How To Start Your Own Affiliate Program And Avoid These 3 Expensive Pitfalls

Timing is everything, especially when it comes to determining how to start an affiliate program for your business.

Start too early and you might end up with a pile of paperwork and no revenue. But if you wait too long, you might miss out on valuable revenue and reach for your business.

In fact, WordPress affiliate programs work best when your business is already well established.

That’s because affiliates are not “pay as you go marketers.”

They also aren’t magical growth accelerators. A successful affiliate or referral program requires structure and a nurturing environment to bring in those extra sales.

Here’s why it works that way:

1. The Best Referrals Come From People Who Know Your Program

Sure, anyone can share an affiliate link… but the highest conversion rates come from individuals who have experience with your program (or services and courses) and can give a genuine account of it to their network of trusted relationships.

People see through a make-me-money-fast scheme, whether it’s coming from your mouth or the mouth of your affiliate partners.

So make sure that you’ve done your due diligence by making sure your program or services are stellar and that you have happy clients who are more than ready to share the news about it all.

2. The Most Valuable Affiliates Have A Following Of Their Own

Want to gather a group of affiliates who are worth their weight in gold? Ally yourself with individuals who have a strong following of their own, which is easier said than done.

To do this, of course, you have to “prove” that your affiliate program is going to be worth their time and attention. You’ll also have to prove that your program offers more potential than the other ones out there.

You’ll also want to make sure that you treat any affiliate’s referral like gold: which is why having a proven product or service makes it easier to onboard affiliates.

No one wants to refer their friends or clients to a bad experience.

If I don’t have a good time at a restaurant, I’m not going to tell my friends to go there because they’ll never trust my recommendations for restaurants! The same is true for anyone who spreads the word as an affiliate.

3. Affiliates Aren’t Going To Put Effort Into A Product That’s Not Selling

Do you know who’s the most loyal affiliate of your program? You.

Your affiliates are in it for the money, otherwise, they would be using their time and efforts to promote their own products and services.

So if you’re having a tough time making sales on your own, there’s very little reason to believe that your affiliates will do any better.

And, to be totally honest, if the time spent with you isn’t paying off for your affiliates, they’re likely to abandon your program entirely.

4. Affiliates Are Looking For An Easy Way To Make Money

And this is totally, 100% ok.

After all, it’s not their course or program to sell, it’s yours.

Your first job is to build something worth promoting.

Your next job is to create the best sharable graphic, social media posts, and email swipe copy that they might possibly need when advertising your program – and make sure it’s all easily accessible. You can create an easy to use affiliate center using a WordPress affiliate plugin like AccessAlly.

Many of the strongest affiliates often have full-time gigs of their own, and don’t have time to plan an entire marketing strategy around your programs.

Once again, that’s your job. Make it as easy for them as possible!

5. Affiliates Are Also Looking To Build Stronger Relationships

Our AccessAlly Affiliates are some of our all-time favorite business allies. We’ve taken the time to get to know as many of them as possible.

Whether that’s through email, Skype conversations, or in-person meetings, we’re always excited to get to know each one of them a little more whenever possible… which does require effort.

It’s good for all of us when we focus on helping our affiliates succeed: our collective customers benefit and so do we.

Building a strong business means building real relationships. Especially with your affiliates. So be prepared to dedicate quite a bit of time to making sure they have everything they need to be successful.

The Strength Of Your Business Dictates The Success Of Your Affiliates

Jumping the gun and setting up your own affiliate program “too soon” means that you might not see the great benefits that you’re craving.

Can it still work? Sure.

In the world of online business, anything is technically possible.

But know that your affiliates will quickly see how much or how little dedication you’re putting into it. And the stellar ones aren’t likely to stick around if things aren’t running as smoothly as they could be.

This also means making sure that your affiliate tracking system is fully automated, so that there are no awkward mix-ups or payment inconsistencies.

Speaking of Awkward, Expensive Pitfalls…

A lot that can go wrong when you’re not totally prepared for (or invested in) an affiliate program. But here are the main 3 pitfalls that we see most often:

Mistake #1: Investing Too Much in A Big System… Without The Payoff

Since affiliate programs tend to be a little more “high-end” on the business investment spectrum, WordPress affiliate plugins typically comes with a price tag attached. Yes, there are some WordPress referral plugin options on the low end but you’ll want to make sure they integrate with your existing systems.

Affiliate systems also require a ton of time to manage properly, which means that you might either burnout (if you’re trying to do it all yourself), or have to hire a new tech savvy team member (which can be quite expensive).

If your affiliates aren’t bringing in enough extra revenue to cover this investment, you can end up in the red.

Mistake #2: Recruiting the wrong type of affiliates

Anyone can be an affiliate, right?


Some affiliates are only in it to make a little money, and aren’t as discerning about the type of traffic they’re sending to your products.

We’ve seen a huge influx of website traffic and purchases from affiliate referrals… only to have it followed by refunds and returns. These were just not our ideal customers to begin with.

It’s not just a hassle. It’s a total waste of money and resources to try to get everything straightened out.

Mistake #3: Losing your best affiliates because of poor leadership

Say you’ve successfully avoided mistakes 1 and 2, but then find yourself pulled in many different directions. Yeah, you promised new graphics, more promotions, and an affiliate contest (complete with prizes)… but when it comes right down to it, you don’t have the time.

