Searching for Alternatives

It was a cold night in Pennsylvania when Leila Crooks was on Digg.com, the community-based popularity site, and came across a story about a "slanket" – a fleece blanket with sleeves that offers the freedom of arm movement so people can play video games or surf computers while snuggling under a blanket.

Crooks was intrigued, bought one, loved it and sent the link to three of her friends who all bought them. At $50 a pop, the maker of the Slanket was benefiting from Digg. The number of sites for finding information online – that are alternatives to search engines – is growing and the traffic to them is increasing. People go to them for different reasons: to find experts who can provide the best possible information, to have material presented in a different way, to see what other users value as important and to find information they know will be relevant to them specifically.

The Slanket example illustrates the difference between search (or "recovery") and discovery. Search (or recovery) is when you are looking for something specific – a confirmation of information that you know already exists, such as information about the governor of New Jersey or a recipe for meatloaf. Discovery is when you find something you were previously unaware of, weren’t specifically looking for or didn’t know that you’d have an interest in. It’s akin to reading additional stories in the newspaper because of the proximity to the article you wanted to read.

Amanda Watlington, founder of Searching for Profit, says social media sites like Del.icio.us or Reddit.com are organized to present information in different ways, which can appeal to people "depending on how their brains work." Users go to the Most Popular section of these sites and check out what others deem to be interesting.

Internet marketer Carsten Cumbrowski says he passes time on StumbleUpon.com, a browsing engine, to find sites that other online marketers find useful as well as to find sites that entertain him. He says it has a good filtering system – "if I say I don’t like something, I never get anything similar again."

Online marketers that want to leverage StumbleUpon can try its advertising system, which includes the link of the advertiser’s website in the regular StumbleUpon rotation. When a sponsored site is shown, a green button on the toolbar appears. However, some advertisers who have placed requests to get visitors in their category have received notices from StumbleUpon that there are not a sufficient number of people to view the ad in the category selected. Skeptics wonder if this is because StumbleUpon does not want to deal with a low ad spend or if they are overstating their traffic numbers.

Cutting Through the Clutter

As users become savvier in locating information, they realize that search engines are heavily monetized and loaded with nearly as many marketing messages as sought-after information, and they seek out alternatives, according to Sam Harrelson, general manager of the East Coast U.S., for Clicks2Customers.

Others agree that "less noise" and the struggle to find relevant information on search engines often lead people to alternative sites.

For example, if users are looking for tax help, they might go to Digg and read an article like "five ways to get your taxes done" rather than entering "tax help" into a search engine, which yields promotional sites about tax services, according to Chris Winfield, president of 10e20, an Internet marketing company.

Users often go to review or opinion sites to find information to complement what they have found on search engines. Winfield says he will search Google for a dentist in New York to get some names and then go to Yelp.com to look at their reviews. Searching for Profit’s Watlington says she searches for hotels in New York and then goes to TripAdvisor.com for the reviews.

Tim Mayer, vice president of product management of search at Yahoo, explains that when users don’t find the answers they want on search engines, they can ask a question on Answers.com. The site includes 4 million answers from publishers, original content created by its editorial team, community-contributed articles from Wikipedia and answers from WikiAnswers.com.

WikiAnswers is collaboratively written by volunteers "in the spirit of growing information for the public good," according to its website. For contributions that users find to be worthwhile, users vote with Trustpoints, which are indicators of how trusted the last contributor is as a member of the WikiAnswers community (as opposed to a measurement of how much you can trust the actual answer to a question). Trusting a user’s reputation is vital to not only WikiAnswers but to all social sites where users provide information or indicate the value of information (such as through tagging, bookmarking or ranking).

Just like in off-line world, the value put on information depends on who is giving it, and for this reason, users’ profiles can be weighty and influential. If you are reading an article about JavaScript on Del.icio.us, you look to see what other articles a user has saved – it gives you an understanding of that person’s knowledge base. It is similar to looking at someone’s book or record collection – it lends credibility and perspective.

Trust Me

Techmeme.com is one of online marketing expert Jim Kukral’s favorite sites because it decides what news is important as opposed to a site that simply aggregates feeds. "Techmeme saves me time. There is no need to go to a ton of blogs to figure out what is going on. That’s power to me," he says.

Techmeme works differently than other news sites. GoogleNews, a news aggregator site, uses its own software to determine what stories to display, but the sources are selected by a team of editors. Similarly, SFGate.com, the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, also features stories decided on by editors. Techmeme creator Gabe Rivera explains that Techmeme uses a proprietary algorithm, which changes frequently, to analyze posts to determine what Web pages are being discussed or cited most often on the Web.

Blogger Robert Scoble (www.Scobleizer.com) explains that Rivera started by selecting 1,000 of the world’s top tech bloggers, put them in his server, studied their linking behavior and created a "fabric" that now includes thousands of blogs and websites. When Apple’s iPhone came out, high-profile bloggers in the fabric such as Michael Arrington (www.TechCrunch.com), Guy Kawasaki (http://blog.guykawasaki.com) and Scoble were all blogging about the new device. Because of this, the iPhone headline stayed up on Techmeme almost 24 hours a day over the summer. Scoble says he believes that information from a site like Techmeme is more valuable than information from Google because it’s more SEO-resistant – it is much more difficult for its links to be bought. For these top bloggers to link to each other, they must trust each other. "If I trust Arrington and he trusts Kawasaki and he trusts Joe Smith, then I am going to infer that I trust Joe Smith because my chain has trusted him. It would be very hard for a search engine optimizer to break into this chain," he says.

Dana Todd, president emeritus of SEMPO and SiteLab co-founder, says that she thinks it’s rather limited thinking to assume that all SEO is harmful and that SEO is the only market manipulation tactic on the Internet. "In any market, there are marketers – and they do exactly what marketers do. They attempt to find hype-holes in the system and exploit them." She notes that it took about 15 minutes for users of Digg to start manipulating the results. The findings of a September study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) warn that just because a news story is popular at a website (or within a certain community) does not mean that it is the most "important" story.

The PEJ study compared the headlines of user-driven news sites (including Digg and Reddit), and Yahoo News, which offers an editor-based news page and three lists of user-ranked news (most recommended, most viewed and most emailed), and compared these with the news agenda found in mainstream news outlets.

The study illustrates how the news looks different when audience members pick what story they want to read or recommend, as opposed to when a professional journalist makes the selection. The study found that the most popular stories on user-driven news are more fleeting and often draw on a controversial list of sources and reflect the interests of the participants in the community – stories on Digg and Del.icio.us tend to be more about technology, which is why they are popular among online marketers.

User-driven news isn’t new – in October the site Slashdot celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a site where users could scrutinize science, science fiction and technology- related news. It is credited for being one of the first sites to provide forum-style comments alongside user-submitted news stories. Just like Del.icio.us, you wouldn’t go to Slashdot to find out information on the latest U.S. billion-dollar defense policy bill.

In a post on his blog, Gaping Void, Web 2.0 writer/cartoonist Hugh MacLeod posits that if he were looking for a Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix, he could Google "Vietnamese restaurant Phoenix" and possibly end up at a bad restaurant. Or as a blogger with a good-sized audience, he can ask about his dinner plans on Twitter or Facebook.com and get a couple of good recommendations within minutes. "Because I know these folks, or at least, they know me " there’s a certain amount of trust and bonhomie that comes with the recommendation," says MacLeod.

Social networking site Facebook has received lots of buzz and high financial valuation because of the "social graph" – a reference to graph theory that models the connections between things. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is not a social network but a tool that facilitates the information flow between users and their connections. It is the ability for users to get more out of their connections that people find compelling.

The Power of the People

According to Scoble, Facebook, Techmeme and Mahalo – a human-powered search engine that creates comprehensive and spam-free results for the most popular search terms – will kill Google in the next four years because users will get their information from these types of sites where trust is more than what algorithmic search results provide.

In October, Facebook added Facebook Flyers, which offers two different advertising options to the social network. Flyers Basic enables marketers to run ads on a $2 CPM with targeting based on age, gender and network. Flyers Pro lets marketers use pay per click with a minimum of 1 cent per click. As with other PPC ad buys, a higher max price per click increases the chance your ad will be shown. Online expert Kukral says Facebook Flyers "is basically Google AdWords within Facebook." He says that as an online marketer in Cleveland, this gives him the ability to do things like drill down to specific demographics with Facebook and target those users for a local "event."

