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Thoughts, opinions, help and advice for affiliate marketers and mobile users in the UK.

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Boost your sales with our Beginners Guide to Awin Access

In 2020 Affiliate Window (Awin) launched a new entry level scheme called “Awin Access” to attract new merchants to their network. It was a great idea that attracted hundreds of newcomers to affiliate marketing. This guide shares some experiences and tips to help you get the most out of your Access program.

Awin is the largest Affiliate network in Europe. Media owners are rewarded when they make sales for retailers. It’s win-win, but there it takes money and time to get started. Awin Access promises to bring that success to a range of new partners.

Access has attracted a lot of newcomers to affiliate management who may not be versed in the risks and opportunities in affiliate marketing. As the support and documentation for new Access merchants is very limited I wrote this guide to help fill the gaps. I started writing it with a specific merchant in mind, but as it evolved I thought I would release it to the wider world as well.

It combines technical tips, priorities for your program and lessons I learned managing my own programs. I run several successful affiliate sites too so I threw a bit of that in there. Some points are obvious and others are things I learnt over several years as both an affiliate and a merchant.

Bear in mind I am attempting to combine how things work technically with a pragmatic approach to managing your new program. I do do cover a few negative aspects like fraud and risk but please don’t take it the wrong way. Your new Awin Access program is a great opportunity to make sales for your new business.

Remember, it’s completely self service

You should know this by now but it’s worth repeating; Awin Access is completely self service. Awin specifically calls Access their entry level option, and you don’t get premium support.

You will receive very little assistance or support in the running of your program. For important issues you will receive email support from a shared email address. There is no point of contact to run anything by so you are very much on your own. Also, some features are limited – for example you can only define one commission group.

The performance and success of your new affiliate program will be completely down to you. If you only log in to check your figures once a month then you may as well pack it in now.

Who is this guide for?

This article applies to anyone with a new Awin Access program or anyone thinking of setting one up. You might even find it handy if you manage a non-Access program.

I have tried to put things in that I only learned after months or even years running affiliate programs. The Awin onboarding is quite brief so I hope this will give you a head start and lead to a better informed eco-system of AWin Access merchants for me to promote on my own sites.

My primary industry (as both a merchant and affiliate) is telecoms, so a lot of my examples are based around SIM cards or phones. Don’t worry, none of the advice is Telco specific – it applies to almost any sector.


Table of Contents

    The Minimum Requirements

    After speaking to a few new Access merchants they weren’t really aware of the ongoing commitments – the basic things you need to do to keep the lights on.

    I have moved that to a separate article – The minimum requirements to manage your affiliate program (opens in new tab). It describes the three things you absolutely can’t neglect.

    Affiliate Applications / Recruitment

    I am addressing this first because it is something everyone needs to do. Strictly speaking “building your proposition” should come first, but everyone needs to process affiliate applications. If you recently launched your program you still have the opportunity to “nail the launch“, so let’s tackle it straight away.

    You have to review and approve each affiliate who wants to promote you before they can earn commission. The launch of a program is important so it’s a good idea to review your pending applications as quickly as possible.

    Don’t be tempted to just accept (or reject) everyone without researching them. Some of your applications will be from sites which won’t benefit your brand, but there are some nuggets hidden in there.

    Research affiliates before you approve them

    Who you accept onto your program is completely up to you, but there are some general guidelines that apply to most programs.

    Who to accept

    My position can change depending on the program and the business priorities, but my starting point is usually:

    • Content sites
    • Social Media with a verifiable presence
    • Price comparison
    • Large, organised cashback sites
    • Employee benefits services
    • Reputable voucher sites with some sort of USP

    I am cautious of:

    • Voucher sites with no traffic or USP. They are usually template sites with names including the word “Coupon” or “voucher” and a silly random word – CouponRat, VoucherTurbo, etc.
    • Social affiliates who hide behind closed groups – where you can’t see or review the activity.
    • Social media affiliates who rely on private messages.
    • Toolbars and browser extensions.
    • PPC / paid affiliates who require “brand bidding” permission.
    • Anyone who doesn’t clearly state what they do
    • Anyone who declares they are “The leading website for x” when it is clearly nonsense. See “CouponRat”.
    • Small cashback sites where I suspect they don’t have the manpower / expertise to run cashback properly.

    All of this is subjective but it’s a pretty standard and safe approach – feel free to pinch it.

    The priorities above usually mean I accept 30% of the sites who apply to my programs. Of the 70% I reject I could be missing out on some opportunities, but I am also avoiding potential risk. 80% of affiliates on a program don’t make any sales anyway, so in an ideal world they will be the ones you don’t accept.

    During the launch phase you may end up accepting more. Over time you’ll build the experience to add your own rules and get a feel for when to make an exception.

    For example, from my time in the Mobile phone industry I developed the “Wakefield rule”. After huge amounts of fraud came from a group of affiliates from a grim town in Yorkshire anyone with that address now rings alarm bells.

    An affiliate program is not a democracy – you can accept or reject whoever you like as long as you keep it professional.

    Nail the launch

    When your program launches you will appear in the “new merchant list” on the Awin interface. This generates a lot of interest and you will get a lot of applications in the first few days. Make the most of it by acting on those applications quickly.

    This article started life as an email that I sent to a new Awin access merchant. Their program was live, but it appeared they weren’t actively managing it. I spoke to a few other affiliates and they had all applied but nobody had heard anything from them.

    Nearly 3 months later nothing has changed. We don’t know why – perhaps they don’t know what is expected of them or they only want to work with a small amount of affiliates.

    It is ok if you don’t want to work with a large number of affiliates, and it is ok if some affiliate sites aren’t their cup of tea – just let us know either way. If affiliates don’t see any activity at all they will assume the worst.

    When you launch a new program it is really, really important that you stay on top of the basics:

    • Accept or reject affiliate applications daily
    • Populate your profile completely.
    • Explain your commissions
    • Provide accurate contact details
    • Respond to any contact promptly

    Some affiliate applications are speculative – a lot of affiliates just apply for every program they see, but others can be time sensitive – perhaps to monetise a specific page or opportunity.
    I certainly apply for programs with a specific goal in mind, and if I don’t receive a prompt reply I move onto something else.

    Log in every day during your launch, answer any questions you are asked and approve or reject affiliates regularly. Even if you struggle with technical things, showing you are engaged and responding is the single best thing you can do build trust.

    There are only two types of affiliate that matter

    Well no, there are lots of types of affiliate – cashback, voucher, search etc. I’m going to save that for a future article because it isn’t really specific to Awin Access.

    What I want to get across here is that regardless of their methods, all affiliates fit into one of two categories.

    Affiliates who NEED YOU more than you need them

    They tend to be attracted by your brand. Working with you lends them credibility. They may not deliver huge amounts of sales yet, but they are hopeful. They are usually more prepared to deviate from their standard offering, and shouldn’t demand too much in return. You may even find they don’t have a standard offering yet because they aren’t far enough along to nail the specifics down.

    Often making sales isn’t their main priority. Some of these publishers are more interested in associating with other brands because of how it looks. Be cautious of publishers who are also merchants selling their own products.

    Some of these affiliates can turn out to be great partners, but they also take a lot of time. There are thousands of these long tail affiliates – the trick is picking the right ones to concentrate on. Early on I used to encourage everyone who approached me before I realised it wasn’t really helping me to meet my goals. Nowadays I have learned to be more selective.

    Affiliates who YOU NEED more than they need you

    These are more established with established sites and verifiable sales. You know they can make sales in volume and you want a slice of that action. In this case working with them enhances your credibility.

    They find brand names useful, but they only really covet hugely recognisable or popular brand names that enhance their own reputation. You are more likely to have to accept their default product or pay for access. Getting more coverage is generally streamlined and might involve choosing from a rate card or a clearly defined list of partnership options.

    These affiliates generally know what they are doing and don’t really take much time to manage. That changes when you start working really closely with them, but since that should lead to lots of new sales it’s a nice problem to have.

    Which one do I need?

    Both of course! In the early days of your program though, I would say to prioritise Type 2 – established sites with existing traffic and demand. They are a proven quantity who can give your program a huge boost. If you are just starting out it can take a while to recruit them so get started as soon as you can.

