The Secret to Being Super

They’re called superaffiliates, but there are no secret powers behind their amazing sales. They follow the same path every other affiliate does: They publish a Web site, sign up for affiliate programs, download the affiliate codes and troll on the search engines.

But they work a little smarter, make a few more calls, send a few more emails and do a lot more testing. And what they do better than anyone else is integrate all of the standard affiliate marketing pieces – email lists, merchant relationships and showcased products – to get more people to their site and more people to buy. Their efforts net results only dreamed of by other affiliates: transactions by the thousands, and monthly commissions often measured in six figures.

To illustrate the point, Revenue decided to introduce our readers to Bob DiCerbo, a Chicago resident who never dreamed he would be working just 20 hours a week to make a very comfortable living. He started ClearSave.com with his wife in October 2002, affiliating with merchants such as Overstock.com, Nordstrom.com, QVC.com, Land’s End, FoodSmart.com and Pet Food Direct. Now he does little more than chat up affiliate managers, tweak keywords and cash checks.

ClearSave is a “check here first” site, where visitors come just to see if any of the merchants they regularly patronize are offering discounts, sales, coupons or bargains. The 2-year-old site gets a whopping 300,000 hits per day. Merchants drool over that kind of traffic. And DiCerbo and his wife pull in enough commissions to pay themselves salaries and hire a part-time assistant. Eventually, they expect their “super” efforts to send their kids to college.

What exactly is a superaffiliate? Well, it’s not one particular thing. It could be one person or 100. It could be an individual or it could be a company. It could be a site offering discounts, rebates, rewards, funding for charities, dating services, apparel, travel arrangements, downloadable music or any of the Internet’s hot products. One thing they all have in common is that they’re treated well – even heavily recruited.

Being a big dog has its benefits. “Merchants reach out and help us put together creatives just for us because we’re doing so well,” said DiCerbo. Many affiliates also get higher commissions, special offers and other assistance from merchant partners.

Here are some ideas from DiCerbo and others on how you can get similar treatment.

Find the best programs.

DiCerbo believes one reason he does better is simply by keeping the lines of communication open with the right merchants. “Only a handful of merchants – Overstock, Avon, Sierra Trading Post, Blair and Eddie Bauer – will actually reach out and call and talk to you to see what it is you actually need,” he said.

Glenn Sobel, founder of AffiliateAdvisor.com and webmaster for DatingTek.com, said some of the best programs offer lifetime commissions. “The key is to look for programs that pay residual income – I’m just kicking back right now and enjoying my Internet income,” he said from his Vegas retirement home. Dating sites are a prime example. When an affiliate refers someone, many programs give a commission for the new member and each time that person renews the membership.

To help choose great merchants, would-be superaffiliates should read contracts carefully before signing up. Contracts should spell out exactly what earns a commission, when commissions are paid, how long affiliate referrals are tracked and what happens if buyers come from more than one affiliate site. If the contract doesn’t spell it out, then add it in writing. “There are a lot of issues like that that really matter,” said Sobel. “They greatly impact your income.”

Provide only those products your visitors want.

This may seem elementary, but many new affiliates spend months discovering it. A site posting sports scores, for instance, should have links to sports magazines and sports betting, not printer ink.

“We wouldn’t promote Overstock as hard as we do if our audience didn’t think it … met their needs for discounted products,” said DiCerbo. “The proof is in the pudding.” That pudding consists of $40,000 to $50,000 in monthly sales, resulting in commissions of $2,800 to $3,500 for ClearSave.

Loyalty site FreeRide.com, which gets 30,000 hits per day and affiliates with hundreds of merchants, asks visitors for demographic information when they register. “But a lot of the way we figure out our demographic is by watching their activity – What are they buying?” said FreeRide.com director Corey Newhouse. FreeRide then beefs up selection for that audience.

“Once you’ve found the ideal types of products, choose one or a handful of really good quality products and promote those well,” said Internet Marketing Center founder Corey Rudl, who built his one-man affiliate operation into a $6.6 million-per-year company. Top affiliates in his program use this strategy to earn $4,000 to $8,000-plus each month.

Email your site visitors.

