Insights on Running an Affiliate Program on Your WordPress Site with Pippin Williamson
WP eCommerce Show

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In Episode 62, we move forward with our series on  Affiliate Marketing and Affiliate Programs, sponsored by Bluehost

In this second show, we bring in Pippin Williamson, who has three very popular eCommerce plugins for WordPress: Easy Digital Downloads, Restrict Content Pro and AffiliateWP. The focus on this show is on running an affiliate program on your WordPress site. Pippin has not only created a plugin that makes the technical side of this easy to do, but also runs affiliate programs on all of his plugin sites.

He brings his deep experience to the table as he shares some great tips and insights if you are considering using your own WordPress site for your affiliate program.

We chatted about:

  • What drove Pippin to create a plugin for affiliate programs
  • What you should consider when choosing whether to run your program on your website or through an affiliate platform
  • Three tips on how to effectively set up, run and manage your own affiliate program
  • How to cultivate the right affiliate marketers
  • The challenges you will face when running your own affiliate program

Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost


Bob Dunn: Hey everyone, welcome back to the WP eCommerce show. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Today is the second show of our series, a look at affiliate programs and affiliate marketers, for this episode we are going to be talking about running your affiliate program on your WordPress site. Although I know a ton of WordPress vendors who could have shared their experience, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Pippin Williamson. Pippin not only has affiliate programs for all his WordPress products but he also brought us a popular WordPress plugin, AffiliateWP.

Hey Pippin, welcome to the show.

Pippin Williamson: Thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure.

Meet Pippin Williamson, Plugin Developer Extraordinaire

Bob Dunn: Now Pippin, you have an amazing history in the WordPress business community, I don’t know if you could possibly even encapsulate it into a brief into but can you let our readers who are not familiar with you know a little bit more about who you are and what you do?

Pippin Williamson: Sure. So my name is Pippin Williamson and I primarily run three products, I run an eCommerce plugin called Easy Digital Downloads, an affiliate marketing plugin called AffiliateWP and a membership plugin called Restrict Content Pro. All of these were originally built around a website called Pippin’s Plugins, which was my own personal kind of playground and plugin portfolio where I did plugin development stuff and sold my own products and I started building plugins for WordPress around five to eight years ago and jumped into commercial plugins right away. I  ended up building a little business for myself that has slowly grown into a multi-person team. I think we’re now around 15 people building three main products and yeah, we’re here to stay.

We primarily build tools that we use for ourselves so all of the tools that we build are used on our own websites. We like to scratch our own itch.

The creation of the AffiliateWP plugin

Bob Dunn: Very cool. Now let’s go ahead and first off, I’m really curious about what drove you to create the AffiliateWP plugin because it’s a very unique plugin and I know a lot of people that are using it, but what gave you the bug to do it?

Pippin Williamson: It was really scratching my own itch and also trying to help some of our own customers solve a problem, at the time we had been running Easy Digital Downloads, which was Digital eCommerce, and Restrict Content Pro for memberships for at least one to three years. We had a lot of customers who wanted to run an affiliate program and we had an affiliate program on our own website and there were a few affiliate marketing plugins for WordPress at the time for running your own affiliate program on your own site, but they had their issues or they didn’t have features that we needed or we just weren’t happy with them for one reason or another. So one night after a frustration that we had with an existing system, we just decided, “ Look, let’s just build it ourselves”.

We can build it, we can take care of our own need and we can take care of our customers needs at the same time, so let’s build it. So I sat down and over the course of about a week and a half I cranked out the first version, put it up on our site and I think a week or two later, we launched it.

Cross-selling to existing customers

Bob Dunn: Wow. Did your customers have any inclination that you were gonna do this or had you kind of hinted towards it or was it like, hey guess what I have now for you?

Pippin Williamson: We did a little bit, we did some hinting, I did reach out to customers and just say “Hey, does this interest you? Would you want to have a replacement or an alternative solution for your affiliate program? Would you want to run one on your site?” And we did get some very positive feedback.  We had a small list of people that were lined up, waiting for it. So we knew that at minimum we would probably have a customer or two once we got it built, assuming we did it well enough. After those initial ones, we also had an existing customer base for Easy Digital Downloads and Restrict Content Pro to advertise it to, which was very, very helpful in us getting the plugin off the ground.

Bob Dunn: That makes a lot of sense especially with EDD because already a lot of people were selling downloads-

Pippin Williamson: Right. Well, it made it very easy for us to cross-sell to existing customers.

Making the decision: to use an affiliate plugin or a larger affiliate program platform

Bob Dunn: Yeah. Now, if you’re a site of shop owner and you’re trying to make the decision: do I do this program on my site and use a plugin, like AffiliateWP or should I run it on a platform you know, a larger affiliate program platform? What should they consider before making that decision?

Pippin Williamson: Well first, it’s not a light decision to make. It is definitely something that you should spend time thinking about, you should weigh the pros and the cons. For example, a couple of quick things to think about is that an affiliate network, Dsay ShareaSale or IdevAffiliate or some of the others, some of the advantages those have is existing affiliate networks, so if you don’t necessarily have an audience for people to be affiliates for you, you may want to take advantage of those existing networks that might help you. At the same time, those networks also take fees out of your affiliate sales, so you’re gonna pay more to them than you would if you self-hosted it. But those can both work in your favor so one is not necessarily better than the other.

You also need to think about is are there features that say, the hosted systems like ShareaSale offer that AffiliateWP doesn’t have that you need, or are there features that a plugin like AffiliateWP has that those don’t offer? You really need to look at both:  figure out what your needs are and then try to make an educated decision on which is best for you. Neither one is always going to be the right answer.

Pippin’s tips for setting up and running your own affiliate program

Bob Dunn: Yeah, so segueing from that question into this one. Now I’ve decided I want to do my own program, do you have some really good tips, let’s say two or three of them, how they can most effectively set up, run and manage their own affiliate program because I’m sure it’s a pretty big undertaking but what are your top two or three recommendations?

Tip #1: Be prepared to put some work into it

Pippin Williamson: So number one is don’t just assume that affiliates will come because you put an affiliate program on your site, I think we do see a lot of people that just assume by the fact that they have an affiliate program that it’s automatically gonna make them a lot of money and that it’s automatically going to pay for itself and bring in more customers and make happy affiliates. While that can be true sometimes, an affiliate program takes work. It’s another part of running your business and you need to be mindful of that and be prepared to put some effort into it. One of the things that can help a lot is active communication with your affiliates, be actively communicating to them things that you’re doing within your business. Perhaps if you have upcoming sales periods or special discounts, promotions let your affiliates know ahead of time because customers are more likely to purchase during that period and so it makes more sense for the affiliates to put in so effort and promote your sale period.

Tip #2: Communicate actively and encourage your affiliates to promote your products

Number two, actively communicate with your affiliates, don’t just assume that they’re gonna go and work for you, some affiliates will but you’re gonna end up with a lot of people in your affiliate program possibly that are not say your hardcore affiliate marketer. Maybe they’re a friend or just a customer who really likes your stuff and they’re gonna use it every now and then when one of their friend says “Hey, what should I use for X?” or “What company should I go to for Y?” But by actually communicating with your affiliates you can help convert more of them … You can help encourage effort on their part. An affiliate doesn’t give you any value unless they’re making effort to try to bring in those sales for you and so that’s what you need to work towards.

Tip #3: Be selective

And the last one is be selective of your affiliates, don’t just assume that you should approve everybody to be an affiliate because they want to promote your product. I think it’s very common for people to think of affiliate marketing as kind of one of the scammy businesses. It’s like SEO in web development. There’s a lot of very legitimate companies doing it and then there’s a lot of really scammy stuff. Affiliate marketing is the same way. Be selective with who you let into your program. Make sure that they’re promoting your product in a way that you approve of, that you like, that is consistent with your branding. I mean, for example if you sell a product or a service to a very specific group of people, a very specific audience, you don’t want to have affiliates promoting them to a very different group of people that conflict with your primary audience. You don’t want your brand misconstrued by an affiliate who is not respecting it. Your branding is important so be selective with who you let in and then all those people that you let in, treat them well.

Bob Dunn: Those are great tips. I especially like the communicating because I know as somebody on the other side, I mean, I use a lot of affiliates and this is part of how I make a living and I do plan ahead of time. I love knowing ahead of time when those deals come instead of trying to scramble and think, okay I want to schedule these in. Because as an affiliate marketer, I’m only effective if I make how I share my affiliates unique and I don’t just blast it out all the time, the same thing everybody else is doing but rather say, okay now there are specials coming so how can I use this and find the different creative ways of using it so I really appreciate those emails that say “Hey, we have something coming up” because it’s like okay, now I put that in the plan.

How to recruit and cultivate affiliate marketers for your program

Now, from your own experience and you actually talked about this: put up your affiliate program and it’ll happen. Can you tell the small site owners who are just starting how they can most effectively cultivate affiliate marketers for their program, you’ve already touched on that a bit but anything else you can kind of expand on there?

Pippin Williamson: Sure. The first thing you’re going to have to think about is who is your audience I mean, for example are you selling a very, very niche product or service that has a much smaller audience or is it something that has a much wider audience? Let’s just assume for a moment that you’re selling to a wider audience, it doesn’t matter what … Let’s say it’s a software community, in that case there’s probably going to be dedicated websites or blogs out there around your focus area that you could reach out to and start working with them to try to encourage them to be an effective affiliate for you, that would be one way.

Actually that could apply even to the small niche markets as well. Sometimes the niche markets actually have the most effective blogs and marketing platforms because they only have very few of them as opposed to thousands of places for people to go read stuff. So that’s one, another would be to reach out and hand pick your affiliates, so if for example, you happen to have a customer that you know is a really good customer, who has a good understanding of your product and would be a good brand ambassador, reach out to them, especially if they also happen to be good at marketing, at talking to people, at publishing, good at things that are going to help them be a strong affiliate, reach out to them, you don’t need to wait for them to come to you.

So in the same way that you want to communicate with your existing affiliate base, communicate with potentials. Reach out to them and invite them to the platform.

Should your affiliates be active users of your product or service?

Bob Dunn: Oh wow. Now, on that last part and I’m just kind of curious about it, what should somebody think about … Okay, first of all if you know they kind of have all these other assets that will be of value as an affiliate, how critical s it that they actually are an existing fan and existing user of your product rather than just cold call them and say “Hey, I know you use”, let’s say hosting for example “I know you use all these hosts but how about checking out our hosting and becoming an affiliate, please do” what do you think about that? I kind of threw one at you there buddy.

Pippin Williamson: Sure, well let me tell you about one of the requirements that we put into our own affiliate program. We have a requirement that says you have to be a customer of ours and you have to maintain an active license. Now part of this is because we don’t want to be reviewing thousands of affiliate applications and just spending a lot of time on it but another one is we believe that if you’re going to adequately promote our products to potential customers you need to adequately understand what the product is. There’s only so much you can understand and know by reading your sales pages, reading documentation, reading feature pages and pricing and things like that. To really know a product you have to be using it, you have to dive in and get into the nitty gritty of it, so we put that requirement in. We don’t want anybody trying to promote us that the only they’ve done is go scrape the features page and says “AffiliateWP is awesome, it has this feature and this and this and this” but they literally have no idea how it works beyond that.

For one, because we want actual testaments from these affiliates that are our customers, we want them to genuinely support the product, not just trying to make a buck and while I don’t think that always applies, I think that there are definitely times when there will be affiliates that can be incredibly valuable and they don’t necessarily know your product or your service intimately but as a general rule of thumb I do believe that putting in that kind of rule will help get rid of a lot of the fluff.

Other challenges of running an affiliate program

Bob Dunn: Yeah, I totally agree. So lastly I know you’ve talked a little bit about  the challenge of that perception of scamminess,  and I’ve personally talked to a lot of people who run affiliate programs,  that there are other issues out there that they’ve actually had to shut down their affiliate program because of. But do you have any words of warning or challenges that you haven’t really touched on that you can share with our listeners who want to start their own affiliate program on their WordPress site versus doing it on a platform using a plugin like yours?

If something goes wrong, it’s on you, so take care of your house

Pippin Williamson: Sure, one of the challenges of putting an affiliate program on your own site and this is the same challenge that you get when you decide to run an eCommerce system through your own site, is that you are the management team, you have to install it, you set it up, you configure it, if something goes wrong it’s on you. That doesn’t mean that there’s not a customer support team from AffiliateWP or whichever system you decide to use to help back you up, but the point is that it’s your playground and you have to take care of it, it’s your house. Whereas with a hosted service they have dedicated teams that are gonna be making sure that it’s up an running. It’s a little bit like running your own physical store front.

So if you are a small business owner and you have an actual physical store that customers walk into, you can’t just leave it, you have to be taking care of it, you have to maintain it and whether that is you or people that you pay, employees or whatever, you have to take care of it. Your website is no different and so is anything that you put on your site. You have to be prepared to take care of it, to be involved with it. You’re not just going to click a button and it magically works. A lot of things we want to just magically work when we click a button, but there are still other things involved, whether it’s configuring your settings or updating plugins or setting up terms of agreements or reviewing affiliates, all of these different aspects of it, it takes work and that’s a challenge I think that people need to be prepared for.

It’s not that it’s necessarily a difficult challenge but it is there. We do get that perception a lot from store owners who just assume when they launch an affiliate program, they’re going to magically get affiliates and they’re magically gonna double their money, sometimes it happens but that’s kind of an edge case. You have to work at it, you have to take care of it, you have to cultivate this platform and you have to do this whether you do it on ShareaSale or IDevAffiliate or whether you do it with AffiliateWP on your own site but when you do put it on your own site, there’s an extra level of maintenance and care taking that you have to do.

So that would be my warning to you it’s just it’s not that it’s a difficult job, it’s not that it’s something you need to be scared of, it’s just like any other aspect of your website, just be prepared to take care of it and you’ll be fine.

Let’s ask Pippin: What is the one feature of AffiliateWP you are most proud of?

Bob Dunn: All right. Now I’m going to ask you on question that I did not even forewarn you about just because I want you to tell me. With AffiliateWP plugin, what do you think is the coolest feature in it that you are just the most proud of?

Pippin Williamson: There are a few that I really, really like. There’s one of them that is very valuable for affiliates and it’s also very valuable for store owners: tiered commission rates. So you can set up your affiliate program to reward affiliates with better and better rates as they earn more and more and more. One of the things that we’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years across the web is the gamification of social networks, of affiliate programs of stores, et cetera. Anybody who’s ever looked at or participated as a vendor on say, the Envato marketplaces, is very aware of this The more you sell the higher your commission rate and it was actually one of the very first features that we built into AffiliateWP, but it remains one of the most valuable because it’s an easy way for you to encourage affiliates to do better and to actually work at it.

So with affiliates you can’t  just “Hey, I’ll give you ten percent of every sale” and then expect them to work at it. However, if you give them say, ten percent,  and then after their first sale give them 11 percent and then once they reach 20 sales give them 12 percent and then keep edging more and more and more, it’s kind of like holding the carrot in front of the rabbit.

Bob Dunn: Right.

Pippin Williamson: You encourage them to keep going and to keep working forward. So that’s one of my favorites, I think another one would be our rest API that we recently introduced. This is a much more developer-focused feature but it’s a really cool feature that basically allows outside developers to build on top of AffiliateWP and connect it to all sorts of other systems. So we can connect external services to either read or push data out of or into AffiliateWP.  We don’t have much that we can show for it right now because it’s a very, very new feature but I think over the course of the next year, we’re going to see some really cool features come out because of the rest API.

Bob Dunn: Excellent, well I had to have you share a little bit on the plugin.

Pippin Williamson: I appreciate the question.

Where to find Pippin on the web

Bob Dunn: Well, there you have it. If anyone knows affiliates,  it’s my buddy Pippin. As much as I’d love to segue into talking about your other eCommerce related plugins, Easy Digital Downloads or Restrict Content Pro, I’m afraid we would end up going from a podcast to the Pippin Summit, we’d have our own little conference going on. So instead, can you just let our listeners know where they can find you on the web?

Pippin Williamson: Sure, the easiest place would be that’s P I P P I and from there you can find all my other stuff.

Bob Dunn: Cool, make it simple. Perfect, thanks for taking the time to join us today, Pippin.

Pippin Williamson: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

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