Affiliate Programs Need Strong Auditor

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Back in the early days of affiliate marketing, the number of affiliates in the program determined its success. In December 1999, at the Affiliate Solutions NYC conference, jaws dropped during the keynote from Tim Choate, then the president/CEO of FreeShop. He boasted about his network of more than 100,000 affiliates.

The crowd was in awe of this six-figure accomplishment. This was a time when affiliate managers didn't bother themselves with silly stuff like quality control, brand liabilities and such.

Psycho ex-best practice. Affiliate managers still adhered to the "affiliate quantity is king" approach into spring 2001. Enter a guy named Mark McElwain. He created a site composed of a series of hysterical telephone messages on his answering machine from his "psycho" ex-girlfriend. The site also featured a bunch of affiliate program banners. All was well until The Wall Street Journal noted that the site was "sponsored" by advertisers including Moviefone.com and Sports Illustrated.

The affiliate programs on Mr. McElwain's site all claimed ignorance to their association with him and promptly blamed the affiliate marketing channel. So much for accountability; a scapegoat was needed, and fast. The whole issue became an indictment of affiliate marketing and the lack of controls. Overnight, affiliate managers shifted to the manual approval of affiliate applications.

Natural selection of affiliates. The option to approve affiliates manually was always there. Prior to Psycho-gate, automatic approval was the method of choice because the volumes of affiliates enamored the venture capitalists and CEOs.

According to data I collected in December 2005 from nearly 200 affiliate managers for the AffStat 2006 Report, 86 percent of affiliate managers now approve affiliates manually.

When affiliate managers starting reviewing the applications, they realized too many were from sites they would never consider accepting. There were dead URLs, objectionable material and pages with nothing but those cute "under construction" images with the construction worker shoveling dirt.

It was time to clean house and put a lock on the front door. Not only were affiliate managers establishing criteria for the affiliates they would allow in their programs, but they also started to systematically audit those affiliates that snuck in during the freewheeling, automatic-approval days.

Affiliate spring cleaning. The techniques used to vet current and prospective affiliates vary, but there are some standard criteria applied by most affiliate programs. Basics to disqualify an affiliate application include an inability to access the URL submitted; sites under construction; account information that doesn't match the domain WHOIS record; and obscene or offensive content.

Affiliate managers employ many other checks and balances, but they are not shared publicly to keep a leg up on scammers. Jonathan Miller, CEO of ForgeBusiness, has a two-step process for qualifying affiliates.

"The first is on affiliate signup, where we check things like WHOIS match, domain/e-mail match, W9 check and filing, SSN/EIN number lookup and verification and, of course, we call them on the phone," he said. "The second step is an internal review of metrics where we look at things like EPC thresholds, sales/lead return ratios, sales/leads volume (increase and decrease) and updated affiliate contact information."

Affiliate marketing has evolved greatly since the 1990s, but one thing hasn't changed: An affiliate program is only as good as the affiliate manager who audits it.

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