CJ’s Missing Link

When Commission Junction announced its Link Management Initiative (LMI) on May 23, the reaction from the affiliate community was swift and decisive. It was interpreted as a mandatory change for affiliates from HTML to JavaScript links and it was not embraced. In fact, it sparked petitions, anti- LMI buttons, forums and message boards decrying LMI and hundreds of blog entries questioning Commission Junction’s, actions and motives.

Every online marketing constituency – affiliates, affiliate managers, merchants, other rival networks, agencies and industry watchers – weighed in on LMI. Observers and insiders speculated the change was motivated by CJ’s parent company ValueClick’s desire to use affiliates to gather traffic information on customers as well as perform some behavioral targeting.

Following the community outcry, Commission Junction has backed off its position that LMI will be mandatory. The company sent this update to publishers in mid-August.

“On August 30, 2006, publishers will notice changes in getting links in the CJ Account Manager. This change will make it easier for publishers to choose either HTML or JavaScript links. To reiterate, there are no plans to remove support for HTML links.

However, advertisers will have the option to designate a link as JavaScript-only (with the exception of keyword links), if they deem it necessary. Commission Junction encourages its advertisers to support both HTML and JavaScript link formats, to meet the varied needs of publishers.”

CJ executives were unavailable at press time to comment.

The change of positioning was hinted at on the most recent ValueClick earnings call on August 6, 2006. CEO Jim Zarley said, “We are not mandating it [LMI] however, and it could take a considerable amount of time to do such a migration [from HTML links]. “We got a response loud and clear from our publishers that they are not willing to do this on a wholesale basis, but we believe that over time, maybe it takes a year or two, that this will be the way that the market will go. So we are going to be patient with it. Right now, we are just working with our publisher on a one-to-one basis, and eventually I would anticipate that we will get there over time.”

One source close to CJ says that the overall Link Management Initiative encompasses more than just JavaScript versus legacy links and that LMI is intended to provide additional options related to links. Several sources, who asked not to be named, say, “There is more than meets to the eye to LMI,” but no one offered any specific details. However, all hinted that the scope of the overall initiative had not been completely revealed.

“Long term, whatever is driving this hasn’t gone away, but CJ has realized that they cannot do it quickly or force it on affiliates, so they have at least slowed down,” says Scott Jangro, owner of affiliate MechMedia, who is also a former BeFree and CJ executive. “JavaScript might be the way to go someday in the future, but certainly not in the current technological climate.”

Jangro, a very vocal opponent of LMI (see sidebar on page 101) says, “As long as you’re defining LMI as the mandatory elimination of plain HTML links in favor of JavaScript, I don’t see any upside for affiliates. Affiliate marketing is so much more than renting out space on a website in which a third party can serve ads.”

He offers an example: A website includes a blog entry how-to on repairing your projection television set. There are text affiliate links in the content pointing to a merchant that sells the parts required. He says it would make “no sense to serve some of the text in my page as JavaScript. To someone who doesn’t have JavaScript enabled (as well as search engine spiders), the text would be invisible.”

The bottom line, according to Jangro, is that JavaScript can only make a page less reliable, perform more slowly and be more difficult to maintain.

Jeremy Palmer, a super-affiliate who runs QuitYourDayJob.com, explains that most of the benefits of LMI are to merchants that get more control over the “who, what and when.” He also says that, “LMI also benefits CJ’s Network Quality team because they have more insight into the traffic sources and behaviors of their affiliates. Right now, they rely on an image pixel to gather this information, but if an affiliate omits the pixel, they are unable to get this data.”

On the flip side, Palmer has many concerns including creative control. “I seldom use the creative offered by merchants in the CJ account manager,” Palmer says. “Being able to customize images and ad copy is what helps separate me from the competition.”

Anne Fognano of CleverMoms.com agrees. “The links are cookie cutter with designated creative that may or may not present the message affiliates want to get out to their customers. Affiliates who run Java creative will have links that are too similar, and the unique site feel that many affiliates work to employ for these merchants will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain,” she says.

“There is no upside,” says Scott Hazard, president of Brightside Media and a superaffiliate. “The downside ranges from inability to use databases, to the fact that JavaScript takes away basic design elements. Limiting an affiliate with JavaScript links is keeping that affiliate from using their creativity in presenting the merchant or the merchant’s product to the customer.”

“I am not sure of the upside of LMI, but a downside that I see is that some affiliates can’t use the codes in their article management systems and possibly other systems. Personally, my article system strips the code out,” Wendy Shepherd, a super-affiliate who runs TipzTime.com, says. “In this case, I have to use the old CJ links for as long as they are available. When those links are phased out, I won’t be able to use the links within articles or reviews in the article system anymore.”

For many, the problem is that in order to use JavaScript they will have to change nearly 90 percent of their links, which can be a laborious process. That effort is likely to take a vast amount of time, resources and money if they need to hire someone to handle the process. All that can translate into decreased revenue.

“I think LMI will be a hindrance. Some of the bigger affiliates have created internal systems that rely on using their own redirect to an affiliate link, and I am not sure how they can adapt when LMI becomes compulsory, unless they rebuild their infrastructure,” says Shawn Collins, president of Shawn Collins Consulting. “Also, I am among a great many affiliates that redirect affiliate links through META redirects, .htaccess files, etc. This makes things more efficient in the event that a merchant changes networks or closes their affiliate program. I am able to simply change the affiliate link in one place to control dozens or hundreds of instances of that affiliate link.”

QuitYourDayJob’s Palmer also raises issues about the load time of the JavaScript code and users that might disable JavaScript, which is not supported by all browsers, while traditional hypertext links are 100 percent supported.

Spyware expert Ben Edelman says that it’s uncertain what effectiveness LMI will have at blocking improper activities like forced clicks, “because it seems wrongdoers can easily circumvent the additional security provided by LMI.”

Still, some affiliates are searching for something positive.

Adam Viener, president of search affiliate IMWave, says, “The upside of having JavaScript links is that in certain situations you can have dynamic code that can be updated with the latest special deal or promotion. For example, if you wanted to have a ‘deal of the day’ link, that would be a perfect use for a JavaScript link.”

However, he notes, “The problem is JavaScript links don’t work in every situation, and offering them as an option is a great idea. Moving to a 100 percent JavaScript solution just won’t work for many affiliates and for many websites.”

FREEDOM OF CHOICE

Because JavaScript won’t work for everyone, affiliates didn’t like the idea that CJ appeared to be making this mandatory. Affiliates interpreted this stance as Commission Junction not listening to their concerns, and that caused much concern.

“I personally think that CJ should take into account what affiliates want instead of pushing them to use what they think is better for affiliates. If they don’t listen to their affiliates, this will have an effect on their business,” TipzTime’s Shepherd says.

Others say that CJ “will have to chalk LMI off to a poor PR effort and settle for ways to provide JavaScript links as options,” according to Viener.

“I don’t think they will be able to switch everyone over to these links, and may risk alienating some of their top affiliates if they attempt to force this on everyone. I would like to see them offer these as options, and remove them from being the default option. It has been quite a pain to keep hitting the legacy code button every time I want to get a link from them. Personally, I haven’t implemented one JavaScript link from them at this time,” Viener says.

“I’m sure they invested a lot of time and resources in LMI. It is a shame to lose that, but they will lose market share if they force it on affiliates,” says Hazard. “Affiliates have money and time invested in their online properties and operations. For a network to demand such an extensive change and restructuring is an over-the-top move in my opinion. The reaction it got seems to support that.”

Many say that if CJ doesn’t listen to its affiliates, they may shy away from using the network’s merchants and opt to work with those merchants on other platforms. In some cases, affiliates have already reduced the amount of time they are spending on CJ merchants rather than swap out the links.

MERCHANT DILEMMA

“I am aware from my interactions with many other affiliates, that many have reduced, and in some cases even stopped generating legacy links because it is so time-consuming to do so since the introduction of the JavaScript links,” CleverMoms’ Fognano says. “I am not aware of anyone I interact with on a daily basis using the Java links yet.”

Affiliate and best-selling author (The AdSense Code: What Google Never Told You About Making Money with AdSense) Joel Comm didn’t pull any punches. “For our site, DealofDay.com, CJ’s LMI requires that we totally revamp our back-end administrative tool. As of now, I’m still not sure how well the new links will work. If it comes down to it, we will just write off CJ merchants from promotion on our site. I don’t understand the logic behind making it more difficult for affiliates to link to merchants. If I were a CJ merchant, I would be extremely upset.”

Many are, but they are extremely cautious about commenting publicly.

“This was not good for affiliates or merchants. It’s only good for ValueClick,” says one CJ merchant who requested anonymity. “But there isn’t much that affiliates could do except vote with their feet and leave. That really sends a message.”

eBay, CJ’s largest advertiser, has already informed its affiliates that it will not require JavaScript links and instead it’s working on its own HTML tracking methodology. Here’s what eBay told publishers in an email:

“Many of you have asked us what eBay’s recommendation is regarding LMI and the promotions you are currently running for eBay. We have been working on a new HTML tracking methodology specifically for eBay that will work seamlessly with the Commission Junction interface so that all of the current reporting capabilities will remain supported. While we do not have a deployment date, we are confident that it will be deployed prior to the holiday season, and we recommend waiting to change any tags related to eBay US and eBay International auction-related accounts until the new eBay tag schema is available. Given that Commission Junction is taking a phased approach for publishers to change out their tags, we think this approach will cause you the least amount of disruption.”

UNITED FRONT

Many are taking a wait-and-see approach to assess the overall industry impact.

Others claim this is one of the few issues that have united nearly the entire affiliate community.

“It has caused the affiliate community to come together to sign Scott Jangro’s online petition. I think it is one of the first times we have seen the affiliate marketing community agree on something,” IMWave’s Viener says. “Clearly everyone, except maybe some people at CJ, agree that the forced LMI initiative is a bad idea. We can only hope it goes away as fast as it has arrived.”

“I think the other networks have learned something from it. If you are going to insist that your affiliates change out millions of links, there needs to be something of value in it for them. The word ‘mandatory’ should probably not be used,” Hazard says.