    I usually start with:

    • Established mainstream cashback sites
    • Large employee benefits sites
    • Price comparison (if it exists in your industry)

    The easiest way to recruit these affiliates is an introduction from your network account manager. However, that isn’t part of the Awin access service so you need to do it yourself. You should be able to find their contact details in the Awin interface.

    Don’t worry if you don’t manage to recruit them all immediately – even one can make a difference, so keep chipping away. I don’t actually know how all of the larger publishers feel about Awin Access clients, but assume they are fine with it until they tell you differently.

    Switching to outbound affiliate recruitment

    When your program first launches there is a glorious period where you receive loads of interest. You’ll will be contacted by some good, proactive affiliates at this stage, so make sure you accept them promptly.

    After a while though, that dies down and the quality of applications starts to decline. An Access program I manage has just hit that point – I processed 8 applications this morning and rejected them all.

    So now it is time to start actively researching the market and letting people know about your new program. It’s harder than simply waiting for people to come for you, but more rewarding.

    Some people would say to start this from day one, but I say wait a short while. For the first couple of weeks you might be ironing out some gremlins and fine tuning your program based on feedback. I would get that out of the way first so I can contact prospects with the very best proposition.

    Google is the default tool for this – simply search for things your customers might like and contact sites who might be relevant.
    There are also some automated tools, but in general I find they over promise what they can deliver. If you come across a free trial for one of them, why not give it a go, see if it works for you.

    Who can accept affiliates on to my program?

    Only you (or your authorised agents) should approve affiliates. Every affiliate should apply to your program personally, and be approved by you. That is the only basis for a safe and fair program.

    • When an affiliate applies to your program they agree to your terms and conditions and promise to follow all current and future rules you set.
    • In return, when you accept them to your program you agree that the activity they have declared is acceptable, and promise to treat them fairly.

    If an affiliate is accepted to your program any other way then the above might not have happened.

    This is very possible on the Awin platform for a number of reasons. Not often, but it does happen – I got it perhaps once every six months when I was managing a larger merchant. On the handful of occasions it did I would usually escalate it to the network for an explanation. Don’t be afraid to remove affiliates who were added without your consent.

    Modern social media breaks the research process somewhat

    Social media has become increasingly fragmented and the usual methods of researching affiliates don’t always work.

    Social media content is often hidden behind a user registration process or spread across many pages platform with no central hub. Publishers or “influencers” often have to be creative to squeeze their advertising onto platforms that don’t easily accept affiliate links. All of the above makes it hard to track down and verify exactly what they are doing.

    I take a pragmatic approach. As long as the publisher is clear about the activity – for example by saying “I will be promoting on ClipClop and InstaGrin using x and y profiles”, that is probably enough disclosure for me in the first instance. I can always go back and do a more robust check if / when they start driving traffic or making sales.

    Working with influencers / social media publishers

    First off, take any claims from influencers with a pinch of salt. Awin isn’t really an influencer platform, and you’re unlikely to meet true top tier influencers through this platform. There are plenty of social media accounts that can deliver good results though.

    Influencers are increasingly being cautioned to make sure advertisements, sponsored posts and affiliate links are clearly labelled. You must make it clear to the influencers that understanding and following these rules is their responsibility. Only get involved if they don’t. This guide from the ASA is a good start: Influencers’ guide to making clear that ads are ads – ASA | CAP.

    You should also expect publishers to follow any other (reasonable) rules you have set in your program – like branding rules or notes on things not to say. Social media uses different language and conventions so you may need to give them some leeway, but there should be some core boundaries that can’t be overstepped.

    Some examples:

    • An influencer encouraging their followers to buy an outfit for an event and then return it for a refund afterwards.
    • Promoting or mentioning things using sentiments like “loophole” or “scam”.
    • Promising inappropriate incentives. Honestly, I have seen the most bizarre things, including people promising lapdances for taking out expensive life insurance policies.

    “Promoted” or “boosted” posts do count as paid advertising (in my opinion), so have a think about how that affects your PPC rules.

    Just because they are royalty in influencer circles, don’t let them bully you. You are still the King (or Queen) of your affiliate program.


    Constructing your proposition

    There isn’t an official name for it, but I call the overall description of what you offer to affiliates (or what they offer you) the proposition, and most people know what I mean.

    The Default Proposition is important

    It is vitally important that your default proposition is easy to understand and appears to be a good opportunity.

    All affiliates and merchants have a standard proposition that describes what they are normally prepared to do. This is what affiliates see when they are deciding if they want to promote you. The next section is going to tell you that you will need to step outside that to be successful, but you need to get the basics right first.

    For affiliates it might boil down to “We will list you on our website and pay our users cashback when they buy something from you”.

    For merchants it is usually “we’ll pay you x% of the sale value when you refer a customer”.

    Something like “We’ll pay x% on this, y% on that, and nothing for existing customers or people who buy on credit” isn’t the best advertisement for your program.
    Merchants do have terms like that – in fact I lifted those terms from a program I managed very recently, but it was a large, established mobile phone retailer. If you are new you can’t really afford to be that hard to work with.

    Example

    This applies equally to affiliates and merchants. Here is an example from my affiliate activity – based on a real program I was asked to promote last month. This is the default proposition for my website:

    • Retreive SIM and mobile phone deals from a product feed in a standard format and publish them in a pre-built pricing table.

    I was being asked to:

    • Retrieve and process a product feed for a new type of product (phone accessories).
    • Match those products to phones I already list.
    • Create new positions on my website to display these products.
    • Keep these products updated, in effect adding accessories to my normal offering.

    So it was well outside my default prop then. Still, it might be worth it if the numbers add up. Here are the numbers:

    • Average product value: £30.
    • Commission rate: 10%.
    • Potential sales: <10 a month (complete guess).
    • Potential commission: <£50 / month.
    • Amount of work needed to integrate into site: >5 hours.
    • Ongoing commitment: daily updates, maintaining feed mapping
    • Decision – don’t launch.

    In this case there was nothing wrong with the merchant, the product or the agency. The numbers just didn’t stack up for me.

    An affiliate who could promote this without needing to do extra work would probably accept. Where possible try to make your proposition fit into the default offering of most affiliates.

    Successful affiliate programs all come with a compromise

    Now we have talked about the standard or default proposition, it is worth remembering that you will have to step outside that.

    I can’t think of a single successful affiliate campaign that just uses the default offering. Merchants are expected to pay more, and affiliates are expected to work harder in return.

    There are two levels to the compromise you will be expected to make:

    1. Pay more
      Nice and easy. After all, your job is to get the affiliate to try harder, and their job is to get you to pay more. Usually both sides have to give a little ground.
    2. Permit coverage you wouldn’t normally allow
      This might mean allowing cashback, PPC or voucher activity when you don’t usually, or issuing bespoke deals or propositions for specific partners.
      This gives the chosen affiliate a built in advantage – they are the only person doing it.

    You should know from the start that affiliates, agencies and networks strongly want you to get to level 2. Often, they will try to sneak this past you without telling you, or just start the activity without asking permission.

    This is where the action happens in affiliate marketing. You are going to come under pressure to allow this, and it can be lucrative as long as you are careful.

    As a new program the chances are you will feel more pressure to compromise. Without that give-and-take the affiliate industry wouldn’t exist at all – the entire thing would be run by robots and be much less fun. If there is still a clear path to sales then don’t dig your heels in for the sake of it. Getting some sales under your belt should help the negotiation next time round.


    Your brand is valuable

    A huge amount of activity in the affiliate industry is built around brand names – either that of your own site or the products you sell.

    Affiliates value these brand names because they come with natural interest and traffic. Basically, brand names are desirable. They give any publisher something solid that they can build their activity around. Your job is to say “yes” to as many opportunities as possible without selling the family jewels.

    With a recognisable brand name affiliates can easily:

    • Build a page on their website that competes with your own official site on Google. If they have a popular website and yours is quite new it could easily appear above your own in the search listings.
    • Build pages with the brand name in the URL and page titles
    • Rank in search engines for “brand” + voucher codes terms.
    • Pay for PPC including your brand name in the search terms.

    Some of that is in your interest, some of it may not be. By focussing on your brand name they are in effect capitalising on the effort you put in building your brand. As you become more popular, they get more traffic and make more sales.

