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How to Improve Your Affiliate Marketing Program to Maximize Results


September 15, 2021


September 15, 2021

Right Side Up’s Head of Affiliate Marketing, Amy Scanlon, recently hosted a webinar focused on identifying signs of fatigue and refreshing underperforming aspects of your affiliate marketing program. Watch the full webinar to catch all of the expert insights.

The pay-for-performance model of affiliate marketing makes it a go-to option for brands looking for a low-risk channel to add to their performance marketing mix. And with clearly established structures of third-party compensation for specific conversion markers, affiliate marketing can drive some of the best CACs in your marketing portfolio. So what’s the catch?

Like any channel, affiliate marketing programs can suffer from fatigue and stagnance. But affiliate programs can also cannibalize your other channels if you aren’t careful. If you think you could be facing either of these challenges, don’t worry. We’ll break down everything you need to know to get your affiliate marketing program back on track, including:

  • Identifying an underperforming program
  • How affiliate marketing can fill gaps in your channel strategy
  • Framework, tools, and team structure needed to achieve scale
  • Benefits of different types of partnerships
  • Typical affiliate program timelines and stages

What to Do When Your Affiliate Marketing Program is Underperforming

The first step to fixing a problem is to actually identify the problem. It may sound obvious, but understanding why your affiliate marketing program is underperforming is crucial to making the adjustments needed to get the most from this channel. There are two underlying causes we commonly see in underperforming programs: fatigue and cannibalization.

Signs your affiliate marketing approach is fatigued

Although affiliate programs are great to have in your marketing mix, they need regular attention to avoid burnout. Without regular adjustments, your efforts may suffer from fatigue, leading to slumping results or stagnation in growth. 

Here are a few signs that indicate your affiliate program could use a refresh:

  • Diminished diversification—More than 90% of your total revenue is coming from your top ten affiliates or one publisher type.
  • Lack of competitive offerings—It feels difficult or impossible to recruit new affiliate partners.
  • Time-consuming operations—Heavy manual operations for your program leaves you with little time to cultivate relationships with new and existing affiliates.
  • Poor resource management—Your program isn’t being actively managed and the revenue that is coming in is from coupons and deal sites.
  • Conflicting positioning—Internal team members have expressed concerns that your program is cannibalizing other channels.

Is your affiliate program cannibalizing other channels?

Affiliate programs should align with your overall marketing goals, but many brands make the mistake of treating it as a separate entity rather than a part of the mix. If your program lives outside of your performance marketing team, there’s a good chance it's cannibalizing other channels and driving your CPA up 10–20% higher than it should be.

“I’ve seen affiliate programs live in the strangest places, including the IT department,” said Right Side Up’s Head of Affiliate Marketing, Amy Scanlon. “If you’re an affiliate manager and you’re not in the meetings where all the channels are being discussed, you really don’t know how affiliates can fit into your overall marketing mix.”

This siloed approach leads to a lack of communication and transparency, which can create confusion about your program’s value. If you don’t know the true value of your partners, the size of your program opportunity, or whether your program is working (and by how much relative to cost), it’s unlikely that your affiliate efforts will get the attention, resources, and budget needed to maximize success.

As with any marketing channel, tracking is key. Your tracking tools should give you options to offer commission at different points in the conversion funnel and by product margin (in other words, paying partners based on the value they’re driving), as well as the ability to eliminate double commissions between channels. If you don’t have that power, your program is probably underperforming.

Assessing the State of Your Affiliate Marketing Program

Once you’ve identified that your affiliate program isn’t performing as well as it could be, the next step is to take stock of what you’re working with and what might be holding you back.

“You want to think about what role your affiliate program plays in your overall marketing mix,” Scanlon said. “Is it to drive brand awareness? Maybe customer acquisition or revenue? A combination of the two? Then think about if there’s anything holding it back from reaching its full potential.”

Is your program aligned with your business strategy? And does your commission structure reflect that?

Assess whether your program aligns with your business strategy. When everything is working in sync, affiliate efforts can accelerate common performance goals, like acquiring new customers, driving measurable, sustainable, and predictable revenue, and lowering your overall CPA.

For example, we’ve seen many non-promotional brands offer a promotion for a “refer a friend” program but do not allow affiliates to use that same promotion. Smart affiliate partners usually find those codes anyway and use them without authorization, which then requires heavy manual input to address inappropriate use and can also damage affiliate relationships. The bottom line is that all parties involved in driving your performance goals should be given the same set of tools. 

