For most people looking for a great income source, affiliate marketing is an incredible draw. Think about it: The most successful affiliates make hundreds, thousands or even millions each month, without ever driving to an office, punching a clock or even changing out of their pajamas.
However, great affiliate marketing has as much to do with the program you choose as how motivated you are to sell. Before you even think of filling out that affiliate program application, ask - and answer - the following important questions:
Reports: What types of data can I access?
Visit any affiliate message board and you'll find affiliate marketers wishing for more transparency. It makes sense: Affiliate marketing is a complicated process, and without reporting tools to show each and every detail, there's simply no way to know you're marketing to the max.
When you're shopping around for an affiliate program, take a serious look at reporting tools. Will you have access to a full suite that lists out visitors, profits, refunds, conversion rates and more? Will your reports give you real-time data so you can make campaign adjustments on the fly?
Some affiliate programs will send a thin weekly or monthly report and expect you to take it as gospel - Don't. Instead, go for the program that gives you full access to as much data as possible, so you can keep meticulous track of your commissions and change and improve your campaigns on the fly.
Customer service: How long before someone gets back to me?
Affiliate marketing is a machine with lots of parts, so as a partner, you will face technical glitches. Links will stop working. Commission tracking will get turned off. Images in ads will stop loading. When these things happen, good customer service can mean the difference between paying your rent or getting evicted.
Visit FAQs or affiliate program message boards and gather intel. If you call, will someone pick up the phone? If you email, what type of response time can you expect? If social media is an affiliate program's #1 communication tool, will you send out a tweet and have to wait five days for a private message back?
Some of the best affiliate programs are focused on customer service, so don't settle if your requests won't be met promptly.
Residual commissions: How long will clients subscribe to services?
Affiliate programs offer two ways to collect commissions. With one-time commissions, you sell something, get paid a commission, and the transaction is complete. With residuals, things get a bit more complicated.
Residual payments let you earn ongoing commissions for months or even years. For instance, if you're selling monthly subscriptions to web-based photo editing tools, you'll get paid a commission each month your customer pays their subscription fee. However, if your customer signs up for the photo editing service, doesn't like it, and quits after a month, there goes your ongoing commission from that client.
Before you sign up for any residual commission program, find out how long customers typically use the tools you're trying to sell. If customers stick with the service for six months, a year, or more, it's worth your time to join that program. If customers sign up and fizz out after a few months, look to other programs to fill your residual income niche.
Collateral: What will you give me to help me sell?
In a perfect world, we'd each be part social media expert, part web designer and part publicist. In reality, however, many people need help making sales, and one banner ad and a few paragraphs of sales-y copy isn't going to cut it.
Before you join any affiliate program, you must know, from start to finish, what types of material you'll be given to help you sell. Ask around. Will you get a customizable landing page? Banner ads in the most common sizes? Web badges, pre-made tweets, or testimonial videos?
A good affiliate program not only offers a wide array of sales tools, but frequently creates new material or updates old material to stay ahead of the curve. If the affiliate program you want to join hasn't updated their banners since 1972, it's best to look to other programs.
Cookie length: How long will my sales be tracked?
If we had to break down the perfect affiliate transaction, it would go like this: Customer clicks on your link, customer makes a purchase, and you get your commission. The end. Unfortunately, many customers love to browse before they buy, and they may revisit the point of sale site multiple times before they take the plunge.
Whether you want to make affiliate marketing a part-time venture or your only source of income, you must find programs that deliver your best chance for success. No program can guarantee massive commissions or steady income, but you'll significantly up your odds of making money if you use the questions above as your guide.
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Brian is a life-long software developer who loves to help others succeed. A frequent source for media outlets, such as BBC, Entrepreneur and Bloomberg, Brian also frequently speaks at universities, conferences and the like. His new book, "Unravelling the Internet of Things" will be available soon on Amazon.com.