The Color of Success

Color is often a forgotten factor in online design. Online merchants spend millions to hone their Web site designs, but they sometimes forget to research their color choices as well. That interferes with their attempt to build a brand relationship with their customers and also affects purchasing behavior.

Color invokes a physical reaction in the human brain. These reactions can perpetuate the mood or tone of your customer in a quick glance, leading to an association of your brand, products or service offerings. You’ll want to make sure that association is favorable.

Psychologically, color can have many different meanings for different cultures, age groups and gender. One of the biggest mistakes an online retailer can make is choosing a color without first knowing how it could be perceived by their target audience. So the first positive step in choosing the appropriate color is knowing exactly to whom you’re selling.

For example, the color white is often associated with wedding celebrations in Western societies like the US, but in Chinese cultures it signifies funerals. Men have been found to prefer bright colors, while women prefer softer colors. Remember, just because you like the color orange doesn’t mean your customer does.

Typically colors can be classified into three categories: warm, cool and neutral. Warm colors like red and yellow are often associated with power, creativity and optimism. Cool colors like blue and green are often associated with beauty and calmness. Neutral colors such as white and black are most popularly associated with good and evil. However, white can also be associated as innocent, and black as elegant.

Plan Ahead

When you’re building your brand online, think about what a color means before committing to it. The following is a reference list of primary colors, their typical association with online viewers, and their possible uses.

  • Blue is many people’s favorite color, and is associated with honesty.
    Possible Use: Software.
  • Green is good to use if you want to symbolize growth or show your company’s power.
    Possible Use: Finance.
  • Red is an aggressive and exciting color that gets your customers’ attention.
    Possible Use: Hardware and automotive.
  • Black shows off power and elegance and works best for expensive or luxury items.
    Possible Use: Luxury Automotive.
  • Orange provides a feeling of satisfaction to your viewer.
    Possible Use: Online Content Provider.
  • Yellow works best to showcase feelings of warmth.
    Possible Use: Kids’ Products.
  • Purple suggests sophistication and passion.
    Possible Use: Jewelry.
  • White is elegant and clean.
    Possible Use: Heavy Content Sites.

Using Color Effectively

Once you’ve done your due diligence and chosen the colors that best fit your target audience, you can begin to utilize those colors to enhance your clicks and your bottom line.

One of the best ways to use color is to draw the customer’s eye to a specific point of interest on your site. One way to do this is by creating contrasts between colors. Contrast can be used to separate points of information, allowing the viewer to easily distinguish the difference between all the information presented. Just be sure to choose colors that are complementary to each other.

For example, colors based on the same hues, like red and orange, often don’t work well against one another. Green and yellow are another example of colors that should be blended carefully, if at all.

Contrast is also important when displaying ads within your site design. Typically, one might think that you should create direct color contrast with an advertisement. However, in today’s online ad space, it pays to look less like an ad and more like regular content.

Build Your Brand

What color is a Coca-Cola can? Unless you are color blind, you know that it is red. You know it so well that you can picture the can in your head and even visualize the shade of red. Imagine you are standing 100 yards away looking at a fence with three soda cans sitting on it. There is a red can, a blue can and a green can. Without being able to read the logos on the can, you’d still be able to know that the red one is a Coke can, right?

Color is a powerful way to drive your brand identity into the minds of your customers. Done right, through consistency over time, your customers will begin to associate your color choice to your products and services. So choose wisely.

Most monitors today can handle millions of colors; therefore, adhering to the browser-safe palette of 216 colors is not completely necessary these days. Unless you’re a stickler for exact consistency, it’s not something about which you should worry too much.

However, that doesn’t mean you should turn your Web site into a rainbow of colors. First, choose your primary color, and then choose two to three complementary colors to use as accent within your site design. This set of colors will become your color palette. Stick to your palette to create a sense of consistency across your designs.

White space is one of the most important graphic elements of any design. It is defined as the space in your design that exists between page elements like headlines, blocks of type, ads, photos, etc.

Too little use of white space can make your Web site look crowded. Too much use of white space can separate and distance your message. Use white space to create a Web site that has “breathing room” for your messages, which in turn makes them more readable and ultimately more attractive.

JIM F. KUKRAL serves as brand manager and director of e-marketing for KowaBunga Technologies, which makes My Affiliate Program tracking software.

Traveling and Treasure Hunting

Every time you go on the road, you should position yourself to market like a guerrilla and earn money like a king named Midas.

Keep in mind that the road leads in both directions. You can promote your site when you’re away from your town and you can promote it to travelers who come to your town. It’s a double-edged golden opportunity.

When you’re a traveler, don’t forget that the copy shops of the world are the allies of affiliates. Taking a trip to Houston? Print up your marketing weapons before you leave, then take them to the closest copy shop to your hotel in Houston.

Ask them to print a quantity of circulars, posters, stickers, mini-brochures, gift certificates, coupons and/or postcards, then distribute them at hotels, airports, trade shows, ballgames, concerts and bulletin boards. For example, there are 800 free community bulletin boards in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there are hundreds of others in most major cities. Post your flier on any or all of them. And you thought that visibility and awareness cost a lot of money? Wrong!

Whatever you print, copy, post or distribute, be sure it is exceptionally easy to read and lists your Web site. That, too, should be a paragon of clarity.

You’ve heard of viral marketing. It only happens if people want to talk about your product, service or marketing. If you’ve got the goods, your marketing weapons can be your virus. Word-of-mouth advertising is often generated by a “blitz” or “total immersion campaign” such as this. Your job is to overcome inertia and create momentum. Using a combination of guerrilla marketing tools does this.

You’re not going anywhere? No problem. Canny affiliates also use this kind of 360 degree marketing at home. They generously distribute their marketing materials in venues visited by travelers. We’re talking restaurants, hotels, convention halls, theaters, night clubs, sporting events, concerts, tourist attractions, train stations and all the rest that draw crowds of tourists.

Give those people a dose of your marketing message coupled with information that will help them while they’re in town. Some of those folks will actually take that information home with them, possibly use it on their sites, and if you’ve done a good job of marketing, evangelize about your “biz” to their friends and co-workers. Don’t laugh. It happens all the time.

It’s always a good idea to see if any trade shows are being held where you’re visiting. You don’t have to exhibit at a trade show to earn a lot of money. At any show, you can learn, you can make contacts and you can get good ideas. Your take-homes from a show should be new relationships and profit-producing ideas. Fill your suitcase.

If I had to pick a list of things all traveling affiliates should do while they’re accomplishing the primary mission of the trip, they would be these seven guerrilla marketing tactics:

1. Start viral marketing. It’s still the most power-packed method of marketing because people trust their friends as credible sources. You get it when you are a first-rate listener, when you ask questions and when you pay attention to the details spoken by the person to whom you’re listening. You also get it in spades when you follow up by phone, email or surface mail. And you can speed it up when you institute a power-packed referral plan, tapping current customers and prospects for the names of prospective customers.

2. Influence people who can influence other people. That’s exactly what Nike is doing when it gives free shoes to athletes and coaches. You may meet some serious movers and shakers while you’re away from home. Some of them can motivate hundreds of others to do things you want them to do. As all customers are not created equal, all prospects are just as unequal. Your “A” list may be worth more to you than your “B” through “Z” list combined. The road is a great place to meet the influencers.

3. Focus on what’s most important to your target audience. After all, they don’t pay attention to marketing, but they pay rapt attention to whatever interests them, and that can be marketing. They pay especially rapt attention to people who pay attention to them, who use their names, who look them directly in the eye and who smile. When you’re a traveling guerrilla, often your handshake is a more important marketing weapon than your computer.

4. Expand your potential for getting free publicity. You can do it by making it a point to develop at least one new media contact each time you visit a city. Whether you have a meeting, a lunch, a conversation or a cocktail with them, media contacts are your key to dynamite public relations. There is no substitute for knowing a media contact on a first name basis. Guerrillas never assume that PR kits and press releases can do the job. No way. Media contacts do the job.

5. Enrich your travels with brochures and newsletters. These make exceptional conversation starters, serve as potent follow-up weapons and allow you to intensify your relationships. They also allow you to prove your expertise, to help your prospects and customers and to sell the dickens out of your offering. No longer are they expensive to produce. You can offer your free brochure or no-cost newsletter to all the prospects you meet while traveling and while at your destination. You can and should even offer them at home, sweet home.

6. Utilize guerrilla media. By the time consumers figure out that the message you’ve stenciled in chalk on the sidewalk is actually an ad, you’ve already hit home with them. Look into all sign-posting opportunities. They are all over the place. You’ll learn to love them. Become aware of the countless opportunities to run free and low-cost classified ads prior to your trip.

7. Make yourself the recognized expert by speaking before groups while your travel. If you offer to speak for free, you’ll be dazzling at the speaking invitations you’ll get. You should speak for about 30 minutes and provide information of worth and value, delivered with passion and insight. At the end, it’s cool to distribute brochures or give your elevator pitch (that means you should be able to describe your business in the amount of time it takes to ride an elevator).

