Growing in an Unhealthy Climate

Economists, politicians and media types are no longer arguing whether or not the economy is in a recession. Instead most are debating how long it will last.

If recent trends continue, the prognosis is relatively dismal for real estate values, gas prices and the unemployment rate. And as corporations and consumers grow frugal, cutbacks in advertising threaten the vitality of everything from cable operators to newspapers. Internet analysts, wondering about the ripple effect on the industry, offer a variety of opinions. While some think a recession would not have any affect on online advertising and marketing, others feel that it could have a significant impact – negative or positive – on the sector.

Slashed traditional advertising budgets are already apparent. TNS Media Intelligence found that ad spending in the fourth quarter of 2007 declined .1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2006.

But a Direct Marketing Association’s Quarterly Business Review survey in the fourth quarter of 2007 uncovered good news for online marketers: 50 percent said they would increase email marketing, 44 percent would increase database segmentation and 35 percent would increase spending on search engine optimization in 2008. And PQ Media found that spending on alternative media such as social networks, lead generation advertising and consumer-generated media is expected to grow by 20.2 percent in 2008 to $88.24 billion.

These findings reflect a long held belief that there will be a shift of marketing dollars from traditional media to the Web. Some believe this move would protect online companies from feeling the effects of a recession. Standard & Poor’s Internet analyst Andy Liu noted at the company’s 2008 Media Summit that he expects online ad revenues to grow by 20 percent this year – recession or not.

However, not all indicators (or analysts) are so bullish. In March, market researcher eMarketer lowered its estimates for U.S. online advertising market by nearly $2 billion, predicting that it will grow $25.8 billion, as opposed to $27.5 billion, in 2008.

Ability to Measure

Advertisers are shifting online to not only reach their audience, but because Internet advertising costs less and is trackable. Founder of Seer Interactive, Wil Reynolds, predicts a trend where any medium that offers less tracking will lose dollars to areas that offer more accountable results. Effectiveness can be measured by clicks, impressions, registrations and purchases, which are very attractive to bean-counting advertisers.

Brad Waller, vice president of business and affiliate development for AdJungle.com, points out that General Motors, the country’s third largest advertiser, announced it is shifting half of its $3 billion budget into digital and one-to-one marketing within the next three years. He claims this is the beginning of things to come, noting that the market online is growing faster than any other spend.

Founder of FatWallet.com, Tim Storm, says online advertising can be measured but offline initiatives, like direct mail, can’t be tracked. Online campaigns offer ROI down to the penny – so advertisers don’t wonder where their budgets were spent.

Paying for Performance

Even more appealing during belt-tightening days is performance marketing, where advertisers only have to pay when there is an action that is commissionable or measurable. Storm says he thinks there will be a shift of spending toward performance marketing, as opposed to advertising on a CPM basis. He doesn’t think Internet advertising will be affected by the recession as long as advertisers don’t look at the spending as a budgeted line item – which tips the scales in favor of performance marketing.

Online marketing consultant Sam Harrelson agrees that CPM big budget ad buys will suffer in 2008 and performance marketing will continue to increase its reach, effectiveness and popularity.

In fact, the Interactive Advertising Bureau statistics for the first half of 2007 indicate that "CPM deals" were replaced by "performance deals" as the leading pricing model for Internet advertising. In 2006, CPM deals comprised 48 percent of the overall total while performance deals (such as CPA) were at 46 percent. However, in 2007, performance deals made up 50 percent of deals while CPM fell to 45 percent.

There is evidence that performance marketing initiatives such as paid search are becoming more popular. OneUpWeb.com found that 48 percent of all U.S. online advertising spending in 2007 went toward paid search, and predictions are even higher for 2008.

Paid Search

Although paid search is considered more resistant to cuts than other advertising because it’s performance based, some think it is not immune to decreased spending. Advertisers could reason that people are less likely to surf the Internet for potential purchases during an economic downturn.

In March, comScore, the Internet ratings firm, reported that Google’s paid clicks fell .3 percent between January 2007 and January 2008, even as the number of searches rose 40 percent in the same period. As recently as April, Google’s ad clicks were rising at a 60 percent clip.

The industry panicked that Google, considered a bellwether for the overall sector, was being affected by the cyclical economic forces of the overall market.

It’s possible that Google is tightening the reins on clicks to combat click fraud and generate better clicks in general. And Hitwise found that the percentage of traffic going from Google to retail shopping sites is actually increasing. Since the bulk of paid search advertising is shopping related, the Hitwise data draws a different conclusion than the comScore data.

But cost per click has its challenges – there continues to be big inflation numbers. As more folks jump in, the costs get higher.

It’s possible that there won’t be less activity in paid search but there might be less money spent on bids. Seer Interactive’s Reynolds offers an example: the same number of marketers could bid on a term like "mortgage" but spend less money doing it. So if in the past a marketer paid $1,000 for 10 leads that convert, today that $1,000 dollars would only buy five leads.

Reynolds doesn’t believe this will cause marketers to abandon paid search, but thinks it could cause them to lower their bid to spend $750 for those five bids – reasoning that "smart marketers always will spend up until they max out their ROI." Interestingly enough, Reynolds says the saved $250 isn’t likely to go to buy radio or display ads. From what he has seen, people looking to rein in their paid search move into SEO as their next step.

Reynolds has seen shopping and e-commerce people moving from paid to SEO – and believes the affiliate space might have a good fallout as well because the closer a marketing channel is tied to results, the easier it will be for managers to get funding for it.

Survival of the Fittest

Google has boomed over the past few years because of search engine marketing – so it is possible that search engines will fare well during an economic downturn if paid search continues to be popular. Yahoo, Google, MSN and AOL have worked to become one-stop shops for advertisers by building up ad networks with targeting and tracking capabilities. David Hallerman, eMarketer senior analyst, notes that when "the portal is both destination and network, perhaps advertisers can get all they need without straying – at least that’s what the Big Four hope for."

Many niche sites have flourished while they get better at improving targeting to meet the needs of their clients. Reynolds says that vertical sites, if they can show ROI for marketers (even with less traffic) will start to get dollars if markets like Google become to expensive to play in.

Specific verticals that offer people a way out of a bad situation such as employment sites, job training sites, and mortgage refinance loans and debt consolidation sites like LowerMyBills, could become more in demand. Also well positioned are sites that offer people efficiencies in a weak economy such as comparison shopping engines and coupon sites.

FatWallet’s Storm believes that coupon sites could fare well this year – he points out that some of FatWallet’s best years were during the last downturn of 2001 and 2002. When the economy is in a slump, people gravitate towards being more cost conscious. For example, Storm has read reports that the craft industry does well because people make their own quilts – it is both entertainment and fulfills a need.

So far this year, Storm has not noticed any spending shifts – booms or drop offs – for FatWallet. Electronics and technology continue to be FatWallet’s strong categories as do other categories like Health & Beauty and eBay.

Insurance is another sector well positioned to weather an economic storm. Jon Kelly, president of SureHits, an ad network for insurance and loans, thinks it could increase because consumers are adopting the Internet as a primary means of buying insurance. Even technology laggards, who in the past surfed the Internet to find the best quote but picked up the phone to complete the transaction, are purchasing through e-commerce.

Another reason for Kelly’s bullish prognosis: "When the economy turns rough, people start looking for the best deals on insurance and they turn to the Web to do it." Kelly explains that auto and home insurance look particularly strong over the next few years because consumer demand for them does not drop in a recession – car insurance is mandated by law and home insurance is mandated by mortgage companies.

Kelly predicts that there will be increased Internet spending by insurance companies as the battleground for customers moves online. He thinks the areas where they will increase spending are paid search and affiliate and ad networks with a strong vertical focus like IndustryBrains, Quigo and SureHits Ad Network.

AdJungle’s Waller has seen record growth on its classifieds site, EPage – with 30 percent growth in revenue with January 2008 over January 2007 and an increase in the average revenue per user. He has seen growth in areas that want to get rid of excess inventory and says that in a tight market, people buy more items used than new. Listings for home-based businesses that offer ways to earn extra income are popular – like "how to make money from your laptop."

EPage makes money from advertisers paying for more exposure, as opposed to getting a cut of the purchase price. Advertisers pay to have their ad ranked higher on the page – when advertisers have success; they are willing to pay more.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that real estate would be hard hit in a recession. But Michael Stark, the founder and president of PostYourProperty.com, says that just because the housing market is tanking doesn’t mean there will be a negative effect on the online real estate vertical.

