Killer Content Brings in Money

There are three main factors that determine the success of your Web site:

  • Effective site optimization;
  • Site popularity; and
  • Great content.

Site optimization is the process of placing your keywords in the right places and making sure your Web site is accessible to search engine spiders so that they can find you and index your content more easily.

Site popularity can be achieved by online and offline marketing (mainly good PR) and the number of people who link back to you. This is often confused with page rank, but page rank is only one factor in determining your site’s popularity.

The best long-term solution for high search engine ranking, and the factor that is easiest to tweak, is to create first-rate content. You don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner to do it. You just need to focus on addressing the needs of your customers, and by doing that effectively you will also attract search engine spiders in droves.

Many search engine marketers would have you believe that the best way to get high search engine rankings is to stuff your pages full of keywords and use tiny text at the bottom of the page to create great spider fodder. They don’t focus on the usability of the page or think about how users want to view your copy.

This may be a good short-term strategy, and may get you good rankings, but in the long term that’s not a good idea. Spiders are getting smarter. They know when you are trying to spam them. From your customers’ perspective this also does a lot to minimize the credibility of your Web site.

We have all been to sites where the copy was poorly written and grammatically incorrect. It looks sloppy and leaves customers questioning the wisdom of giving you their credit card numbers. It doesn’t matter how many clicks you get or what your rankings are if you can’t convert a visitor to a buyer. First-rate copy serves all of your audiences – spiders and customers alike.

As far as high quality content goes, remember that it should offer significant value to your customers and other sites. Why other sites? Because they’ll link to your site. Good content should also be unique and be updated regularly, so that people will come back to your site often to see what’s new.

Structuring Your Content

When thinking of how to structure your page to make it usable for both spiders and customers, a good rule of thumb is to start to think like a newspaper publisher. The same rules apply when determining what your Web site copy should look like. The newspaper editor focuses on the way readers like to view content. The editor knows that users typically scan the headlines first and then, when something piques their interest, they zero in on the content they want to read.

If you structure your pages the same way, it will increase the usability of your site and also make it more spider friendly. Make good use of headline sizes to clearly identify to your readers what is the most important copy on your pages. Direct them to where you want them to go by allowing them to see at a glance which items are the most important. Include your keywords in your headings to reinforce the focus of the page for both users and spiders.

The same rules apply whether you are building landing pages to submit to paid search engines or for organic traffic. Users and spiders want clear, grammatically correct copy that helps them to find the value in your pages fast. You only have about 13 seconds to catch your users’ attention, so every page on your site should focus on one message, and include a clear call to action. It’s really just following the basics of direct response marketing and applying that to your Web site.

Once you have created great headlines, pick one topic per page and write decent articles that appeal to your users. More pages equal more spider food and more specific landing pages where you can send users for one-click information. What works for one Web site in terms of content may not work for another, so you’ll have to keep testing until you see what mix of copy makes users want to stay on your site, return again and convert to a sale.

Here are some examples to help you start thinking about what valuable content might look like:

  • CD retailer: Provide reviews of new releases and bands;
  • Accounting: Offer regular updates about legal changes that affect your clients;
  • IT trainer: Show IT folks how to train their internal clients, or offer some free online training or white papers;
  • Gardener: Show beautiful gardens from around the world, and offer tips on gardening;
  • Travel agent: Offer reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions on different areas.

As you may have realized by now, creating and updating your content is a lot of work. It’s also hard to stay motivated if you don’t see immediate gains. It takes a very long time for word to spread about your Web site. Just as with paid placement, you have to test creative frequently. With paid placement you can see results immediately whereas with this, you need to wait a long time to get feedback. You need to hang in there and over time you will see that it really does pay off.

Another relatively pain-free way to offer frequently updated content is to create a blog. There are many great inexpensive blogging tools out there that will integrate well with your Web site and allow you to update your content on the fly. Savvy search engine marketers are rushing to add them to their sites. But be sure the quality of your blog is high. Blogs are easy to set up and are proving to be very spider friendly. After all, what the search engine wants to see is just what your users want: frequently updated, quality, relevant content. Nobody wants to read yesterday’s news, least of all search engine spiders. Increasing conversion is what it’s all about, and that’s what makes a successful Web site.

