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Affiliate programs are one of the web's most effective marketing techniques. They create a win-win situation by which site A refers a visitor to site B, and site B pays site A a commission if that visitor purchases something. If you are the referrer site (affiliate), you can make money with no overhead (no product, no warehouse, no collection risk). On the other hand, the destination site receives a steady stream of qualified leads from hundreds, maybe thousands of affiliate sites, and doesn't have to spend a dime unless a visitor purchases something.
To maximize effectiveness, affiliate sites need to keep in mind some common sense suggestions:
1) Resist the temptation to add too many affiliate links. Affiliate link overkill confuses visitors and hurts credibility. You want your visitors to view your site as a value-adding destination and not just a cheesy sales site. Recommend links to products you have tried, or that come from good, solid companies. Don't recommend something you don't know just because you're getting paid. Give your visitors the best advice and they will reward you.
2) If you write articles for your website, try not to include the affiliate links in the body of your articles: it will give the impression that you have a vested interest in recommending them. You want your visitors to trust your advice, so don't turn your article into an excuse to promote products and make a commission. It's OK to include affiliate links, but do it on a side bar or on a resource table. Whenever possible, link to your affiliate partners with text links (since banner ad click-through is at its lower rate ever, and people tend to ignore banners).
3) Include only affiliate links that are related to your business and the topic of interest to your visitors. Links to unrelated products will not generate good leads for the destination sites (and therefore won't be a source of significant commissions for you), so they are best avoided.
4) Managing your affiliate programs can be a hassle if you have to deal with many different companies. Try to sign up with a site that administers many affiliate programs to chose from (one of the best out there are Commission Junction [www.cj.com] and Befree.com [www.befree.com]). These sites give you hundreds of affiliate programs to chose from, and act as a one-stop shop where you can sign up with multiple vendors using only one account and receiving one consolidated commission check.
5) Chose affiliate partners that offer long term cookies. A cookie is a mechanism that allows the destination site to know when a visitor is referred by your site. A long term cookie (for example, a three months cookie) means that a visitor who follows a link to one of your affiliate partners today but doesn't purchase anything, can come back and purchase at anytime during the next three months and you will still be paid a commission. The best programs are those who offer unlimited cookies (although there are not so many of them around). However, a 90-day cookie or more is very good.
6) Link directly to the product page and not to the main page of the destination site. If you link to the main page, the visitor will have to find its way to the product and may not find it, making you lose commissions. By linking directly to the product, you will increase the prospects of the visitor buying the product (and of you making a commission). Many destination sites, like Amazon, recognize this fact and offer a higher commission to affiliates that link directly to the product pages than to those who only link to the main page.
Follow these simple guidelines and you will improve your chances of success with all your affiliate programs.