This strife could work in the favor of other networks.

“I think it’s got both affiliates and merchants at least concerned enough to start looking elsewhere for their affiliate solutions. LinkShare, Performics, ShareASale and the other networks, on the other hand, are loving it,” says Jangro.

“Recently there has been an increasing shift on the part of both merchants and affiliates away from the ‘big three’ networks and onto more focused and specialized tracking platforms,” says Stephanie Schwab, vice president of Converseon, which offers an alternative platform. “I think this trend will continue to grow, and if CJ pushes LMI it will accelerate even faster.”

ThePartnerMaker.com’s president, Jeff Molander, says, “CJ has already seen the defection of retail-focused advertisers and this will likely continue. First they forced BeFree customers into a public network (something they actively voted against when they chose BeFree years ago). Now the LMI sends the message that scale and automation is more important than what affiliate marketing has traditionally been built on: labor-intensive relationships.”

He continues, “ValueClick is happy to keep the many lead-generation and offer-based advertisers within CJ as these advertisers are seeking a performance-based solution that scales. ” LMI supports this.”

Choots Humphries, co-president of ad network LinkConnector, says that his company also uses JavaScript links (LinkConnector Hot Link) but makes it a voluntary decision for affiliates, since there are individual challenges and advantages to implementing the technology. “Having it be an option is the key,” he says.

Deborah Carney, the affiliate manager at Rextopia.com, likens the situation to when Coca-Cola pulled Coke off its shelves in favor of New Coke in 1985. It was an infamous public relations debacle, and the beverage giant was forced by public pressure to bring back the much-beloved soda as Classic Coke.

“Anytime you take away something and force people into a new business model, it doesn’t work,” Carney says.

Many pointed out that although other advertising systems such as Google’s AdSense use JavaScript and have never provided affiliate flexibility and control, the uproar regarding LMI is because CJ and competing affiliate systems have always granted such control and “taking it away feels like a loss,” according to Edelman.

Sell Green to Make Green

For online marketers, green could be the new gold. The events of the past year opened the eyes of many consumers to the importance of being Earth-friendly, which in turn has created an unprecedented opportunity for the sellers of green goods.

Hurricane Katrina, the popularity of the global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and President Bush’s epiphany about alternative fuels have collectively vaulted caring for the planet from being the grist of environmentalists to the forefront of consumer consciousness.

"There is no better time than right now to talk about [green] products and services," Cheryl Roth, co-founder of marketing and public relations firm OrganicWorks Marketing, says. Consumer receptiveness to the green message is at the highest point since Roth began promoting healthy living products six years ago, she says.

However, many green companies are just that in their know-how of connecting with customers on the Web. Several companies offering environmentally friendly products online contacted for this article have never engaged in online marketing beyond creating a website. When asked about affiliate programs and search marketing, many company executives openly admitted that they were unfamiliar with search engine optimization, affiliate networks and RSS feeds.

The challenge for online marketers is to assist green companies in learning to master the tools of the trade before the green wave loses its appeal to fickle consumers.

NEW ECONOMY STUCK IN OLD MEDIA

Marketers of environmentally friendly products are spending big bucks to deliver the message through old media, but have done comparatively little online. During the past year General Electric (with its Ecomagination campaign), General Motors and BP (now Beyond Petroleum) gave the green movement national exposure through multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns through broadcast and print media. Hybrid vehicle makers including Toyota, Honda and Ford continued successful marketing campaigns of the past few years as a receptive public snapped up twice as many of the air-sparing vehicles in 2005.

The biggest green marketing campaign of 2006 demonstrated the effectiveness of simultaneously advertising online and with broadcast media. General Motors’ "Live Green Go Yellow" marketing effort explained the benefits of ethanol and promoted the company’s 12 flex-fuel vehicles that can use the fuel derived from corn.

The campaign included extensive TV, radio and print ads and coincided with extensive banner advertising and search marketing. Display ads on AOL generated 336 million impressions as "one of the most successful campaigns in AOL history," according to Bob Kraut, the director of brand marketing at General Motors.

GM launched the TV campaign during the Super Bowl and at the same time bought key search terms including E85 and ethanol to drive traffic to the website LiveGreenGoYellow.com. GM also drove ads to the website by buying banner ads on environmentally themed sites including GreenNature.com, Nearctica.com and MSNBC News Environment.

Kraut says the bounce rate (people leaving a website after visiting the first page) during the campaign was half of GM’s usual percentage, indicating that general consumers were receptive to its Earth-friendly message. Later this year GM will reinforce the green message by emailing registered flex-fuel owners to remind them that they can use E85, Kraut says.

"Buying green has become part of the American vernacular," he says.

THE EDUCATION CHALLENGE

While GM had a substantial budget for interactive advertising, many green companies’ online efforts are as lively as a wind farm on a breeze-free day.

Lawrence Comras, president of e-commerce company GreenHome.com, estimates that 30 percent of consumers would buy green if they knew that products comparable in performance to what they currently purchase were available.

While the market may be ripe, green companies have a threefold marketing challenge: 1) They must differentiate their products versus conventional competitors for quality; 2) Explain their environmental benefits; and 3) Justify why consumers may be expected to pay a premium, as is often the case.

Since the definition of green can be subjective and varies from category to category, the messaging can be complex, according to Comras. For some products, conserving energy is the goal. Other products are considered green because they are made from recycled materials, while using non-toxic chemicals defines others.

"How do you know what’s really green?" asks Comras. Also, chemicals that would be permissible in paint would not be allowed in green soap products, which requires additional education, he says.

"There must be more emphasis on education [than with traditional marketing]," agrees OrganicWorks’ Roth. Consumers previously may not have considered the environmental and health impact of their everyday purchases, so websites need to explain how their products are planet-friendly.

Finding green products within the comparison shopping portals (such as Amazon.com and Half.com) can also be a challenge, as they do not flag their environmentally friendly products, according to Marty Coleman, the president of marketing and public relations firm Green Communications Group.

EXPERTISE WANTED

For many green companies who are passionate about their cause, marketing is not second nature. The lexicon of online marketing is as unfamiliar to many green entrepreneurs as the chemical composition of the greenhouse gases is to most consumers. Marketing companies that partner with green companies should expect to do extensive hand holding throughout the process.

For example, Green Mountain Energy, a clean-electricity company that was founded in 1997, has advertised for several years on TV and radio, but the company doesn’t advertise online. The company’s website is an informational and commerce site that allows customers to order renewable energy power, but the company does not market the website online. We are "using the Web primarily as a response vehicle," says Gillan Taddune, Green Mountain’s chief environmental officer.

The Austin, Texas, company has not pursued affiliate relationships or marketing through blogs or RSS feeds, says Taddune. "The Web is not a leading part of the business," she says. That may change later this year as the company is considering expanding its online profile through marketing initiatives, according to Taddune.

Limited financial resources prevent some smaller green companies from aggressively pursuing online marketing. "Many of them don’t have the dollars to do advertising," OrganicWorks’ Roth says. Several for-profit green companies also donate a portion of their revenue to environmental causes, further reducing the amount of money that can be reinvested in the company.

David R. Kaufer, the president of shopping site GreenForGood, says that when he experimented with search engine marketing last year, he did not purchase category words such as "household cleaner" because the big brands put the price out of reach.

Instead, Kaufer focused on purchasing eco-friendly terms, but ended the program because of poor conversion rates due to his admitted inexperience with online marketing. His ads linked to GreenForGood’s index page rather than specific items for sale, which made them ineffective, he says. He plans on resuming a Google Adwords program soon, but this time with landing pages optimized to promote purchases.

While GreenForGood does not have an affiliate program, the company created a store within the environmental group Sierra Club’s website, with the nonprofit receiving a share of the revenue, according to Kaufer. The company prefers to partner with like-minded environmental websites rather than advertising on general-interest publishers or having its products listed on shopping engines. Kaufer believes he’ll get the greatest return by targeting readers predisposed to his message.

AN ATTRACTIVE AUDIENCE

The demographic of consumers interested in environmentally friendly products is appealing to online marketers. Consumers of green products are more likely than the average consumer to shop online, according to Green Communications Group’s Coleman. A 25-year veteran of marketing research, Coleman says green consumers are more technology- savvy and "are more comfortable with buying online," than the general population.

Green shoppers often go online out of frustration in attempting to shop locally, Coleman says. "Green products are not easy to find in brick-and-mortar stores," she says, as they are often not clearly labeled as such and are mixed in among the rest of the items on store shelves.

For several years Minneapolis-based Caldrea used the Web solely as an information resource to support the retail sales of its luxury home-cleaning products, according to founder and president Monica Nassif. The biodegradable products, which are sold under the Mrs. Meyers and Caldrea brands, are available at Whole Foods, Fred Meyers and other supermarket chains.

Nassif said Caldrea’s website was managed from 2000 to 2005 by an outside organization that had restrictive policies limiting design, which prevented her from optimizing the content for search engines. To enhance the company’s online marketing and sales, she hired Andrew Janis as e-commerce manager and brought management of the website in-house in January of this year.

Caldrea is participating in search marketing with several search engines, and Janis says Google provides the best return for green companies. "We get the majority of traffic from Google," he says. Keyword purchases that focus on "environmental" or green tend to outperform more generic terms, according to Janis.

Caldrea sells its products and advertises through several shopping search engines, and Janis says Froogle "outclasses everything out there." The clickthrough and conversion rates are terrible on other shopping sites, he says.

Janis says the company recently made small advertising buys of banner ads on environmental websites, and Caldrea has contacted a few bloggers and lifestyle publishers to spread the word. The company has not joined any affiliate networks as yet, but Janis may pursue a relationship in the near future.

CAPTURE THE COMMUNITY

Communicating with customers through email marketing is part of Caldrea’s strategy, as the company prominently displays a form to sign up for special offers on the home page. The company does not have a blog, according to Janis.

