In the world of affiliate marketing, there are two main ways to work with your partners: through an affiliate network, and in a one-to-one relationship in your affiliate program. Affiliate networks and direct partners both play important roles and bring value to a program. However, they differ greatly in terms of how you collaborate with them and the dynamics of your relationship.
Over the years at TUNE, we’ve noticed that individuals who are new to affiliate marketing have the most difficulty understanding the direct partner side of the equation, whereas most people — marketers or otherwise — are familiar with the concept of an affiliate network. We believe both types of partners are beneficial, and working with a combination of the two is something we see across the most successful partner programs. To help more marketers leverage the best of both worlds, we’re explaining what it means to work directly with a partner in your affiliate program versus working with a partner in an affiliate network.
Affiliate Networks vs. Direct Partners
In some ways, direct partners are the opposite of affiliate networks. Understanding how you work with partners in a network makes it easier to understand how working with direct partners is different. So let’s set the groundwork by looking at the top characteristics of working with affiliate network partners.
Affiliate Network Partners
- Intermediary Platform
Affiliate networks are intermediaries that connect you (the advertiser or brand) with their network of partners. These networks serve as a platform where businesses can find and recruit affiliates, and affiliates can find multiple products or services to promote.
- Broader Reach and Scale
Affiliate networks provide you with a pre-existing pool of affiliates from various niches and industries, including a range of publishers, content creators, and marketers. This is beneficial if you want to reach a wider audience quickly. However, it may mean you have less control over who eventually promotes your products.
- Standardized Agreements and Features
Affiliate networks often have standardized terms and conditions, commission structures, and reporting systems. While this can make it easier for you to get started, it doesn’t provide much flexibility and limits your ability to negotiate custom agreements.
- Less Personalization
In affiliate networks, the relationships with affiliates tend to be less personal. You may have less control over how affiliates promote your business and might need to rely on the network’s policies to enforce brand guidelines. And because communication with affiliates in a network often occurs through the network’s messaging system, it often lacks a personal touch and a guarantee of privacy.
- Network Fees
Along with tracking conversions and distributing commissions on your behalf, affiliate networks handle payment processing as well. Networks charge an additional service fee for payment processing, usually as a percentage of your revenue or your partners’ commissions. These fees vary and are set at the network’s discretion. While affiliate networks may be convenient, the fees associated with them can impact the profitability of your entire program and should be carefully considered.
Now that we have a baseline, let’s examine how working with direct partners in a strategic affiliate program differs.
- One-to-One Relationships
When you work with a direct affiliate partner, you establish a one-to-one relationship with an individual or entity (such as a blogger, content creator, influencer, or website owner) who promotes your products or services. You establish a business relationship with them independently, without the involvement of an intermediary or affiliate network.
- Direct Communication
Communication with direct partners typically happens, well, directly — through email, phone calls, messaging apps, or other personal means. By keeping your communication private and confidential, you can better protect the strategic partnerships you discover and nurture, instead of sharing them with an affiliate network (and anyone who joins it).
- Customized Agreements
With direct partnerships, you negotiate and agree on the terms and conditions of your partnership directly with the individual you’re working with. This allows for more flexibility in crafting affiliate agreements, commission structures, promotional methods, and more. Going direct lets you tailor every aspect of the partnership to suit the unique needs and capabilities of your partner and the specific goals of your business.
- More Management and Support
Directly managing and supporting your affiliates may require more resources than you would need to manage and support them through an affiliate network. For example, you’ll need to supply the program infrastructure, tracking tools, and support documentation to ensure they can effectively promote your products or services.
- Greater Control and Oversight
Working one-on-one with your partners gives you greater control and oversight over your entire affiliate program. This can help ensure that a partner’s promotional activities (like the kind of ads they run or the websites they run them on) align with your brand’s values and quality standards.
- Higher Commissions
In some cases, direct affiliates can expect higher commission rates compared to those in affiliate networks. One reason for this is that partners outside of a network bear the responsibility of generating their own traffic and sales. Another reason is that brands can see a significant cost savings when high network fees and processing charges are taken out of the equation. By translating these savings into higher commissions, you can spend less overall than you would with a network and attract more affiliates to your program by standing out from the lower paying competition.
- Payment Processing
When you run a direct affiliate program, you are responsible for managing and processing partner payments. This means you need to track the affiliate’s performance, calculate commissions, and pay them directly, usually on a predetermined schedule.
The Best of Both Worlds
In summary, direct affiliate partnerships offer more personalized, customized, and closely managed relationships with individual affiliates. In contrast, affiliate networks provide a broader reach and more convenience, but usually involve less personalization and control.
The choice between the two depends on your marketing goals, resources, budget, and the level of control you want over your affiliate program. Many businesses use a combination of direct partners and networks to achieve a balance between customization and scale in their affiliate marketing efforts.
At TUNE, we’ve seen the most successful programs run a mix of both direct partnerships and affiliate network relationships. That’s why our platform enables you to run a strategic partner program with direct partners and have access to top affiliate partners through the TUNE Network. You choose to use one or the other, or combine them in the way that makes the most sense for your business. In other words: It’s the best of both worlds.
Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she led a variety of marketing and communications projects at San Francisco startups. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After living nearly a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned to her home of Charleston, SC, where you can find her enjoying the sun and salt water with her family.