An affiliate network is an intermediary between affiliates (publishers) and merchants (or business purpose websites) in the context of an affiliate marketing program.
For affiliate merchants, an affiliate network offers many services:
a technical platform for managing affiliates (recruitment, affiliate tools, reporting, ...)
an access to a pool of potential affiliates
conversion and commissions tracking
affiliate payment management
fraud detection services
optional affiliate management services
For affiliates / publishers an affiliate network offers:
a single point of access to many affiliate merchants (sometimes several hundreds)
a single access to affiliates tools (sometimes a single display tool can mix several affiliate programs)
an access to reporting tools
a trusted third party for commission tracking and registering
a guaranty of payment (merchants pay an advance payment to the platform)
an aggregation of payments
tools for comparing and choosing most profitable programs
An affiliate network as explained by Linkshare:
Joining an affiliate network is free for affiliates and merchant are charged according to:
a percentage of the commissions paid to affiliates (with a monthly minimum)
set up fees
data feed uploading fees
monthly fees for managing the program (optional service)
An example of fee structure for ShareASale network:
Some international affiliate networks claims more than one thousand merchants and more than one hundred thousand of affiliates. Some networks are specifically dedicated to vertical niches or sectors (digital products, financials, adult business, etc..).
The most known US affiliate networks:
The most known European networks:
There is a debate about the need for a merchant to join one or several affiliate programs. Some merchants join several networks for not putting all their eggs in one basket and for gaining access to more potential affiliates (notably for international development).
Nevertheless, if good affiliates have signed up to one network, chances are they have signed up to others. It is also more costly and troublesome for program management to have several partners.
How many affiliate networks do you work with ?:
UK IAB A4U Affiliate marketing Survey 2012