No Check, Please

Whether it is for spring to begin, for Godot or for a commission check, no one likes waiting.

The 30 to 90 days that affiliates – especially those outside the U.S. – must wait for commission checks to arrive can seem like a lifetime, and waiting in line at the bank to cash it is so 20th century.

While merchants might not be as anxious to see the money leave their accounts, replacing lost checks and answering calls about payments wastes time and money, and paper leaves an expensive trail. For recipients, being paid by check requires a trip to the bank and then waiting (there’s that word again) 24 hours or more for the check to clear.

Paper checks are also permanent – a discrepancy in the amount must be resolved by another check, or possibly returning the original draft. When merchants are issuing dozens or hundreds of checks per month, the cost of resolving disputed checks can pile up in a hurry. "Receiving a check is one of the more inconvenient payment methods," says Ron Hynes, vice president of product development of Prepaid for the Americas at MasterCard Worldwide.

Enter the electronic payment. No sitting by the window looking for a delivery person, currency exchange fees or checks that disappear into the ether. The other advantages of electronic payments – including faster processing, greater accuracy and lower transaction fees – all but guarantee that the paper check will soon become an endangered species in the online marketing space.

For the issuing party, there’s the printing (where errors occasionally happen), verifying and signing of the drafts and the stuffing of envelopes – all time-consuming tasks. Direct deposit to a recipient’s bank account is the most popular form of electronic payment, and it is increasingly being used for business-to-business transactions. B2B automated clearing house (ACH) payments grew by 10.9 percent between 2005 and 2006 to 2.3 billion transactions, according the Electronic Payments Association.

Alternative electronic payments that do not require a bank account for deposits are also on the rise, with services including PayPal and PaidByCash becoming commonly accepted methods of payment. In all, electronic payments represent more than 10 percent of online commerce transactions, and similar technology is being applied to B2B financial transactions. Adding to their attractiveness is their "green" quality, as eliminating paper checks saves trees, while fewer trips to the bank means less time behind the wheel.

Electronic payments have grown more rapidly in the consumer arena, but B2B is catching up, according to Edward Kountz, a senior analyst at JupiterResearch. "There’s more pent-up demand on the B2B side" of electronic payments, Kountz says. The lack of a unified payment standard has held back adoption, but more businesses are moving to paying electronically for the same reasons as companies accepting electronic payments – "to eliminate friction," he says.

Catching On With Networks

Performance networks are moving to electronic payments to eliminate the costs and administrative hassles of paying with paper. DoubleClick Performics began paying affiliates electronically through direct deposit in 2001, according to Ed Fleming, the company’s finance manager. DoubleClick Performics developed software that is integrated with its reporting and accounting system to streamline generating direct deposit payments. "It costs us about half the price of a stamp to process" a direct deposit payment, he says.

Currently DoubleClick Performics’ payments are split evenly between checks and electronic deposits, Fleming says. Affiliates that generate the most revenue are the most likely to participate in direct deposit. Fleming estimates that 90 percent of commission dollars are sent out electronically.

DoubleClick Performics regularly contacts affiliates to recruit more to accept being paid electronically, but some still prefer to be paid by check. Affiliates may decline to participate in direct deposit because they fear identity theft. "They don’t want to give out their banking information," Fleming says. DoubleClick Performics has had internal discussions about offering alternative electronic payment options, but there has been "no outcry or huge demand" from affiliates, according to Fleming.

Commission Junction currently offers direct deposit and is evaluating offering PayPal as an electronic payment option for affiliates, according to Dave Osman, the company’s vice president of Client Services. "There doesn’t seem to be a clear leader" in B2B electronic payments, he says. While electronic payments would save the company, "Our desire to eliminate [checks] is based on customer needs, not cost," Osman says.

LinkShare recently announced a new payment plan for publishers, which pays them weekly from the first dollar earned. By moving to a weekly payment schedule, LinkShare reduces publishers’ wait time to receive commissions and doubles the number of paydays. The new plan intends to help publishers improve their cash flow so they can invest resources in their growing businesses. LinkShare officials declined to comment for this article about its payment options.