Consultant Coleman doesn’t recommend corporate blogs. "You should go to the places where the community already is," she says noting that one of the most effective methods of organically growing traffic is to get a positive buzz about your business in the blogosphere. "Community blogs are powerful tools if you can get customers to post good experiences [with products]," according to Coleman.

Coleman says encouraging visitors to become members of a website can be successful because "people who buy green products enjoy being part of a community." Once they join, continual communications from the publisher through email newsletters and promotions will drive traffic to the website, she says.

GreenHome’s Comras says affiliates are helping to grow his business, which has doubled sales for each of the last four years. GreenHome’s 50 affiliates receive a share of the revenue for promoting the company’s products, which include appliances, furniture and clothing.

The retailer has not advertised online because Comras views promoting its products to the general public as not being cost-effective. "It’s tough when you break out of the green bubble because you are probably scattering your seed to the wind," he says.

Comras believes that intelligently partnering with like-minded publishers and nonprofit groups can attract the target audience. "We have to equal the clout of mainstream companies to get [the green] word out."

Green marketers have years of catching up if they want their fledgling online efforts to take root while environmental concerns are still top of mind with consumers. This newfound interest in environmentalism may not last forever, so they must be quick studies in mastering the art that online marketers take for granted.

Many green companies also have a global reason to quickly succeed online. As GreenHome’s Comras says, "the planet can no longer afford for [green] companies not to have online stores."

JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.

Optimize Your Blog for Search

Some folks compare organic search marketing to public relations, where you are trying to get free attention for your business. They further link paid search to traditional advertising. If the comparisons make sense to you, then maybe we can torture the analogy by comparing blogs to press releases. Your company can write a blog post or a press release to try to attract attention, and they are both free.

But that’s where the similarities end. Press releases are usually sanitized to the point of lacking any personal point of view. They are literally the voice of a faceless company, while blog posts must have an intensely personal approach to be interesting. Also, press releases don’t directly reach their audience. They are filtered through mainstream media, while blogs are read directly by subscribers and even commented upon in public.

So, blogs seem very nice, but what do they have to do with search marketing? Plenty. Let’s see how.

Get Indexed Faster

If you read blogs, you are probably familiar with the concept of a Web feed, with the most common ones being RSS and Atom. Web feeds automatically send all new blog posts to your subscribers, who use a blog reader, such as Bloglines or Pluck. For the purposes of search marketing, it doesn’t really matter which kind of Web feed you use, and your blogging software probably generates each type of feed anyway. What is important is what Web feeds can do for you.

Google, Yahoo and all of the mainstream search engines have started indexing Web feeds, and because blog information is so time-sensitive, they index them quickly. To make sure that your feeds show up right away, simply ping the search engines every time you post. You can instruct your blogging software to ping each one, or you can send one ping to a free service such as Ping-o-Matic, which can ping dozens of search engines for you. As soon as the search engine receives the ping, it dispatches its search spider to scoop up the new page.

But what about your regular Web pages? Well, Web feeds can distribute more than just blog posts. Why not create a Web feed from your product catalog? Get your programmers to produce a Web feed that sends the latest catalog changes to subscribers, pinging the search engines for that feed. Now you’ll see your product catalog changes reflected in the search engines as quickly as your blog posts. If you’re accustomed to waiting a month for search index updates, you’ll be thrilled to see changes show up in a day or two when you use Web feeds.

Get More Traffic

You probably know that the highest-ranked results garner the most traffic, and that search engines rank their results in part based on the number and quality of links to your pages. Blogs are a great way to get links, especially from other bloggers, helping your posts to draw traffic.

But blogs also have a special kind of link, called a trackback, which you can actually give to yourself. Trackbacks allow you to comment on someone else’s blog post with a post of your own. So rather than leaving a comment for a blog on the other blogger’s site, you can use a trackback to write your comment as a blog post on your site, causing the other site to automatically link from its blog post to your comment. Where else can you actually give yourself a link?

And blogs are useful for more than just links. They provide information that doesn’t fit elsewhere on your site. Let’s say you are an affiliate for satellite TV service. You have lots of information on your site about installation costs and all those great channels, but blogs allow you to do more. You can write about unusual channels that aren’t available on cable. Or discuss how satellite TV fits into a home theater system. By doing so, you will capture searchers who have not decided to buy satellite TV yet – they are merely video aficionados not sure what they want. You can draw them to your blog and possibly get them interested in satellite TV when they otherwise would have stuck with cable.

Blogs are not for directly making sales, for the most part. Blogs provide background information, customer references and deep information that attract potential customers. Strive to inform with your blog and allow customers to sell themselves. Instead of a sales-y come-on, do a soft sell and have confidence that it will be enough.

But remember that providing all this content in your blog is not enough. You need to make sure that you are optimizing your content with the right keywords in your titles and your body copy – even in the name and description of the blog itself if that makes sense. That ensures you get search traffic for your great blog posts.

Get Wider Visibility

So far, we’ve looked at how blogs help your search marketing with the mainstream search engines, such as Yahoo and Google, but you should know that new blog search engines, such as Technorati, are increasingly attracting searchers who’ll find you only through your blog. Visit these new search engines to see if there are ways for you to improve your blog’s search results. Technorati, for example, allows you to claim your blog, so that your own blog description can be shown to make your posts more attractive.

But search engines have come under fire for allowing new kinds of search spam, called splogs. Splogs are fake blogs created by splicing together purloined content with boatloads of links (to the splogger’s real websites) to artificially increase search rankings. To combat splogs, some blog search engines are using new criteria to rank search results. Ask.com (formerly Ask Jeeves) offers a blog search facility linked with Bloglines, its blog reader program, which ranks results in part based on the number of a blog’s subscribers rather than merely how many links are made to them. This usage data is much harder to fake than links are, so searchers may see better results on these specialized search engines (making them even more popular).

Now is the time for you to launch your blog, or take your existing blog to the next level. With the right content, you’ll reach your target customers in new ways, while improving your organic search marketing at the same time.

MIKE MORAN is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience. Mike is also the co-author of the book Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and can be reached through his website MikeMoran.com.

Going to the Mat

In the last two issues of Revenue magazine I’ve written about mistakes that affiliates make, highlighting common errors that most affiliates commit at some point in their affiliate marketing ventures as well as detailing my own outrageous faux pas. Turnabout is fair play, so in this issue we’ll look at an example of how affiliate managers prove that they too are only human.

Before I begin however, I must say that I have a lot of respect for most of the affiliate managers with whom I work. Theirs is an unenviable position. They’re doing a j-o-b for a network or independent merchant and must deal with entrepreneurs, many of whom do not understand the industry. More difficult still, many managers have the added responsibility of policing their programs and trying to ferret out those affiliates who violate terms of agreement and incur needless costs by using underhanded methods of traffic and lead generation.

All too often managers are trying to communicate with affiliates who, after years of doing a lucrative business on the Net without the requirement to carry or ship inventory, process orders or administer customer service, may be a tad lazy. Speaking from experience, many of us in that situation join programs, put up links and then go on vacation, making us almost impossible to contact through ordinary channels.

But here’s a tip for managers who want to get their affiliates’ attention in a hurry. Send an email with “Link Expiration” in the subject line, such as the one I received recently from Cheryl Averill, the affiliate manager at CardOffers.com.

The body of the message read as follows: “A representative from XYZ Bank has notified us that your account has been participating in email marketing campaigns known as Spam. Due to this, the card issuer has asked that you be excluded from marketing their products. We have expired your links for the XYZ Bank cards today. They have asked me to let you know that they have put your site on a ‘blacklist’ so that you cannot get their links from another source.”

Now, if you read the issue of Revenue in which I detail my foibles in the financial services sector, you know that I have little or no interest in my credit card site which is, and always has been, a waste of time from an earnings standpoint.

Regardless, when falsely accused of sending Spam – with a capital ‘S’ no less – I’ll stand by and up for my site and marketing methods until the issue is completely resolved. The last thing any affiliate wants or needs is to have his or her reputation as an honest broker ruined for lack of proper investigation.

To this end, I emailed Cheryl to say that in eight years as an affiliate, I’ve never spammed anyone and demanded that XYZ Bank provide proof of their allegations, which of course I knew they wouldn’t be able to supply.

To her credit, Cheryl has always been one of the most responsive affiliate managers with whom I’ve dealt, and is one of the few who makes the effort to get to know even her least-productive affiliates, a.k.a. yours truly. She quickly replied that she “did find it very strange that you would have come up in that list.” Also to her credit, she didn’t simply accept my “I don’t spam” explanation but chose to investigate the situation further by asking if I sent out “an opt-in newsletter or anything of the like that they may have confused with Spam?”

Although I had been quite peeved at being falsely accused of spam and moreover, having my “hammock time” disturbed, I did appreciate the suggestion that it was her client that was “confused.”

I explained that although there is an opt-in form on the site and a series of eight messages programmed into the autoresponder, that broadcast messages are rarely, if ever, sent to that list.

Cheryl then went to bat for me and said she would try to obtain proof from her client, prior to expiring my links. I found their response very interesting indeed.

Apparently, according to XYZ Bank, my site was “engaging in very active comment spam,” which is just one of many types of spam that warrant termination from their program. Cheryl then asked me, “Do you even have a comment area on that site? I can’t find it.”

Cheryl couldn’t find a comment area because no blog exists on my credit card site. Further correspondence with XYZ Bank would therefore be required to find out exactly on which site they found the offensive spam comments.

XYZ’s answer was that the comment spam was located on my “personal blog.” For some reason, however, they neglected to provide Cheryl with either screenshots or a URL for the site – in other words, PROOF.

Considering that I don’t write a “personal blog” and run only three commercial blogs, each of which is moderated and spam-controlled to the nth degree, I still wasn’t satisfied with XYZ’s lack of appropriate response to this very serious allegation.

Neither was Cheryl. In a later email chat she informed me, “Due to these issues we are now going to have to modify our T&C [terms and conditions] and send out a notice to all partners about it.” She went on to say, “I feel bad for affiliates ” there are so many rules. Don’t bid on these terms, don’t bid more than this much, etc. They are being resourceful and using other methods of getting traffic to their links and now those are getting shut down.”