"I can create an event in Facebook and then look at all the people on Facebook that are in the area and maybe have certain political or religious beliefs [based on their Facebook profiles] and then invite them to participate in an offer or event," Kukral says. "That is powerful and it could be the next big thing."

Part of trusting someone’s advice or being receptive to marketing messages is awareness of users’ tastes. David Rodnitzky, vice president of advertising at Mercantila – a collection of hundreds of online specialty stores selling to U.S. and Canadian consumers – says StumbleUpon and movie site Flixster.com are popular because they leverage collaborative filtering.

Here’s an example of how collaborative filtering works, according to Rodnitzky: Two users rate 200 movies on Flixster, and 90 percent of the time the ratings of the same movie are consistent (user A gives "Star Wars" a 10, user B gives it a 10). So if user A wants to see a Chinese-language movie but has never seen one before, and user B has seen five of them, the odds are good that whichever Chinese-language movie user B ranked a 10 will also be a movie that user A likes. When user B types in "best Chinese movies," the results are tailored to his specific likes and dislikes.

"Over time, if a collaborative filtering engine gains enough information about an individual user, it’s possible for the results to be very powerful – and far more accurate than what you get by just doing a search on a search engine," Rodnitzky says. However, the collaborative filtering engine first needs to have enough users to make those ratings viable.

Wikipedia.com is a popular search alternative that has garnered enough users to make it worthwhile. It reached 2 million answers in the English-language version in September 2007. Since starting in 2001, more than 100,000 registered users have made at least 10 edits each to Wikipedia articles. It is in the search toolbar in the Firefox browser and the sixth-most-visited network of websites worldwide. Internet marketer Cumbrowski claims Wikipedia is exceptional because it lists references – users can find out what experts think are the best resources for a topic – which obviates the need to research a topic any further.

Specialization

Finding the best information from the most informed user base is driving the growth in specialized communities and vertical search engines. Cumbrowski says there will be more specialization. As good examples of that, he points to BUMPZee.com for the affiliate community and Danny Sullivan’s Sphinn.com community for search information.

The explosion of content available on the Internet is fueling this specialization. Although Web 2.0 has made creating connections easier, it has made searching for information more difficult than ever. Because users’ queries are usually ambiguous, Google cannot serve the needs of every user. In turn, that has brought about an increase in the number of vertical properties, which restrict the scope of a search (see sidebar, Page 46).

Stephanie Agresta, a founder of the Conversation Group, says social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter fill in the gaps. They allow individuals to tap in to different levels of networks of people to get information from someone who knows about a particular subject. Sites such as Mahalo and Squidoo.com enable users to view information through a specific user’s lens – the movement now seems to be toward a custom feed based on an individual’s friends and context, and away from algorithms.

But SEMPO’s Todd says it took only about 20 minutes for her to get bored with Facebook "because of all the ridiculous plug-ins and faux human interactions." She says that search engine optimization is not really the issue here. Google dominates that area because it caters to the very lowest common needs of users, and does so very elegantly. "It’s a tool, not a destination."

Moving forward, more of these types of sites are expected to pop up. Mixx, a new social news site – a cross between LinkedIn, Reddit and MyYahoo – is a social network that lets users find and share news based on their interests and location.

Another social network service is Ning, an online platform for creating social websites and social networks. Ning helps Web publishers create social networks around their content – more than 100,000 sites have used Ning’s tools to add their own networks. The sites range from a network of family members sharing content and photos to large networks such as Indiepublic, a social network for independent designers and artists.

Social sites are limited to certain topics, as several industries don’t have enough people using them yet and it’s tough to find any long-tail information on social sites, according to Web strategy consultant Cameron Olthuis. He expects that search engines and "alternative sites" will be completely necessary for people to continue to find information.

Sweet Charity

If you think getting people to shop online is tough, consider the plight of nonprofit organizations. They ask people for their time and/or money, but instead of receiving goods, these donors simply get the satisfaction of doing good.

Although nonprofit organizations may have a different agenda from the for-profit online marketers, many of the goals (building relationships, income, brand awareness, etc.) are the same.

During the early part of the Internet era, many charitable organizations limited their Web activities to maintaining a website that accepted donations and member registrations, but over the past few years these groups have expanded to leverage many of the leading marketing tools.

Donations to nonprofit organizations are growing but remain only a small part of overall giving. Online donations in the U.S. doubled between 2003 and 2005 to $4.5 billion, but that is just 1.7 percent of the $260 billion in total donations, according to the GivingUSA Foundation.

Most people prefer to give off-line, so organizations establish different objectives for online activities and combine their direct marketing initiatives. In addition to getting people to donate, nonprofit online marketing goals also include increasing membership, encouraging activism, making resources available to those in need, issue awareness, building community and promoting word of mouth marketing. However, nonprofits typically operate under tight budgets where success is measured in lives affected and their experiences can offer useful lessons to all marketers.

Tools of the Trade

Employing search engine marketing and banner ads may be critical for many businesses, but nonprofits are selective if they choose to participate at all. Todd Whitley, vice president of e-marketing for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, is a proponent of SEM and display ads if the right audience segment is targeted. Whitley focuses his group’s search marketing plans on reaching caregivers who might need the organization’s services and “to find people who have relevancy to your mission.” Purchased keywords should be as specific to the target audience (such as “treatment”) as possible, Whitley says.

Joel Bartlett, marketing manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, bought banner ads on social networking sites such as MySpace but wasn’t satisfied with the traffic generated. However, when the group made its display available for posting on individuals’ personal pages and encouraged members to share them with their friends, traffic greatly increased. “The value of word of mouth goes further than any banner ad we could afford,” Bartlett says. As with commercial enterprises, customers (in this case organization members) are the best salespeople, and giving them the tools to increase brand awareness online can be very successful.

PETA is selective in its search marketing spending, limiting the scope to the related terms that have proven to be cost-effective. The PETA website has high natural search rankings for many of the terms related to protecting animals because of the abundance of links to the site, so Bartlett doesn’t see a need to participate in SEM for obvious keywords. “We’re already the No. 1 search term [for animal rights] so we don’t need to buy ads.”

Bartlett says that instead of using contextual or display ads on general interest sites, PETA advertises with advertising service Blogads.com to reach influential Web participants. Blogads works with bloggers who have loyal readership and are more likely to get involved and to spread the message to others, enabling PETA to reach a smaller but more receptive audience than mass media sites.

While search is not a major component of many nonprofits’ online marketing strategy, another performance marketing staple has proven successful – email marketing. Through newsletters and issue-specific alerts, PETA encourages people to forward the information from its website (including images of animal abuse) to their friends that will prompt action.

When it’s an email from a trusted friend, “people get outraged” about how animals are treated, Bartlett says. During PETA’s offline events, the organization collects email addresses to expand the audience of its newsletter and outreach activities.

Habitat for Humanity purchased Google AdWords for a time but cut back on online advertising recently, according to Senior Director of Direct Marketing Timothy Daugherty. The best-performing words were derivations of the organization’s name, and since the website could be found with natural search, search marketing was deemed unnecessary.

The group, which builds affordable housing for lower-income families, now focuses on increasing communications with people who have previously donated to maximize their marketing dollars, Daugherty says. Habitat for Humanity received about 10 percent ($8 million of the $80 million) of its total 2006 donations online, according to Daugherty.

The group has been successful in increasing awareness by getting list appends (email addresses for previous donors) for their direct marketing databases to reduce costs and open another line of communications, says Daugherty. Contacting donors via email is also effective in stimulating activism online and off-line, and is part of the organization’s effort to integrate marketing efforts, he notes. For issue-oriented campaigns, email works well in getting people to write letters and emails to public officials, he adds.

The National Council of Churches has collected more than 100,000 email addresses by getting members to forward information to friends and by requesting addresses on donation forms. “We ask people to share our email blasts with their friends,” and those who respond to forwarded emails are automatically added to the distribution list, says Daniel Webster, the organization’s director of media relations. The frequent communications about issues in the news help to build a virtual community and enable two-way communication, according to Webster.

