How to Choose a ‘Good’ Affiliate Program and What to do When You Get Involved with a ‘Bad’ One

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In my role as both an affiliate program manager and affiliate, my daily ritual includes reading the posts of many affiliates on various message boards. Commonly, posts center on an affiliate that didn’t get paid by a merchant/advertiser, which typically brings a torrent of responses echoing the sentiment. Some accept the fact and it seems like all they do when they add a merchant is ‘cross their fingers’ and hope they’ll get paid. However, there are ways in which you can improve your chances of joining a ‘good’ program.

If you follow a few easy steps, you’ll rarely get burned. I’ve been an affiliate of hundreds of programs over the past three years. In the beginning, it was easy to choose programs that paid well and on time — everyone had lots of money to spend. Unfortunately, the ‘good old days’ are over — as money has tightened, many commissions have gone unpaid.

It’s important to do some research before joining a program. Not doing so can cost a lot in time and money. I make it a point to follow these steps, no matter how ‘legit’ or inviting a program sounds.

1. The Agreement. Most importantly, I thoroughly read the affiliate agreement and I save a copy for future reference. I often find a clause or two that I consider ‘red flags’. For example, I very rarely will join a program with less than 10 return days, a payment threshold of greater than $25, or if the merchant does not pay monthly. I also will not join a program that allows a merchant to terminate the program without notice to me.

2. The Management. After a program passes those preliminary tests, I look for information about the program’s management. I make it a point to e-mail the contact person to check response time (24 hours is my maximum waiting time). I also call the affiliate manager when feasible. Establishing a rapport can be of great benefit — they know the best way to promote their offers and they have the power to raise your commission! A red flag here is an unresponsive affiliate manager, or one who can’t answer your questions. Having an assigned Affiliate Manager is a sign that a company cares about its affiliate program. I avoid programs that use ‘customer service’ to handle affiliate matters. A productive affiliate should be viewed as a true partner, just as an in-house salesperson would be.

3. References. Finally, you should ask the program manager to supply you with the contact information of a few of their top affiliates – which they should be happy to do. Ask your fellow affiliates what their experience has been with the merchant in question.

Using these guidelines each and every time I choose an affiliate program has enabled me to be successful and rarely surprised. In addition, the major affiliate networks, LinkShare, Be Free, and Commission Junction are finally taking steps to help affiliates to understand the merchants they are working with. There are now mechanisms in place that allow affiliates to easily pick programs that carry less risk.

For example, Commission Junction has instituted the “Open Marketplace” which allows affiliates to see the performance of merchant programs at a 3-month glance and for the last 7 days. Using this info, an affiliate can get an idea of whether or not they should get involved with a particular merchant’s program. In addition, Open Marketplace shows the chargeback percentage for a merchant. High numbers here indicate that a program should probably be avoided.

LinkShare has made it possible to see the payment history of their merchants. This can give an indication of whether or not you would actually get paid for your sales or referrals. LinkShare has also stated that they will encourage merchants to adopt the guidelines suggested by Affiliate Union, a group aimed at developing both a “certification standard” for affiliate merchants and the organization to implement those standards.

Be Free recently announced the Acclaim Program. This program, to be officially launched this month, will reward partner marketing programs featured on Be Free’s Fast App affiliate application with an “Acclamation Point” if they reach and maintain a specific set of affiliate-friendly criteria (similar to those I mentioned above).

Of course, these aren’t perfect solutions, but it is a sign that the networks are beginning to take affiliates’ concerns more seriously.

You can also get insight from affiliate message boards. Among other helpful topics, affiliates who participate share their opinions of programs they have participated in. Though at times these posts are helpful, I strongly suggest taking these with a grain of salt. Often affiliates become disgruntled over a misunderstanding or by violating a program’s terms (because they didn’t read the program’s affiliate agreement perhaps) and they unfairly chastise a responsible merchant. .

Ok, so what can you do if you are legitimately owed commissions that have not been paid? What recourse is available to the average affiliate?

Most often the amounts of money due an affiliate when a merchant files for bankruptcy are so small it puts them at the bottom of the creditor’s list — and there’s little you can do. If you decide that what you are owed is worth the time and expense, you do have some recourse.

The first thing you should do is read the current Affiliate Agreement to see if it contains clauses that deal with the situation. If so, follow the instructions presented. Be sure you are reviewing the current Affiliate Agreement, because it may have changed since you first joined. These agreements often have a clause that states that the merchant can change the agreement at any time, without notifying you.

You should also contact the affiliate network that carried the program to get pertinent information about the company. For example, find out if the affiliate network provider has any information about the status of legal proceedings, the court where the case was filed, company officers, etc. — the more information the better. In bankruptcy proceedings the company is required to submit a list of creditors. Affiliates should be included on this list, although this is not always the case. If you are included, you will receive court documents letting you know what is required to ensure you are included as a creditor in the legal proceedings.

Affiliates owed small amounts of money may have to take matters into their own hands. If you think you have a legitimate case, then you may what to check with a lawyer. Many lawyers don’t charge for initial consultation, so you may be able to get a free opinion about whether or not you have a case. Then you’ll need to decide if it’s worth the time and expense involved to pursue it. Keep in mind, a company in bankruptcy has little or no money left to pay creditors and those who are owed the most often have priority.

Companies still in business are a different matter. You are entitled to legal remedies that may result in getting what is actually due you. You have the option in some states of filing a motion in small claims court.

Be smart, run your affiliate activities professionally, and be aware of red flags. While there are no guarantees, following these steps should help protect you from unscrupulous merchants, or at least to minimize your exposure.

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