Running a Private Label or In-house Affiliate Program vs. an Affiliate Network Program

Should we run an ‘in-house’ program or join an affiliate program network?

It’s a question that Affiliate Program Managers have wrestled with for years and there’s no clear cut answer, but after you learn the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, you’ll be in the best position to make the decision that’s right for your business.

With the multitude of choices available today for one to run an affiliate program, there is not always a clear distinction between what is commonly referred to as an in-house vs. a network program. First let’s discuss some terminology and definitions…

Below are some basic attributes of each solution type and some examples:

Affiliate Networks: Refers to a place where multiple merchants/advertisers promote their affiliate programs, campaigns and offers to multiple affiliates/publishers who in turn promote these programs to their audiences. (Please note: For simplicity sake, and also because I do not generally recommend them, I am not including a discussion of “CPA” or lead networks in this article.)

Examples of Affiliate Networks include: Commission Junction, LinkShareShareasale, eBay Enterprises (formerly Pepperjam Network), LinkConnector, and AvantLink.

In-House Program: This usually refers to an affiliate program that is not offered through a public affiliate network. Sometimes called a private label program, in-house affiliate programs are typically administered using:

  1. Off-shelf Software purchased outright or on a licensed basis that is installed completely at the merchant’s site and runs independently. iDevAffiliate is one of the most popular affiliate program software products.
  2. Shopping Cart Plug-ins are often available to merchants, as shopping cart software commonly includes an ‘affiliate program module’
  3. ASP Solutions usually licensed on a month-to-month basis are very commonly used. Virtually all aspects of the affiliate program are administered through the solution vendor’s website. Program managers log in to the site to: set up program terms and affiliate compensation levels, run performance reports, provide promotions to affiliates, communicate with affiliates, etc.. Affiliates log in to their accounts to grab promotions and run reports of their activity. Examples of ASP solutions include:

DirectTrack is a very popular ASP solution, but over the years it has evolved into a solution that’s best for those who want to run their own affiliate network with multiple offers/campaigns. Using DirectTrack to manage a single program has become cost prohibitive for most. Years ago, DT costs $50 a month to run a program, now it’s at least $500 a month.

Infusionsoft is a very popular CRM platform that includes an affiliate program module. I’m devoting an entire article to Infusionsoft that will be released in November.

Advantages & Disadvantages of In-House vs. Affiliate Network Programs

As an outsource affiliate program manager for over 10 years, I’ve managed a slew of in-house and network programs. Recruiting desirable affiliates has always been an important responsibility in this role and it’s always been abundantly clear to me that affiliates prefer to work with merchants though a respected third party network.

The primary reasons why affiliates prefer to work with a network:

  1. Affiliates want to ensure they get paid. This desire cannot be emphasized enough. Affiliates know that merchant programs will be flagged or suspended by the network if they do not keep their accounts properly funded to cover commissions earned. Affiliates also trust that third party tracking is more reliable and they will earn proper credit for their referred sales. In addition, if you have a ‘young’ brand this concern becomes even more critical. Affiliates rightly have no reason to trust they will be paid the commissions they’ve earned by a company that has not been in business very long and is not well-known.
  2. Affiliates don’t want to learn how to use your in-house ‘system’.  In order to participate in any program, affiliates need to know how to get link codes, generate and interpret reports, access product datafeeds, post ever-changing deals, and more. Every affiliate solution, whether a network or in-house, is unique in how it handles these functions, so there is always a learning curve. There is often resistance by affiliates in having to learn the ‘ins and outs’ of another affiliate solution. This is why many will only work with a handful of network solutions only.
  3. Networks offer centralized reporting and consolidated payments.  Affiliates prefer to limit the number of places they need to go for reporting. They may be participating in many programs within one network and therefore can run reports all at once vs. logging into a single in-house program. In addition, most programs have a minimum payment amount which is often $100. For the small affiliate, they may never reach this threshold for a single program they are promoting, but since networks will consolidate earnings from all the programs the affiliate is participating in, it’s then much easier for the affiliate to reach the minimum payment threshold.

From the merchant’s perspective, the great advantage of using an affiliate network is your program’s exposure to lots of affiliates. Networks already have a base of affiliates – in some cases, hundreds of thousands – and when your program launches on one of these networks this exposure is tremendous and quite valuable.

There are still some important advantages of running an in-house/private affiliate program:

1. The Direct Relationship.  The single most important advantage of an in-house program is establishing a direct relationship with each of your affiliates. With some network solutions, it’s virtually impossible to do this. Typically, will you have not access to anything more than an affiliate’s email address – and some networks even allow affiliates to hide their email address and opt-out of your correspondence! This has often mystified me. Why networks would want to limit merchant communications with their affiliates is without explanation.

The other critical factor with a direct relationship is that you do not have to pay a performance based fee to the network each time one of your affiliates refers a sale. Furthermore, some of the networks base this fee on a percentage of the commission rate – usually from 20-30% of commissions paid – vs. network performance fees based on sales revenue – usually 3% of sales. This is another pet peeve of mine…as it seems unfair to be required to pay more to the network when it’s decided to increase overall commission rates or even to raise the commission for an individual affiliate. For example, if you are paying affiliates 10% and the network is earning 30%, then their net fee is 3% of sales. If you increase commissions to 15%, then the network automatically gets a ‘raise’ to 4.5%! This amounts to a disincentive to raise commission rates in order to grow one’s program – something the networks would want to encourage!

2. Increased Control and Flexibility. With an in-house program you have the ability to create a custom-built solution that allows for more integration with your business. With more integration with your business, you can much more easily track affiliate referrals for the lifetime of the customer. This means affiliates can be paid true residual income on the customers they refer. With integrated, database tracking, this is a straight-forward process. Cookie tracking is all that most network solutions can offer which is a very unreliable way to track future purchases.  And with a custom solution comes greater control. However, this will put more demands on IT Resources that may or may not be available to you. Still, even with a third party or software solution, you typically have more control than when part of an affiliate network.

So Which is Better — In-house or a Network Program?

Jim Gribble of LinkProfits has been managing affiliate programs for over a decade.

Of course, there is no clear choice, it depends on the particular needs of the merchant and how they match up with the advantages and disadvantages cited above.

However, I generally recommend to successful merchants to consider running both an internal affiliate program and also have a presence on at least one of the large affiliate networks. This is the strategy that I have seen work well and have implemented successfully myself numerous times.

If you are a merchant interested in pursuing a robust affiliate program, I invite you to contact me to discuss your particular situation and objectives.

 

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