A Failure to Communicate

There’s plenty of communication, but most of it’s ineffective.

Communication at its most basic level is the exchange of ideas and information. Seems simple, right? Like most things that involve people and processes, it’s not always as straightforward as it appears. Communication is part art, part science, part X factor. Getting it right is not easy. And when things go awry, it can be a hugely frustrating experience for all involved.

This appears particularly true in the online marketing space where the ability to clearly and effectively convey and share information between various groups is hampered by complexities, technology and just plain information overload.

In order to operate effectively, publishers need to get creative materials and up-to-date offers from hundreds of advertisers. Merchants and advertisers often rely on affiliate networks to act as the middleman in contacting their publishers. Publishers need to deal with online agencies and communicate with the networks to track their commissions. The networks have to stay on top of both their advertisers and publishers. It’s very complex and can become difficult.

“The state of communication and general communication throughout the industry is a big problem. It always has been,” according to Linda Buquet, an affiliate management consultant and president of 5 Star Affiliate programs.

That sentiment is prevalent.

“I believe in communication advocacy and relationship marketing – affiliate marketing is lacking that,” says Richard Lewis, president of ReturnOnAffiliate.com.

“Communication is a big issue in the community,” says Adam Viener, president and CEO of search marketing firm IMWave. “On one hand, each affiliate manager wants to communicate better and more often with affiliates. But affiliates want to deal with hundreds of merchants and yet they do not want to have to deal with everyone.”

Viener adds that there is information that is critical to his business that needs to be more effectively communicated to him, but it is often buried in a mountain of other communications that are informational but not urgent or necessary.

“I need to know if there is a change in the terms of an agreement or if someone I’m dealing with is moving – those are the kinds of messages that if I don’t see, I’ll lose money. But many of the messages I get are about opportunities to make more money,” Viener says.

Email Overload

There’s no lack of information available to everyone and methods abound for getting your message directly to your intended recipient, including email, RSS feeds, instant messaging, blogging, newsletters and even the telephone.

If you’re like the average connected person, or the average online marketer, email is your preferred mode of communication and your inbox is overflowing – even after the junk and spam mail filters have done their jobs. The average online marketer is likely to receive hundreds of emails per day.

IMWave’s Viener claims that at one point in early February, his inbox had more than 2,100 unread messages – dating back to November 2005.

“Every once in a while, I miss an important message and I’m not notified when there is a new message. That’s why instant messaging is so good for me,” he says.

That’s what prompted him to create the Affiliate AIM List (affaimlist.com), a list of the AOL Instant Messenger handles of people in the performance marketing space. Members opt to sign up and are then added to the buddy lists of all other members. That allows everyone on the list to see who is offline or logged into IM and then contact them directly (see Revenue March/April issue).

The Affiliate AIM List was created by Viener to facilitate communication among the many different parties comprising the affiliate community. Viener, a longtime fan of AOL Instant Messenger, thought the communication tool would be a great way to foster better and more frequent communication between people.

The list is not a moneymaking vehicle but more of a community service, Viener says. To date, it’s been well-received, and has 250 members. In April he launched AffiliateSkypeList.com as another way to boost communication.

“There has been a dichotomy between merchants, who want the most communication, and the affiliates, who want the stuff, but feel it’s very hard to control the volume,” Viener says.

Getting Personal

Instant messaging works for many, but Shawn Collins, president of Shawn Collins Consulting, says that IM is a more personal communication tool and that using it to send out mass IMs is irritating, impersonal and turns him off.

What irks 5 Star Affiliate’s Buquet is spam. “First and foremost with affiliates is reading emails and not knowing if they are spam they should be filtering or an important program announcement,” she says. “Then you end up having to go through the junk filter.”

Buquet adds that even with all the email rules and filtering offered by most applications, many affiliates still complain of being overwhelmed and bombarded with emails and unfortunately, “some affiliates aren’t very good at organization.”

On the flip side, most program managers don’t think beyond using email. They continue to contribute to the flood of email as it’s the easiest way to communicate quickly with a large group of people.