You do have an elevator pitch, don’t you? As a strong recommendation to travelers, I caution you, as Karl Malden did a couple of decades ago, “Don’t leave home without it.”

Jay Conrad Levinson is the author of the Guerrilla Marketing series of books, the most popular marketing series in history with 14 million sold in 39 languages. He also publishes the Web site GuerrillaMarketingAssociation.com.

The Best Paid Places

If you currently have a Web site, then I’m sure you are inundated with spam offering “guaranteed placement on more than 5,000 search engines.”

Before we go any further, let me just make something very clear. Yes, there may be 5,000 search engines out there – heck, at this point there may be as many as 50,000 – but there are only four that really matter. If you have your Web site listed highly on Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL, then you have pretty much covered most of the search engine marketing you will ever need, because those four engines account for 90 percent of all daily searches.

Your first job as a Web site marketer is to get the best placement you can on the Big Four, and the only way to benefit from these listings is to rank highly. If you are listed in the top three pages on these search engines you will definitely get a lot of traffic. Recent studies have shown that 80 percent of Web users don’t search beyond the first three pages on most engines.

But what if you can’t optimize your site well enough to rank highly? Maybe you don’t have the time or don’t know how to create pages that are attractive to search engine spiders. Or maybe your industry is just too competitive. Don’t worry. You can still grab your share of search engine traffic by paying for placement.

Paid placement is generally divided into fixed placement and pay-for-placement (P4P), which sound alike but are actually a bit different from one another. With both of these methods you choose keywords you wish to target and the maximum price you are willing to pay, and then you submit your listings and wait for them to go live. The biggest difference between the two products is the length of placement and ranking control. With fixed placement, your listing will stay in the position for the price per keyword you choose, but with P4P you are part of a dynamic auction bidding system that will only guarantee your placement until someone outbids you. Fixed placement is currently available on only a few engines. However, pay-for-placement listings are available on all of the major engines listed above. So, depending on your budget, you too can buy your way to the top of these search engines.

In fixed placement, the price may be set on a cost-per-click (CPC), cost-per-impression (CPM) or cost-per-action (CPA) basis depending on the deal you are able to strike with the search engine. These listings generally guarantee you a ranking at the top of the search results page either as a “featured site” (on MSN) or a “recommended site” (on AOL). This is very attractive to larger advertisers as the campaign is fairly easy to manage, but requires a large budget commitment up front before you can even tell what your results might be from that particular engine.

Test the Waters

An easier way to test the waters before committing to a large fixed placement campaign is to pay for placement using one of the many CPC opportunities currently available. By listing your site on Google’s Adwords program, or Overture through Precision Match, you will gain top placement on Google and AOL (through Adwords) and MSN and Yahoo (through Precision Match).

With these programs, you choose the keywords you want to submit, write your ad copy (title and description) and submit it to the search engines using their submission forms. If you are struggling to write the copy, you can use Overture’s Fast Track program, where for $199 a member of the Overture team will select keywords and write the listings for you. Your placement on Google is determined by a combination of the amount you are willing to pay-per-keyword (maximum bid) and your ad’s clickthrough rate. With Overture your placement is determined by your maximum bid. Both of these campaigns will place you within the “Sponsored Listings” section of results on the larger search engines, and both require your listing to comply with their editorial guidelines.

There’s a few more things you need to know about buying listings. Before determining how much you can pay per click you need to figure out your marketing plan. Set your maximum bids based on your profit margin, the return on investment you seek, and the maximum CPA you can afford. An easy way to kill your business is to assume that because your competitor can afford a certain maximum bid you can too. The leaders in paid placement marketing set their bids based on their own metrics, not their competitors’.

Tracking your results helps you determine where the qualified buyers are coming from. At the very least, use the free tools offered by Overture and Google when setting up P4P campaigns to track conversions from these engines. And if you plan to make paid placement a long-term part of your marketing strategy, buy a good tracking solution. Add tracking URLs to every paid search campaign you run, and religiously review the reports generated by the tracking software, adjusting your bids based on your results (for a quick tutorial on tracking URLs, check out the Overture advertiser center).

The way you write your copy for your paid search listings can have a huge impact on the success of your campaign. The most effective way to write your listings is to keep in mind the following:

  • 1. Appeal to your customers;
  • 2. State your value proposition;
  • 3. Use a “call to action”; and
  • 4. Include your keywords.
  • If you keep these basic rules in mind, you too can get your business top ranking on the engines without all the time-consuming tactics that search engine optimization requires. There are other ways in which you can buy placement that we will cover in future columns, and we’ll also dive into the tactics that can give you a competitive edge in search engine marketing. See you at the top!

    MARY O’BRIEN is a partner at Traffic Mentor.net. She has worked in Internet marketing for the past five years and was formerly senior director of sales at Overture.com.

    Using Data With Integrity

    A crucial element of building and maintaining a database is data integrity – making sure your information is accurate and in the correct format, unchanged by technical glitches. You can personally verify information if you are entering it manually, but when users are filling out forms on your Web site, and that information goes directly into your database, you need another approach.

    There are two places to check data validity: on the client and on the server. Checking data on the client involves adding scripts to your Web pages that examine what the users enter before they submit forms to your server. A script checks that the data in the form meets the criteria you have established. If there is a violation, the script can pop up an alert message and request a correction.

    To check data on the server, the user must submit the form and let the code on your server verify the data. If there is a violation, your server can return the form again with a notation of the error that needs correction.

    In general, server-side checks can be more thorough, as you can check other resources on your server to validate the information. For example, you might have a database of valid discount codes, or you might check that an email address is not already in your system. However, client-side checks provide more immediate feedback to the user, and can save iterations of submitting a form and then correcting any errors. A balanced combination may prove the best choice.

    A simple check on the client side could be a matter of confirming whether the user entered any value at all.

    More Sophistication

    Your checks can be more sophisticated. For example, you can make sure an area code was entered as three digits. And you can see if an email address contains invalid characters like a space, or if it’s missing the @ character.

    In some cases you may need to examine more than one form element at the same time, such as only validating an area code if the user has selected the US or Canada. You can add a name property to the form tag. Your JavaScript function would be passed the name of the form, let’s call it “myform,” and could reference a specific form element value like “myform.test.value.”

    Once your form has passed all of its client-side checks, it gets sent to your server where more sophisticated checks can be performed. If you have a database of area codes, you can validate that the user entered a legitimate one. Or, you can ensure that a user has not already signed up for your program or for your service.

    If the data you receive from a form is placed directly into a database, then it is even more important that you check the information on the server before storing it. Depending on how your server performs its database access, it is possible that users may include data-base commands in their submission that could directly affect your database.

    Another example is a search form, where your server performs a search through your database. If the user can search for an email address based on a name in your maillist, and the server executes “select email from maillist where name=”<name>'”, where <name> comes directly from a form submission, then the user could get your entire maillist.

    If they submit the name text “‘; select * from maillist where name matches “*”, then both selects would get executed. The first would produce no results, but the second would match every entry in your maillist. If your code looped through and displayed the results of the select, assuming that only one or two matches would occur, then this example would end up displaying your entire maillist.

    In both cases the user would have to guess the name of your table, but it seems there are people out there with nothing better to do.

    EDWARD ARENBERG, vice president and CTO of EPage, created one of the first fully dynamic Web sites. He manages and develops for EP.com, Epage.com and AdConnect.com.

    Beyond Search Engines

    Paid search may be driving the rebound in online advertisers, but it’s also driving away the promoters with shallow pockets.

    Demand for paid spots on Yahoo, Google and their ilk is pushing prices sky high. Within the most popular categories, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd of merchants without spending a fortune. In fact, some aggressive marketers play “keyword smackdown,” launching high-stakes bidding wars in the hopes of bankrupting their competitors.

    Email marketing isn’t cheap either, and consumers seem to be fed up even with opt-in mailings. Add in the restrictions of the CAN-SPAM Act and you’re not left with much room to maneuver in this overused form of marketing.

    So how can an aspiring affiliate attract more customers without having to spend a fortune in advertising? Fortunately, some of the neatest promotional opportunities are still free – or cheap, anyway – especially if you’re willing to use a little elbow grease.

    The Trade Groups

    Seek out trade associations that might be interested in your products. “Not enough people are utilizing this promotional tactic,” said Barbara Spagnola, owner of Concept Marketing, a consultancy that sells subscriptions to an online directory that includes 35,000 professional groups. “A lot of companies don’t even know what their niche market is, whether it’s a geographic focus or otherwise. Everyone is looking for cheap advertising, and this is one of the best ways to keep your costs down and be blasted out to hundreds of thousands of companies that might be interested in your product.”

    Spagnola advises her clients, which include affiliate businesses, to call or send direct mail to a trade group whose membership overlaps with an entrepreneur’s desired customer base. The first contact should be treated like a job application, she said, but should by no means be a one-time event. Do it on a monthly basis, whether your means of communication is a postcard, newsletter or, better yet, an actual conversation.