PayPal, the eBay company that has popularized online funds transfers in the consumer realm, has developed software called MassPay for automating the processing of electronic B2B payments. MassPay can be integrated into payroll and reporting programs through a free application programming interface (API), according to Michael Oldenburg, Associate Manager of Corporate Communications for PayPal. T here are now 18 affiliate software applications that incorporate MassPay, including Affiliate Guerilla, AffiliateShop and MyAffiliateProgram.

Transaction fees for MassPay are up to 2 percent of the value of the transaction to a maximum of $1 per transaction and are paid by the issuing party, according to Oldenburg. Money can be transferred without cost from the online account to a PayPal debit card for off-line spending, he says.

Alternative Payment Options

As an alternative to direct deposit, networks are beginning to roll out debit cards that are linked to online accounts and accept electronic transfers. These cards, also known as "prepaid," "stored value," "reloadable," or "payroll" cards, do not require affiliates to provide bank account information – only a valid address is needed to initiate an account.

Prepaid cards have the same efficiencies as direct deposit without requiring a complex sign-up process, MasterCard’s Hynes says. Prepaid cards enable companies to eliminate commission checks altogether when used in combination with direct deposit, says Hynes, which works with banks and payment processing companies to distribute MasterCard-branded cards.

Payment companies Payoneer and Ecount as well as network Axill offer prepaid card services that have no start-up fees to the network, and the cards are free for the affiliates.

These cards offer the security of gift cards (if you lose the card there’s no access to a bank account) with the added benefit of third parties, such as networks being able to deposit funds electronically. Payoneer, of New York, offers MasterCard debit cards that can be used for shopping or to get cash through an ATM, according to Yuval Tal, CEO of Payoneer.

Although the cards are free to affiliates, there are fees of up to $2 for withdrawing funds through an ATM. Affiliates who are part-time workers and use commissions as discretionary income can find it advantageous to separate their earnings from their primary bank accounts.

Just as with direct deposit, the funds are available the same day of the funds transfers, Tal says. However, if a balance is kept on the card at the end of the month, Payoneer charges a fee. While paying a fee for someone to hold onto your deposit might seem counterintuitive, Tal says that the cost of tracking and administering held-over balances is more than any interest the company could make.

Electronic Payment Options

Merchants looking to accelerate their payment processing while eliminating the cost of paper and accounting hassles have several options for going electronic. Transaction fees vary to a maximum of a few dollars per transaction, but they are all superior to the cost of paper checks.

Direct Deposit It’s easy, universally understood and safe. However, it requires validating an affiliate’s bank account number. Finding international banks to participate can be costly and time-consuming.

PayPal Many affiliates already have existing accounts so they can be very comfortable in getting on board. Little to no information is required to recruit affiliates, and PayPal can pay out in 17 currencies.

Prepaid Debit Cards Ecount and Payoneer, along with many banks backed by Visa or Mastercard, offer cards linked to online accounts. With a minimal of software integration, publishers can issue payments from within their affiliate software. Affiliates can get cash through ATMs using a card with the network’s branding.

Affiliates who set up a Payoneer account can also direct funds from any network, even if Payoneer does not have a relationship with the network, according to Tal. Each Payoneer account includes a routing number that can be used for direct deposit, similar to a brick-and-mortar bank. Affiliates can also mail endorsed checks from Google, and Payoneer will deposit the funds into their debit account, Tal says.

Debit cards can be set up so that the networks pay most or all of the transaction fees. Tal says the per-transaction fee depends on the volume of funds that the network processes. Networks that use Payoneer include AmieStreet, ROI Rocket and JoeBucks. Gary McNelly, CEO of JoeBucks, a health and beauty affiliate network, chose Payoneer because the transaction fees are less expensive than implementing PayPal. Integrating Payoneer into his reporting system required just one hour of technical staff time, he says.