His real estate sites focus on the for-sale-by-owner (FSBO) market, which accounts for approximately 15 percent of U.S. real estate and says that traffic to his sites continues to grow despite the recession because of the focus on enabling the "do it yourself " FSBO movement. In fact, the crumbling prices, slow sales and a credit crunch in 2008 will make the FSBO option attractive to an increasing number of buyers and sellers.

Foreclosures are good for Stark’s sites because more postings mean more inventory, which means more advertising for his sites. Advertisers on Stark’s sites include people trying to sell their house, brokers, agents and lenders looking for new business.

Waller says that lead generation companies like Epic Advertising (formerly Azoogle), XY7, CPA Empire and Leadpiles could do well because people are buying and selling leads for real estate.

Performance marketers should feel confident that their industry is well positioned to weather a recession although things could get a bit tougher. Affiliates might get scrutinized more heavily – marketers don’t want to pay affiliate commissions if they find evidence that a paid search campaign created the sale. "Many marketers are estimating the ‘influence’ of their affiliates and zeroing out commission when other marketing campaigns are involved," Lee Gientke writes on ReveNews.com.

Some industry watchers say that marketing will move more in-house as knowledge of how to do search or affiliate marketing continues to spread out into wider communities instead of just specialized networks or agencies.

Lights, Cameras, Action!

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Blendtec. I bet you are familiar with Blendtec and I bet I know how you first heard of their blenders – from their viral video series called “Will it blend?” That series, showing iPods and other unusual items being reduced to powder by a powerful blender, serves a strong branding message: If it can annihilate an iPod, it will make quick work of your smoothie.

Whatever people conclude, the videos are certainly working. Blendtec’s sales have quintupled since the start of the campaign. Total cost of all this marketing: a few thousand dollars for video equipment plus the cost of the objects destroyed. Every video viewed was the result of people passing them to their friends or finding them through search.

Videos provide the richest way to send a message to your customers, and they might cost less than you expect. Online videos can be targeted at far smaller audiences than TV commercials and cost nothing to distribute, unlike mailed DVDs. Online video is especially important to marketers targeting younger audiences – 42 percent of individuals between 18 and 34 watch video online at least once a week.

So how do you go about making your own online video? Here are five tips for making great online videos.

Keep it short. The shortest videos seem to be the most watched, with the highest viewership for clips between one and three minutes. Some popular video podcasts are five minutes long, and many are ten. Don’t make yours 30. Better to do a weekly 10-minute show than a monthly hour.

Use tight shots. Some people will watch your clips on iPods and other small screens, and even those that watch on their computers generally do it in a small window. So, when you shoot your video, use close-ups with your subjects. And forget widescreen mode – stick with standard mode.

Don’t move. Talking heads work best. Many fast-motion sequences will be lost on an iPod’s small screen.

Write big. When you add on-screen titles to your video, remember that text that looks fine while editing your video on your computer could be unreadable on the tiny iPod screen and small computer windows. Use text judiciously and in a large point size.

Watermark it. If your video is well done, people will share it, which is great. But if you don’t identify the site it’s from, people won’t know where to go for more.

You can’t expect to reach people with online video as easily as you would with a TV commercial. With TV, you merely choose the show that matches your target market, plunk down your cash, and your commercial runs. On the Web, customers usually find your video through search, so search marketing is crucial to getting your message seen.

The best way to do that is to optimize your videos for search. Google’s Universal Search and other blended search result pages have made it more important then ever to optimize your video clips for search.

The good news is that if you know how to optimize Web pages, you already know a lot about optimizing videos, because search engines don’t see the actual video images and can’t hear the audio soundtrack. So the page containing the video carries a lot of weight with search engines.

Place each video on a separate webpage, so that you can optimize that page with the keywords that best match the clip. As always, use those keywords in the title, the description, and the body (especially in headings). Include a short summary of the video’s contents within the body, or, even better, post a transcript of all the words spoken.

But there’s more. You must get the videos themselves indexed by search engines.Some search engines crawl videos, so place all your videos in the same directory, as close to the root directory as possible. If you’re producing a steady stream of videos, set up a Web feed for them, pinging the search engines each time you add a new clip. You can also use a Video Sitemap (sitemap.org) to get the same treatment for your videos that you get for your Web pages.

And don’t stop there. You can improve your search results further by following these four tips:

Use keyword-rich file names. Name your video files to show the search engine what they are about. If it is a demonstration of a product, name the file after that product, such as ipod-nano-demo.mpg. Don’t drone on with keyword after keyword in the name – keep it short, with just a couple of keywords.

Optimize your metadata. Videos can be encoded with metadata keywords within the “properties” of the video file itself, by tools such as Autodesk Cleaner (www.autodesk.com). Video search engines frequently rely on this information when deciding which videos to show in the search results (and in what order).

Submit your videos. Video sharing sites, such as Google’s YouTube (www.youtube.com), allow you to post your videos right on their site. But you should reach farther than YouTube. Use TubeMogul (www.tubemogul.com) to submit your clips to over a dozen sites simultaneously and to track their viewership. Use keyword-rich titles and descriptions on those sites – they’re just as important as on your Web pages-and tag them with keywords, also. Some video sharing sites allow a linkback to your Web site, so take advantage of that, too.

Publicize your video. If your clip is noteworthy, submit it to social bookmarking sites, email people who would be interested, and link to it from your blog or another Web page.

If you follow this advice, you’re sure to improve the visibility of your online videos.

But it’s not enough to optimize your videos for search, however. Just as getting a #1 ranking for a Web page does not get that page clicked, your video must be watched, not just found. How do you get people to watch what you’ve created? Learn to share. Ensure that videos posted, especially to social networking sites, are marked “public” rather than private.

Give your videos “curb appeal.” Some video sharing sites allow you some control over the image selected as its thumbnail image – the picture shown before the video is played. Select an attractive thumbnail. Emphasize what works. Pay attention to viewership metrics, so you can repeat techniques and themes that have succeeded with your customers in the past.

Video has become a force in Internet marketing. If you produce compelling videos, optimize them for search, and get them watched, the force will be with you.

The Importance of Follow-through

I am not a golfer- but I rented some clubs and hit at a driving range for the first time a few months ago. I had no clue what I was doing, but I happened to be standing next to someone who was in the middle of a lesson. I watched closely and tried to apply what the trainer was telling his student to make my swing better. After a few tries, I was consistently driving that sucker over 100 yards – with some sense of control to boot. I realize this is no great feat, but I was thrilled! This was much better than my initial attempts – some of which went backwards (don’t ask…).

Anyway – one of the main points the instructor kept mentioning was the importance of following through with the swing.

“You’re not following through,” “make sure you follow through,’ “what happened to the follow through?”

I began thinking about how follow through is critical for success in many sports. In basketball you have to follow through with your shot – in baseball you need to follow through with your swing.

Of course, the principal of follow through is not limited to sports, but I had not previously seen what a structured concept of following through would look like for the business of Web design. This became a topic of conversation at Sostre & Associates for quite some time. We pride ourselves on doing a great job of planning and consulting and developing so that a site is ready for launch, but the general consensus internally was that we could do a better job following through with that site after launch day.

With that in mind, we created a short checklist of tasks to perform post-launch for every website we create. These follow through items go beyond just making the site functional, and help ensure that it’s really successful.

Let the Data Design for You

One of the most important tenets of Conversion Design is to look past best guesses, best practices, and intuition. Oftentimes, the keen eye of an experienced designer can get things right most of the time, but proper use of your Web analytics data will steer you in the right direction all the time. Reviewing your website visitor data to discover what your users want, and then designing specifically for them is one of the most effective, and often overlooked, follow through activities you can engage in. I often recommend Google Analytics.

First, because it’s one of the most robust systems out there (especially at this pricepoint – free) and second because it allows you to schedule reports to be emailed to you daily, weekly, or monthly. This is a good way to get into the habit of reviewing your data regularly.

I also use Crazy Egg (www.crazyegg.com) to run heatmaps whenever we make layout or non-standard content changes to a site. Heatmaps analyze visitor clicks to a page and display the data as brightly or dimly colored areas based on number of clicks. They help you see how visitors interact with your site in a whole new way and can illuminate common sense design flaws that you haven’t noticed before.

