While affiliate Web sites can measure how many visitors and clicks they receive and send on through to merchants, that’s only part of the story when making decisions on maximizing revenue potential. There is still that magical measurement of conversions; how many of the visitors that affiliates send to a merchant actually buy something?
“It’s really all about nuance now. Web sites work and are more or less efficient, but retailers [and affiliates] want to know exactly what their customers respond to online,” says Patti Freeman Evans, retail analyst at JupiterResearch.
And “customers,” plural, is the key. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that can work to attract the interests and buying decisions of a broad range of customers. Instead, affiliate marketers need a multi-pronged plan of attack. It’s not just trying to appeal to the types of products and services buyers want, but figuring out how they go about deciding to buy.
According to Freeman Evans, 60 percent of online buyers do research online before they buy, while the remaining 40 percent don’t like to do research and just want to buy what they like or need and immediately move on.
So how do you convert this wide range of visitors to your site into buyers? High search engine rankings coupled with a landing page can lead relevant buyers to your site, but companies often forget to do the rest of the work. “Once you get a customer to your site, you want to use all the assets merchants make available, like product photos and marketing material, that will help the buying decision,” notes Gary Stein, senior advertising analyst at Jupiter. “Conversion rates go up when companies develop their content and give visitors a reason to be there.”
Content-rich sites with an edgy passion for their subject matter have an advantage. Sites that reflect passionate, informed views, and articles with real value, win the respect of their visitors and often their purchase orders.
For some affiliates it’s almost a Zen-like strategy. Kathryn Finney, founder and owner of TheBudgetFashionista.com, says she’s never tried to design her site to make sales; it’s always been about serving her readers. Started as a blog, Finney’s site has become a smart and sassy provider of unvarnished information for budget-minded buyers of women’s clothing and accessories. Ads from major women’s clothing retailers adorn the site, courtesy of LinkShare.
“We are getting cash flow and solid partnerships with retailers, and also our leads translate into offline sales for them,” says Finney. “Our focus isn’t on selling, but by providing valuable, relevant information, we end up a great selling platform.” TheBudgetFashionista will accept only those ads that fit with the focus of the Web site Ã clothing-related items for the budget-minded.
Gimmicks That Work
It’s virtually impossible to appeal to the broad needs of all your visitors even if you have a very targeted site. “The amount of attention a browser receives is staggeringly small,” says Matthew Roche, co-founder of Offermatica.com, a hosted service that runs multiple variations of landing pages and measures which aspects of each are most effective at converting browsers to buyers.
Roche believes a little experimentation can get you a much higher conversion rate. “If someone says they have the perfect landing page, they are just guessing,” Roche says. In general, buyers react negatively to tax and shipping charges and having to register. Free shipping has proven to win sales at many sites, while discount pricing is better for others.
One Offermatica client tried free shipping versus 10 percent off. Offermatica was sure free shipping would win, but 10 percent off proved far more popular for this client. There are additional factors to consider, such as how much to charge for shipping if it’s not free and how much the item costs. Ten percent off on a $1,000 purchase will surely be more enticing than free shipping if you can afford to market that way.
While Offermatica has a range of sophisticated tests and measurements, there are some simple, small-scale alternatives. Offer $10 off to the first 50 search engine respondents and free shipping to the next 50. This can be done in an hour or two if you’re getting enough traffic. But be careful going forward. Ten dollars off may work initially, but what if a competitor offers $11 off? You don’t want to get into a war of competing offers if you can’t win.
Here’s another angle on shipping charges Ã don’t hide them. “Consumers don’t want to wait until the shopping cart to find out there are shipping charges; it’s an unpleasant surprise,” says Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group, an e-commerce consultancy. Also, present recommendations to catch your customers’ attention: “Our experts suggest Ã‰” or “Others who have purchased have also bought Ã‰ .”
Freedman, whose company has done extensive research in cross-selling and upselling, recommends gift cards and gift-giving offers at the shopping cart. After all, if you have a shopper ready to buy, he or she probably has a friend or relative who might like the same item. Gift cards are currently a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Roll Up Your Sleeves
Affiliates have to work harder than ever to get customers, notes Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder and chief persuasion officer at Internet marketing consultant Future Now. Eisenberg says the key to sales conversions is to give your customers a comfort and confidence level with the site the way an effective salesclerk connects on a personal basis with shoppers. He sites five central issues to making Web visitors feel comfortable:
- Relevance The site has to be relevant or you won’t get to the first click in the sales process.