There’s another good hint for affiliate managers. Show empathy for our increasingly difficult plight and we’ll be more responsive to your emails and requests – perhaps even forever grateful.

Judging by her next correspondence, I suspect that Cheryl was now becoming as frustrated as I was by the inconvenience of this needless accusation, and probably just wanted to wrap things up.

“Here is the final word. We do not have to expire your links. Yesterday it was explained to me that partner links would have to be shut off if those links were posted in a blog. Today when I told them that another partner produced 717 sales for XYZ Bank from their blog page and it didn’t seem like good business sense to cut them off, they said that people could post them in THEIR OWN blog, but not in OTHER people’s blogs.

“After they clarified that for me, I asked them if I would have to expire your links since you posted them in your own blog. They said no I didn’t, which brings me to the question that I will most likely never get the answer to … Why did they even bring this up if you were not posting in someone else’s blog?”

Yikes! But I DIDN’T post anything to my blog, and I thought the issue was about an unmoderated blog with comment spam!

Oh well, occasionally you just have to let some things go. Especially when your affiliate manager wraps up her assessment with the best solution possible.

“I have told them, the next time there is a problem, we would like to have proof such as links where the violation was found and/or screenshots,” Cheryl explains.

Eureka! Just as I’d requested right from my first reply to the false accusation, the burden of proof rests with those making the allegation. Fortunately for Cheryl, unlike other affiliates who might have ditched the program, I’m not so overworked as not to have time for affiliate managers with whom I have a good working relationship, and was therefore willing to see this issue to the (almost) bitter end.

More to her credit, Cheryl ended with “Sorry for all the stress this has caused.”

Actually, I wasn’t stressed at all. I was out lounging by my pool, soaking up a few rays, while responding to all those emails, so no harm done, other than a few finger cramps induced by more typing than usual.

ROSALIND GARDNERis a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online. Her best-selling book is available on Amazon and www.SuperAffiliateHandbook.com.

Introducing Dr. Makeover

Not every website needs a complete redesign. Contrary to what most Web designers tell you, designing a website for results, or what I like to call Conversion Design, doesn’t require a pretty website. I’m not interested in redesigning websites just for design’s sake. So we’re shaking things up a bit for this issue of Revenue. Instead of a complete visual overhaul of one site, I’m going to answer some frequently asked questions.

Enter Dr. Makeover – my alter ego. He’s a combination of Dear Abby and Dr. Phil with an Internet business twist. And he’ll provide quality advice about how to make your website perform the way you need it to.

Dear Dr. Makeover: I’ve been using my website (ClaudineLewis.com) for over a year to promote my side business of professional voiceover services. I had a friend help create it for me and while it looks “OK” I feel like it should be more dynamic. What can I do to make sure I’m putting my best voice forward? Claudine Lewis

Dear Claudine: I really like your site. It’s simple, personal, the colors are pleasing and your photo looks genuine and professional. I already want to work with you. Sometimes we like to over-think and over-complicate websites. This one proves that sometimes even a basic site can be very effective. Of course, I have a few points of constructive criticism.

  • There’s no link back to the home page from your lower-level pages. The home page is a safe spot – a comfort zone. Make it easy for people to get back there.
  • The samples should play in an audio player of some sort, rather than making the user download an MP3. This makes it easier for people to listen to your samples. That’s really what they’re here for.
  • Speaking of samples, make some of your best ones available right on the home page. Consider recording a friendly “Welcome to my site” audio message.
  • Make your contact information available on every page.

Those tips will help get people the information they’re looking for and increase the number of contracts you get. The personal nature of your site makes you seem really approachable. That’s one of the strongest selling points in my opinion. Don’t lose that as the website continues to grow. Dr. Makeover

Dear Dr. Makeover: Please help. We have the coolest product since email, but visitors to our website (inclue.com) still don’t get it. Our RSS reader for Outlook is an easy-to-use plug-in that allows anyone to have news, blogs and even videos delivered right into Outlook. This is a product that has universal appeal, but our website isn’t communicating that. My feeling is that people either get scared off by the techi-ness of RSS, or they just don’t see the “Hey, Wow!” benefit. What can we do? Nick Gogerty, CEO of inclue!

Dear Nick: I can see some areas that could use a little improvement. First, you want to build a group mentality. People feel safety in numbers, so if you can show that 10,000 other people have already downloaded this thing, that will make visitors feel like it’s okay. I suggest keeping a live download count on your home page.

Next, you should provide some type of demo to visually spell out the benefits of using this reader. If you created a nice Flash demo that showed, for example, a Hillary Duff video being delivered and played right through Outlook, that would generate the “Hey, Wow!” response you are looking for.

Third, dump the people-from-weird-angles-on-a-white-background clip art. That is so 2001. I’d use imagery that isn’t so dated.

Finally, the home page tries to communicate too many things. I counted 11 different marketing messages all around the page. People tend to dismiss marketing talk. Instead, create one strong message. Something like, “Inclue! Delivers Your favorite News, Videos, Jobs, and Auctions straight to Outlook – FREE!” That might be a little long, but you get the idea. Dr. Makeover

Dear Dr. Makeover: I used one of those “Easy Website Builders” to create my site (ExecutiveCareerPro.com) just a few weeks ago. While my resume services are top-notch, I’m worried that my professionalism and skill level aren’t being communicated. Even though I’m limited to the changes allowed by the website builder, I can make copy changes, add pages and include graphics. What can I do to more effectively appeal to my target market of high-earning executives? Rita Fisher, CPRW and President of ExecutiveCareerPro

Dear Rita: You’re at the top of your game and it’s time to make sure everyone else knows it. Executives at this level should already understand why it’s important to have a professional resume, so selling them on those benefits may be unnecessary. Your site should really focus more on you and your credentials. The way it is now I can barely find your name on the site. Don’t bury the good information.

At the bottom of the home page you offer a free career strategy consultation. Why are you hiding that way down there? By moving that up, maybe just above the navigation, it gives potential clients an easy, no-risk way to get in touch with you to see what you can do for them.

The testimonials are a strong point on the home page, but the color scheme makes it uncomfortable to read. I’m not a big fan of templates in general, but if you have some other alternatives, you might want to consider choosing a different one.

After several more clicks, I finally stumbled on your About page. Here’s where you decided to hide all the good stuff. Your work has been featured in the book “Gallery of Best Resumes.” Congratulations. Let’s make people aware of that. I also like the photo of you. It isn’t the best quality, but it adds a personal touch and really helps to break up the blocks of text. Finally, the Professional Association of ResumeWriters’ logo shows that you are active in this industry.

Let’s bring the photo, the association logo and the book cover graphic over to the home page. Highlighting these images creates an instant, almost subconscious credibility. The idea is to help users understand what you have to offer before they even start reading the text on your page. With all the resume websites out there, the main selling point for yours is YOU. You need to toot your own horn as much as possible. Dr. Makeover

If you have a question for Dr. Makeover or want the chance to be picked for a free home page or landing page redesign, send your name, company, contact information and a brief description of your business (including the URL) to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.


PEDRO SOSTREis pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He serves as president of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Get a Second Life

Living in a virtual world may lead to innovation in the physical world.

Innovation is the lifeblood of business. Failure to innovate is a common problem among businesses and even more common among big corporations where it is hard to turn on a dime and internal politics tends to slow down rapid thinking and change. This means that smaller marketers, boutiques and niche marketers have an advantage – a market opportunity. One of the later and perhaps the most innovative of Internet transformations is the rise of a parallel, post-human experience via digital worlds. This can be experienced in all its beauty in Second Life, a partly user-created and partly subscription- based 3-D virtual world. Linden Lab, created by Philip Rosedale flung, the doors of Second Life open to the public in 2003. Linden Lab has Amazon.com’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, as a second-round investor.

The Second Life “world” is not a real one. It resides, like most virtual worlds, on a series of servers commonly called “The Grid.” The Second Life client program provides its users (called residents) technological tools to view and modify the Second Life world and participate in its growing economy. The built-in object editor allows residents to create complex objects like wigs, skins and even giant buildings out of a set of basic building blocks known as “prims,” shorthand for primitives.

The economy is perhaps the most notable feature of Second Life. Unlike most other digital worlds, Second Life boasts its own economy based on the Linden currency, which exchanges with U.S. dollars. According to its website, the Linden-based economy is circulating several millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. currency each month. This is not a trivial amount, and startling, considering, for now, Second Life residents are a somewhat limited group. At press time Linden Lab reports almost 370,000 members and growing.

This virtual economy has created a warm petri dish for innovation where residents own their own businesses and more importantly, they own the digital content they create. Since the residents own the intellectual property rights to their content, it has created a wildly different atmosphere, not unlike the dotcom boom in terms of raw creativity and innovation. Residents are creating clothing and skin shops for avatars, building construction, creating games and experiences, and due to the interactive nature of the world, they can even construct their own systems.

Examples of digital businesses include a bustling “hair shop” where residents can buy wigs for their avatar, stock exchanges, groups that will erect buildings for residents and the creation of interactive games. One of these creations is now in a game for Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance system and soon to be released on cell phones. I do not think it’s far off before we will see alternate Second Life currencies emerging in this purely virtual environment.

Big business is starting to take note of this phenomenon too. Intel, Wal-Mart and American Express are among many powerhouse companies starting to experiment in Second Life. Not to mention a wide array of universities and learning institutions are setting up shop in the digital landscape to explore digital construction and instruction.

Some companies are straddling offers across the dirt world and the digital. For example, when you make a purchase in the in-world American Apparel store, you will get a note card in your inventory with a promotional code offering a real-life discount at their online store. Web-enabled sale boxes also allow Second Life users to purchase a virtual item to wear on their Second Life avatars. There’s, an option to go directly to the American Apparel website where they can purchase the item in real life.