Keep it Fresh

I’ve seen it time and time again where a site launches and does really well, but then it doesn’t get updated for a while and performance starts to slip. Almost imperceptibly if you aren’t keeping close tabs. One of the reasons for this is that users start to get nervous if they feel like a site isn’t being updated or maintained. They get the impression that “no one is home”.

Update highly visible areas such as prominent photos or content on a regular basis. If your site isn’t the type that gets updated,consider including some automated sources such as displaying RSS feeds from related sources to help users feel like the site is up to date.

Keep the Traffic Coming

For the final point in our list, we all know that an optimized, up to date website does no one any good if users can’t find it. Therefore your follow through wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include monitoring your website’s status with the search engines.This includes evaluating and maintaining titles, descriptions, keywords and/or tags, backlinks, social bookmarking, and more.

With all the sites out there (Google, Digg, Technorati, etc”),it would be tough to follow through with every single one – lucky for us there are several services out therethat can provide the majority of this critical information about your site very quickly. You can try www.Web-SiteGrader.com, or www.XinuReturns.com for examples. Running a report every quarter or so will help avoid any issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Just like sports, if you can learn to follow through consistently, your efforts will be much more successful. Remember that each site is different so you will want to add items to this list as time goes on.

Finally, for a quick follow-up – in the last issue, we showed how consulting firm, Think First, could use wireframes to spec out the content before moving to a full redesign.Their existing site looked nice, but offered almost no explanation of their services of unique value proposition.For good measure, we took some time this issue to finish the job by turning the wireframe into a full homepage mockup.

As you can see, the redesign stayed true to the wireframe and kept a lot of the same look and feel elements from the existing site. This is to show that a successful redesign isn’t always about colors and graphics.The core of Conversion Design is to display and organize the elements in such a way that they accomplish a desired goal. In this case – educating Think First visitors on what they have to offer.

Would you like to get your website made over for a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

YouTube Should Get Down to Business

According to the U.S. Census Bureau,there are nearly six million businesses in the United States. Think about the enormity of that number.That’s billions and billions of dollars in revenue generation every year. That’s also six million businesses that all require the same basic nourishment to survive – marketing and sales.

If you’re one of those six million businesses, there’s no way around one basic fact – if you want sales; you need marketing. There’s simply too much competition in the global marketplace to survive without marketing. Even items like water, a basic life essential that has always been free, is now big business. But water is also heavily marketed. The messages are that it is “the freshest” or the “finest natural spring” water in an attempt to convince consumers to choose a specific brand.

And right now the old (or shall I say, traditional) methods of advertising and marketing are beginning to fade away or take a new shape. For my money, that new shape is online video. However, some of the biggest names in video have yet to fully embrace the medium as a highly effective marketing platform. And, yes, I’m talking about YouTube. You know, that little company owned by the other little company called Google? I target “Goo-Tube” because it’s just not being very innovative these days.

Case in point, Google executives recently came out and said the company doesn’t know how to make money with YouTube. Gasp! Google doesn’t know how to make money? That’s certainly not the innovative company I know.

So here’s my plan for Google to get back some of that innovative spirit it seems to have misplaced – YouTube Business. It’s the innovation YouTube should build if it wants to start making money right away,and at the same time, explicitly lock up almost every business on the planet into a long-term subscription based plan. Sergey, don’t try pretending that the plan isn’t Google global dominance. We all know the score.

There’s no doubt that every company that does marketing in the future is going to find it necessary to have some type of video on its website. Those videos are either going to be commercials or infomercials. Product demonstrations, training guides, video spokespeople and customer testimonials are just a few examples of video elements consumers are beginning to expect from businesses.

Currently, there really isn’t any place for a business to quickly, easily and cost-effectively post their business video content. Companies could invest in third-party hosting, but that requires figuring out how to create a proprietary Flash player to stream videos. But, more importantly, videos hosted on YouTube will definitely benefit from being indexed into Google’s universal search.

The bottom line – even for large companies – is that it’s much easier to have a single site or repository specifically to host business video content. That type of site also solves all the issues associated with the complexities and hurdles of video including streaming, compression, and quality, etc.

It’s All About Subscriptions

But there’s no point in building something that isn’t going to generate a profit. After all, this is business we’re talking about. For the sake of this argument, let’s conservatively estimate there are 1 million businesses ready to sign up today to this new YouTube Business channel (why wouldn’t they?). Let’s say that YouTube Business charged each one of those 1 million businesses $100 per month to host their videos. That’s $1,200 a year per company multiplied by 1 million accounts. That equals $1.2 billion a year. That’s not a bad business model.

So the real question is…would a business pay $100 a month to have its videos hosted at YouTube? I say, yes! They’d pay that in a heartbeat and here’s why:

  • Universal search integration for videos that meet “requirements”
  • The ability to remove the YouTube branded logo on the player allows the business to both stream the video on YouTube, as well as on their website
  • Full HD capability, if wanted
  • Long-form videos (allowing videos up to two hours in length)
  • Maintaining brand equity by segregation from amateurish and inappropriate videos in the general population
  • Unlimited views
  • Trend tracking and analytics
  • Private community
  • Custom-branded business channel pages

I like to think of an innovation as something that is created out of a need. Sure, sometimes innovations “just happen”, but most of the time, someone is trying to solve a problem. In this case, YouTube has a BIG problem. It can’t make money.

It’s time for someone at YouTube to stop worrying about skateboarding videos and start thinking real practical money-making innovations that solve problems for millions of revenue generating, and spending, businesses. It’s time for YouTube Business.

If you’re interested in learning more details or giving me your thoughts, you can read the entire plan at www.JimKukral.com/ytbiz.

Affiliates are Bullish

With the U.S. dollar sinking to new lows, oil and gold attaining new heights, and both food and gasoline prices rising quickly: corporate CEO’s, the media and government officials finally acknowledged what millions have seen coming for years – the U.S. economy is in BIG trouble – and the future looks bleak.

As expected, those hit hardest by the current downturn are working people. During uncertain financial times, people without jobs don’t spend money, while those who do have jobs tend to cut back on discretionary spending and postpone larger purchases, which doesn’t sound like a happy prospect for those of us who want to sell to them.

However, there are many ways for affiliates to survive and even thrive during a recession and diversification is typically the first key to continued prosperity. Fortunately for most affiliate marketers, making the leap from promoting luxury items to recession-proof products that consumers use regardless of their economic status or level of income is fairly simple. We can add new products to our current mix or start pumping out content on a new domain, join some affiliate programs, ramp up the marketing and be in a new business in relatively short order.

So, if your commissions from the sale of cars, diamonds and fur coats have been falling off of late, here area number of recession-proof product and service suggestions for your consideration.

Job Search: Although the employment market is perpetual, during a tough economy, mergers, acquisitions and layoffs all inevitably lead to more job seekers. Point your visitors to career websites such as Monster.com where they’ll find millions of job postings along with general career advice and help to prepare for interviews. Monster.com pays a buck for each new resume posted and 50 cents for each new My Monster account created.

Resume Preparation Services: As many of your job-seeking visitors will find it difficult to get an interview because they don’t have experience or their resume is out-of-date, you should also tell them how they will benefit by using a service to beef up their resume. Some services, such as Employment911.com, have market-specific offerings such as military transition resumes, a niche which CEO Frederic Thom reports was marked by a sudden increase in February. Employment911.com pays commissions of 12.5 percent to 25 percent and their resume writing package prices top out at $357.90 for executive level positions. ResumeEdge.com, which pays 12 percent and powers the resume writing services of The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo, HotJobs, and The U.S. Air Force is another option to consider.

Education: After all the stops have been pulled out and the job search still fails to pan out, many people choose to stay in school or return to school to beef up their education and subsequent chances for finding a job. Companies with affiliate programs in the education field include those that help with college and university placements as well as scholarship search, which provides direct assistance to students with college education funding. Online training to improve basic computer skills or those which are geared toward technical certifications like Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco and Novell as is offered through TechnieCert.com (ShareASale) are becoming increasingly popular. You might also consider promoting language-learning programs such as Rosetta Stone (available through CJ) for those of your visitors who decide to flee the country in search of brighter economic prospects.

Business Opportunities: While there is never any shortage of those seeking business opportunities, an increasing unemployment rate makes this market even more potentially lucrative, especially for those who have had business success and can teach others how business is done. In addition to selling instructional information products in the form of ebooks, podcasts, webinars and conferences to new entrepreneurs; affiliates can make bank promoting productivity and marketing tools as well as office supplies. Almost every business needs business cards and PsPrint, a CJ merchant that pays 15 percent commissions, has a staggering 3-month EPC of $521.15. When individuals eventually decide to form their own business and incorporate, you can promote American Incorporators $299.00 incorporation packages for a tidy 34 percent commission.

