Affiliates, Start Your Engines

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year or so, you probably realize by now that in order to get customers to your affiliate site you have to market it on search engines. Even if you haven’t realized this, your competitors certainly have, and if you don’t take advantage of what the search engines have to offer, your Web site is likely to go the way of many other dot-com dodos.

Over the last few years search engines have emerged as the most viable option for reaching many users on the Web. As an Internet marketer, your success online may be determined by how well you learn how to play the search engine marketing game.

In recent studies, search engines emerged as the number one way people find products or services on the Web, with about half of all Internet users utilizing search engines to find you.

Searching for what you need using search engines has become so ingrained in the Internet psyche that people even go to a particular engine like Overture, and type searches like in the search box, instead of typing that URL into the address bar. Some of the top searches on many of the search engines come from people using the search engine to find other search engines.

As you may also have noticed, search engines are in the news lately. Google is always grabbing headlines, and the industry has consolidated, with many of the larger companies gobbling up the smaller folks in a race for Internet dominance. First, Overture bought Alta Vista, Fast and AlltheWeb; FindWhat merged with Espotting; and now Overture is hand-in-hand with Yahoo, which already purchased Inktomi.

MSN is beefing up its own search services in order to compete, and is rumored to be eyeing Looksmart and Ask Jeeves as potential purchases. So a realistic scenario in the next few years will be that three major engines will control over 80 percent of all U.S. searches on the Web, and the balance of searches will be performed between hundreds of smaller engines.

How can affiliates take advantage of that information?

Think of some keywords that represent your business. There are hundreds of Web sites competing with you for placement in millions of searches per month. Competition will only get worse as more businesses start to get their Internet act together. You can’t ignore search engines in your marketing efforts if you want to succeed. And, after all, search engines do have many advantages:

Affordability: The cost of a lead gained from a search engine marketing campaign is currently averaging about 29 cents. That’s a significant savings from the next least expensive Internet marketing vehicle, which is email at 50 cents per lead, according to a study conducted by Jack Myers LLC and presented at a Direct Marketing Association conference last March.

Equality: The Internet is still the great equalizer when it comes to marketing. Any affiliate marketer or small business with a Web site can utilize smart search engine marketing practices and to compete with their larger and better-known competitors. Even though you may not have the money to launch a large search engine marketing campaign, with a little knowledge, you can do most of the work yourself and still compete with the big boys. Many small businesses have built a decent living just using the power of search.

Flexibility: There are very few other venues where you can control so many aspects of the marketing campaign and stick a toe in the water for very little money. Search engine marketing allows you to test copy, placement, budget, messages and offers, on the fly, in real time. You don’t have to commit to a long-term contract or a minimum buy. You control the amount you spend, the cost per lead and the duration of the campaign.

Accountability: If you set up your tracking correctly, you can easily and quickly establish the return on investment (ROI) for your campaign. This will allow you to correct as you go, redesign your Web site, change your product offering and make adjustments based on your profit margin. Never start a search engine marketing campaign without the proper tracking in place. You can learn so much from the insight you receive that you may have to rethink your whole business model.

Accessibility: You can reach more targeted users utilizing search engine marketing than with any other marketing vehicle. You can target your campaign locally if your business is constricted by geography, or internationally if the world is your marketplace. Either way, Internet use is only going to grow in the next few years, so don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

In light of all this, it seems obvious that the more you can learn about search engine marketing, the more successful your Internet business will be. You don’t have to do it all yourself, but you should certainly know how it’s done. That way you can decide whether to keep search engine marketing in-house or hire someone else to do it. Either approach will yield good results.

In future columns I’ll discuss the different forms of search engine marketing and provide you with plenty of tips and tricks to ensure that you get your fair share of Internet customers. We’ll delve into all those acronyms you may have heard bandied about but never knew the definition of. Yes – the joys of SEO, WSO, PPC, CPC, SEM, PI and others, lie ahead. (Somebody stop me!)

MARY O’BRIEN is a partner at Traffic She has worked in Internet marketing for the past five years and was formerly senior director of sales at

Bringing E-commerce Back Home

Jeannie Otero wanted to change her life. A single mom with two young daughters, she hated the three-hour round-trip commute to her job in Miami, time she would rather spend with her girls. She dreamed about starting her own business, thought about investing in real estate. But she had the age-old problem: You have to have money to make money.

Then, she heard that a good way to make money was to build a Web site that connected shoppers with online merchants. “I put up this funky little site called,” Otero laughed. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all. It had a bunch of links to coupons, and it didn’t actually have anything about party clowns.” But it was the first step in her road back home.

Otero had entered the world of affiliate marketing, a sort of parallel economy in which anyone at all can become an online retailer with almost no investment or experience. Two years later, she’s generating a good supplemental income and looking forward to quitting her day job. She’s discovered that all an affiliate needs is a combination of some smarts, some personality, some common sense and a ton of ambition.

Affiliate marketing has quietly become a booming industry, involving thousands of U.S. corporations, millions of affiliates and hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s the deal: You sign on as a commission-only salesperson for an Internet retailer. You use all the creativity, intelligence and perspiration you can muster to get customers for that merchant – customers it might not find on its own. For every customer you refer to the merchant, whether it’s for a paid purchase, a new subscription or a name for its email-marketing list, you get a commission. Because merchants pay only for results, they consider affiliate programs a form of advertising called pay-for-performance.

Affiliates have the whole world of commerce at their fingertips. They can put together an array of products from global selection of retailers and offer them to their own customers. They typically build one or more Web sites that mix content with links to products on merchants’ e-commerce sites, and sometimes feature products in email newsletters or place ads on others’ sites. They never see or touch the merchandise themselves; the merchant handles all aspects of payment, warehousing and shipping. They get paid once a month, or whenever their commissions reach a pre-determined threshold.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. While just about anyone can sign up for an affiliate program and put up a site, earning those nice commission checks is another story. While figures are sparse, the Internet Affiliate Marketing Association estimates that fewer than 5 percent of Internet affiliates have revenue of over $100 a month. That’s because affiliates face some of the same challenges as any other entrepreneur. Inexperience and a lack of basic business skills short-circuit some people’s attempts. Others don’t have the drive to persevere without a boss standing over them.

According to AffTrack, a service provider that aggregates statistics about the industry, 2 percent of affiliates make 98 percent of the commissions. “Affiliation is so easy to get into, that you might only have 10 percent of people who sign up actively promoting merchants, and a smaller amount still might be making any real money,” said AffTrack CEO Scott McNulty.

Like any other frontier, the affiliate world is rambunctious and confusing. There’s more than a whiff of the old envelope-stuffing scam to this industry, where you’ll find site after site promising that you can earn thousands of dollars working at home a few hours a day. It’s also gotten a bad rap from unethical affiliates, who bear some guilt for contributing to the spam deluge. When evaluating affiliate programs, don’t forget to apply the rule that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

Retailers know affiliates can drive sales and keep customers coming back, but they give most of their attention to the top producers. “Retailers have begun to think about the way affiliate programs will work for them in a more efficient way in terms of driving quality traffic and repeat traffic,” said Carrie Johnson, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

This doesn’t mean that there’s less opportunity for you as an affiliate. But it does mean that you’ll have to work smarter and better to be part of that successful 2 percent. Like everyone else in this tight-fisted era, online retailers expect more for their money.

While there’s more competition, there is still plenty of opportunity. Affiliate marketing is the second wave of transformation in the global marketplace. The first wave, the rise of the commercial Internet, put the power of information in the hands of consumers, letting them compare prices among merchants anywhere in the world. This second wave has leveled the playing field between huge conglomerates and individuals who represent online merchants.

Raison d’Etre

Sending traffic to merchants’ sites is the affiliate’s major goal. While you’ll find plenty of affiliate sites that are just lists of links, many experts say that it’s unique content that draws visitors and keeps them there long enough to get interested in your merchant’s offerings. “Your site has to have a reason to exist,” said Brad Waller, vice president of affiliate and business development for EPage, a content syndicator. “It’s rare that someone can create a site and make money from affiliation without doing anything himself. No one will look at it because it’s not original.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional Web designer or an experienced writer. Most affiliate sites are highly personal; like Otero’s, they’re often sparked by a personal interest in a particular subject.