I was searching for a metaphor on how best to describe the application of the Second Life experience for performance marketers. Stephanie Agresta, vice president of Affiliate Marketing at Commerce360, put it this way in a recent blog entry:

“For example, I participated in one-off discussions about meme engineering, virtual world creation, emerging digital economies and goods, instant messaging service bots and the imminent post-human experience. I would call that innovation – I would call that very forward thinking. The best-of-breed affiliates move like digital cheetahs hunting on the vast plains of cyberspace. As an agency, we have to keep the same pace. Affiliate marketing is much like a safari – you see some incredible diversity and creative adaptation – but to make it work you cannot view it from the safety of a jeep – you have to be able to navigate the complex jungle and avoid the potential pitfalls.”

Calling best-of-breed affiliates digital cheetahs is an adept metaphor. In performance marketing, one often sees wild and creative uses of technology to drive ecommerce. Some of these uses are questionable and some uses and adaptations are actually quite novel. The trick is finding the novel, and restricting or staying away from the negative aspects. It is important for marketers not become so wrapped up in daily execution that they become myopic. To ward off myopia it is essential to build in time for research and development, exploration and purely imaginative research. This exploration should be the catalyst for innovation and in a world that changes so rapidly, ideas are the loftiest of currency.

What is going on in the purely digital world is intriguing. Business owners can learn more about the importance of digital worlds by reading, exploration and most importantly, participation. There are many books useful for learning how to navigate that virtual landscape. I have found three entertaining reads that highlight the experience and have sage business gems buried inside:

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Tor Books): Ender Wiggin battles it out with the Formics in this Hugo-Award-winning novel that is perhaps the quintessential guide for the new blogging metaphor. Pay special attention to Peter and Valentine as they control the nets through alternate personas. Make special note of the protagonist’s psychological development and monitoring by the “Mind Fantasy Game.”

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Bantam Spectra Book): Snow Crash is a fast-paced romp through cyberspace laced with satire and dark humor. The novel weaves everything from Sumerian mythos to visions of a postmodern civilization ready to fall. Readers should pay close attention to the Sumerian elements and how the culture of Sumer used a primordial language for control. In addition, the novel explores themes of reality, imagination and thought, all in the context of a virtual world experiencing a state of rapid decay. This has useful applications when studying the groups and behavior of citizens in a purely digital world like Second Life.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (Putnam Adult): The science of pattern recognition aims to classify data based on previous experience and through statistical mining of patterns. In this contemporary novel, the readers explore the concept of “cool spotting,” which has been in use in marketing for many years, through the eyes of Cayce Pollard. Pollard is an incredibly intuitive market-research consultant. Marketers should get an idea for new metrics and perhaps new ways to measure the efficacy of campaigns as well as the importance of looking ahead for future trends.

Naturally, reading will not take the place of participating. Active participation in the experience and communication with digital life residents is the best way to get up to speed and to see what imaginative worlds like Second Life offer. This is merely the beginning of a shift as the Internet continues to make life, business and our world more complex and completely different.

Those who innovate will reap the rewards. Don’t sit on the sidelines – grab a Second Life and explore. The good news is that you can have several.

WAYNE PORTER is the co-founder of Revenews. com, a Microsoft Security MVP, and served as the CEO and founder of XBlock Systems, a specialized greynets and malware research firm . He is now the Sr. Director of Greynet Research at Facetime Security Labs, which acquired XBlock Systems in 2005.

Guerrilla Generosity

With the holiday season waiting just over the calendar horizon, I can’t help but remember how holidays are disasters for the unprepared. To help prepare you, I want to activate your generosity awareness.

There seem to be two kinds of affiliates: givers and takers. Giver affiliates are quick to give freebies to customers and prospects. The freebies may be gifts, but more likely come in the form of information. The right information is worth more than a gift and often worth far more than money.

There was a time – it existed primarily during the last century – that people believed they were supposed to guard information, to keep it secret, to not even dream of sharing it. That attitude has taken a U-turn.

Imagine yourself in a large, dark room with many people, each one holding a candle. But none of their candles is lit – except yours. You use your candle to ignite the candles of all the other people in the room. Now the room is glowing with illumination and brightness.

And yet, the flame on your candle has not been diminished at all. Everyone in the room gains, while you lose nothing at all. Canny affiliates share their precious information with many people because the word is out that shared information is a lot more valuable than private information.

One of the prime purposes of marketing is to educate your prospects and customers on how to succeed at their goal, whatever that goal may be – earning more money, losing weight, attracting a mate, growing their business, hiring the right people, planting and maintaining a beautiful garden.

You can accomplish that noble purpose of marketing by freely disseminating information – by giving the best possible information to the people who need it the most. The main idea is to think generously, then give generously.

One of the key personality traits possessed by successful guerrillas is generosity. I’ve always known they were blessed with infinite patience and fertile imaginations. I’ve written in awe of their acute sensitivity and their admirable ego strength. I’ve raved about their aggressiveness in marketing and their penchant for constant learning.

I’m similarly impressed, but not surprised, at their generosity. They are, every single one of them, generous souls who seem to gain joy by giving things away, by taking their customers and prospects beyond satisfaction and into true bliss. They learn what those people want and need and then they try to give them what they want and need absolutely free.

The result is delighted prospects who become customers and delighted customers who become repeat and referral customers.

What kind of things do guerrilla marketers give away for free? Let’s start with a short list and your mind will be primed to dream up more:

  • They give gift certificates to their own business, whether the certificates are for products or services.
  • They give money to worthy causes and let their prospects and customers know that they support a noble cause, enabling these people to support the same endeavor.
  • They give free consultations and never make them seem like sales presentations. They truly try to help their prospects.
  • They give free seminars and clinics because they realize that if their information is worthwhile, it will attract the right kind of people to them.
  • They give free demonstrations to prove without words the efficacy of their offerings.
  • They give free samples because they know that such generosity is the equivalent of purchasing a new customer at a very low acquistion price.
  • They give invaluable information on their website, realizing that such data will bring their customers and prospects back for more, thereby intensifying their relationships.

In addition, guerrillas are highly creative in dreaming up what they might give for free. Of course, many advertising specialties such as calendars and scratch pads, mouse pads and ballpoint pens are emblazoned with their names and theme lines, but they seem to exercise extra creativity as well. ere’s an example from the off-line world: When an apartment building went up, signs proudly proclaimed that you get “Free Auto Grooming” when you sign a lease. Soon, the occupancy rate was 100 percent. The salary they paid the guy who washed the tenants’ cars once a week was easily covered by the difference between 100 percent occupancy and 71 percent occupancy, the usual occupancy rate in that neighborhood. The key to their generosity was this question: “What might our new tenants want and appreciate?” While the usual gifts were considered, none answered the question as substantially as a free car wash each week. Hardly an obvious gift. But, just the ticket for these tenants.

That means your task is clear: Think of what might attract prospects and make customers happy. Be creative. Be generous. Then, be prepared for a reputation embracing generosity, customer service and sincere caring.

Many affiliates shy away from early holiday promotions because they don’t want to begin too soon. They don’t want to be criticized for their eager ways. But many members of a busy public will appreciate the hint of being reminded of what is just around the corner and the reminder that good planning makes for a more joyful holiday.

Tell your customers and prospects that even you may be the first to begin celebrating this holiday season; you want them to be the first to take advantage of early planning. You want them to be able to avoid emergencies, inventory problems, crowded shipping facilities and even early season bargains. You may even come up with an early shopper special or two. When you do, be sure you give those customers something extra, something special and something unexpected.

Are they going to appreciate the combination of being given information that can help them, as well as price breaks that might put a twinkle in their CFO’s eye? Is Santa jolly?

Today’s customers are attracted to giver affiliates and repelled by taker affiliates. What kind of affiliate are you?

JAY CONRAD LEVINSON is the acknowledged father of guerrilla marketing with more than 14 million books sold in his Guerrilla Marketing series, now in 41 languages. His website is www.guerrillamarketingassociation.com.

Special Order

News of the death of the catalog is greatly exaggerated. It’s no secret that the catalog retail universe is a big one. Brands that started as paper catalogs sent in the mail go back more than 100 years to the Sears & Roebuck catalog sent to families in rural parts of the country. In its pages people could order everything from bars of soap to do-it-yourself homes delivered right to the doorstep.

Catalogs in general have gone through a sea change of sorts and nowadays the best-known ones sell mostly apparel, kitchen and bath goods, electronics and other home and gift items. Many of the brand names are nearly ubiquitous: L.L.Bean, Eddie Bauer, Chadwick’s, Patagonia, Harry & David, Spiegel, The Sharper Image, Brookstone, Crate & Barrel, Hammacher Schlemmer, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Land’s End, Lillian Vernon and Victoria’s Secret.

Some of these brands are, of course, multichannel marketers now – be it Web sales, catalog, physical store or telemarketing. The printed catalog may be how the brand is recognized, but it’s the various channels that keep sales humming.

In fact, multichannel marketers are very big participants in the $2 trillion U.S. retail market, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). About 40 percent of retailers sell through three or more channels, 42 percent through two. That’s almost a quarter of all retail sales generated through direct marketing efforts and that direct mail (such as paper catalogs) accounts for half of that revenue, according to the DMA.

Smooth Transition

When e-commerce came along many predicted that the pick-up-the-phone-and-order-from-a-paper-catalog model would die out. It hasn’t and is in fact thriving, especially as affiliates for these catalog businesses do extremely well.

Like the overall affiliate cosmos, the top 20 percent of affiliates for catalog retailers bring in the heaviest sales. Contrary to their fears, catalogers, as they are known, have transferred the catalog model to the Web rather well.

Online catalog and call center revenues reached $9.87 billion last year, and online sales through retail chains brought in $27.75 billion in 2005, according to Internet Retailer. Eighty-two percent of multichannel retailers who have a catalog component run profitable Web operations, according to Internet Retailer/WebSurveyor. This is actually ahead of the virtual-only merchants – only 75 percent of them are profitable.

Contrary to what might be suspected, the Web presence does not take away from the overall catalog brand. All catalogers believe in e-commerce, says Chris Henger, vice president of affiliate marketing at Performics. He says the days of catalogs asking if they should invest in the Web are over. “There may not yet be best practices in what channels get the credit for sales, but they are learning. Sending a catalog is a tremendous vehicle and so what better time to be omnipresent with an interactive message,” says Henger.