Tax Preparation and Filing Services:Economic slowdown or not, the tax man cometh every year and helping your visitors find additional spending money through deductions can be very lucrative. With more than 138 million taxpayers filing taxes online in 2007, industry experts expect 2008 to be the most popular year for filing federal income tax online – until the 2009 tax season. Several IRS authorized merchants can be found at Commission Junction, including TurboTax, H&R Block and Tax Brain, the latter of which pays a 30 percent commission on all their products, including a premium tax preparation service which costs $69.95.

Health Care: Workers that have just lost their employer-sponsored health plans will need to buy health insurance while they have no preexisting conditions and are still eligible. When you partner with eHealthInsurance.com, which has relationships established with over 160 health insurance carriers, you’ll earn $40.00 for each health insurance application submitted for an individual or family. Assurant Health pays up to $78.00 per lead and both Commission Junction merchants have 120-day cookies.

Budgeting and Debt Reduction:Helping folks reduce or consolidate their debt load and save money is always appreciated and the subject matter is relevant to almost any niche in which you are currently working. Partner with merchants that offer secured credit cards, debt consolidation services and help with foreclosures; and consider converting your weekly newsletter to a daily “Money-Saving Tips” or “Coupons and Deals” broadcast to gain additional traffic and branding for your site.

Entertainment and Vices: While the wise eliminate frivolous expenses during tough times, those less disciplined tend to seek more escape from reality through various forms of entertainment. So, if you were ever inclined to go the porn route, now might be the time. If that holds no appeal for you, try adding sports, concert, and theater tickets to your mix. TicketsNow.com (CJ) pays 7 percent commissions on gross transactions that are typically in the $450.00 range.

While the suggested items above don’t represent an exhaustive list of recession-proof products and services, it should get you thinking about options that will at least keep your affiliate business profitable during the recession. So, ignore the purveyors of doom and gloom. There are always ways to thrive during the hard times, if you are perceptive and swift. Choose to see opportunity and profit where others see only potential for loss and failure and use the recession as a compelling reason to diversify and grow your affiliate business.

Content vs. SEO

Hamlet Batista, president and CEO of NEMedia, wants to change your content. He wants to change it so much that he can’t wait to get his search team cracking on it. It’s his bread and butter. And like any SEO outfit, he claims he can get your site optimized and ranking rapidly. But he also has a passion for words. He wants to respect your content – the carefully crafted articles, summaries and reviews you painstakingly labor over. “You have to write the content for the user,” he says. “If they don’t like it, they are going to leave.”

His mantra seems to echo throughout the Internet recently, especially as Google and other search engines keep refining how they rank your site. That means publishers have to keep toying with their optimization. There’s just no way around that, but it also means that some site owners will sacrifice the uniqueness of their content to get the rankings. So, the big question becomes, does doing good SEO cancel out the ability to have compelling content?

Batista points out that about 20 percent of queries people type every day are new keywords. He calls this the “invisible longtail” where there is always a set of new keywords publishers have to optimize for. He calls it a new opportunity. For some sites, just following the SEO 101 rules about using keywords in content and getting your tags and titles in order dilutes the single exclusive thing that makes a site unique – its tone of voice.

Taking a Tone

Attitude is often ignored as more search marketers chase the most recent algorithm changes in Google. But adjusting a site and content accordingly is always going to have only a short-term effect.” It’s important to understand the fundamental nature of how information retrieval works to really be able to get the most out of an optimization project,” LeeOdden, CEO of search and public relations consultancy TopRank Online Marketing, says. However, he adds that, “I often hear content purists confuse attempts at understanding how search engines work with gaming them and it’s just not the same thing. It’s the old debate about whether great content or great links gets you better rankings.”

Odden likens the question to debating which is most important, air or water. “Links and content are both necessary for competitive search marketing efforts. Emphasizing one over the other depends on the situation. Excelling at both is the ideal,” he says.

While understanding all that goes into making search engines tick – in terms of algorithms, methodologies and the importance of link building – is helpful to an overall optimization plan, Odden says that content is equally important.

NEMedia’s Batista goes one better and says that “Content producers don’t use the same words as a content consumer. “He says that users will write in terms of problems, not in keywords. If you’ve been robbed and you search for an alarm system, Batista says that most people will present the problem (“They broke into my house and stole my laptop.”) and not the solution (“I need an alarm for my 4 bedroom house.”). He likens it to the symptoms you relate to a doctor. Most people do not go into a doctor’s office and state, “I have a liver condition; I need Lipitor.”

Going Natural

That’s why some search professionals are advocating more natural language in content whether selling shoes or promoting CRM software. Write content naturally at first and do not worry about the page, suggests Batista, then go through it for keywords, adjusting tags, titles and link building along the way. Don’t get too focused on rankings for all the keywords on the page and neglect a sense of narrative. Batista says a lot of SEO people get too caught up in the technical side of optimization and ignore common sense. Lisa Barone, a senior writer at search consultancy, Bruce Clay, writes that content itself is changing. “It used to be that you go to a page, you open it, you parse it and you index it. Now, Web pages are increasingly based on AJAX. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. It’s all little fragments of XTML. Crawling it is a hard thing to think about.”

“Sadly,” says SEO and marketing consultant, Anthony Gregory, “a lot of SEO copywriting is not very charming for humans to read.” He says to “remember that the goal of effective SEO writing is not only to improve your searchability and search engine rankings but also to lure customers to your site.”

Keyword stuffing – the practice of repeating the keywords in content copy until it looks like a gorilla wrote it – is a rejected method these days. He says the search engines have become too smart and can recognize this pretty easily. A site could be labeled as a spam site and create a big headache when trying to get it ranked again. He says that a site full of badly written SEO articles makes the site owner “look greedy and desperate for business.” A talent for writing for the user and the search engines is a rare one, and not one that necessarily comes when hiring an SEO professional.

A Balancing Act

There are some things that an SEO consultant may know that a publisher doesn’t. SEO consultant J. Walker says some search engine algorithms prefer pages with higher word counts. The highest ranking pages in Yahoo averaged 1,300 words per page while Google’s high rankers averaged 900 or so. Not that word count alone will propel your site to number one. She says that unless a publisher is able to pour money into paid ad campaigns, they should hire a copywriter or learn the SEO techniques for themselves.

Some writers struggle with striking the balance and do all they can to help keep a piece of copy optimized – even through adversity. Shailey Motial, a writer for content provider Chillibreeze.com questioned herself when assigned to write copy incorporating the phrase “statistics of home schooled in kindergarten” a minimum of four times in a 500 word article.”Was I corrupting my art?” she asked. “Am I guilty of diluting the form of writing by inserting predetermined keywords? I toiled through my first piece, a little unhappy, and a little lost about what to do. I grumbled, as is natural for all of us faced with change. However, pragmatism soon took over and I realized that my writing was of no use, if it did not get any readers. It had to be noticed and hence using the selected keywords would distinguish my work from the clutter,” she says.

Motial adds that the task involves pleasing a human as well as an algorithm – a unique mandate, perhaps impossible to realize completely. But while she says that links can come and go and be dead tomorrow, good, useful content will never be stale. That’s also why firms test their pages as best they can, testing being another revenue source for SEO companies.

Robert Bergquist, CEO of testing and optimization company WideMile, says that with conversion rates currently at .5 percent to 2 percent, sites can’t afford to not test thoroughly. “What they haven’t learned is what to do once they come into the site,” he says. Batista explains that’s why he puts an emphasis on thorough keyword research and link building.

Beyond that, paying for syndicated copy to post on a site has proven popular for many, especially site owners with product-specific sites that can benefit from articles on their niche or theme. Outfits such as uclick.com, Content Infusion, and YellowBrix which bought out syndicated content pioneer iSyndicate, specialize in selling copy from cartoons to political columns to news of the day. Copyblogger.com also offers a handy list of tips to make you a better copywriter.