In addition to most donations being made off-line, most word of mouth marketing occurs off-line as well, but email can be effective in spurring people to talk off-line with friends about an organization or contributions. Nearly 90 percent of people who have donated to a charity say they have urged others to give in person, but just 19 percent had done so by email, according to a 2005 Donor Trends survey by Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company and The Prime Group. Email has proven successful in promoting off-line activism that inspires people to attend and volunteer at events that are an important component of nonprofit activities.

Creativity Key for Tight Budgets

Operating within tight marketing budgets forces many nonprofits to be creative in their programs and partnerships, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Whitley.

While working for the American Lung Association, his group created a significant revenue stream by connecting for-profits to its members who voluntarily participate, according to Whitley. The organization created a campaign that asked members with asthma to provide input about how they managed their illness. Glaxo-Smith-Kline offered information about its related pharmaceutical products and gained valuable information by collecting data from the campaign, Whitley says. “[For-profit companies] don’t have access to live communities, so we provided a benefit to them.”

Whitley says nonprofits can also maximize their resources by collaborating with peer organizations with related goals. The American Lung Association joined with the Centers for Disease Control on an online campaign to publicize public flu clinics. By sharing the costs and their collective memberships, the two groups were able to reach a wider audience more quickly than acting individually. Companies with complementary products or services can likewise team up for their mutual benefit in marketing efforts.

The American Red Cross is using online communications tools and commerce to help replace its aging membership with a younger demographic, according to Darren Irby, the group’s vice president of communications. Irby says the base of its donors is over 65 and since “those people are dying off” and are less likely to be online, the Red Cross is targeting a younger generation with its online marketing efforts.

Since the under-40 crowd spends ample time chatting online, the group is generating revenue by piggybacking on advertising delivered via instant messaging (IM) software. The Red Cross teamed up with Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger advertising program. To encourage people to use the IM software, Microsoft is donating part of the revenue from the ads that appear during an IM conversation to the charity of the participants’ choice. Red Cross members feel good about encouraging others to use the software, and the organization gets exposure and extra income.

The Red Cross is increasing brand awareness by going retro with the branded merchandise on sale at its online store. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the group last year, the Red Cross began selling T-shirts, coffee mugs and hats emblazoned with a vintage World War II logo. The garb, which has sold well beyond expectations, “is a way to link the older and younger generations,” Irby says.

Instead of buying banners on social networking sites, the Red Cross makes tools available so that members can provide free exposure by promoting the organization on their personal pages. The Red Cross has set up groups on MySpace and LinkedIn, and has created banners, logos and promotional widgets to spread the word.

Irby recognizes that younger people like the immediacy of being able to support the Red Cross’ response efforts to a national disaster, but so far the group has not produced any viral videos for sites such as YouTube. He says workers in the field are too busy helping to film their activities, and he doesn’t encourage people to film relief efforts for fear of “losing control of the messaging,” he says. Instead, the Red Cross has created videos and posted them on an FTP site that is accessible by the media.

The Red Cross is also reaching out to bloggers to make the blood donation process less intimidating. The organization is requesting that bloggers write about the music that they listen to while giving blood. “Charities need to engage in two-way communication” if they want to develop a meaningful relationship with members and volunteers, says Irby.

Most nonprofits do not utilize formal affiliate programs, but PETA provides merchandise as incentives for people to promote its organization online and off-line, according to Bartlett. Through the “PETA2 Street Team” initiative, the group gives volunteers missions to accomplish, such as contacting people via email, adding links to PETA on their websites, or off-line activities, and volunteers earn points that can be redeemed for merchandise from the group’s online store. By offering “posters, CDs and autographed stuff from a band,” PETA is connecting with the young volunteers’ interests through relevant rewards, Bartlett says.

PETA also employs viral marketing to increase awareness online. The group has set up a website protesting Kentucky Fried Chicken’s animal handling and created an automatic sign generator that enables people to create virtual billboards about the restaurant chain and post them on personal websites. The group created an area on the photo-sharing website Flickr for volunteers to post images. Creating tools for people to generate their own content around the group’s messaging is “part of the strategy of empowering users and encouraging word of mouth” that is highly effective marketing, says Bartlett.

Coordinating the online activities of the groups within a national organization can maximize resources and create a more cohesive strategy, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Whitley. Nonprofit departments (like their commercial counterparts) can be territorial at times, but sharing the online successes and collaborating on projects will unify the organization. Whitley says the Web group can break down barriers and it “is critical [for the online group] to become a leader for interfacing cross-divisionally within an organization.” Similarly, online marketing initiatives can unify the divisions within a company by sharing their experiences and using the collective intelligence to optimize campaigns.

John Gartner is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift and is the Editor of Matter-mag.com.

Social Bookmarking Is the New Search Frontier

Internet users are finally taking searching and finding into their own hands. The concept of saving, tagging and sharing bookmarks – "social bookmarking" – is no longer a Web 2.0 gimmick or just a convenient way to access your Favorites at the Internet café. Social bookmarking is poised to become the real social search and it promises to be the next frontier for performance marketing retailers.

Social search sounds like the greatest thing since the five-minute WordPress install if you’re a searcher who is sick of searching through spam. After Googling through endless spam sites, it’s a breath of fresh air to soar into those tag clouds where people – not search engine algorithms – are considered the best judges of quality and relevancy. Quality sites far outnumber the junk and you find yourself wondering why you bother with dubious relevance and results from the Big 3 search engine powers.

If you’re a performance marketing retailer with vision and imagination one look at the social bookmarking scene reveals a map of a billion-acre wilderness filled with frontier-style opportunities.

For some time you’ve known that there are online markets you can’t reach with PPC or organic search because even though they need your product, they don’t know it yet. They aren’t looking for it by typing query strings into a search box. Social bookmarking offers the possibility of tactfully and intelligently touching those markets – and making sales – without having to compete against SEO-spam sites.

Your colleagues see thousands of people moving their Favorites from their local computer to social bookmarking sites as just one more Web 2.0 fad, but when you visit sites such as Ma.gnolia.com, you see much more. It’s a shared environment in which word-of-mouth marketing can flourish in the ultimate human-edited link exchange. At this moment, you can insert your online presence in a thousand different places – all without interrupting or alienating consumers.

As a forward-looking retailer, you must penetrate into social bookmarking spaces to gain consumer trust in the future. Although Google, Yahoo and MSN would have you believe otherwise, typing words into a search engine query box is not the be-all and end-all when people make buying decisions.

A study published by the nonprofit Pew Internet & American Life Project in early 2005 showed that close to half of respondents only use search engines a few times a week and two-thirds "could walk away from search engines without upsetting their lives very much."

Another Pew study in January 2006 showed that 34 percent of respondents said the Internet helped them find advice and support from other people and concluded that: "The Internet helps build social capital. … The Internet supports social networks."

The term social networks is a fancy way of saying that real people connect with other real people online. Social capital means that human relationships can be a tangible business asset.

And if you’re a visionary retailer, you realize that social bookmarking generates social proof – that elusive marketing energy that multiplies the power of all your marketing channels. The more social bookmarking capital you own, the more marketing energy you create.

First, organic search engine placement doesn’t have the same impact it once did. With only 10 first-page spots available for any Google keyword, holding a top placement for any length of time seems unlikely. The algorithm must evolve, and you might get devolved with it. But if you offer consumers a great shopping experience and it’s tagged for your keyword by 10,000 social bookmarkers, the backlinks and traffic will continue to flow. And rigging the social bookmark system is virtually impossible. The junk naturally falls to the bottom – instead of the top – of the heap.

Second, the more social bookmarking capital you acquire, the more potential marketing points open up. Pushing your message and interrupting consumers becomes a thing of the past. Tag clouds take care of agility, timeliness and relevancy for you, since real people tag sites based on what’s in their mind at the time. And while your site may get tagged in some quirky ways, quirks are what make the human brain much less prone to manipulation than an algorithm.

And finally, it’s clear that affiliates are the only marketing force that can efficiently generate social bookmarking capital. Your business can’t and shouldn’t spam the social bookmark sites. Commercializing a social bookmark space is generally frowned upon, if not forbidden.