Performics manages affiliate marketing programs for more than 300 advertisers, including more than 100 catalogers. Catalogers are kind of its specialty, he says. Some of its top catalog clients include Blair, Cabela’s, Eddie Bauer, Brylane, Chadwick’s, Patagonia, L.L.Bean, Harry & David, Spiegel, Newport News, Sears, and Sportsman’s Guide.

According to Henger, the message from consumers is loud and clear: The customer needs to touch the brand the way it wants to – whether that is on the Web, over the phone or walking into a store. The good news is that those channels all help each other.

“Customers are seeing growing sales on the Web – 30 to 60 percent of sales,” Henger says. “They have all come to the conclusion that [mailing] catalogs is not going to go away. It builds brand equity and there is a balance to the push and pull.”

Others agree.

“Going online in general has benefited us greatly,” Chris Park, affiliate and partnerships manager at Blair, the men’s and women’s apparel seller, says. “We may drop catalogs all the time and [customers] may look at a catalog a few times but they go to the website many times.”

Teamwork

He says there’s really no choice anymore: The print catalog and online have to work together. Many customers look through the catalog and then come online when it’s time to buy, Park says. Blair can then promote a $0.99 shipping offer once customers come to the website.

Some catalogers take the time to look at the affiliates themselves and measure their value in a more granular way instead of just heaping together all affiliates into one category.

“Before we were just looking at the sale and now we are looking at the affiliates themselves and putting them in different buckets,” Park says.

Knowing so much of their sales are now attached to the Web and by extension, affiliates, some catalogers believe they need to go the extra yard for their earners. Brad Sockloff, vice president of e-commerce at Lillian Vernon, says he works personally with top affiliates every day.

“We do special promotions with the top 20 percent and we do monthly meetings with them,” he says. The top earners get to know when Lillian Vernon has overstocks prior to the holiday season. “Why sit on it for another year?” Sockloff says. The company also produces a newsletter exclusively for affiliates.

Lillian Vernon additionally has a link to find out about their affiliate program prominently displayed on their home page, as does Brookstone, The Sharper Image, Eddie Bauer, Hammacher Schlemmer, and Chadwick’s of Boston. None of that personalization is too surprising from Lillian Vernon, who markets gifts, housewares, gardening, seasonal and children’s products among other gift-related items – most of which can be personalized with a name or monogram.

As far as helping affiliates, you might not get any better than at Sierra Trading Post. They were named Innovative Merchant of the Year by LinkShare in 2005. The tools on the company’s site to help affiliates are plenty, more so than most of the other cataloger affiliate Web areas. Sierra has available on its site an extensive guide for affiliates, website templates in three different styles, a product data feed and tools for easier product showcasing on your site. In beta are two new tools: Synonymizer, for maintaining your search engine rankings even with a data feed; and Linkwrapper, an automated linking tool.

Justin Johnson, affiliate manager at Sierra Trading Post, says if he makes the affiliate’s job easier they will make more money. “Help them fill the hole,” he says. “Data feed sites give visitors a good idea what they are looking for and we automate some of that for those that don’t know. I try to figure out what affiliates are struggling with” and base a tool on that.

Sierra also posts sales contests for affiliates where they can compete for prizes. Johnson says while making the sale is great, he loves to learn something from the contests, such as finding out an elusive metric like numbers of new customers. He says Sierra’s recent Summer Camp contest will try to get the affiliates to communicate with each other and learn from each other. “I ask myself, what affiliates do not know,” Johnson says. “It benefits us all. Customers profit because they find what they are looking for and affiliates profit because they get high conversions.”

On A Shoestring

While catalogers restate their commitment to affiliates, there are still the somewhat- tight budgets driving an affiliate manager’s workload. Recent DMA statistics say about 9 percent of catalog/Internet marketing budgets go to affiliate marketing. That’s in line with about 8 percent of affiliate budgets for all retailers.

And JupiterResearch recently determined that search engine marketing managers also did five other jobs on average, including Web design, IT staffing, email marketing and e-commerce management. Or in the case of Andrew Dunn, online advertising manager for Vermont Teddy Bear Company, you manage stuffed bears, pajamas, flowers and mail-order gourmet foods. He agrees he could be doing more to reach out to affiliates. “We’re such a multichannel brand,” Dunn says. “The affiliate is a smaller channel for us, but we will broaden things as much as we can.” He says less than 5 percent of overall sales come from affiliates.

The Vermont Teddy Bear Company began selling personalized stuffed bears on the radio in 1981. The company’s other catalog brands include Pajama Gram, Calyx & Corolla, Gift Bag Boutique and Tasty Gram (which is online only). Dunn says he considers any business in the “gift” category to be his competition, so he admits he is often too busy to attend to all affiliates. Paying more attention to the big earners is just “physics,” he says.

While staying in contact with affiliates keeps him very busy, he finds ways to steer everyone somewhere. He says if an affiliate emails him with a simple html question, he may refer them to an online tutorial. He says he will refuse entry to affiliate applicants whose Web address is a provider name with a tilde denoting their personal site. A person who isn’t going to spend the money for a unique Web address is probably not going to be an earner, he says. Blair’s Park says that some affiliates never want extra emails or phone calls, preferring to be left alone. Some, he says, want all the details – “They IM me, call me and I know who they are. I’ve got to keep those people happy.”

Search Sells

In the performance marketing world, catalogers and other e-commerce sites – whether they sell through multi-channels or not – can’t deny the effectiveness of search engine marketing. While a DMA study stated that 58 percent of catalogers said they use affiliate marketing as an advertising strategy, 65 percent said they used search engine advertising or the buying of search keywords. Interestingly, both pay-per-performance and shopping aggregators have a decent presence among retailers with catalogs, at 41 percent and 24 percent respectively. And it is good to see that the annoyance of pop-ups and adware keep their numbers low, at 9 percent and 4 percent respectively. Up-and-coming strategies still in the beginnings of a groundswell are Flash ads and video ads, at 8 percent and 3 percent respectively.

Park agrees that catalogers will employ better conversion methods as they get more used to the possibilities. “Search is definitely the big thing,” he says. “Aggregators will also get big.” He says he would like to see more of an understanding of adware. He says he won’t work with anyone where software attaches to your computer. He publicly speaks out against adware when he can.

While some catalogers have put a ban on bidding of brand keywords, search may be the only thing catalogers have a certain control over. Some catalogers would rather not lose control over the brand. If you have, say, 50,000 affiliates, all with a different Web address, you don’t know what’s being done to your brand, says Sierra Trading Post’s Johnson.

A high-profile catalog such as Crate & Barrel chooses to have no affiliate program whatsoever. “We wouldn’t have anything like that here,” a spokesperson says.

The more affiliates contribute to your online sales, the more time and investment you’re going to give to an affiliate program, says Johnson.

“There’s lots of pressure more and more in the affiliate channel,” Vermont Teddy Bear’s Dunn says. “There is more competition for ad space, and from a search perspective, contextual ads-wise. I can pick and choose as a marketer but if I’m an affiliate marketer there is more work involved.” He says in his year and a half as online ad manager, “We are growing up with it and see what works and what doesn’t.”

Unlike Vermont and its relatively small 5 percent of online sales that come through affiliates, Lillian Vernon’s Sockloff says affiliates bring between 10 and 15 percent of their online sales. Not only is it a fairly large percentage as far as affiliate involvement in sales figures goes but for Lillian Vernon, half of their overall sales come in the fourth quarter since the holiday season is its busiest. Sockloff says the affiliates really begin to ramp up in early September for the holidays. While he says that increases the incremental customers they get – buyers who wouldn’t otherwise come to Lillian Vernon – those customers are used to looking for items on the Web and the self-serve aspect is a “perfect fit,” he says.

Dunn says that at the end of the day, he sees themselves as multichannel marketers and not just catalog retailers anymore. “If our transactions are online, we have to ask, Would we have gotten that order anyway? The multichannel challenge is what we have every day,” he says. Does it make him think the paper catalog is dying out? He points to the radio market – where Vermont got its start – as an example. With satellite radio now in the picture, he says, the market just evolves.

Henger at Performics is more than optimistic about catalogers’ longevity in the business. “[Catalogs] capitalize off e-commerce growth,” he says. “We [at Performics] see continued growth in the sector. They often need something like us – they don’t typically have a full ad marketing dept. Target [stores] has it and has a history of keeping it in-house. Most catalog retailers, however, are budget-challenged and need us.”

Budget-challenged or not, the benefits for consumers have only multiplied with the choice of sell channels and that means catalogers continue to grow with the rest of the affiliate world – one innovation, one sale, one page at a time.

Big Brands Believe

TV commercials and print ads aren’t dead yet. Major brands still believe in traditional media. After all, a blockbuster commercial with a catchy jingle can positively boost brand equity. No one cares to dispute the power of a well-placed Madison Avenue ad. But nowadays, marketing teams are increasingly feeling pressure to account for the dollars they spend; they need to show the hard results for money in a real way.

No wonder many marketers are starting to expand their ideas about what constitutes the best-spend blend. While dollars spent on old-fashioned media can positively impact brand image, many major marketers are frustrated by the paucity of accountability in that arena.

Enter the Internet. A decade ago, it was a way to blast banners and burn through a huge amount of cash. Now with access to high-speed connections the norm, and rich-media taken for granted, marketers believe more and more that the low cost, high measurement and constant tweakability make the Internet a magic formula for marketing.

The growth of online ads isn’t showing signs of slowing down and traditional commercial markets are feeling the loss. For example, the up-front market, the time period during which TV networks show their fall lineups and try to sell ad space, is losing its luster. This year the Walt Disney Co. network did well during the up-front, selling $2.3 billion in airtime, a $200 million increase over last year. But the final network TV up-front haul came out to only $9.05 billion, compared with $9.1 billion last year.