SEO and online marketing blogger Andrew Girdwood goes so far as to classify a distinction between SEO and “ethical SEO.” Simply put, ethical SEO is about allowing a search engine to see what your website is about as clearly as possible without any”black” arts like keyword stuffing, confusing URLs, or dubious link building. He quotes Google’s “evangelist” Adam Lasnik, who has said that “our algorithms want to see something that’s a happy medium cleanly between: Extreme A — Not listing relevant terms at all on the page. ExtremeB — Focusing on increasing keyword density to the point that your English/Writing teacher would thwap you with a wooden ruler. Hard. Repeatedly.”

That advice speaks to the difficulty of saying once and for all what is the right balance. Girdwood says some believe all you have to do is reach a certain percentage of keywords per page to rank well – anything over that gets labeled as spam. Lasnik has also said you can’t believe that. “There is nomagic number,” he says. Odden adds that “a combination of content as well as social networking, link networking, public relations and gaining editorial visibility as well as viral and individual link solicitations will all work together synergistically.”

Many believe that while good, natural writing is key, finding good writers is a dilemma. Affiliate marketer Kim Rowley finds good writing in family. She employs her two aunts to help her write fresh copy for her many websites and she keeps a pen and paper by her bed to jot down new content ideas. She keeps her blogs personal because it goes well with the kinds of sites she has on baby clothes, florists, coffee, pregnancy and coupons. She adds that some of the best content she’s received is by asking visitors to submit posts. This way, she says,”the content is true and unbiased.” She also builds content based on traffic stats and can write more for a particular site if there is a traffic spike.

Creating Compelling Copy

There is little consensus on how to write truly engaging copy while hitting all the SEO marks, but some of the key elements include:

  • Write naturally and try to add SEO elements later.
  • Use unique ideas for content instead of relying on cookie-cutter advice from SEO books.
  • Use consistent title and tag information – make it straight forward but descriptive.
  • Narrow keywords to the most strategic ones. Don’t over-stuff with keywords tangential to your topic or theme.
  • Think of the descriptive tag as a story and not just a spot to place keywords.
  • Make sure keywords match what people are looking for.

Matt Cutts, Google’s search guru, weighs in on his blog about content as well, warning that “if you put in time and research to produce or to synthesize original content, think hard about what niches to target.”

Cutts advises not to begin with broad articles about “porn/pills/casinos/mortgages” but with a smaller niche. “Look for a progression of niches so that you start out small or very specific, but you can build your way up to a big, important area over time. There are a lot of niches that just take sweat equity. You could be the SEO that does interviews” Or the SEO that makes funny lists. Or the SEO company that provides WebMasterRadio. Or the SEO that makes podcasting easy.”

The right balance may be yours to define. J. Walker says that “SEO methods are specifically designed to increase traffic to your website. Marketing techniques are designed to keep that traffic on your website, and encourage visitors to make a purchase. Your challenge is to find the delicate balance between them.”

Leagues of Their Own

Since the days of the gladiators, sports fans have had an irrational bond with their favorite athletes and teams. Feats of athleticism evoke eruptions of euphoria or a tidal wave of tears as a game’s final play unfolds.These strong emotions create an indelible brand loyalty that remains long after the season ends.

Marketers are learning to exploit these relationships in new ways by expanding the scintillating sights and sounds of sports beyond television highlights to broad online distribution. By enabling fans to personalize their interactions with multimedia content and by bringing the game to their favorite arena – be it a social website or a personalized Web page – sports leagues are creating new online marketing opportunities that are increasing revenue. Typically, online merchandising of memorabilia and apparel is not handled by sports leagues’ online properties and is therefore not addressed in this article.

Sports leagues and their broadcast partners have historically been conservative in granting permission to use video and audio from games online. This idea was based on the belief that making highlights or live broadcasts available dilutes the value of live games and would reduce advertising revenue and attendance. For example, in the late 1990s, local radio affiliates streamed broadcasts of baseball games online for free. But within two years, Major League Baseball ended the process, allowing audio webcasts to be streamed only through the MLB.com website through paid subscription services.

Baseball continues its policy of charging to listen togames online today. Dinn Mann executive vice president of content for major league baseball, says the league listened to fans and for the 2008 season reduced the price of a season audio subscription by $5 to the former price of $14.95. “We tipped our cap to fans who complained,” he says.

Requiring customers to pay for live audio provides an alternative revenue stream, according to Mann. “Having a subscriber base and not relying entirely on advertising is of strategic importance,” says Mann. Subscriptions,which require submitting an email and physical address, provide an avenue for MLB to pursue online and offline direct marketing.

Major League Baseball also charges for video streaming of live games and restricts viewing to any games that are “out of market” from where the customer lives. This protects the lucrative contracts with cable companies and local TV stations that are the bread and butter of their revenue. Baseball game viewing- despite the lengthy 162 game schedule – remains largely a pay-per-view world, Mann says, because “some things are still worth paying for.”

This year is the first time that baseball fans can watch archived broadcasts of full games for free, something that MLB is”experimenting with,” according to Mann. The archived games do not feature advertising, but MLB is “exploring the right relationship,”Mann says.

Growing the Audience

Sports leagues are now taking a page from online marketers’ playbooks by encouraging consumers to personalize their experience in interacting with content. Instead of going the affiliate marketing route, the digital sports media companies are focused on partnering with social networking sites and other media companies that have established audiences of fans. The strategy is to encourage consumers to link to and save content on the sites where they visit on a daily basis, enabling fans to mash-up multimedia content to create something new from existing content. Marketers who join the roster of their online partners will gain a share of the spoils in growing their audience and reaching a new generation of fans.

At the start of the 2008 season, MLB.com announced a partnership allowing Yahoo.com to stream games and highlights.Yahoo will also sell ads against both pay and free content, although thus far the video has been distributed largely without ads. Through this agreement, MLB.com gets access to Yahoo’s large audience and the two companies share revenue from any transactions facilitated through Yahoo.

Professional and collegiate sports leagues have learned that embracing younger audiences on their home turf is the quickest path to rapidly growing an audience. The NCAA, in partnership with CBSSports.com, opened the video streams of its college basketball championship tournament to a wide variety of publishing partners with great success. This enables fans to see the content where they want it delivered.

Just a few years ago, video streams of March Madness games were protected from the majority of the population as if they were enriched uranium. The subscription service generated just $250,000 in revenue annually. But over time online distribution was proven not to be hazardous to the health of television advertising revenue. Subscription fees were replaced with free streams, and then the NCAA/CBSsports.com embraced social networking (See sidebar).

Free live game webcasts have paid huge returns, according to Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager of CBSSports.com, which manages the online video distribution of the NCAA tourney. CBS Sports created an embeddable media player that contained multiple advertising locations, in-stream ads, and fixed positions sold to sponsors.

Online “consumption is additive and not cannibalistic”of the TV audience of live college basketball, Kint says.The streams were primarily delivered to people who didn’t have access to TV, including office workers. The media player’s “Boss Button,” which instantly hides daytime viewing at the office, was clicked more than 2.5 million times, according to Kint.

People will continue to watch games on TV if they can,he says, as the final championship game was the most watched game on TV and had the smallest proportional share of online viewers. Industry watchers speculate this type of arrangement may lead to new relationships between those who promote other events, such as concerts or entertainment awards shows and affiliates who can deliver a targeted audience.

Content owners looking to maximize their audience for ad-supported content should also spread it far and wide, Kint says. “Don’t expect users to come to a URL – bring the content to them.”

Like its collegiate counterpart, pro basketball also recognizes that working with existing online communities enhances rather than endangers its own digital efforts. For the past two years the NBA has “embraced the idea of distributing content beyond NBA.com” and is partnering with video sharing and social networking sites, according to NBA’s Vice President of Interactive Services, SteveGrimes.

Grimes says working with video sites such as YouTube, Joost and Hulu and social networking sites such as Facebook, Beebo and MySpace has increased fan engagement. The NBA makes highlight videos available to publishers such as Hulu and Joost to strengthen its brand awareness among younger audiences who are consuming a greater majority of their video online.

The NBA is encouraging fans to create their own highlight reels by mashing up content available only on NBA.com and embedding it on their social networking sites. “Fans that love the NBA will come to NBA.com, but those who like it will visit other sites,” Grimes says.Widgets that enable sharing of content are delivering interactivity to sports media. NBA’s widget page (www.nba.com/widgets/) contains embeddable code for showing highlights, up-to-date-scores and photos. The NBA has sponsorship deals with companies including Lenovo and TMobile for some of its widgets to gain revenue from content that sits on other sites, Grimes says. The league has also launched a fan application on Beebo to reach its audience.