    As an Awin Access user you could be a new or very small outfit and you might not really see yourself as a “brand” just yet. That’s fair enough, but hopefully it won’t be the case forever.

    Brand related decisions you make now can stick with you for a long time

    Let’s imagine you launch a program and accept 100 voucher websites on to your program. You don’t even offer voucher codes and they don’t make any sales, but it’s positive activity, right?

    Well yes, getting any affiliate to do anything is a forward step, but now there are 100 pages competing with your own site when someone searches for your brand online.
    Since you don’t offer voucher codes those 100 results don’t offer much value to the user. If they are seen as “low value” or “not useful” by visitors it could even put them off your brand completely.

    It might not be an issue now, but it could be further down the line. One common phrase that a lot of affiliates use for SEO is “Is x a scam?”. Imagine how you would feel if you searched for your own brand name and that was a top search result.

    It is easier to add new affiliate types in the future than it is to remove them and deal with legacy content after the fact. You can reject affiliates at a later date but once you end the relationship you can’t be sure all the existing content will get removed.


    Commission rates

    The commission you pay is important, but I can’t really tell you what to pay – every industry is different. You have to make the program look like an opportunity, with enough margin left to pay yourself.

    Your commission rate is the main tool you have when you are asking affiliates to do things. Does it present them with an actual opportunity or is it just wasting their time?

    Any further advice I could give about picking a rate is so obvious I’m not even going to bother.

    As a rule of thumb, look at your average order value and what you expect your commission to be. How many of those commissions would make it worth an affiliate getting out of bed?

    “Incentivising” customers and how it affects commissions

    For most programs you can translate this to mean “working with cashback sites”. Cashback sites are very popular, and a lot of consumers use them to justify buying something or make it cheaper.

    Cashback or other types of reward motivate the customer. When the reward is a big part of the purchase decision we refer to the customers as “incentivised”.

    Incentivised customers can behave differently. They may not be as loyal or use the product as you intended them to. If the reward was good enough they might not want your product at all, or they may just be buying it to re-sell it.

    Is incentivising bad then?

    Absolutely not – you just have to plan ahead and treat incentive affiliates and their members with respect.

    A Practical Example:

    • I promote a SIM Only phone contract that costs £10 per month. Affiliates can actually earn £10 commission if they sell one for me. That is usually ok, because customers generally renew their contracts for several months at least.
    • A cashback site could therefore offer my product for free – the customer would pay £10 and receive £10 back as cashback.

    Would that customer, who was motivated by receiving a free product, behave the same as other customers and continue their subscription?

    What if a popular forum like HotUKDeals promoted this deal with a headline like “Use cashback to get a 1 month mobile contract completely free, no obligation”?

    If you are interested, in this particular instance I do pay cashback affiliates the full 100% commission rate but I stipulate that they only pass 50% to their members as cashback.

    It means:

    • The customers are no longer 100% incentivised.
    • The customer still receives a cheaper product and feels like they got a bargain.
    • The cancellation rate is something I can live with.
    • The cashback site actually gets a commission they can keep, which helps my relationship with them.

    What if I offer a free product?

    In an ideal world you should pay commission on everything your customers can order. In the real world that isn’t always possible, but you do have to be fair.

    You aren’t obliged to pay if someone “purchases” a free product unless it is a really key part of your proposition. Affiliates won’t be very pleased about it – after all, it reduces their chance of making a sale.

    A common instance in the mobile industry is where the main business is selling SIMs with contracts, but they also offer a free SIM card for a short trial period.

    If you have a product like this you need to make this clear to your affiliates, and make sure it isn’t in your product feed. Wherever possible you should keep that free proposition away from traffic your affiliates send.

    There is one thing to consider and clarify; A free product is usually a loss leader or a trial meant to attract customers. If an affiliate generates a “free” sale, and the customer goes on to purchase something else 3 weeks later, will the affiliate still be rewarded? If they are then you can turn this into a plus.


    One Commission Group Limitation

    Normal affiliate programs allow merchants to control how much commission is paid for specific product categories using “commission groups”.

    Awin Access only allows merchants to have one commission group. Realistically that means you can only pay one commission rate for everything you sell. It may be a fixed fee or a percentage, but it needs to apply to everything.

    In my opinion this limitation of Awin Access is one limit too far – commission groups are a basic tool to manage a program, not a luxury. However, you can see why they put it in – commission groups make the tracking implementation harder for newcomers and add more question marks around tracking.

    So hopefully your product range is simple enough that you can pay one basic commission rate for everything. I have tried unsuccessfully to get this limit extended but Awin declined “due to the technical support that would be required”.

    If you haven’t launched your program yet then I recommend you decide if this will be an issue in the future and negotiate this before you sign the contract.

    I do need to pay different rates – should I just manually adjust commissions?

    Yes, you can manually alter commissions, and that is what Awin advises when 1 commission group isn’t enough.

    I can’t stress enough though, any manual adjustment is a commitment that you have stick to religiously. It also increases the risk of confusing customers if you work with a lot of cashback sites.

    I always try to avoid processes like “I’ll just update this spreadsheet every week”. These things all fall by the wayside eventually, often before the ink is dry.

    This can affect cashback

    If you do what was just suggested above and pay different commission rates using manual adjustments then be careful if you work with cashback sites. The issue here is that this limitation doesn’t just commit you (the merchant) to a manual process – it also commits your affiliates to one as well.

    A lot of cashback sites, especially the very large ones, have a very streamlined process to launch new retailers. They launch dozens of new partners every week and can’t always spend much time on each one. They often just use the default rates in the Awin commission manager. For you that will be one single default rate like “Default rate for all sales: 10%“.

    Even if you use your Awin profile to explain exactly what is paid, the Awin “commission manager” will contradict that. If the cashback site uses that value to fill in their information then you are setting your customers up to be disappointed.

    Basically, you need to reach out to all of your cashback affiliates to make sure they are clearly passing on the true rates. Bear in mind that you will also have to specially tell them about any changes you make in the future.

    You should also make it an official requirement of your program – something like “you have to understand and communicate the correct commission / cashback rates to your members”. Be super polite – it’s not their fault after all.

    Will this ever change?

    There have been a couple of developments that may lead to a solution:

    1. I spoke to the European head of the Access program a while back and he said a lot of Access clients ask for extra commission groups, hinting that they could relax that policy sooner or later…
    2. A few weeks ago (early September) I spotted an Access client with several commission groups on their account. As you’d expect I got on the phone to see if I could get more for myself too.

      Awin said their policy hadn’t been updated and those extra commission groups don’t actually track for that merchant. However, it’s still a good idea because cashback sites can see the different groups and understand what rates you pay. You may still have to update the commissions manually but at least it means your cashback affiliates know what rates you pay and are better prepared for your manual changes. It removes 90% of the problem I have with this 1 CG policy.

      I intend to test this on my own program and if it is successful I’ll update my recommendation on how do deal with this limitation.

    30% Override

    The override is how an affiliate network is paid for the service they provide. It is usually calculated as a percentage.

    The override for Awin Access programs is 30% (non-negotiable). 30% used to be the default rate for the whole industry but nowadays it is just the starting point for negotiating a lower rate. If you have competitors on Awin who aren’t on Access it is likely that they will be paying less per sale.

    It means that if you pay £10 commission, Awin will take another £3.

    The initial cost to launch on Access is much lower so it’s a fair trade-off. Your costs only increase as you make more sales so it is relatively easy to make sure you can afford it.

    Beware overrides on Tenancies

    Affiliates often request an upfront payment for certain coverage. I am not going to address the rights and wrongs of tenancies – it is a can of worms with lots of arguments for and against. I just want to remind you the 30% network override also applies to tenancy payments.

    It means that if you pay a £1000 tenancy through the network you will also be charged an additional £300 override (+VAT).

    When I am negotiating a normal affiliate contract I usually specify 0% override on tenancy payments. As an Access client you cannot do that so bear it in mind.

    Affiliates often provide a way to pay tenancies direct. Any affiliate network would prefer it if you didn’t sidestep them. It might even be in their contract, but I’m not here to wipe their noses for them. If it saves you hundreds of pounds then it might be worth considering…

    It could actually be 36%…

    If your business is new or on the smaller side it is likely that you aren’t VAT registered. You can’t claim back the VAT you pay to suppliers like Awin so everything is 20% more expensive…


    Validation Process

    Affiliates only get paid when you tell Awin that a sale was valid so you need some sort of validation process to take care of that.