“This year the interesting thing is it isn’t just about TV anymore; there are a lot of other places to be worked into these TV buying deals,” says Stacey Shepatin, senior vice president and director of national broadcast at agency Hill Holiday in Boston.

She points out that CBS put the NCAA games on the Web and drew a huge audience. “Content is on the Web, on iTunes and on cell phones. Clients want to be able to reach consumers wherever they are getting their content and for some clients, mobile phone and the Internet make more sense than network TV.” Shepatin says the networks will be aware of this shift and work out up-front packages to please marketers.

AD SPEND UP

Beyond anecdotal evidence of the trend, data backs up the new reality. While many industry observers like to speculate, few have actually pinned down hard numbers. But Universal McCann’s forecaster, Bob Coen, recently revised his estimates for overall U.S. ad spend downward. However, he’s bullish on Internet ad spending and has revised those particular estimates upward. Coen now forecasts that Internet ad spend (excluding search) will amount to $9.705 billion this year, which is a 25 percent increase over 2005.

In December, Coen predicted that online advertising spending would total $8.7 billion in 2006, or an increase of 10 percent over 2004. But in the first quarter of this year online advertising spend increased more than 19 percent from the first quarter of 2005, according to Coen. To give you an idea of the contrast, he now predicts that overall ad spending will increase to $286.4 billion in 2006, a 5.6 percent increase from 2005. In December, he had forecast 5.8 percent growth. The Internet numbers are enough to leave even skeptics believing that this online ad thing has real momentum.

Other numbers also prove the point. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PricewaterhouseCoopers announced that Internet advertising revenues reached a new record of $3.9 billion for the first quarter of 2006. The 2006 first quarter revenues represent a 38 percent increase over the first quarter 2005 at $2.8 billion and a 6 percent increase over the fourth quarter of 2005 total at $3.6 billion.

Some types of companies are quicker to catch on than others. Not surprisingly, high tech companies are among the first to get hip to trending their ad spends toward the online universe. Yahoo’s chief marketing officer Cammie Dunaway agrees that a commitment to “performance- based marketing,” like the Internet, is more effective than just doing branding on network TV alone. Yahoo has also ventured into getting its brand seen in off-line environments, with a Sheraton hotel deal in which Yahoo sponsors the wi-fi lobby Internet connections. Yahoo plans to continue its much-lauded street marketing stunts but will also continue to refine its online and search efforts.

“I really believe in interactive. Soho Square [New York] is our overall agency that pulls in WPP partners,” Dunaway says. Yahoo did a lot of promotion for its music product and in addition to buying TV spots on the broadcast of the Grammy’s and throwing parties in Miami, it did a lot of online work.

“We had great online creative as well; you could throw Green Day’s equipment with your cursor – we had a fun, engaging online element. OgilvyOne [also in New York] handles online, and ours is very extensive. We do so many online campaigns! Great branding makes your search work harder. In 2006, our marketing will be a blend. We’re do search engine marketing as well as branding – ad campaigns, buzz marketing and partnerships like Sheraton,” Dunaway adds.

Those looking to reach a youth demographic, including large brand advertisers, are spending billions online. Sprite was an early blog advertiser and trailblazed IM ads featuring a hip-hop cartoon personality known as Miles Thirst.

John Vail, director of the interactive marketing group for Pepsi-Cola North America, says the company isn’t as much about clickthroughs. To gauge effectiveness, the soda giant is participating in an experiment run by Yahoo and market research company ACNielsen that tracks the online behavior and offline purchases of about 36,000 U.S. families. PepsiCo Inc. doubled its online display advertising spend in 2005, allocating just 2 percent of its total U.S. spending. But Americans spend close to 20 percent of their time online, so there is a gap.

Advertisers aren’t really taking advantage of the fact that a fifth of our time is spent online. So there’s a great opportunity for even more expansion.

PRINT IS NO LONGER THE KEY

But at least one advertiser has woken up to the reality of the way consumers are currently choosing to view media. Absolut vodka, known for its iconic print ads, is at the cutting edge. It has radically altered its marketing strategy away from print to the Internet. The company says it changed directions because consumers’ tastes were changing and many competitors were entering the marketing.

“Online plays a more important role than print. Print is not the key media anymore,” according to Patric Blixt, communications manager for new media at Absolut in Stockholm. “Our consumer is more focused on the Internet and mobile communication so we’re shifting also. We’re evolving the iconic advertising, making it more inclusive and modern with the same wit and creativity we used in our off-line advertising.”

While Absolut won’t abandon print, outdoor and TV advertising, those media will take a back seat to the Web. “Even if the print media budgets remain larger, the print is now much more seen as the first window into the Absolut world, driving interested users to the whole brand experience online,” Blixt says.

Absolut will increase its online spend to about 20 percent of its media budget. This would account for about an $8 million outlay in the U.S. as the brand spends upwards of $40 million annually.

And Absolut is probably smart to target consumers online. But marketers of electronics would be wise to follow suit. More than 50 percent of Americans were ready to upgrade their home electronics this summer, according to research from Pioneer and Roper. Before they hit the stores, however, 90.2 percent of them went online for product research.

A survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that 45 percent of American Internet users have turned to the Web for help with a purchase in the past two years and that 57 percent considered the Internet “the most important source of information,” so many marketers know the Internet is a smart place to be.

Automakers are another group that is riding the wave of the sea change. Ford Motor also dropped its magazine ad allotment from 23.5 percent to 21 percent last year but increased its spending on the Internet to 3.5 percent from 3 percent, according to AdAge.com. The company’s overall ad budget remains flat. General Motors also plans to spend 20 percent of its marketing budgets online this year. Automakers, like Audi and Lexus for example, have been quick to champion emerging media and buy advertising on blogs and podcasts.

TECH TALK

You’d think that technology companies would be at the forefront of parlaying their expertise into taking advantage of the way media is developing. While guerrilla marketing and sponsorships are becoming more popular with tech companies, Internet ad buys are also a big part of their focus. Microsoft is also keen to take advantage of online ads. This year it will spend a hefty $500 million to promote its new “People-Ready” message. However, the long-awaited release of its new operating system (“Longhorn” which was later renamed “Vista”) isn’t slated until 2007, and a new version of Office might not see corporate offices for some time. The company hasn’t announced when it will air ads for either product. But vice president Mich Matthews says Microsoft will spend a nice chunk of its “People-Ready” budget across more ROIeffective media, namely the Internet.

Google has begun selling advertiser image ads, which are displayed on its publisher partner sites. And according to Sheryl Sandberg, vice president of global online sales and operations for Google, the search giant recently introduced a “click to play” advertising service that lets brand advertisers pay fees when visitors click to play video ads, which are often construed as brand ads.

Ad options in the online universe will continue to grow. The variety of newfangled online ads is proliferating. Blog spending increased in 2005, with over $16 million reportedly spent. Podcast advertising earned more than $3 million last year and is forecast to grow, with a projected 2010 revenue of more than $300 million, per research from PQ Media in Stamford, Conn. Companies such as EarthLink, for one, are experimenting with ads on Internet video blogs. And mainstream household names like Whirlpool are testing the waters of podcastlandia.

Meanwhile, traditional media is far from dead. Instead, it is adapting. TV is beginning to mimic the Internet. Not only is it becoming a more on-demand media format (along with TiVO), but it’s also shaping up to be more measurable, too. Several media buyers, such as Zenith and Starcom, have signed on to receive Nielsen’s minute-by-minute ratings data, which will show exactly what viewers are watching. They’ll be able to find out which commercial breaks viewers actually watch. Some agencies are expected to also negotiate prices based on where a commercial falls within a program, or within a commercial break.

eMarketer data shows that large projected increases amount to 24.4 percent in online ad spend, compared with much smaller growth (4.2 percent) for all media.

Things have changed since the late ’90s as advertisers have become more comfortable with the Internet as an advertising medium. It was very easy for them to pull dollars from the Web or ignore it completely, but you just can’t do that today.

During the previous boom, “traditional advertisers hadn’t yet embraced the medium, so growth slowed,” says Denise Garcia, an analyst at WR Hambrecht + Co. “That’s not going to happen again because Procter & Gamble, large auto manufacturers and other companies have said they are decreasing spending on traditional media, like television, in favor of online media.”

Despite frequent reports of its demise, TV advertising is far from dead. JWT, in fact, has bought up all the front-page ads on the news blog site HuffingtonPost.com for one week, inviting users to view, comment on and share some of the agency’s best TV ads. The ads invite users to view JWT commercials for clients such as Ford, HSBC and JetBlue. After clicking, visitors are taken to a separate section where they can see nine different JWT spots, leave comments and forward the link to a friend. Jonah Peretti, a partner at HuffingtonPost.com, said the effort is a joint experiment to see if social media sites are fertile ground for TV ad messages to enjoy a viral effect: “If you make excellent advertising, good content and put it in an environment [where] it can be shared, you can learn a lot about how to improve what you’re doing.”

DIANE ANDERSON is a senior editor at Yoga Journal. She previously worked for the Industry Standard, Brandweek, HotWired and Wired News. She lives in San Francisco.

Santa in September

Kathy Eickenberg, who runs PurpleBearsShopnEarn.com, knows exactly what she is going to do this holiday season to ramp up her Christmas sales. One is start early; another is she has started a newsletter. She’s hopeful her Christmas ideas will help her move the teddy bears, arts and crafts, toys, children’s clothes and other collectibles and party supplies she carries on her site.

“I do try to read up on things and pay attention to various sources to find out what are considered the ‘hot’ products for the holidays and will definitely spend more time on the electronics, jewelry and toys sites since I assume they’re natural shopper favorites,” she says. She adds that she probably stands in the shadow of the “really successful” affiliates, but she’s proud and determined to learn as she goes. “I’m not really sure what to expect this year,” she says. “Sales have been improving, so we’ll see. Virtually all of my toy sales are around the holidays. It will be interesting to see how many toy sales will remain with Amazon or be done through Toys R Us, since they’re now separate.”

