The following is a chapter from: The Practical Guide to Creating and Managing a Profitable Affiliate Program Published by Neil Durrant of AffiliateAnnounce
I’ve been working with the LinkShare system since August 1999 when one of my clients asked me to start-up and manage his affiliate program. Since then, I launched my company, LinkProfits, through which I have now helped many more merchants get the most from their affiliate programs.
LinkShare provides the tools, but you must be pro-active
The sole reason I started LinkProfits was because I quickly learned that if I was to maximize my client’s program, the onus was on me, the program manager. The Account Executive was not there to pro-actively manage the program. I thought, “Now if this is my experience, then there must be many other merchants who are going to need the kind of help that I can provide.” – hence the birth, and subsequent success of LinkProfits.
Since then, I have continued to build my knowledge of the LinkShare system, because the fact is, the only way to learn it is by constant, hands-on experimentation. Recently, LinkShare released a beautifully bound User Manual. While the manual provides step-by-step user instructions for the program’s major functions, it does not offer the strategic information needed to take your affiliate program to the highest level of success.
For instance, one of the major advantages of the LinkShare over other systems is the ability to send ‘external’ emails directly to your affiliates. LinkShare encourages merchants to send a monthly ‘newsletter’, but I believe the most important objective of emails sent to your affiliate base is to encourage greater participation – this means greater promotion of your links.
There happens to be an easy way to email links to affiliates and have the LinkShare system automatically input the specific affiliate’s tracking code. Once received, all the affiliate has to do is copy and paste the link code onto his site. This is a very powerful tool – but there’s no mention of this procedure in the LinkShare User Manual!
LinkShare provides the functionality to personalize and tailor every auto response email, and the looks and contents of your Join Program and Create Links. Again, these are powerful tools that LinkShare provides, but I’m amazed how many programs use the boring, boilerplate versions for these very important affiliate contact points.
Another highly underutilized feature is LinkShare’s member-get-a-member, or what they call registration rules. The functionality for this is wonderful. You have almost total control over the type and amount of reward or commission you want to offer the referee, as well as, the ‘performance level’ the new affiliate must reach in order for the referee to collect. For example, you can offer to pay $10 for all affiliates you refer to our program who generate $100 or more in sales during their first 60 days in the program.
The LinkShare User Manual describes how to set up the rules above, but unfortunately, there are a few more steps you must take in order to make the MGM program readily available to potential referees – and there’s no mention of these critical steps in the manual! This is why you will rarely see an MGM program properly promoted by a LinkShare merchant.
Product links and other effective linking strategies
As many program managers know, product links are one of the most highly effective link types. The functionality that LinkShare provides for the creation of product links is excellent. First, you have the ability to input your products individually into your LinkShare product database, or you can upload your entire product list into the database via an FTP.
Either way, once products have been entered into your database, any or all of them can be used to create individual product links. LinkShare also has a feature that allows the more savvy affiliates to click through and choose products directly from your website to create any product link they wish. You can even set specific commission rates at the product level through sku lists. Obviously, this is a very nice feature, since your margins may vary greatly by product.
LinkShare’s Virtual Storefront links are also quite nice and highly effective. You can create static or dynamic pages of specific product links (up to nine products) that your affiliates can easily link to. This is great for specific product groups and/or special promotions that you may want to run. And LinkShare recently upgraded this feature by streamlining the implementation process.
In addition to providing you with the ability to distribute banner, text, email, product, and virtual storefront links, LinkShare also serves product pop-up window and html-based links, like search box, or drop down menu type banners. And soon, LinkShare will be have the ability to serve Dynamic Rich Media Links. These links can be interactive, Java-based, and feature dynamic content. For example, LinkShare merchants will be able to create links for their affiliates that offer today’s top news stories, horoscopes, stock market news, etc., not to mention your daily-featured products or services! This is very exciting stuff!
