What is an Affiliate Network and How Does it Really Work?

Discover how affiliate networks operate in the digital marketing world. Learn how they connect advertisers with publishers and facilitate revenue generation.
Image of author Nick Cotter

By Nick Cotter
Updated Jan 10, 2024

What is an Affiliate Network and How Does it Really Work?
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Ever wonder how some businesses seem to effortlessly rake in new customers, growing their reach and profits like they're running a simple lemonade stand, while others are left scratching their heads?

Their secret weapon - the power of affiliate networks.

But before you jump into the deep end, let's equip you with the knowledge to navigate these waters.

In this exciting journey, we will take a deep dive into affiliate networks. We'll uncover what they are, why they're an absolute game-changer, and how to pick one that fits your affiliate program needs like a glove.

Choosing an affiliate network is like picking the right partner for a three-legged race. It's got to match your stride, understand your rhythm, and work with you toward the finish line. It's more than just "pick one and hope for the best" - it's a process that demands strategy, insight, and foresight.

So buckle up!

Whether you're a startup looking to accelerate your affiliate program or an established business aiming to broaden your customer base, this guide is your roadmap to making an informed decision.

By the end of this adventure, you'll be ready to select the right affiliate network and power-charge your business toward exponential growth. Ready to dive in? Let's get this show on the road!

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Understanding Affiliate Marketing Networks

Picture this: You're at a party of influential, interesting people.

You know they could help your business reach new heights, but there's just one problem - you don't know anyone there. How do you start a conversation? Who do you approach? The room suddenly feels a lot bigger, doesn't it?

That's exactly where an affiliate network steps in.

What exactly is an affiliate network?

Affiliate network explained
Affiliate networks

Think of an affiliate network as your savvy party guide, adept at navigating that crowded room. It's a platform that plays matchmaker between you, the advertiser, and affiliates (the influential party-goers), who are ready to promote your product or service to their audiences.

It's your direct line to a crowd of potential partners, and a way to spark profitable conversations.

These networks provide a space where you, as a business, can list your product or services. Affiliates can then sift through these listings (or offers) and choose which ones they want to promote. Like a maestro conducting a symphony, an affiliate network harmonizes this process, ensuring everything from tracking sales, processing payments, to handling affiliate queries is on key.

So, why try to shout over the noise when you can have a reliable guide to help you connect with the right people?

With an affiliate network, you can skip the awkward introductions, get straight to building profitable partnerships, and truly make your presence known.

Ready to enter the party?

Let's dive deeper into how to leverage affiliate networks for your business. You're closer than you think to making those crucial connections.

Affiliate Network vs. Affiliate Software: Which is Better?

Remember when we were talking about parties earlier?

Well, let's add a new twist to that metaphor.

Think about your affiliate program as a party that you're hosting.

Choosing between an affiliate network and affiliate software is a lot like deciding whether to host your party at a fully serviced venue or at your own home.

Affiliate Networks, the fully serviced venue in this case, are platforms that connect businesses (you, the party host) with affiliates (your guests).

They handle everything for you - from finding and managing affiliates, tracking sales and clicks, to processing payments. It's like hiring a full-service event organizer. You get the benefit of their existing relationships, resources, and experience. But remember, they charge for their services, often as a percentage of each sale made through the network.

On the other hand, affiliate tracking software is like DIY party planning at your own home.

These are tools that you use to run your own affiliate program. They provide the technology needed to track and evaluate your affiliates' performance, but the rest - finding affiliates, communicating with them, managing payments - that's on you. It gives you more control and can be more cost-effective, but it does require a lot more effort.

Affiliate network vs Software
Affiliate Network vs Affiliate Software

So, which one's right for you? Well, that depends on your needs and resources.

If you have the time, resources, and industry connections to manage your affiliate program, affiliate software could be the way to go. But if you're looking for a more hands-off approach or are new to the affiliate marketing world, an affiliate network might be your best bet.

Aspect Affiliate Network Affiliate Software
What is it? A platform that connects businesses with affiliates. They handle all affiliate-related tasks. A tool that businesses use to run their own affiliate program.
Management Handled by the network. You just need to sign up, and the network takes care of the rest. Requires active management by the business. You'll need to find and communicate with affiliates, manage payments, etc.
Cost Usually charges a percentage of each sale made through the network. There may also be setup fees. Typically charges a flat monthly fee, regardless of sales.
Control You have less control as the network manages the affiliates. You have more control as you manage the affiliates directly.
Best for Businesses that want a more hands-off approach or are new to affiliate marketing. Businesses that have the time, resources, and connections to manage their own affiliate program.

The choice between an affiliate network and affiliate software isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. It's about finding the balance that works best for your unique needs. 

Now, let's look at some of the top options in both categories, shall we?

In no particular order, below is a table of some fo the top affiliate networks and affiliate software in the space.

Top Affiliate Networks Top Affiliate Software
1. CJ Affiliate 1. Post Affiliate Pro
2. ShareASale 2. Tapfiliate
3. ClickBank 3. Voluum
4. Rakuten Advertising 4. AffTrack
5. Amazon Associates 5. LeadDyno
6. Awin 6. Refersion
7. Pepperjam 7. Scaleo
8. Avangate 8. Affise
9. FlexOffers 9. HasOffers by TUNE
10. Impact 10. Cake
11. Admitad 11. Target Circle
12. Tradedoubler 12. FirstPromoter
13. Webgains 13. Ambassador
14. PartnerStack 14. Offerslook
15. Commission Factory 15. iDevAffiliate
16. AffiliateFuture 16. OSI Affiliate Software
17. Zanox (now Awin) 17. Everflow
18. Affili.net 18. JROX Affiliate Manager
19. MaxBounty 19. Trackier
20. RevenueWire 20. AffiliateWP

How to Choose the Right Affiliate Network

Let's continue our party metaphor, shall we?

