In the great mass of affiliate programs out there it can be hard to find a good affiliate program. I've dedicated some articles on this site to that purpose, such as What is the best affiliate program? Also, you can use the Affiliate program review directory to find the best affiliate programs for your needs.
But all good affiliate programs have some basic characteristics in common. These are things you should look for before even considering the details of the program. If an affiliate marketing program doesn't meet one of these criteria, it should set of alarm bells in your head.
The online marketing world is very much based on trust and reputation. After all, you rely on your merchant or affiliate network to provide you with accurate information about your performance, to give you credit for all the traffic you send, and to pay you the amounts due on time. If a merchant breaks this trust, chances are the word gets out quickly and they'll be out of the affiliate game in no time.
Unfortunately, I've seen more than a few merchants who would not pay me on time, who would fail to accurately track my customers or who would attempt to deny me my commissions with unreasonable reversal times or payment thresholds. So when selecting an affiliate program, you should definitely remain on your guard.
A good affiliate program will always offer you insight in the clicks, leads and sales you generate. If you are on a revenue-share commission base, you should have insight in the future purchases of your referred customers. Your merchant should have a set date of the month or payment amount when he pays you and not deviate from this practice.
All the large affiliate programs and affiliate networks that have been in business for years are very reliable. It doesn't hurt to stick with them for your peace of mind. But sometimes a merchant is new in the market and seems to offer a good affiliate deal. The fact that they haven't had the chance to establish their reputation shouldn't mean that you don't do business with them, as that might mean you'd pass up a great opportunity. But look for the signs of transparency and accountability. If after a month they for some reason refuse to pay you or say they cannot provide you with insight into your performance, GET OUT IMMEDIATELY!. Also, please report such a merchant on this website to warn others.
All the good affiliate programs that I list on this website have proven to be reliable. So there you definitely can't go wrong.
Good account management
Although the internet is a big space and some online marketing programs work with thousands of affiliates, this does not mean that they should give you an impersonal treatment. The best affiliate programs that I've used always had a personal account manager assigned to me, who would be just an e-mail or a phone call away.
Your account manager should readily respond if you have any questions, if you're unsure about how their commission structure or tracking software works. The better affiliate account managers will also recognize that both you and the merchant can benefit from a personalized deal. For example, I was able to negotiate a no-deposit bonus deal with one forex broker, which attracted an large stream of new clients from the profitable Dutch market.
If you do business through an affiliate network, chances are that you won't get your own account manager. That is one of the drawbacks of affiliate networks. But if a direct affiliate program isn't willing to treat you personally, you might want to look further for one that does.
Most affiliate programs have a payout threshold. This is the minimum amount of commissions you need to have accumulated before they pay you. While having a payout threshold is understandable--making a wire transfer or sending a cheque isn't free after all--this threshold should never be very high. Otherwise you might have your hard earned dollars just sitting there, not earning you any interest.
Especially as you're getting started in online marketing, you'll want to get your payouts as soon as possible, both because this is very motivating and because you can use your earnings to fund a new marketing campaign. A payout threshold over $100 is hardly ever acceptable, unless you're in an online marketing niche with extremely high CPAs (such as online trading or commercial loans).
Cookie retention time
Almost every affiliate program tracks the customers you bring in using a cookie (a small file on the visitor's computer, containing information about them). These cookies have only a limited lifetime (or retention time). After that, if the customer visits your merchant's website again, this visit won't be linked to you.
There are good reasons for having only a limited cookie retention time. For example, if you refer a customer to buy a book on Amazon.com, they decide it sucks and go away, there is no reason that you should be credited if they visit Amazon again a week later to buy a new vacuum cleaner. However, in many industries the visitor will not make a purchase immediately upon reading your web page. Especially with more expensive products, they may wait, think, do some more research, visit the merchant's site again and finally decide to buy. Research has show that it takes up to seven exposures to a product to convince someone to buy it.
Now it would be horrible for you if you get the process of convincing a customer started, they finally decide to make the purchase after two weeks, but you don't get credit because your cookie has expired. So cookie retention time has to strike a fine balance between crediting you for a delayed purchase and not rewarding you for a later, unrelated purchase.
What a 'good' cookie rentention time is differs wildly from niche to niche and merchant to merchant. A big online retailer like Amazon.com could reasonably expect customers to find them without your help and therefore not offer long cookie lifetimes. An obscure online casino would never be found without your help, so there you should expect a cookie to last for weeks or even months. In the same vein a simple and inexpensive retail product like a book or a t-shirt needs only short cookie retention times as customers usually decide immediately whether to buy or not. The cookie for a six-month online course, on the other hand, should last to give your prospect ample decision time.
So what are reasonable cookie retention times? For simple retail products expect 3 days to a week. Affiliate programs in this niche with cookies that last less than 72 hours should be avoided. For most online products and services, expect cookies of at least 30 days but try looking for 60 days. For extremely large and expensive purchases (e.g. a yacht), expect cookies that last for 3 months or more. For anything in between, use your best judgement. For any good affiliate program, your merchant will give credit where credit is due.
One final word of warning. Most affiliate programs use the practice of cookie replacement. This means that if your visitor visits another affiliate's website after yours before buying, that other affiliate gets the credit for the sale. The thought behind this is that it was probably the last visited affiliate that did most of the selling. Whether this is true or just is open for debate, but cookie replacement is not considered poor practice in the world of online affiliate marketing. Sometimes it'll be to your advantage, sometimes not. Just keep this in mind.