    The validation process can take many forms but it is often an Excel spreadsheet. It usually looks at your sale data and applies some rules to decide if a commission should be paid.

    A validation process needs at least two resources:

    • A list of all your pending commissions in Awin
    • A list of all your shipped orders.

    All you need to do is match the transactions from Awin with the corresponding sale from your system. If the sale was shipped and not cancelled or returned, pay the commission.

    When I first started helping other affiliates and merchants I expected validation processes to be at the heart of what I did. I love a good validation process, and over the years I have made some stonkers.

    It turns out that is because I am weird. No one else gets as excited about them as I do. I’ll just leave you with the main priorities of a good validation process:

    • Safe and fair.
    • Machine generated where possible – not typed in manually.
    • Predictable – must arrive at the same outcomes and decisions consistently.
    • Easy to maintain.
    • Portable across different computers.
    • Documented so other people can operate it if needed.
    • Can’t be 100% automated – this is your last chance to spot any mistakes. A human eyeball can easily spot obvious issues that a computer will miss.

    Auto Validation Period

    All Awin Access customers have an auto validate period. After x days any sales you haven’t expressly rejected will be automatically approved.

    There are two things to be aware of:

    • You probably need to tweak the default auto validation period.
    • If you don’t check sales thoroughly you could end up paying commission on invalid sales. Be careful.

    If you are selling physical products your customers statutory rights mean they are able to return an item for up to 14 days. On all the Awin Access programs I have launched the default setting was 7 days so I had to get it changed.

    Taking into account weekends, postage delays etc, I usually get the auto-validation changed to at least 21 days. If you need longer I can’t imagine that being a problem as long as you justify it properly. In hindsight I wish I had asked for 28 days.

    This is important – in our game there are customers who will exploit any loophole to earn extra money. Tackling this now makes it much safer to work with cashback sites.

    *update* I have seen a few since where the default is 21 days – good news.

    Well I haven’t had any cancelled orders so I don’t need to check commissions, right?

    Sorry, you are still going to have to check them. Affiliate tracking isn’t particularly secure and anyone can trigger a “sale” for any merchant with a tiny bit of code.

    Anyone can do it – give me a bag of Peanut M&Ms and a laptop with notepad and the Internet and I could generate £1 million in fake commissions in half an hour. You can’t really call the rotters who do this “affiliates”, but sadly it is common enough that you need to be on your guard.

    It happened to me as recently as this morning (Aug 2021). I spotted a sale that didn’t match anything in my own system and was clearly artificial. It was a brand new affiliate account, the order ID was a weird format and there was no referral info for the sale. People do it because every now and again a merchant just won’t notice these fake orders and they’ll get paid.

    So I’m afraid you still need to check and verify every sale, even if genuine orders are rarely cancelled.

    Bear in mind that while it is pretty easy to spot, Access clients are more at risk. The short auto validation period means you have less time to spot and cancel fraudulent sales.

    How does it work?

    You can approve sales using two different methods:

    1. Using an online form in your Awin login.
    2. By uploading a spreadsheet containing all your orders to Awin.

    If you only have a few sales then option 1 is fine. I tend to work on larger programs with 100s of sales so this wouldn’t be efficient. That means I have to use option 2 – download all the transactions into Excel, do all the work to decide what to pay, and then upload the results back to Awin.

    Software to use

    There are lots of ways to build a validation process, but Excel is usually the weapon of choice.

    We have all seen Excel slow down or crash when it tries to load a large file with lots of cells.

    It’s obviously because of the size of the file, but what you may not know is that it isn’t the amount of data that is the problem – it is simply the fact that Excel has to display them all on screen.
    The maths and formulas are easy for your computer, but showing them in a big table and displaying it on screen causes a lot of issues. That’s why it goes so slowly when you scroll or drag a selection.

    The Excel “Data Model” solves this. It is a standard feature in Excel 365 and Excel 2016 onwards. The Data Model is much more efficient than old methods using pasted data and vlookups.

    With the data model your data is not dumped into a big on-screen table that slows your computer down. All the data sits in the background in a neat little database and you simply build pivot tables to see it quickly and efficiently. You even get new capabilities that vanilla pivots don’t have. Once you give it a try you will never look back.

    This is going to be the only sales pitch I put in this guide; I’m really good at Excel and I taught myself the Data Model specifically to process large files of affiliate data. It is my favourite thing in the world. Get in touch if you need a hand!

    Using auto validation to streamline validations

    Auto validation does seem to come with an opportunity. It means sales can’t be left hanging in limbo for ages waiting to be validated.

    If you have the discipline to stay on top it of it then you *could* use this as your validation process. Just delete cancelled or returned sales as you see them, letting the auto-validation approve everything else.

    I wouldn’t recommend it for anything but the smallest of programs, but I know a lot of new merchants consider this. So yes, technically it would work but it isn’t a great idea.

    Attribution and Deduplication

    Established ecommerce websites often work with lots of different partners and marketing channels. This means they could end up paying more than one source for the same order customer. Some merchants even work with more than one affiliate network.

    Attribution technology decides which channel(s) a customer came from. Deduplication is the process of cancelling commissions and sales from other channels. It helps protect merchants from paying several different channels for the same customer or order.

    They work by either:

    • Supressing the affiliate tracking so it never tracks at all
    • Cancelling the sale during the validation process

    Awin Access isn’t really aimed at merchants with such advanced requirements.

    The expectation is that:

    • You pay the same commission rate for everything
    • Different groups of customers don’t get different prices
    • Everything will track
    • You don’t work with other affiliate networks

    In particular the testing and integration for Awin Access merchants is very basic. It doesn’t take any of these advanced requirements into account so you can’t be sure it all works.

    I haven’t seen anything that says Access clients can’t use advanced attribution but you would be on your own. You would receive very little support to set it up, test it and keep it working. If possible I would keep things simple.

    Impact of cancellations on Awin Network scores

    I mention Awin Network scores elsewhere in this guide, but briefly it is a score to help affiliates understand how you perform on key metrics. It uses a few factors like payment speed and decline amount. So when you cancel orders it will lower your network score.

    Please don’t be tempted to mess with cancellations to manipulate your score.

    Two reasons:

    1. Network scores aren’t that important anyway…
    2. The impact will be noticed and more keenly felt by affiliates – for example if you approve all sales but set the commission to £0, affiliates will get the wrong idea about about EPC of your program, and generally think you are being a bit of a tool.

    A few mobile merchants do prefer to pay zero commission instead of cancelling sales properly and it creates a lot of extra work for me. Cancelling sales properly allows you to provide an honest reason for the decline and is the best way to maintain trust.


    Tracking / Testing

    Testing your tracking integration is very simple and with Awin Access you do it yourself.

    1. Put the tracking on your website
    2. Install some monitoring software
    3. Click an affiliate link
    4. Buy something
    5. Confirm it tracked by logging into Awin
    6. Send the evidence to Awin
    7. Cancel the sale and make sure you don’t have to pay for whatever you ordered.

    Use a Tracking plugin

    Awin provide plugins for platforms like Shopify which mean you can install your tracking on your site in seconds. There are also a range of third party plugins that add tracking for a range of platforms, including Awin.

    If you can use an official plug-in then it makes sense – they should be tested and verified to work. Third Party solutions are a bit riskier because they come from an unverified source and may not be updated as promptly, but they can work well if you choose a good one.

    As a confident e-commerce manager I’d be happy using either, but if you are less sure then stick to the official plugins if you can.

    Awin recently announced that their official Shopify plugin would be upgraded to use a new server to server tracking method. That’s great, but be aware you should test your site once it is upgraded. You might also need to update your sites terms and conditions.

    They aren’t always suitable

    Plugins tend to cater for the most common use cases. If your requirements aren’t quite standard you may be out of luck. For example, a program I manage uses Shopify, but I can’t use the official Awin plugin because I want to pay commission on the order subtotal including VAT.

    Don’t worry, Awin also provides pretty good instructions to install the tracking manually, and you can use that as a basis to construct your own tracking solution.

    The Awin Master tag

    The Awin Master Tag is a piece of script that helps improve tracking and reporting. It works in the background to help clicks and sales track through the use of first party cookies (and a few other tricks). First party cookies are safer and harder to block which should mean mean more sales track correctly.