Unfortunately, neglecting your affiliates can completely annihilate their interest in you and what you have to offer. Because while you were trying to refocus, another company may have stepped in with a better program.

Your affiliates might decide to skip your next promotion or dis-engage entirely.

Always remember that your affiliates are humans with their own lives! They need inspiration and leadership from you if you’re going to expect any bit of effort from them!

…and that brings us to the next part of building your own affiliate program:

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When You’re Really Ready for It… Here’s How To Set Up An Affiliate Program That Actually Benefits Your Business

By this point, you should know in your gut whether or not an affiliate program is the right fit for your business at this time.

If the answer is “Heck yes, absolutely,” then there’s a whole new list of practical things to consider: the set up and running of said program.

To be 100% honest, it’s a huge undertaking, both in the setup and in the management of the program itself.

But the payoff (for the right fit) makes it all worthwhile.

So here are the top 5 “practicals” of building your own affiliate program:

1. What Features Do I Need To Have In My Affiliate Center?

So… what does an affiliate program typically include?

  • Unique Affiliate Links – each affiliate should be able to login and access their own unique links, that will be used to track referrals and purchases.
  • A Tracking System That Integrates With Your E-Commerce – Not only should the links be trackable, but they should also be automatically “figured’ inside your e-commerce system. This will allow for streamlined accounting – a total must!
  • A password-protected location – this should house all affiliate links and resources for a quick, one-stop-shop for your affiliates.
  • An Affiliate “Leaderboard” – one great way to incentivize affiliates is by running a contest. Typically, we do this by offering a prize, and keeping a list of the top 5 or 10 affiliates. It creates a little friendly competition and amps up the enthusiasm.
  • ”Swipe Copy” – In your affiliate center, you should also have a place to hold “swipe copy,” or the pre-written emails and social messages that your affiliates can use during promotions. We also like to create custom graphics to make it all a little more visually appealing

2. What affiliate program platform should I use?

The software “brain” behind your WordPress affiliate program is really the one that ensures all the features (listed above) are readily available and functioning.

Because of this, it’s definitely recommended to use a robust affiliate system that thoroughly integrates with your CRM/e-commerce system – whether that’s a third-party tool, or something that’s already built into your current tech setup.

For example, we used Infusionsoft’s affiliate center for years to host and track our affiliate program, and were really happy with its performance.

After we added affiliate management functionality to our AccessAlly plugin, we switched to using that, instead.

(So if you’re using any of our integrated CRMs, know that you can use AccessAlly as your WordPress affiliate plugin.)

3. What % of a sale should I offer my affiliates?

This is a huge question, and one that you have to dig deep into your business model to find the answer to!

Many entrepreneurs who run affiliate programs won’t directly advertise how much they’re sharing with their affiliates, but in short, the answer is this:

Share enough to make it be worth their while.

If you’re selling thousand-dollar services, you won’t necessarily need to designate as high of a percentage as when you’re only selling $20 products.

But on the other hand, most affiliates will appreciate your generosity if you decide to give out a 20 – 50% cut, no matter how much you’re charging for your products.

4. How Much “Swipe Copy” Do I Need To Prepare For My Affiliates?

Generally, there are two types of affiliate promotions:

  1. Evergreen promotions – when your products are always available to purchase.
  2. Launch promotions – when you’re opening up enrollment or sales for a limited time.

Each type of promotion should include its own set of swipe copy… in general, I like to see:

  • 1-3 pre-written emails (more, if you want them to do a sales sequence with their email lists)
  • 3-5 Facebook/LinkedIn/Google+ posts
  • 3-5 Twitter posts
  • 3-10 unique graphics to use as social posts, website banners, etc.

5. How Many Affiliates Should I Recruit?

how to start your own affiliate programOnce again, this is totally up to you.

“The more the merrier” isn’t always a good motto to have, since you definitely want your affiliates to be invested in your business and mission.

(Think about it: affiliates who send low-quality traffic to your site will also be sending you less-than-ideal clients who might buy a product quickly… but then cancel just as fast. Total customer service headache!)

At the same time, you want to recruit enough affiliates so that you can count on some referrals always coming in, even if some of your affiliates are busy with other things during a promotion.

Find a sweet spot that works for you – possibly setting a “good-better-best” goal to reach when recruiting.

What’s the Next Step In Starting Your Own Affiliate Program?

First, be 100% certain that now is the right time to begin your program.

Then, find the affiliate platform/plugin that will work best for your needs.

Next, spend ample time planning out your promotions and preparing a ton of copy and materials for your affiliates.

Lastly, take time to recruit affiliates who love your business and are ready to make you proud.

The future of your business might even depend on the strength of your program.

Content updated March 2019.

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  1. Dibakar Bala on March 2, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Thank You so much Maria. I just found this in my mail at the perfect time. It really changed my perspective towards my affiliate program plans :p

    • ambitionally on March 2, 2017 at 9:10 pm

      So glad to hear that Dibakar!

  2. Angela on April 25, 2017 at 8:54 am

    Great article. After reading your article I am certai I am definitely not ready to start an affiliate program.

  3. Dorothee on May 20, 2017 at 10:39 am

    For me a very useful article and it made very clear, I only want a few, handpicked affiliates who rreally love my business. Thank you, Maria!

    • ambitionally on May 23, 2017 at 11:49 am

      Glad to hear it was helpful for you Dorothee! :)