    The Holy Grail, of course, is to work your social charms upon the leadership of the group to convince them to sell you a copy of the membership list. Spagnola estimates that about 40 percent of associations are game, and it’s usually the medium to large ones who sell, depending on how badly they want to raise money. Some are very selective about giving out data, and ask for the right to preapprove anything you might send out to the members.

    To make an easier job of convincing management that you have the association’s interests at heart, volunteer for the group – especially if you can score a speaking engagement at one of their meetings – and get to know the decision makers. Another way to sweeten the deal for the list gatekeepers is to offer special discounts for the membership on relevant products.

    “Make it so the association sees a reason to get involved with your deal,” said Spagnola. “Associations are always looking for perks for their members, and if you can show them the value, a lot of the time that’s free advertising for you.”

    But what if you can’t find a trade association that reflects your specific affiliate marketing niche? Spagnola said there are another 150,000 groups out there that are subchapters or committees of the groups on her list, and they can be found through the broader umbrella groups in her directory. There’s also a national Association of Associations, but Spagnola warns that it’s completely pointless to approach them for a referral if you don’t have a specific market in mind and a good argument for why the uber-umbrella group should refer you to an association.

    But what if your product is so novel that it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the existing trade associations? Consider that a green light to start your own nonprofit that hopefully would rally interest in your product. In that case, the first thing you might want to do is consult with an accountant, or at the very least call the IRS, and ask for their official publications on how to start a nonprofit group.

    Find A Good Cause

    Speaking of nonprofit groups, getting involved with charitable causes is another great way to raise one’s profile without descending into debt. The trick here is finding something you truly care about and offering them help that gives you a chance to tastefully tout your business. If your choice of charities is arbitrary or your mercenary motives are too obvious, your promotional attempts could backfire.

    One affiliate manager who has very successfully incorporated altruism into his product line is Greg Kerber, CEO and chairman of Wurld Media. His company started peddling a payment technology platform to merchants, and then extended the software to do fundraising for nonprofits. But his charitable intentions run deep: Kerber’s 12-year-old daughter Alexis Nicole has Down Syndrome, so he set his sights on the Down Syndrome Resource Center and the Special Olympics as the first beneficiaries of the fundraising applications of his payments platform.

    “Truthfully speaking, I have never done this as a cheap promotion. I am a parent who has special needs and there’s a special place in my heart for this kind of work,” Kerber said. “I have a profitable business and I can help out nonprofits with a segment of my business.”

    Kerber’s latest project addresses the homeless, via a partnership with the charity Help USA. The venture adds the charity to Wurld’s existing platform and enables shoppers to donate a portion of their e-commerce dollars when patronizing any of the 400 merchants who use BuyersPort Networks, Wurld’s platform for credit card payments, loyalty programs and charity.

    “I hear from nonprofits all the time about how corporations have really changed. They’ll offer to donate money, but insist that there has to be a marketing component to it. And that’s really sad to me,” said Kerber. “There’s a fine line between political correctness and politically incorrect. But we’ve taken care of a lot of people in our world, and we do it because it’s the right thing, not because it’s marketing dollars. And there’s a greater benefit to doing it this way.”

    Regardless of whether there’s a charitable angle to your market, you can always make a name for yourself by appearing at as many conferences as possible. Better yet, help out with the planning or even better, volunteer to speak at a show and things start to snowball. That’s how affiliate consultant Shawn Collins created a public image for his company.

    He started out by joining the conference-producing team at Refer-It Affiliate Solutions in 1999, and offering to speak at the numerous events they planned. He also helped plan the AffiliateForce shows and became one of their speakers as well.

    “I try to speak at as many shows as possible. Even though I get nervous about doing it, I still make myself get up there,” he said. “Lots of these shows are looking for affiliates to speak and no one stands up. So I volunteered and submitted proposals, and the more I did it the more I got invited to other shows. And if you can’t find a show to speak at, start your own.”

    Even though he was already speaking at shows, Collins decided to start his own. He felt that the existing affiliate marketing shows were more focused on socializing – playing golf – than on business, and wanted to create a more business-oriented event, where productivity is just as important as networking.

    The resulting AffiliateForce event is precisely that, in addition to being a way for him to tout his consulting company and scout for new business opportunities. “The first show I organized was in a small conference room in New York. Now I’m organizing a conference that will take place on the Carnival Victory cruise ship with several thousand people on it,” he boasted.

    Among other items on the agenda is what Collins calls “speed networking,” a business version of speed dating. Here participants pair off in three-minute intervals to exchange cards and pleasantries, so that everyone ends up meeting 20 people over the course of one hour. These contacts are a mix of affiliate managers, publishers and vendors.

    Collins’ next show will include a speed networking session, as well as a new variation on this theme that Collins calls roundtable rotation. Instead of a pre-planned lineup of speakers, all of the participants have a shot at impromptu speaking for 15 minutes, with question-and-answer sessions interspersed. The idea here is to “give the smaller guys a chance to meet people and speak about subjects of interest to them,” he explained.

    Talking Radio

    Once you get the hang of public speaking, you may want to look into other opportunities to talk about your business. A largely untapped resource is Web radio, which reaches a national audience without requiring a national-sized budget.

    “Why not have a radio station promoting your product 24/7?” asked Dennis Humphrey, owner of Internet Marketing Radio, which currently earns its keep as an affiliate of programs touting online marketing and broadcasting software. Humphrey is launching a radio consulting service aimed at Internet marketers, and has approximately a half dozen prospective clients who would give Humphrey a cut of their revenues in exchange for his helping them put together an online radio show.

    “This is ultimately going to be like a QVC radio. You’ll be able to call in and buy during the live program, or simply call in and ask a question,” he said. “We want to get people to put our audio on their Web sites. I will want other entrepreneurs to pick this up and syndicate it. There’s all kinds of products we can sell online, not just marketing and mp3 applications,” like he does now, said Humphrey. “It’s easy to create audio for your Web site. Then there’s audio postcards, online infomercials and even e-books” to promote your business.

    So far Humphrey is only doing his own radio show, which he uses to tout all of the products he sells as well as his consulting service. He runs his shows on multiple webcast services, preferring to cast his online net as wide as possible. These include ShoutCast, Abacast and Pirate Radio, each of which asks broadcasters to purchase proprietary software to create the audio files that are distributed online.

    Many of the Web radio stations that are open to new shows are ones with fewer listeners. To reach millions of ears, you need to consider the advertising route – having professional deejays read your announcements for a fraction of the cost of conventional radio. “A mid-sized company can spend $2,000 for a national campaign that would have cost $20,000 or more on conventional radio,” said Rick A. Pace, managing partner at MakRadio.com, which boasts 5.3 million listeners worldwide.

    A much cheaper option is to hop on the blog bandwagon – and go right ahead and post your blog on as many of the blog sites as possible, to leverage the traffic already held by the blogs, and have one of the blogs post onto your own Web site. The trick here is to update the Web log as regularly as possible, and show off your expertise in your pet subjects.

    “When you have a good blog being updated regularly, you know what you’re talking about and have a strong opinion; then other bloggers start linking to you,” said Mihail S. Lari, CEO of BlogIt, which recently changed its name from BloggingNetwork.com. “There are a number of blog directories that have just started, so it also helps to get yourself listed up there, too.”

    JACKIE COHEN has been covering affiliate marketing since 1998. She previously edited the Net Returns section at The Industry Standard.

    The Secret to Being Super

    They’re called superaffiliates, but there are no secret powers behind their amazing sales. They follow the same path every other affiliate does: They publish a Web site, sign up for affiliate programs, download the affiliate codes and troll on the search engines.

    But they work a little smarter, make a few more calls, send a few more emails and do a lot more testing. And what they do better than anyone else is integrate all of the standard affiliate marketing pieces – email lists, merchant relationships and showcased products – to get more people to their site and more people to buy. Their efforts net results only dreamed of by other affiliates: transactions by the thousands, and monthly commissions often measured in six figures.

    To illustrate the point, Revenue decided to introduce our readers to Bob DiCerbo, a Chicago resident who never dreamed he would be working just 20 hours a week to make a very comfortable living. He started ClearSave.com with his wife in October 2002, affiliating with merchants such as Overstock.com, Nordstrom.com, QVC.com, Land’s End, FoodSmart.com and Pet Food Direct. Now he does little more than chat up affiliate managers, tweak keywords and cash checks.

    ClearSave is a “check here first” site, where visitors come just to see if any of the merchants they regularly patronize are offering discounts, sales, coupons or bargains. The 2-year-old site gets a whopping 300,000 hits per day. Merchants drool over that kind of traffic. And DiCerbo and his wife pull in enough commissions to pay themselves salaries and hire a part-time assistant. Eventually, they expect their “super” efforts to send their kids to college.

    What exactly is a superaffiliate? Well, it’s not one particular thing. It could be one person or 100. It could be an individual or it could be a company. It could be a site offering discounts, rebates, rewards, funding for charities, dating services, apparel, travel arrangements, downloadable music or any of the Internet’s hot products. One thing they all have in common is that they’re treated well – even heavily recruited.