    It is designed to be added to every public page of your website.

    The Master tag can also fire third party code. Some affiliates require you to install code on your website, so if it is available through the MasterTag it makes the installation a doddle.

    For years my position on the Master tag was to avoid it if at all possible. It isn’t transparent – you don’t really know what it stores or records, and it can trigger unknown third party code which is a security risk.

    A few things have changed my mind:

    • Over the last couple of years the browser and tracking landscape has changed a lot. Tracking is much more likely to be blocked or overwritten – we need all the help we can get.
    • The network reworked their third party security with a safer permission based model to remove some prominent security risks.
    • Awin are pretty adamant that using their full “ideal” tracking stack is the best way to be sure your program is safe and fair, so we have to use the only method they recommend.

    Now if I’m honest it still makes me a bit uncomfortable because it isn’t properly documented or independently verified, but on balance the benefits outweigh the (known) risks.

    If you are using an official network plugin to manage your tracking it probably uses the MasterTag by default.

    Don’t be tempted to cheat

    When you are performing the test you might spot something you forgot, or perhaps notice that most of the tracking worked, but there was one little detail that still needs another tweak.

    In that case it’s tempting to just massage the evidence slightly so you don’t get held up. After all, you’re going to fix it anyway, right?

    It’s not worth it. The process is already very streamlined so make your changes and do the test again until you are completely happy with it. It won’t take long.

    Make sure you test VAT

    When Awin approve your tracking they are only interested in whether it tracked. It’s up to you to make sure it pays the correct amount.

    You can pay commission on the order amount before or after VAT – it’s up to you. Just make a decision and make sure it is reflected in the tracking and program info.

    The Awin Shopify plugin only pays commission on the subtotal excluding VAT. If that’s what you want to do then fine, but if it isn’t then you can’t use the plugin – you need to install the tracking manually.


    Product feeds

    If you want affiliates to advertise your products and not just your brand, then giving them a list of those products is a good idea. Awin (and most networks) make this easy with their product feed system.

    One thing that a lot of Awin Access programs have in common is a lack of product feeds. Creating and updating a feed is reasonably technical, and it isn’t covered in the sales pitch or documentation for Awin Access. Quite simply a lot of new merchants don’t know what they or why they are important.

    I’m not going to give you a technical guide on how to launch a feed, but here are some things you might want to think about.

    Scheduled update times

    Awin can retrieve a feed from an online location up to 4 times a day. Think about when you change your prices. If you usually do it around 11am, then an update at midday will pick up and publish your changes quickly.

    This can be a real problem on Awin – the average Awin account manager only pays lip service to product feeds and they can be badly set up in all sorts of ways. Since you’ll be doing it yourself you have an advantage. Spend the time to think about your feeds and get them right.

    If you use a feed management company to update your feeds then ask them what the best update times are. Or, if a specific affiliate relies on your feed heavily why not ask them when they retrieve your feed and set your timings to accommodate them.

    Mapping

    There are two types of mapping: category mapping and column mapping.

    • Column mapping decides where your data appears in the feed.
    • Category mapping decides what product category it appears in. Awin has a list of categories that every merchant uses, so an affiliate can request a feed just for “printer consumables”, for example, and see qualifying products from a bunch of merchants.

    Please use detailed categories

    A lot of retailers simply map every product to a single category – for example “Office supplies” or “Home and Garden”. Sometimes they don’t have much choice because their product data isn’t very detailed, but sometimes they are just being lazy.

    If you do have detailed category information for what you sell then please take the time to match it to the most appropriate categories in Awin. Network (not just Awin) account managers do this a lot, so if you didn’t map your own feeds please check.

    By being more specific you aren’t making things harder for affiliates. If a product is mapped to Computers and Software > Peripherals > Printer consumables , then an affiliate can still choose the top level (Computers and Software) to get every product available. You are just giving them more options if they need it.

    Stay Compatible

    The point of standardised product feeds is to make your products compatible with other merchants data too. Every merchant, including your competitors, chooses from a shared pool of categories to identify their products. That way affiliates can sort through them quickly and efficiently.

    While you might be able to provide perfect category mappings, it is possible that other merchants didn’t and chose “compromise” categories to make it work. In this case you may have better data, but they were there first. If you suddenly provide something that is very different to what affiliates are used to it could cause them unnecessary work.

    You might want to check what mappings your competitors use and think about using something similar. Sometimes your data can be too good…

    A practical example

    Here is a practical example from one of my own affiliate sites

    • My printer ink website uses products from the “Printer consumables” category in the Affiliate Window product feeds.
    • Printerinks.com and Wex, Inkfactory and many more merchants have mapped their ink cartridges to this category.
    • One merchant has not. Cartridge Mouse have mapped their entire feed to “Office supplies”, regardless of what the product is.

    I could still advertise Cartridge Mouse products on my site but it would be extra work. I would need to either:

    • Create and maintain a new import just for Cartridge Mouse
    • Add “Office supplies” to my main import, which would also bring in 80,000 other products from tea bags to paperclips.

    I might get around to it eventually, but this pushes Cartridge Mouse to the bottom of my list of opportunities.

    Edit: That merchant actually fixed it as soon as I asked, so I have changed the name in the example to a made-up one.

    Advanced Schema

    Some sectors, like mobile phones, have extra attributes that don’t necessarily fit into a normal product feed. Information like “texts”, minutes” and “data” need their own columns that don’t necessarily apply to a normal retail product.

    To achieve this Awin provides different “schema” for different product types.

    All the schemas are free to use – it’s just a few extra clicks when you set your feed up. If your industry has a schema available then I recommend you make use of it. It is especially useful for the telco industry because of all the different charges and contract types.

    This is pricing data…

    …and as such it is valuable to your competitors. Yes, other merchants do get hold of competitors product feeds to use for their own ends. It’s not common, but it does happen.

    If your feed only contains prices that are available on the front end of your website don’t worry about it – the prices would get out eventually anyway. If your feed contains prices or products that shouldn’t be public then think about the ramifications of that.

    Ideally your feed should only contain products and prices that you are happy with everyone knowing about.

    Everything should track

    It should go without saying that everything in the feed should be eligible for commission.

    If a product is free or exempt from affiliate commissions then it shouldn’t be in the feed. This is up to you to monitor and control – Awin can’t do this for you.

    Look for a plugin

    If you use a third party e-commerce system like Shopify, Volusion or EKM, or an open source product like Woo, OSCommerce, Magento or Prestashop then you could be in luck.

    There is almost certainly an affordable or even free plug-in that will take care of everything for you. Just search the relevant market place or try a 3rd party repository like codecanyon.net.

    Only pay once

    If you decide to pay for a feed plug-in then think ahead and look for one that doesn’t just generate Awin feeds. A universal feed system may cost a little bit more, but you can also use it to generate feeds for PPC, display or other advertising methods as your business grows.

    Please avoid manual processes if you can

    It is very easy to just say “I’ll update this spreadsheet and upload it when a price changes”. I can categorically tell you that this is a bad idea. Even the largest merchants and agencies struggle with this. If you can possibly avoid it being a manual process then you really should.

    I have just spent a morning chasing incorrect prices on one of my affiliate sites that should have been removed on the 2nd of July – 10 days ago. There were a few different reasons but it really boils down to a badly designed update process.

    Plugins to generate product feeds don’t cost much, and could even give your business new capabilities and options in the future.

    If you are a larger merchant and you think “well our system is too big and complicated – we have to do it this way”, please think again. Just because something has always been done one way it doesn’t mean it has to be. I promise there are lots of way to achieve automatic product feeds.

    PPC and CSS affiliates also use product data

    Product data is usually associated with comparison and content affiliates (like me), but recently another type of affiliate has started using it as well.

    A lot of affiliates use PPC – “Pay Per click” advertising to promote merchants, and CSS is an offshoot of that activity built around Googles “shopping” features.

    Over the last couple of years there has been a trend where PPC and CSS publishers advertise merchants on Google without asking permission. Product feeds enable that sort of behaviour because they contain most of the information required to upload product data to the Google PPC tools.