Ecount of Conshohocken, Pa., offers electronic payment systems that can be used by networks to compensate affiliates and for affiliates to offer rebates to consumers with minimal administrative costs. Jay Levin, senior vice president of consumer payments at Ecount, says companies can build loyalty by offering MasterCard debit cards with their branding. "Online marketers can be tough to get off-line branding," Levin says. Offering a branded card "will give them that viral feel." As an added benefit, affiliates that work with several networks are more likely to remember and positively view a network if the logo is on a debit card that they use for discretionary income.

Ecount requires a database or XML file from the network that can be submitted via FTP or email to generate electronic payments. The company creates a custom-branded website that cardholders access to check their account balances and payments.

Ecount’s debit cards can also be used as periodic rebates for signing up for a service, Levin says. Wireless phone carriers and cable companies have issued debit cards to new customers as an incentive for signing up. Part of the cost of a new phone or cable box is returned to the customer via monthly payments to a branded card, which builds consumer loyalty at a lower cost than issuing paper checks, according to Levin.

Axill, an international network located in Piscataway, N.J., has been aggressive in pursuing the expediency of electronic affiliate payouts. The company, which is a subsidiary of online marketer Northgate Technologies of India, offers same-day payouts to affiliates who sign up for the company’s Visa debit cards. However, same-day payouts are limited to affiliates that accrue a minimum of $25 in commissions. As with other debit cards, funds can be withdrawn at ATMs from the Axill-branded cards.

International Payment Options

Paying affiliates outside of the U.S. is often costly in transaction or currency exchange fees, and affiliates who are paid by check do not have immediate access to funds. Wire transfers can cost up to $50 each, and checks from U.S. banks can take up to a month to clear out of the country – if affiliates can find a local bank willing to cash them. Recipients living outside the U.S. may also be required to pay additional fees to exchange U.S. dollars for their local currency.

DoubleClick Performics’ Fleming says making payments to foreign banks "is by far the biggest issue" in using direct deposit. The fees (associated with foreign bank transfers) "are a drawback for using electronic payments" outside of the United States, he says.

PayPal’s MassPay enables publishers to issue payments in 17 currencies to 190 countries, with transaction fees of 30 cents each plus up to 2.9 percent of the balance, according to Oldenburg. A single batch of up to 250 payments can handle multiple currencies.

Since approximately 98 percent of his affiliates are outside of the U.S., JoeBucks’ McNelly says minimizing the cost and complexity of international payments was a must. Most of his new affiliates in India, Russia and Asia choose to be paid via a Payoneer account, and they like being notified by email of a funds transfer, he says. "We haven’t had many complaints [about using Payoneer], which is unusual, because [affiliates] complain about everything," he says.

Ecount can issue electronic payments to only U.S. and Canadian residents and will add three European markets in 2008.

Payment methods will continue to evolve with technology as merchants and online marketers look for ways to create efficiencies.

What’s in a Name?

Buying domain names of real live people can be manna to the unscrupulous.

Anne Fognano is not a newbie in the online marketing world. She has run a successful affiliate business since 1997. She’s the force behind CleverMoms.com and has registered a raft of variations on the "clever moms" domain name to safeguard her valuable brand. But she never bought the domain for her own name – AnneFognano.com. When someone else did, all hell broke loose.

While domain squatting is as old as the Internet itself, the practice of buying a dot-com name and waiting for someone with a bag of cash to offer to buy it from you has lost some of its cachet – especially since pretty much all the good common names and brand names are taken these days.

However, this hasn’t stopped some folks from getting creative. Many call it "domain extortion," where someone buys your name, sets up a rudimentary Web page of you with dummy copy and then contacts you to sell you services such as Web design, hosting and other services for bloggers. This is what exactly what happened to Fognano.

"Not much I can do about it," she says, "because I don’t have my name trademarked." Since she is not a "public figure" like George Clooney or Paris Hilton, it makes it harder to make a case that her image has been co-opted for monetary gain. The FBI and her local District Attorney’s office in Virginia told her that unless she could prove that someone was looking to profit from her name, they could do little. Besides, they told her, the payout would be so little that it wasn’t worth the authorities’ time.

