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 PartyClowns.com,” 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 BabyShoppingGuide.com 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.