    Being a big dog has its benefits. “Merchants reach out and help us put together creatives just for us because we’re doing so well,” said DiCerbo. Many affiliates also get higher commissions, special offers and other assistance from merchant partners.

    Here are some ideas from DiCerbo and others on how you can get similar treatment.

    Find the best programs.

    DiCerbo believes one reason he does better is simply by keeping the lines of communication open with the right merchants. “Only a handful of merchants – Overstock, Avon, Sierra Trading Post, Blair and Eddie Bauer – will actually reach out and call and talk to you to see what it is you actually need,” he said.

    Glenn Sobel, founder of AffiliateAdvisor.com and webmaster for DatingTek.com, said some of the best programs offer lifetime commissions. “The key is to look for programs that pay residual income – I’m just kicking back right now and enjoying my Internet income,” he said from his Vegas retirement home. Dating sites are a prime example. When an affiliate refers someone, many programs give a commission for the new member and each time that person renews the membership.

    To help choose great merchants, would-be superaffiliates should read contracts carefully before signing up. Contracts should spell out exactly what earns a commission, when commissions are paid, how long affiliate referrals are tracked and what happens if buyers come from more than one affiliate site. If the contract doesn’t spell it out, then add it in writing. “There are a lot of issues like that that really matter,” said Sobel. “They greatly impact your income.”

    Provide only those products your visitors want.

    This may seem elementary, but many new affiliates spend months discovering it. A site posting sports scores, for instance, should have links to sports magazines and sports betting, not printer ink.

    “We wouldn’t promote Overstock as hard as we do if our audience didn’t think it … met their needs for discounted products,” said DiCerbo. “The proof is in the pudding.” That pudding consists of $40,000 to $50,000 in monthly sales, resulting in commissions of $2,800 to $3,500 for ClearSave.

    Loyalty site FreeRide.com, which gets 30,000 hits per day and affiliates with hundreds of merchants, asks visitors for demographic information when they register. “But a lot of the way we figure out our demographic is by watching their activity – What are they buying?” said FreeRide.com director Corey Newhouse. FreeRide then beefs up selection for that audience.

    “Once you’ve found the ideal types of products, choose one or a handful of really good quality products and promote those well,” said Internet Marketing Center founder Corey Rudl, who built his one-man affiliate operation into a $6.6 million-per-year company. Top affiliates in his program use this strategy to earn $4,000 to $8,000-plus each month.

    Email your site visitors.

    Superaffiliates always collect email addresses when visitors come to their sites. They have visitors sign up for free offers, newsletters or access to more information already on the site. More than 200,000 of ClearSave’s visitors have filled in their email addresses when prompted to “sign up for exclusive deals, bargains and coupons.” DiCerbo blasts them carefully honed emails once or twice a month. Jermaine Griggs, the superaffiliate featured in our story on religion sites (see page 68), credits his email list for the success of his piano lesson sites. Visitors enter their first name and email address anytime they want to pick a free lesson, see a full music score or add a comment to the lesson forum. The options are free anyway, so Griggs turns them into selections that require visitor input: “I could automatically direct them to all 60 lessons, but ‘Choose a free lesson’ is better than saying ’60 free lessons,'” Griggs said. “This way they enter their information. We have a 60 percent conversion rate with that list, and we’re building it by 6,000 people each month.”

    Finally, if you really want to win big, produce a newsletter and promote the heck out of it. Have site visitors subscribe through an opt-in section of the site’s home page, and load the newsletter with advice, news or updates on your industry. Affiliates can work great deals with merchants just by the breadth of their newsletter subscription base.

    Hire help when needed.

    DiCerbo has part-time help finding new coupons and codes to post on the site. He also has an IT person on retainer. Superaffiliates must either be webmasters or have one on hand. These days, even knowing HTML may not be enough. “We found that XML is much more search engine friendly,” said Rick Schneider, VP of business development for World Choice Travel, an all-affiliate travel merchant. “XML lets you more deeply integrate an affiliate product with the merchant’s brand.”

    There are even small companies that are really superaffiliates. They run virtual online stores with lots of customer support, information, great design and other labor-intensive elements. That’s what FreeRide.com – which uses “tokens” redeemed for merchant gift cards to reward visitors for purchases, surveys or Web surfing – does. It’s a four-employee loyalty site run by New York-based Endai Worldwide, an online marketing and technology company with 20 employees of its own. From his loft office overlooking downtown Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, Newhouse knows this isn’t an ordinary affiliate company. But it could be a glimpse at what in just a few years might be the norm. Major affiliates are already being acquired by their merchants – Hotels.com owns hundreds of affiliate sites.

    Help searchers find your site.

    Keywords, search engine placement, refer-a-friend programs, viral marketing – these are a few of the steps to bringing new viewers to your site. Pay-per-click search engines let affiliates quickly test search words. Through Google AdWords, DiCerbo creates his own ads, chooses keywords to match the ad to his target Google audience and pays only when someone clicks on the ad. He said his site has the most success with high commission products like perfume and footwear. He tries words often provided by his merchants and then tinkers with different landing pages – those pages that actually advertise the product, rather than directing people to the home page – to find out which word and page combinations would help to make the most sales.

    Griggs gets even more distance from his hosting service, which gives him unlimited email accounts with his domain name. “If you have an attractive domain name, you can easily offer free theirname@your site.com email addresses to site visitors,” Griggs said. “I’m getting at least 1,000 [viral] impressions a day with that strategy, because my site names appear at the bottom of every email they send out.” Griggs also suggests that affiliates search out the forums or online chat rooms where their ideal customers congregate.

    Meanwhile, FreeRide.com is trying its hand at co-registration campaigns, where visitors to other sites can check a box and be added to FreeRide’s list. “So far so good,” Newhouse said.

    Once visitors get to your site, keep them there through easy navigation, great design and an established sense of community. “The bottom line is, you’re selling ideas and you’re selling community,” said Web site designer Dean Peters. One way to establish community is through personal endorsements and testimonials. Place them well and make them convincing pieces of friendly advice rather than an obvious cash grab. Testimonials “could increase the response you receive by 400 percent or more,” said Rudl, who has trained 75,000 affiliates in his strategies.

    Roll up your sleeves.

    This is a day-and-night business. Click-through problems aren’t reserved for 9 to 5; if not cared for immediately, these problems can harm sales. Affiliates must be able to respond as soon as problems occur. That doesn’t mean you actually have to work 24 hours a day. Many successful affiliates grow with just 40 hours per week of combined staff time. But they’re regularly checking their stats, regularly checking their site operations, regularly testing new promotional methods and regularly working with merchants to improve their affiliate offerings. “It’s definitely roll up your sleeves and a lot of grunt work to see what works and what doesn’t,” DiCerbo said.

    Test response rates for different affiliate banner ads and text links. Put them in different spots on your site. Try different articles and newsletters. Use different autoresponders. Test promotions on the small scale before taking them to your mass list. “While this might seem like a lot of work, it will ultimately increase their traffic and their affiliate commissions,” said Rudl.

    Newhouse at FreeRide.com seconds that: “Giving people a variety of ways to take an action helps a lot.”

    Be ready to respond to changes.

    “I never look too far out into the future,” DiCerbo said. “The e-commerce landscape changes so quickly that I’m not going to say that the way we’re doing business now is the same way we’ll be doing it next year. Paid search is a new thing that has just taken off. The spam area is closing down. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

    In the end, the superaffiliate must be committed to working regularly on its site, must talk frequently with its merchants, must constantly be in touch with its customers and must be able to wait for its efforts to pan out. The buyers often don’t come running. But with the right products and the right customer capture mechanisms in place, at least they’ll be following the right tracks.

    JENNIFER MEACHAM has worked for Revenue, The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine.

    Indie Labels

    As the affiliate manager for Calendars.com, Hilary Poseski hawks more than 6,000 different calendars. They feature dogs, fashion models, families, folk art, God, teens, transportation, lesbians, history, cooking, ethnic groups, patriots, sports, cars, photos, travel, nature, music and wild animal tamers. Among many other things.

    “Whatever your hobby is, we have a calendar for it. These all translate into niches to find affiliates to work with us,” said Poseski. “Since we focus on affinities, the customers our representatives generate for us are highly responsive to the additional marketing that we do. Affiliates who come in are highly qualified, with great conversion rates because they come from Web sites that have a strong affinity for our product.”

    Her success is not only due to having great affiliates, it has to do with how she finds them. Unlike the vast majority of companies, Calendars .com runs an independent affiliate program with the help of off-the-shelf software, shunning the popular option of paying a network to run its program.

    From retail giant Amazon.com to smaller players such as ABCLeads.com and ChoiceShirts.com, there are hundreds if not thousands of companies that choose to take on the task of running their own programs. And they have no problem finding affiliates. Sixteen percent of affiliates prefer to work with indies instead of networks, according to AffStat, a statistical study published by Shawn Collins Consulting. Another 41 percent said they have no preference.