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

A Show-Stopping Performance

In times when change comes quickly, many things can keep online marketing managers up at night. The question is: What should keep them up?

Some grapple with balancing their own search marketing efforts against affiliates’ or understanding which marketing strategy delivers a better yield in terms of marketing cost as percentage of sales (CAPS). Others struggle with an increasing need to spend on customers more than once, through multiple advertising venues, in order to earn the final purchase.

Looking forward, e-commerce executives must plan to actively deal with two critical issues: embracing integrated performance marketing and adjusting their goals, success metrics and tactics. While this sounds simple enough, the risks behind making the wrong choices continue to rise.

Performance marketing surrounds us and has converted Web marketing from a grand experiment into a must-have for direct, retail and brand-focused marketers. Given this hyper-focus on performance, savvy marketers and the agencies they employ are playing in multiple facets of online marketing ranging from traffic-focused cost-per-click, to awareness focused barter arrangements, to cost-per-sale/action campaigns.

Other interesting trends include the emergence of geographically targeted and “day part” search buys wherein pre-set business rules help to automate decision making behind campaigns. Contextual marketing technologies like the UK’s Vibrant Media or Quigo also offer potential leveraging strategies that employ text-based ads and use content relevancy to place them.

If they could, marketers would choose a single, reliable, integrated technology or agency partner that offers vital insights, reduces friction and streamlines media buying. Centralization of campaign data across multiple advertising strategies offers the potential of an information-rich environment to make short- and long-term decisions. It also opens the door for rule-driven automation that enhances the productivity of already constrained human resources. This is integrated performance marketing, or IPM.

Moving forward on such an approach requires an appreciation for complex legislative, technical and operational issues that shape today’s performance-focused strategies. Many marketers have surface-level perspectives on how, as an example, affiliates actually generate legitimate (or illegitimate) sales or return on advertising spending on key search terms. Making the leap to IPM will provide marketers with insights needed to streamline decision making.

Until then, reality demands marketers must plan, execute and optimize their campaigns with fragmented tools. Marketing managers responsible for numerous performance initiatives will continue to be at the mercy of disparate technology solutions. Tracking campaign performance within individual spheres – email, affiliate programs, CPC media buys, etc., – is simple. But centralizing data is difficult, making it harder to work smarter or faster. Search marketing company iProspect created iSEBA to address these needs.

Concurrently, in an environment filled with change, executives are forced to come to grips with mergers and acquisitions among vendors. (See story, page 60). Industry consolidation inside the affiliate, search management, ad-serving and comparison shopping spaces serve as examples. As companies like ValueClick, DoubleClick and aQuantive continue to cobble together performance-focused technology and service providers, the market is forced to ask itself, “Why?” and “What’s in it for me?” Time will tell, but IPM looms on the horizon.

Not So Simple

There is agreement in that performance strategies are not as simple as they look. Marketers are suffering through the intertwining of performance strategies such as affiliate and search marketing. A more sophisticated approach to measuring and benchmarking the effectiveness of individual strategies is needed.

As an example, although affiliate marketing is perceived as purely performance based, experience dictates otherwise. Specifically, what appears on the surface to be affiliate-generated sales oftentimes result from multiple customer behaviors, unscrupulous tactics or other marketing campaigns. Efficacy of each is clouded.

By assuming an integrated perspective and focusing on how customers end up arriving on their Web site, savvy marketers are discovering that customers are being driven to purchase based on multiple online and offline ad/marketing spends. As an example, individual orders generated by customers may involve multiple media interactions such as radio advertising, a shopping comparison portal and, finally, a cash-back affiliate site. Today without the proper tools, it’s difficult to see such trends. With an IPM approach, it is possible both to spot them and to adjust media spending accordingly so as to significantly lower marketing CAPS.

