the odd affiliate and go figure, they barely sent anyone our way. There was just very little incentive.

So one day, we decided to start over completely with a much better offering:

GOOD: 30% ongoing commission on ANY customer you refer.

The difference might seem subtle at first glance, but this is a far superior approach and we know it to be true because it resulted in many more affiliate signups. We also saw affiiatings sending more actual referrals our way. It’s simpler, it’s percentage based (so we can mess with our pricing and not have to worry) and includes ALL plans.

Takeaway here is that if you’re fair and your affiliates start to make some real cash, everyone wins.

2. Use An Off-The-Shelf Solution to Save Time and Money

Deciding how to manage your affiliate program can be one of the more technically challenging parts of the process. We first thought it would be best to roll our own simple affiliate program internally. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately, it ended up being time consuming, required a lot of maintenance and kinda just sucked. Since we’re bootstrapped and had to keep things really cost effective, our affiliate program lacked a sales dashboard where affiliates could track their success, download assets and easily get access to their custom link. Being able to see your progress as an affiliate is important and keeps motivation flowing.

We eventually decided to use a third-party service to manage our small, but growing, little army of affiliates. After much research, we ultimately decided on Tapfiliate. It’s not the cheapest solution around, but it’s feature-rich and handles a lot of the pain points of building your own affiliate program. While we’ve found this approach to be much better than our own hacked affiliate program, one clear downside is the lack of access to a network of affiliates. This is where ‘affiliate networks’ like JVZOO, ShareASale and Commission Junction tend to shine. I can’t speak much to these since we haven’t explored them yet, but it’s generally regarded as a good practice to use a network in addition to your own affiliate program (either built by yourself or powered by a third-party like Tapfiliate). One very nice thing about networks is that you can tap into thousands of potential affiliates who are eager to find new products to sell. While the network approach is definitely worth exploring, be aware that the network often wants to take a cut or have expensive set up fees.

3. Build a Great Landing Page to Signup New Affiliates

Having an easy to understand affiliate signup landing page is essential. We’ve experimented with this a bit and have had good success with keeping things as simple as possible. If the messaging becomes too complicated, affiliates will be deterred and may not trust that they’ll get paid what they expect to be paid.

A simple commission table and a section that explains exactly what an affiliate will get is the best and most straightforward approach:

The table immediately shows the affiliate what they could potentially make and helps us emphasize yearly accounts, which are the subscriptions we like to drive the most.

Another great thing to include on your landing page is a direct contact (or “Affiliate Concierge” as we call it) This has 2 big benefits:

  1. It will make the affiliate feel like they’re taken care of and have a direct contact they can reach out to. It puts the affiliate’s mind at ease.
  2. It creates a relationship between your affiliate and a real person.

#2 is especially powerful because it allows you to stay in constant contact with your best performing affiliates. The challenge there is that you’ll either need to hire someone to do this or do it yourself at first. I’d suggest the latter if you’re just starting out, but ignore this approach at your peril! 

4. Start Small and Find Some Lists

Alright, recruiting time! It’s probably a good strategy to be conservative and not try to swing for the fences just yet. There are some super successful affiliates out there and they’re very particular about the product they wanna rep. Avoid going after them first. Try to find smaller niche affiliates first who you can test your pitch on and grow with. Going after the big fish takes a bit of a different approach (admittedly, one we’re still trying to figure out!), you may as well get your feet wet on smaller prospects.

So where do we find these smaller affiliates? A great place to start is finding a list of affiliates who publicly display their monthly affiliate income. These often go by the phrase “Income Reports”. Here’s an income reports list where you can see exactly how big or small the affiliate is, at least in terms of income. Start from the bottom and work your way up, honing your pitch along the way. For most of these affiliates, it turns out the easiest way to contact them is via the contact form on their site. While that sometimes can get a response, you often get mixed in with a giant pile of contact form submissions and you may not get noticed. In addition to filling out their contact form, it’s also a good idea to try and find their email address to contact them directly there as well. A great tool for this is called Voila Norbert and they even have an excellent Chrome Extension so you can find emails on the go.

Sending a direct email (in addition to a contact form submission) has 2 distinct benefits:

  1. It shows you’re persistent and if they get contacted from you in multiple places, they’re more likely to respond.
  2. With an email pitch (as opposed to just an on-site contact form submissions) you can use a tool like Mailshake to automate a sequence of emails and follow-ups. This is a huge time saver and you can even tell Mailshake to only send follow-ups if the prospect didn’t open emails or take action. For more tips on how to do this, check out this great post on how to write the perfect “Ask” in your cold emails.

Generally speaking, these pitches are a bit different than sales pitches, because you’re not actually selling anything in exchange for money. And heck, you know these people are already interested in being affiliates, so the goal is to show them your awesome product and how it can make them money and ultimately make their audience succeed. Oh and bonus tip: After you’ve filled out their contact form and emailed them directly, follow up on Twitter, LinkedIn and eve Facebook to keep reminding them about your existence. Out of sight, out of mind!

