Many of today’s online marketers have unrelated backgrounds and have learned their profession through on-the-job training and supplemental offerings.
The situation is similar to the first iteration of marketing on the Web in the 1990s. But unlike 10 years ago, there are more ways to learn and get information such as webinars and online courses; enrichment classes such as weekend training, conferences and boot camps; countless websites; and dozens of books and videos.
Because online marketing has become a bona fide career path, it seems reasonable to expect that university business schools would be offering undergraduate and graduate students a specific online marketing course or devoting a lot of time to its importance. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Over the last several years Choots Humphries, co-president of LinkConnector, an affiliate marketing network, has been a guest speaker at an M.B.A. program at a university on the East Coast where he addresses the incoming first-year grad students regarding online marketing. He has been “dumbfounded” at the lack of understanding of basic concepts. “They don’t know what AdWords is or what a merchant is,” Humphries says.
And he’s surprised that these new business school students know so little about such an important part of the economy. After all, according to Forrester Research, online retail commerce represents about 10 percent of total U.S. retail sales, and it is expected to grow to 13 percent by 2010. That begs the question: Are universities teaching the basics about such a vital aspect of commerce, or is online marketing still the domain of specialized education?
1. College 101
At the University of San Francisco’s Masagung Graduate School of Management, courses in finance, management and accounting all include readings and case studies that describe the impact of technology and online marketing in that discipline, according to Associate Dean Eugene Muscat. He believes the concepts of online marketing have achieved the same academic critical mass as the study of globalization and ethics and says that these three subjects should be included in each course of study as essential business literacy skills.
Muscat says USF does not teach a separate online marketing course because “to have a separate course in online marketing would run the risk of implying that the topic is only relevant to students majoring in marketing.”
Heidi Perry, vice president of marketing at gaming publisher PlayFirst, who graduated with an M.B.A. from Oxford University in 2004, says she took a marketing elective that had a section on online marketing. Perry thinks that certain graduate schools will eventually offer an online marketing course as an elective, but most schools will try to combine online marketing with other topics to give a candidate a more holistic view.
Although the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business does not offer a specific online marketing course, Andrew Whinston, director of UT’s Center for Research in Electronics, says it makes more sense to teach entrepreneurship because the Web moves extremely fast.
“Think about how much the social networks have impacted online marketing just in the past year ” and if you look at some case studies of Internet companies from three years ago, it is like teaching history,” Whinston says.
However, there are many non-degree programs for learning about online marketing that are geared for people who want to enter the profession. Recruiters, such as The Creative Group, are encouraging traditional marketers who are trying to get into online marketing to take such courses to round out their skills and increase their marketability, according to Smith McClure, division director of the Minneapolis branch of the company.
NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS) offers dozens of non-degree marketing courses that can be applied toward a certificate in digital marketing. In the fall of 2006, consultant Shawn Collins was brought in to guest lecture at SCPS’s eight-week Strategic Search Engine Marketing class and gave a top-level overview of how affiliate managers should run programs. Ben Kirshner, founder of New York-based Elite SEM, taught the course and says that the students were extremely enthusiastic because they could apply the tactics they learned in an evening’s class to their jobs the next day.
Because Google sponsored the class, students were given a $50 credit to set up an AdWords account to learn how it worked, and were given the opportunity to take the Google AdWords professional exam for free, which is normally $50. Some of the students were able to put on their resumes that they passed the exam, a leg up for those who are applying for jobs at Google or Yahoo or an interactive agency. Kirshner says the class encompassed a mix of people – some were employees of companies who sent them there so they could better understand how to manage their online campaigns.
2. On the Company’s Dime
Many companies offer their employees online marketing training – through classes and in-house sessions – because of the shortage of qualified online marketers and because the industry changes so fast. Michael Taylor, founder of OnlineMarketingJobs.com, says companies hire people with existing account management skills and then train them for the online marketing techniques pertinent to their company.
So how do companies teach online marketing skills to their employees? PlayFirst’s Perry says that her company balances formal with informal training, and it does a lot of its training through group collaboration and brainstorming. The company also tries to send each marketing employee to the conference of their choice every year.
Dean DeBiase, CEO of Fathom Online, a search marketing and Web analytics company, says they are obsessed with training and view it as a strategic weapon to keep up with the constant changes made by Google, MSN, Yahoo, Ask.com and MIVA. Fathom Online offers two types of training – a 60-day, in-person training program for new recruits and ongoing training through modules to train employees on the latest topics such as analytics, in-game advertising and mobile search. This training is deployed through voice conferencing, video conferencing and WebEx.
Bob Chatham, senior vice president of education at WebSideStory, a provider of on-demand digital marketing applications, says that its employee and customer training program, Digital Marketing University, is a three-day course that teaches WebSideStory’s HBX analytics and Visual Site applications, which help marketers to optimize their search campaign by seeing how their paid and organic search terms are converting.