It’s also important to take a close look at your commission structure. Is it attractive, understandable, and actionable for all of your different types of affiliate partners? Your system should be personalized for the unique value that each affiliate is delivering and have the ability to flex commissions up and down as needed. And commission rates should align with your core metrics to advance you toward your performance marketing goals.

Are you allowing your affiliate program to fill your marketing gaps?

Affiliates can fill almost any marketing gap that’s not being covered by your current efforts. And the wide range of affiliate types means that you can tag them in to take care of things that you either can’t or don’t want to do internally. 

But it’s not as simple as pointing to the gaps and expecting the right affiliates to fall into place. To find the right mix of affiliate partners, you should develop a specific set of criteria to narrow your options. And remember that consistent outreach and efficient communication is crucial to building productive relationships. If you don’t give affiliates the tools (and motivation) to succeed, they likely won’t perform well.

“This is one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen,” Scanlon said. “Affiliates are your salesforce. They need to be kept up to date on what you’re looking for so they can align themselves and make adjustments to drive toward those goals.”

Affiliates are an extension of your brand and they offer promising opportunities to act as valuable brand ambassadors.

Kickstarting Your Underperforming Affiliate Program

Now that you know you have a problem and you’ve analyzed what’s going on with your current affiliate approach, it’s time to shake things up to get the most from your program.

There are two big elements you should focus on before diving into the details:

  • Positioning: Decide on the role of affiliates in your marketing strategy and use that to inform a plan to commission, recruit, activate, and optimize to that role.
  • Resourcing: Make sure your affiliate manager is on your performance or growth marketing team and choose a person that is ready to think holistically and work with other managers on cross-channel interaction.

“It’s super important to solidify your goals and your plan and make sure that all stakeholders absolutely have buy-in on the role of affiliates in your marketing mix,” Scanlon said. “This allows you to build a recruitment, activation, and optimization plan that aligns to those shared goals.”

Affiliate marketing programs overlap with other channels in your marketing mix.

Adjusting your commission system and infrastructure

With positioning and resourcing locked in, you can now make adjustments to your commission structure to ensure it’s in tune with your goals. 

As we noted earlier, commissions should be customized to each partner. From there, determine the maximum commission you can afford at each stage of the funnel. And don’t forget to leave wiggle room to allow you to attract top affiliates and account for bonuses and placements. Whatever you decide upon, make sure your offering is competitive, understandable, and actionable by affiliates, and keep them updated when you make changes.

“We’re really in the third generation of affiliate marketing where it’s absolutely transparent,” Scanlon said. “It’s crucial that it’s transparent. Your publishers need to know what your goals are and how they’re doing against your goals.”

If you’re looking to scale your affiliate program, you need to use technology to take over the operations that don’t always need a human touch. With the right tooling and data flow, you can automate commission payout to value being driven in the customer journey and dedupe against other channels to reduce cost and maximize ROI. And as your program grows, upgrading to more sophisticated tracking tools and solidifying your crediting methodology will help give you insights into incremental value and the quality of your affiliate referrals. 

By setting up a largely automated commission and tracking structure, you’ll free up more of your time to build relationships with new and existing partners. 

Benefits of Different Affiliate Partner Types

You may have heard the term “affiliate” used to describe several different types of individuals, sites, and entities. And that’s because there actually are many types of affiliate partners out there for you to work with. Each type has its own benefits, so it’s just a matter of determining which ones align best with your program structure and goals.

“You want to make sure you’re thinking about the full funnel when you’re evaluating the different partnership types available to you,” Scanlon said. “Affiliates can drive success at all stages of the funnel so I recommend starting with a few select partners at each of those stages. Then you can get something launched, start to collect data, measure success, and adjust as needed.”

Let’s take a look at a few of the most common affiliate partner types and how they differ from one another.

Content creators (influencers, bloggers, digital publications, sub-affiliates, forums)


  • Access to new, niche audiences
  • Unique, reusable content
  • Drive new customers to purchase
  • Personal, authentic voice creating brand trust
  • Traffic from high domain authority sites
  • Positive SEO impact

Program Alignment

  • Premium commission, free product, audience promotion
  • Bonuses for blog posts and editorial reviews
  • Consider hybrid, flat fee, and commission placements
  • Product / Service reviews
  • Provide regular access to content
  • Audit for FTC regulations

Review sites and buying guides


  • Lends brand credibility
  • High intent traffic

Program Alignment

  • Offer premium commission rate
  • Consider hybrid or flat fee placements
  • Audit for FTC regulations

Rewards (loyalty points and miles, cashback)