For merchants, your affiliates are really in the best position to plug in to the minds of these social networks and place links to their pre-sales pages appropriately, within a human context of trusted recommendations. Today’s savvy affiliates are becoming experts at navigating social networks for a very good reason: They’ve had their content-filled, high-quality, user-oriented sites shunned by the search engines. Undaunted, they compete by joining grassroots Web 2.0 communities and tucking their affiliate sites deep into the heart of the social bookmarking universe. If you’re a forward-looking retailer, you want these pioneer affiliates representing you now.

 

ANIK SINGAL is CEO of Affiliate Classroom, which he founded in 2004 along with the Affiliate Classroom magazine. He started off as an Internet marketer and an affiliate in 2001 before becoming an online marketing consultant.

The Social Security

Sites that rely on user-generated content are altering the human fabric of the Internet and the way that performance marketers reach out to customers and merchants and communicate with each other. Online marketers are testing all of the new communication methods – blogs, social networking sites, wikis, and photo and video-sharing sites – to see if these platforms can help them drum up business.

And with good reason. The popularity of many of these emerging areas is seeing steady, if not explosive, growth. Blogs, which allow users to easily post new content to their site as well as effortlessly link to other sites, are on fire. Forty-four percent of American Internet users read and post on blogs, discussion boards and other consumer-generated media outlets according to a February 2006 Pew Internet & American Life project study. Technorati reports that approximately 70,000 new blogs are created every day and that the total number of blogs doubles at least twice a year.

But it’s not just blogs. Social networks, such as Bebo and MySpace, are communities in which an initial set of founders sends out messages inviting members of their own personal networks to join the site, and new members repeat the process, are a new national phenomenon. As of July, MySpace has 72 million members, Bebo has more than 57 million members and hi5 has more than 40 million.

In addition, there are single-use social networks where people share one type of topic such as YouTube.com for video, Flickr.com for photos, Digg.com for news stories, Del.icio.us.com for links and Wikipedia.com for encyclopedia articles.

All these types of collaborative platforms are the crux of the Web 2.0 model where the ease-of-use technology allows anyone the ability to contribute.

These sites are built to harness the breadth of experiences so everyone can benefit from the collective wisdom – they have the advantages of collaborative group input but because these services are online and can be anonymous (through aliases), users are not afraid to dissent, according to Jim Nail, a former analyst at Forrester covering the social networking space, who is now the chief marketing officer of Cymfony. “Therefore there is not concern about the dangers of ‘groupthink,’ when individuals intentionally conform to what they perceive to be the consensus of the group.”

And when it comes to growing social groups MySpace.com leads the pack. In July, Hitwise announced that MySpace.com, for the first time, was the No. 1-ranked website in the United States based on the number of visits. MySpace.com accounted for 4.46 percent of all Internet visits in the U.S. for the week ending July 8, 2006 and has propelled past Yahoo Mail. Bebo increased its market share of visits by 21 percent from May 2006, the largest percentage increase among the social networking websites.

THE SOCIAL BUTTERFLIES

So who’s hanging out at these social networking sites?

Nielsen has identified a group, called “My.Internet,” that’s especially likely to visit networking sites. Sixteen percent of Web users belong to this group, which has a median age of 32. Nearly all members of this group – 99 percent – visit blogs; 84 percent are members of an online community; 57 percent have their own blogs; and 22 percent use RSS feeds. Nielsen reported that “My.Internet” users tend to be highly engaged with most of the websites they visit, as measured by 10 factors, including whether they “liked” the site and were likely to return.

With all of the promising information about traffic and demographics, advertisers are eager to get their messages in front of the young and wired demographic that favors the social networking sites. Combined spending on blog, podcasts and RSS advertising skyrocketed 198.4 percent to $20.4 million in 2005. It is expected to grow another 144.9 percent to $49.8 million in 2006, according to an April 2006 report from PQ Media, a custom media research firm.

But advertising on social networking sites can be tricky, and marketers need to take strategic and creative approaches. The audiences skew younger, and often these younger audiences are exceptionally adept at tuning out traditional banner advertising – therefore pushing ads no longer works.

Mark Brooks, an analyst for OPW.com, says, “Interruption marketing is old school and not appreciated by the younger audience. Marketers wanting to use social networks need to put their thinking caps on and get creative.Case in point: Burger King is sponsoring downloads of episodes of 24. Very cool and very viral and plays to the MySpace demographic perfectly.”

In addition to advertisements and sponsorships, marketers know that the buzz generated on social networks is much more of a powerful endorsement than any form of promotion. In fact word of mouth is widely considered the most powerful form of marketing and the wave of the future for influencing sales. According to a December 2005 McKinsey report, approximately two-thirds of all economic activity in the U.S. is influenced by shared opinions about a product, brand or service.

Forrester Research’s 2004 study showed that over 60 percent of consumers trust product recommendations found in online sources like discussion boards. A 2004 RoperASW report, now part of GfK Group, found that over 90 percent of Americans cite word of mouth as one of the best sources of ideas and information. Further, they rate word of mouth twice as important as advertising or editorial content and put one-and-a-half times more value on it today than they did 25 years ago.

Dave Evans, moderator of the social networking panel at Ad:Tech San Francisco in May and co-founder of Digital Voodoo, along with Dave Ellett, CEO of Powered, examined the purchasing funnel of ACP (awareness, consideration, purchase). They saw that the majority of traditional advertising dollars, such as interruptive efforts like television commercials, is applied at the awareness point in the ACP. But because consumers are increasingly finding ways to block advertising through TiVo, spam filters and do-not-call lists, the impact of these types of traditional advertising has diminished. Now marketers are not only tasked with how to get their messages through to potential customers, but they must also worry that their potential customers are increasingly talking with each other and “comparing notes.”

To counter this problem, Evans says that, “When marketers reach out in the consideration phase, they contact consumers at the precise moments that they are thinking about a product or service. Through consumer-generated media and word of mouth, evangelists can actively impact consideration processes.”

The advantage of social networking for marketers is that it does not involve interrupting like an advertisement (which is in the awareness phase) does.

LEVERAGING SOCIAL NETWORKS

There are a variety of ways marketers are taking advantage of consumer-generated media and word of mouth. Social networks are having an incredible influence on how business is getting done. Organizations, ranging from movie studios to sneaker manufacturers, are changing the way they make decisions, connect with customers and market products because of the increase of new tools that enable people to express themselves more easily online.

“There is a new paradigm where consumers drive the conversation and have the control. Companies have to let go of the marketing speak and let people communicate with each other in an unfettered environment,” Geoff Ramsey, CEO of eMarketer, says.

One opportunity is for marketers to take ideas from social networking sites and apply it to their own business, he says. For example, GlaxoSmithKline is working on a social networking site for the weight loss community that lets users talk with each other and answer each other’s questions about how to lose weight, such as diet and exercise. GlaxoSmithKline is doing it for two reasons:

  1. To gain learning from these affinity groups – marketers can find out a great deal about how this group of people define and express themselves. They can use the language or phrases observed for purchasing keywords for search campaigns. They can apply the learning to sales copy in magazines, radio campaigns or on the Web.
  2. To participate at the site, the visitors must register there and provide some demographic information. Now GlaxoSmithKline has a list of consumers to market to when the weight loss product launches.

By listening in, marketers have an opportunity to hear how people really feel about their brand or product. With such learning, they could correct misperceptions in the marketplace or make effective changes to their products or customer service.

“Until you have demonstrated that you listened and responded accordingly, you cannot deliver hard-core messages to people,” Ramsey says. For this reason, there are many natural language processing companies that can determine what users are saying.

One company, Cymfony, offers a product that follows the flow of the message, tracks the positive and negative reactions to it and measures its influence on the audience. It scans and interprets the voices of users in blogs and social networks to determine how these discussions are impacting potential customers.

Nail points out, “In Web.1.0, the marketers’ job was to appear adjacent to that content but now that users are generating the content and are looking for a social engagement, marketers’ messages need to be part of the content.” To do this, companies need to know what their customers are saying.

Another way that companies can use social networks is to create profiles on the sites. For example, MySpace is currently charging upwards of $50,000 per month for big brands such as Pepsi, Adidas, Dell and Ford to build and promote profiles. Although this seems like something that members would dismiss as sheer commercial promotion – a quick look on MySpace shows that Jack Box, the character behind the Jack in the Box restaurants, has 130,989 friends (meaning that these MySpace members intentionally linked to the Jack Box profile). Of course, MySpace must be careful that selling these types of member profiles does not cause a mass exodus of its members.