“With a lot of the affiliate managers, it never occurs to them to go beyond email and that thinking is flawed in so many different ways,” Collins says. “People are not opening email. How about picking up the phone more and engaging affiliates? Also, there’s RSS or direct mail. Just touch base with affiliates on a regular basis.”

He says that it’s also easier to catch less-than-scrupulous people on the phone. “If you have a reason to believe that someone is doing something questionable with affiliate links, you should call and ask them questions,” Collins says. “You can tell by the tone of their voice and the way they deal with you. It’s a much easier way to get a read on someone when you are communicating with them by phone than when they are sending you a prepared statement in an email.”

According to ReturnOnAffiliates’ Lewis, it’s not about how many parties you have to communicate with, but rather the effort that is put into those relationships. “Affiliates often feel like they are just a number,” he says. “I believe affiliate managers will get more out of affiliates if they communicate on a professional level and understand the person they are dealing with. There needs to be more respect for each other’s needs and that includes communicating in a way that is best for each affiliate. For some, that might be a phone call. For others, it might be email and still for others, newsletters.”

There are several things Lewis is unsure of when it comes to the fine art of communication, but one thing he’s sure of, “Communication is the end and the start, and it has to be free.”

Monkey in the Middle

But sometimes it’s hard for any two parties to interact directly with the networks, which are often acting as the middlemen between merchants and publishers.

“The networks get in the middle of merchant-to-affiliate communication to impede direct communications,” Buquet says. She suggests RSS as a way to get around that problem.

“One of the solutions that is an important piece of the puzzle is that the networks and the merchants aren’t using enough RSS,” Buquet says. “But it’s a chicken and egg thing. Not that many affiliates are using RSS feeds, because not that many merchants offer them. And merchants aren’t offering them because affiliates aren’t using them.”

LinkShare also noted the communication gap as an issue at the company’s annual LinkShare Symposium, held in January. Then senior vice president Steve Denton, who has since been named president, offered up some possible solutions from the affiliate network. One of these was a future version of its platform that requires publishers to read their messages right after logging in to the interface, and would not permit them to check other things until they view the messages.

Utilizing the Forums

Many industry watchers claim that forums offer a good way to communicate with partners. A multitude of them exist, and most often companies with big programs have their own designated spaces on these forums to directly relay information to their affiliates and partners.

But some say that many of the bigger, more established forums have taken on a culture of mean-spiritedness. Many blame anonymity for that. While the ability to post under a screen alias provides some freedom – especially if you are criticizing a company you do business with – it also can be abused by others to make unsubstantiated claims.

“If you are saying something on a board, you need to let people know who you are to be taken seriously as a professional and have others value the board as a business tool. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of people trying to point blame rather than debating important issues. There’s no real value to that kind of communication when you don’t know who is asking the questions and who is providing the answers,” ReturnOnAffiliates’ Lewis says. His social networking site started in January 2006 as an alternative to existing forums.

Several sources declined to speak on the record about specific forums for fear of public recrimination. However, many sources that requested anonymity cited ABestWeb.com as an example of a space they did not consider overly friendly or tolerant.

“There are all different types of forums and the mood of the forum is usually much like the personality of the forum leader. It’s like corporate culture based on leadership. If the guy at the top of the company is mean and hard to deal with, then likely so is the company. On the other hand, if someone is an empowering leader, that filters down. The culture is not only that of the forum owner and administrators, but the moderators as well, since they typically have the same ethics as those that hired them,” says one source, who asked not to be named.

Buquet, who is the founder and moderator of the WebProWorld affiliate forum, as well as the moderator of the affiliate forum at Search Engine Watch, posts regularly on approximately 30 affiliate and webmaster forums per month, answering affiliate marketing questions from both affiliates and merchants.

Often called the “Forum Queen,” she says it’s a well-known fact in the community space that one of the best ways to gain attention and notoriety for a forum is with flaming and saying something negative about a popular person or figure. “Sometimes the nice forums are not dicey or exciting enough for some people,” Buquet adds.

For merchants to cut through the clutter and noise in forums, she says, the most basic rule is to choose to participate in a forum that is moderated. Otherwise, the forum can turn out to be a “spam house” and merchants will just be lost in the promotional noise.