Seeing Through New Glasses

Brand awareness and direct response advertising can coexist and must plug into corporate goals shared across the e-commerce team. IPM can help. Inside these different marketing realms, campaign-level spending and objectives are measured in different terms yet both intersect with overarching business objectives such as CAPS and lifetime value (LTV) of customer. These measures drive strategic decision making (i.e., media budget allocation) offline and online; they must be understood clearly.

By aggregating data cross-strategy, decision makers can hold various types of media spends up against each other using a common, business rule-driven yardstick specific to their goal. The marketer may be interested in hitting a predetermined marketing CAPS and/or LTV number. In either case, centralizing results data yields new perspectives on cost efficiencies of each particular strategy. While a handful of marketers are able to engage in such an approach and reap the benefits, costs may very well outweigh the benefits.

Embrace And Adjust

More and more, we see the need for technology solutions to facilitate streamlined IPM. In order for marketers to develop smarter media spending plans, a cross-strategy viewpoint aimed at good, better and best strategies is needed. Yet many struggle by integrating existing and homegrown solutions.

Search management and performance-marketing agencies like Advertising.com, AvenueA and iProspect are beginning to roll out solutions in which business rules drive media buying decisions under a single strategy. In order to make the best media spending decisions, it is paramount to measure effectiveness across multiple types of performance campaigns in real time. This requires a tactics-level understanding of the details of each strategy, such as how affiliates generate sales numbers. Equally important, marketers are being forced to identify quickly which marketing vehicle delivers results better than others and why.

JEFF G. MOLANDER is CEO of Molander & Associates Inc., a Chicago-based publishing and consulting firm that helps multi-channel retailers, catalogers and service companies to manage their affiliate programs.

E-Tailing Wrap-Up

SIX WEEKS. That’s all it takes for many merchants to make or break the retail year. From the day after Thanksgiving – Black Friday – to the Friday after Dec. 31, the holiday rush generates a major part of year-round sales. That translated to $135 billion in gift sales last Christmas, according to the US Department of Labor. An estimated 8 percent of those sales occurred online, leaving affiliates with a superb opportunity to give themselves a nice little holiday bonus.

Take toy and apparel affiliate SchoolPop.com. "The gift buying season has a significant impact on our sales," says Mary Beth Padian, the site’s vice president of merchant development. "Toy merchants are in our top 50 merchants throughout the year. Every fourth quarter – especially with Disney and eToys – they are in our top 10."

SchoolPop is a donation site that encourages buyers by promising to return a portion of each commission to a school or nonprofit of the buyer’s choice. Yet even it doesn’t rely on feel-good power alone when it comes to cashing in on the holidays. This year, it’s publishing a holiday edition of its new triannual magazine, distributed to 1 million parents through partner schools. "Our editor is writing an article about the hot toys and gadgets for the holiday season, and she’s talking to merchants to get a sense of what is really going to be hot this year," Padian says. "The product impact, especially when it’s contextual like that, should show us a significant lift in our sales over last year." Of course, holiday sales aren’t reserved for toys. Electronics, apparel, music, movies, books, airline tickets and collectibles are all huge holiday categories, often offering deep discounts to help promote holiday sales. For example, top affiliates for Ross-Simons, which promotes itself as selling "life’s luxuries for less," saw their sales double during last year’s holiday season and the company is hoping for a similar experience this year, said affiliate manager Felicia Lesnett. To encourage affiliates, Ross-Simons offers commissions of up to 10 percent for top affiliates during the holiday season – that’s double the program’s base commission during the rest of the year. Affiliate sales make up about 20 percent of the company’s total online revenue.

Just two years ago, the Internet was still viewed as a relatively high risk channel for Christmas shopping. Who can forget the horrors of Christmas past when sites crashed, orders weren’t processed and Santa missed the big day? The cybermalls have gained a lot of respect since then, according to Patrick Gates, AOL’s senior vice president for e-commerce. "We are finally seeing a true shift from offline to online," he says. "The pie isn’t getting bigger; people are shifting share."