Another way that marketers are leveraging user-generated content is by having consumers create their advertisements. The benefits are multifold: It gets consumers involved in the brand; the ads feel more authentic; it saves marketers money because they don’t have to hire an advertising agency; and if the ads are funny or interesting, they propagate themselves by being sent around on platforms such as YouTube.com or GoogleVideo. Companies like Volkswagen and MasterCard have harnessed the affection that some customers have for their specific brand by asking them to create and vote on ads, and created successful campaigns and tremendous buzz in the process.

AFFILIATES GOING SOCIAL

When it comes to testing the waters in burgeoning areas, affiliates are usually eager to dive in headfirst.

Rosalind Gardner has a blog called Net Profits Today, which she updates daily. She says: “I love my blog. They make posting new content to the web such a breeze. No uploading required. Just write and publish. It doesn’t take much to copy and paste a merchant offer and add a few of your own editorial comments. Another advantage is the free search engine traffic that blogs invite. Search engines love fresh content, so I’d highly recommend that any affiliate who isn’t blogging yet, start ASAP! Of course, the best benefit is that blogs are yet another way to enhance the relationship you definitely want to build with your visitors as an affiliate, especially in light of how difficult it is becoming to make sure the mail gets through nowadays.”

One social network specifically for affiliates is the Affiliate Summit Social Network. Consultant Shawn Collins, the Affiliate Summit co-organizer, says the network “helped Affiliate Summit by enabling attendees to network in advance of the conference, as well as to brand themselves through posts to their journals, sharing bookmarks, etc. This value-add assisted us in selling Affiliate Summit, and I think it is conducive to our goal of bringing the community closer together.”

He adds, “Now that the [July] show has ended, I will be focusing on getting more attendees to register after the fact. The ongoing network will benefit them, and we will be using it as a retention tool that ties to our mission of creating a unique educational environment and networking opportunity that facilitates the exchange of information about affiliate marketing.”

Affiliates are also testing the waters of mainstream social networks, such as MySpace. Collins has created a profile on MySpace, with the user name affiliate manager, and posts the content of his blog, AffiliateTip.com, on his MySpace blog. “My goal is to get more eyeballs for my blog. The goal is awareness – to get incremental readers – the ultimate goal is to recruit managers for affiliate programs. The first thing I talk about in my profile is that I am running these two programs and I have banners up to join them – PayLess Shoes and Snapfish.”

One clever affiliate whose social networking site has garnered lots of media in the past six months, including spots on CBS Early Show and Good Morning America, is 23-year-old IT manager Kevin McCormick. Six months ago he started DressKevin.com, a site that is a graphical database of his wardrobe, where users vote on what Kevin should wear on a daily basis and later comment on it. DressKevin.com inspired a second site, MyDrobe.com, a wardrobe management system for users. Both sites keep track of the last time an item of clothing was worn, the size, brand and style details.

On DressKevin.com, the clothes descriptions sometimes include a link to the merchant or affiliate program where it can be purchased – but not for every item. “If affiliate marketing did not exist, I would be providing uncompensated referral links anyway. I am trying to maximize it without comprising the integrity of the site. That is why affiliate marketing works well for me. I have Old Navy shirts on my site and they have links to Old Navy through Commission Junction. But I also have descriptions of my shirts from Hollister and Express with no compensation because I like their shirts.”

He attributes this growth and popularity to the credibility and authenticity of his site. McCormick says he started his site not to make money but to see if it would catch on and people would pass it on to their friends. “I was uninformed about CPC advertising, media, PR, affiliate marketing or even making a website.”

McCormick does not actively seek out affiliate agreements with merchants. He signed up to participate with some retailers such as Old Navy and Macy’s through Commission Junction. He appreciates the convenience that the network offers in terms of finding him appropriate merchants to sign up with, and the tracking and processing of commission paychecks.

McCormick’s other site, MyDrobe.com, offers more opportunity for generating revenue. It is a wardrobe management system that is a database for clothing, and enables users to manage their wardrobe and create a profile as well as enabling people look through other people’s clothes and to see what they are wearing. MyDrobe.com has 4,900 registered members and the demographic is heavily female, with a significant amount of girls between the ages of 13 to 16, followed by a concentration of girls in the 16-to-20 age range.

“Any website that focuses closely on brand-name products like clothing is a great candidate for utilizing affiliate marketing channels that will pay a commission on referral sales. MyDrobe’s clothing descriptions have ‘click here to buy this shirt online now’ for those who see a particular item of clothing that they like in someone else’s wardrobe and would like to buy it for themselves as well,” he says.

The site offers complete product catalogs that are provided by affiliate networks in “vendor showcases,” which are made for a single clothing company. For example, at the vendor showcase at MyDrobe.com/gap, users can browse through clothes currently for sale at Gap. Users can add clothing to a wish list, post comments and provide ratings and click on links that will bring them to Gap.com.

“Product feeds make this possible because MyDrobe will automatically update these vendor profiles based on what is currently for sale, so that my site does not need to continually manually enter new clothing into the site. XML technology makes this easy to implement for both the clothes manufacturer and site operators,” McCormick says.

Another property exploring how much social networks affect e-commerce is the brainchild of Lisa and Brian Sugar in San Francisco. In March 2005, they started a blog devoted to celebrity news called PopSugar and a community developed rapidly around it. By June 2006 they had 4,000 registered users chiming in about Jennifer Aniston’s new YSL bag or Britney’s second pregnancy.

In June 2006, they launched TeamSugar, which offers its readers a service similar to MySpace, providing registered users with their own profile, Web page, blog and the ability to send messages to one another. FabSugar, a fashion blog, launched in July with other sites devoted to topics like technology, home decor, and fitness to come subsequently. Brian Sugar, who previously was the chief Web officer at Bluelight.com and vice president of e-commerce at J.Crew, explains that “eventually, we will have 12 categories that sit on top of your social network which is called TeamSugar.”

Sugar’s goal is to get 100 million page views and 25 million unique users per month from the combined sites that will target trendsetting women between the ages of 18 and 35 and the advertisers that seek to reach them. He points out that, “TechCrunch and MySpace cater to guys, and DailyCandy is about fashion but without the celebrity gossip component. There is a massive crossover between InStyle and RealSimple and Allure and I don’t think the readers are getting served online from social networking and an editorial standpoint.”

FabSugar blogs about style and beauty products; for example, it contains an entry about the flats that Kate Bosworth and Sarah Jessica Parker are wearing, with links to two sites that sell them. Right now the site has text links with no merchant agreements yet but Sugar thinks that, “We definitely will be linking at Sephora and J.Crew. If they offer an affiliate program, we will sign up. If they don’t use affiliate programs, I think we will be able to broker the deals,” he says. “We have always believed that the majority of revenue would be from our advertisers.”

LOTS OF BUZZ

Another site that drives word-of-mouth commerce by leveraging the community aspects of a social network is MyPickList.com. The effort integrates a user’s profile and his or her favorite product recommendations into a networked community.

It works like this: Users create a list of their favorite items from multiple categories, called a pick list. They add the product, choose a preferred merchant for product sale, write a short product review and tag it. Only products that are sold through a retailer in the MyPickList network are eligible for a product commission. Once the pick list is created there are four ways to get a pick list viewed/distributed: Send to a userdefined buddy/email list; RSS feed; a banner ad creation (MyPickList.com badge/widget) that allows users to create custom ads to promote their pick list on websites and blogs and MySpace page; and direct from the MyPickList.com website.

Jeff Eichel, CEO of MyPickList, says it helps users become affiliates “by allowing them to recommend products and services under their MyPickList account. If a product that a user recommends gets purchased from the pick list, that user will earn a commission ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent. Most of these people would never get approved for affiliate programs on their own, but because they are under MyPickList there is no approval needed.”

Another social media platform for affiliates is Affilipedia, which, like Wikipedia.com, uses Wiki software to allow users to contribute articles and edit entries. Novices to experts can submit new information on affiliate marketing as well as edit the existing pages in the affiliate marketing encyclopedia if they disagree with the explanations of affiliate, merchant, commission or other affiliate marketing terms.

This egalitarian collaboration works – Cymfony’s Nail points out “Wiki in general is a collaborative platform and therefore they don’t have [to have] a centralized editorial staff. They are not limited to how much you can afford to pay.”