“The personal touch makes a big difference,” Otero said. For example, she created a special Web page with a rave review of one baby item, just because she thought it was so neat. “I had eight visitors and made $20,” she said. Now, she writes introductions and personal notes for most of her Web pages and plans to write a personal review for the best product in each category for her site.

A smart way to decide what your first site should be about is to choose an audience, according to Robert Bennett, an affiliate with eight years’ experience who also runs affiliate programs for several ISPs owned by his company, Archieboy Holdings. “Do you have any connections in any industry, or any opportunity to market to a certain group that other individuals don’t?” he asked. “Identify the market you’ll target, then figure out what products they might be interested in.” For example, if you lead a youth organization, you could look for products related to school or sports, then build your site content around those products. Ideally, the products become part of the content.

Creating your site is a lot like merchandising a store. You could go broad or deep. For example, you might spend time finding absolutely everything anyone could ever want for camping and put it all in one place. From freeze-dried food to sleeping bags to flashlights to first aid kits, you’ve got links to it. On the other hand, like Jeannie Otero did, you could identify a niche, and then scour the Web for every baby Halloween costume available. In either case, the work you do to find and maintain fresh, working links and to gather or create interesting content is the value you add – and the way you make money.

It’s easy to find affiliate programs:

Just search for the merchant’s name plus “affiliate.” Many programs are completely automatic. “Just grab any banner, fill out the form, add the code to your

Web site, and you’re done!” one vitamin retailer promises.

If you’re working with many different merchants, maintaining one-to-one relationships with them all could get hairy. You’ll need to check that the merchandise you feature is still available, and then keep track of what they owe you and when they pay. While most merchants are honest, the message boards are rife with complaints and feuds about payments and other problems.

For more hand-holding and help, you could join an affiliate network. Networks are services that help affiliates and merchants find each other. Then, what’s more important, they manage the process of keeping track of commissions and paying the affiliate. There are several advantages to joining a network:

  • You can get organized and comparative information about a number of merchants without having to search through individual e-commerce sites;
  • In some cases, the network will act as a matchmaker, suggesting partnerships or products that make sense;
  • Some offer support, productivity tools and forums to help newbies learn;
  • They may offer reporting tools that let you analyze your various relationships and see how much income they produce; and
  • They back up your bookkeeping. Instead of keeping track of commissions and payments from multiple merchants, you get a single check each month from the network.

There are many different networks, and affiliates tend to choose them based on the merchants in the network; many work with multiple networks in order to get the range of products they want. Despite the growing interest in the

business and concomitant number of affiliates, “Good affiliates are always in demand,” said Hayley Silver, director of affiliate development for LinkShare, a network that offers tools and services for merchants and affiliates. “[For merchants], they’re your salespeople. No one is ever going to turn down a strong salesperson.”

Content Connection

Once you have an array of products and services to sell and an audience to address, it’s time to flesh out your Web site to make it a true destination. While everything on your site could be considered content, most of it will be in the form of text. That includes your original writing, articles that you reprint, classified ads and user-generated content in the way of forums and message boards. You can arrange to receive automatic updates of syndicated articles and news feeds, either free or for a charge. There are even content sites that offer affiliate programs. They provide free content and, if a visitor to your site clicks back to their site and pays to subscribe or read premium content, you get a little lagniappe.

According to affiliate marketing guru Ken Evoy, your site must satisfy the needs of visitors, the search engines and the merchants; if you serve visitors well, you’ll go a long way toward satisfying the other two players. Site visitors want outstanding information and interesting, highly relevant links. Lots of fresh, relevant content encourages visitors to bookmark the site, come back, and tell their friends.

After all, people who want a book on a particular subject or a recipe could go directly to an online bookseller and search its inventory. They also could plow through literally thousands of entries returned by a search engine. “If someone was searching for information and finds your editorial [content], that person feels smart for having found you, and you become a trusted source of reference,” said Evoy. “By the time that person arrives at the site of a merchant you recommend, she is presold.”

That doesn’t mean your content should consist of plugs for products. Quite the contrary. If your content simply hypes products, your readers won’t trust you. If you write a book review, for example, tell your readers what you really think of the book – good or bad. You’ll earn their respect with your honesty. Then they can decide whether to click on the link you provide to an online bookseller. If all your reviews are positive, your visitors will probably end up looking for a more objective Web site.

High-Traffic Destination

The most authoritative site on the Web is wasted if no one sees it. So, your next task is to lure visitors. If you’ve started with a pre-existing audience or circle of influence, provide them with valuable information and your traffic will grow by word of mouth. Others will find you through search engines.

There are two approaches to increasing your site traffic via search. Some people focus on optimizing pages for the different search engines, while others approach their Web sites as writers and editors, assuming that if the site seems relevant, search engines will find it without extra effort.

Optimizers geek out over page statistics and the workings of various search engines. They analyze how many times key words appear in each page and use them over and over to get a higher ranking for the page. They religiously check how high their pages rank in searches, then tweak pages in order to get them higher still. There are lots of software applications that help automate this process. Optimizers often engage in arcane practices such as “cloaking” or coding phantom pages that exist only to fool search engines. In order to play these games well, you’ll need to know HTML and even some programming languages like PERL.

Experts, on the other hand, focus on becoming the go-to resource for people interested in something specific. This approach requires a passion for the topic; a smidgen of previous experience won’t hurt, either. Instead of trying to trick the search engines, they create focused pages and pack them with information that “appeals to humans, not search engines,” as Evoy said. Because search engines are designed to help people find what they’re looking for, this method can create pages that rank high in search results with much less work.

But successful affiliates say you should never sit back and wait for traffic to find you. Be prepared to constantly expand your customer base with shrewd marketing. “There are lots of different tactics and techniques,” said Hollis Thomases, president of Internet marketing services company WebAdvantage. Affiliates can place banner ads on other Web sites, buy keywords on search sites, exchange links with appropriate sites, send emails to existing customers or contact the media and try to get press. Some affiliates spread their content around the Web by writing articles for other Web sites, making sure to include a link to their own sites. “All publishers tend to try all of them at one time or another, refining and tweaking to see what works best,” Thomases said. “That’s where the art comes in.”

Now, can you sit back and watch the checks roll in? Uh uh. Prepare for steady work to make your site better. Whether you go the optimization route and spend your work time fiddling with keywords and links to improve your ranking in the search engines or take the expert approach and create a series of new pages, treat your Web site as a living thing. Nurture it and the fruit of your labor will be financial success and the pride of owning your own thriving business. And, maybe, spending more time with your kids.

Susan Kuchinskas, managing editor of Revenue, has covered online marketing and e-commerce for more than a decade. She is also the co-author of Going Mobile: Building the Real-time Enterprise with Mobile Applications that Work.

Should I Promote This Merchant

There are thousands upon thousands of affiliate programs offered by various Internet merchants. Deciding what programs to promote can be a daunting task. Let’s explore the factors most successful affiliate marketers consider when faced with this decision.

First and foremost, you must consider your site visitors’ propensity to purchase the product or service or take the “desired action” (filling out a lead form, etc.). You should consider the attractiveness of the merchant’s site and offer, but you also need to consider your ability to properly pre-sell the product or service and your interest in doing so. After all, if you don’t refer a qualified buyer, and if the merchant’s site doesn’t convert your referrals, you won’t be successful with this offer.

Once you’re satisfied, both you and your customers will be interested in what a merchant has to offer, then consider the following six factors.

1. The Agreement Read the Terms and Conditions of the program, and be sure you understand and agree with all the points. If there is no such document, move on.

2. Compensation Terms How much a merchant is willing to pay you is surely important, but you must also consider the expected conversion rate. Look at the program’s earnings-per-click, or EPC. A program that pays you $5 per lead may be far more attractive than one offering an average commission of $25 per sale. Using this example, if 10 out of 100 of your referrals submit a lead form, you’ll earn $50, with an effective EPC of 50 cents. If just one in 100 of your referrals makes a purchase, you’ll earn $25 with an effective EPC of a quarter. You’ll also need to consider the volume of clickthroughs, which isn’t part of the EPC measurement. In other words, if very few of your site visitors click on the lead campaign and many more click on the per-sale campaign, you could end up earning more total commission on the per-sale campaign, even though it does not convert as well.

