ShareASale.com founder and CEO Brian Littleton runs what is considered to be the fourth largest performance network in the United States. Littleton has earned the respect of the industry and garnered a dedicated following of merchants and affiliates by taking a firm stand on issues. His company is the only network that does not allow downloadable applications of any kind. His personal style and outspoken views on important issues are reflected in this wide-ranging interview.
LP: How does that impact the company?
BL: We want to be very approachable to clients, merchants and affiliates. The feedback has been that everyone wants to be able get a hold of a real person to get their questions and concerns answered. We want to serve everyone and not just those that are making super-affiliate type of revenue. Even if an affiliate is making a few hundred dollars, we want to be able to answer their questions. Now we have beefed up and are able to do that. It is a core thing that is very important to me.
LP: What about the growth of the sales team?
BL: We are working to grow our base of merchants and need sales people to handle that. Right now we are at 2,588 merchants. Getting over the 2,500 mark was a big milestone for us and we are looking to continue that growth. Of those, 2,435 are retail pay-per-sales commission-based merchant programs. We are a retail-focused network, which is very different from the large variety of CPA networks dealing with lead-based offers. We have 244 lead-gen merchants. They are not the core of what we do. We are adding nearly 100 merchants every month – of course, there is always some churn in the math. But unlike the other networks, we are targeting a different type of merchant. They are smaller, non-Fortune 100 companies. We want to help anyone, no matter what size, that wants to take a shot at performance-based marketing. It’s not easy to provide a system that works for everyone – whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a two-person company.
LP: Are you leveraging technology to help with that scalability issue?
BL: One of our main focuses is technology. It’s a big differentiator for us in the space. We are always coming up with new ways for merchants and affiliates to leverage technology – like our widgets for video. They are unique across the board.
LP: What are some of the goals for SAS in 2009?
BL: We are very focused on networking. We are always trying to find a better way for affiliates and merchants to talk to each other. It’s difficult in the network model. Often, merchants are over-eager. Merchants tend to think their offers are the best. Affiliates are more selective. They don’t want offers all the time. We are looking at better ways to make that happen. We want to let the merchants interact more without so much material that it’s impossible for affiliates to read it all. It’s a big thing for us to get it right.
LP: What are some of your challenges over the next 12 months?
BL: I think the industry will be faced with many more complex compliance issues in 2009. There will be more toolbars in 2009. Merchants are looking at a lot of different types of affiliates – coupon affiliates, PPC affiliates and loyalty affiliates. As a whole, questions will be answered as the individual networks take their own routes. We are working on PPC issues. We introduced a PPC Violation Report which allows merchants to upload a screenshot of those they feel are in violation. We then do more research into the allegation. Because merchants don’t always know if an affiliate is really bidding. We dig deep and decide if there has been a violation. We have a three strikes and you’re out policy. If the affiliate is in violation of a merchant’s PPC policy, then we remove them from the network. We give the affiliate a three month grace period to get in compliance, but if, after that, they have are not in compliance, they are out. The goal is not to cut out those that made an honest mistake but those that are continually abusing the rules and praying on merchants that have difficultly policing that activity. Toolbars and loyalty go together. More and more toolbars are coming out. It’s like everyone is seeing their competitors doing it, so they do. More are popping up. Whatever has been the position of those in the past, adware and toolbars present a unique set of challenges because they all do different things – notifications, pop-ups, etc. We feel that we need to look at each one.
LP: That sounds like a Herculean effort.
BL: There is not an easy way around that, to maintain quality inside a network. You have to make sure a toolbar’s behavior doesn’t violate the rules you have. It’s not something typically that individual merchants can keep up with. Maintaining compliance is on the network side, because we have the data. We allow the merchant to have a say, but the network should be handling those issues. It’s a lot of work, but it’s part of the network role to keep on top of emerging technologies. It happened with PPC and coupons, and happened with toolbars as well. They’ve been around for years. It’s nothing new, but there seems to have been an explosion. I’m basing that on the number we’ve seen lately and the perceived success merchants see with competitors’ toolbars. They see them working for others, so they want them. I think it will be a huge challenge in 2009.
LP: What impact have you seen on the performance marketing space because of the current economic conditions?
BL: I think affiliate marketing will increase in profile because of the depression of the CPM or ad marketing. We won’t know for sure for a while. Some merchants will look to affiliate marketing to fill gaps. That’s traditionally what affiliate marketing has been best at. That’s been a strong point of the affiliate marketing industry since the beginning.
LP: Do you have any specific goals for SAS that you can share?
BL: We don’t have any specific goals as of yet. We set our goals more broadly. It’s a personal style of mine. I prefer to say things like, “we like to get closer to our publisher base, rather than we are going to do X a specific number of times.” The main thing we will be doing is continual work on the technology; it is at the core of what we do. We want to come up with new tools and technology for not only those who have a greater understanding, but for the first-timers who join the network. We want to make it simple for newer merchants and affiliates to understand. It’s a back-to-basics approach. I think that will make us more attractive. On the relationship side, we are looking to get closer to our affiliate base. We are targeting affiliates that we feel historically have been aligned with other networks. We are also letting our existing base of affiliates know that we have even more stuff they might be interested in.
LP: Has style been a big differentiator for the company?
BL: I don’t know. I don’t like to make presumptions. I like to highlight what I think we do the best. Certainly, there are clients on every network that are happy as clams. But we do focus on the results and quality of what a merchant is getting out of their relationship with us. This shows in the adware discussion. We are the only network that doesn’t allow adware. I know it’s a loaded works and there are discrepancies over exactly what adware is. Years have been spent hashing that out in the industry. But for me, it comes down to making sure that the quality of sale is just as important as the volume of sales. Sales tied to adware are not true growth. It’s important to report these activities to the networks and that the networks do something about it. But that’s a choice that’s being made by each network. Not keeping up with compliance is detrimental to the industry as a whole, over the short and long term. That’s our stance.
LP: By not accepting certain types of merchants, ShareASale hasn’t grown to the same size as the some of the other networks.
BL: The size issue has forced us to be good, if not better, with our technology. You can’t be the small size we are and have that number of merchants with bad technology. You need automation. Our datafeeds are automated and registration is automated. You can’t have bad technology. Everything needs to be smooth to support that volume of merchants. We are doing things faster. We are a different type of company. There is a big difference between us, a small company, and a privately-held company.
LP: But you are competing against companies with huge resources. Have things changed for your company since Performics was bought by Google?
BL: Not really. It’s business as usual. I know people there and we have a good relationship with them. Of course, it’s important for any company to know what’s going on with their competitors. People brought up the possibility of conflict, but Google sold off Performics’ search division. The name and backing of Google may help them, but in the end I think it’s a positive for everyone in the industry – especially if the largest brands get interested in joining the performance marketing space.
LP: Would you consider offers to buy SAS?
BL: Our technology is built inside the company. I would rather build in-house. We get more value that way and so far we have built everything we have. There could be minor exceptions – if there is new technology we could get faster through an acquisition – but I like to think that building it in house gives us long-term value. I’m conservative with our assets. We have grown organically and we are profitable. I’m not going to put that at risk for a new technology.