    Of course, there are drawbacks. It’s more work for both the affiliate manager, who has to make payments, recruit affiliates, fix technical glitches and handle myriad other tasks. And it can be harder for affiliates to work with a lot of different managers instead of collecting a single check through a network representing multiple programs.

    Networks are quick to point out the positive things about working with them. “As a trusted party, we offer value much greater than the cost of the network,” said Elizabeth Chowalsky, vice president for marketing and product development at Commission Junction. “Certainly the software that allows you to do it in-house handles the technical issues, like tracking. But when you run a network there’s a relationship between the advertisers and the publishers, and we make sure they all abide by the rules of the advertisers.”

    And then there is the sheer bulk of the networks. CJ, for example, claims 70,000 “active” publishers, which the company defines as affiliates who’ve earned commissions within the last six months. LinkShare claims 10 million “partnerships,” but Ð by policy Ð doesn’t purge inactive affiliates from its ranks (see story, p. 38).

    Nine of the 10 leading online retailers work with CJ, Link Share or Performics, including such giants as Sears, JCPenney, QVC and Gateway. For affiliates who depend on big brand names to lure customers, that’s a big incentive to work with networks. The notable exception is Amazon.com, a pioneer of the affiliate marketing industry that set up its own “associates” program in 1996.

    “A company deciding whether to out- source this or do it in-house has to decide whether having expertise in online marketing is important,” said Sara Spillman, senior manager for Amazon.com Associates. “For us, understanding consumer buying behavior is most important, along with encouraging Web sites to merchandise our products. That’s our key to success.”

    Amazon has a whopping 900,000 affiliates. Spillman said the percentage of active associates is “healthier than average,” but wouldn’t say how much revenue the program generates. “We are very intent on optimizing the experience and creating a compelling program. We continue to invest in this program, which should tell you that it’s very successful,” she says.

    Part of Amazon’s success stems from the number of authors who promote their own books, then steer customers to the Amazon site. “I get more money on Amazon clickthroughs buying my book than I get in royalties from the publisher on the same sale,” said Michael Dean, who writes textbooks and novels. His titles include $30 Film School and $30 Writing School. “I make $1.10 per book from Amazon.com, and $1 from my publisher,” said Dean.

    Some affiliates see a bit more risk working with indies, depending on the nature of the affiliate and the time they have to work on their programs. Take PhillyBurbs .com, a local news site that supports itself in part through both independent and network revenue sharing programs. “Affiliation is a small portion of our revenues, so investing too much time into one of them isn’t good,” said Executive Editor Karl Smith. “When you’re dealing with networks, the real upside is consolidated payments. But the downside is that some of their affiliates use predatory tactics that can steal business away from us. If the company is an indie, it’s much easier to know for sure what their practices are.”

    CJ’s Chowalsky chafed at the notion that networks are havens for predators. Her company monitors all of the links from affiliates and, if they catch anyone redirecting traffic from other affiliates, the fraudster gets the boot, she said.

    The single biggest consideration in deciding whether to work with networks or remain independent is, of course, the cost-benefit equation. Networks charge fees, often large fees. The fees may be thousands of dollars a month, since the cost structures are as high as 30 percent of total payouts. So the question becomes: Are the services rendered worth it?

    ABCLeads.com didn’t think so. The company generates sales leads for licensed long-term care insurance agencies. It started out paying network fees that kept the company from paying its affiliates more than $7 per lead referred. After it brought the program in-house, ABCLeads was able to raise payouts to $8 and to keep more money for itself.

    ABCLeads Marketing Manager Karen Hudgins said network rules also prohibited it from paying recruitment bonuses. Now it pays affiliates 50 cents for each lead generated by an affiliate they’ve referred to the program.

    Control is another big reason that indies go it alone. At DomainDirect.com, Affiliate Program Manager Bessy Nikolaou noted that 20 percent of her 2,400 affiliates produce 90 percent of her sales, so she likes to shower affection on them.

    “The small mom-and-pop shops that are listed with the mega-networks have never proven profitable with us,” she says. “I want to have control over who can participate in our partner program. My main focus is on identifying potential partners whose product offerings complement our domain and hosting services.”

    Likewise, says Pat Matthews, CEO and affiliate manager for WebMail/Excedent. “We almost went with a network, but I didn’t like their managed model,” he says. The network “works with a lot of regular retailers as affiliates. We prefer to recruit webmasters and consultants for our enterprise email solutions. You have to find the right affiliates to promote your products and services.”

    Poseski said Calendars.com’s customer acquisition costs are much lower as an indie than they were when the company was in a network four years ago. The cost of software is quickly offset by the lowered costs of being independent, she says. Another tradeoff is the time it takes to run an independent program.

    “The biggest challenge is the time and effort that it takes. But this is also what makes the program successful. I stay really involved. It’s grass-roots marketing,” says Poseski. It helps that Calendars.com is part of a larger company, CalendarClub, which has its own accounts payable and customer service departments.

    Kerri Kaufman, the affiliate manager at ChoiceShirts.com, found some affiliates aren’t very “sophisticated” when it comes to promotional and technical issues Ð a potential time drain. “But once we get in touch with them and help them get going, it’s easier to get them to stick around,” she says. “A lot of prospective affiliates apply to a bunch of programs at once, so once you approve them, you want to get them to come to you rather than to another merchant.”

    Kaufman says the time factor also helps to make sure her affiliates are productive. “We deactivate a lot of affiliates who don’t become active because we can’t spend the time trying to work with a small affiliate who won’t generate enough revenue,” she said. That limits the program size to several hundred affiliates, but Kaufman boasts that two-thirds of them are active.

    Being independent can also save time. At ABCLeads, Hudgins said they were seeking leads for long-term care insurance, but many network affiliates would ignore the very important adjectives before the word insurance. “One affiliate drove 12,000 leads to our site seeking health insurance, and we had to get refunds [from the network] on all of those. That kind of thing happened more than once,” she says.

    Now, if affiliates send any mismatched applicants, it’s much easier to eliminate them from consideration, in part because Hudgins is in direct communication with the affiliates Ð she requires affiliates to list their contact information on their sites. “This fosters stronger relationships and makes it easier for us to get in touch with them,” she says.

    Under the network system, the only way she could contact affiliates was through the network’s messaging system.

    Rapid communications often translates into quick profits. For example, when illusionist Roy Horn was mauled by a tiger during his Las Vegas show, Siegfried and Roy souvenirs started selling, well, like wild. Calendars.com’s Poseski quickly got in touch with the operators of fan sites, alerting them to push for sales of calendars based on the famed duo.

    “We understand the multitude of niches that we market to, and no network can do that for us,” she says. “We retain the ability to respond really quickly when a new affinity catches on. Trends come out of nowhere, and you have to capitalize on them.”

    Running an indie site just might be one of those trends.

    JACKIE COHEN has been covering affiliate marketing since 1998. She previously edited the Net Returns section at The Industry Standard.

    The Way To Ebay

    To state the obvious, eBay has become a household name, at least in the US where everyone recognizes the brand as the largest online auction site. What may be less obvious is that eBay also has one of the largest affiliate programs.

    That may seem odd given that most merchants use affiliates to sell goods or services, and eBay doesn’t sell goods or services. Instead, it’s a virtual warehouse filled with millions of constantly changing items being sold by other folks.

    So why does eBay even need an affiliate program, and what do those affiliates do? As it turns out, eBay is a company based on a different business model, and that has led to a slightly different use for affiliate marketing. First, eBay uses affiliates to attract new bidders. It’s especially anxious to build its account base internationally, and there is some churn when deadbeat bidders are removed for failing to pay on three winning bids.

    And then there are all those items passing across the auction block. EBay affiliates include sites like RollingStone.com, which links to the rock memorabilia category on eBay. They also include collectible sites that keep a sharp eye out for rarities. The Web, after all, is a great vehicle for finding rare items (see story, page 66). There’s just one limitation: You can’t be both a seller and an affiliate. As an affiliate, you can point to someone else’s auction, but you can’t point to your own.

    Aficionados of the site who want to get involved find plenty of opportunities. The company offers $5 cents to $16 for every new member referred who bids or transacts within 30 days of registering on the site. The site also pays 5 to 15 cents per bid or BIN (short for “buy it now”) placed by referees per visit. Repeat bids on the same item don’t incur additional commissions, despite the fact that many affiliates believe they’re entitled to such recurring revenue. The discrepancy is simply an example of a larger trend: Affiliates tend to sign up for programs without reading the terms of service.

    Another way to score affiliate cash is by referring merchants to eBay’s PayPal subsidiary, which the auctioneer acquired in late 2002. Buyers, sellers and affiliates can participate – the one catch is that the referrer needs to have a pre-existing business relationship with the referee. Once the latter sells $1,000, the referee scores $10. Another sawbuck is awarded for each additional grand until the maximum bonus of $100 is reached. Also, payouts are only applicable for the first six months after the merchant joins PayPal.