“(Sports) sites are starting to realize the power of how content can be aggregated across the Web (using widgets),” says Tad Greenleaf, the media team lead, for Omniture Consulting. Greenleaf, whose company has measured fan engagement for the websites of all of the professional leagues, says that while some leagues have hesitated on widgets and distributing content to other sites, they will do so as long as they can maintain some control.

By contrast, MLB has not released any widgets as yet because “we haven’t reached the point that the content needs to reside on their (fans) pages,” says MLB.com’s Mann. “… We have taken a long term view and not just rushing to the tool of the day.”

Measuring Success

Most of the sports leagues are more concerned about building traffic and fan engagement than selling tickets or jerseys through their partnerships with publishers, according to Ominture’s Greenleaf. His company built a social networking website for the Indianapolis Colts (www.mycolts.net) that greatly increased traffic to the NFL’s Colts site by enabling fans to comment, share content and create their own blogs. The leagues want to measure views of videos to see how they can be used to retain consumers, Greenleaf says. “How much can a piece of content drive people into the site, or are they hitting and leaving?” He says sites want to see if the relationships have “velocity” and are encouraging users to “dive deep” into the sites.

Greenleaf says another strategic play is for leagues to buy keywords about teams, players or about timely topics in the news because the leagues “don’t want them going to other places on the Web.”

“The key thing is that you need to control [the environment] if you are the owner of the content,” says Robert Tuchman, the President of TSE Sports and Entertainment, which develops corporate marketing programs around sports. Tuchman says those who market sports leagues have yet to capitalize on the legion of diehard fans that follow their sport. “They have to get behind their existing market or other organizations will control their inventory.”

Tuchman says while social networking around video highlights is the hot topic today, it should be part of a larger strategy that integrates all media. “Social networking is just one aspect. You need to sell combined media packages” that include TV, print and outdoor, according to Tuchman.

Scoring With Mobile

The days of learning how your team fared by reading the morning paper are long gone. Now fans want to know about scores, injuries and trades immediately, and the league sites are marketing to this perceived need. Through mobile-device enabled websites (WAP) and SMS and text-messaging services, sports leagues including the NHL, NBA and MLB are generating revenue from on-the-go consumers.

For the 2008 season, MLB.com added video alerts to its text alerts subscription service. The alerts highlight great catches or home runs from a fan’s favorite team that will be sent to handsets within three minutes after a play happens. The NBA’s “mobile to go” service offers team and player text alerts as well as a service customized for fantasy league fans.

Quattro Wireless launched the mobile version of the NFL Draft site for the annual draft, which took place in April. The site, which included photo galleries,articles, draft prospect pages, player analysis, and the full draft order, was updated in real-time as the college players were selected by NFL teams.

“The NFL is trying to continue to give their fans more coverage wherever their fans may be,” Lars Albright, vice president of business development for Quattrosays. “The NFL found that the draft is turning into something of an event … It’s becoming a marketable event.”

Sports leagues and news services originally charged subscriptions for notifications to mobile phones and handhelds, but they are starting to shift to ad-supported services, says Eric Eller, senior vice president of products and marketing for Millennial Media. Eller, whose company operates two mobile advertising networks (CPM and CPC) that aggregates demand, says one of the big trends is in-game mobile marketing.

For example, during a game, fans in attendance can be shown messages on their mobile phones that are linked to messages being shown on the big screens that sit high atop the stadiums, Eller says. Mobile phones “will play an important part of sports marketing around events,” he says.

Sports leagues have learned that by making highlights more widely available and engaging on their favorite online destinations, they can grow both their television audience and put more fans in the seats.

AOL’s Advertising Aspirations

What a long, strange trip it’s been for AOL.

The more than 20 year old company that was once at the forefront of Internet community building and defined the online experience for many early Internet adopters, is now experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.

AOL has moved far beyond its famous “You’ve got mail”catch phrase/punch line/movie title. So, then how does AOL define itself ? Is AOL an Internet provider, a media and entertainment company, an ad network, an email provider or a Web portal?

While it’s all of those things in one fashion or another,the company is working toward positioning itself as just one thing – a next generation ad network.

“AOL has reinvented itself so many times. It is hard tokeep track,” says Adam Schlachter, senior partner at media and communications consultancy Mediaedge:cia.

AOL’s ad strategy comes at a time when Jeffrey Bewkes,CEO of Time-Warner, acknowledges there is no future in the dial up Internet. There is increasing pressure as media companies and Web portals aplenty are starting and the future is buying or promoting networks as the next step toward”one-stop” shopping for ad buyers.

Acquisition Spree

In an attempt to reinvent itself, AOL has spent about $1 billion acquiring ad-centric companies over the last several years. (See sidebar). AOL’s first big step into the ad market was its 2004 purchase of Advertising.com for $435 million. Advertising.com made a name for itself selling ad space on websites at a time when few were doing it and is the largest third-party display advertising network.

In 2007, AOL bought contextual advertising company Quigo. It alsosnapped up Tacoda, a behavioral targeting company. It bought Third ScreenMedia, a mobile advertising network and maker of mobile software. It also acquired Germany’s Adtech AG, an international online ad-serving firm and added Lightningcast to its roster of companies. Lightningcast delivers advertising for on-demand, live and downloaded video content on the Internet.

The buying spree continued this year. In February AOL acquired Buy.at, an independent affiliate network based in the United Kingdom, with more than 9,000 international affiliates and merchants such as Butlins, Carphone Warehouse, Capital One, Egg, John Lewis, M&S, Powergen, TMobile and Virgin Media.

In March AOL made a step into the Web 2.0 world by acquiring Bebo.com, the fourth largest social networking site, for $850 million. With more than 40 million members, Bebo’s user base is a far cry from the space’s leader MySpace with 109 million.

The Platform Play

AOL’s Platform A division brings together all of AOL’s ad-related silos under a single umbrella. Formed in September 2007, the division has already experienced a series of executive shakeups. Since November, several Platform A executives have exited including Kathleen Kayse, vice president of marketing; Lance Miyamoto, head of human resources; and Dave Morgan, chief ad strategist.

Curtis Viebranz, CEO of Tacoda, who was brought in as president of Platform A, was removed in March. Lynda Clarizio, a nine year AOL veteran that was previous president of Advertising.com, took over the reigns of Platform A.

Clarizio, for her part, has reportedly jumped in with both feet. She is known to have reveled in the start up culture of Advertising.com. PlatformA insiders say she is looking to infuse the many AOL ad groups with that same startup work ethic. And up until recently, the acquired companies had so many department heads with similar roles that many insiders claim various parts of Platform A were essentially competing with themselves for the same clients.

Clarizio has publicly said she will structure teams so that there is only one sales team, technology team, product and operations team, marketing team and publisher services team. She has also combined the overlapping search marketing efforts by Advertising.com and contextual targeting shop Quigo.

In recent interviews with the media Clarizio focused on the short term goals of the group, rather than the executive turnover and claims of integration difficulties.

“As our technology has continued to advance, we’ve gotten better and better,” Clarizio told the Associated Press.”We can handle a lot of demand from advertisers.”She also told the Washington Post that “this is probably the most dynamic industry in the world right now, the online advertising space. To compete effectively in this space, you have to be constantly pushing, innovating new products.”

Some analysts are giving AOL the benefit of the doubt as it works though integrating all its acquisitions.David Hallerman, an analyst at New York-based eMarketer, says, “It takes a while. This is not just buying technologies. It’s buying human constructs, and it takes a while to work out.”

While Platform A is still in its early stages, its reach is already significant when accounting for all the once-disparate units. According to comScore MediaMetrix, Platform A counted 167 million unique visitors in February 2008 and claims 90 percent of the U.S. online audience. However, AOL as a whole, however, ranks fourth as a Web portal, behind Google, MSN and Yahoo.

AOL’s ad revenue is still growing but not at the same clip as previous years. Its ad revenue for 2007grew 12 percent, off the 37 percent growth AOL experienced in 2006 and the 38 percent growth in2005, according to eMarketer.

“AOL appears to be feeling pressure from aggressive sales targets set against the backdrop of a slowing economy,” says Greg Sterling, analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.

Advertising.com recently lost its biggest advertiser, University of Phoenix, whose ads accounted for $215 million in 2007 and $157 million in 2006- that’s about 17 percent of AOL’s ad revenue growth last year.

