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The Ten Affiliate Commandments

by George Anagnos

Some time ago, I designed and managed two of Britain's biggest affiliate sites—each was for a big university. The timing seemed to coincide with the rise in popularity of affiliate programs among established merchants. But, as always, there's much more involved than meets the eye when you plan a successful affiliate program.

First and foremost, you must find your niche market. For example, say your site is about bonsai trees. Before you build it, you must do some research to figure out how many kinds of bonsai trees exist, what their origin is, and how to care for these trees. Next, you must decide how to organize all your research into a compellingly-designed website with original content (posting new content at least monthly). Also, make sure you attract qualified visitors who are interested in bonsai trees. Only after you've done all these things can you start to take the affiliate game seriously.

To do so successfully, it helps to follow what I call the Ten Affiliate Commandments:

1. Thou shalt not try to sell everything to everyone.

Even the most successful companies can't sell everything to everyone (although Virgin came dangerously close). First, qualify your visitors, then sell them something they really want, like books on bonsai trees or a miniature set of gardening tools. Japanese DVDs, videos, or domain names would not be suitable products to include for sale on your site.

2. Thou shalt not rely on the merchant's tracking mechanisms.

When you deal with merchants directly, rather than on a pay-per-sale basis, you should always use a redirect script. A redirect script logs every click-through from every banner or text link from your website to a merchant's site. After it counts the monthly click-throughs, you can compare the script's figures with those of the merchant's. Don't be surprised to see that the merchant's so-called "accurate" tracking mechanism has recorded only half of your visitors. But if the number of monthly click-throughs falls short of your script's figure by only 2 to 5 percent, it may be a result of incomplete click-throughs or visitors who don't accept cookies. That's perfectly natural.

3. Thou shalt not publish erroneous links.

Whatever you do, triple-check all the links to all your merchants. Make sure that the periods and commas are exactly where there should be; otherwise, you'll kick yourself later for having posted a bad link that didn't pay you (especially if that one erroneous link repeats across all of your site's pages).

4. Thou shalt not be tempted by big fees.

If you have one affiliate with a well-known brand, like, that gives you a 15%, and another affiliate with a no-name brand that gives you a 30% fee, my advice is to go with Amazon. Your visitor knows Amazon to be a reputable seller of books and feels at ease when they buy from Amazon. However, your visitor might not feel as comfortable buying from Chances are that users will click-through, but they won't buy, because they're demotivated by the lack of a strong brand.

If and when you reach an acceptable level of income (like there is such a thing!), you can risk the switch to a lesser-known seller. If you don't see results, you can always switch back to the established brand.

5. Thou shalt not deal with merchants who don't pay for returning customers.

The policy of some affiliates is to pay you only if the customers you've referred to them are new ones (they verify customers by checking their email addresses). So, whatever you do, don't sign an affiliate agreement that doesn't pay you for returning customers.

6. Thou shalt seek to deal with merchants who pay you for life.

It's rare, but there are merchants who will pay you for life, which means that if your visitor makes his or her first purchase through your site, then every time he or she goes back to purchase something, you get paid a commission regardless of whether he or she revisited your site or not.

7. Thou shalt link to products but get paid for other purchases too.

Links to specific products have triple the click-through rate of links to a website's home page—which could potentially mean triple profits for you. For example, if you link to a specific book rather than to the bookstore, many affiliate programs will pay you more (sometimes triple) for linking to a specific product rather than their home page or a category of products.

However, if your visitor clicks through to the affiliate's website but then buys another item, you won't be paid a commission. Or, if your visitor first buys the item you link to, and then buys another one, you receive a commission only for the first item he or she purchased. Try to ensure that you're paid for as many of the purchases that eventuate through your referrals as possible.

8. Thou shalt not expect to be paid for extras.

When you calculate your commission, don't include extra costs, such as delivery charges, wrapping paper, or tax.

9. Thou shalt not be fooled by higher rates.

If a merchant offers commissions that differ in accordance with the number of sales you generate, don't be fooled by the high rates you'll receive if you sales reach, say, $1,000 per month. Only super affiliates hit those marks, and your chances of being one, especially as a novice, are slim to none.

10. Thou shalt not think of your visitors as suckers.

Remember, your visitors are not stupid. So don't sell hard—you'll simply come across as an annoying salesperson and lose the sale. Instead, detail the product(s) or service(s) you offer in language that visitors can understand. Show them how your product(s) or service(s) can help satisfy their specific needs.

Follow these guidelines for a successful affiliate program, and good luck!

George Anagnos is a recent victim of the dot-com downturn in Britain. He lost his marketing job and is currently is pursuit of a new career. Any takers or simply curious people should visit his website at


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