Although the sharp increase in content presents more prospects, it can be risky to be associated with some of the uncensored and often-critical material of user-generated content.

“You might come to the conclusion that this is not a ‘safe’ environment for advertising your product or service,” says eMarketer’s Ramsey.

If affiliates do decide to invest their time and effort into a specific social network, they should be aware that although members can be loyal to their favorite sites – studies find that users are driven to return often by ever-changing content and membership – audiences (especially young audiences) can be fickle and move on to the next great thing and online marketers need to be ready to move on as well.

ALEXANDRA WHARTON is an editor at Montgomery Research Inc., Revenue’s parent company. During her four years at MRI, she’s edited publications about CRM, supply chain, human performance and healthcare technology. Previously she worked at Internet consulting firm marchFIRST (formerly USWeb/CKS).

Sell Green to Make Green

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

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

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

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

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

NEW ECONOMY STUCK IN OLD MEDIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE EDUCATION CHALLENGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXPERTISE WANTED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN ATTRACTIVE AUDIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAPTURE THE COMMUNITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a Second Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mistakes Lead to Success

Learn from your missteps and the path to affiliate success will be paved with opportunity.

Lurk around any affiliate marketing forum for more than a few minutes, and you will surely encounter a post that reads much like this: “Affiliate marketing sucks! I’m not making ANY money and I’ve tried EVERYTHING – Google AdWords, AdSense and affiliate programs. NOTHING works. My sites have loads of content and I even started a blog. I get a ton of traffic, but for every dime I spend on PPC, I’m lucky if I make a penny. More often than not I earn squat.

I followed the advice of those so-called affiliate marketing ‘gurus’ and coaches, but at this point I don’t believe ANYONE is really making money as an affiliate. Those success stories are a total scam. ~Disgruntled FORMER Affiliate”

Affiliate marketing success stories are a “total scam”? No one is making money? Our disgruntled former affiliate must have missed the keynote address at Affiliate Summit 2006 West last January by Anne Holland of Marketing Sherpa, and failed to get the information from any one of about 100 blog entries.

Here’s a brief recap. Ms. Holland said affiliate marketing bounties and commissions will reach $6.5 billion in 2006 – and that figure didn’t include projected earnings from contextual ad networks such as Google AdSense.

Although it may be hard to believe that thousands of affiliates will share $6.5 billion dollars in earnings when your ROI is in the red – believe it. The affiliate commissions’ pie gets bigger every year and anyone who is willing to learn what it takes to be a professional affiliate can take a slice.

If you really want a piece of that pie, review your site and ask yourself the following questions. Determine whether your site needs improvement. Success could be as simple as making one or two of the changes recommended below.

Do you lack knowledge or experience in your niche market?

Just because your auntie had a double hip replacement 10 years ago does not qualify you to give advice on that topic, unless you are an orthopedic surgeon.

Anyone searching for “hip replacement surgery” on Google wants and deserves information published by medical professionals. If your credibility isn’t immediately shot by that double-hip-replacement-4-you.com domain address, it will be as soon as your visitor attempts to confirm your identity and credentials on your “About Us” page.

People buy from people they like and trust. Build credibility with your visitors by working with topics about which you are knowledgeable, or about which you are willing to gain expertise.

Does your site’s appearance or lack of order turn people away?

Does that olive-on-pink color scheme really appeal to the Prada crowd? If visitors can look beyond the amateur “look and feel,” will they find what they want easily from amongst the 50 banner ads on your home page?

You have approximately three seconds to engage your visitor. Greet them with a pleasing appearance. Also make sure that your site’s theme and objective are congruent and immediately apparent. Navigation should be categorical and consistent throughout your site.

If you find it difficult to make an objective assessment, ask for a brutally honest review of your site from an experienced webmaster, preferably a super-affiliate.

Do you rely on a single source of income?

Affiliate programs can and do change their terms of agreement. I’ve seen commission rates cut in half and some affiliate programs shut down with no advance warning. “Google AdSensers” should also beware. Many experienced surfers now click Back buttons rather than support sites whose only purpose is to promote Google’s advertisers.

Hedge your bets. Successful affiliates build comparison or review sites that help visitors make informed choices about a variety of products offered by different merchants.

Do you sell rather than endorse products?

“ABC Widget is the BEST-ever widget in the whole history of widgets! No other widget even comes close. Buy ABC Widget NOW!!!!!”

You wouldn’t buy in to that kind of hype and neither will your visitors. Give your visitors credit for knowing that no product or service is ever perfect. Be honest. Endorse your merchants’ products with informative and balanced product reviews.

Do you waste time promoting two-tier programs to other affiliates?

For every $1,000 dollars I earn promoting a merchant’s products as an affiliate, I may earn a buck through the efforts of webmasters I referred to the program.

Invest your time and effort relative to your earnings. Promote those products and services that make you money and let other affiliates find their own programs.

Are you burning up rent or grocery money on pay-per-click campaigns?

The fastest way to the PPC poorhouse is to use generic ad copy that sends all traffic to your home page.

Prequalify visitors by mentioning a specific product or type of product in your ad title, then send them to a landing page that promotes that product. Test your campaigns by sending 250 to 1,000 clicks to the page. Determine your conversion rate then, set your maximum cost per click. Control advertising expenditures by setting daily budget, keyword targeting and negative keywords options.

Are you wasting good traffic?

Do you want to quintuple your earnings and your conversion rate? Then build a list.

Create an auto-responder series and encourage visitors to sign up for a free downloadable report or weekly tips. Invite subscribers to revisit your site by following up with topical information, new product and discount offers.

Invest an hour or two each week to communicate with your current subscribers. It is cheaper, more valuable and more fun than building new PPC campaigns to attract more nameless traffic.

Does your site fail to stack up against the competition?

What sets super-affiliates – the 5 percent of affiliates who sell 95 percent of a program’s products – apart from their peers?

Low-earning affiliates use the same old merchant copy or private-label rights articles to save time and energy; super-affiliates write their own articles, reviews and endorsements. Super-affiliates provide contact information and answer visitors’ questions. They create forums to build community and improve visitor retention rates. Super-affiliates survey their visitors and then give them what they want.

Give your visitors more than they expect and they’ll return the favor.

Do your visitors know you? Although your site may be hugely informative, it may lack repeat visitors because it fails to entertain or provoke curiosity.

The remedy is simple: Brand yourself. Stand apart from the vast majority of sites on the Web, which are completely boring and anonymous. Inject your humorous, witty or even curmudgeonly personality.

Are you working from a plan? Are you patient and persistent?

As the old saying goes, “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” Plan your site from the ground up before registering a domain or opening your HTML editor. Act on and stick with your plan.

Also, when you give up on a project too soon, you guarantee failure. So, put any unrealistic expectations of overnight riches aside, accept that there is work to do and stay with your project for the long haul.

Use the points above to determine whether your site hits or misses the mark. Implement the recommended solutions if required.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s a safe bet that you will make some along the way. It’s not likely that any one mistake will kill your affiliate business. Simply correct the error and go on. The worst mistake a new affiliate can make is not to learn from their mistakes. The best thing that you can do, however, is to learn from the mistakes of others.

All mistakes are just opportunities in disguise.

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

The Dating Game

Making a match can lead to big bucks if you know the rules of affiliate courtship.

Although Blake Killian is a Christian and believes there are benefits to Christian dating, he is forthright that the motivation behind his two websites, ChristianDatesOnline.com and Christian-dating.com, was purely financial.

It was the serendipitous result of some research of online dating keywords he was doing for his day job as an Internet marketer at Voodoo Ventures. Killian noticed that the search volumes for Christian dating keywords were really high but the bids were affordable. So, in March 2005, after committing himself to stop if he was losing money, he put together a website that reviews online dating sites and includes affiliate links on it. Initially he spent 20 to 30 hours per week. Now, a year later, he works on his sites about five to 10 hours a week and the monthly net profit is only $100 short of paying his entire mortgage payment every month.

“I knew there was money to be made. It has taken a lot of hard work since March but now the site is rolling. I love my job,” the 24-year-old New Orleans resident says. Is he experiencing beginner’s luck or is there still money to be made in online dating?