There has also been repeated speculation that Time-Warner may sell off AOL and that the recent acquisitions and formation of Platform A is meant to make the company look more attractive to potential buyers or as a spin off company.

And with Microsoft’s bid to buy Yahoo rejected by Yahoo shareholders, AOL is once again mentioned as a potential merger partner with both of those companies as each seeks to thwart Google’s continued dominance online.

Last September there was talk that Platform A itself could be spun out and become public with an IPO. There was also wide spread speculation in the blogosphere that with the dial up business and its Web portal stagnating AOL might change its name to Advertising.com in an effort to clarify its focus to outsiders.

A Big Plan

A key element in AOL’s ad network strategy is the purchase of Bebo.com. Some industry observers say that in a best case scenario, Bebo can leverage the behavioral targeting capabilities from several of the PlatformA companies to better target certain demographics,and will be able to scale to reach a larger audience with AOL’s Instant Messenger.

While revenue from ads on social networks is likely to reach $1.6 billion this year – up from $920 million in2007 – the lion’s share of that money was from MySpace and Facebook.

“It’s hard to know what AOL is getting,” says Ryan Jacob of the Jacob Internet Fund, a firm that invests in Internet companies.

At the time the Bebo.com/AOL deal was announced inApril 2007 there was some debate in the press that AOL was overpaying for the network, given that Bebo’s traffic over the preceding three months had been relatively flat.The Silicon Alley Insider reported that many AOL senior managers were against the deal and that AOL president Randy Falco and COO Ron Grant alone pushed hard for the acquisition. AOL did not speak with Revenue regarding those issues.

In 2006, AOL’s first attempt at dipping into the social network pool (the launch of AIM Pages) was labeled by industry watchers as a misstep. The project was reportedly slow, weighed down by ineffective JavaScript and patched together from up to seven AOL systems. AOL replaced it with a simpler AIM Profiles platform within six months, aping a Facebook look. Since AOL merged AIM Profiles with its extensive Member Directory it gets about 170,000 page views a day, says comScore, however Facebook gets about 1.2 million. “As soon as it bombed, no one wanted anything to do with it,” an anonymous AOL product manager told TechCrunch.

AOL has also faced challenges on the search front. In2007 AOL went from a results page with links for copy, images, song files and other elements to a cleaner page that looked more like Google’s. Reportedly, the reasoning behind the change was that the diversity of search results was slowing down the pages from loading and that had an impact on revenue per search.

But revenue on search in the new format actually dropped to $156 million from $232 million in a previous quarter.

At the time, the top brass at Time-Warner claimed the search improvements would be good for traffic growth. But traffic in the following four months dropped with unique visitors down 0.2 percent from March to May 2008, to 30.6 million in November 2007 from (what), according to comScore.

“It’s troubling that they didn’t know what the impact of the search change would be,” Richard Greenfield, analyst at Pali Research, says. “This raises serious concerns about their ability to run the business and turn it around.”

The Transformation

From a content and functionality point of view, AOL maintains a variety of strong offerings. Its Truveo video search engine sports 100 million videos to search and is on track to total 1 billion by 2009. Its TMZ.com gossip site is on fire with 10 million visitors per month and a spin off TV show. AOL Music’s free music has an array of videos, news and concert tour information and is second only to Yahoo’s music portal.

AOL TV is the only site that hosts shows from all four of the major broadcast TV networks.

One AOL insider, who asked not to be named, says part of the problem is that AOL is unlikely to gain the same type of dominance it once enjoyed and being held to that old standard is unrealistic.

Before the dot com bubble burst in 2001, AOL’s userbase at its height was estimated to be more than 27 million people (it’s now about 10 million) all paying about $19 per month to stay connected. Its biggest coup was the much ballyhooed merger with Time-Warner in 2000. However, things quickly soured and by 2002, the combined company wrote off $99 billion. And, by 2003 the media giant had removed the”AOL” from its name and AOL head Steve Case from his chairman’s seat.

In 2006 AOL seemed to be making a comeback. It became free (it’s all ad-supported) and saw 46 percent ad-revenue growth in a single quarter, 49 percent the following quarter. Its stock seemed to spring back, too, rising as much as 40 percent in a six month period. At it’s height in 1999 AOL’s stock hit about $147. It currently hovers around $15 per share. AOL revenue in 2007 was $5.2 billion and its websites still draw 112 million visitors per month. Plus, it continues to have one of the most recognizable brand names on the Internet.

“If you just look at what AOL has accomplished in the last three years, it is amazing,” the source says. “I just don’t know how anyone can see that as failure. Most companies would kill to have achieved this level of success in online advertising.

The Changing Digital Landscape

2008 has shaped up to be a crazy year for online advertising – the writers’ strike drove people online and the presidential election and the Olympics are causing advertisers to boost spending in a down market. The timing of these factors has altered media behavior – making the business of online media anything but typical for the year.

How the advertising dollars that moved online in 2008 will be spent is a matter of much debate. Reports indicate that because the digital landscape is changing, advertisers are finding that the tried and true initiatives that performed well a few years ago are now considered passe.

As more and more individuals become their own tastemakers, advertisers need to take into account how users consume information. The days of pushing content have given way to users pulling the content that they want – making it tricky for companies to get a hold of their potential consumers.

At the end of 2007, AdTech and MarketingSherpa surveyed 421 Internet marketers about the tactics they would try out this year and where they plan to spend their budget in 2008.

In terms of the initiatives that marketers plan to increase more than 5 percent of the budget on in 2008, 32 percent of marketers cited PPC, 27 percent of marketers said they’ll increase their spend on behavioral targeting and 26 percent will spend it on rich media.

The survey found that viral marketing and advertising on online video sites, mobile phones and virtual worlds are among the emerging trends that marketers plan to check out this year. Marketers say they are encouraged to try out those tactics for the first time by their agencies.

Ninety-three percent say agencies suggested an increase in spending or begin spending on viral video; 87 percent were urged to spend on viral marketing using networking sites; 60 percent were asked to try wireless ads on mobile networks; and 62 percent said agencies advised advertising in games and virtual worlds.

In March, PQ Media reported that total spending on alternative media – including expenditures on online/mobile, lead generation advertising and consumer-generated media – is predicted to grow 20.2 percent to $88.24 billion in 2008.

Clearly, how companies approach their ad budgeting is going through a major metamorphosis. Of course, online marketing plans and their budgets depend on several factors – including the type of company, product, audience and goals.

The Big Trends

In terms of how advertisers budget their marketing plans, three trends have been shaking up the status quo in 2008 – paid search, social media and ad networks.

The biggest change in the last couple of years is that search ad spending continues to increase – it is expected to rise 32 percent this year to $15.5 billion in the U.S, according to J.P. Morgan Chase.

Some industry watchers call search the greatest advertising medium of all time and many marketers agree. However, Jake Fields, president and creative director of Treeline Interactive, warns that marketers need to be careful because it is easy to waste budgets buying keywords. Fields recommends Spyfu.com, a tool for finding competitors’ keywords.

The rise of social media is one of the dramatic differences between 2007 and 2008. Although a recent Forrester Research report indicates that spending is still relatively small, companies are benefiting from what it offers: consumers contribute brand messaging as opposed to only passively receiving communication from marketers.

There are many ways for new publishers as well as established brands to leverage social media. They could create buzz on a social network before the site launches or do some ad buys on social networks sites, which are cheaper than buys on traditional content like CNN because traditional advertisers are weary of social networks.

The Northern California ski resort, Northstar at Tahoe, has a campaign that encourages customers and staff to post videos and photos with the tags “Northstar, Tahoe” on social media sites such as YouTube and Flickr – with the prospect of being featured on the Northstar site or even the possibility of winning complimentary services. Fields explains that this initiative enabled Northstar at Tahoe to quickly expand its presence within these social media sites from a couple hundred entries to thousands of social media posts that positively represent their brand.

Also gaining traction in 2008 are advertising exchanges, which allow advertisers to bid for impressions on a CPM basis. Cam Balzer, vice president of emerging media at DoubleClick Performics, explains that ad exchanges bring the benefits of search marketing to display advertising – namely, the ability to test a large number of placements (an ad of a particular size on a particular site or even site section) dynamically (no minimum or locked-in budget), to bid more for placements that are driving strong ROI and less for placements that aren’t working.

More and more display inventory of an increasingly high quality is becoming available via advertising exchanges, and this trend should continue as publishers get comfortable with selling inventory in this way.