    But these fees can be earned in some interesting ways. “We have shopping cart vendors who earn referral fees” by PayPal enabling their merchant servers, explains Dave McClure, director of the PayPal developer network and senior manager of the merchant services group, which launched the referral program last fall.

    “In the eBay world, there’s a natural buyer-seller crossover,” he said. “But now we’re trying to move from the seller viral model to the buyer viral model. We’ve been thinking of ways for buyers to, say, petition their merchants to start accepting PayPal. This is the first step in allowing buyers to refer sellers.”

    Million-Dollar Club

    PayPal’s program may be growing, but there’s more money to be made from affiliating with eBay. In fact, it ranks among the top 10 percent of the advertisers on Commission Junction, which provides indices of merchants’ commission sizes and volumes. “EBay is a strong program with lucrative payouts,” says Lisa Riolo, vice president of client development at Commission Junction. “They have publishers who’ve earned $1 million or more. They talk about the sizes of these payouts in the eBay newsletter, so publishers can see that some of the top performers receive really large checks.”

    The newsletter boasts that the largest affiliate made more than $1.4 million in commissions in February of this year, but doesn’t disclose who that big earner is. That same party became the first affiliate to hit the seven-digit-commission-in-one-month threshold last December. The newsletter puts this in perspective: The top 100 affiliates earn almost $25,000 a month each. The top 25 affiliates average more than $100,000 monthly, suggesting an annual income of $1.2 million or more.

    “EBay is working with most of the top performers in the pay-for-performance space,” Riolo said. “They’re very forward-thinking, they’ve taken the principles that have been successful to them and extended them to the community they created. We’ve given them numerous awards. This is a win-win relationship for us.”

    But there’s one way in which you can’t win it all. As stated earlier, eBay is very explicit about keeping sellers and affiliates separate. You can only be one or the other, so the publishers tend to be folks lacking fulfillment capabilities or other resources. Sellers who try to become affiliates are banned from the site – including those who attempt to do so using aliases – because directing traffic to one’s own listings is considered fraudulent.

    Co-Op Ads

    Affiliates do get to participate in eBay’s developer program, which encourages third parties to create software for buyers and sellers. “We think that’s in the affiliates’ best interests,” said Vaughan Smith, senior director of Internet marketing at eBay. And sellers get to market themselves in other cost-effective ways, through the auction’s Co-Op Advertising Program, which reimburses 25 percent of the insertion fees that are placed on co-branded advertisements.

    While sellers number in the millions, the affiliate community is around 10,000 strong. But most of them are active entrepreneurs, says Vaughan. This flies in the face of industry benchmarks like those of Affstat, which holds that only about 5 percent of a program’s affiliates are actually active.

    “We work closely with our affiliates, and we look for affiliates who want to work with us,” explained Smith. “It’s better for the affiliates that way. The most important thing is we like people who are interested in making lots of money, and we think we’re in a great position to provide that opportunity. We want quality affiliates, rather than quantity.”

    While many merchants listed on CJ get all their affiliate members from the network’s directory, roughly half of eBay’s affiliates discover the affiliation opportunities by surfing through the links on the auction site. The remaining half come from Commission Junction.

    Unfortunately, eBay wouldn’t disclose what portion of its revenues come from affiliate marketing. The company’s latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicated overall sales and marketing expenditures of $192.7 million during the first quarter of 2004, mostly dwarfing the numbers posted by other publicly held merchants participating in Commission Junction.

    With such scope, you’d think that eBay would be quite capable of running its own affiliate program in-house. But the site handed this business to CJ in March 2001. “We essentially decided that we’re experts at running a marketplace, and Commission Junction’s comparative advantage is running a network with lots of affiliates,” said Smith. However, eBay also has an in-house staff of six people who work with affiliates on improving their performance.

    Smith’s sidekick, Eva Hung, manager of Internet marketing, adds, “EBay decided to work with Commission Junction because it’s simply the best solution for building and managing a strong pay-for-performance program. Three years later our publisher base is still growing and our pay-for-performance channel is responsible for a significant portion of eBay’s customer acquisitions.”

    Mythical Disconnect

    The auctioneer certainly dispels the myth that affiliate programs and television advertisements don’t mix. EBay’s show tune-inspired TV spots are so catchy that fans are blogging about the lyrics enthusiastically on the music video site Clipland.com.

    The ads and the affiliate marketing are intended to be synergistic. “When people are online and they see an affiliate ad present itself in front of them, they remember what they saw on TV and that prompts them to come to the site and transact,” said Smith. “Then repeat users come from the offline ads.”

    As with all programs, there are some grumbles among affiliates whose expectations about commissions are unclear: Many presume they’re entitled to commissions on repeat bids on a listing, a frequent occurrence in competitive auctions. The terms of service state that an affiliate gets only one such payout per referee visit that comes from visitors clicking off the referrer’s site. Many affiliates’ reports show reversals of commissions ensuing from such repeat bids Ð apparently, that’s a software glitch that eBay adjusts manually on all transactions, said Kelly Stevens, president of the testing and analysis site Affiliate Fair Play. The site consulted eBay on this very topic.

    “The Commission Junction cookie should expire after that one-time commissionable event, and it doesn’t expire; it just tracks any further bids or Ôbuy it now’ transactions, so eBay has to manually reverse them,” Stevens said, explaining this is essentially a conflict between Commission Junction’s technology and eBay’s stated policy.

    One member of eBay’s program is GovindaMall at Govinda.nu, which participates in several hundred other affiliate programs, 20 percent of them through Commission Junction. Govinda Proprietor Wu Chung Fai says that, based on the number of Web surfers that he has referred to the auction site, his earnings per click are on the lower end of the spectrum, comparable to the rate he gets paid by Amazon.com. However, his traffic is “easy to convert” because there’s “something for everyone” on the site, he said. And he noted that eBay’s “editor kit offers great flexibility to add content to an affiliate site.”

    However, he lamented that the program has grown to the point that the market is “saturated in terms of current commissions,” and there’s “too much competition from other affiliates.” He also questioned the reliability of eBay’s tracking mechanisms for tallying up referrals.

    Adult Content

    Another affiliate also had some beefs about the program. “I am not happy with some aspects of eBay’s program Ð notably one incident that remains uncorrected,” said Amber Lowery of EastCoastWebs.com, a three-person site building firm. “Several months ago, I contacted [eBay] because mature and inappropriate business category auctions (with text and images) were showing up on my pages and I run several family-friendly certified sites. There was no way to filter this and I ended up dropping eBay from all of my sites that promoted the Business/ Industrial Category. The part that upset me was that no one at eBay seemed to care, despite the fact that the material in the auctions was against eBay’s own [Terms of Service], as well as the TOS of the affiliate network, CJ. This problem remains uncorrected.”

    Lowery also had positive comments. “On the upside,” she said, “I do find eBay’s [Application Programming Inter-face] to be helpful, easy to use and comprehensive. Display of auctions is in real time and actually provides not only revenue but also makes for decent content when integrated nicely into one’s pages. I do see both positives and negatives in the eBay program.”

    How does eBay feel about such an incendiary opinion? “The affiliate industry is fragmented: There are the people who work hard and the people who don’t,” said Smith. “Very often the vocal ones aren’t the ones who are earning the most, so they have plenty of time on their hands to make negative comments. From time to time we do change the way in which we compensate affiliates, and each time we do that we try to communicate how we do so. But inevitably there are people who still misunderstand these changes.”

    To put that another way, eBay’s affiliate program may not be much different from many others after all.

    JACKIE COHEN is managing editor of Revenue. She has been covering online affiliate programs since 1998. She previously edited the Net Returns section at The Industry Standard.

    Collecting Your Share

    Paul DeMoney is an affiliate marketer’s dream: a shopper who is always ready to buy. Anytime, anywhere. He wants, no, he needs Star Wars action figures, and he doesn’t care where he gets them. Your site. Another e-commerce site. The nearest toy store. Whatever.

    He just wants the new toys wherever he can get them. And whenever. No need to wait for the holidays. He’s always looking for new toys. It’s a year-round passion.

    “Collecting is much easier nowadays with eBay and all the vendor sites out there,” DeMoney said. “I am no longer at the mercy of toy stores. On the Net, you can always find what you want if you know where to look.”

    DeMoney is more than an Internet customer. He is what we call a collector – someone with a passion for product. And what more could an affiliate marketer want?

    Imagine marketing to a niche where the shoppers are passionate about buying the items you promote. Envision being rewarded with the lofty commissions that are offered through the different programs offered, with the potential of earning a five-figure monthly income as a top-producing affiliate.

    What’s more, these collectors aren’t ruled by season or reason. They will buy anytime, anywhere as long as the item is something they want. Meet your dream niche – collectibles, and your dream target audience – the collectors.

    Carolyn Tang understands the collectible industry from the affiliate manager’s perspective. She manages the affiliate program for CollectiblesToday.com. “The collectibles segment is really a lot of fun, and if you like marketing, you’ll love marketing to collectors,” said Tang. “Our consumers are so passionate that it keeps conversion rates healthy.”