One idea currently floating around is working with the bigger affiliate networks to create their own proprietary mini-social networks. The way it might work, according to one proponent at an affiliate network who asked not to be named, is that the networks would offer all the communication facilities and tools used in the existing industry forums (blogs, mail, message boards, etc.). But the main topic of discussion would be issues related to the network rather than general performance marketing subjects.

“It could build value for affiliates and bring the merchants and network closer to affiliates,” the source says.

However, if you have an opinion or information that you’d like to communicate, but aren’t interested in expressing in a more public forum setting, there’s always blogging.

Blogs don’t need to be public. Merchants or affiliate managers can set up a blog with an RSS feed that is sent out only to a specific set of individuals. Many likened this approach to an updated version of a newsletter. Such blogs can be used to convey information about a program, announce changes in creative, publicize new promotions, highlight top performers or offer tips.

Personal blogs by people in the industry also allow communication of ideas.

“Anyone can blog,” Lewis says. “There’s no gatekeeper and the blogger can share their feelings about their work and the industry without too much worry of backlash.”

Sharing Is Caring

Still, many in this market space claim that giving up any information about their business is harmful. Because the barriers to entry in the online marketing space are relatively low, revealing the secrets of exactly how you achieved success is not seen as smart business (see Revenue Volume 2, Issue 7).

But others believe by sharing information you will help the industry grow and thus ultimately achieve even bigger success for your own company. Collins, Buquet and Lewis all claim that is not just part of their personal philosophy, but a key component in how they conduct their respective businesses.

Buquet, who launched her forum in July 2005, says it’s “goal oriented” to promote “positive success.” She wants her members to work together and share ideas.

“It’s an interesting human phenomenon to do things for the right reasons,” Buquet says. “The more you give, the more you receive. I try to empower people.”

Collins agrees. “People don’t really see the need or benefit to help people. It’s way too easy to be selfish and keep secrets. But sharing really does pay off. Giving benefits the overall industry and leads to more quality programs,” Collins says.

He attributes much of the success of the twice-yearly Affiliate Summit conferences he co-hosts to helping others. “I think I did the right thing,” says Collins. “I shared with people, without giving too much away and my business is growing. It’s a pay-it-forward thing.”

Be a Mentor

Collins has been helping people on an informal basis for years and now he’s working to formalize a mentoring program that would have industry leaders working directly with others. The idea is that the leaders would share their experience and knowledge, acting as role models and offering inspiration.

Collins says it’s a grassroots effort that started in 2001, when 30 online marketers in the New Jersey area would get together and simply talk about issues. He claims it spread to other regions, but was never formalized and eventually sort of faded away.

“It would be great to resurrect it. It became too onerous to organize people for the meeting, the meeting space, the food, etc., so it just fell off,” Collins says.

With the explosion of social networks, Collins believes that people are looking to connect in a more personal way with other like-minded folks. This time around, he’s looking for a more one-on-one connection and likening the new idea to the Big Brother Big Sisters mentoring programs.

His idea is to get industry leaders in various geographic locations to agree to participate and then connect them with someone within a 20-25 mile radius. The two would meet periodically to discuss whatever business issues they choose. Of course, people in competing businesses would not be paired up.

“It sounds like a wonderful idea. People respond best to people they can relate to, as well as if they care about you as a person,” says ReturnOnAffiliates’ Lewis. Beth Kirsch, group manager of affiliate programs at LowerMyBills.com, is working with Collins to get the program off the ground. “I’m happy to do anything that will improve communication between parties in the online marketing space,” says Lewis.

Collins is also pairing up people at his conferences. He’s attempting to facilitate the schmoozing aspect of the conference by holding formalized social networking sessions that allow attendees to request mini-meetings with other attendees they would like to meet. It’s like speed dating for the business conference crowd. By starting a dialogue between the attendees, Collins believes he’s helping improve industrywide communications.

Most agree that despite the lack of communication in the industry, things are looking up. There are many vocal performance marketing players from all areas working hard to rectify the problems using a combination of existing tools, new ideas and emerging technologies. This could bring some much-needed sanity and repair the communication breakdown.