Disclaimer: This is not a post on how to make money as an affiliate. I am not an affiliate marketing expert.

In fact, that’s the point of this post. We make use of affiliate programs as a revenue enhancement to our sites Gift Girl and Style Observer. The programs we use are wholly unsuited for the way we use them. Here’s how and why we use them and what we’d like to see.

Content First Affiliate Links

On Style Observer, Jean creates content that often features articles of clothing and how to wear them. She always starts form a concept and finds the right pieces to create the look. The pieces are found around the web on various online clothing catalogs and can come from the smallest boutique to the largest department store. Only after all the content has been created does she even see if the pieces are eligible for affiliate revenue generation. From a business perspective, this creates extremely high conversion rates, as you might imagine, because the advice she gives is genuine and not created to move merchandise. Her readers know this and she generates a lot of trust as a result.

How the Big Boy Affiliate programs work

Linkshare, Commission Junction and Google Affiliate are the Big 3 of the affiliate manager world but there are tons of networks and managers out there. These programs are all set up to facilitate featuring the products merchants want you to sell, not the other way around. They all do things like emailing all the latest banners to feature or product links to throw into a post. They go so far as to provide all the code you need to quickly add to any of your content. That’s great and may work well for those who don’t mind a quick scan of the latest offerings to determine suitability in the pursuit of some commissions, but it doesn’t work for the person who starts with a post concept first , not products.

Their catalogs are usually available via ftp and sometimes you can even browse the catalog in it’s native form (Linkshare has this feature but by their own admission, it doesn’t work very well) But once you find the item you want, you need to generate a link tied to your account and insert it into your content appropriately. This usually means reformatting and a bunch of copying and pasting because they usually present the link in a code format that they prefer….not you. I think you get the picture that when affiliate sales aren’t the genesis of the post, you have a big hassle on your hands. This is not conducive to genuine content creation. Ironic, given it’s probably the most effective way to generate a sale.

You made a Sale!

So, the content was genuine and convincing and a loyal reader took action. Congrats! How’s that affiliate sales management part of your business going? You didn’t get an email notifying you when a sale was made because none of them offer that functionality. So you log on as frequently as time allows to check performance.

Linkshare performance (Click to enlarge)

Linkshare performance (Click to enlarge)

This snapshot of a report from Linkshare shows just how bad things are:

  • No item description (I don’t have sku’s memorized yet!)
  • No explanation for each line (look how many charges on 2/16 were seemingly reversed)
  • The data is wrong: there is a positive number for clicks, sales and commissions but the EPC & Orders/Click values are zero

In short, this is a business manager’s nightmare. Imagine the additional work just to be able to answer questions like “What are our best selling items this month”. Unlike the hard-core affiliate pro’s, we often link to a product once and that product’s lifespan might be measured in weeks.

A Plea for Help

We have a few requests. If you can’t swing these, then my gut tells me it’s a start-up begging for a business plan and some seed money!

  • Create a system where a publisher can browse a merchant site directly and insert a fully customized affiliate link into their own blogging system quickly and easily. NOTE: Amazon has come the closes to this with their affiliate tool bar.
  • Provide program management tools that aren’t suited for the affiliate pro who just sets up coupon farm and pimps whatever your merchants crank out that much.
  • Enable reporting that isn’t built for data freaks but business managers: product names not sku’s, sale notification emails and digests, etc.
  • Go crazy and throw in some demographic data on clicks and sales (will settle, however,  for items 1-3)

This has been our affiliate program experience so far. I am really hoping that someone shows me how much we are getting wrong. Please tell me there’s a solution out there to all these problems.