The average EPC is public knowledge for many programs. If it isn’t disclosed, I urge you to write to the program manager to ask about the average EPC. I suggest participating in programs with a minimum EPC of 10 cents (unless you expect very high volume).

3. Return Days and Lifetime Commissions “Return days” refers to the length of time a cookie is set on your referral’s computer to allow you to earn commissions even if the referral returns directly to the merchant’s site.

The importance of return days will depend on the length of time a customer typically takes to decide to purchase a particular product. As a general rule, I suggest you consider programs with a minimum of 30 return days.

Many merchants expect customers to make repeat purchases. It’s even built into many situations, like ongoing services. As an affiliate, you should be compensated for future purchases, so look for these types of programs to offer lifetime commissions. (Especially good are those tracked by a database, where your referred customer is “assigned” to you and your ongoing commissions aren’t dependent on cookie tracking.)

4. Leakage I define leakage as any time affiliates don’t get credit for commissions they rightfully earned (based on the program’s terms and conditions). Below are a couple examples of leakage. Again, don’t hesitate to ask the program managers how they minimize these issues for their affiliate partners.

Phone Orders: There are ways to credit affiliates with their phone orders. (Contact me at my company if you’d like more information.)

Participation of Parasite Affiliates: This critical issue is beyond the scope of this article, but clearly you want to avoid programs that have relationships with affiliates who will intercept your referrals and claim the commissions for themselves. There are many sites and discussion groups where you can find lists of affiliate programs that have parasites participating in their programs.

Even if you’ve earned commissions, there are unscrupulous merchants who may not pay as they have promised or are very slow payers. Again, check the affiliate discussion boards before you start promoting any merchant to see if other affiliates have registered complaints about them.

5. Program Management If you’ve gotten this far in your evaluation of an affiliate program opportunity, then I suggest you also look for information about the program’s management. Have you been provided with full contact information for an individual you can reach with your questions or comments? If so, chances are, you’re going to get the support and guidance you will need to promote this merchant. On the other hand, if you’re given a generic email address ( that you find is unresponsive to your inquiries, this should be a red flag. I also suggest you avoid programs that use “customer service” to handle all kinds of affiliate matters.

A productive affiliate should be viewed as a true business partner or an in-house salesperson. Therefore, look at the quality of the sales promotion support. For example, does the program go “beyond the banner” and provide affiliates with good content in the form of articles you can publish and/or emails you can send to your subscribers? Do you have access to individual product links or a product data feed? Has it provided you with a list of its most important keywords and keyword phrases? Does the program manager keep affiliate partners informed of the hottest-selling products and most successful promotions? Are you provided with coupon/promotion codes or other special deals that you can offer your customers?

6. Reporting Most well-run programs will allow you to log in to your account 24/7 so that you can view your performance in real time.

While there are no guarantees, following these guidelines should help you to partner with those merchants who offer you the greatest chance of success. Above all, remember to work smart, run your affiliate activities professionally and be aware of red flags.

JIM GRIBBLE is managing director of, which he founded in 1999 to manage partnership programs. He also runs, an exclusive business development network, and, a resource for merchants and affiliates.

Can You Relate?

Not all that long ago, we did almost all business with people face to face. Chances are, we knew them personally and had done business with them before. There was an established relationship.

Now, affiliates are doing business with people around the globe, and the chance of knowing them personally is pretty remote. But no matter where or how we do business, the need for a good relationship is still critical, perhaps even more so. People are not looking only for transactions; they’re looking for relationships. They’re looking for a positive experience, something that really enhances the trust and connection between the parties.

Several years ago, Jan Carlson, the former president of Scandinavian Airlines, wrote a best-selling book called Moments of Truth. Carlson’s belief was that every time someone had any dealings at all with a customer, it was a moment of truth. Whether it was a phone conversation or an actual one-on-one exchange, something happened. He knew that each time a customer had an encounter with his airline, it was going to either enhance or detract from the relationship itself, not just the value with the customer.

Marketing gurus recommend we be mindful of the lifetime value of a customer to look beyond the profit from an initial sale. It’s good advice, but I would take it a step further: Be mindful of the lifetime value of a relationship, not just a customer.

Relationships often go far beyond the customer. They extend to friends, family and acquaintances. How often have you done business with a company because your father, brother, friend or co-worker recommended them?

And it’s not only our relationships with customers that matter, it’s also with suppliers, coworkers, stakeholders, even competitors.

It’s a small world. And more and more people are checking you out before buying from you or partnering with you. Your reputation, which is largely established by how good you are at building and maintaining relationships, will determine someone’s willingness, or unwillingness, to enter into a business transaction with you.

And you never know how your relationship will evolve. I’m doing business with people today with whom I formed a relationship many years ago. We’re not in the same businesses, and in many cases we’re not even in the same industries. Our roles – customer, vendor, employee, employer are reversed. We’re able to do business now in our new roles because we had and have a good relationship.

In Mario Puzo’s screenplay “The Godfather,” a common expression was, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” I think business is personal, very personal. And the more personal we can make it, the better our relationship will be and the more business we’ll do.

Most business communications today are highly impersonal. When you communicate with someone, especially via email, you can get attention by making it more personal. A warm, friendly style can begin to build a rapport and a relationship that increases sales.

People like to do business with people they like and trust. It’s incumbent upon us to foster an atmosphere where all parties develop relationships of trust, respect and cooperation.

We need to realize that there’s really no such thing as business-to-business or business-to-consumer. It’s people-to-people that counts. Once we get that, we can start to look at ways we can improve upon those relationships.

And it’s actually pretty simple:

  • Treat people the way they – the way you – want to be treated;
  • Keep your agreements;
  • Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it;
  • Under-promise and over-deliver;
  • Train your staff to go out of their way to please the customer;
  • Do it consistently;
  • Reward your customers and your employees when they communicate exceptionally well;
  • Tell the truth with compassion; and
  • Never lie. Never. Ever.

Show people you care. When people get that you care, you’ve got an excellent chance of building a solid relationship. Up until then, it’s just a transaction. Remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Our profits and our ability to compete effectively depend upon how well we cultivate and nurture all of our relationships. Being honest, playing win-win and treating people fairly aren’t just moral things to do. They are good business, now and in the future.

MICHAEL ANGIER is founder and president of Success Network (at, which coaches people on personal and professional success strategies.

Databasics 101

Most small business operators have dabbled with databases, but relatively few use them to their full advantage. So here’s a crash course call it Databasics 101 on why you need them, how they work and what they can do for you.

Businesses live and die on the information they collect and how they put it to use. For example, at my company, we send a reminder for unpaid ads on the day following their entry. This provides a timely reminder with an easy link to our payment page.

The key tool for storing, organizing and making sense of this information is a database. Many programs use a built-in database, such as an email reader, a calendar or a contact manager. These programs are already heavily used by individuals and businesses to manage their activities. However, these programs only perform specific functions.

If you want to send email to all of your clients who registered with you during a particular week last year, you are facing a long manual process with standard personal information management (PIM) tools. A database can provide such a list of addresses with ease. It also can track the performance of individual ads, determine your best customers, provide page-view history for affiliates and automate your billing process.

There are a number of excellent databases that run on desktop computers. Some examples include Access, dBase, FileMaker and 4th Dimension. There are also dozens of programming, scripting and report-generation tools for these databases.

On servers, popular databases include Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, Sybase, Informix, and the freeware MySQL and Postgres. Some of the advantages to having a server-hosted database include the ability to connect from different computers in your office, the option of using a wide variety of programming languages and the benefits of using an industry-standard structured query language (SQL). If you run a Web server for your business, it is relatively easy to connect the Web server to a database.

In my company, for example, we use server databases for both office and Web environments. In the office, we can do on-the-fly queries to find out information about a customer and to determine how much customers spent on each of our features. These queries can be run by anyone in the office, because we access the same common database.

You’re a Sales Machine

Pairing a database with a Web server allows your site to become a customer-driven sales machine. Of course, it will take a little programming to put your business practices online, but the key component is a robust database. With this combination, there are Web sites that support thousands of affiliates, providing customization for each one. The key parameters for each affiliate are stored in a database.