    If you want to work with CSS partners that’s fine, but it’s rarely a good idea to let these publishers just run on auto pilot. You should be fully informed about the activity, and the publisher should be properly informed about your specific business to do a good job. Most genuine CSS publishers will tell you that just ingesting a product feed and churning ads out without discussing the activity first is not the way to do it.

    The mobile industry is a good example. A phone contract has three possible prices – (upfront cost, monthly cost and total cost of ownership), plus different variations of storage, colour and contract lengths. Deciding which values to use requires the merchant and publisher to have a proper discussion.

    Duplicate Content

    Product feeds usually use the content from your own website, including product names and descriptions. A lot of affilaites may re-publish this content verbatim on their own websites. This can be a problem if Google labels it as “duplicate content”, which is generally accepted to have a negative impact on your SEO.

    Before I get trolled by SEO experts, SEO standards are changing all the time and I have massively oversimplified it. However, it’s safe to say that having the same content published on hundreds of websites can devalue it so it’s just common sense to avoid it.

    In an ideal world affiliates should all create their own highly relevant content, but in the real world that just won’t happen. If it is possible try to keep your own site content to yourself and give affiliates an alternative.

    Don’t hard code the VAT rate

    When I first started affiliate marketing the UK VAT rate was 17.5%. It had been that rate for years and nobody expected it to ever change. Then the 2008 financial crisis happened and the rate changed to 15% and then 20%.

    Sadly, a lot of programmers had simply coded the VAT rate into product feeds and tracking as a fixed number. That meant loads of feeds were suddenly wrong. Even now, years later, there are still product feeds with incorrect prices because a programmer was lazy in 2009.

    Product images in your product feed – copyright questions

    One of the key things that you have to provide in your product feed is an image of the product. You provide the URL of the image to Awin, Awin provide it to the affiliate, and the affiliate publishes it on their website. The image is usually the same image that you feature on your own website.

    These images raise a question about permission and copyright. You might have permission to use the images on your own website, but do you have permission to distribute them to other sites?

    The e-commerce industry in general, and affiliates in particular, hasn’t really addressed the issue of copyrighted images in product listings.

    It is very, very rare for this to cause an issue but it does happen. There have even been instances where lawyers have contacted affiliates to get images removed or even to claim for damages. A few aggressive “content protection” agencies make a living out of this sort of thing and they do occasionally target affiliate sites.

    I’m not going to recommend massive changes based on a very small risk, but have a quick think:

    • Do you sell products from a supplier who is known to be over protective?
    • Did any product images that you use on your own website come with any usage conditions?
    • When you made your images did you just rip them off the Internet without really thinking about where they came from? Be honest…
    • Did you blatantly steal your product images from a competitor?

    If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” you might want to think about what the real risk is. In extreme circumstances consider changing the images you provide to affiliates.

    It happened to me! What do I do?

    If someone does make legal threats then you need to seek some proper legal advice.

    Solving it might be as simple as speaking to your contacts and explaining the situation, but if that doesn’t work the only advice I can give is to lawyer up. I would hate to make things worse by telling you to do the wrong thing.

    This has happened to me a few times but luckily it was very low key – I just replaced the images and the problem went away.

    It is a given that you should take the contentious images out of your feed / site immediately. Bear in mind that some affiliates “cache” or copy product images to their own server so you might need to press some flesh to get them all zapped.
    Completely removing the product (not just the images) from your feed may be more effective. Also ask your web or SEO guy to exclude the images from tools like Google Image Search (usually done by editing your robots.txt file).

    Or…

    The other thing you can do is actually get permission. It could be pretty low key – just an email chain where you say “and it’s ok if I put these images on my ecommerce and affiliate sites, right?” and your account manager says “yeah, sure”.

    If you have a good relationship with your suppliers then it should be pretty easy. That’s not to say they have rights to the images themselves, but a paper trail always helps.


    Accelerated Payments, or the “Traffic Light” system

    Affiliates work best when they are paid regularly, and in my opinion the Traffic light system is one of the best developments in the affiliate industry for years.

    Merchants receive a rating – Red, Amber and Green. If you are on Green then Awin will pay your affiliates before you have paid the network.

    Accelerated Payments can reduce the time taken for affiliates to receive their commissions from several months to around 1 month or even less. The exact time depends on the industry – in mobile phones my average was 41 days, based on receiving monthly invoices and a 28 day validation period.

    A good basis for a healthy program

    When I have Awin account managers I usually tell them the number 1 priority for the program is to maintain green traffic light status. It sounds boring, but it is a good thing to aim for. Staying green means that all the basics of the program are being looked after regularly.

    If the program is “green” then then it usually means:

    • Sales are being validated regularly and fairly.
    • Awin and affiliates are being paid regularly.
    • Affiliates can have confidence that they will be paid in the future.

    Help, I’m yellow

    First, Amber status isn’t the end of the world (Red is). Plenty of Awin programs quite happily spend all of their time on yellow. Some merchants might not even be eligible to go green – if that applies to you then I’m sorry for going on about how great it is!

    If for any reason your traffic light colour changes you should receive an automatic email (to the main contact for your program).

    Leaving lots of sales in “pending” increases your credit usage so the first thing to do if it happens is to run your validation process. Declining a few commissions could push you back under any limits.

    If that doesn’t work then self service be darned, you need to speak to Awin to get it resolved. Amber status comes in a few flavours called “exposure levels”, so check the wiki out to see which one applies to you: Awin Payment details – Wiki.

    By the way, if you go Yellow and you don’t get an email then there could be something wrong with your contact details. Best to get that sorted in case you miss any other important notifications.

    Accelerated payments is a credit product

    First, this won’t affect many people, so don’t panic unduly but I’m going to say something scary. Ready? The Traffic light system applies for credit on your behalf, which *could* affect your whole business.

    Accelerated Payments is built on credit insurance. Any business is only entitled to a certain amount of credit across all of its activities. When Awin applies for credit insurance it uses some of your allowance.

    If your affiliate program has £100k in pending or approved commissions then you need £100k in insurance to cover it and earn a “green” traffic light.
    You can manage this to some extent by validating your sales regularly. When a pending sale is “declined” it no longer counts against your credit limit.

    Again, don’t worry. It won’t affect most people, but like all business risks it is worth being aware of. Just mention it to your accountant or finance team so they are in the loop, and go about your day.

    Watch out for

    Normal Awin support and their finance team aren’t particularly integrated so if you need the two to speak or cooperate it can take some time.
    Don’t worry, it’s manageable, but don’t land things on them at the last minute and explain all your finance requests very clearly to avoid a case of Chinese whispers. It’s better to put it in writing.

    If you can get hold of a phone number for someone in the Awin accounts team guard it with your life and use it sparingly. They will be a bit grumpy if you contact them direct but it can be a lifesaver when you are in a pickle.

    Accelerated payments is a prerequisite for the Awin Gold Standard

    The Gold Standard is a new accreditation for Awin merchants. it is meant to let affiliates know that a merchant has the best possible payment and tracking conditions and can be trusted.

    I haven’t had time to really absorb the details of the Gold standard yet (although I have qualified for it), but you have to be on “Green” payment status to qualify.


    Awin performance ratings are very useful

    Awin comes with a rating system to tell you how an affiliate compares against others.

    As an advertiser, you can see the performance rank for an affiliate in the various sectors they operate in. This is basically a ranking system – the largest affiliate in a specific sector is “1”, the second is 2, and so on. If an affiliate is rank “35” for “Mobile broadband”, it means there are only 34 publishers selling more than them.

    Awin don’t document exactly how it is calculated, but it looks pretty straight forward. I believe it uses sale data from the previous month and the sectors are based on the commission groups associated with each sale.

    Once you understand the volumes and scores for affiliates of various sizes, you can take a reasonably accurate stab at guessing how many sales an affiliate generates based on their score.
    When I learn a score and approximate sale volume I record it in a spreadsheet. Once you have more than three numbers for a vertical you can actually draw a graph to predict volumes.

    It is also handy to see whether an affiliate is only strong in one vertical, like telco, or if they sell products from hundreds of merchants, like a voucher or cashback site.

    Don’t feel like you have to only choose top performers. Being “sale active” is an achievement in itself. Any ranking at all means an affiliate is worth considering.

    Be aware that over time the success of Awin Access will probably make those results a little bit more fuzzy because each merchant only has access to one commission group.