Domain parking in general is fairly big business, thanks in part to the popularity of PPC programs. Anyone can buy a domain that is either a name someone may type into the address bar or is a misspelling of a brand name (called typosquatting) and put nothing but Yahoo or Google PPC ads on the sites. The ads on these types of sites actually generated $400 million in sales in 2006, according to Susquehanna Financial Group, and looks to hit the $1 billion mark by the end of 2007.

Updated Version of Cybersquatting

In the domain extortion variation, someone grabs a name of a living person who has a blog or is an affiliate marketer for as low as $6 or $8 per name through an inexpensive domain registry such as GoDaddy.com. If the person that bought the domain offers to sell services to the namesake on top of giving them back their name, there’s nothing illegal that’s been done, according to authorities. In addition, the person who registered your name generally gets more than his $8 if you decide to at least take your name back.

In Fognano’s case, she decided to fight back. Going to the popular online forum for affiliates, ABestWeb.com, she posted her dilemma and let the members know that a "blog consultant, John Kitovitsu" of PurchaseMyBlog.com emailed her to show her what using his services would look like and that she could buy the domain from him. ABestWeb members, a large, vocal and tight knit community of savvy online marketers, suggested sending him a "cease and desist" letter to remove the content, which include her image and an article taken from Revenue magazine. They also suggested bringing him up before the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and even paying him a personal visit. ABestWebbers also helped her document all the text and images on the fake site and tracked down the IP address for the hosting company serving up the site. They also determined there was no business active on the Web using the PurchaseMyBlog name.

Not a Crime?

Fognano called the local police, the FBI, her local District Attorney and even the dubious website’s hosting company (in Germany). Since "Kitovitsu" had also set up a WordPress blog page for her without her permission, she got WordPress to pull down the page for violation of their terms of service. Fognano said the FBI pulled the site for her and said it would put an "FBI investigation tag" on the website. "I actually didn’t care that much," she said. "How many people are going to type my name [directly into the address bar]? But only when they use my name and image is it a big deal."

Thus far, the authorities she contacted are not calling this a crime. New York State recently signed a law providing a $1,000 fine per day for violation of people registering domain names of known people purely to sell them their own names for profit. The law goes into effect in early 2008. While it is not known if other states will follow suit, the terms may be just vague enough not to quash the practice entirely.

"It’s almost like they are taking your identity," Fognano says. "It seemed strange that it isn’t a crime."

Domain name registrars say they can only do so much. In 1999, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that registrars, such as Network Solutions, could not be held liable for registering a domain of a "known trademark." Network Solutions – which used to be the exclusive registrars of domain names in the U.S., says it used to purge "domain speculators" from its registry, especially those who registered thousands of domain names at a time. But it adds that most domain names can only be reclaimed if those who registered the names do not pay on time.

After inquiries were made, Fognano heard again from "Kitovitsu." "It’s not our intention to pose as you or use your blog for material gain," the email said. "If you decide to join our network we can have a professionally designed template made to enhance the look and feel of your blog."

"Oh, I see. It was a sales pitch," said a poster on her thread at ABestWeb. Another poster wrote that it sounded like "a scam with a bit of extortion thrown in."

Registrars and Revenue

Now that lower-cost domain name registering companies such as GoDaddy.com have entered the field, the competition for registration fees is much greater. There are hundreds of accredited registrar companies internationally that deal in the more popular .com, .net, .biz, .org, .edu and .mobi top-level domains. A new domain is registered at GoDaddy.com every 1.3 seconds, the company says. That figure comes to 12.8 million domain names every five months, according to Netcraft, up from 7.5 million in a five-month time frame last year.

Selling parked domains is also still big business. Business.com famously sold in 1999 for $7.5 million. Sex.com changed hands last year for a reported $14 million, although some reports said it was more like $11 million. Domain name sales generated $29 million in 2005, according to Zetetic. Some are just in it for the names. NameMedia, for example, apparently has more than 750,000 domain names in its marketplace. Sedo.com also acts as a kind of eBay for the domain space, selling $3 million worth of domain names per month.