Databases store their data in files optimized for rapid access. You can’t view these files directly, but databases provide facilities for writing and reading information. It’s important that your database provide facilities for backing up this critical information, and that you back it up frequently.

Just about every database has graphical tools for creating, browsing and modifying database content, generally called tables. Desktop databases come bundled with these tools, but for server databases they are often separate products. These tools can help with the creation and casual browsing of database tables.

To take full advantage of a database, you need to look at its scripting or programming interface – a process that may sound harder than it really is. Server and some desktop databases provide a common language called SQL for manipulating their contents. For example, the SQL statement “select email from customer where area code = 310” would select all email addresses from your customer table whose area code is 310. This same statement could be used on any database that supports SQL.

Databases that provide an application programming interface, or API, open their power to third-party or even customer-written applications. One industry-standard API is called open database connectivity (ODBC). ODBC compliance allows third-party applications and programming languages to connect to and manipulate a database.

My company, for example, uses an ODBC interface to connect Java applications to a database. To find all unpaid ads from the prior day, a Java program connects to the database through the ODBC interface. It then issues an SQL request through that connection. The request is something like “select * from classified where starttime > yesterday and starttime < today and paid = 0.” (This is an SQL simplification, but it serves our purpose.) The “*” indicates we are selecting all data from the classified table that meets the criteria.

The classified table contains the classified ad contents as well as information about the ad owner, such as the email address. It’s then a simple matter for the Java program to send an email message reminding the ad owner that the ad still has an amount due. The message can be personalized, and it can include the ad contents of the ad.

This is just one example of how to use a database, but it shows the potential power of one of the most common tools available to small businesses. Doing this operation manually would be a very time-consuming process and would require personal attention every single day. Using a database allows you to automate the entire process, freeing you to focus on growing your business, not just maintaining it.

If the technology is a bit beyond your personal capabilities, don’t despair. Remember, there was a time not long ago when most people were intimidated by the idea of owning their own computer. There are plenty of people around who can help you, and finding them will be well worth your effort.

The best place to start your search for help is from friends who understand the technology. They probably won’t want to do the work for you, and you shouldn’t expect them to. But they can help you screen the person who will do the work.

Professional help doesn’t have to break your budget. In most cases, you should be able to find a contractor for about the same price as a plumber, and often for less. But if you have a complex project in mind, you may want to seek bids from several computer consultants. n

EDWARD ARENBERG, vice president and CTO of EPage, created one of the first fully dynamic Web sites. He manages and develops for,, and

What’s Mary Kay Got To Do With It?

One of the most common myths about the Internet is that this new-fangled technology makes business mysterious, complex or risky. The truth is that the basic laws of doing business still apply. Sure, there are some new technical concepts to grasp, but business is still business. That has not changed. Case in point: affiliate marketing and the Internet.

During the dot-com boom-bust cycle, thousands of businesses failed, primarily due to bad business models, not bad technology. The silver lining is that online merchants became more conservative, resulting in a shakeout of most of the idiotic ideas. Darwin would be proud: The fittest companies survived. Business on the Internet is here to stay. Online spending has grown quarter after quarter. Most American homes now have Internet connections. The number of high-speed connections is skyrocketing. Even stodgy old brick-and-mortar companies with online sales channels are experiencing solid growth.

A large and growing chunk of those online sales are coming through affiliate marketing. Why? Because affiliate marketing is based on a very well-established sales strategy – the outside sales force. Affiliates are very much like the troops of lipstick-wielding Mary Kay consultants or the ubiquitous Tupperware party animals.

Technology may be what makes it cool. But a powerful sales force is what makes it work. If you have a good product, an outstanding compensation plan, a well-thought-out incentive system, personal relationships and excellent sales materials, your business will explode behind zealous salespeople who are eager to evangelize the greatness of your company and its products.

Technology may be great for checking on the number of ads served through your Web site, but it ain’t going to sell your stuff. That’d be like asking the sweaty guys at the Mary Kay fulfillment center to go door-to-door hawking skin softener. No sale.

What works in affiliate marketing is the same set of strategies that works in direct sales. Focus on recruitment. Offer reasonable compensation. Add incentives. Build loyalty. Provide great service.

What won’t work is relying on technology to run your affiliate program.

If an offline company wanted to expand its outside sales force, it wouldn’t think of hiring people without interviewing them and assessing their capabilities. The company also wouldn’t think of sending that person off to sell the product without great sales collateral and constant motivational support. Conversely, a good salesperson wouldn’t consider helping a company that didn’t pay good commissions punctually, offer good customer service or market a credible product.

If your online company wants a successful affiliate program, it needs to stop trying to attract every affiliate on the face of the planet. Be selective. Do your homework. Look for the good ones. Find the sites that have something complementary to your product offerings. Make your commission offer exciting, fair and extremely reliable. Think up great motivational offers. Mary Kay saleswomen work their fannies off for a pink Cadillac. This also works wonders in the online gambling world where top affiliates sometimes drive away with Ferraris. That may not be appropriate for every program, but every program could consider an extraordinary reward for top performers.

Money isn’t the only thing that motivates the salesperson in the direct sales model. There are weekly motivational meetings with recognition given for success. This can be done easily and inexpensively with tele-seminars, regular newsletters and bonuses handed out to top producers. Or, by giving your affiliates top-notch custom-made Web pages with your products data-fed onto their site, like an Amway catalog with the salesperson’s name, phone number and affiliate ID dynamically generated on it.

Treat your affiliates like valued salespeople and they will be loyal and productive. But this can’t be done with thousands of faceless ID numbers on a statistics report.

You’re probably thinking: “Oh, I can’t do that! I have 5,000 affiliates and not even one whole staff person focused on it.” Fine. Then, you need to rethink your affiliate marketing strategy. If you don’t assign human resources to this powerful force, you won’t see the results. Period.

If you expect to join a network, get 2,000 affiliates overnight and then watch the sales explode, you are sadly mistaken. It takes constant and creative effort to nurture this kind of sales channel. Try focusing on less than 100 who are really devoted to your program and work with them personally to build their traffic and sales. If you can’t afford a full-time, experienced and well-paid affiliate manager, consider farming out the management tasks to an outsourcing company that specializes.

Technology is not the most important thing here. Human beings are. Yes, you should use the best tracking interface you can afford. But if you really want to have the best affiliate program you can afford, you’d better start with the best affiliates you can find.

LINDA WOODS helps merchants to start and manage affiliate programs. Through her company,, she and her team offer strategy consulting, training and outsourced management services.

A Perfect Ten

Most people who start a small business do at least one thing well. For restaurateurs, it’s usually cooking. For painters, it’s wielding a paint brush. For affiliate marketers, it’s often building a Web site that pleases customers.

But too many small businesses fail because the owner isn’t good at something else: running a small business.

To succeed as an affiliate, it takes a lot more than posting links. Here are 10 tips for getting off to a good start with your affiliate marketing effort.

1. The Business Plan

If you do not care where you are going, any road will get you there. But if you want to start a successful affiliate business, you need a business plan. It’s a document that will guide you on a monthly basis to see if you’re reaching your goals and, if not, what you need to change.

Does this sound like a homework assignment? Well, it is. If you’re going to invest time, money and effort in building an affiliate marketing business, give yourself every opportunity to succeed. Preparing a plan will make you focus on those elements that highlight your strengths and improve weaker areas.

What are the elements? Product development, marketing, sales, operations, personnel, finance and management are the components to be included. It’s a document that will help determine your financing, credit history, collateral and whether you can repay a lender (if that’s your direction). You will also review your organizational plan, legal structure and the other important parts.

It will help you answer the tough questions: What’s your strategy? Have you done a market analysis? Have you done a break-even analysis to know your minimum bottom line? What about tax information? What will you tell the bankers?

How you write the document is also important, so get a good book on the subject to guide you. Short is better. Keep the whole document, if possible, to about eight or 10 pages.

2. Grants and Financing

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked as a SCORE counselor is, “How can I get a grant?” It is usually prefaced by something like “My wife is a minority …” or “We are a woman-owned business.”