- Trust The site should be well designed and convey trust with a voice or focus that speaks to the potential customers.
- Security You don’t need to use valuable, high-profile space to detail what encryption technology you use, but place a brief two- or three-word reminder near the shopping cart or other relevant area that your site is “hacker safe” or “secure shopping guaranteed” (assuming this is true).
- Value This is completely relative to different shoppers, but know your audience and communicate appropriately. For example, a site for bicycle enthusiasts might be more concerned with safety and warranty issues than rock-bottom prices.
- Privacy Eisenberg says to put “we value your privacy” or a similar promise right next to the Subscribe or Submit button to emphasize your commitment in this area and to reassure customers.
Also, don’t count on a copycat strategy of blindly following what other sites do. Eisenberg sites the example of Amazon. com. The online retailer had a button that let shoppers later remove items placed in the shopping cart. Amazon replaced the feature and used the space to promote its used books. Eisenberg says “remove it later” is a useful feature that helps with conversions because it helps shoppers feel comfortable that they aren’t committing too soon to a purchase. However, many sites dropped it when Amazon did; yet Amazon had specific reasons for doing so that didn’t apply to the other sites.
Of course, there are also features well worth copying. Staples, for example, makes its shopping cart a component of every page instead of whisking the customer away to a separate shopping cart page every time they add an item. Analysts and Web veterans say building your site’s unique appeal is a key to conversions.
“Affiliate marketing is the ultimate contextual selling,” says Stephen Messer, CEO of LinkShare. He gives the example of high-end retail clothier Nordstrom, known to lavish attention on customers. An effective affiliate is like an online version of Nordstrom in that online visitors are much more ready to buy in an environment simpatico with their interests and needs.
“I believe the main reason for shopping-cart abandonment is that the customer hasn’t been sold,” Messer says. “When you go to a kite-boarding site, the banner ad for kite boards on sale is a call to action that speaks to that audience. The site provides an environment and content relevant to what’s being sold, and the reader is, in a sense, pre-sold.”
By comparison, having a one-paragraph description of a blender at a consumer goods site isn’t much of a call to action. “Affiliates convert better because they add value,” Messer says.
World Choice Travel, a division of Travelocity, runs an aggressive affiliate network through travel-related sites (some 4,000 Web sites in 40 countries). The company pampers its affiliates with site evaluations, search engine templates, free consulting, marketing newsletters and other helpful tools. Rick Schneider, VP of global business development at WCT, says it has the most sophisticated back office in the online travel space to help track conversions.
Schneider says there’s been a leveling off in the number of affiliates WCT supports as the company looks toward quality over quantity. “The affiliates that are and will be successful work to develop their business and work at keeping it unique,” he says.
For merchant Sierra Trading Post, the big attraction is discount pricing. The clothing vendor has thousands of affiliates ranging from specialty mom-and-pop Web sites to large shopping-comparison engines. “Our most effective affiliates get our value proposition across best, which is that we sell the broadest range of famous name brands for less,” says Andy Newlin, affiliate manager at Sierra Trading Post. The average conversion rate for its affiliates is consistently over 14 percent, according to Newlin, far above the rest of the industry, and the average order size is over $100.
A program called Sling Shot has been successful in helping affiliates with online tracking and marketing tools. Sierra hopes to tap the expertise of its affiliates with cash prizes to the affiliates for creativity, bringing in the most new customers and best presentation of Sierra’s value proposition.
From Offline To Online And Back
All in all, the secret to converting customers into buyers in the online world isn’t that different than in offline retailing. In fact, there are some indications that online sellers may someday get more credit for sales help they give their offline counterparts. “Everyone acknowledges advertising on the Internet has an impact beyond online,” says Tom Miller, Internet analyst with the Dieringer Research Group. “But how do you prove the impact or effectiveness?”
Some companies offer online coupons with bar codes that can be printed and redeemed at retailers who can track and credit which sites the coupons came from.
A recent DRG study showed that in the past year, US consumers spent $1 online for every $1.70 they spent offline after conducting online research. Clearly sites can do more to capture the purchases of the shoppers they’re attracting.
The bottom line is that offline or on, customers want a good selection of products, to feel they are getting a good value for their money and that they can trust the seller. Relevant content, and a relationship with your customers (encourage feedback), will help you raise your conversion rates.
DAVID NEEDLE has been covering the high tech industry since the 1980s as both an editor and writer for such publications as Infoworld, InformationWeek and Forbes ASAP. Based in Silicon Valley, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.