The Write Stuff

Imagine you’re in a store. You’re browsing and minding your own business. Then, all of a sudden, a pushy salesperson ruins your shopping trip. What could be worse? On the other hand, a helpful, honest, knowledgeable clerk can turn an otherwise annoying shopping errand into a pleasure.

The same applies online. Blaring banners are like obnoxious sales clerks; shoppers want to avoid them. If you want visitors to value your site, you need to offer more than banners and obvious links to products. You need to give ’em a reason to come back. Enter content – the stories, letters, news, photos, drawings and other types of information that add value to your site.

“The key is attracting people to your site by offering information that is free and useful,” said Elizabeth Karolczak, president of OSKAR.com, the parent company of ContentFinder.com, a site that lets people find sources of syndicated content. “It shouldn’t be just sell, sell, sell.”

Yes, the name of your game may be selling, and not all sites need this type of content. Many successful affiliates operate online stores that contain very little content and win their customers over with a no-frills approach to shopping. Shoppers come to those sites simply to buy something quickly at a good price with no hassle. The drawback to that approach is that the customers leave as quickly as they arrive, limiting the time they spend in the store and how much they buy.

Giving people a reason to read and linger increases the likelihood of them seeing more of your site and more of your offers. The more frequently that information changes, the more incentive your visitors have to return to your site.

“If you update with relevant information, you increase the value of your site,” said Jim Pitkow, CEO of Moreover.com, which aggregates content from various publishers. “Content enriches the user experience and drives loyalty.”

User loyalty is exactly what some affiliates are after as they create content, get their visitors to do it or get merchants to provide it. And they find that attracting loyal users boosts traffic and revenue.

“The result of providing high quality editorial is that we are literally the No. 1 ‘senior magazine’ on the Internet according to search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves,” said Reece Halpern, publisher of GrandTimes.com, an affiliate site that serves seniors.

GrandTimes.com takes a three-fold approach to content. It has a newsfeed from InterestAlert.com, an affiliate news site that provides free stories. It also posts outside content, articles from book publishers and other sources with whom they’ve established relationships over the past decade. Plus, one in-house magazine-quality article appears per week. This is all done with just two people: Reece and his wife. It doesn’t take a team of Pulitzer winners to make great content. But it does take dedication and persistence.

Create It Yourself

“I believe the key to our success is that we provide high quality content on a weekly basis,” said Halpern, who updates content from his home on Sunday nights. “Competitors who provided [public relations] material disguised to look like editorial are no longer around.”

Other affiliate sites agree that quality is important. “Most sites post only fluff,” said Bob Narindra, VP of LovingYou.com, a relationship site that has a staff of only three. “You want content that isn’t available everywhere else.”

Original content takes basic writing skills. If you are up for it, this can be the perfect creative outlet. It’s a good idea to brush up on your writing skills or ask someone you know who has a knack for turning a phrase. And you don’t want to turn off your audience by, for example, raving about every product you review (and sell). You’ll lose credibility very quickly and visitors will skip over your site as untrustworthy.

If you want to spice up your site, don’t use too much sugar. Whether you’re reviewing books, selling CDs, or critiquing clothes, let your words be immaculate. You want readers to respect you. That means telling the brutal truth. If everything you say is positive, then readers won’t buy what you’re selling and your site will suffer as a result. So give them quality content and everyone will be contented.

This means you can’t insult your readership with egregious errors. While it might sound like an obvious no-brainer, run a spell check and grammar check, even if you think you’re Mensa material. After all, mistakes happen.

And try to update it regularly. “When we went on vacation, our traffic would drop by 20 percent,” said Narindra. “So now if we have to leave town, we write content in advance.” The three partners manage to make the site look like it offers a lot by switching the order of the featured stories.

Get a Little Help

Most affiliates are on a tight budget, so they do it all themselves or consider farming out some writing. But if you are going to count on someone else to help you create content, make sure they really care about the topic they are writing about. The more passionate they are, the more likely they are to work for bargain rates or for free.

Many affiliates look to their own audience to find contributors passionate about the topic. Some invite visitors to express themselves. Amazon.com publishes book descriptions sent by publishers, but reader reviews are what guide many visitors’ purchasing decisions.

Jonni McCoy runs an affiliate site called MiserlyMoms.com and her site’s main objective is to sell copies of her own books. But she has cleverly enticed readers to submit articles to fill out her site’s offerings. There are “working from home” stories from readers, “miserly tips” from readers and even recipes from readers.

“The articles, tips, recipes and stories draw people in to read,” said McCoy, who even posts guidelines for people who want to contribute. “I get about 2,000 hits per week.”