The reason people seek a “grant” is because it doesn’t need to be repaid. So, if you want one, ask yourself why someone would want you to have it. What are you offering for that grant? What improvement will you be developing?

There are thousands of programs, funds and grants that have been created by federal, state and local governments. In addition, there are foundations and organizations that offer grants. It is impossible to try to list them. There are many programs for minority- and women-owned businesses. States love businesses that will create new jobs

Just about every major government department offers some kind of assistance to small business owners. For foundations, try, which is quite extensive. Read your local newspapers, check out specialized magazines and network with local groups to learn about small grants.

If you’re seeking a loan, let it be known the SBA does not make loans directly to businesses. They work through banks.

3. Need Help?

Where do you start to find a great employee? You know what the job requires, so write down the tasks in the order of importance. With that, you have the basics of a “job description.” The U.S. Department of Labor has published a book called Dictionary of Occupational Titles available at your local library and the nearest state labor department office. This book contains complete job descriptions by title, saving you the work.

You need this to find the person with the right skills; to describe the job duties to the applicant; and to follow the duties over time, readjusting as needed. Your state agency will write the job description when you list the opening. Also, the labor department is an excellent and free source to find the applicants that are most suitable to perform the tasks. They also list openings online.

Be aware that most jobs are filled by word of mouth. That’s an effective way to recruit, but you must be good at finding out the qualifications of the person (See next topic.)

Keep the job description; it will help you to supervise the employee later.

4. Ask Good Questions

Whether you need information to complete a task, to interview a potential employee or to buy a new computer, it is essential to know your goal. When asking questions, you’ll narrow the scope of your questions to obtain the information needed.

The more technical the project, the more you pinpoint your questioning. You knew that.

When interviewing a job applicant, most of the data will be at your fingertips after you read the resume and application form. You’ll need other information, but there are legal requirements about what you may ask.

To stay within the boundaries, ask open-ended questions such as “Tell me what you liked best about that position” or “Will the hours present any problem?” Avoid asking about ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, politics and other personal areas.

Check your local labor department for more information on what you can and can’t ask during an interview. It may help you avoid some big problems later.

5. The Home Office

Most affiliates work at home, but many never set up an area dedicated to that work.

Prepare your work area in a professional manner. Working on the dining room table over a long period of time isn’t the answer. Have a specific area that the family or colleagues know is your “office,” even if it’s a corner of the living room or a closet.

The convenience of a home work area is well known. However, family and friends need to respect the privacy and the hours you indicate you’ll be working. Keep your work life separate.

Get a separate business phone that’s off limits to family except in an emergency. Get call-waiting so you don’t miss calls.

Will you have occasional business visitors? If possible, arrange an entrance to your “office” that avoids family areas.

6. Manage Your Site

Didn’t anyone tell you it would be a full-time job? Update your site by adding fresh content at least two or three times a week. That will keep it interesting to visitors.

Repair broken links regularly. Tweak the appearance to make the site faster, more logically organized and easier for customers to navigate.

As you start to get questions from customers, add the information they’re asking to an online list of frequently asked questions. That will cut down on questions from other customers.

Have friends visit the site and test it for you. If you listen closely, they’ll give you important clues on how to make it better.

If you do these things yourself, you’ll reduce your maintenance costs. But make sure you have the skills and knowledge to do them right.

7. Hire an Accountant

So you’re not an accountant? Nor a bookkeeper? You may need an accountant to do your taxes, and you also may need one to guide you in keeping records.

Start by discussing your business with an accountant familiar with small businesses. You can do this record keeping via computer programs or the old-fashioned way: paper workbooks. Just be sure you are including all the elements needed for tax purposes.

If you are going to do this yourself, a lot of discipline is going to be required. Keep a mileage book in your car and use it each time you go on a business-related trip.

Keep all those receipts. At least once a week, record income, and expenses. Not only does this keep you from falling way behind, it keeps you alert to your business plan progress.

Check your bank and credit card statements carefully to be sure you haven’t missed anything. And meet with your accountant at least quarterly to make sure you’re still on track.

8. Market Your Site

Your Web site is your store. And it’s your job to get people into your store. Make sure your packaging is clear, well organized and attractive. Proofread everything before you put it on. Check word usage carefully. (Do you mean compliment or complement?)

Do you have an electronic and paper brochure describing your business? Bring it along when you go to meetings, public events or conferences, and be sure to network with people.

Develop a publicity plan listing key messages about your company. Where are the best media outlets for your story? Online newsletters and local radio and TV shows are some ideas. Don’t be shy about calling them.

Send press releases to local media to announce your new online business, but be sure there is newsworthy information included. (It’s newsworthy if you would want to read it about some other business.) Follow up a few days later with a phone call asking if they saw the release and ask the news desk if you can provide further information.

Can you afford banner ads on other Web sites? At the least, be sure you have a poster with your Web site in the back window of your car.

Maintain a customer mailing list (email and snail), and use it often.

Get a book on marketing for a lot of other practical and inexpensive ideas.

9. Know Thy Competitor

This logical step is basic when going into business. Let’s explore where you can find out about your competition. Demographic studies are available at state, county and municipal centers. You’ll find facts about most businesses in the area. Look around at the area.

Using your common sense, you can talk to suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, salespeople, public officials, customers, trade organizations and can find out just about anything you need to know. Be their customer. Work for the competition. Ask them directly.

What is all this nosing about going to tell you? It tells you what they are doing right and how you can do it better, and the reverse. It shows how they do business, where they advertise, buy supplies, find help. It answers who their customers are; what their prices and discounts are; whether they give more quantity or quality; how many of them there are; and what kind of reputation they have.

These steps should give you lots to work with and improve upon. The more you do, the more likely that you and your venture will be successful.

10. Get Legal Advice

How would you know when you need a lawyer?

You need one to decipher legal language, when you’re faced with legal action, when you enter long-term agreements or when you purchase property or a business. You also may need one for taxes, patents, copyrights and, of course, lawsuits.

Legally, you don’t need a lawyer to form a corporation. You don’t need your hand held throughout your business transactions. A good business friend or mentor can probably give you just as good advice as a lawyer. A good attorney will tell you that he is not good at business decisions.

However, when you do need a lawyer, be sure you inquire of as many sources similar to your enterprise as possible to find the right one. Don’t be bashful! Interview the lawyer to be sure you’re getting the experience you need for the question you need answered.

MARION S. KURITZ is a SCORE small business counselor who previously was assistant director for the New York department of Economic Development. She’s also worked with the New York departments of Labor and Social Services. She now has a successful home-based jewelry business.

Taxing Times

The lure of affiliate income is a magnet for people with drive and imagination. It’s particularly attractive to the impoverished, those in debt or people wanting to purchase a home. It’s a powerful draw to women yearning to stay home and for men raising children alone. And, of course, it’s like mother’s milk to the tax collector.

Affiliate income takes many forms. Sometimes, you don’t even think about it as income. Have you joined’s affiliate program just to get a kickback on your purchases? That’s income.

Some affiliates get rich. Most earn little. Regardless of earnings, or whether you think of it as income, there are tax consequences that you very simply just can’t ignore.

Let’s start with a couple of forms of taxation that many people don’t even know about when they start up: your business license and your DBA form.

A business license requires paying a fee that generates revenue for your city and/or county. If you get caught without one, you’ll probably have to pay them back for the last couple of years, like Donna Schwartz Mills did in Los Angeles. She wanted to be at home when her daughter was growing up, so she started and a series of related sites to help other parents find ways to make a living from home. What she didn’t know is that her little business needed a license.

Some cities are now starting to compare state income tax filings with their database of business licenses to determine who claimed to be operating a small business and didn’t have a license. In addition to paying what you owed in the past, you also may have to pay a fine and interest. This may sting you, but it won’t cripple you. Some cities are nice enough just to warn you and let you start clean. Still, without a license, if you have any trouble or need to sue, even in small claims court, your case will be thrown out.

In case you haven’t heard the term before, DBA stands for “doing business as” and refers to the process of recording your fictitious business name in the county where you set up shop. It establishes a public record that allows people to look behind the name of your business to find out who owns it. It also prevents anyone else in your county from using the exact same business name.

