The real answer is it depends. Having an affiliate network to sell your product does require a decent amount of work, so if you’re going to do it the biggest tip I can offer is that you use a service such as ShareASales.com (which is what we use). Don’t try to roll out your own (we initial did), it’s not worth it. Going with a service will alleviate a lot of the technical effort and costs. You’ll still have many issues to deal with, ranging approving affiliates, dealing with people trying to scam you, etc., but at least your cost of running it will be drastically reduced. If we hadn’t moved to a service we would have dropped our initial affiliate program. Actually we were in the process of dropping it when I found ShareaSale.com. It just costs too much to maintain in-house.
In any case, an affiliate program can be worth it if executed properly. To give you an idea of what’s possible, since 2005 (so in two and a half years) we’ve sold $9,408.00 worth of licenses of LandlordMax through our affiliates. Although this might not seem like a lot, based on the amount of effort it took to manage the affiliates, the commissions($1,808.10), the amortized cost over all customers to build the software, technical support, etc. we believe we made some profit. In terms of percentage of total sales it only accounts for a small percentage, but it does add up to more than nothing. In other words it’s an extra $7,599.90 ($9,408.00 – $1,808.10) we wouldn’t otherwise have.
The biggest negative issue we encountered was an affiliate who generated a bit more than a dozen sales (not included in the above totals) that resulted in fraudulent credit card purchases. Luckily we were able to spot him pretty quickly, it was fairly obvious what was going on. Although I don’t know for sure what his intentions were, I would guess that he was trying to get paid the commission before the credit cards were returned to us as chargebacks. In any case we were able to quickly cancel all their transactions as well as avoid the chargebacks by being proactive.
That and some affiliates do use more “aggressive” means of getting people to your product. You should be on the lookout for these types of affiliates and try to limit them to what you find acceptable for your company. Remember that if they go a little crazy and spam your product all over the place (or at least more than what you find acceptable), your company will be associated with the spam, and not the affiliate! You need to be vigilant about these affiliates.
Because of all this we now manually inspect every affiliate that applies, and we double check all their purchases. However other than this negative experience it’s been pretty positive overall for us. The thing to remember is that managing your affiliate program does take time, so you need to add this into your cost. That’s above the commissions you pay out. So your average profit margin will be much lower than a regular sale, if any at all.
Where you’ll really benefit from affiliates is in the total lifetime of your customers, assuming you have a good product or service. In other words it might not even be a bad thing if they’re loss leaders, as long as these customers buy from you again (for example future upgrades as in our case).
So to answer the original question, are affiliates worth it from the merchant’s perspective? It depends. The honest truth is that you need to try it out and see what numbers you come up with. That and you need to look at the total lifetime revenue of your customer, not just that initial purchase, otherwise you’ll probably lose out. And expect to spend a decent amount of time managing and monitoring your affiliates.
Quick Tip: If you do decide to go the affiliate route, you’ll find that almost all of your affiliates will fit into two main categories. Those that have 0-1 sales and those that have many sales. To maximize your results from your affiliates I recommend you increase the commissions of your higher performing affiliates, those that prove themselves. This will make them happy and work even harder to get you more customers.