Keeping Tabs on Affiliate Marketers

Keeping track of all the places your brand touches prospects and customers can get more complicated than you think, especially when you rely on a network of marketing affiliates. An affiliate marketing relationship is formed when you pay another entity to promote your products and services on your behalf (usually on a pay-on-results basis).

Your affiliates may be using a variety of marketing vehicles, from banner ads on their Web sites to full-scale promotional email campaigns. These email campaigns, in particular, can present real challenges when it comes to ensuring compliance with federal and state laws, such as CAN-SPAM. When all is said and done, the affiliate will not be held responsible for any violation--you will.

When it comes to retention mailings using your in-house lists, you and your marketing team know exactly how and where recipients opted-in. Typically, these recipients have either purchased from you before or signed up directly on your Web site. Most likely they remember signing up for emails from your brand, and value the information contained in your regular email communications.

When it comes to the acquisition side of your email efforts, however, affiliate partnerships are especially troublesome due to the lack of brand control and lack of access to information about where their email addresses are really coming from. Unfortunately, too few marketers actively monitor their affiliates' email programs, putting their brand and bottom line at risk.

Choose your friends carefully, and choose your affiliate marketing partners even more carefully. Before you give any affiliates license to email on behalf of your brand, we recommend you take these precautions:

Investigate affiliates' overall marketing practices. It's hard enough to maintain a good online reputation and constantly differentiate your brand from outright spammers; your affiliates shouldn't make it any harder. Are these affiliates using best practices, both technically and recipient facing that will ensure your brand is well represented? Are these practices in line with the way your company treats customers and email recipients?

Check their client references. It's difficult to measure the potential impact an affiliate might have on your brand, but start by asking the affiliate for references, preferably from both current and past clients. Ask the clients about the number of complaints they received while working with the affiliate, and the amount and type of data that was provided as proof of permission. You can even have an audit performed by a third party to assess the prospective affiliate's online reputation.

Review their CAN-SPAM compliance. As mentioned, given the way CAN-SPAM is structured, the sender (defined as the product, service, or Web site being promoted) is liable for complying with the requirements of CAN-SPAM. Make sure you've reviewed thoroughly all CAN-SPAM unsubscribe and labeling requirements. Make sure you maintain a master list of unsubscribe requests and that your affiliates continually scrub their lists against it. Also, make sure all your emails offer a way for recipients to opt-out of all emails from your brand.

Seed their mailing lists. Seed the affiliate's mailings with test email accounts so you can monitor their activity. Also, unsubscribe from time-to-time to test how long it takes to get unsubscribed and by what mechanism (by replying or using the unsubscribe link in the email).

Ask for proof of opt-in. Prior to solidifying the relationship, ask the affiliate to provide proof of opt-in for at least five random email addresses (request the date, time, URL, and IP address that was recorded at the time the individual signed up and gave the email address). And, as soon as you get your first recipient complaint coming from their lists, demand proof of opt-in from the affiliate immediately. Any responsible affiliate should be able to provide this within a day.

Identify the affiliates' affiliates. Just as you rely on affiliates, your affiliates may also rely on third parties for marketing services. Make sure you understand if there are other companies involved in your marketing efforts and how many layers away they are from you. Get contact information (name, company name, phone, address) for any additional parties involved with the affiliate.

Write creative approval into the contract. Depending on how many affiliates you deal with, the core competencies of each--and the degree of trust between you--you may want to require that you see all final creative before it's sent. This will enable you to help ensure your brand is well represented before any damage is done.

Heather Palmer Goff is the director of ISP relations and deliverability for Responsys. Goff works with client staff to formulate and prioritize email deliverability initiatives and drive client education of industry best practices and email compliance. Goff graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a BA in communication. Contact Heather at 650-801-7424 or at hgoff@responsys.com. Carole Coplan is general counsel for Responsys. Prior to Responsys, Carole served as in-house counsel for various companies, including the former First Nationwide Financial and Epylon. Contact Carole at ccoplan@responsys.com

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