Sales Taxes

As an affiliate, sales taxes will not be an issue. To sell anything, even as an affiliate, you need to have customers. However, once you have your following, it’s tempting to create solutions for them. The minute you get clever, coming up with a product, sales tax rears its ugly head. And that’s what happened to Matt and Jamie Garrison when they first established Aluria Software LLC.

Matt Garrison was practically living in his car when he met his future wife. Soon afterwards, while partnering with Jamie’s master programmer brother, Jim Kruse, they gambled all they had on an affiliate income idea. CBS had just debuted the Big Brother TV show, and they created a fan site with lots of pop-ups and affiliate links. Within 6 months, they’d earned over $35,000. They didn’t expect that, but it didn’t take them long to see how to capitalize on it.

Since then, they’ve formed Aluria, with offices in Florida, to develop their own products. Sales taxes came into play as soon as they sold their first copy of Kid Surfer, a Web browser they designed for youngsters. These days, they operate on a budget of about $50,000 a month, and sales taxes are a big part of that budget.

Simply put, sales taxes are based on the destination state. So, if the Garrisons only ship to Florida, they collect Florida sales taxes. On the other hand, if they ship to California, they must know the tax rates in the city and county, too. California has a different sales tax rate almost everywhere you go. Watch out: your state might have several rates, too.

Starting out small, you’ll probably file sales tax returns annually. But you’ll collect sales taxes from customers all year long. To avoid shock when paying the annual bill, keep good records. Make sure the sales tax money is set aside monthly. Coming up with a year’s tax money at the last minute really hurts.

Remember, this isn’t your money. You collected it from customers. The government isn’t friendly when you’ve squandered their money.

If you haven’t been paying sales taxes, don’t worry. You won’t go to jail. You’ll simply have to pay it. Some states insist you pay several years’ taxes. California audits your sales for the life of your business. Few other states are as aggressive. Generally, you may expect to pay approximately three years’ back taxes.

Avoid all this trouble by simply keeping books and filing returns, even if you plan to just dabble in being an affiliate, using affiliate codes for personal purchases. Jamie Garrison advises that all affiliates should set up their operations like a business from the first day. Then, if it suddenly takes off as her business did, you won’t have to scramble to catch up with government and licensing requirements.

Bookkeeping Isn’t That Hard

Looking at the volume of transactions Schwartz Mills decided she could track the activity without a costly bookkeeping system. is maintained in QuickBooks and spreadsheets, as needed. For the longest time, Aluria accounting was scribbled on worksheets. With most income coming from affiliates or, the Garrisons got quick summaries of income. Matt Garrison simply added expenses at year’s end.

That’s perfectly fine. You needn’t spend a fortune if you can use a spreadsheet (whether paper or electronic) to list your checks and income. Go to the office supply store. Pick up a Dome bookkeeping record book. Many small businesses use them. They’re inexpensive and understandable.

For many people, paper systems are too unstructured, while the big, full-featured accounting programs are too complicated. There is a really nifty, very basic program, The Internet Tax Helper [] for accounting-phobes. It’s perfect if you are not reporting to banks or investors. Most people never need a balance sheet.

Are you willing to tackle double-entry? There’s QuickBooks, Microsoft’s Money, Peachtree, One-Write Plus or other software packages. All offer a panoply of capabilities in addition to bookkeeping – invoicing, payroll, banking, electronic bill paying, fancy graphs, cost accounting, complex financial statements. They’re remarkably versatile.

Accounting software produces information for tax returns and financial statements any time. When refinancing your home or trying to get a business loan, you needn’t rely on your accountant or tax professional. Simply print off a report.

Don’t go it alone. Have a professional review your work quarterly. Verify that your entries are done properly. Otherwise, you might think you have a loss, then suddenly learn you have a profit of $50,000 or more.

For some, like the Garrisons, not paying taxes until they file their return is a deliberate strategy. They don’t use bank loans or other debt to cover their operating expenses throughout the year. Instead, they use the money that should go towards quarterly payments. With IRS interest rates as low as 7 percent, this can be cheaper than bank loans, even with a possible penalty and they didn’t need to qualify. This is their choice, but a risky one. It’s against regulations,and if you don’t have the cash to pay the tax and penalties, you may find yourself in more trouble than you avoided.

Donna Garrison deals with estimates by having her husband increase his payroll withholding to cover her profits. That’s easier than remembering to make quarterly payments. But if you don’t have a working spouse, remember, payments are due in April, June, September and January, each year.

Employees or Freelancers?

Being in business means you may need help. Jamie and Matt hired staff, on payroll, with benefits. They didn’t go cheap, treating employees as freelancers. That kind of thing usually backfires. If you have freelancers, give them a Form W-9 to fill out, with their names, addresses and Social Security numbers. In January of each year, send out Form 1099-MISC to each freelancer.

IRS uses a list of 20 points to decide if someone is an employee or not. (You will find the list and explanation at

The importance of each quality on that list is subjective. IRS looks at each item, applying it to your outside staff. IRS decides if you’re an employer.

Here are questions to ask yourself:

  • Carefully examine your working arrangement with freelancers. Do they work just for you? Do they have a key to your office? Do they use your telephone, your equipment, your supplies? Do their business cards have your company’s phone number?
  • Do they have a “risk of loss?” Are they using your facility, but paying you rent? If they don’t come in, do they still have to pay you rent? Do they buy their own computers and software? Work from their home or office? Pay for their own education? Can they simply quit at any time with no consequences? Or would they be in breach of contract?

If you answered “yes” to questions in the first group, or “no” to questions in the second group, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest qualified tax professional.

What if you didn’t put your buddy on payroll and got caught?

There are “safe harbor” provisions in the law. While you won’t get out of paying the payroll taxes, you might reduce some taxes, penalties and interest. It will help if you can prove your freelancing friend actually reported the income and paid taxes.

How far back will they go? IRS will go back for three years. States may go back even more. If auditors contact you, treat them well. Don’t be rude. Don’t yell, don’t accuse them, and don’t blame them. Be respectful and courteous. Ask them to help you. Typically, they’ll go as easy as they possibly can.

Lots of Affiliate Income – No Tax Returns – Don’t Worry

It’s not uncommon for people who start dabbling in affiliate income not to realize what they’re earning. Starting with no business intent, you join dozens of programs, receiving small checks from each. Perhaps no company sent you a 1099 because no single company paid you $600 or more.

Overall, perhaps you earned $300 each from 10 companies during the year – $3,000 – and didn’t realize you had to file a tax return. You did.

And perhaps you’ve now expanded to 50 programs, still not keeping track. You’ve been so busy, you’ve never realized your earnings are $20,000 per year from these little bits of commissions.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you covered your rent, ate, wore new or clean clothes, and drove a car, you certainly had substantial profits and you will owe substantial taxes.

Suddenly, a letter comes from IRS. They want tax returns. You never kept records. You panic. Where do you begin?

Don’t worry. It’s fairly easy to reconstruct this data. Start with your bank statements. If you don’t have them, they’re easy to get. Ask the bank for copies. Even if they charge you, there are only 12 statements each year. That’s not too expensive.

When you get the bank statements, add up all the deposits for the year. Deduct anything that is obviously not income: cash advances from credit cards, loans from family, money drawn from savings, inheritances, child support. Whatever’s left is your income.

If you cannot get bank statements and all your income came from affiliate programs, send an email to each merchant. They have records. Usually, they can run a report summarizing your earnings from them.

Canceled checks, though, are expensive to replace. You must pay for each check. Hopefully, you still have those stashed in a box somewhere. On the other hand, credit cards are great for purchases, as long as you pay the bills each month. Practically all credit card companies will provide free copies of prior year statements. Since many of them also offer lovely summaries, get those printouts. Half your bookkeeping will be done for the year.

If you’re unable to recover the data (you never had a bank account, or the bank was destroyed in storms or riots, with all records), do your best to estimate the expenses. Make a list of all the things you pay each month. Remember your Internet connection, Web host, telephones, cell phones and other expenses.

If your list makes sense and the numbers are reasonable, the IRS must accept them based on the Cohan Rule, named after George M. Cohan, the entertainer. Since Cohan was always on the road, he couldn’t carry huge filing systems. In his day, there were no Pocket PCs for tracking data. Cohan established that even without receipts, if your expenses are “ordinary and necessary,” the IRS must take them into account.

