Webster’s dictionary defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” Unfortunately, in the context of affiliate program management, both the process and the system are frequently impaired. In this blog post I would, therefore, like us to focus on this important element of affiliate program management. I’ll outline some of my thoughts on the best practices of communication with affiliates, which should help equip affiliate managers to handle this important area in the way it should be handled.
Two-Way Symmetric Communication
As Everett M. Rogers, a famous communication scholar, wrote in his renowned work, Diffusion of Innovations (the fifth edition of which was published in 2002), some view the overall communication channel as “the means by which messages get from one individual to another.” To me, such a definition allows for a “one-way street” scenario – where the messages get announced but an element of feedback/cooperation is lacking. I personally believe that effective communication should not only involve an announcement part but also a feedback part and a response part. In the context of the affiliate program management, it means not only communicating to/at your affiliates but also encouraging their input, listening to their proposals/comments/ideas, and responding to them.
Another important aspect to emphasize is the need for symmetric communication. From research in public relations, we know that communication can either be asymmetric (where the company’s final goal is having the public come around to the company’s way of thinking rather than changing anything in the organization itself) or symmetric (where the organization is willing to learn from the public and change for the public).
In his Effective Public Relations and Media Strategy volume published by PHI Learning in 2009, C.V. Narasimha Reddi pointed out that the difference between the way of handling public relations in the 20th century vs. the 21st century is that the last century practiced primarily “the one-way asymmetric” model, while “the 21st century will witness a two-way symmetric public relations model with a balanced flow of information from organisation to the target public and from the public to the organisation.” In the course of this information flow, both parties “will have an equal say and importance to both feed-forward and feedback information.” I’ve been noticing how this shift is facilitated by the social media, but even before Facebook and Twitter, affiliate program managers understood the importance of two-way symmetric communication while managing their affiliate programs. Unless your program management rests on a two-way symmetric communication model, it will never reach the heights it could have reached had it been undergirded by such a model.
Types of Communication
When looking at the methods of communicating with the affiliates, I find it helpful to divide my communication-related considerations into three groups:
Open Communication Channel
Provide for a channel of communication that they can always turn to, and be confident that they will find you there. I am taking about phone, email, instant messengers, your blog, affiliate marketing forums, and any internal system of communication that your affiliate network may be providing.
Regular (Expected) Communication
Here I’m talking about your affiliate newsletters, seasonal greeting cards/gifts in the mail, and other types of keeping in touch with your affiliates on a regular/recurring basis.
Yes, publishing articles in magazines and on various online platforms will both help you recruit new affiliates and help your current partners achieve newer heights. Therefore, there’s no reason to ignore these.
Arriving at Your Own Approach
We all know that one of the fundamental rules of successful social-media usage is “give, do not take” and/or “communicate, do not broadcast.” It’s the same way with communication between managers/merchants and affiliates.
A 2010 Affiliate Summit panel comes to mind. It was dedicated to creating lasting affiliate-merchant relationships and had three affiliates and two affiliate program managers on it. The managers were from Target.com and Overstock.com. Ryan Sorensen, the affiliate program manager from Overstock.com, stressed the importance of understanding that the manager-affiliate relationship is a two-way channel. Jillian McGary, the affiliate manager at Target.com, on the other hand, provided a great real-life illustration of the importance of communicating with every affiliate (however new or inexperienced). She told a story of a newbie affiliate who joined their affiliate program without any knowledge of the affiliate marketing industry, but through proper attention and training, they grew into one of the top Target.com affiliates within 2.5 years.
So, first, remember that broadcasting (be it through newsletters, Twitter, forums, or any other channels) does not work with affiliates.
Second, remember a three P’s approach, and make sure that every communication piece (from a 140-character-long tweet to a full affiliate newsletter) mirrors the following three elements:
Use all available means to make it a personal and personally relevant communication piece.
Flee from vagueness, and be concrete (for example, not “our affiliates enjoy some of the best conversion rates in the industry” but “during the month of May our affiliates’ average conversion rate was 2.3%, while our top three performers have enjoyed 0.8%, 2.45%, and 5.71% conversion, respectively”)
This one flows right out of the previous point. Examples of practicality would include lists of best sellers, best-performing links, affiliate tools, new coupons, and so on. It’s also important to point out that just including the information of these in your affiliate newsletter is not enough. In our context, only actionable information is worth including. So, you want to also give your affiliates an easy way to act based on this information.
For instance, I once received an affiliate newsletter where a merchant listed their best-performing links but did it in an extremely inconvenient manner. Instead of including the code for each link in plain text (or a separate box), they linked text within the newsletter through my affiliate URLs. So, to grab the actual code for each link mentioned, I had to view the HTML code of their newsletter as opposed to a simply cutting and pasting. You want to make sure your practical advice is also convenient to implement.
These points will also work well in contexts other than affiliate program management. You may successfully use them in multiple areas including email marketing, blogging, social-media marketing, and other directions.
A much more detailed advice on handling communication with affiliates, as well as other areas of affiliate program management, may be found in my newest book, Affiliate Program Management: An Hour a Day which was reviewed at SearchEngineJournal.com in April of this year.