    Merchant scores are less useful

    Merchants also have performance scores. The problem for Access merchants is that very low numbers break the calculations somewhat.

    At the time of writing the modestly sized mobile merchant I manage has an unbelievably high score of 96/100. I’ll happily take it, but its just a quirk of the maths when such small numbers are being used. If I decline a single sale the ranking will probably fall by 20%.

    I would respectfully suggest that the merchant performance score doesn’t really have much value past identifying obvious issues when the score is very low (or very high).

    Two examples of that:

    • A merchant that I used to manage at a leading agency switched agencies (not my fault). Looking at their performance score a month later their “order approval” score jumped to 100%. They sold furniture with high commissions, long lead times and high cancellation rates so this just wasn’t possible.

      It was obvious that the new agency was just approving every sale without looking at cancellations or returns. Luckily we let them know in time and saved tens of thousand pounds in incorrect commissions.
    • The merchant I wrote this article for – the one I keep referring to, doesn’t have a score at all. That tells me they haven’t made a single sale on Awin.

    Merchant scores only use the top 3 affiliates

    If you are comparing yourself against other merchants you should also be aware that the network performance score is calculated using the top affiliates for the merchant. Awin don’t publish the number, but an old Awin employee told me it was the top 3.

    It isn’t a cheat – it’s the only way a score like this can work and return sensible results. Comparing programs of different ages with different policies, active affiliates and clickthrough rates would be next to impossible if there wasn’t some sort of limit.

    It means the numbers can still be skewed based on who those top 3 affiliates are. Cashback sites tend to have a much higher conversion rate for example, so if you work with cashback and your competitor doesn’t the scores may be very different.

    As an affiliate and a merchant I only really use these scores to identify possible issues with a program – I don’t worry about them otherwise.


    Using the Awin interface

    Most important reports

    There are quite a few reports in Awin, but the three you really need to get to grips with are:

    • Performance Over Time
    • Transactions
    • Publisher performance

    That will give you an overview of sales, help you see how specific affiliates contribute, and allow you to drill down to see the details of specific transactions. I spend most of my time in the Performance over time report, which gives a long term overview that can be drilled down by a selection of parameters and filtered by any date range you choose.

    Export for more detail

    Each of the reports above includes the option to export to a csv or Excel file. I recommend you try this – the excel download contains more columns and information than the on screen version.

    Extra information can be withdrawn without notice

    Awin has a track record of changing the information in the csv exports without telling affiliates. They usually leave the column in place, but stop filling it with information.

    It generally isn’t an issue unless you really stretch the limits of the system with automated processes and in-depth analysis (like I do). Just bear it in mind if you use the export files for things like your validation process.

    If you have a full Awin account (not Awin Access) with an account manager you could try asking your AM to export the same file using their network login. Awin staff have superior access levels so the columns might still appear for them.

    Making affiliate search work for you

    The interface used to search for new and existing affiliates is quite old and it hasn’t aged well. You often receive either 1000s of results or none at all.

    I have a practical example of this – my own account. When I log in as a merchant I can’t find my own affiliate account using the search function – even if I specify the AID or type the name in exactly. It has been like that for years – just one of those things you learn to live with.

    You may as well try to run a search first, but if you know the affiliate ID you can also bypass it and edit the URL in the browser.

    1. Search for any affiliate (I usually use Quidco)
    2. Click to view their profile
    3. Change the last umber to the affiliate ID you are looking for.

    So
    https://ui.awin.com/awin/merchant/xx/affiliate-profile/54760
    becomes
    https://ui.awin.com/awin/merchant/xx/affiliate-profile/44955

    Look past the Awin profile

    Years ago Awin launched “Darwin” – a new way for affiliates and merchants to provide information about themselves. It was a revelation and it is still one of the best affiliate directories out there.

    Darwin shamed all of the other networks with a rich affiliate database and lots of information. I was working at another affiliate network when it launched and we barely knew our affiliates names, though we did throw some good parties.

    Recently though, it has fallen out of use, especially by new affiliates. The Darwin profile is the main resource merchants have to decide if they like the look of an affiliate. A lot of affiliates don’t really understand the value of populating their profile completely, or don’t realise they can. You often see people asking the community “Why was I rejected”, when their profile is completely empty.

    Don’t hold it against them. If you fancy an affiliate but need a bit more info you can always Google them or just ask them for more info.

    Adding new users

    You can assign more than one user to manage your new merchant account. This is really useful if you need help managing the account or you work with an agency.

    Two things to bear in mind:

    • You can’t add them yourself – you have to ask Awin.
    • Additional users may not receive all the notification emails that the main account owner does.

    You can control which account users are visible to affiliates, so they don’t contact someone who only has access to do admin tasks.

    Awin wouldn’t tell me why they removed the ability for merchants to add users to their own accounts. It was probably in response to an incident or trend that they spotted. It’s not the end of the world as long as Awin respond promptly when you ask them to.

    I don’t know if there are any limits on additional users for Awin Access accounts, but I have never had a problem adding more.


    Newsletters

    Newsletters are the default way to communicate with your affiliates. You can send an email to all of your affiliates at almost any time.

    Build your own distribution list

    Be aware that The Awin email system isn’t great, and large affiliates often have several users with access to the same affiliate account. If an affiliate has several users managing the same account then a normal newsletter is unlikely to reach them all. It’s not just an Awin issue – most UK networks only have rudimentary newsletter systems.

    To get around this it is worth building your own “usual suspects” distribution list. It can be as simple as a bcc list in Outlook, and it lets you send off alerts and updates at the drop of a hat. A separate contact list also means you can treat your favourite or most valuable affiliates differently when you need to.

    To date everyone to whom I have said “I keep my own little list of valued affiliates so I can contact you easier – shall I add you?” has said yes.

    NOTE (1st July 2021): Over the last week or so I have started noticing a lot more newsletters come through the Awin system, including affiliate accounts where I am an “additional user”. I wept with joy this morning when I got a Three affiliate update without having to beg for it. So they might have fixed that issue or at least changed something. When I know for sure I’ll update this section.

    (15th Aug 2021) After a week or two it stopped again. I think it was just one person at Awin sending emails in a different (better) way.

    Telephone is not always the best contact method

    A lot of the contact details in Awin list “telephone” as the preferred contact method. That might be correct, or it could just mean the user hasn’t customised their profile yet since telephone is the default option for a new user.

    When I call someone and they don’t seem very pleased about it I just show them how to set their contact preferences and they are usually fine.

    Don’t forget important details

    When you communicate with affiliates it’s hard to tread the line between providing an overload of information that no one will use and being so brief that the affiliate doesn’t have enough to work with.

    One piece of information stands out above all others; The expected end or expiry date of a promotion.

    As an affiliate I find myself asking the same two questions again and again. “When does this offer end?” and “is it in the product feed?”.

    You may not always be able to nail this information down, but affiliates will appreciate it if you at least try. You can always extend or amend it in the future.

    If you have it, always try to address the following questions:

    • Start and end dates.
    • Is it in the product feed?
    • If it is a sale or promotion does it pay the normal commission?

    Also, try to use accurate and descriptive subject lines. There nothing worse than searching through 80 emails called “newsletter” for a piece of information.

    Include your merchant ID

    As I noted elsewhere, the search function in Awin isn’t always very good. Merchants and affiliates may not find what they are searching for, even if they enter quite precise information.

    To help them get around that you should always include your Merchant ID. For new Awin merchants it’s a 5 digit number and it never changes – it’s an easy way for affiliates to find you if they are struggling.

    Also, a lot of merchants abbreviate their brand name in their communications – for example “QuikConnect 2000” might become QC2000. That’s fine, but if an affiliate searches for that they won’t be able to find you. Make sure you either mention your full name somewhere, or provide a hyperlink to your merchant profile.

    Pass on relevant bad news too

    Remember I told you I started this article with a specific merchant in mind? Well I just checked their twitter and it appears their whole service is down. Their customers are unable to use their service and crucially, unable to purchase new products.

    You don’t have to tell your affiliates every time something goes slightly wrong. It just builds up negative sentiment and you can be jolly sure affiliates won’t return the favour when they have issues.

    However, if an outage affects the affiliates ability to make money then you have to let them know. In this case the merchant can’t accept new orders so any customers sent by affiliates will leave disappointed.