While it’s really in your best interest to do it all right, don’t worry about messing up. There’s usually an easy fix. All you’ll have to do is pay the bills, which, in all fairness, you do owe. If you do the right thing, you won’t go to jail. If you try to cheat, well, things may go a little harder on you.

If you are so hard-up that you can’t pay, there are even ways to cut a deal. But we’ll have to save that for another day.

EVA ROSENBERG, MBA, is publisher of and an enrolled agent, licensed to represent taxpayers before the IRS. She has a quarter century of experience dealing with tax issues faced by small and Internet businesses.

Profits By Design

Link all you want, but unless your site helps visitors find what they want while enjoying the process, they won’t stick around long enough to buy anything. The big secret is creating a well-designed Web site. That’s easily said, but difficult to accomplish. Quality sites have fresh, interesting content; easy-to-understand organization; visual appeal; and affiliate links that are relevant and attractive.

We asked five very successful affiliate sites to share their tricks for designing a hard-working, pleasing site that keeps users coming back for more. Each site exemplifies a key principle of good Web design.

Build a solid foundation

Thoughtful planning of the structure and content before design began has helped to fulfill its aim of being the Web’s most comprehensive consumer resource for kitchen design and remodeling. Today the site ranks as the fifth most visited affiliate site in Alexa’s Home Improvement category. Click the site’s “shop” link and you’ll find a sizeable custom storefront linking to dozens of merchants. wants to walk its visitors through complex projects (such as kitchen remodeling) while making it look easy and fun. The site is minimalist, with only a few links on any given page. Like a recipe, the site breaks projects into easily digestible steps.

Editor Kate Schwartz stressed the importance of planning when it comes to building a successful affiliate site. Schwartz said the founders spent a full year analyzing the kitchen industry and determining what users would expect from a kitchen design and remodeling Web site before launching

“It was expensive, in that one designer and the original editor spent an entire year working on it,” Schwartz said. But the careful planning paid off in reduced maintenance costs, because the site worked well and really did provide just about anything anyone would want to know about kitchens. The structure also allows for updates to be made as new products or styles evolve without the need for adding new sections or reorganizing. Now, said Schwartz, “Basically, we tend to add rather than modify or change.”

Find the right style

A site must appeal to its target audience by developing a unique style using color, typography, arrangement and voice., a resource for youth basketball coaches, manages to seem friendly and yet professional. Guy Power launched the site in 1998 as a personal project. It’s now the fourth most-visited site in Alexa’s Basketball category. PowerBasketball is an Amazon affiliate, and book and video sales can earn four figures each quarter during the basketball season, which is not bad for a one-man show.

Power wanted visitors to be pleasantly surprised to find a site that offers so much without charging a monthly fee. A self-taught designer, he went through several iterations of site design. “I have spent so much time searching the Internet and studying design, layout, and color schemes,” he said. “You name it, I have tried it. I always liked the look of simplicity and subtle color scheme – the newspaper look.” Power replicated that look by laying out stories in relatively narrow columns on a white background, and adding only a minimal amount of color.

Indeed, visiting gives one the feeling of being on the inside, privy to the knowledge of professionals. The design is a sharp contrast to the amateur look of the site’s competition. Power feels that the current site design will satisfy his visitors for some time to come.

Organizing content and distributing it across the site was tricky. “The hardest part of design has always been to position chunks of content on the main page that will allow the visitor the opportunity to find information that appeals to them without weighing it down.” He wanted to offer enough content on the main page to reassure visitors that the site was substantive, while encouraging them to wander through the rest of the site. Power achieves this by highlighting a small selection of recent stories in the center of the home page but also offering a number of other jumping-off points around the primary content in smaller type. By mimicking the design of more established media outlets, PowerBasketball gets to play with the big guys.

Let content rule was launched in 1996 by a group of baseball insiders and sports writers to become an online resource for updated information in conjunction with the group’s annual Baseball Prospectus books. The site, in effect, complements the books.

The Site’s Spartan design makes sense for baseball enthusiasts, who expect endless statistics and reports without much fanfare. In fact, many of the pages look much like the typical stats page in a newspaper’s sports section where sports junkies find their data.

Expect that to change, though. The demands of ever-increasing content are driving a re-design. “We’ve got thousands of paying customers, dozens of stat reports, huge databases filled with player information, moderated chats and as many as 35 new articles per week from a large number of writers,” said co-founder and executive vice president Gary Huckabay. “We have too much stuff for our current design.” The goal of the second-generation design is to make more content accessible via the home page while keeping load time down.

For Baseball Prospectus, content is king. “Promote and spend all you want, but at the end of the day, you absolutely must have the best content in your business,” said Huckabay. “We work very hard to go find the best analysts and writers we can, and that’s the key.”

Maintain consistency

Kendall Holmes launched in 1998 to be a repository of information, he said, “for homeowners and contractors about living with, working on and restoring old houses. We also sought to build a community of enthusiasts, so old house lovers could connect with each other and share ideas and techniques.”

Old House Web sells a variety of merchandise through,, and The site’s biggest sellers on a daily basis are books focused on restoration and remodeling.

Holmes said the basic design concept is to keep it simple. “We try to fit with our audience like an old, comfortable pair of shoes or blue jeans,” he said. That simplicity extends to terminology and navigation. The thousands of pages of information are divided into logical chunks with common-sense topic names, such as “doors,” “cabinetry” or “flooring,” rather than more technical or cutesy terminology.

To simplify navigation, the site employs “breadcrumb trails,” a textual representation at the top of the page showing where the user has been. For example, someone reading an article on waxed plaster finishes would see a bar at the top of the page reading “Home > Walls > Plaster,” making it easy to retrace steps. “But we’re also realistic that no matter how logical the layout is to us, most users aren’t going to be able to follow our logic,” Holmes said. “So we put a search box on every page.”

Attention to design extends to affiliate relationships as well. Said Holmes, “With anything we sell, from anyone, one of our requirements is that we need to maintain our look and feel, so that we can deliver our user experience … even if the final transaction takes place elsewhere.”

Holmes credits the flexibility of the Web services system at with dramatically boosting sales of Amazon merchandise. Old House Web uses the e-commerce giant’s XML feed to brand its own version of the Amazon sales pages, putting its own look onto the design. Rather than just linking to a book page on Amazon, this service lets Old House Web seem to have its own information page with pictures, reviews and samples. People may not even realize they’re using Amazon until they check out.

Help visitors find their way

Ron Hornbaker, founder and editor of, struck upon the idea for his site one day in March 2001 and pulled the basics together in one all-nighter. The site is a radical take on an online public library. Anyone is free to join and trade books simply by leaving the book in a public place. Books are tracked online using serial numbers registered on the site and pasted inside them. Members frequent the Web site to write reviews, discuss books via message boards and follow the travels of the books that they “release into the wild.”

Today, the site boasts over 160,000 members and 26 million monthly page views. generates up to $2,000 a month in commissions from book sales, and, for good measure, it also sells groceries, ink jet cartridges and gifts that bring in several hundred dollars per month.

When it comes to design, Hornbaker has few hard and fast rules. He stressed that navigation is more important than a hip or modern look. “I’m more concerned with offering a consistent, intuitive navigation interface, combined with a clean, readable content section, that works at all browser window sizes down to 600 pixels wide,” he said. In other words, don’t exclude people just because their monitors are too small.

“The charter is a little place in my head that knows what looks good, and what looks bad,” he said. He’s a fan of simplicity, so he lets text do double-duty for information and navigation. At the same time, he likes to keep a lot of information next to the main content. The deluge of data added to the site each day makes for cluttered pages. For example, each book listing offers seven purchasing links to affiliate sites. He minimizes the clutter by keeping design consistent from page to page and by using small fonts to make these links easy to navigate and easy to read.

“Growing a community Web site is a lot like growing a garden,” Hornbaker said. “You’ve got to lay it out with the right spacing and structure, plant the right seeds, build appropriate trellises to guide the growth, hope for some luck with the sun and the rain (or buy water and fertilizer), and then maintain vigilance in pulling weeds and keeping out pests most every day. The neat difference in this analogy is that a well-planned Web site can continue to grow if tended by only one or a few people, whereas you’ll probably lose control of a backyard garden before it covers your entire block.”