Chatham says he has seen courses relevant to digital marketing offered through e-commerce programs at schools including Babson College and Northeastern University – both in the Boston area – but has not seen any semester-long Web analytics courses. He notes that there are strong professional training programs on the subject such as one at the University of British Columbia.
3. Learn From the Masters
Chatham stresses that a lot of the good practical expertise lives with the consultants, such as Jeff Eisenberg and Bryan Eisenberg from Future Now; Gary Angel from SEMphonic; and Jim Sterne, who created the Emetrics Summit. Chatham notes that these same experts who speak at the University of British Columbia’s programs also speak at WebSideStory’s Digital Marketing University and other industry conferences. “I think the best way to get up-to-date information and the best training is through industry expert workshops,” Chatham says.
Attempting to fill a knowledge gap, Aaron Kahlow, managing partner of Business OnLine, created the Online Marketing Summit, which was held in San Diego in February. “I have spoken at many conferences including Ad:Tech and the DMA Conference and I am always surprised at how little industry folks know.”
He says that other industry conferences do not offer training or improve attendees’ understanding. He says they are all “either too technical or all about the future and predictions. This is great for investors but how does that help a tactical day-to-day marketer?”
Kahlow says that the industry needs to focus on education. “We are just getting to a point where best practices are established and the amount of change is slowing,” he says, adding that the most popular sessions at his show include workshops on search engine marketing and performance metrics.
However, if you want to be an affiliate marketer, formalized educational avenues are very limited. Stephanie Schwab, vice president of marketing at Converseon, thinks professors are in their ivory towers and are not aware of affiliate marketing. Consultant Andy Rodriguez says that he is surprised to not find any colleges teaching affiliate marketing in southern Florida. Consultant Colin McDougall has had similar findings in his area of British Columbia. But Rosalind Gardner says she is aware of a professor who was using her book, The Super Affiliate Handbook, to teach affiliate marketing in his university class.
The most convenient and least expensive way for newcomers to get their feet wet is to read the many websites, blogs and forums (message boards) related to affiliate marketing. “The best place that I have learned about affiliate marketing is from the community at ABestWeb.com,” says Kristin Collier, founder of MadHatter Consulting.
Consultant and author James Martell cautions that those looking for information must rely on credible sources such as the websites of Commission Junction and LinkShare, along with forums including http://affiliate- blogs.5staraffiliateprograms.com/ and AffiliatePrograms.com. Martell warns that forums can be good and bad because “they can take you down the wrong path” and says it is important to follow a person who is an affiliate and not just a writer.
McDougall says that there is a ton of “how-to” books on the market for teaching affiliates how to earn a living but warns that many of the “silver bullet” books sold teach how to manipulate holes in the Google algorithm, which can quickly become out of date. For this reason, Gardner says that her book is updated almost monthly and “every so often I offer previous purchasers a totally updated version of the book at a steep discount.”
McDougall recommends that affiliates find a mentor; a practice that he believes will become more popular in the near future. He says there a re some Internet and phone-based seminars today, but very few provide individual attention, and explains that assisting an affiliate in devising an individual plan of attack is very helpful – “some people struggle with time management while others struggle with technical issues.” McDougall says that he provides some complimentary mentoring but mainly it’s a paid relationship. Gardner says she has never participated in a mentoring program although she has done telephone consultations, which she calls short-term coaching.
5. Podcasts, Training & DVDs, Oh My!
Podcasts are a good way for people who haven’t quit their day job yet to learn about affiliate marketing. And there are plenty to select from. On WebmasterRadio, there is Good Karma by Greg Niland; Affiliate Marketing Today by Jeremy Palmer and Robin Walsh; and Net Income by Jeremy Shoemaker. Affiliate Thing features Revenue’s Lisa Picarille and consultant Collins on WebMasterRadio.com.
For those who want more interaction, Martell recommends videos. He has an eight-video program that corresponds with the eight steps outlined in his book, Affiliate Marketers Handbook. Anik Singal’s The Affiliate Classroom is a Web-based step-by-step training program to help people launch and grow their own affiliate Internet business. It reaches over 35,000 active affiliate marketers through its magazine and newsletter and is in the business incubator program at the University of Maryland. Another popular training program, Stomper Net, is offered by Brad Fallon and Andy Jenkins, and comprises DVD training and an online forum.
Nearly all industry experts recommend attending as many conferences as possible such as the twice-yearly Affiliate Summit, WebMasterWorld and e-Tail; along with the invite-only network events such as CJU and the LinkShare Summit.
“Affiliate marketing is an extremely social industry and we learn from each other. It is good to sit down and have face-to-face conversations with affiliates, managers and merchants. The sessions can be valuable as well,” MadHatter Consulting’s Collier says.