If you have, say, a car site, get users to submit advice, set up polls and then post the results. People love seeing how others respond. A message board is another great tool. You can get the software free or cheaply by Googling such terms as “free message board software.” Look at what your visitors talk about to find out what topics are of interest to your readers. It’ll give you great ideas on what articles will grab readers.

Rely on Pros

A syndicator or content licenser can also help you figure out what your needs are and how to best serve your viewers.

“We’ve been doing this for seven years,” said Jeffrey Massa, president and CEO of YellowBrix, a content syndicator. “We are happy to share our experience with clients. Identifying the type of content that would be beneficial to your users is simple.”

But getting their expertise and advice can be costly. The last option is to license content from a content provider. The upside is that it lends your site legitimacy. Visitors know that you can be trusted, that you offer something valuable.

And syndicated content is not just for those with deep pockets. Halpern uses InterestAlert.com, which provides free news. But syndicators who charge may be worth the expense. Most syndicators get the rights to publishers’ content free of charge or on the cheap, because publishers like the traffic generated by licensing out their content. Moreover.com delivers 3 billion to 5 billion links per month. But the big content guns charge you because they invest in systems that make it easier for you to get what you want. That’s their service.

To compare a couple: YellowBrix has 3,700 sources and technology that categorizes and summarizes the content according to your needs. One client pays just over $1,000 a month while other clients pay more than $20,000 a month. Moreover’s feeds start in the thousands of dollars per year; clients range from Economist.com to a Wisconsin agricultural site. Publishers range from WSJ.com, the BBC and WashingtonPost.com.

“It’s very affordable, accessible, viable and compelling,” said Moreover’s Pitkow. “If you had to pay each of these publishers individually, you’d pay a lot more.”

Shop Smart

If you are considering licensing content, there are a number of things to keep in mind.

Understand what you are trying to accomplish. Then prepare a budget.

The cost of content varies, and you can pay monthly or annual fees. If you’re getting a newsfeed, you’ll probably get charged by the month; if you’re paying for access to a database, you’ll likely pay an annual fee up front.

When you approach a publisher or syndication source, make sure you’ve done your homework and you know how many site visitors you’ll deliver. Prices can vary depending on the content provider and how many eyeballs gain access. Publishers may want to know how you are going to use their content and how many people will see it. You can pay anywhere from nothing – what Halpern pays for an InterestAlert.com feed – to tens of thousands per month. Other providers charge by the categories and breadth of your needs, not by the number of viewers or page impressions.

Tech Issues

Be aware of what you are getting. Small affiliates usually have little technical expertise, so they need to be particularly clear about how they would like to receive content.

“Format problems can cause a lot of headaches,” warned ContentFinder’s Karolczak. Before you sign a license, have the contract spell out the exact number of articles (or cartoons or graphics, or whatever) you’ll get, how often, in what format (HTML or XML, for example) and how they’ll be delivered (via FTP or PDF, etc.). Otherwise, you’ll be doing a lot of technical work converting the content. Then, by the time you get it up, it’ll be out of date. You don’t want to drain your resources, so just be sure to state exactly what you want to receive.

Crediting the original publisher is another thing to consider. Accreditation can lend your site legitimacy. Readers will respect your content if they know it’s coming from a reputable source. On the other hand, some syndicators offer you a private label option – that is, you don’t have to say where you got it – but that’ll cost you more.

Flaunt It

After you’ve given your site a facelift with fabulous content, you should strategize on how to promote it: You want your audience to see your stuff.

“The No. 1 way to get people to come to your site is through an email with a hypertext headline,” said YellowBrix CEO Massa. “Everyone reads email. Give ’em a headline.”

GrandTimes.com encourages visitors to sign up for a weekly email that previews its latest articles. People will click on a link if they see something that interests them. LovingYou.com’s Narindra agrees that email is the best way to market your content. But be sure that you only send it to people who opt in and always give them the option to unsubscribe.

Perhaps the best reason to create compelling content is that it just may open up other revenue streams and help with your branding.

LovingYou.com has sold its content to Excite, IWon.com, AOL Time Warner properties and other online entities. And the sites credit LovingYou.com as the source with a link, which means more people linking, higher search engine results, more page views and more spidering. Narindra is excited about this because it means more in the coffers as well as more visibility for the brand. And the interest isn’t limited to the online world.

“Once a producer at Inside Edition [a TV program] came across our site, loved it and contacted us for help with a Valentine’s show,” said Narindra. The licensing of content is a nice byproduct that’s surprised the team. And now Inside Edition has approached them for help with another segment they are doing on couples getting married. Narindra said, “It’s a great relationship because once you help them once or twice, then they think of you first.”

DIANE ANDERSON has more than a decade of experience writing about the Internet and technology for The Industry Standard, Wired Digital, The Net and other publications.