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What I learnt trying to launch an affiliate program with three days’ notice


In the world of events and seminars, an empty seat is money left on the table.

The bulk of an event’s expenses are fixed overheads, such as venue hire and audio visual hire, but once these are recouped each additional ticket sold is almost pure profit — especially if you don’t have expensive per head catering.

And, most event organisers know, it’s not until those last 20 or 30 tickets are sold that an event becomes truly profitable.

Why try affiliate marketing?

Typically at Interactive Minds we have a venue capacity of a bit over 100, but for a recent event we decided to go big.

We’d secured a big brand to come and present and we felt confident about our ability to sell out a 250 seat auditorium using our standard marketing approach of mailing our email database, pushing out through social media and word of mouth.

But a week before the event we’d only sold 95 tickets, well less that what we expected, and it was looking like we’d only get to about 60% capacity, which would barely cover costs.

So after brain storming with the rest of the team, we had two options to try and boost sales:

  1. Hammer our email database, which is bad
  2. Get creative

Obviously, when you’re a company that delivers digital marketing events, you’re expected to walk the walk, so we choose to rapidly throw together an affiliate campaign to see if we could use other people’s networks to move the remaining tickets.

What is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is where you use a third party to promote your products and services in return for a percentage of sales or some other reward. It’s a common tactic in the world of internet marketing to boost sales and expand your reach. It’s also used by traditional businesses, often as a simple “refer a friend” campaign. When you refer a friend, both you and the friend get rewarded.

In internet land the whole thing is typically managed using cookies, coupon codes or special links so that you know which affiliate has referred which customer. This ensures your affiliates get paid accurately.

Affiliate marketing isn’t just suited to events businesses. Imagine you’re a product-based outfit and you bring in a large amount of stock only to discover you can’t shift it. Or maybe you’re a service-based company and you open a new office in a new city but your planned marketing falls flat. Affiliate marketing may be just the ticket.

Finding the right platform

At Interactive Minds, we use a ticketing platform called Eventbrite, which has a built in affiliate program — a feature I’d been itching to try out.

Eventbrite allows you to create either a public or private affiliate program for your event. It will automatically issue each affiliate with a unique link that has a magic tracking code embedded. When someone clicks on the affiliate’s link and completes a purchase, the system automatically recognises that the ticket purchaser was referred by that particular affiliate. Eventbrite also has a clever administration area that allows you to keep tabs on everything.

Other affiliate systems for digital and physical products include HasOffers, Commission Junction, Commission Monster and ClixGalore.

For us, Eventbrite’s affiliate tool seemed like the ideal solution to our situation. We had the systems and all we needed were the affiliates, right?

Planning our affiliate program

With less than a week before the event, we had quite a few important decisions to wrap our heads around:

  • How much commission should we pay?
  • Who should we ask to be affiliates?
  • What guidelines should we give them?
  • How can we be sure that they respect our brand and don’t do anything dodgy?
  • How would we make payments?
  • What would we do if something went wrong?

Setting the commission

Another key consideration was understanding our per head costs (or, if you’re selling a product, knowing your unit cost of goods sold) as it was vital to recoup at least this amount otherwise we’d end up losing money.

For this event, we had a very clear picture of our per head costs, which were catering and ticket processing fees, and we decided that we could afford to set the commission at $25.00 for each ticket sold (tickets had a face value of $65.00).

We felt that this amount struck a balance between making the reward juicy enough for affiliates, while still leaving enough to cover our costs and leave enough profit for us not to wake up the next morning regretting the decision.

Depending on your business, it may also be wise to consider the lifetime value of a new customer. If your customers make repeat purchases you may be willing to pay a higher commission up front, and even take a small loss if you know you can recoup this over time.

Where do you find affiliates?

The next problem we had to face was working out who we could ask to promote for us. The ideal affiliate would be someone who was:

  • Influential — people tend to listen to them and follow their recommendations
  • Well networked — perhaps with an email list or a significant amount of followers on twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn
  • Trustworthy — who knows and understands our brand, would follow any guidelines and wouldn’t throw a tantrum if something went wrong
  • Motivated by money

To come up with a list of names we went through our address books, fan page, Twitter followers. We were able to pull together 15 people who met our criteria and whom we thought would be interested.

The approach

After coming up with a list of names, I called each of them personally and explained the situation, rather than sending a group email.

As we were short for time, I wanted to know immediately who was interested and who wasn’t. Plus, I needed to clearly set expectations.

One of my main concerns was that someone would misinterpret what we were trying to achieve and would wrongly think that we were asking them to start spamming their friends for the sake of making a quick buck. Amway anyone?

Of all the people I contacted, only one was not interested in helping.

Provide guidelines and promotion ideas

Most of the people we enlisted were not veteran internet marketers, but rather people who have been to many Interactive Minds events, know the value we deliver and have a bit of clout amongst their peers.

We needed to explain everything as simply as possible including how the Eventbrite system worked, how they would get their link, when they would receive payment and some ideas for promotion.

From previous experience, I knew there was a gaping chasm between asking someone to do something and them actually doing it, so I went into a fair bit of detail about possible promotion methods, such as what type of email to send and to whom, hoping that by making everything as easy as possible we’d get a better result.

For example, LinkedIn has a feature that many people don’t know about; you can segment your contacts by location and then send a message to everyone in a particular city, in this case Brisbane.

The less people have to think to help you, the greater the chance they’ll actually do something.

So it was a big success! Right?

Firstly, the stats.