6. Experience vs. Classroom
Affiliate manager jobs are in high demand – so how can they obtain the training they need to do the multifaceted duties required – everything from HTML to creative to sales? Most think it is a learn-by-doing job. For one reason, managers need to have established relationships. “It is not about an M.B.A., but a person who can pick up the phone and leverage their contacts,” says Shawn Collins. Also affiliate managers need to understand “in the trenches” challenges like how they stack up again their competitors in terms of metrics like conversion rates, average order sizes and earnings per click. And most employers want to hire managers with specialized skills – and techniques learned in formal training can be too broad. Moreover, Converseon’s Schwab says that many classes only teach strategy and not tactics and “we need to hire people who can do the job.”
However, a background in marketing is helpful and there are aspects that can be taught in a course such as how the networks operate and the fundamentals of how to recruit, how to activate and how to retain affiliates. Still, PartnerCentric’s Linda Woods says that there is no way she would hire an inexperienced affiliate manager: “I wouldn’t hire anyone just because they took a couple of courses on Internet marketing.” She believes managers need on-the-job training and the training that is offered through seminars.
7. Affiliate Management Seminars
Industry experts like Rosalind Gardner recommend attending conferences such as Andy Rodriguez’s Affiliate Manager Certification Seminar and Anik Singal’s Affiliate Manager Boot Camp to learn affiliate management skills.
Rodriguez’s program is a three-day course and attendees are certified upon completion. Rodriguez and guest speakers teach attendees about formulas that work and promotional ideas as well as warn them about potential pitfalls such as identifying spyware that could affect program performance.
In 2006, Singal had a four-hour, in-person boot camp the day after the Affiliate Summit and he plans more for the future. Like Rodriguez’s program, it was created in response to demand by merchants who needed managers for their programs. Singal says that the attendees include new merchants who are trying to get in the game, merchants who are trying to fix their programs, affiliates who want to be managers and managers who want to improve their abilities.
8. Looking Ahead
Currently there are many options to learn about online marketing that fit into everyone’s schedule: You could attend a weekend boot camp, listen to a podcast on the way home from work, pop in a video on Saturday morning, watch a webinar during your lunch break or find a mentor to walk you through a challenging process.
Most university programs only touch on online marketing as part of entrepreneurship but do not teach it as a separate course for several reasons. One is that the industry’s fast pace has challenged the development of an up-to-date curriculum, which is needed to add a course to a degree program.
Another is that the real industry knowledge lies with the experts, who are busy leading companies and are limited to speaking and teaching at conferences and workshops. Some think that college professors would have trouble keeping abreast of this constantly evolving industry; although if the changes slow down and best practices are established, this may change.
Perhaps most importantly, it is all about up-to-date training: Employers desire employees with tactical online marketing skills from real-world experience, and they would rather hire someone who was trained through last month’s professional training program than someone who studied affiliate management as part of an undergraduate degree in marketing three years ago.
It’s all about training and educating the future generation of online marketers so the space can continue to grow and flourish.
How Do Companies Train Affiliate Managers?
Converseon starts by having new employees review hundreds and sometimes thousands of affiliate sites for approvals because Converseon does not do auto-approvals. The new employees examine sites to determine if they are good – how they are designed, to whom they link and how they are promoting their competitors. Vice President Stephanie Schwab says they encourage their employees to read industry blogs as much as possible, like Scott Jangro’s, Shawn Collins’ and ABestWeb. She likes to send employees to conferences like the Affiliate Summit, so affiliate managers can understand the business from a macroview, and to webinars like eComXpo because of its convenience.
PartnerCentric’s Linda Woods says that they train their employees for PartnerCentric processes, reporting and practices through weekly telephone conference calls among the account managers and staff of approximately 25 people. “Once a month, we have a training call where they are learning something like a new way of reporting to a client, a new activation campaign idea or a new technical tool that we will be using.”
Kristin Collier, former director of marketing at Batteries.com, credits consultant Andy Rodriguez with helping her become a successful affiliate manager. She is now the owner of MadHatter Consulting.
Q: How did you meet your mentor, Andy Rodriguez?
A: I actually met Andy virtually at first on ABestWeb.com. Batteries.com had recently opened a program on ShareASale due to LMI (link management initiative) and I noticed a thread on ABW about newsletters on ShareASale. Andy was hinting at a hidden secret about how to make these newsletters powerful so I sent him an email and he passed me a little information.
This was shortly before the Orlando Affiliate Summit in 2006, which is where I met him in person for the first time. I spent some time with him and many others, and asked as many questions as I could and then he offered to mentor me. I learned a lot from him in a very short amount of time and we still trade emails.
Do you think mentoring is important to this industry and do you think it is common?
A: I think mentoring is somewhat common. I know a few affiliates that mentor other affiliates if they see the passion, drive and thirst for knowledge in them. Andy is not my only mentor – other affiliates mentor me so I can learn more about PPC or about being a manager. I also help other affiliates and merchants learn the skills of good affiliate marketing and online marketing.
Do you think mentoring is mostly unpaid or paid?
A: When I think of mentoring, paid is not something that comes to mind. I do teach my clients about affiliate marketing but I am not mentoring them, I am consulting with them. Mentoring to me is taking the time out of your day to help someone else who truly wants to learn something that you know well, just to help them succeed.