Superaffiliates always collect email addresses when visitors come to their sites. They have visitors sign up for free offers, newsletters or access to more information already on the site. More than 200,000 of ClearSave’s visitors have filled in their email addresses when prompted to “sign up for exclusive deals, bargains and coupons.” DiCerbo blasts them carefully honed emails once or twice a month. Jermaine Griggs, the superaffiliate featured in our story on religion sites (see page 68), credits his email list for the success of his piano lesson sites. Visitors enter their first name and email address anytime they want to pick a free lesson, see a full music score or add a comment to the lesson forum. The options are free anyway, so Griggs turns them into selections that require visitor input: “I could automatically direct them to all 60 lessons, but ‘Choose a free lesson’ is better than saying ’60 free lessons,'” Griggs said. “This way they enter their information. We have a 60 percent conversion rate with that list, and we’re building it by 6,000 people each month.”

Finally, if you really want to win big, produce a newsletter and promote the heck out of it. Have site visitors subscribe through an opt-in section of the site’s home page, and load the newsletter with advice, news or updates on your industry. Affiliates can work great deals with merchants just by the breadth of their newsletter subscription base.

Hire help when needed.

DiCerbo has part-time help finding new coupons and codes to post on the site. He also has an IT person on retainer. Superaffiliates must either be webmasters or have one on hand. These days, even knowing HTML may not be enough. “We found that XML is much more search engine friendly,” said Rick Schneider, VP of business development for World Choice Travel, an all-affiliate travel merchant. “XML lets you more deeply integrate an affiliate product with the merchant’s brand.”

There are even small companies that are really superaffiliates. They run virtual online stores with lots of customer support, information, great design and other labor-intensive elements. That’s what FreeRide.com – which uses “tokens” redeemed for merchant gift cards to reward visitors for purchases, surveys or Web surfing – does. It’s a four-employee loyalty site run by New York-based Endai Worldwide, an online marketing and technology company with 20 employees of its own. From his loft office overlooking downtown Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, Newhouse knows this isn’t an ordinary affiliate company. But it could be a glimpse at what in just a few years might be the norm. Major affiliates are already being acquired by their merchants – Hotels.com owns hundreds of affiliate sites.

Help searchers find your site.

Keywords, search engine placement, refer-a-friend programs, viral marketing – these are a few of the steps to bringing new viewers to your site. Pay-per-click search engines let affiliates quickly test search words. Through Google AdWords, DiCerbo creates his own ads, chooses keywords to match the ad to his target Google audience and pays only when someone clicks on the ad. He said his site has the most success with high commission products like perfume and footwear. He tries words often provided by his merchants and then tinkers with different landing pages – those pages that actually advertise the product, rather than directing people to the home page – to find out which word and page combinations would help to make the most sales.

Griggs gets even more distance from his hosting service, which gives him unlimited email accounts with his domain name. “If you have an attractive domain name, you can easily offer free theirname@your site.com email addresses to site visitors,” Griggs said. “I’m getting at least 1,000 [viral] impressions a day with that strategy, because my site names appear at the bottom of every email they send out.” Griggs also suggests that affiliates search out the forums or online chat rooms where their ideal customers congregate.

Meanwhile, FreeRide.com is trying its hand at co-registration campaigns, where visitors to other sites can check a box and be added to FreeRide’s list. “So far so good,” Newhouse said.

Once visitors get to your site, keep them there through easy navigation, great design and an established sense of community. “The bottom line is, you’re selling ideas and you’re selling community,” said Web site designer Dean Peters. One way to establish community is through personal endorsements and testimonials. Place them well and make them convincing pieces of friendly advice rather than an obvious cash grab. Testimonials “could increase the response you receive by 400 percent or more,” said Rudl, who has trained 75,000 affiliates in his strategies.

Roll up your sleeves.

This is a day-and-night business. Click-through problems aren’t reserved for 9 to 5; if not cared for immediately, these problems can harm sales. Affiliates must be able to respond as soon as problems occur. That doesn’t mean you actually have to work 24 hours a day. Many successful affiliates grow with just 40 hours per week of combined staff time. But they’re regularly checking their stats, regularly checking their site operations, regularly testing new promotional methods and regularly working with merchants to improve their affiliate offerings. “It’s definitely roll up your sleeves and a lot of grunt work to see what works and what doesn’t,” DiCerbo said.

Test response rates for different affiliate banner ads and text links. Put them in different spots on your site. Try different articles and newsletters. Use different autoresponders. Test promotions on the small scale before taking them to your mass list. “While this might seem like a lot of work, it will ultimately increase their traffic and their affiliate commissions,” said Rudl.

Newhouse at FreeRide.com seconds that: “Giving people a variety of ways to take an action helps a lot.”

Be ready to respond to changes.

“I never look too far out into the future,” DiCerbo said. “The e-commerce landscape changes so quickly that I’m not going to say that the way we’re doing business now is the same way we’ll be doing it next year. Paid search is a new thing that has just taken off. The spam area is closing down. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

In the end, the superaffiliate must be committed to working regularly on its site, must talk frequently with its merchants, must constantly be in touch with its customers and must be able to wait for its efforts to pan out. The buyers often don’t come running. But with the right products and the right customer capture mechanisms in place, at least they’ll be following the right tracks.

JENNIFER MEACHAM has worked for Revenue, The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine.

Beyond Search Engines

Paid search may be driving the rebound in online advertisers, but it’s also driving away the promoters with shallow pockets.

Demand for paid spots on Yahoo, Google and their ilk is pushing prices sky high. Within the most popular categories, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd of merchants without spending a fortune. In fact, some aggressive marketers play “keyword smackdown,” launching high-stakes bidding wars in the hopes of bankrupting their competitors.

Email marketing isn’t cheap either, and consumers seem to be fed up even with opt-in mailings. Add in the restrictions of the CAN-SPAM Act and you’re not left with much room to maneuver in this overused form of marketing.

So how can an aspiring affiliate attract more customers without having to spend a fortune in advertising? Fortunately, some of the neatest promotional opportunities are still free – or cheap, anyway – especially if you’re willing to use a little elbow grease.

The Trade Groups

Seek out trade associations that might be interested in your products. “Not enough people are utilizing this promotional tactic,” said Barbara Spagnola, owner of Concept Marketing, a consultancy that sells subscriptions to an online directory that includes 35,000 professional groups. “A lot of companies don’t even know what their niche market is, whether it’s a geographic focus or otherwise. Everyone is looking for cheap advertising, and this is one of the best ways to keep your costs down and be blasted out to hundreds of thousands of companies that might be interested in your product.”

Spagnola advises her clients, which include affiliate businesses, to call or send direct mail to a trade group whose membership overlaps with an entrepreneur’s desired customer base. The first contact should be treated like a job application, she said, but should by no means be a one-time event. Do it on a monthly basis, whether your means of communication is a postcard, newsletter or, better yet, an actual conversation.

The Holy Grail, of course, is to work your social charms upon the leadership of the group to convince them to sell you a copy of the membership list. Spagnola estimates that about 40 percent of associations are game, and it’s usually the medium to large ones who sell, depending on how badly they want to raise money. Some are very selective about giving out data, and ask for the right to preapprove anything you might send out to the members.

To make an easier job of convincing management that you have the association’s interests at heart, volunteer for the group – especially if you can score a speaking engagement at one of their meetings – and get to know the decision makers. Another way to sweeten the deal for the list gatekeepers is to offer special discounts for the membership on relevant products.

“Make it so the association sees a reason to get involved with your deal,” said Spagnola. “Associations are always looking for perks for their members, and if you can show them the value, a lot of the time that’s free advertising for you.”

But what if you can’t find a trade association that reflects your specific affiliate marketing niche? Spagnola said there are another 150,000 groups out there that are subchapters or committees of the groups on her list, and they can be found through the broader umbrella groups in her directory. There’s also a national Association of Associations, but Spagnola warns that it’s completely pointless to approach them for a referral if you don’t have a specific market in mind and a good argument for why the uber-umbrella group should refer you to an association.

But what if your product is so novel that it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the existing trade associations? Consider that a green light to start your own nonprofit that hopefully would rally interest in your product. In that case, the first thing you might want to do is consult with an accountant, or at the very least call the IRS, and ask for their official publications on how to start a nonprofit group.

Find A Good Cause

Speaking of nonprofit groups, getting involved with charitable causes is another great way to raise one’s profile without descending into debt. The trick here is finding something you truly care about and offering them help that gives you a chance to tastefully tout your business. If your choice of charities is arbitrary or your mercenary motives are too obvious, your promotional attempts could backfire.

One affiliate manager who has very successfully incorporated altruism into his product line is Greg Kerber, CEO and chairman of Wurld Media. His company started peddling a payment technology platform to merchants, and then extended the software to do fundraising for nonprofits. But his charitable intentions run deep: Kerber’s 12-year-old daughter Alexis Nicole has Down Syndrome, so he set his sights on the Down Syndrome Resource Center and the Special Olympics as the first beneficiaries of the fundraising applications of his payments platform.

“Truthfully speaking, I have never done this as a cheap promotion. I am a parent who has special needs and there’s a special place in my heart for this kind of work,” Kerber said. “I have a profitable business and I can help out nonprofits with a segment of my business.”

Kerber’s latest project addresses the homeless, via a partnership with the charity Help USA. The venture adds the charity to Wurld’s existing platform and enables shoppers to donate a portion of their e-commerce dollars when patronizing any of the 400 merchants who use BuyersPort Networks, Wurld’s platform for credit card payments, loyalty programs and charity.

“I hear from nonprofits all the time about how corporations have really changed. They’ll offer to donate money, but insist that there has to be a marketing component to it. And that’s really sad to me,” said Kerber. “There’s a fine line between political correctness and politically incorrect. But we’ve taken care of a lot of people in our world, and we do it because it’s the right thing, not because it’s marketing dollars. And there’s a greater benefit to doing it this way.”

Regardless of whether there’s a charitable angle to your market, you can always make a name for yourself by appearing at as many conferences as possible. Better yet, help out with the planning or even better, volunteer to speak at a show and things start to snowball. That’s how affiliate consultant Shawn Collins created a public image for his company.

He started out by joining the conference-producing team at Refer-It Affiliate Solutions in 1999, and offering to speak at the numerous events they planned. He also helped plan the AffiliateForce shows and became one of their speakers as well.

“I try to speak at as many shows as possible. Even though I get nervous about doing it, I still make myself get up there,” he said. “Lots of these shows are looking for affiliates to speak and no one stands up. So I volunteered and submitted proposals, and the more I did it the more I got invited to other shows. And if you can’t find a show to speak at, start your own.”

Even though he was already speaking at shows, Collins decided to start his own. He felt that the existing affiliate marketing shows were more focused on socializing – playing golf – than on business, and wanted to create a more business-oriented event, where productivity is just as important as networking.

The resulting AffiliateForce event is precisely that, in addition to being a way for him to tout his consulting company and scout for new business opportunities. “The first show I organized was in a small conference room in New York. Now I’m organizing a conference that will take place on the Carnival Victory cruise ship with several thousand people on it,” he boasted.

Among other items on the agenda is what Collins calls “speed networking,” a business version of speed dating. Here participants pair off in three-minute intervals to exchange cards and pleasantries, so that everyone ends up meeting 20 people over the course of one hour. These contacts are a mix of affiliate managers, publishers and vendors.

Collins’ next show will include a speed networking session, as well as a new variation on this theme that Collins calls roundtable rotation. Instead of a pre-planned lineup of speakers, all of the participants have a shot at impromptu speaking for 15 minutes, with question-and-answer sessions interspersed. The idea here is to “give the smaller guys a chance to meet people and speak about subjects of interest to them,” he explained.

Talking Radio

Once you get the hang of public speaking, you may want to look into other opportunities to talk about your business. A largely untapped resource is Web radio, which reaches a national audience without requiring a national-sized budget.

“Why not have a radio station promoting your product 24/7?” asked Dennis Humphrey, owner of Internet Marketing Radio, which currently earns its keep as an affiliate of programs touting online marketing and broadcasting software. Humphrey is launching a radio consulting service aimed at Internet marketers, and has approximately a half dozen prospective clients who would give Humphrey a cut of their revenues in exchange for his helping them put together an online radio show.