Of the 15 names we came up with, I ended up approaching 11 people. Of these 11, all but one said they were keen to promote for us and thought it was a neat idea.

Of these ten people, seven signed up to the Eventbrite and claimed an affiliate link. (First lesson learned, just because someone says they will help, doesn’t mean they’ll actually get around to it).

From these seven people we generated:

  • 478 visits to the purchase page
  • 11 sales
  • For a conversion of 2.3%

Which is seriously underwhelming.  So what happened?

First the good stuff: what worked well

It seems obvious but 11 more tickets is still 11 more tickets, and we were able to close out 80% of capacity by the time ticket sales ended.

We sold more tickets

While 11 doesn’t seem like much, those 478 page views meant that people were certainly interested and I know for a fact that there were many more tickets purchased in total than we could have sold through our planned promotion activities. It’s just odd that there weren’t more affiliate sales.

The people matter

We invited the right people. Meaning, they knew our brand and what we do and we were comfortable trusting them to represent Interactive Minds appropriately, and not put the hard sell on people or do anything dodgy.

Throughout the whole thing I kept an eye on Facebook and Twitter to see what everyone was doing. In this regard, I’m glad we kept this small scale so that, had there been any problems, I know that I could trust everyone involved to work through them with me.

If we’d rolled out to a larger group or pushed this to people we didn’t know as well and subsequently had issues, I’m not sure what the result would have been because there is (potentially) money on the table.

Valuable feedback

We got good feedback. Within three minutes of inviting two people to participate, I got feedback to change the ticket purchasing page and add more information.

We also got feedback on exactly who in our network is cool with this style of promotion and, even more importantly, who follows through when they say they will promote.

What didn’t work

Plan early

We didn’t allow enough time. We gave the affiliates 3.5 business days notice. Obviously, this was a last minute decision to boost sales. Next time we have a capacity that we don’t think we can fill on our own, we will look to plan earlier. I’m grateful that our affiliates did anything at all given the short notice.

Ideally, we should have had this contingency plan from the outset. The benefit of going through this experiment is that we can now implement this as part of the business for each and every event. If tickets aren’t flying out the door we can be ready to use affiliate marketing to boost sales with only a few minutes’ notice.

In this instance, setup time took the best part of 1/2 a day and had to be done on top of the usual activities that happen the week before you’re running an event 200~ people.

Technology fail

Eventbrite’s affiliate tracking isn’t up to scratch. This was the biggest disappointment. Unfortunately, if an affiliate refers a lead to the purchase page, but they don’t complete the transaction there and then, there’s a very good chance that the affiliate will lose the referral because Eventbrite doesn’t set a cookie.

If the lead comes back later to complete the transaction and accesses the purchase page through a different link, the affiliate doesn’t get the referral and doesn’t get any commission. When several affiliates are promoting in the same channel like Twitter, obviously there are links going everywhere.

This sucks. It’s clear from the number of impressions we got, compared to the number of sales, that several people who were initially referred by someone went back and made a purchase and did not get tied to an affiliate.

In fact, there was one instance where I saw an affiliate put a message on Facebook, and then receive a comment on the message, and then the commenter purchased two tickets immediately, but no affiliate commission was recorded by the system.

Needless to say, this wasn’t good enough.

I emailed Eventbrite’s customer service and it would seem that the only way around this is to use a coupon code. However, the problem is that the only way to motivate attendees to use a coupon code is to give them a discount, and that discount would need to be taken into account when working out the commission we could offer.

We were completely transparent with our affiliates that this had occurred. It was at this point that we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that we’d chosen the right people. All said they understood the situation. All were forgiving.

We also disclosed all of the decisions we had made and why we’d made them so that they felt part of our team rather than external to it and could learn from our experience.

What we’ll be doing differently next time

Apart from the above issues, if there is another opportunity where it makes sense to use this style of marketing, here’s what we’ll be considering:

Offering affiliate prizes

This is a really common tactic I’ve seen used to great effect in the internet marketing world. Basically, the affiliate that sells the most wins stuff over and above the commission they earn. It adds a competitive edge to the whole thing.

Provide swipe copy

One of the big barriers to overcome is to encourage affiliates to do more. Send more emails, do more Facebook updates and tweet more frequently. The problem is that it’s not easy to think of 20 different ways to tweet about the same event. I will pre-write some email and social media copy that affiliates can use and tweak so that their marketing efforts are even easier.

Clarifying the rules a little bit

One thing we didn’t do is ask that affiliates don’t offer the people they referred any sort of “cash back” arrangement. While I don’t think anyone did this, if we rolled out to people that we didn’t know as well, we would make this a strict policy to avoid devaluing the Interactive Minds tickets and potentially alienating other attendees.

What were the lessons? Seven tips to take away

If you’re thinking about trying affiliate marketing for your business, make sure you think about the following:

  1. Plan early
  2. Know your costs and the lifetime value of your customer
  3. Know the characteristics that will make a good affiliate for your business and choose your affiliates wisely
  4. Make sure everyone knows the rules and plays by them
  5. Do everything you can to make it easy for your affiliates to promote
  6. Test small before rolling out big
  7. Ask for feedback and incorporate it

Nick McIntosh is an online business project manager, who works with Interactive Minds, a Brisbane-based events company that delivers monthly seminars on digital marketing and interactive media. Nick recently planned, coordinated, launched & managed Interactive Minds’ first foray into the world of affiliate marketing, using the Eventbrite ticketing platform.