"A domain name isn’t something you own, it’s just something you have a right to use," says Elizabeth Beal, director of the Communications Law Centre at Victoria University in Canada. "So it’s not like [a cybersquatter] has been using somebody else’s property."

In this age of security, some companies are enhancing their products and discovering revenue streams in the process. Retail domain name registrar Dotser offers "domain name security" with its NameSafe and TransferLock products. NameSafe restricts actions such as account updates, name server updates, contact name changes, domain account changes and registrar transfers without prior authorization through email. They charge a small annual fee for the service. Its TransferLock prevents domain name transfers without being logged in to your account. This service is free. Dotser itself, however, was named in a typosquatting lawsuit by retailers Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman a few years ago, saying that Dotster put up ad-filled pages in misspelled domains of the retailer’s name and then only paid to keep the misspelled URLs that were generating any revenue. This is called domain kiting.

Some critics also charge that the extra fee-based services don’t prevent someone from snapping up your domain if the registrar goes bankrupt or registers a taken name by accident or if the registrar deletes your domain through a process error. That’s what happened to Gary Kremen when Network Solutions was conned into giving up his Sex.com domain – a destination that was reportedly earning him $8 million per year. It took him three years to get the name back, but he was pretty much bankrupt by then.

Because of the competition between retail registrars, it isn’t surprising that companies are trying to entice you to add services or register more versions of a domain than you may need. One variation on the hard sell is getting a fax from a "domain name monitoring" organization stating that someone was registering the dot-net version of a dot-com domain name you owned. Saying they were checking on possible trademark conflicts on domains they have registered, the company offers to register the dot-net domain for you instead. Sometimes the materials are marked "final notice" with that day’s date as the deadline.

Lapses and Losses

Members of ABestWeb also suggested Fognano file a complaint with ICANN. You can make a case and request the domain be transferred to you. In most cases, when you register a domain, you are also agreeing to mandatory arbitration. Arbitrations through ICANN can also be far less expensive than litigation, and the judgments through arbitration can be quicker – about 60 days. While ICANN recognizes the need to keep the processes for transferring domain names tight, it is well aware of the chorus of complaints from those hijacked or extorted. "The registrant may lose an established identity and be exposed to extortion by name speculators," ICANN has stated. "Domain hijacking can disrupt or severely impact the business and operations of a registrant."

Generally there is a process by which a domain name can fall back into the unregistered pool to be snatched up by any attentive domain buyer. You register YourName.com on a given date: 1/11/06. The domain expires on 1/11/07. There happens to be a 30-day grace period to allow for renewal of the domain for the standard renewal price (until about 2/11/07). If that date passes, the domain is tagged as in a "redemption grace period," during which time the domain is put in "registrar hold" and then "pending delete" – about 30 to 45 days, depending on the registrar.

ICANN allows the registrar to charge its own fee for renewal from then on, which could go as high as $160. GoDaddy charges $80 and Network Solutions charges $160. If those fees aren’t paid, the domain name is released into the pool to be bought by anyone.
Rich Miller, blogger at DomainWorks.com, says to treat your domain as a brand. Network Solutions agrees – that domains left to expire run the risk of being co-opted by anyone, it says. Miller says that you should register your domain for more than one year. This way it’s actually cheaper to register and you won’t have to remember to do it every year. There are some who say that domains that have been registered and active for a while get better Google page rankings.

Miller also suggests that you should look for the best registrar, not just the cheapest. Look up the reputation of the registrar. You may not see a difference in the features of a registrar who charges $30 versus $9, but you will see a big difference between the $9 and the $5 registrar. He always recommends registering "alternates" of your name in other top-level domains. If you own the .net but not the .com, the .com owner can trademark their name and potentially force you to give yours up. Also, he says, don’t forget to brand your name within the social networks – set up pages in MySpace and other destinations before someone else does.

And whatever brand name you are operating under, always remember to try to buy your own name as a domain. Recently, Fognano decided she would offer "Kitovitsu" $10 to buy her domain from him. She has yet to hear back from him.