ComScore Networks estimated online sales increased 35 percent to $18.6 billion in 2003, up from $13.8 billion in 2002. Sixty-four percent, or $12 billion, of that was made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 23. "November and December are humongous, humongous months for us," said Jennifer Willis at ShopForChange.org, the affiliate sales site for Working Assets. For the past few years, it has promoted its seasonal clothing – things like books through Powells.com and apparel through LandsEnd.com, of which half of the affiliate commissions go to nonprofit causes – through a holiday newsletter. The newsletter is stocked with listings for merchants, descriptions of promotions, free shipping options and a reminder to shop there first. This year, even without a newsletter, its now-established reputation as a site for gifting means that if people need to do holiday shopping "they sort of know to click over to us at ShopForChange," Willis says.

Certainly, Internet shopping is cutting into department store sales thanks to such features as convenience, wrapping and shipping. But the online market itself is also shifting. Home entertainment and travel are heating up while apparel and toys are losing share. Gift cards, offered by nearly every major merchant, are a dominant trend. Now that merchants have seen the strong improvement to their bottom lines as a result of gift cards, the push is on for holiday 2004. But watch out: Some merchants offer little or no commission on gift card sales.

"Gift cards were a $20 billion business last holiday," says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group in Chicago. "No one returns a gift card." And when you sell these, chargebacks can become a thing of the past. You can increase dollar amounts on card sales by pushing specific cards for specific uses, such as an entire January back-to-school wardrobe from Old Navy or a complete computer system from Office Depot. You can also promote gift cards as "the perfect gift for the undecided."

The Humbug Factor

Although the 2004 gift buying season looks strong, sales may still be affected by the economic outlook. When times are tight, so are wallets. That’s why comparison sites are predicted to be the biggest winners during the 2004 holiday season. Affiliate Ben Chui predicts sales through his comparison shopping site BensBargains.net will be "huge" in November and December because of his reputation as a bargain hunter. "I find the best price on any particular day on numerous products, and that resonates well with people right now," Chui says. "If you go into a store and everything there is the cheapest you’ve ever seen it, I guarantee you they will be coming back." He doesn’t have a newsletter, doesn’t send out emails and doesn’t pay for search engine placement. His firsttime visitor traffic is driven by natural search, message boards and word of mouth. The rest comes from people that have his site bookmarked. Yet he’s still able to pull in an excellent income from the work he does finding promotions and searching for best prices by hand, without the aid of software. Although he holds a master’s degree from Berkeley, he’s now "doing this full time."

Even with the uncertain economy, the number of first-time shoppers on the Internet continues to grow with the richest households expected to register the largest increases in holiday expenditures. "Here we’ve got, now more than ever, more people familiar with how to buy online and more ways of doing it than ever," says Carol Baroudi, an analyst at Baroudi Bloor International in Arlington, Mass. "More and more people see less and less reason to go to the mall in a crunch."

The way to a holiday shopper’s heart is in the details. Holiday Retail Strategies 2004 from Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com, concludes the things that will help e-tailers are: unique products, wide variety, a strong reputation, a holiday atmosphere and a consumer confidence in their ability to take orders securely and ship them in time for the holiday.

Shopping For Shoppers

Of course, getting people to your site takes work, but try the five key strategies suggested by Packaged Facts. Differentiating your site can be done through links or landing pages specifically for your audience. "We help people find science fiction and fantasy books that are hidden in plain sight on the merchant’s site because they don’t know how to get there," says Olivier Travers, owner of Portugal-based SciFan.com. December is SciFan.com’s peak selling month. "We spend a lot of time hunting for books in a series, and finding the reading order. That’s information you hardly find anywhere. It’s very important for us not to just be another price and comparison tool, because we think you can find that in other places. What we want to do is provide some context on the books that you can’t find in other places." This brings up another differentiation strategy: offering products not readily found elsewhere. Your site could either be the only one with a hot toy, for instance, or the only one that still has it. "A lot of times what happens is shoppers buy the hot product early, and it starts to sell out," Freedman says. "When it gets down to Christmas, you could be the little guy that has it."