Super-affiliate-turned-author Rosalind Gardner, who famously made $436,797 in one year as an affiliate for online dating services (Sage-Hearts.com), started back in 1999 and continues to do extremely well. She says that although the current environment for starting an online dating site is “pretty complex,” nearly anyone can be making money today if you’re using Google AdWords. “There are still keywords and keyword phrases out there that people haven’t picked up on yet,” she says.

Even though online dating is vast – according to Publishers Association/comScore Networks, it represents the second- largest category of paid content online after music and video downloads – the boom years appear to be over.

In a JupiterResearch 2006 survey of 2,000 consumers online, the percentage of online users who visited dating sites in the last 12 months grew slightly from 2005 to 2006, while the percentage that posted online personal ads and subscribed to dating sites fell marginally during the same period.

A 2005 JupiterResearch report predicted that the industry would grow 9 percent to $516 million in 2005, down from 19 percent growth in 2004 and 77 percent in 2003. According to eMarketer, the overall market is often pegged at over $1 billion if ad revenue for the free portion of online dating sites is included.

Most experts agree that this decrease is just the beginning of a cooling of the market as opposed to precipitating a larger drop. Nate Elliott, an analyst for JupiterResearch, says, “We see continued growth for the next five years but it is plateauing – the rate at which consumers are subscribing to dating services online is flat. As a result the revenue growth is not going to be as high as it was.” James Belcher, an analyst for eMarketer, says, “I don’t see things shrinking in aggregate.”

Most experts agree the market is mature and headed for consolidation.

“I think there will be fewer sites. There will be some consolidation – you won’t have 15 versions of JDate.com. I think some of them will merge or fade away,” Belcher says.

“The market is saturated; you have all of the online dating sites you’re ever going to need,” notes Elliott.

One area that is thriving is “adult” dating sites – such as AdultFriendFinder, IWantU.com and SexSearch.com. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, traffic to AdultFriendFinder, the most visited adult dating site, rose 67 percent in January from a year earlier. Prices for these sites are comparable to traditional dating sites – most are in the $20 to $30 range.

Options for Increasing Revenue

For years, online dating sites relied upon significant growth in unique visitors to drive revenue. Nowadays, JupiterResearch’s Elliott believes that revenue growth is being driven by higher monthly rates rather than increased membership. Due to the slowdown in unique visitors, dating sites are faced with either improving their conversion rates or increasing the value of each customer.

Sites need to convert more visitors to paid subscribers to keep revenue growing. A 2006 JupiterResearch report found that only one-third of those who go to dating sites sign up for membership. This is the first time JupiterResearch has seen a drop in conversion rates since it began tracking the space in 2003.

Another way for sites to develop revenue is to increase the value of each member – sites are charging higher monthly subscription costs and are encouraging subscribers to maintain their memberships for long periods of time. Yahoo! Personals recently raised its one-month subscription price by 25 percent, and its six-month subscription price by 50 percent. Many of the more expensive sites justify their price by offering advanced services such as privacy enhancements, personality tests and security checks.

Increased prices, however, even those for premium features, seem to be backfiring. “Rising prices have kept a large number of users from converting to paid subscribers ” 37 percent of visitors who don’t convert say dating sites cost too much, making it their leading complaint,” explains the 2006 JupiterResearch report.

Another challenge the online industry is facing is a high level of dissatisfaction among users. Thirty-five percent of online daters were somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the sites and only 29 percent were somewhat satisfied or very satisfied, according to a 2005 JupiterResearch report.

A 2005 Keynote Customer Experience benchmarking study found that the most common frustration reported by customers stemmed from a lack of trust or comfort in other members. Sixty-one percent of customers are concerned that other members are misrepresenting themselves and as many as one in three express a lack of trust in other members.

Looking for Love

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 33 million U.S. adult singles that are online and open to pursuing a relationship. Dave Evans, who blogs about the online dating industry at Online Dating Insider, says he believes the number is close to two in five online singles who have tried online dating.

Not everyone is so bullish.

“Everyone who has wanted to do online dating has tried it,” eMarketer’s Belcher says.

However, JupiterResearch reports that only 5 percent of consumers online currently pay for an online dating service – down from 6 percent in 2004.

More than 34 million people visited the top five online dating sites in December 2005 alone. Evans claims the 80/20 rule applies. “The top five sites get 80 percent of the traffic. The remaining 20 percent is split up among the thousands of dating sites out there,” he says.

A January 2006 study by comScore MediaMetrix found the top five online dating sites were: Yahoo! Personals, Match.com sites (including Chemistry), Spark Networks (which owns AmericanSingles, JDate, ChristianMingle, etc.), True and Mate1. Other leading sites that consistently land in the top 10 include eHarmony and FriendFinder (if you include AdultFriendFinder).

“The top rankings seem to be fairly consistent but the numbers for unique visitors vary hugely between comScore and Nielsen,” Mark Brooks, editor of Online Personals Watch, says. “Hitwise uses partnerships with ISPs, Nielsen has a panel and data feedback from a toolbar download and Alexa uses data from its downloadable toolbar.”

Online Dating Insider’s Evans claims some new measurement is needed. “There needs to be a new metric which is a blend of visitors, members and features. Traffic rank certainly reveals popularity but that popularity can be bought and sold via toolbars, spyware, etc.,” he says.

The remaining 20 percent of online daters go to the thousands of smaller online dating sites – many of them niche sites. Niche sites aggregate users with similar interests into a more concise space; which purportedly promotes better, more relative connections. Many believe that niche sites raise the chances of finding more compatible partners rather than going to huge data warehouses like Yahoo! Personals and Match. There are dating sites that cater to Filipinos, Muslim singles, gays and lesbians, farmers, etc.

If a 50-something, female Asian lawyer in Boston wants to try online dating, should she go to a niche site? It depends on how closely she is aligned with the niche. She could go to a site that serves Asians or seniors or to a regionally focused site for the greater Boston area. If she wants to marry another lawyer, LaywersInLove.com would be a good avenue to explore.

“It’s the spear versus the shotgun approach. The shotgun approach throws money, time and energy without much regard for results. The spear approach is targeted, contextual, focused,” Evans says.

James Green, marketing manager for MingleMatch, a Spark Networks property, explains the opportunity of niche sites such as ChristianMingle by saying: “The volume is low but the conversion is high.”

Some niche sites do extremely well. Online Personals Watch’s Brooks says that, JDate, for Jewish singles, has “a lot of word of mouth and brand inertia. Most of their users come from type-ins and the extreme focus of their site.”

Financially, JDate, which charges $34.95 per month, generates average monthly revenue of $29.42 per subscriber and spends an average of just $8.09 to acquire a subscriber.

“It’s a golden site. They own the Jewish segment – no one comes close,” Brooks says. Compare that to a non-niche site like AmericanSingles, which generates an average monthly revenue of $22.16 per subscriber with an average acquisition cost of $43.29.

The range in monthly subscription fees varies widely. Yahoo! Personals and Match.com charge $19.95, American Singles and Date.com charge $24.95, while True.com charges $49.99 and PerfectMatch.com charges $59.95.

In general, serious daters are considered to be lucrative – they are more likely to be new to online dating and these unique users provide incremental revenue to sites. They are also considered to be willing to pay higher subscriber costs for advanced features and be longer-term members.

“People think that on serious sites, you’re going to meet people who are more motivated and committed. Because of that, eHarmony attracts people who are serious about finding the right relationship and they can charge $50 per month and require a two-hour profile questionnaire,” Brooks says.

Some sites, such as LavaLife.com, have a reputation for catering to casual daters, many of whom are younger. Because of the churn rate among the more casual sites, Yahoo! Personals and Match.com have each launched premium services, Yahoo! Personals Premium and Chemistry, respectively, to try to capture some of eHarmony’s market share.

Getting Social

Over the last several months, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace.com and Hi5.com have gained momentum. Some industry watchers perceive the social networks as a threat to dating sites – mainly because social networking sites are free and fueled by viral marketing.

“MySpace has been so successful because they empower the connectors – the connectors are the people that talk. MySpace hit people at their point of passion; they successfully appealed to the music lovers,” Online Personals Watch’s Brooks says.

Online Dating Insider’s Evans says social networks are hazardous to online dating sites because, “It would be very easy for social networks to add a dating component – all these sites need to do is add check box.”