  • Engaged loyal audiences (employees, customers)
  • Can drive high volume and AOV
  • Close sale over competitor without a loyalty incentive
  • Control brand messaging and offers
  • Employee rewards offers are behind a registration wall
  • Targeting ability

Program Alignment

  • Select top loyalty sites to partner with
  • Participate in cash back events and/or increase commissions during peak season
  • Exclusive offers for members
  • Use targeting and testing to align compensation and value

Deals and coupons


  • Control brand messaging and offers
  • Targeting ability

Program Alignment

  • Select top coupon sites to partner with
  • Use targeting and testing to align compensation and value
  • Likely reduce commissions or coupon exclusion logic
  • Restrict and/or remove toolbar or browser extensions

Recruiting, activating, and optimizing affiliate partners

Following best practices when managing your partners not only helps to streamline the process, but also helps you establish meaningful, long-term relationships that drive dependable results. 

Here are some insights we’ve found helpful for running the most impactful affiliate programs:


  • Tools—Leverage your tracking solution tools, industry blogs, and search operators to identify affiliates and expand your breadth of partnerships.
  • Owned properties—Make it easy for partners to find you with a dedicated affiliate sign-up page on your site. Collaborate with your PR and influencer teams to identify performance partnership opportunities.
  • Outreach—Personalize your outreach to top-tier targets and build and execute mass recruitment campaigns for second- and third-tier targets.
  • Incentives—Offer a first month join + activation bonus or other compensation for new customers or first-sale conversions.


  • Optimize incentives—Test and optimize activation campaigns and incentives to top affiliates.
  • Education—Build out onboarding resources, including a welcome kit, one-pager, FAQs, how-to guides, and approved content for easy plug and play.
  • Communicate—Create and send customized monthly newsletters to each publisher type with tips, tricks, and what to promote at that moment.


  • Drive and incentivize incremental revenue—Increase commission and bonuses based on the quality you are looking for, such as high AOV/LTV, new customers, sales volume, solo touchpoint transactions, top/exclusive placements, and approved coupon usage.
  • Better placements—Seek opportunities for deeper integrations through site audits.
  • Sales tools—Make it easier to drive performance through customized content, product feeds, first promotion of new products, and other promotions.

Typical Affiliate Program Timeline and Stages

The timeline and stages of your affiliate marketing program will depend on your brand, industry, business growth stage, and goals. But there is a typical flow you can expect to follow if you’re doing things right.

0–6 months (beginning stage)

The very beginning of your affiliate marketing program is when you should set up tracking and onboarding tools, recruit affiliates, build relationships, and activate affiliates to drive revenue.

6–12 months (early stage)

Once your program is contributing a noticeable amount of revenue, pivot to mass affiliate recruitment, test creative, offers, and placements, and integrate the program into your overall marketing mix.

1 year (growth stage)

As your program grows and starts contributing meaningful revenue (6%) to the business, start to recruit more affiliate types, optimize existing affiliates, and adjust commissions to value driven.

2 years (maturing)

When your program is contributing about 8–10% of incremental revenue, you can begin to develop comprehensive criteria for partner recruitment, and automate a process for recruiting and onboarding partners.

3 years (mature)

Once your program reaches maturity and is contributing 10+% of incremental revenue and driving partnerships at scale, it’s time to explore your breadth of publisher types and further streamline workflows.

And if you run into challenges at any stage in your program, test out some simple adjustments to better align your affiliate efforts with your overall marketing goals.

So whether you’re just starting an affiliate program and looking to avoid common pitfalls or your established program is underperforming, remember to keep the big-picture goals in mind. If you need a boost getting your program running at peak performance, give us a shout at hello@rightsideup.co. Right Side Up’s experts will share their experience-based insights to help you get the most from your affiliate program.

Amy Scanlon has more than 15 years of experience in digital marketing leading growth initiatives for early-stage startups and well-established companies like Joyus, AT&T, and Rakuten. She possesses a deep knowledge of customer acquisition and affiliate marketing/partnerships, and as Right Side Up’s Head of Affiliate Marketing, her team helps brands like Stitch Fix, Zenefits, Modern Fertility, and Houzz launch, manage, and scale affiliate programs that fill marketing gaps and drive incremental revenue.

Jes Parker is a writer and content marketer with experience creating B2B and consumer-facing assets that build brands and make complex concepts more human. She has worked with companies and nonprofits like Highstead Foundation, Trust for Public Land, Harvard University, the Museum of the City of New York, and Times Square Alliance to craft accessible and engaging content strategies.

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