Imagine you are the CMO of a major brand wanting to try performance marketing for the first time. How would you choose between the 500 networks your team found in a quick search online? Who would you talk to? Who could you trust?

Or put yourself in the position of a big publisher wanting to monetize your inventory. How could you tell which networks pay their bills? Which have the best tracking? Or even which ones shave commissions?

The difficulty in identifying reliable network partners may be the biggest single brake on the growth of the performance marketing industry: it discourages new companies from realizing the opportunities available and, when advertisers and publishers choose badly they can end up feeling bruised and ripped off.
We asked the members of our Blue Ribbon Panel for their thoughts on this critical  issue. JP Sauve of Max Bounty,Clickbooth’s Erin CigichMelissa Feemster of Rakuten Affiliate Network, co-founder of W4 Jason Durant Walker ,Daryl Colwell of Matomy Media NetworkCristian Miculi of Avangate and Matt Frary of SmarterChaos all had a lot to say.

mThinkSo, at a time when it is easy for just about anyone to set up a generic network in just a few hours, how can an advertiser or publisher tell the difference between a good network and a poor one?

Erin Cigich; The barriers to entry for starting a network are low. As a result there are hundreds if not thousands of “networks.” Advertisers and publishers should look to partner with networks with proven longevity, integrity and a solid reputation.

Matt Frary: There are established networks that have been in the industry for a very long time.  From an affiliate point of view, I would check those networks first for any offers or merchants with whom I would like to partner.  Any network that feels “templated”, or their affiliate managers cannot be reached, should be avoided. Once you have decided to start working with a new network, only send a little traffic at a time until you have been through a few payments cycles.

Daryl Colwell: I would also say that the mThink Blue Book is a great to start. The results combine opinions from industry thought leaders & the day-to-day folks of the affiliate space.  In addition, you can never beat getting a referral to a network from a trusted source.

Melissa Feemster: The key factors are scale, stability, experience and compliance rigor. Scale should be measured in terms of publisher volume and depth as well as in advertisers. Established large scale provides network effect benefits of increased growth and choice, and leads to stability as well.  When a network has large advertisers who push volume levels, you can be confident in their systems as you push up your own volumes.  Experience means the ability to provide strategic guidance based on historical data. Finally, a compliance focus is essential – the network must have rigorous processes in place.

JP Sauve: Until you have worked with them for a while, it really is difficult to tell if a network is solid or full of risk. While not a foolproof method, taking two minutes to double-check the age of the network will likely help you pick out the better ones. Poor networks are generally mismanaged and tend to not stick around that long. When you look at networks that have been in business for over a decade, at least you know they are well-managed, affiliates are getting paid, and advertisers are coming back for repeat business.

Daryl Colwell: There are several networks that have been in this space for quite some time and those networks have survived for a reason. I’d always suggest starting with one that has those years of experience and has seen it all. I would also say that the individual you work with within the network is arguably more important than the company itself.  Make sure they have, at the very least, tangential experience working with campaigns similar to yours.

mThinkWhat about advertisers in particular? Are there things they should specifically consider when looking at network partners?

Cristian Miculi: I think you have to look at the network as a platform first: a good network should meet the advertiser’s current and medium term needs – affiliate management tools, communication tools, reporting, etc. Then, in terms of the business perspective, it should have the affiliates in the right niche that can drive revenue for the advertiser (I’m talking here about the specialized content affiliates in particular), offer recruitment possibilities for the advertiser and also be able to deliver quality support and services – e.g. managed affiliate services. The advertiser should also check which of their competitors are using the network in question – that’s always a good indicator.

Jason Durant Walker: For advertisers, the best and most conclusive way to discern between networks is simply the quality of the traffic they deliver, but that’s something you can only find out after trying a network. How do you assess quality before you begin working with a network? Watch out for over-promises. Some networks will say anything to land a new advertiser including making guarantees that they will deliver high volumes of conversions—and pushing hard to get the campaign in as exclusive. The reality is, however, there is no way to predict performance without market testing. And if a network is confident in its ability to deliver quality traffic, it won’t shy away from competing with other networks to prove its worth. So look for networks that are honest and modest in their claims, and that offer sober counsel on how to best bring your offer into the CPA marketplace.

Erin Cigich: For advertisers, choosing a network with longevity is even more important. There are simply too many intricacies – fraud detection, quality optimization, managing cash flows – that many new networks unfortunately don’t take into consideration. These kinds of issues also happen to be ones that can tarnish an advertiser’s reputation or ruin their business if they are handled poorly.

Melissa Feemster: The network personnel are critically important. Look for a tenured client service and leadership team that knows the industry inside out. In the end, it often comes down to a having a feeling of partnership that leads to success, and that then serves as a demonstration that the relationship is potentially sustainable for many years ahead.

mThink: It is clear that the key for everyone is that experience and stability count: in a business as competitive as performance marketing, a network can’t survive long unless it’s really good. After that, then the quality of the personnel and the platform are important in initial selection. In the end though, in the medium- to long-term, it comes down to how much business the network can drive. In affiliate marketing, as always, performance matters.