Balzer says that for a minimal investment, companies can test various approaches to building awareness of their brand. They can secure a large number of impressions at a low CPM to increase reach. If they are also selling advertising on their site, they could sell ad inventory via an exchange to improve the CPM yield of their site.

Regardless of whether companies attempt to leverage one or all of the big online marketing trends for 2008, the ever-evolving interactive space is moving away from cookie cutter campaigns that seem too inflexible to yield results.

To rise above the clutter, companies need to aggressively try the latest tactics like product placement in games and paid ads on networking sites. Mixed approaches are required – recent research finds that when search and display advertising are combined, clicks increase after people see the display ads.

Because there is no silver bullet, marketers need to constantly analyze and optimize their mix. Fields says that campaigns are all a matter of trial and error – it is important to try, pull back, measure, analyze, and then try again.

Taxing Issues

“I love NY” may be the famous motto of the Big Apple, but as of late, it’s not the mantra of any New York-based affiliates.

That’s because in April New York Governor David Paterson (D-NY) signed into law the state’s 2008 – 2009 fiscal year budget that included a provision – initiated last fall by former NY governor Eliot Spitzer – requiring out-of-state Internet retailers to collect sales tax on deliveries made into New York, based solely on a link to a marketer’s website.Called the New York Internet Sales Tax, the law went into effect on June 1, 2008 and is expected to raise $50 million in revenue each year for the state of New York.

The new regulation is causing consternation among the community of online marketers and affiliates. Because the tax laws are complicated and it’s still unclear about the full implications of the New York State Internet Sales tax, many skittish merchants are opting to drop all their New York-based affiliates in an effort to avoid any hassles and taxes. Most U.S. states already require online retailers to collect sales tax if they have a physical presence in the state that the customer is from – it is called nexus. Therefore, if an online retailer has a physical store in New York, or even an office or warehouse, they must collect sales tax from a customer in New York.

However, this new law is broadening the scope of that to say that a business having any affiliate presence in the state of New York is akin to having “an agent or a representative,”thus establishing a physical presence or nexus in New York, which requires taxation.

Merchant Confusion

Prior to the law going into effect, Amazon immediately filed a lawsuit against the State of New York. The online retailer claims the new rules violate the equal protection clause of the constitution because it specifically targets Amazon. “It was carefully crafted to increase state tax revenues by forcing Amazon to collect sales and use taxes,” the complaint says, noting that “state officials have described the statute as the ‘Amazon Tax.'”

Other merchants simply deactivated their affiliates based in New York – many without notice or explanation. Melanie Seery, a New York affiliate, was so outraged by being dropped by merchants that in June she started a blog called NYAffiliateVoice.com to speak out about the taxation issue and its implications for affiliates.

Overstock, which has a large affiliate program that brings in over $100 million annually, was among the first wave of high-profile merchants to unceremoniously drop its NY-based affiliates.

“We had to drop the affiliates because of the risk of not collecting the affiliate tax and then someday having New York win,” Patrick Byrne, CEO, Overstock.com, says. “We would get dinged for that. So we had to drop the affiliates immediately.”

However, Overstock did a quick turnaround and less than a month after deactivating affiliates; they followed Amazon’s lead by filing a suit against New York State.

According Byrne, the Supreme Court has previously ruled – as it related to catalog retailers – that the burden of collecting taxes cannot be put on the out-of-state retailer. “Therefore, I think New York’s law is directly unconstitutional,” Byrne says. “We’re not suing the state for any money. We’re suing to enjoin them from ever acting upon this law, and we’re trying to get the Court to throw out the law.”

He says that decision to seek an injunction is the right, long-term thing to do and that Overstock is putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into this lawsuit. Byrne has suggested that affiliates write a letter to their state legislators claiming that such grassroots campaigns can really make a difference.

Affiliates Take a Stand

That’s what the large community of vocal affiliates on ABestWeb.com is aiming for. Many affiliates at ABW are getting together in New York to examine the issue. At the meeting, to be held on July 28 (after press time), they will discuss the tax issue and talk about obtaining legal services to help better understand the issue and the potential recourses for affiliates. Several ABW affiliates are also participating in a special panel session at the Affiliate Summit East in Boston in mid-August to discuss the issue.

And it’s not just affiliates in New York that are watching this closely. Both affiliates and merchants are concerned that large states seeking to generate additional revenue by collecting similar taxes may follow if New York is successful.

“We just think it’s a bad idea for New York. Additionally, other jurisdictions are going to watch us fight this in New York. Based on how it plays out in the Courts there, they’ll then decide whether or not to go ahead with it as well,” Byrne says.

Affiliate Scott Jangro, CEO of MechMedia, based in Massachusetts, recently gave $250 to a group of New York affiliates to help cover the costs of meeting and legal services.

“I’m not from NY, but these guys are taking it on the chin for the rest of us,” Jangro wrote on his blog. “There’s a lot of money in this industry and I hope that many of us will consider helping out.” You can donate at NYAffiliateVoice.com.

Currently, two Technical Service Bulletins (TSB) related to the law have been released. The latest was issued on the June 30, 2008. The TSB, titled” Additional Information on How Sellers May Rebut the New Presumption Applicable to the Definition of Sales Tax Vendor as Described in TSB-M 08(3)S,” imposes additional requirements that a remote seller must satisfy to rebut the presumption of “vendor” status.

It is no longer sufficient for merchants and networks simply changes the terminology of their contracts with affiliates to include explicate language barring them from activities other than direct linking to websites, according to the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Tax Counsel George Isaacson.

The new TSB says that “each resident representative must submit to the seller, on an annual basis, a signed certification stating that the resident has not engaged in any prohibited solicitation activities in New York State, as described above, at any time during the previous year.”

These activities are listed in the TSB as “distributing flyers, coupons,newsletters, and other printed materials or electronic equivalents; verbal solicitation (e.g., in-personal referrals); initiating telephone calls and sending emails.”

The prior TSB noted that direct marketers could defeat the presumption of nexus if that marketer is not engaged in other solicitation activity on behalf of a company beyond a Web link. “A pure vanilla affiliate marketing arrangement” with only a referral link will be sufficient to defeat the presumption of nexus. Many suggested that networks and vendors simply changed their terms and conditions to reflect this.

Observers say that PPC marketing will not give rise to the presumption of nexus because it is a set fee based on the number of clicks, therefore, falling under the heading of advertising, which is not subject to taxation. Lead generation activities appear to be closer to the definition of advertising under the new law and would not be subject to nexus.

The Networks

Thus far, the networks have mostly been mum – issuing only basic information about the law and instead advising their merchants to seek legal counsel to sort things out. LinkShare held a conference call in conjunction with the DMA to have the DMA’s legal team interpret the regulations. Commission Junction issued a notice to its affiliates, “We are actively monitoring the law and will use reasonable efforts to protect ourselves and our publishers as we deem appropriate. The application of the law is dependent on particular business and factual circumstances, and Commission Junction is not in a position to provide legal and tax advice regarding this law. However, we encourage you to perform the appropriate due diligence as it relates to your business.”

However, ShareASale President and CEO Brian Littleton wrote a little more in depth in his blog, “our first response to this will be to provide this report which will allow merchants to know where they stand regarding the law. Our plan at this time is to treat any case where a merchant wishes to terminate NY affiliates with great care and caution. If a merchant requests to do this, there is little we can do to stop them – but ShareASale will be performing the task so that merchants aren’t accessing information which traditionally is considered private within the network.”

Littleton went on to say, “There is a chance that this plan will not work. My hope is that we can warn merchants that terminating NY is a bad plan – and one that needs rethinking. If our plan doesn’t work – and we end up needing to provide more information to merchants, we may end up having to do so. I say this as a heads up to affiliates because while we don’t like to give out info, we also don’t want to put merchants in a place that makes it difficult to adhere to the laws of their state or others.

We can’t offer legal advice to merchants and/or affiliates regarding these laws. But I can offer my extreme dissatisfaction with the State of NY for their short term thinking and complete disregard for their citizens. I am personally confident that this will all be reversed and I am hopeful that for those affiliates in NY – it comes sooner rather than later.”

Meanwhile, it’s a game of wait-and-see for affiliates and merchants as the legal wheels slowly turn. Many observers say it will be a while before we find out if this law is declared unconstitutional or is upheld and other states begin adopting similar regulations as a means of generating state revenue.