There are at least one hundred questions you should ask yourself when considering whether or not to launch an affiliate program. The most important thing to remember is not to rush the process. Affiliate marketing is not a way to start your sales, it's a way to enhance your existing sales. Too many would be merchants have a shiny new idea and a half completed ecommerce site when they stumble onto the idea of building an affiliate program.
The first and foremost question affiliates ask is "Does the site convert?" This means; have you sold anything yet?
A general rule of thumb is to look at your sales over the last 6-12 months. Do you have consistent sales that are growing through your other internet marketing efforts? If the answer is yes, then you should be looking for more information about how affiliates can help you find new customers.
If the answer is no, then be patient. Research best practices for ecommerce sites. Test your landing pages. Work on search engine optimization. Spend some money testing paid search. Send out a few online press releases. Work on your brand anyway possible! If the product is wanted or needed, you should start seeing sales.
What conversion rate is good? Industry standards say 1% to 3% is normal per 100 clicks. Anything above 3% is good. Anything above 5% is great. If your conversion is in the double digits, you have a winner.
Do you have the staff to support the program or do you need to outsource? A good programmer is a must. Besides website coding, they need to understand pixel integration, datafeeds, coupon creation, landing page testing and shopping cart optimization for maximum conversions. Next, you'll need a graphic designer unless the programmer can handle the job. Your banners need to have high resolution images, clear and concise descriptions of what you sell and a call to action. A good set of banners range in size from 88x31 logos to skyscraper ads at 160x600. Visit the IAB Ad Unit Guidelines page for more information.
Are you prepared to support affiliates and understand their needs? Will you be the affiliate program manager or will you delegate that task. It is critical that you find the right person for this job. Successful managers research best practices and test campaigns to see what works best with affiliates and customers. They are both pro-active and creative with their ongoing promotions. The manager needs to be ready to answer affiliate questions in a timely fashion, be open to their suggestions and appreciate what they do for your brand. Your best affiliates will give you brilliant ideas you've never considered. Affiliates take the risk and the time to promote your products and all they ask for in turn is to be fairly compensated and treated with respect. Get to know them on a personal level. This industry is built on trust and relationships.
Do your research on affiliate networks and where your competitors are in this space. If there is a gaggle of merchants in your niche on a particular network, you need to evaluate if this is good or bad. Do you have a better product with higher commission so you can lure some of those affiliates to your new, yet untested program? Or do you opt to another network where you might shine with a different set of affiliates?
Finally, create an affiliate account for research and competitive intelligence. Lurk in various programs on different networks for a while to see how it's done. Then you'll know when it's time to launch your affiliate program.
Greg Hoffman, aka the Marketing Gorilla, is an affiliate management consultant with diverse clients in the major affiliate networks. His agency was recently voted OPM of the year for 2010. He hosts two podcasts, one highlighting interesting merchants, the other highlighting interesting affiliates.