The reporting available through the LinkShare interface is also excellent. To list the reports available is beyond the scope of this chapter. First, you can run all the reports for any time period and for any group of affiliates you desire. Each report can be instantly sorted by any of the performance variables (or column headings), and most can be downloaded into Excel for further manipulation.
One of my favorites is the Link Type Report. The first level of this report indicates all the performance variables associated with the various link types (banner, text, storefronts, etc.). You can then ‘drill down’ within each category to see the effectiveness of every specific link. Within the banner grouping only (unfortunately), you are able to actually produce a list of all affiliates who are using the particular banner. And, with many of the reports that produce affiliate level data, one click on the affiliate name produces their complete profile, which includes all the affiliate’s contact information.
The LinkShare affiliate network
In addition to ‘functionality’ of the LinkShare system, as a merchant client of LinkShare, you have access to the hundreds of thousands of affiliates who have signed up with them. (But never forget its quality, not quantity that counts!). You have the opportunity to be listed in as many as three program categories that affiliates review when deciding on what programs they want to join. When you first sign up with LinkShare, you are promoted in their monthly external email, and there is an opportunity to get featured in their monthly special promotions email as well.
However, if you want to promote your program yourself to LinkShare’s affiliate base, your only option is through their internal email system, which, in my experience, makes very little impact. I strongly believe it is a big plus to have this large affiliate network available through LinkShare, but I totally agree with Neil’s emphasis on getting listed in the affiliate program directories and going out and searching for new, high quality affiliates yourself. But again, it’s amazing how many LinkShare merchants ‘sit back’ and expect that all the affiliates they need will come through the LinkShare system, or their own sites’ affiliate program promotion pages — without proactive initiatives of their own.
Regarding the acceptance or approval of affiliates, LinkShare has just vastly improved their functionality in this area. Merchants still have the option of manually reviewing each new affiliate application (an arduous task), but now there is an automated review function. You can set a number of criteria you desire in determining the acceptance of new affiliates, and the system will automatically review the affiliate profile to determine acceptability. For instance, some merchants may want to decline affiliates with fewer than 500 visitors per month, or affiliates who reside outside the U.S. Now, this task is automatic!
LinkShare fees (at the time this article was written)
Finally, this brings me to the all-important question of costs… Yes, LinkShare does represent one of the more expensive options, but I do believe you’re paying for superior technology and a quality network. LinkShare charges around $10,000 to license their technology for the first year. Subsequent annual renewal fees are $2,000. LinkShare also charges approximately 3% of all sales generated through the program. They also offer three ongoing levels of service:
Client Services: LinkShare’s highest level of support. It’s defined as “Turnkey program management through LinkShare’s experienced team.” I understand the monthly fee for this service is approximately $10,000.
Account Executive Services: Defined as “Consultative program support through a single point of contact – your Account Executive.” With this option, the Account Executive provides launch assistance, software training “best practices,” semi-annual account reviews, and on-going support. Note that even with a dedicated LinkShare Account Executive, LinkShare still considers this “support”, and that your program is still “principally managed by your own team or individual.” I understand the monthly fee for this service is $3,000.
Client Support: Defined as “Basic technical support through a pool of Client Support Representatives.” After the initial program testing and launch, Client Support provides free technical assistance via phone, live chat and email.
In order to maximize the true potential of an affiliate program, many clients require the strategic and tactical assistance of LinkShare’s Client Services or Account Executive Services. For my clients, I recommend that they opt for the basic Client Support, since we have excellent knowledge of the LinkShare interface and do not require ongoing consultative support.
In conclusion, I generally recommend the LinkShare solution to merchants who have sufficient affiliate sales potential. For instance, a merchant should expect 20 to 30% of his overall online sales from a well-managed, mature affiliate program. If this translates to over $10,000 in sales per month, then you should consider LinkShare. In addition, because of LinkShare’s superior ability to handle/promote large product lines (multiple sku’s), if you offer many different products and/or services, LinkShare will allow you to promote and set up special commissions for each of them individually. This ability will become an important strategic strength of your affiliate marketing program that few others can accommodate as easily as LinkShare.
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