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In affiliate marketing, there are two main ways to work with partners: through an affiliate network, and in a one-to-one relationship in your affiliate program. Affiliate networks and direct partners both play important roles and bring value to a program. However, they differ greatly in terms of how you collaborate with them and the dynamics of the relationship.

Over the years at TUNE, we’ve noticed that individuals who are just getting into the industry sometimes have difficulty understanding the direct partner side of the equation, whereas most people are familiar with the concept of an affiliate network. We believe both types of affiliate partners are beneficial, and working with a combination of the two is something we see across the most successful partner programs.

We want to help marketers leverage the best of both worlds. To do that, we're breaking down the differences between working with direct partners in your program and working with affiliates in an affiliate network.

Affiliate Network Partners vs. Direct Partners

In many ways, direct partners are the opposite of affiliate networks.  Understanding how you work with partners in a network makes it easier to understand how working with direct partners is different. So let’s set the groundwork by looking at the top characteristics of working with affiliate network partners.

Partners in an Affiliate Network

  1. Intermediary Platform
    Affiliate networks are intermediaries that connect you (the advertiser or brand) with their network of partners. These networks serve as a platform where businesses can find and recruit affiliates, and affiliates can find multiple products or services to promote.
  2. Broader Reach and Scale
    Affiliate networks provide you with a pre-existing pool of affiliates from various niches and industries, including a range of publishers, content creators, and marketers. This is beneficial if you want to reach a wider audience quickly. However, it may mean you have less control over who eventually promotes your products.
  3. Standardized Agreements and Features
    Affiliate networks often have standardized terms and conditions, commission structures, and reporting systems. While this can make it easier for you to get started, it doesn’t provide much flexibility and limits your ability to negotiate custom agreements.
  4. Less Personalization
    In affiliate networks, the relationships with affiliates tend to be less personal. You may have less control over how affiliates promote your business and might need to rely on the network’s policies to enforce brand guidelines. And because communication with affiliates in a network often occurs through the network’s messaging system, it often lacks a personal touch and a guarantee of privacy.
  5. Network Fees
    Along with tracking conversions and distributing commissions on your behalf, affiliate networks handle payment processing as well. Networks charge an additional service fee for payment processing, usually as a percentage of your revenue or your partners’ commissions. These fees vary and are set at the network’s discretion. While affiliate networks may be convenient, the fees associated with them can impact the profitability of your entire program and should be carefully considered.

Now that we have a baseline, let’s examine how working with direct partners in a strategic affiliate program differs.

Direct Partners in a Program

  1. One-to-One Relationships
    When you work with a direct affiliate partner, you establish a one-to-one relationship with an individual or entity (such as a blogger, content creator, influencer, or website owner) who promotes your products or services. You establish a business relationship with them independently, without the involvement of an intermediary or affiliate network.
  2. Direct Communication
    Communication with direct partners typically happens, well, directly — through email, phone calls, messaging apps, or other personal means. By keeping your communication private and confidential, you can better protect the strategic partnerships you discover and nurture, instead of sharing them with an affiliate network (and anyone who joins it).
  3. Customized Agreements
    With direct partnerships, you negotiate and agree on the terms and conditions of your partnership directly with the individual you’re working with. This allows for more flexibility in crafting affiliate agreements, commission structures, promotional methods, and more. Going direct lets you tailor every aspect of the partnership to suit the unique needs and capabilities of your partner and the specific goals of your business.
  4. More Management and Support
    Directly managing and supporting your affiliates may require more resources than you would need to manage and support them through an affiliate network. For example, you’ll need to supply the program infrastructure, tracking tools, and support documentation to ensure they can effectively promote your products or services.
  5. Greater Control and Oversight
    Working one-on-one with your partners gives you greater control and oversight over your entire affiliate program. This can help ensure that a partner’s promotional activities (like the kind of ads they run or the websites they run them on) align with your brand’s values and quality standards.
  6. Higher Commissions
    In some cases, direct affiliates can expect higher commission rates compared to those in affiliate networks. One reason for this is that partners outside of a network bear the responsibility of generating their own traffic and sales. Another reason is that brands can see a significant cost savings when high network fees and processing charges are taken out of the equation. By translating these savings into higher commissions, you can spend less overall than you would with a network and attract more affiliates to your program by standing out from the lower paying competition.
  7. Payment Processing
    When you run a direct affiliate program, you are responsible for managing and processing partner payments. This means you need to track the affiliate’s performance, calculate commissions, and pay them directly, usually on a predetermined schedule.


In conclusion, direct affiliate partnerships offer more personalization, options for customization, and closely managed relationships with individual affiliates. In contrast, affiliate networks provide broader reach and more convenience, but offer less personalization and control.

The choice between the two depends on your goals, resources, and the level of control you want over your affiliate program. Many businesses use a combination of direct partners and networks to achieve a balance between customization and scale in their affiliate marketing programs.

At TUNE, we see the most successful programs run a mix of both direct partnerships and affiliate network relationships. That’s why our platform enables you to run a strategic program with direct partners and have access to top affiliate partners through the TUNE Network. You can choose to use one or the other, or use both, harnessing the strengths of each in the way that makes the most sense for your business.

In other words: You can get the best of both worlds with TUNE.