5. Tap Into Your Own Customer & Mailing Lists

A great place to find affiliates is right within your midst! Your existing users, customers or mailing list subscribers are an excellent source of potential affiliates. This will of course depend on the nature of your product, but chances are if they’ve purchased your product or signed up, they are probably already impressed by your offering. That right there is half the battle and it’s usually pretty easy to turn these folks into affiliates, assuming they’re into that sort of thing. This is where we signed up our very first affiliates. You can do this by emailing your list and announcing your affiliate program. You can be pretty confident that anyone interested will reply. We did this initially and then over time we would continually get requests and questions about the program.

6. Partner with Others to Tap Into Their Customer & Mailing Lists

I can pretty confidently say that this is where we’ve signed up the majority of our affiliates. Not to mention, this being our #1 source of new user signups…but that’s another post for another day. Partnering with other services that have an overlap with your audience is incredibly powerful, but it can be a bit tricky. In the end, it ultimately comes down to networking and relationship building, but if you can find a win/win scenario with a similar app or service, it’s a fantastic source of new affiliates. For example, we’ve done several promotional offers with our great friends over at AppSumo and it has resulted in almost 30% of all our new affiliate signups.

7. The 80/20 Rule Applies Here Too…But It’s More Like 90/10 With Affiliates

As you begin to start growing your base of affiliates, you’ll realize the horrible truth: Only about 5% of them actually do anything. I know, kinda sucky news, but it’s the reality of most affiliate programs. The good news though, is that the 5% can often send a lot of sales your way. So whatever you do, don’t disregard these high performing affiliates. Try to build a direct relationship with them and always be as helpful as possible. Some ways you can help these affiliates:

  • Provide them with brand assets, banners or any information they need about the product.
  • Help them with blog articles they write about your product.
  • Offer custom coupons they can offer to their audience (keep it reasonable ~10-15% so it doesn’t cut too deeply into your profit margins.)
  • Create content for them like pre-made tweets (make sure to include their affiliate link!), videos and even ‘lead magnets’.
  • Check in with them frequently to see if they need help with anything or even just to say hi.
  • Let them preview new features before they’re publicly available (this makes them feel like VIPs which everyone loves!)

8. YouTube Is A Great Place to Find Affiliates

YouTube is an especially good place to find affiliates because they’ll ultimately be creating high quality video content to showcase your product. Even better, if they decide to do “Tutorial style” videos, you can leverage that content and link your existing users/customers to it. So it’s kind of a triple whammy: Get a new affiliate + video content you don’t need to produce yourself + built-in social proof. New customers love hearing from someone — other than you — how great your product is!

9. Build a Drip Campaign To Nurture All Your Affiliate Signups

One important thing with new affiliates is remembering to nurture them effectively. If you don’t check in with them every now and then, they may forget all about you and probably won’t send as many referrals as they could. The reality is, you’ve probably got a ton of other things going on with your business and remembering to follow-up with new affiliates can be tough. So, let’s automate it!

To do this, you’ll need to use a service that can send a sequence of emails at a specific frequency, over a given period of time. This is often referred to as a “Drip” campaign. Some tools — just to name a few — that can help you do this:

We used Campaign Monitor for this, because that’s the service we use to manage all of our customer emails. Since Campaign Monitor offers drip tools in what they refer to as “Automation”, we were able to keep things all under one roof and avoid any additional integrations. For some inspiration, here’s our actual affiliate drip that is currently being used. Note that these emails are intended to be very plain looking, so they almost resemble a plain text email. They tend to get better engagement than heavily designed HTML emails.

10. Continue Nurturing with a Weekly Affiliate Newsletter

In addition to your affiliate drip campaign (or in place of it) it’s a solid idea to have a weekly affiliate newsletter as well. We’ve seen good stats with these often with over 40% open rates and 10% click through. Here’s an example of one of our affiliate newsletters:

In the newsletter we always include:

  • Links to helpful blog posts from other industry experts
  • Some ideas on how they can promote our service
  • Call to action to login to their affiliate dashboard
  • It can be good to have a ‘theme’ for each newsletter where you can focus on a particular channel for promotion, such as Twitter in the example above.

Summing Things Up

That’s a lot of information to take in, but follow these steps and you’ll start to see more and more affiliates trickling in. Much like anything else in growing your business, JAY-Z was right: Progress is a slow process. So this will definitely take some time. But stick with it and you’ll reap the rewards of an affiliate powered promotion engine.

Always be generous to your affiliates because whenever they succeed, you succeed! Keep a close eye on how much you’re paying out to affiliates every month. That number going up is a basic but great indicator that things are going well. One of the best feelings we’ve had as a company is not only seeing some of our own success, but that other people out there can actually make a real income just from promoting your product.

How are you running your affiliate program? Would love to hear some of the stuff that’s worked for you in the comments!