Try to develop a decidedly holiday atmosphere. Change site background colors or selected text to red and green, or apply other holiday color themes like white and silver or gold. Create a catchy gift-oriented phrase to use on the home page and all email/newsletter promotions for the holidays. Add themed art such as wrapped gifts, big red bows or evergreen foliage. Place decidedly holiday merchandise on the home page, and replace year-round merchant banners with new ones that focus on the holiday theme. World-Luxury.com is one affiliate that has seen better sales after adding holiday products and services to its home page, ranging from ornaments to Christmas teddy bears. "I start to feature newly released, especially limited edition [holiday] items on my home page as soon as they become available," says Marilyn Olsen, publisher of World- Luxury.com, American-Luxury.com and French-Luxury.com. "Last year I started in September and had good sell-through immediately, particularly in the smalledition, hand-crafted items." Olsen uses product photos provided as affiliate creatives at Gumps.com and Macys.com, which also takes the holiday theme one step further for its affiliates. "Our whole site will have a holiday theme, with gifts being the main focus," says Alison Zemny, Macys.com’s director of marketing. "We’re known for our in-store Holiday Lane, hundreds of different trees decorated in different themes. This year, we’re taking that online, with holiday dinnerware and servingware, ornaments, decorations and home décor – even more selection than we have in the stores."

Increase selection beyond one product category. In books, add upsell items like bookmarks and reading lights. In apparel, offer ideas for ensembles down to jewelry and shoes. In home, offer complete holiday table settings from napkin rings to centerpieces. In electronics, cater to every age group on the gift list. Macys.com took this suggestion. This holiday season it has added several new merchandise categories, many not found in its stores, including MP3 players, TiVos, DVD players, a wide selection of children’s apparel, toys and gourmet food gift baskets. "What we will be working on with affiliates is some sort of special holiday gift promotion for them that focuses on our holiday gift assortment," Zemny said.

Lesnett, the AM for Ross-Simons, says her top affiliates smartly position her links in multiple categories, which makes sense because the company sells a wide range of gift ideas ranging from tableware to jewelry. "A lot of times, opportunity is missed because affiliates think you’re only in one particular category. So we’re looking at where we’re placed on their sites and we’re trying to optimize their sales, and our sales," she says.

Build consumer confidence. How do you get it? The merchants you work with will obviously need to use a secure server for the credit card process. They’ll also want to have a posted shipping policy and a reputation for shipping on time. You can check out how consumers have rated shopping sites at Shopping.com’s Epinions section or BizRate.com’s "Store Ratings" search drop-down option. "Merchant ratings can really be a factor," Freedman says, noting that if there’s "a product that’s $50 cheaper, but from a site that’s rated only one star, then consumers don’t want to chance it."

Consumer confidence also comes from having a site that’s easily navigated and quick to respond, with merchants who offer the same. "We have to pay more attention to the behavior of a site at peak; if people get frustrated, they leave," said retail analyst Baroudi. "Seconds count in terms of transactional fortitude." Make sure the site is optimized and graphics are at the lowest DPI or the most effective resolution. Mitigate extremely heavy traffic by bringing functions closer to the user with intelligent routing software such as Akamai’s EdgePlatform, or by allowing seasonal capacity with on demand infrastructure from providers like IBM or DEA. "This is the season that makes or breaks," Baroudi says. "If you can’t handle the peak load in season, you may as well not bother."

Another factor to consumer confidence is guaranteed pre-Christmas delivery. Macys.com, for instance, guarantees Christmas delivery if ordered by midnight Dec. 21. "We’ve worked very hard with our fulfillment centers so that the customers can order up to the last minute," Zemny says. Consider posting holiday shipping cutoff points by your merchant links, then capitalize on late buyers by posting which sites offer express shipping. Consumers will be looking for that.

Customers also use a slew of other factors to judge whether they’ll shop your site or your merchants’ sites for gifts. These factors are product availability, gift wrapping, good return policies, Web research, informational pieces, whether or not they get help with gifting ideas and shipping options. One e-tailing study found only 30 percent of gifting merchants offer gift wrap or boxing.

