How Long Does it Take to Grow an Affiliate Program?
When we launch a new affiliate program on behalf of one of our clients, or when we are just in discussion about the launch process, some of the most common things we hear we are: “how long will it take to scale our affiliate program?” and “Now that we’ve launched, I need you to ramp this channel up really fast!”
We get it. As a marketing stakeholder, you are about to invest in a new marketing channel. You will be investing company time, money, and resources into this channel. As the P&L manager you need to see results.
Unlike other marketing channels suck as Google Ads or Facebook that offer a pretty clear expectation of returns that are quantifiable in a formula such as “if I spend $1 I should expect $2 in return” or “if I spend $100 I should expect this many clicks to my site.”
Unfortunately, the affiliate marketing channel is less straightforward as to the predictability of growth timeline.
When launching an affiliate program there is no single formula for predicting how quickly affiliates will join and begin promoting your product. If an agency or marketing professional claims to have a precise model for predicting affiliate program growth I would be highly suspicious of their method and motives.
We have been in this industry for over thirteen years. Based on our experience, and what has become generally accepted industry standards, any brand launching an affiliate program from scratch should expect at least a 6-12 month timeline for your affiliate program to reach maturity. After a full year you should continue to expect incremental growth of your affiliate program, as the processes for managing and optimizing your affiliate program are continued month over month.
There are many factors that contribute to launching and scaling a successful affiliate program. The most important aspect is having a dedicated person or team managing your program on a full-time basis. You can achieve this one of two ways: 1) hire an in-house affiliate marketing manager, or 2) hire an Outsourced Program Manager – an agency with experience and resources to fully manage your program on your behalf. The decision to hire internally or outsource to an agency is one you need to make based on your company culture and what makes the most sense for your business needs. Regardless of your decision, the timeline for scaling your affiliate program will look very similar.
Based on our experience working with different affiliate programs, that spans over a decade, here’s what you can expect your affiliate program growth timeline to look like.
Affiliate Program Timeline:
Month 1: Affiliate Program Technical Integration & Launch
When you sign your contract with your affiliate management agency, or you hire your in-house affiliate marketing manager, that’s just the starting gun signaling that you are now off to the races.
The next big step is to select your affiliate network or tracking solution and integrate. We generally recommend Impact, PartnerStack, CJ, or Rakuten, depending on the specific needs of your business and the current stage of your marketing efforts.
Once you have selected your network then you need sign a network agreement (if applicable), create a network account, and integrate with their tracking solution. Generally, we have seen this process take anywhere from 1-3 weeks or be as long as 4-8 weeks. It really depends on your technical resources who are assigned to managing the technical integration.
Months 2-3: Initial Outreach & Affiliate On-boarding
Once your affiliate technical integration has been thoroughly tested you are ready to launch! The most important next step is affiliate recruitment. This is an on-going aspect of your affiliate program, but super important in the initial launch period.
When your program is formally launched in your network you will start to see inbound affiliate applications. Some of these will be great opportunities, others won’t be. The best way to attract relevant and highly targeted affiliates to join your program is through dedicated and intentional outreach and recruitment. You need to build target lists of the partners that you want to bring into your program and then dedicate outreach time to building relationships with them. You will want to utilize in-network and out-of-network target partner lists.
We typically begin outreach and recruitment in month 1 before a program officially launches, as we have a database of 1,000s of active affiliates who we have worked with over the years and maintain relationships with. This allows us a head start on behalf of our clients’ programs. If you are managing your program in-house and you are launching your affiliate program for the first time, you’ll want to spend considerable time during month 1 to build your affiliate target list and outreach strategy, so you can hit the ground running as soon as your program launches, or you can go with an agency like Bell Interactive to manage your program for you. 🙂
Months 4-6: Affiliates Ramp Up Promotions
If you don’t see the results you are looking for in the first 1-3 months, do not give up! Scaling an affiliate program can take time to scale. We have seen programs scale very quickly (within the first 1-2 months) and our goal is always to scale as quickly as possible so our clients can demonstrate ROI for the channel early into the program’s lifespan. That’s not always feasible, as we do not control the affiliates and their promotional efforts.
Affiliates often seem to drag their feet and can look like they are slow to start promoting, even if they join the program and demonstrate interest in your brand. This really isn’t the case. The reality is you are 1 of 100s of brands fighting for their attention. Affiliates can only launch and promote so many programs at a time, so it is important to build a deep relationship, remain consistent in your communications, and stay on top of your follow-ups until the affiliates joined to your program start driving traffic and promoting.
It will happen if you stick with it! Getting an affiliate into the program is step one. Getting your affiliates to start promoting is step two. Both of these efforts are on-going through the life of your program. It requires persistence, commitment, and consistency to yield continual results and drive incremental growth month over month.
Months 6-12: Traffic, Traffic, Traffic!
By this stage of your program you should have a meaningful database of affiliates joined to your program and many of the top affiliates have already gone live with their campaigns and their promotions. You should see traffic start to scale in a meaningful trend. Each program is different, but this stage you have the potential to start seeing real “hockey stick” growth in your program.
Here’s a snapshot of one of the programs we manage over the initial months of the program launch. See how it starts to tick up?!
Months 12+: Rinse and Repeat for Scale!
It has been a full year since you launched your program. By now you should have meaningful volume coming through your program. If managed well to get to this point you can consider your affiliate program mature, but it is not done growing yet – not by a long shot!
You probably noticed that most of your volume is coming from a small percentage of your affiliates. The 80/20 rule is in full effect: 80% of your program performance is coming from 20% of your affiliates. We’ve seen this proportion skew to 90/10 and even 95/5. This means you have many affiliates in your program that have not yet gone active. This represents and excellent growth opportunity to mine your joined affiliate list and work on activating and optimizing partners who are already joined to your program, but may not have gone active for one reason or another.
Scaling an affiliate program relies on rinsing and repeating on this simple formula daily to achieve your desired program growth goals: 1) outreach to new affiliates, 2) on-board interested affiliates, 3) activate affiliates, and 4) optimize active affiliates. If you do this over and over again you will see measurable results for your program.
If you have any questions or if something wasn’t clear, don’t hesitate to contact us. We love making new online friends and we’d be happy to help!