    Industry Rising

    The collectibles industry is growing fast. According to CollectiblesToday.com, in the year 2003, the total retail sales reached $3.9 billion in the collectibles niche. A survey done by eBay showed popular items to collect include pottery, glass, dolls, holiday items and sports memorabilia. Popular antique items include fishing nets, weathervanes, metal picture frames and quilts. The number of collectible merchants have increased in the last two years, giving affiliate marketers options to be creative and the ability to earn more when marketing this niche.

    “The industry’s continued growth can largely be attributed to Internet sites that sell collectibles,” according to collectibles expert Barbara Crews. “The Internet has completely changed the world of collectibles. Things that we once thought were rare or hard to find are now easily available through online auctions or Internet venues. It’s been the boon and the bane of collectors everywhere. Perceived values have usually dropped as a result of more items becoming available, but the collector is now able to find those bargains and hard-to-find items.”

    Unity Marketing’s latest research shows that about 40 percent of US households collect some item. In other words, 43 million American households actively collect something.

    “The desire for people to collect things is deep-seated and something that transcends time and place,” said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing and author of the book Why People Buy Things They Don’t Need. “People will spend money to acquire items that they keep, cherish and collect.”

    Why They Buy

    Creating a profile of the typical collector is no easy task, with good reason.

    “A typical collector? There’s no such animal,” said Crews, who is About.com’s collectibles guru. “Many folks collect things that bring back memories of childhood, such as toys they might have had that Mom threw away. Or the cookie jar that sat on their grandma’s counter.”

    It is said that collectors have addictive personalities. And their addiction leads to shopping that borders on compulsive. “You’ll find collectors will want one of everything,” Crews said, “every Barbie that’s been made or every Ty Beanie Baby.”

    To understand the collector, affiliate marketers must identify what moves the collector to buy. “Today’s collector is younger, smarter, more sophisticated, more affluent and shops in a much wider range of retail venues than yesterday’s collector,” said Danziger. “Reinventing the collectibles industry means getting in touch with the new collector, understanding their wants and desires and creating products based on that.”

    Know Your Audience

    As with any marketing niche, you must know your audience if you are to succeed. This is critical to success for anyone entering the collectible marketplace.

    “If you’re trying to market to a Precious Moments collector, take some time to research the topic and stay updated on product developments,” said Tang. “Know which lines are coming down the pike and keep your finger on the pulse of the collector. Continually ask yourself, ‘What is the collector looking for now?'”

    Research conducted by Unity Marketing in 2002 suggests that men are the future of a market once thought to have been dominated by women. “Since the Beanie Babies craze died down, women have turned their attention to decorating rather than collecting,” Danziger said in her book. “While the collectibles industry has sprung up largely serving a female audience, the collector market today is becoming more and more dominated by men with their different collecting interests and passions.”

    Men, the Unity study revealed, tend to start collecting at a much younger age than women. “Men carry their collecting passions right from childhood through early adulthood and then on into maturity, while women tend to delay active collecting until they reach 35 years or so,” it said. This is great news for affiliate marketers in the collectibles arena. Not only are more people collecting, they are starting young and shopping into their middle age.

    Risk in Rarity

    Along with the enthusiasm and excitement that surrounds the area of collectibles, you will find a specific interest in antique and rare collectibles. Using the Internet and online auctions, it is now easier to find items that were once limited and/or hard to find.

    How does one protect oneself from purchasing items that are counterfeits and have no value? “Ultimately buyers should make sure they purchase from a well-known dealer in order to protect themselves,” suggests Bill Ferrol, owner of BillBam.com.

    The antique market is limited in available merchants for affiliates. This is often due to the fact that rare and valuable items have higher price tags and take longer for a sale to take place. This can require more time and effort on the side of the affiliate marketer. While the commission may be higher – say, 15 percent of $20,000 – the time it takes to make that sale has to be weighed against the profit. Affiliate marketers who do chose to market these rare and valuable items should work with merchants who offer a certificate of authenticity. This will ensure that you protect your credibility and gain repeat orders from customers.

    Start Small, Think Big

    BillBam.com Affiliate Manager Chris Sanderson recently entered the collectibles marketplace but says there is plenty of room and opportunity for anyone interested in entering the field.

    Sanderson encourages more people to enter the niche and offered tips for how to do so. “The market sector of collectibles is very big. There are a fair number of merchants selling collectibles and the sector itself breaks down into a wide range of niches, ranging from plush toys to pins to cards. So there is room for a lot of affiliates to be involved at different levels,” stated Sanderson.

    “Start with a small focus on a selection that you are interested in,” said Sanderson. “Mix the collection with items from other stores that fit the selection, add some value to your presentation with some content.

    “For example, if you like Star Trek, then start with that selection, find books, videos and posters from other merchants to complement the site and add some content to the site, not only to make it more search engine-friendly, but so that visitors feel that your site is ‘adding value.’ Your content might be about Star Trek, or it might be about the products or the merchants.”

    That doesn’t mean the market space isn’t full of competitors. A suggestion from all affiliate marketers that are playing in this space is to pick something you are interested in, have fun with it, and expound on it. This formula, along with some basic skills, will enhance your chance of success.

    Competition is Plentiful

    “Competition is fierce,” said BillBam’s Sanderson. “There’s a lot of overlap and often it comes down to first to market and largest product range. The price can be a secondary issue for the consumer and affiliates on what is bought.”

    Carolyn Tang confirms that competition is fierce but is quick to note the positive in that. “I’m one of those armchair economists who believes that competition makes for a healthy marketplace, so I think it’s a good thing to have,” Tang said. “It also provides an affiliate with options.”

    As with any marketing venture, it falls upon the affiliate to establish a niche or specialty in the larger niche. “I haven’t seen any indication that the affiliate market for collectibles is anywhere near saturation,” Tang said. “There are still a lot of niches out there that can be developed.”

    Starting is Easy

    “Almost any kind of site can be successful,” said Sanderson. “There are obviously the ‘shop store’ style sites that promote the full product range, but also you have sites that might be focusing on a particular TV show, like Star Trek, that can sell collectibles focused just on that niche.”

    Creating your own affiliate success within the collectibles industry doesn’t require skills any more advanced than those used in other niches.

    “Knowledge of search engine optimization or pay-per-click marketing, or other methods of site promotion would be good to have,” said Sanderson. “No traffic, no sales. For affiliates who want to do datafeed-powered sites, skill in ASP/PHP is useful, as well as potential MySQL.”

    Ongoing Interest

    “There’s an odd perception out there that the collectibles market is seasonal,” said Tang. “This isn’t completely accurate because collectors are always collecting. They don’t just work on their collection during the holiday season. It’s a year-long hobby for them.”

    On the other hand, affiliate marketer Andy Derrick started marketing collectibles in the third quarter of 2003 and enjoyed the rewards he saw over the Christmas season. “There are some serious collectors always buying, but holiday sales offer the most opportunity in this market from my perception,” he said.

    Not only do collectors carry on through rain, sleet or snow, they also continue to collect even when the economy is slow. “Even when the economy takes a downturn and their disposable income is squeezed, you’ll see a lot of collectors switching to generic brands to save money for the third issue in a five-part series of, say, plates,” Tang said.

    Affiliate marketers who tap into the year-round shopping habits of collectors earn great rewards. For example, Tang’s Collectibles Today just opened a jewelry storefront. Top-performing affiliates average $10,000 to $12,000 a month, while those who might spend a few hours a week tweaking their site pull in a couple hundred dollars a month. Affiliate marketer Pat Hartray of LightHouseStore.com agrees with Tang on the financial benefits: “Commissions for collectibles are above average for the industry. You can find collectible affiliate programs offering anywhere from 5 to 20 percent on sales.”

    Because there are so many niches within the collectibles marketplace, there is enormous potential for affiliate growth. In order to experience that growth, take some time to research the products and stay updated on product developments. “Collectibles are fun and entertaining. They have mass appeal,” said Hartray.

    The trick is to know what will catch the eye, and the dollars, of the collector. Continually ask yourself, “What is the collector looking for now?”

    LAURA SCHNEIDER is the marketing editor for About.com. Her articles on marketing have been published by more than 4,000 Web sites and magazines. She is also partnership development and marketing manager for Revenue Partners where she has developed and managed online marketing ventures for a decade.

    Holy Profits!

    Webmaster Jermaine Griggs truly believes in selling the Gospel online. His sites gross almost seven figures per year. His conversion rates are miraculous; six out of 10 people coming to his site end up buying. His list of potential customers grows by 6,000 each month. He has 650 affiliates evangelizing his products. And he’s barely old enough to drink communion wine.

    “I attribute everything to God,” the 21-year-old preaches. “This is not only a business venture, it’s a ministry.” His products are mainstream enough: videos that teach piano players how to perform gospel music by ear. But with GospelKeys.com, HearAndPlay.com and a host of other sites catering to the church crowd, Griggs sings the praises of online religious sales with the same passion and conviction with which he leads the choir at Good Success Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, Calif.