“This is ultimately going to be like a QVC radio. You’ll be able to call in and buy during the live program, or simply call in and ask a question,” he said. “We want to get people to put our audio on their Web sites. I will want other entrepreneurs to pick this up and syndicate it. There’s all kinds of products we can sell online, not just marketing and mp3 applications,” like he does now, said Humphrey. “It’s easy to create audio for your Web site. Then there’s audio postcards, online infomercials and even e-books” to promote your business.

So far Humphrey is only doing his own radio show, which he uses to tout all of the products he sells as well as his consulting service. He runs his shows on multiple webcast services, preferring to cast his online net as wide as possible. These include ShoutCast, Abacast and Pirate Radio, each of which asks broadcasters to purchase proprietary software to create the audio files that are distributed online.

Many of the Web radio stations that are open to new shows are ones with fewer listeners. To reach millions of ears, you need to consider the advertising route – having professional deejays read your announcements for a fraction of the cost of conventional radio. “A mid-sized company can spend $2,000 for a national campaign that would have cost $20,000 or more on conventional radio,” said Rick A. Pace, managing partner at MakRadio.com, which boasts 5.3 million listeners worldwide.

A much cheaper option is to hop on the blog bandwagon – and go right ahead and post your blog on as many of the blog sites as possible, to leverage the traffic already held by the blogs, and have one of the blogs post onto your own Web site. The trick here is to update the Web log as regularly as possible, and show off your expertise in your pet subjects.

“When you have a good blog being updated regularly, you know what you’re talking about and have a strong opinion; then other bloggers start linking to you,” said Mihail S. Lari, CEO of BlogIt, which recently changed its name from BloggingNetwork.com. “There are a number of blog directories that have just started, so it also helps to get yourself listed up there, too.”

JACKIE COHEN has been covering affiliate marketing since 1998. She previously edited the Net Returns section at The Industry Standard.

Using Data With Integrity

A crucial element of building and maintaining a database is data integrity – making sure your information is accurate and in the correct format, unchanged by technical glitches. You can personally verify information if you are entering it manually, but when users are filling out forms on your Web site, and that information goes directly into your database, you need another approach.

There are two places to check data validity: on the client and on the server. Checking data on the client involves adding scripts to your Web pages that examine what the users enter before they submit forms to your server. A script checks that the data in the form meets the criteria you have established. If there is a violation, the script can pop up an alert message and request a correction.

To check data on the server, the user must submit the form and let the code on your server verify the data. If there is a violation, your server can return the form again with a notation of the error that needs correction.

In general, server-side checks can be more thorough, as you can check other resources on your server to validate the information. For example, you might have a database of valid discount codes, or you might check that an email address is not already in your system. However, client-side checks provide more immediate feedback to the user, and can save iterations of submitting a form and then correcting any errors. A balanced combination may prove the best choice.

A simple check on the client side could be a matter of confirming whether the user entered any value at all.

More Sophistication

Your checks can be more sophisticated. For example, you can make sure an area code was entered as three digits. And you can see if an email address contains invalid characters like a space, or if it’s missing the @ character.

In some cases you may need to examine more than one form element at the same time, such as only validating an area code if the user has selected the US or Canada. You can add a name property to the form tag. Your JavaScript function would be passed the name of the form, let’s call it “myform,” and could reference a specific form element value like “myform.test.value.”

Once your form has passed all of its client-side checks, it gets sent to your server where more sophisticated checks can be performed. If you have a database of area codes, you can validate that the user entered a legitimate one. Or, you can ensure that a user has not already signed up for your program or for your service.

If the data you receive from a form is placed directly into a database, then it is even more important that you check the information on the server before storing it. Depending on how your server performs its database access, it is possible that users may include data-base commands in their submission that could directly affect your database.

Another example is a search form, where your server performs a search through your database. If the user can search for an email address based on a name in your maillist, and the server executes “select email from maillist where name=”<name>'”, where <name> comes directly from a form submission, then the user could get your entire maillist.

If they submit the name text “‘; select * from maillist where name matches “*”, then both selects would get executed. The first would produce no results, but the second would match every entry in your maillist. If your code looped through and displayed the results of the select, assuming that only one or two matches would occur, then this example would end up displaying your entire maillist.

In both cases the user would have to guess the name of your table, but it seems there are people out there with nothing better to do.

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