To use another analogy, just try to imagine a library that gets larger and larger without a good index.

CHRISTOPHER NULL is a longtime technology, business, and entertainment journalist. He founded the popular Web site in 1995 and is currently editor in chief of Mobile PC magazine.

No Free Lunch For Merchants

It sounds like a no-brainer: Tap into a sales force of self-employed affiliates who’ll handle everything from producing product information to Web design to advertising. Let them do all the work, and pay them anywhere from a few pennies to a few dollars – but only if they produce to your exact requirements. What’s not to like?

It’s a strategy that works for Bluefly, the online retailer of discounted designer clothing. In 2003, sales from its affiliate program ranged from 11.5 to 16 percent of the total each month. “We’re really excited with the progress we’ve made. We’re still early on in the process of refining our affiliate program, but I don’t see any reason why affiliates couldn’t contribute more than 20 percent of our sales,” said Bluefly executive vice president Jonathan Morris.

While Bluefly’s total expenses were up, its marketing expenses actually decreased 17.4 percent. The company chalked that savings up to a switch from advertising to email and pay-for-performance marketing, including affiliate sales. As a result of this change in focus, Bluefly’s cost to acquire a customer dropped nearly 38 percent, down from $16.20 to $10.05 per customer.

“The beauty of affiliate programs is that they’re performance based. The amount of commission you pay is dependent on the amount of sales you drive – not always the case in advertising,” Morris said.

But it’s something of a misnomer to describe affiliate marketing as pure pay-for-performance. It’s not exactly a free lunch. In fact, overhead costs can eat into profits, while there’s a danger that inept or unethical affiliates can hurt the brand and actually drive customers away. To really get a handle on the upside to an affiliate program, a merchant must uncover the hidden costs – and risks.

Micro Management

Few affiliate programs are truly self-serve.’s is a good example of one company with proprietary technology that lets affiliates sign themselves up, quickly and easily. Yet, even with the hundreds of thousands of pay-for-performance marketers hyping everything on the site from books and DVDs to toaster ovens, every affiliate must be individually approved before starting, a process that typically takes less than 24 hours.

Merchants can outsource most of the affiliate management to network services such as BeFree, LinkShare and Performics. Networks provide the software infrastructure and varying degrees of human oversight to handle automated sign-ups, link generation and the pushing of special promotions and information. Their staff will sometimes untangle snafus and soothe irate affiliates.

But none of the companies contacted by Revenue put their affiliate programs on automatic. Instead, they devoted anything from a couple of staffers to a full-blown department to managing the program. “For probably the first two years after we started our affiliate marketing program in 1998, we didn’t do a whole lot with it, didn’t dedicate internal resources toward it. We just expected it to run on auto-pilot,” said Bruce Matthews, vice president of business development for electronics retailer Tiger Direct. As a result, affiliates brought in a few sales but the revenue they generated wasn’t exactly eye-popping. The program was floundering.

Then, Tiger Direct decided to commit. “We dedicated more resources, and started to pay attention and make it work,” Matthews said. In 2001, the company added a staff position devoted to affiliate relations, began fixing problems in the program and added tools for the affiliates. The result: Tiger Direct affiliates now boost the bottom line by over $1 million a month in sales. Matthews said it took a year of solid work to bring Tiger Direct’s affiliate sales from under $100,000 to that million-dollar mark.

Online department store outlet saw a similar boost when it got serious about affiliate marketing. After it revamped its program and made it a strategic initiative, the company saw its top-line revenue generation from affiliates grow eightfold in 17 months. But the program needs a lot of attention, said Shawn Schwegman, CTO and vice president of sales and marketing. “You’re developing relationships, and that takes relationship management.” has a five-person team responsible for 30,000 affiliates, headed by the company’s director of marketing.

Hidden Costs

Whether or not the retailer has staff whose sole job description is affiliate relations, overhead for the program is spread throughout the entire company, from the accounting department that cuts the checks to the janitorial service that hauls off the coffee containers emptied by night owl employees.

The true cost of an affiliate program, said Prakash Bharwani, senior manger in interactive marketing for 1-800-Flowers, is, first of all, the salaries of his staff. “Then, there’s the indirect staff members, my IT team, my accounting team, my creative team, my colleagues. Then the infrastructure costs, server space. There’s a customer knowledge team, and we use up their time to understand how the affiliate program is working.” Bharwani said that promotions offered through affiliates should be added directly to the revenue share to get a true picture of how much the affiliate program costs the company.

The first task of the affiliate manager or team is recruiting and approving new affiliates. Many large retailers approve each application by hand, paging through the affiliate’s site, making sure it’s professional and a good representative of the company. Even though 1-800-Flowers works with LinkShare, Bharwani said the first 30 or 40 minutes of his day is devoted to approving affiliate applications.

Merchants will differ on what’s acceptable, they all share the risk of having their brand value diminished by its appearing on a shoddy affiliate site. Rick McGrath, director of e-commerce partner development for auto parts merchants J.C. Whitney Co., said, “Everybody starts someplace, and I try to maintain a low barrier of entry. But I need to see a clear commercial intent.” Sites that have pictures of the family vacation or someone’s favorite rock band will get the boot. And McGrath has no interest at all in sites that offer get-rich-quick-through-affiliate-marketing offers or multi-level marketing schemes.

Next, he screens for downloadable applications like the Gator eWallet or WhenU, another deal-breaker. “That’s objectionable. I see that as undermining the affiliate program, in my humble opinion,” said McGrath.

Bluefly’s Morris said he scrutinizes affiliate applications closely, and then continues to monitor the affiliates in the program. “We make sure they use the creative we provide and that the environment in which our creative appears is appropriate.” Bluefly staffers manually check affiliate sites, focusing on the ones doing the most business, but also performing random checks on less active affiliates. Besides a general level of professionalism, Bluefly makes sure the sites have adequate privacy policies and disclosures, and, he said, “are legitimately providing a service to their customers by promoting Bluefly.”

The Creative Touch

Affiliates aren’t professional designers, and even the sharpest affiliate can’t compete with the full-blown creative teams that retailers have in-house. Bad product photos scanned from a magazine, misspellings and incorrectly colored logos can make the merchandise look shoddy. To counter this, retailers end up creating special ads, content and images especially for affiliates.

“You don’t want to just keep telling them, ‘Don’t do this,'” 1-800-Flowers’ Bharwani said. “You want to tell them, ‘Do this. If you want to send out an email, don’t send it with those ugly orange and pink colors, use this instead.’ We not only give them creative, but also help them with things like email templates.”

Whether it’s producing separate-but-equal ad campaigns or simply reformatting existing digital assets, this work can stress the company’s resources or add to the overhead. It has the potential to divert time and attention from other forms of advertising., with over 30,000 affiliates, has a dedicated designer producing materials for affiliates to use. Because the company buys limited lots of products, it instituted data feeds that every night automatically update dynamically displayed products on affiliates’ sites.

Crying Game

Good communication like that is important when working with affiliates, merchants say, not only to help affiliates succeed but to stave off problems. When affiliates feel they’ve been treated unfairly, they can strike back and really dent the merchant’s reputation. Internet message boards are rife with backbiting and flaming recriminations against merchants who disappointed.

“If you have a few disgruntled affiliates or an issue that comes up, you have to be very proactive in resolving it,” Bharwani said. Merchants must deal with a wide range of personalities and operations, from highly professional types to loners in dark rooms. “There are guys who are big corporations and guys who are running it out of their homes. And each person matters.”

Affiliate marketing may not be for every merchant. To avoid damaging the brand or siphoning off resources from critical projects, merchants must have the resources and culture to manage the program well. “You have to allocate resources, absolutely,” says Tiger Direct’s Matthews. “I believe you get out of it what you put into it. The key, he says, is to “balance what they want with what makes sense for you in a business case.”

The bottom line: While there are risks, there are also rewards.

SUSAN KUCHINSKAS, managing editor of Revenue, has covered online marketing and e-commerce for more than a decade. She is also the co-author of Going Mobile: Building the Real-time Enterprise with Mobile Applications that Work.