    All affiliates (even SEO affiliates like me) invest time and/or money to send customers to your site so you need to keep them in the loop. This could be a good use for your special “usual suspects” email list, which only contains affiliates who are engaged or making sales.


    Things to remember

    There are a bunch of things that don’t fit into any neat categories. The next bit is more my personal opinion than the points above.

    Don’t burn bridges

    The truth is, there are a lot of people in affiliates who aren’t as invested as you are. Whether it’s an affiliate who keeps having “accidents” or a disinterested account manager, it’s a small industry with a limited amount of people in it so you’re going to have to find a way to make it work.

    Even if you are justified, taking a stand in the face of extreme stupidity has a nasty habit of coming back around. Anyone who knows me will smile at this one because I most certainly don’t follow this advice.

    I have loudly highlighted and complained about everything from poor account management and even fraud in the past and quite frankly it has damaged my career and standing in the industry. Just let them get on with it and move on.

    Create an affiliate account

    Pretty self explanatory really. It is super useful to see yourself through the eyes of an affiliate.

    With your own affiliate account you can:

    • See your merchant profile through the eyes of an affiliate.
    • Download and test your product feed.
    • Receive your own affiliate newsletter.

    It is a bit of a grey area whether having an affiliate account is strictly allowed, but I don’t see a problem as long as you are respectful.

    Avoid the temptation to snoop and tinker with your competitors affiliate programs. There are better things you could be spending your time on.

    You can hide contact details

    You may have several staff members who need access to the Awin account. It’s not a problem – you can have as many logins as you like, but by default all their contact details will be visible to your affiliate.

    As an affiliate it is really frustrating when you need to contact a merchant but there are 6 sets of details to choose from.

    Awin provides a suite of options to hide the contact details for users, so you should use them to make sure affiliates can only contact Judie from Marketing and not Dominic from accounts.

    You are allowed to have an opinion

    You are the boss of your program. If you feel strongly about something then you are perfectly allowed to decide who you work with and what you pay. If you are wrong then you will have to deal with the consequences, but it is your decision to make.

    The better account managers in the industry have built up their experience and developed those opinions. They help you prioritise the performance you need and avoid undue risk. The point of the affiliate program is to meet your business goals, and ultimately that’s your responsibility.

    It’s always an accident

    When you contact an affiliate about something untoward it’s incredibly unlikely they will confess and beg forgiveness. The usual answer is “sorry, don’t know how that happened”.

    In nearly 20 years running affiliate programs I don’t think I have ever seen an affiliate ‘fess up to breaking the rules of an affiliate program on purpose.

    We can all read between the lines. You would have to be a special type of stupid to spend £5,000 on brand name PPC between 9pm and 5am for a month “by accident”. You know that, and they know you know, but the general wisdom is to simply turn a page and move on.

    If the affiliate has the ability to make sales within the rules then it is in your interest to persevere and just keep a closer eye on them. You can end the relationship if you feel really strongly about it, but there are only so many affiliates who generate sales out there.

    The exception to this is where the activity risks your business. If it poses a risk to things like your credit rating, your ability to accept sales, or your relationships with suppliers, drop them like a hot rock.

    As a practical example, In the mobile industry “clawbacks” – penalties for customers who stop paying bills, are a big problem. Encouraging that behaviour is the one thing which would make me cancel the relationship straight away.

    There are “bad players”, even in affiliates

    This is the Internet. Around every corner there is someone planning naughty things, and sadly that does extend to the affiliate industry.

    Awin requires new affiliates to pay a returnable deposit of £5 to join the network, and that is a Godsend. It stops a lot of chancers from creating an account (or indeed, hundreds of accounts) to overwhelm you.
    It doesn’t stop them all however, and every industry or vertical sector has its own special risks.

    A real world example:

    In the mobile industry a bad player might look like someone posing as an affiliate to secure a way to get paid for illegal call centre activity. They would then “illegally” call thousands of people daily, placing any sales they made through their own affiliate link to generate commission.

    Another example might be someone using an affiliate account to power a MLM or pyramid scheme that generates incentivised customers who don’t understand what they are buying. Yes, I got caught out by one of these – it cost me a lot of money and caused a lot of distress to a lot of customers.

    Every network will have a certain percentage of, well, criminals on it. It’s incredibly hard to predict if someone will be dodgy when they create a new affiliate account so you can’t really blame the networks if a few sneak through. Just be really careful when you accept affiliates onto your program, and make sure to monitor your existing affiliates.

    Some indicators of dodgy activity can include:

    • Very high conversion rate – for example 1 click, 1 sale.
    • Sales that register with odd looking order numbers.
    • Lots of clicks, no sales.
    • A high percentage of sales where the order is immediately cancelled or returned.
    • Affiliate accounts that are renamed or repurposed after you accepted them.

    Job titles don’t matter much

    If you are signing up for an Awin Access program for your own business then you probably wear a lot of hats including “MD”, “CEO” or “founder”. It’s a useful tool that opens the odd door and shows people who’s boss, but I’m afraid it won’t really help much with your Awin Access program.

    The process is so automated and scripted that there isn’t much opportunity to negotiate or cooperate, and it is largely manned by very junior staff. I can’t imagine any other industry where a junior account executive is able to tell a Managing Director “we won’t do that because it’s too much work”, or ignore your emails because you are “doing their head in”.

    The same applies when you are speaking to affiliates. Don’t take it personally if you aren’t shown much deference – all that will happen is you’ll miss out on opportunities.

    For the record, if you run your own business I think you’re awesome.

    Prepare to be cold called

    One thing all new programs have in common is that they become a target for agencies and tech providers to contact with sales calls.

    Some of the lazier agencies harvest contact details from the Awin interface to call and sell their own services. This is strictly against all affiliate network terms and conditions, but sadly it is very common and there are some usual suspects who do it continuously.

    I won’t name names, but they are often selling:

    • On site optimisation (popups, overlays and cart abandonment).
    • Affiliate program management services.
    • A rival affiliate network or tracking platform.

    It is completely up to you how you respond, but don’t feel pressured or obliged to engage if you don’t want to.

    If I call you using details I got from the network I’m not trying to sell you something, promise.

    Check the blogs and twitters

    Awin communicate a lot of important information via public blog.

    These resources are not linked from your merchant login, and they rarely send notifications or updates via email so you need to watch the blog closely to keep updated. Throw Twitter in as well, just to be safe.

    Here are three important links that you should keep an eye on.

    You often find really important information and announcements in there – for example a lot of important GDPR decisions were posted in the blog first, and some were never sent direct to their clients.

    Ending your program

    Obviously we hope it doesn’t come to this, but Awin Access doesn’t tie you in to a long contract. When you are managing affiliates you often have to choose where to focus your efforts and when to say no, and that applies to the program as a whole as well.

    If, after your best efforts you can’t make the numbers work you can always end the program. In all honesty a lot of Access programs will probably be closed quite quickly after they launch.

    In the event that it comes to an end please try to close things amicably – give affiliates fair notice and pay any outstanding commissions.

    As long as you don’t burn the house down on your way out most affiliates will welcome you back in the future.


    Are there any alternatives?

    Awin Access is the largest “entry level” affiliate scheme in the UK but it isn’t the only one. Other networks have seen the success of Access and responded with their own versions.

    I have never used any of these alternate entry level affiliate programs so I can’t really judge them. If I’m honest I would struggle to recommend them over Access – Awin is far from perfect but it is still the largest network in the UK.

    Here are the links – you can make your own mind up.

    Grow by Tradedoubler: https://grow.tradedoubler.com/

    Webgains Edge: https://www.webgains.com/public/en/webgains-edge-supports-smes-to-scale-up-with-affiliate-marketing/


    What next?

    Well, if you have reached the end of this gigantic article you either have an Awin Access program or you are planning to. Nobody reads something this long for fun.

    Access is a great tool to reach new customers so crack on and make it happen! All you need to do now is to work at it.

    Go through the points above to make sure you have ticked off the big points and removed the biggest risks, then hit the emails, hit the phone and speak to affiliates.

    No program is perfect so if there are some things on this list you can’t address don’t worry, some are reasonably minor.

    A program that is actively managed is better than one that is technically perfect and left to run itself. What really matters is that you are thinking about your program, understanding how it works, and keeping your eyes peeled for opportunities.

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