    “I empower musicians who not only play for themselves but go on to play for churches,” Griggs said. “That’s the ministry side, and it really gives me satisfaction.”

    Griggs is one of thousands getting satisfaction from selling faith-based products online. In what comScore ranks as “one of the top 10 gaining categories,” merchants and their affiliates are bringing products once relegated to religious bookstores and church foyers to the online masses. They’re selling religious books, CDs, videos, devotionals, Bibles, gifts, greeting cards, crucifixes, rosaries, menorahs, Kiddish cups, stationery, art, church supplies, incense and – the latest fad – T-shirts with a religious message. “In the past, most of the online sales were driven by [religious] music and books,” said Mike Goldenberg, marketing director at body products merchantMountOfOlivesTreasures.com, which promotes its affiliate program as an online fundraiser for religious groups. “But the theme is now expansion into other categories that heretofore have been largely ignored.”

    Suddenly, religious kitsch seems sublime. What was a $2.6 billion market in 1991 is now an $8 billion market, according to Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com. A growing portion of that revenue comes from online merchants and affiliates. Many target Baptists and charismatic or evangelistic Christians, who are nearly twice as likely to buy Christian books as other Protestants or Catholics. A survey conducted by Hallmark showed four out of five Americans – roughly 230 million – call themselves Christians. Evangelical Christians alone represent 72 million potential buyers, said Goldenberg.

    Current events may be fueling a revival. Religious validation, it seems, is often tied to war. And then there’s the buzz gen-erated by Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion, which grossed nearly $600 million worldwide in its first 10 weeks at the box office. “With The Passion movie that blew through theaters, business has been quite good,” said Ian Rutherford, who founded the Catholic resource AquinasAndMore.com, which pays 6 per- cent to 12 percent to its affiliates. “Our March sales actually beat Christmas.” That doesn’t mean believers are willing to buy every religious trinket online; at least not yet. But it does mean that savvy Webpreneurs are finding ways to get some of those searchers to their own online paradise. “Many specialty items aren’t readily available at Wal-Mart or even the local Christian bookstore, especially if you’re not Christian or your branch of Christianity is not well served by the local store,” said Roger Finke, director of the American Religion Data Archive at Penn State University. “The online retailer can carry greater variety and a larger volume because they are appealing to a potentially larger market.”

    With 50 million hits and 275,000 unique visitors per month, Bible.com fits the bill. ComScore’s Media Metrix ranked it the 14th most popular religious site on the Net in April. Who would guess it’s run by a soft-spoken retired couple from Dewey, Ariz.? “We’ve been in this Internet ministry since 1994, with no prior experience,” said Bud Miller. “I’m 75 years old, and Betty is 64. We’re not quite in the age group in the cutting edge of the Internet, and it’s been quite a learning curve. But because we’ve been in ministry, everything we do is trying to get the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ out. And if we sell something that helps underwrite what we’re doing, then praise God.”

    Profit and Piety

    These affiliates say they don’t embrace profit; the message, they believe, could be lost in the medium. “Although at times hypocrisy results from this mix of profit and piety, for the most part this sense of ministry imparts a refreshing collegiality to the business,” reports Packaged Data. “Indeed, religious products marketers tend to regard themselves as allies against their real adversaries: the godless and corrupt influences of the secular world.”

    Not surprisingly, one hears very little about spammers, predatory ads or other problems in this segment. Revenue spoke with affiliates who earn less than $100 a month and others who earn tens of thousands. Whatever the cash flow, it is often earmarked for greater goals, such as construction of a new parish, missionary trips or the ability to continue spreading a spiritual message.

    “We’re pretty much financing the ministry by ourselves right now,” said Marilyn Bush, operator of FastTrackMinistries.com. “And it’s just one more way to make money.” Her job introduced her to the value of affiliate relationships – she’s assistant to the marketing director for GospelCom.net, parent company to GospelDirect.com. Now she uses a GospelDirect affiliate link on her personal site. Commissions go to fuel her trusty 1984 motor home, donned with “Fast Track Ministries” signs on each latte-hued side. “We take our motor home and go to different auto racetracks,” said Bush, who spends weekends with husband Larry driving to Michigan’s 43 dirt tracks or NASCAR tracks. They roam the pits talking to the drivers and their families, walk through the stands handing out pictures of Christian NASCAR drivers or sports devotional books and – once announced – greet the children under the shade of the motor home awning and tell stories of David and the giant Goliath or Noah and his ark of animals. “Our site is pretty small, so we don’t even make $100 per month,” Bush said. “But with gas prices now, $100 a month almost fills our motor home. I would accept that from anybody.”

    GospelDirect.com offers an 8 percent commission, which is about average for religious sites. But some sites give more. PacificHeritage.com, for example, pays a 20 percent commission on sales of its gifts and statuary, which includes 16- to 33-inch-tall saints and angels with glass eyes and “life-like, long beautiful eyelashes.” Pacific Heritage also offers a bonus to the people who refer new affiliates: 25 percent of the new affiliate’s commissions. JustCatholic.com rewards consumers by offering to send rebates to the parish of the shopper’s choice. In 2003, it sent checks to 1,200 US parishes.

    Being an affiliate in the religious space takes some conviction. “The non-religious product companies would die to have the passionate cause that’s inherent in the religious companies,” said Jackie Huba, author of Creating Customer Evangelists. “Buying things that are already part of your belief set fills an emotional need and emotional desire for your life. The religious companies already have that cause, and their buyers are already true believers.”

    There are already many online gathering spots for the religious, from forums, to webcast religious services like WekivaPresbyterian.org, to issues-related message boards, to Christian dating services like FriendFinder’s BigChurch.com. “Just like every other industry, Internet-related stuff is coming into its own – for religious purposes as well,” said Stan Taylor, co-creator of ReligiousResources.org, a free directory of 5,000-plus online merchants selling everything from religious art and events to memberships in electronic communities and religious texts. “The community potentials on the Internet are showing a lot of promise in faith-based items.”

    Thanks to Amazon.com’s religious books and Google’s AdWords, Taylor is now pulling in a few affiliate checks of his own. “They enhance our site, and we make money off of them,” said Taylor, who reports 2 percent clickthroughs and commissions of a few hundred dollars per month on free ads automatically placed by Google’s software on Web pages matching ad content.

    Target Audiences

    Catholic sites, for instance, “focus on either Catholics who want to learn more about their faith or Catholics you’d consider devout – orthodox Catholics who take their faith seriously,” said AquinasAndMore.com’s Rutherford, who recently launched a Catholic version of eBay, CatholicAuction.com. Christian sites most frequently target evangelicals and Baptists, the two largest Christian segments after Catholics. Jewish sites focus on orthodox Judaism, the most ritualistic and therefore most heavily associated with Judaic products.

    For webmasters, every sale, every site visit, every ad is a chance to bring individuals into the flock. Consumers “want something that’s missing in their life, and if they find it at your site they’re going to walk through your doors,” said Dean Peters. He helps his Baptist church youth group raise funds through CafePress.com’s affiliate program, and during the week runs the HealYourChurchWebsite.com forum.

    Despite the zeal with which they talk about their products, religious affiliates seem less advanced at spreading their message in the Internet world. Email campaigns are few and far between. Few religious affiliates bid on search engine placement. Viral marketing is largely limited to e-cards. And potential affiliates who already have a substantial land-based following shy away from affiliate programs, not because the money isn’t there but rather, they’re afraid to be perceived as having a site that hawks its wares.

    That’s actually good news for new affiliate entrants. There’s plenty of opportunity to get high-ranking placements on search engines. “You can get in with Gospel products for less than 10 cents per click,” said Griggs. “I have affiliates out there – five or six – who are working search engines with their own financial resources, but their commissions are outweighing what they pay by four or five times.”

    That’s a pretty good return on investment, echoed in sites outside of Griggs’. “If a site is really willing to promote and can get on the search engines, they can do well,” Rutherford said. “A banner somewhere on the site just doesn’t cut it. They’ve got to be willing to go out of their way to promote specific products or categories on their home page or throughout their site. [After that], it’s really a matter of how much they’re willing to do.”

    It also pays to pay attention to trends. For Catholic sites, items such as rosaries and Gregorian chants – things that have waned in popularity over the years – are starting to gain interest again. For evangelical sites, T-shirts proclaiming “Jesus is my homeboy” or other pseudo-evangelistic phrases are hot, as are Christian magazines and Bibles aimed at the teen market.

    With all the well-behaved sites in this sector, are there any hurdles for sites based on religion? “There’s always a problem between the secular and the Christian/religious world,” said Griggs. “And that’s what we have to deal with. We do have the people who are in this business just for the money. We do battle with that. But for the people who love God, and gospel music is what they do, we’ll never have a problem with those people.”

    JENNIFER MEACHAM has been writing about business and technology for more than a decade. She was named the Region X Journalist of the Year by the US Small Business Administration in 2002.