"Make your suggestions, merchandise by price point and recipient type and have an aggregated gift center on the site, so there is one specific location for gifting," Freedman says. "Then it gets down to things like gift cards and gift wrap, but that really depends on the merchant."

Establish your site as a destination for gifting. Gap.com did that with its 2003 theme: "Get it. Give it. Gap." Barring a snappy slogan, there are a number of ways that affiliates can effectively lure gift buyers. The biggest producers use "gift idea" newsletters, gift suggestion pages on the site and the purchase of gift-oriented keywords in major search engines. Eighty percent of the gifting merchants in a recent E-tailing Group study already had gift centers and provide gift suggestions. This year, even sites like SciFan.com may take advantage of this feature.

It’s considering the addition of an online "gift list" of science fiction books site regulars could buy to introduce their children to the genre. It also helps to affiliate yourself with sites already known for their gifts. Affiliates for The Sharper Image, a quintessential gift buying destination, "tend to give us premium placement during the holiday because it pays off," says Roger Benton, its senior vice president of marketing. "And because we have an eclectic assortment that covers many shopping categories, we often get multiple placements."

You can also build your reputation as a gifting site, and your email list, with automated or personalized messages – similar to standard refer-a-friend features – that let buyers send notes to recipients alerting them that their gift is on the way. Seventy percent of the gifting merchants reviewed by E-tailing Group already offer this service, but affiliates have been slow to take advantage of this opportunity.

Another idea is to change the text on your search bar to "Gift Search" during the holidays. An E-tailing Group survey of 10 well-known gift-oriented Web sites found that all 10 had a keyword search, six offered advanced search and six also specifically offered gift search. If you don’t already have a search bar, consider adding one. Many merchants now offer them as part of their creatives. Search bars that will look for related text on the site can be downloaded for free or at minimal cost online. If you are building your site in FrontPage, Microsoft also includes a search option as part of the program.

Your sales don’t have to conclude when you reach Dec. 23. Thanks to gift cards, January is a huge month for continued sales. Packaged Facts reports that price points aren’t as big of an issue during this time, because gift cards are often treated as "found money." Drive traffic with "Use your gift cards here" promotions, and make it easy for your visitors to redeem their cards by grouping products by standard gift card price points: $10, $25, $50, $100. Hunt your merchant sites for markdowns and any after-Christmas shipping or discount promotions. Some merchants are even getting ahead of the game by feeding discount codes for after-Christmas sales to you. The Sharper Image just instituted a program called "Hot Deals," which feeds its coupon affiliate sites with closeout offers on specific "end-of-life" products. It also offers closeout deals in its outlet store at SharperImage.com.

The weeks after Christmas aren’t just a time for closeout sales. It’s also a time for fresh merchandise. Found money, after all, often goes toward trendy items – and trendy translates to hot merchandise not offered pre-Dec. 25. For instance, AmericanEagle.com rolls out its spring merchandise on the day after Christmas – a savvy and intentional move to capture gift card sales from the trend-conscious set. "The most important thing is constantly updating, usually daily, and featuring the best that I find on my home pages," says Olsen, who maintains three luxury apparel and gift sites. That also means removing any out-of-stock items.

Whatever type of site or categories of product you have, the same rules for successful 2004 holiday sales still apply. Those sites that want to improve holiday sales will have: different products from their normal year-round assortment and their competition; a gift destination identity; a decidedly holiday atmosphere; multidepartment gift participation; and customer confidence in an affiliate’s site and their merchants.

SchoolPop, meanwhile, is already taking these lessons to heart. It launched its first gift-themed section for Mother’s Day, followed by back-to-school. It’s the same tab at the top of the page, but with the title and content changed for each promotional period. "So far this promotional page has worked really well, so I’m excited to have it for the holidays," says Mary Beth Padian from SchoolPop. "For anyone running around shopping for the holidays, it’s always good to have some place to go to get ideas."

 

JENNIFER MEACHAM is a freelance writer who has worked for The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine.