In-house Affiliate Program for Legal Tech

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Project Overview

In 2020, as the Special Projects Lead of FairShake, I developed and grew an in-house affiliate program for a company operating in the consumer legal services industry. I managed all the company's marketing, business operations, and advocacy channels in this role, reporting directly to the two co-founders. Working closely with a cross-functional team, I successfully established the affiliate program, which rapidly grew to become the second-largest acquisition channel for the company, only surpassed by organic search.

Problem and Rationale

The company sought to diversify its acquisition channels and broaden the top of the sales funnel to reach more potential customers. Although we had a growing base of satisfied customers, we needed a structured system to turn them into active advocates for our product. Our product involved a complex claims submission and approval process, and we aimed to prevent the incentivization of low-quality claims that could burden the system.

To tackle these challenges, we devised a strategy to offer referral bonuses exclusively for claims approved and mailed to the respective companies. This approach encouraged affiliates to focus on high-quality referrals, mitigating the risk of effectively overwhelming our system with low-quality claims while promoting our product.

Thought Process

Due to the complexity of our claim approval process and the high 30% commission typically charged by affiliate marketing software providers, I built our affiliate program in-house using off-the-shelf tools and closely integrated it with our product database.

Initially, I offered a $15 referral bonus for approved claims against the 60+ companies we processed claims for. However, I quickly noticed that we received a disproportionate number of claims against common payment apps like PayPal and Venmo instead of against our target companies, which tend to be more responsive to arbitration claims, such as telecommunications companies and banks. To address this, I announced an increased bonus of $20 per approved claim against our target companies and reduced the bonus to $10 for claims against other companies in our portfolio. This change was well-received, prompting affiliates to optimize their outreach and expand into complaint groups, forums, and emerging channels like TikTok and Instagram Reels to target high-value claimants they previously missed.

Cross-Functional Collaboration

I collaborated closely with the Head of Customer Success and their team, who reviewed each claim. We established a feedback loop to collect data on claim quality submitted through referral links. This data is piped into a dashboard in Amazon QuickSight, enabling us to advise individual affiliates and program participants on improving claim quality.

Key Decisions and Approach

  1. In-house program development: Decided to build our affiliate program in-house to maintain control over the claims approval process and reduce costs associated with third-party software providers.
  2. Bonus structure adjustments: Changed the referral bonus structure to encourage affiliates to target specific companies with more responsive arbitration claims, increasing our outreach to potential claimants.

Project Setup and Success Criteria

I initiated the project by researching affiliate programs in related consumer financial services verticals and examining promotional activities in Facebook Groups and complaint forums. This research informed our decision to build an in-house affiliate program using off-the-shelf tools and closely integrate it with our product database. As part of our overall strategy, we leveraged owned channels like in-app messaging, email, and social media to drive the adoption of the referral program and amplify its reach.

The success criteria we established for the affiliate program were based on several key performance indicators, including increased approved claims, diversification of acquisition channels, and controlled acquisition costs. We monitored the performance of our owned channels, such as the effectiveness of in-app messaging for user engagement, email open and click-through rates, and social media reach and engagement, to ensure they contributed positively to the program's overall success. By setting up success criteria encompassing these owned channels, we could continuously assess and optimize our strategies to achieve the desired results.

Project Timeline

  1. Research (1 week): Investigated affiliate programs in other verticals and studied promotional activities in relevant Facebook Groups and complaint forums.
  2. Landing page creation (1 week): Built a landing page for potential affiliates, including a sign-up form with automated checks for eligibility.
  3. Promotion (2 weeks): Emailed recent claimants and added promotional banners to the claim submission confirmation and settlement offer acceptance pages.
  4. Growth and adjustments (ongoing): Monitored the program's growth and adjusted referral bonuses and target companies to optimize outreach.

Project Execution

  1. Email campaigns: I crafted a series of targeted email campaigns to notify recent claimants and current users about the existence of the affiliate program. These emails informed them of the program and encouraged them to join and refer others.
  2. Automated coaching emails: I set up automated emails to coach affiliates on how to solicit higher-value claims. These emails were triggered based on specific criteria, such as claim descriptions under 100 characters or submissions from non-US IP addresses. By providing timely and relevant feedback, these emails helped affiliates optimize their performance and generate better-quality referrals.
  3. Affiliate assets: I developed a range of promotional materials, such as banners and social media graphics, for affiliates to use in their marketing efforts. These assets were shared with affiliates via email and made available for download on the affiliate landing page. By providing ready-to-use materials, we empowered our affiliates to promote the program effectively and consistently across various channels.
  4. Social media promotion: I utilized social media platforms to promote the nascent program, creating engaging content to share across our company's accounts. In addition, I monitored conversations about the program on different social media platforms to ensure compliance with our guidelines and best practices.
  5. In-app messaging: I added promotional banners to our app's claim submission confirmation and settlement offer acceptance pages. We strategically placed these banners to capture users' attention and drive the adoption of the referral program.

Throughout the execution phase, I issued payments to affiliates every other week using a dashboard in Amazon QuickSight. I exported the tally of approved and mailed claims from the preceding two-week period, integrated these values into a Google Sheet, matched affiliate codes with payment emails, and filtered out banned affiliates. The sheet, formatted for PayPal's bulk payouts system, was uploaded directly to PayPal for payouts. I also used the mail merge tool YAMM to send confirmation emails from the spreadsheet detailing the number of invalid and valid referral payments for each referrer.

By implementing these owned channels and continually optimizing their performance, I successfully drove the affiliate program across the finish line, achieving significant growth and impact.

Project Deliverables

I conducted strategic outreach and applied data-driven enhancements to expedite the program's growth. I targeted complaint groups on Facebook, such as "Optimum Complaints" and "AT&T Complaints," informing them that my company offered financial rewards for generating claims through our system. This tactic motivated people to share legal recourse options with others experiencing issues with these companies.

I also engaged influential Twitter accounts amplifying consumer complaints, such as @mrcomplaintbox, persuading them to join the program. Additionally, I collaborated with nonprofits like the Fair Internet Coalition, which collected consumer complaints against our target companies, to promote their participation in the affiliate program.

To refine the program, I developed a dashboard displaying claim success metrics for each affiliate. The data showed that about 30% of our "super-affiliates" consistently produced high-quality referrals with a greater likelihood of approval and claimants who remained engaged long enough to receive and accept settlement offers. To reward and encourage this behavior, I introduced the "Trusted Affiliate Program."

Upon generating 15 valid claims, affiliates could apply to join the Trusted Affiliate Program and gain immediate insight into their referral metrics. Trusted affiliates received notifications each time a claim was submitted or approved, including the name of the company involved and the claimant's first name. We limited this transparency to trusted affiliates to prevent raising new affiliates' hopes—and potentially encouraging unnecessary inquiries—when they did not receive a bonus for every claim submitted via their link. This data-driven method fostered continuous program improvement and heightened the overall efficiency of claim submissions and resolutions.

Challenges and Solutions

Four significant challenges arose during the program: referral fraud, a technical error in how Amazon QuickSight pulled data from our product, inefficiencies due to a lack of automation, and maintaining compliance on social media.

1. Referral fraud: Monitoring social discourse, I discovered that some affiliates incentivize people to submit claims through their referral links, leading to low-quality claims and program rule violations. Additionally, many affiliates submitted claims using their referral links.

To address these issues, I employed automated checks and social discourse monitoring tools to detect and suspend affiliates violating our terms. After multiple violations, we banned these affiliates from participating in the program. I also included email and IP address checks to prevent affiliates from signing up for the program multiple times. To combat self-referrals, I established automated reviews comparing the contact information of the referrer and the claimant, sending warning emails, and withholding payment for policy violations. These measures improved claim quality and expanded to detect duplicate claims and claims from outside the United States beyond our representation scope.

2. Technical error in Amazon QuickSight: I noticed that the number of referral bonuses exceeded the number of claims received through the referral channel due to a glitch in Amazon QuickSight that double-counted manually reapproved claims. This error led to overpayment to affiliates.

To resolve this issue, the CEO and I forgave overpayments under $300, covering 95% of our affiliates. For our "super-affiliates" with more significant overpayments, we communicated our mistake and implemented a repayment program, deducting 50% of their future earnings to recoup the overpaid funds gradually. While some affiliates were dissatisfied, most affiliates continued generating referrals until their balances were paid off.

3. Inefficiencies due to a lack of automation: Not automating more of my workflow early on led to increased manual workload, delays in processing payouts, slower response times to fraud incidents, and limited scalability. As the program grew, these inefficiencies consumed more of my time, making it challenging to focus on higher-level strategic tasks and improvements to the program.

To resolve this issue, I implemented several automation solutions to resolve this issue to streamline operations and enhance overall performance. First, I configured the dashboards and lookup spreadsheets to easily export payouts for bulk processing and send mail merge emails to affiliates, confirming their statistics for each period. This automation significantly reduced the time spent on manual tasks and facilitated faster payouts.

Additionally, I automated communications to guide affiliates in soliciting better claims. When a claimant submitted a short or non-US-based claim, the affiliate received an automated email to coach them on our claim quality guidelines and rules necessitated by the American Arbitration Association. This system ensured that affiliates received timely feedback, improving claim quality and reducing the need for manual intervention.

4. Maintaining compliance on social media: Ensuring affiliates adhered to guidelines and best practices on social media proved challenging. Monitoring social media conversations, I identified instances where affiliates deviated from our guidelines or shared misleading information about the program.

To overcome this challenge, I actively monitored social media channels and set up alerts to track conversations related to our program. When necessary, I contacted affiliates who did not comply with our guidelines, providing them with clear instructions on adjusting their promotional efforts. By maintaining an active presence on social media and promptly addressing compliance issues, I ensured that the program held a positive reputation and aligned with our company's values.

These solutions improved the program’s efficiency and allowed me to focus on strategic improvements, enhancing the program's overall performance and scalability.

Lessons Learned

  1. Implement a comprehensive onboarding process: From the beginning, I would establish a structured onboarding process for affiliates, providing them with clear guidelines, best practices, and promotional resources. This proactive approach would help prevent common issues, such as referral fraud, and ensure affiliates can effectively promote our services while maintaining high-quality referrals. Integrating owned channels like in-app messaging, email, and social media during onboarding would help create a more cohesive and consistent experience for affiliates, setting the stage for better performance.
  2. Embrace automation for efficiency and scalability: I learned the importance of automating processes to save time, streamline operations, and enable the program to grow smoothly. Automation was particularly beneficial in guiding affiliates to submit higher-quality claims by sending targeted coaching emails based on specific criteria, such as brief claim descriptions or submissions from non-US IP addresses. Optimizing owned channels through automation allowed for better engagement with affiliates and increased the program's effectiveness.
  3. Address referral fraud proactively: A key lesson was tackling referral fraud head-on by implementing automated checks and the Trusted Affiliate Program. These measures encouraged affiliates to prioritize the company's interests and focus on high-quality claims, emphasizing the importance of anticipating potential issues and adapting strategies to maintain program integrity. Monitoring owned channels such as social media helped identify and address fraud attempts, ensuring better compliance with guidelines and best practices.
  4. Prioritize long-term relationships over short-term gains: The Amazon QuickSight technical issue, which resulted in overpayment to affiliates, highlighted the value of fostering long-term relationships. By forgiving smaller overpayments and implementing a repayment program for super-affiliates, we maintained trust and collaboration, showing that investing in lasting partnerships can yield higher long-term value than recovering overpaid commissions in the short term.
  5. Leverage owned channels for effective communication and promotion: Utilizing owned channels, such as in-app messaging, email, and social media, proved crucial for driving the adoption of the referral program and maintaining ongoing communication with affiliates. These channels allowed for more targeted, personalized interactions, leading to better engagement and results. Future projects should consider integrating owned media as essential to their marketing and communication strategies to achieve similar success.
  6. Continuously monitor and optimize owned channels: Monitoring and optimizing owned channels enabled us to respond quickly to challenges and maximize their impact. By actively tracking social media conversations, adjusting email campaigns, and refining in-app messaging, we ensured that the program aligned with our goals and exceeded expectations. This experience taught us the importance of ongoing optimization and adaptability when using owned channels in marketing and promotion efforts.

Retrospective and Impact Assessment

The Affiliate Program played a significant role in the company's growth, becoming the second-largest acquisition channel and leading to a considerable increase in claims processed. This success broadened our user base and extended our reach into untapped networks of potential customers.

Our project success criteria included diversifying acquisition channels, maintaining high-quality claims, and keeping the program's cost within acceptable acquisition cost ranges. The Affiliate Program exceeded expectations in all these aspects, with ongoing adjustments like differentiated referral bonuses and the Trusted Affiliate Program contributing to its continued success.

During 2020 and 2021, the affiliate program consistently ranked as our second-highest acquisition channel, closely following organic search. The program's ability to rival this crucial acquisition channel demonstrated its effectiveness, even becoming the company's top acquisition channel during periods of heightened interest.

The affiliate program's customer acquisition cost consistently outperformed other paid channels, such as search and remarketing ads, while generating valuable backlinks and promoting conversations about our company's dispute resolution successes. Affiliate feedback further reinforced the program's positive impact, revealing high satisfaction levels and highlighting the benefits of empowering individuals and helping victimized consumers.

Changes to Approach

If I were to approach this project again, I would:

  1. Research best practices and potential pitfalls: I would invest more time and resources in understanding affiliate programs to identify and prevent common issues more effectively from the beginning. This research would also explore the most effective use of owned channels like in-app messaging, email, and social media to maximize their impact on the affiliate program's success.
  2. Enhance onboarding and provide promotional resources: I would create a more structured onboarding process for affiliates earlier, equipping them with guidelines, best practices, and design assets to promote our services and maintain high-quality referrals. Additionally, I would optimize the onboarding process by integrating personalized email campaigns and social media assets to ensure consistent communication and support for new affiliates.
  3. Develop a robust performance tracking and reporting system: I would implement a comprehensive system to track and report program and individual affiliate performance, allowing us to offer additional support, incentives, and resources to top-performing affiliates. This system would also track the effectiveness of owned channels in driving program adoption and engagement, enabling us to refine our communication strategies and maximize their impact continually.
  4. Actively explore potential partnerships: I would actively seek collaborations with influential accounts and organizations, leveraging their networks and credibility to drive higher-quality referrals and expand our customer base. By strategically using owned channels, I would amplify the reach of these partnerships and maintain ongoing communication with our partners to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.
  5. Continuously monitor and optimize owned channels: I would prioritize monitoring and optimizing owned channels to maximize their effectiveness in promoting the affiliate program and engaging with affiliates. By actively tracking social media conversations, adjusting email campaigns, and refining in-app messaging, we could ensure that the program aligned with our goals and consistently exceeded expectations. This approach also involves staying up-to-date with emerging trends and best practices for using owned channels in marketing and communication efforts, allowing us to continually innovate and improve our strategies.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License.

Alec Foster

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License.