Merchant Advantage: CSN Stores

When Brent Elias began working at CSN Stores.com in 2002, the Boston-based online home furnishings retailer didn’t have an affiliate program. Elias began his career at CSN working in the advertising department on the keywords team. Like many e-tailers, CSN Stores was afraid that affiliate marketing would cannibalize sales from its main online store.

But as the privately-funded company grew, it began to see that affiliate marketing might add some value. No one at the company knew much about affiliate marketing, so Elias, who showed interest, started researching the best way to start a program.

Beginning in July 2005, Elias spent several months researching all of the major networks and which would best fit with the unique business model of CSN Stores. He knew that it would have to be a long-term relationship and didn’t want to jump into anything. He did his homework looking at sites that discussed affiliate marketing and pouring through online forums such as ABestWeb.com to help educated himself and make a better decision.

By October of that year, CSN Stores was ready to dip its toe into the waters of affiliate marketing. The company chose ShareASale as its network. Elias says that he spoke with all of the other major networks but none was able to accommodate CSN’s desires to have a single merchant ID that let affiliates work with any of the company’s 250 online stores. Most of the networks claimed that the stores would have to be grouped together by categories and CSN would end up having something like 20 or more accounts.

Make it Simple

Elias knew that would be too confusing and troublesome for affiliates. He also couldn’t imagine how his company would log into and manage so many accounts efficiently. Elias says ShareASale was the only network willing to host all 250 stores under a single merchant ID – giving affiliates a single place to get creative. It also allowed CSN to set things up so that affiliates could work with the main CSN store or just pick the niche stores – like CSN Rugs or CSN Baby – that they were interested in promoting.

ShareASale was also willing to work with CSN Stores to create custom data feeds, along with a unique tracking system and custom designed analytics. Elias says that level of personal service was “a breath of fresh air” and won CSN over.

Wanting to jump right into things, Elias attended ShareASale’s first annual ThinkTank retreat in 2005, just two weeks after launching the CSN Stores program. He says it was an eye-opening experience and set the tone for how he deals with his affiliates.

“It wasn’t that we were doing things wrong, but we were still figuring out what affiliates wanted,” Elias says. “At ThinkTank when everyone gets into a room and seasoned affiliates lay it on the line and don’t hold back, you take that information and feedback to heart.”

Elias says he learned right off the bat about being fair to affiliates, and that the merchant-affiliate relationship is a partnership. “I don’t think all merchants see it that way,” he notes.

Because ShareASale is a smaller network and many of its merchants and affiliates prefer to work exclusively with them, Elias says that was a selling point. He figured that the network’s stance on adware and downloadable applications (it doesn’t allow it) meant he wouldn’t have the headaches of policing a lot of issues related to cheating and bad traffic. “In addition, I figured that it would also give our affiliate peace of mind that cookie were set for them and that there would be no cross-tracking problems with other networks.”

By inviting feedback from affiliates, Elias learned CSN’s affiliate interface was confusing and he was able to work quickly to get that changed. He was also told that CSN’s data feeds were overwhelming and contained way too much information. He worked closely with SAS to change the data feed structure so affiliates could get only the information they wanted – whether it was by product category, specific stores or master feeds.

Forums, Feedback and Facts

CSN Stores has an active forum on ABestWeb.com and Elias is always there to post information and answer questions, or just take feedback. “I love it and have learned a lot there,” Elias says. “It has a family atmosphere. It can be rough around the edges, but what I love is that people put their heart into affiliate marketing. In the end, I respect that.”

A while back, CSN Stores made a decision to pay coupon sites a 2 percent commission on an order when they were last in the click stream. That decision did not go over well with all his affiliates. Elias says that for CSN’s business model it wasn’t an ideal situation to partner closely with coupon sites. He’s not convinced of the overall value of the traffic the couponers bring to him, but CSN decided they deserved a small cut of the commission on an order. On ABestWeb, CSN took some heat, but Elias says that he was able to give his reasons for the change in policy, “talk people down from the ledge,” and be honest and forthcoming about the business decision.

As an affiliate manager, he believes it’s important not to get defensive or mad, but instead to be open and honest and communicate with affiliates. “That way it remains a discussion rather than a fight,” he says.

He also claims that taking accountability and admitting mistakes is also key for affiliate managers. “Everybody makes mistakes. We are human. Affiliates know that. And if you approach situations positively and honestly and make moves to set things right, then affiliates are forgiving – they respect that. Of course, you can’t make everyone happy but you do what is best for affiliates while balancing the concerns of your business.”

That attitude has served CSN’s affiliate program well. In 2008, the affiliate program will bring in more than $10 million for the company – a significant jump over last year. He says that winning the Affiliate Summit Pinnacle Award in 2008 for Most Ethical Merchant also helped boost the company’s reputation and bring in more affiliates. The program now has more than 4,000.

Growth of the program has slowed a bit, but Elias attributes that to the economy and the natural stages of growth. “You can’t grow 100 percent year-over-year forever. I’m happy with our growth, which continues to be steady month-over-month. The program has really got some steam.”

The growth of the CSN Stores affiliate program has not gone unnoticed within his own company. Elias says that every now and again, he’s forced to field questions from his bosses about expanding the program even further and possibly doing that by switching to a bigger network. All of the big networks have tried many times to lure him away from ShareASale.

But Elias is adamant that ShareASale helped him achieve success and he has no plans to leave. “I’m not budging. The selling point of the program for affiliates is that we are exclusively with ShareASale. And from my perspective, we have their attention. When I want something done there are no questions asked. Plus, I never have to question the type of traffic I’m getting. I know I’m not being cheated or that cookies are not being dropped. With one of the bigger networks, I would have to take a huge chunk of my time to police the program and I don’t want to do that.”

And for Elias, time is at a premium right now. After three years of running the affiliate channel on his own, he’s also recently added SEO Manager to his duties. However, Elias says CSN has shown its continued commitment to the affiliate space, by recently hiring an assistant affiliate manager to help out.

That’s a good thing, because CSN Stores has some new projects on tap for its affiliate program over the next 12 months. The company wants to continue refining its data feeds by partnering with Golden Can. There are also plans to create an affiliate Web page. Currently, the most complete information about the company’s program can be found on ABestWeb, but Elias says CSN needs a formal affiliate spot on its own site as well. The company is also beginning to expand beyond the U.S. into the U.K., Canada, Australia and Germany, which could represent even more opportunities for affiliates.

For Elias, running a good affiliate program means understanding affiliates and what issues are important to them. “I feel an obligation to support those affiliates that have put their faith in my program to help them make a living. It’s all about being comfortable and trust. You can give affiliates all the tools they want, but if you don’t have their trust, you won’t have success.”