She also knows that any affiliate – with one site or one hundred – who sells gifts, clothes, electronics, books, toys and other retail goods is tested in the fourth quarter of the year when holiday sales could mean as much as 90 percent of an affiliate’s income for that year. Mostly, affiliates like Eickenberg are catching on to the techniques they need to rank higher in searches and keep the visitor interested – whether through content, coupons or presentation. What they want is to start as early as they can – for some, July is when they gear up – and to have the merchant weigh in, too.

There is do doubt holiday sales are big business – especially online. In 2005, holiday shoppers in the U.S. spent $30.1 billion online (that’s excluding travel) during the period of roughly mid-November to Dec. 25, according to a study by Goldman Sachs & Co., Nielsen//NetRatings and Harris Interactive. That spending is actually up 30 percent over the previous year. A separate report by comScore Networks put the Nov. 1 through Dec. 25 spending number at $19.6 billion (excluding travel, auctions and large business gifts) – a lower amount but still 25 percent more than its previous year’s total.

The Goldman Sachs & Co., Harris Interactive , Nielsen//NetRatings, study stated shoppers spent the most money on clothes, at $5.3 billion, followed by computer hardware and other peripherals at $4.8 billion. The ubiquitous iPod and consumer electronics in general made for a very fastgrowing category at 109 percent year-overyear, according to the study. This, they say, was due to demand for the iPod but also the lower prices in 2005 on laptops, printers and plasma televisions. The study also said shoppers bought $3 billion in books and $2.3 billion in toys and video games. And purchases didn’t necessarily stop the day after Christmas. Nielsen//NetRatings says while the number of unique visitors to websites in the week leading up to Dec. 25 totaled 60.2 million, the week after Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, 2006 totaled 61.2 million, as recipients proceeded to promptly spend their holiday gift cards.

AFFILIATES EMBRACE THE SEASON

Joel Bevil also knows the holiday season is an important period, but unlike Eickenberg, isn’t quite sure how to approach it. His BeachCombersCove.biz, DreamJewelry.biz, RoadTripVacations.net, and VarsitySportsStore.com will be experiencing their first Christmas this year. He says he plans to look into how to best market his sites in the next few months but that right now he’s actually just finished some back-to-school sales that did rather well for him. He says he primarily goes to ABestWeb.com forums on the Internet two or three times per week to seek out advice and to gather helpful hints.

Marilyn Olsen with American- Luxury.com has recently started a blog to help her sales. She also runs World- Luxury.com and French-Luxury.com, where she sells higher-end apparel, furniture, baby clothes and accessories, interior decorating ideas, gardening essentials and dog and cat gifts. “The fourth quarter is more a difference of magnitude rather than a change in what I offer to my clients,” she says. “Very special, handmade items, both decorating and gifts, sell as soon as they become available, which is usually in October.” For her the holiday season means working long hours to update the Web pages, which she does individually. “Since I carry everything at an individual item level, both image and text, this represents extra hours to add SKUs, and because of the faster sellthrough, I spend much more time checking for broken links or out-of-stock conditions,” she says.

Olsen says the blog adds a personal touch, which her buyers appreciate. She says the blog acts as a kind of newsletter to alert clients to “developing trends and to provide information about specialized luxury products to help them make informed buying decisions that meet their lifestyle needs.” She’d rather do it that way than to send email, which she says is too obtrusive. She does allow clients to set up an RSS feed to get only the information they want.

Marilynn Ferguson of GoodBulbs.com knows seasonal cycles. (Can you think of anything more seasonal than flower bulbs?) “I’m going to be promoting GoodBulbs with some brick-and-mortar advertising,” she says, “and some online ads, working to get the branding up … things like that. During the bulb-selling season, I’m going to fire up several ad campaigns. I’m quite excited about advertising on the merchant side, because I can go for branding and such and can afford to take a longer view when it comes to the ROI. Plus, a merchant site is a natural destination site.” She says that although she’s all for gearing up about two months before a high-selling season, “on the affiliate side, September is early enough for me,” she says. “Any earlier, and the ‘newly updated’ SE rank bonus dies before the season starts.” She adds that even with marketing pushes that some retailers start offering before Halloween, she doesn’t believe the selling season in actual sales numbers has changed in “20 years.”

What she calls the “actual” buying season for Christmas products should be anticipated by “SEOing” those items a couple of months in advance so that they get ranked at the right time. This is a different approach than any “regular” items you may have on your site, she adds. “Just tweaking the pages to show up in the SEs will do,” Ferguson says. “And if it’s a summertime item, they can pretty much forget it for Christmas; the ‘holiday’ for most summer items is Memorial Day – if there’s any holiday for them at all. There are some July 4 items, but other than that, summer stuff seems to not be connected to a particular day.”

As much as Ferguson is aware of the product life of her goods throughout the year, people like Bevil and Eickenberg want – and may need – more guidance from an affiliate manager. Fortunately, there are some who know they need to help make the sale, too. John Walter, affiliate coordinator at outdoor apparel and gear sites DogFunk.com, BackCountry.com, Tramdock.com and Explore64.com, knows that teaching affiliates a little SEO isn’t going to cut it. He says his sites do 50 percent of their sales in the fourth quarter and that he actively goes to the forum sites and advises affiliates to start their holiday work early – like August.

“We have a clear-the-warehouse sale then to get ready for the holiday season.” He says the 120-day cookie on his sites helps, as does the bi-weekly banners through Commission Junction so that affiliates don’t have to change that link. This year, they are gathering all the programs under one “mega-program” in CJ – so that will “diminish tracking errors across sites,” he says. “That’s less painful for affiliates.”

MAKE IT SIMPLE

Gary Marcoccia, co-founder of network AvantLink.com, says they go the extra yard for affiliates who need massive site updating for the holidays. They offer an automated data feed management tool that comes in handy when pages and pages of your site may need the necessary customizing to get them ready. Marcoccia says he noticed a fundamental difference in the kinds of online traffic some time ago.

“We recognized there were people either surfing or shopping,” he says. “We found out that we get a 10 times greater conversion rate from those shopping online. Those people are in buying mode. That said, we help affiliates make the sale by offering spiderable content. This way you don’t have to pay too much attention to it. It can take two to four hours per week customizing content manually.” This automation can be completed a few weeks before the beginning of the season so that spiders are sure to find it.

“We are focused on a shorter tail,” Marcoccia says, “not the thousands of affiliates who are just throwing up banners.” He says that while their affiliate selection process is very rigid, their platform can allow an affiliate to promote a feed so specifically that it is essentially syndicating affiliate creative. Even so, Marcoccia actively goes to forum boards and campaigns for early preparedness. He says affiliates have to go to their merchant sites in September to make sure the merchant inventory is still in stock and the price hasn’t changed. He says the best success is to devote one page to one item. But if summertime comes and the link stays up, then you have to go back to the static page, he says. And no one wants to manually check hundreds or even thousands of items.

For many, instinct and manual techniques are all they have at their disposal, especially if you’ve maxed out your SEO budget. To this end, the National Retail Federation’s Shop.org recently released a best practices and holiday trends study for holiday retailing 2006. The study’s highest-ranked advice is to start early. About a third of consumers plan to start their online shopping earlier than they did in 2005, so that means marketing campaigns will have to start earlier, too.

Secondly, the study found that the other two-thirds of online shoppers are waiting to shop later and later – 20 percent wait until 13 days before Christmas to start the bulk of their online shopping (compared to the 9 percent who leap in on the day after Thanksgiving). To facilitate the late shoppers, more than half of all online retailers were still offering free shipping during the last six days before Christmas. The study also commented that savvy online shoppers were expecting big online sales and promotions as early as Nov. 26.

With the ease of shopping online now a nonissue, customer satisfaction just keeps rising. Shop.org’s study cites an 11 percent jump in “very satisfied” online shoppers from the previous year. While 29 percent of online merchants began markdowns even before Thanksgiving, an equal 29 percent offered no markdowns all season and both groups came out ahead – 87 percent of merchants saw the same or improved profit margins.

SHOP + SEARCH = SALES

The Shop.org study also reiterated a basic truism: Search is still king. Even though some retailers were wary of spending so much money on paid search, the majority are still allocating budget moneys to it and even increasing their efforts in paid search this season. Affiliates also put search high on their list of effective seasonal strategies. Some will use search this year for the first time.

Ferguson at GoodBulbs.com would love to see the timing even up over at some merchants. They may want to help for the holidays, but she says sometimes the promotions are ill-timed. “It would be nice to start seeing the offers and new links and banners in September and October,” she says, “when there’s still time to do something with them, but not so darned soon that putting them up would give a reasonable person the idea that the ad was left over from last year.” She adds that some merchants email her the week before Christmas shipping ends (or even closer to the deadline) with some deal, “as if I’m going to be able to do a thing with it then.”

Her standard operations are to “fire up the PPC campaigns and tweak the SEO for my affiliate sites. Affiliate-wise, I aim for products that aren’t limited to Christmas interest, so rather than a ‘now or never’ type of cycle, the holidays just cause increased interest all around. A lot more buyers come out at the holidays, so sales rise accordingly. So, for me, it’s just a matter of making sure my pages are getting seen at that time.”

This year, Eickenberg says she will put “more emphasis on the gift cards that are available. I have only started to experiment with some pay per click and am still very much learning about it. I may devote some effort into that this coming holiday season. Probably everybody else will be, too, so not sure how effective that will be.”

Marcoccia at AvantLink loves to say that removing all the manual labor for the affiliate helps them execute “best practices.” It isn’t all just feeds; he says he lets affiliates know what feeds will be holiday-related and communicates that to them. In his network, though, the learning curve is a bit steeper. “With us,” he says, “if you’re not a little bit savvy, you are going to be challenged.”

Olsen of American-Luxury.com lauds the whole retail industry for embracing the online world. They may still be learning how to do things but clearly are in for the long haul. “I applaud online merchants who realize that truly unique items for which inventory could not be supported in brick-and-mortar [stores] can be offered successfully online to an audience that may be a small niche but is willing to pay full retail early,” she says. “This not only can give them important information on trends, but is also profitable.”