Competitive intelligence can be a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled affiliate program manager. However, very few managers are actively using it for their benefit.
Let's start from the question the answer to which may seem evident for many: Why do we want to engage in competitive intelligence, in the first place? My answer is: to educate ourselves, gaining practical insight into how we can improve our affiliate program further. I like how Seena Sharp put it in her Competitive Intelligence Advantage (p. 100-101) when talking about competitive intelligence advantages. She writes:
Companies often downplay intelligence, believe their competitors to have access to the same data and even the same information. Well, everyone also has access to a wide array of fruits and vegetables, yet many don't eat them or eat very few. Access does not translate into action. Your competitive advantage includes executing good analysis of the right information and then figuring out what all of this means for your company ... Those who seize the opportunity and develop an effective plan that can reasonably be accomplished have a significant competitive advantage.
She also emphasizes that "the real purpose of competitive intelligence is to learn and to act" and to not merely gather data or "develop information". All of this is crucial to keep in mind; and while reviewing your discoveries, you want to remember look at them through a through a prism of practical application. You're doing this to pick up data that can be immediately turned into competitive advantages of your own.
How exactly are we going to retrieve the information on competing affiliate programs?
I primarily use the following 5 methods:
- Join affiliate programs -- Sign up for competing (and related) affiliate programs as an affiliate yourself -- to receive their newsletters and keep up to date on what they're doing.
- Friend and follow them -- Of course, you don't want to do it from your corporate Twitter and Facebook profiles, but do follow them as an individual -- to see what they're doing through social media. If they have blogs (corporate, or affiliate program ones), subscribe to their RSS feeds as well. If they are active on forums, follow them there regularly there too.
- Become their customer -- Join their customer-oriented email list. If it requires buying something from them first, do it.
- Set up automatic monitoring -- In addition to the 10 monitoring tools I mentioned here, consider also employing such tools as Xinu Returns, PostRank, Website Grader, SEMRush, and Trackur.
- Employ traffic measuring tools -- Some examples of such tools are Alexa, Compete.com, HitWise, and Quantcast
Also, don't limit yourself merely to the tools and methods mentioned above. New services come up all the time. Keep your eyes and ears open to learning, and mind open to embracing new opportunities.
Remember Sharp's advice about good competitive advantage? She wrote that it "includes executing good analysis of the right information" and then developing an effective plan to implement the necessary steps on your way to competitive superiority. Naturally, for effective work in this direction we should clearly understand what exactly that "right information" is.
With affiliate program competitive intelligence our focus should be on things directly related to our competitors' affiliate marketing activities or performance. Splitting the objects of our observation into these two groups -- activities and performance -- we want to monitor, analyze, and draw conclusions from the following:
Affiliate Program & Related Performance
- Best-performing creatives
- Key performance indicators
- Conversion rates of specific types of affiliates
- Wording of text links
- Best-selling products/services
Affiliate Program Activities
- Customer-centric promos and coupons
- Commission structure changes
- Bonuses and tiered commission increases
- Affiliate-oriented promos
- New partnerships
- New tools
- Any program enhancements
Again, do not limit yourself just to the things I've listed above, but constantly widen your investigation scope. Your goal is to be more competitive than they are. This requires aggressive and diligent ongoing competitive intelligence. It isn't hard to do if you know what you're after, why you're doing it, and how to handle it effectively. Now that you do, it's the right time to get going with it. Have fun with it!