Choosing the right affiliate network is a lot like picking the right party venue.

You wouldn't host a lavish black-tie gala in a casual neighborhood bar, right? Similarly, you can't just pick any affiliate network and expect it to align with your business goals and values.

Choosing the right affiliate network for your program involves careful consideration. 

Here's how you can do it:

1. Identify your niche and goals:

Before looking for a network, be clear about what you want. Are you a fitness brand wanting to connect with fitness influencers and bloggers? Then a network with strong presence in the health and fitness niche would be ideal. Your goals matter too. Looking for a quick boost in sales or building long-term relationships? Different networks might serve these goals differently.

2. Research network reputation:

Not all affiliate networks are created equal. Do your homework and look for networks that have a solid reputation. Read reviews, check their social media, and don't hesitate to ask around.

3. Consider the costs:

Different networks come with different price tags. While some charge a set-up fee, others work on commission basis. Make sure the network’s cost structure aligns with your budget.

4. Analyze the affiliate pool:

The quality of affiliates in a network is crucial. After all, these are the people who will be promoting your products. Check if the network has a rigorous affiliate vetting process to ensure quality control.

You’re also going to want to check to see what types of affiliate partnerships there are available – publishers, YouTubers, influencers, content creators, etc.

And of course, check to see whether their affiliate network is B2B or B2C – this will play a huge role in your vetting process!

5. Evaluate the network's tracking and reporting:

Image of Kiflo affiliate reporting
Affiliate reporting dashboard

A good network provides robust tracking and reporting capabilities. You'll want to monitor your affiliate program's performance, so make sure your network offers comprehensive analytics.

6. Assess the network's customer service:

Even the most tech-savvy of us run into roadblocks sometimes. When that happens, you'll want a network with responsive, helpful customer service.

Like the perfect party venue, the right affiliate network can set the stage for your success. It might take some searching, but the results can be spectacular once you find that perfect fit. Ready to find your perfect venue? Let's explore some of the top affiliate networks you can consider.

7. Evaluate the network’s integration capabilities:

Why is this important, you ask? Well, integration can be the bridge that connects your business to a world of efficient operations, better tracking, and ultimately, higher profits.

Let's break it down.

Think of your business operations like an intricate puzzle, each piece connecting seamlessly with the next. Now, picture your affiliate network as a new piece that you're trying to fit into this puzzle. If it doesn't integrate smoothly, you'll end up with a gap disrupting the flow of your operations.

  • First up, let's look at the shopping cart. Your affiliate network needs to play nice with your e-commerce platform. It should be able to accurately track referred sales, and ideally, provide granular data such as which products were purchased. If the integration here is smooth, you've got a green flag. (E.x. Shopify affiliate apps)
  • Next, consider your payment processor. Remember, your affiliate network will handle the payouts to your affiliates. If it doesn't sync well with your payment processor, you'll be stuck in a logistical nightmare, and let's face it, nobody wants delayed or messed up payments.
  • Now, let's not forget about the customer relationship management (CRM) system. The affiliate network should be able to integrate with your CRM for accurate tracking and reporting of leads and conversions. This data is gold when it comes to understanding and optimizing your affiliate marketing performance.
  • Lastly, how about your email marketing platform? A well-integrated system can allow your affiliates to leverage email marketing more effectively, further extending the reach of your brand and products.

Don't underestimate the importance of integration capabilities when choosing your affiliate network.

Remember, you want a piece that fits your puzzle perfectly, enhancing the overall picture rather than disrupting it. When all the pieces fit, that's when you can truly unleash the full potential of your affiliate marketing program. Now, go find that perfect puzzle piece!

Concluding our Affiliate Network Analysis:

And there we have it, folks!

We've journeyed through the vibrant world of affiliate networks, unmasking the what, why, and how of choosing the perfect one for your business.

Like an expert gemologist examining a diamond, you've now got the tools to assess each facet of an affiliate network and determine if it shines just right for you.

But remember, this isn't a "set it and forget it" kind of deal.

Regular assessment, adaptability, and adjustment are the trinity that will keep your affiliate marketing strategy thriving. Continuously monitor, learn from the data, and make tweaks as necessary. Just like steering a ship, adjusting to the changing winds and currents is key to reaching your destination.

Choosing the right affiliate network is just the beginning.

It's the first step on your journey to a thriving, effective affiliate marketing program. So go ahead, take that step with confidence. You've got the know-how, the insights, and the strategies to make this work.

Thank you for embarking on this journey with us. We hope this guide empowers you to harness the full potential of affiliate marketing and propels your business to new heights. Remember, success isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. Keep going, keep growing. You've got this!

Until next time, keep pushing boundaries and making waves. After all, that's what trailblazers do!

Nick Cotter

Nick Cotter

Founder & CEO
Growann

With over 7 years navigating the intricate realms of marketing, and specifically B2B partner marketing, Nick has forged collaborations with top-tier tech brands, prominent agencies, and some of the industry's foremost B2B publishers and content creators. His deep immersion in both marketing landscapes showcases a trajectory of expertise and innovation. Identifying a significant void in specialized resources, he founded Growann.The aspiration? Deliver unparalleled insights and guidance, carving out a dedicated space where the broader marketing and B2B partner marketing communities can flourish.