Others disagree, claiming that dating sites and social networks cater to different customers. A 2006 JupiterResearch report found that the social networking sites pose little threat to the online dating industry.

“Just 14 percent of dating site visitors who don’t pay for subscriptions say they use free sites, like social networks, for online dating instead,” the report states.

Brooks agrees, “Social networking sites attract ‘freebie hunters.’ Serious daters come to online dating.”

While there is some disagreement as to how this will all shake out, nearly everyone concurs that 2006 will be a critical and decisive year in the results. Most agree that there is still opportunity if sites can determine how to capitalize on it.

According to Evans there is certainly potential for growth. “Remember that a significant amount of online users have not tried online dating. The services have to get better to lure them online and into the fold,” he says.

To attract price-sensitive users and to convert registered users who have not subscribed, smaller sites should adopt below-market subscriptions. Discounting and short-term subscriptions “offer the best way for dating sites to grow paid subscriptions and market share,” JupiterResearch’s Elliott says.

The Rules of Attraction

Another way to attract more people is to reach out to a larger universe of users, such as eHarmony’s campaign to target “marrieds” for counseling, or by continuing to spend heavily for online and offline advertising.

It appears that big spending on online and offline advertising will not diminish in 2006. Mike Jones, CEO of Userplane, says, “Everyone is upping each other on marketing dollars, so winning at online dating just becomes another spending war.”

eHarmony, which claims that more than three-quarters of its users come from television advertising and word of mouth, raised $100 million a few years ago and has spent tens of millions of dollars, and possibly more than a hundred million, on advertising in the last few years, according to Elliott.

“You have so many options; that is one of the reasons why eHarmony has put out so many ads – it cuts through the clutter,” says eMarketer’s Belcher. “Branding will be more and more important in the sector because people are familiar with the concept but not the individualized powerhouse of dating sites.”

To help distinguish a dating site from others, branding must be in line with the company’s goals. For example, True has spent a ton of money on advertising, especially with suggestive ads that may raise its profile, but may not attract paying subscribers like serious daters.

“I think we will see more and more high-profile psychologists and relationship advisors such as Dr. Phil getting behind Match.com; sites want some very specific personalities that people can attach themselves to,” Userplane’s Jones says.

Another feature to become more prevalent is personality testing. “I think personality profiling is the future. I think that people will pay for it – I see them charging $100 a month. The technology is just going to get better 10 years out. I don’t think we are there yet.” Tickle and Chemistry offer a variety of tests, as does True, which offers a sexual compatibility test,” Brooks says.

Jones agrees. “A lot of companies are embracing personality profiling systems to facilitate meeting people better.” He thinks we will see more testing on sites – “it will become a necessary component” – but does not foresee sites requiring tests in order to use the service, like eHarmony does.

Differentiators

Security checking is also a big issue for 2006. Illinois State Representative John Bradley proposed a bill that would require any online dating service with members in Illinois to disclose on its website whether it has conducted background checks on members. Not everyone would consider this to be a good thing.

Joe Tracy, the publisher of Online Dating Magazine, estimated that 30 percent of daters using online services are married; a number he believes has steadily risen. Because of this, there are married or recently divorced people who don’t want to disclose that information. “You have a portion of online daters that do not want background checks,” he says. Like personality testing, background checks could be a feature that sites offer but not necessarily require.

Another way that sites are looking to differentiate themselves is by offering the latest technological marvel. “Nowadays, most sites offer or soon will offer live communication tools, especially ones that are audio- and video-enabled,” says Userplane’s Jones. For example, in February, Vivox introduced Tempo, which allows users to connect using a variety of communication tools – voice, video and IM – across various platforms such as the Web, interactive voice response telecom, Internet protocol and mobile phones.

But these bells and whistles “will not be a differentiator for very long because they are easily imitated,” eMarketer’s Belcher says. What matters more in the long run is, “do you have enough potential people on the site that are close by and would be of your same interest group,” he says. “That’s far better than the kind of avatar that you can choose from for your IM on the dating site,” he explains.

Courting Affiliates

For affiliates, the objective is to go after sites that convert. Conventional wisdom would recommend that affiliates focus on the big online dating players – the logic being that the more people who are in the network, the higher the chance of conversions. Also, according to Online Personals Watch’s Brooks, “The top sites have brand equity, which means that they convert better.”

But bigger isn’t always better. Some affiliates have had better luck with smaller sites. Killian of ChristianDatesOnline.com says the niche sites, which have fewer members than the big players, have served him the best – mostly because people who come to his site are “prequalified” – they are looking for Christians who date.

“I do the best on ChristianMingle – I have unbelievable conversion rates, like 70 percent,” he says. “I have not made one dime on Match.com.”

Super-affiliate Rosalind Gardner says, “Many folks are disenchanted with the really large sites that try to be everything to everybody. I actually do better with the smaller niche sites that appeal to specific demographics; for example, interracial or seniors dating.”

According to Brooks it’s a combination of factors.

“The best affiliates do the following: They have unique content where they drive traffic; they have some content that is really geared for getting natural search traffic; and they have PPC [pay per click] on it; or they do a combination of all three,” he says.

An online dating affiliate needs to provide compelling content that is timely and informative to please the visitors of the site and to boost natural ranking. Search engines such as Google are getting more selective and smarter about how it ranks content.

Gardner says the traffic boost from a blog can be huge and that it makes a big difference when running a content site. “I would do everything just like I did when I started but the only difference today is that I would expand my content base faster by adding a blog.”

Many online affiliates have been successful with reviews about each dating site. Some of the successful dating affiliates offer these types of service, including ALoveLinksPlus.com, OnlineDatingMagazine.com and eDateReview.com.

Because daters want to meet people in their area, another successful affiliate approach is to offer a site that has a regional focus, such as Seattle Singles. Michael Brucker, WebEx affiliate manager and former affiliate manager for Yahoo, says that for the affiliate site SinglesOnTheGo.com, “the owners spend a lot of time listing all of the singles events in each city; events such as bowling night, library night and Toastmasters.”

The relationship between affiliate and affiliate manager is paramount; for example, MingleMatch’s Green and Killian communicate almost daily. “I can instant message James a couple of times a day and he will get right back to me. That is not something that is going to happen with Commission Junction,” Killian says.

Stephanie Lewis, affiliate manager for Date.com, says Date.com offers both an internal program and one through Commission Junction. She says the big networks are attractive for new affiliates because they offer the promise of easy reporting and help getting started.

Money Matters

“Some seasoned affiliates are compensated better, they have more flexibility and they don’t have to pay a percentage to CJ. If we paid X amount to CJ, we could give that bonus to the affiliate. Or we could offer a co-branded partnership that we could not do within CJ,” Lewis says.

Payment structures vary widely. The compensations listed on the affiliate splash page are the public (or street) offers. Better affiliates get better rates, based on their value to the affiliate program and the specific requests from affiliates. Payments can be extended 30 percent (and higher) to better- quality affiliates.

Some affiliate programs pay on the first month and subsequent months – which makes a huge difference on what affiliates earn. Many top affiliates negotiate a revenue share based on the subscription and an ongoing percentage for every month the affiliate’s customers remain subscribed.

Gardner says, “I try only to do business with those merchants who offer a fair rev share. Fifteen percent on a digital service simply doesn’t cut it, especially not when I pay to advertise my affiliate sites. 50/50 recurring is my idea of a fair deal on online dating services,” she says. “While I do promote a few big merchants that don’t pay a fair commission rate, I use their names to get people looking around the site, and then direct them to more fair-minded merchants.”

Despite recent buzz that online dating has peaked, there is plenty of evidence that the dating market is just leveling off from its skyrocketing growth and that the segment is still a viable road for affiliates to travel. With the enormous range of sites out there that cater to every religion, race and hobby under the sun, there is sure to be a plethora of keywords and daters for affiliates to target.

Given the surge in traffic and subscribers to the adult dating sites, affiliates who are comfortable dabbling in those racier areas will be able to yield returns for years to come.

ALEXANDRA WHARTON is an editor at Montgomery Research Inc., Revenue’s parent company. During her four years at MRI, she’s edited publications about CRM, supply chain, human performance and healthcare technology. Previously she worked at Internet consulting firm marchFIRST (formerly USWeb/CKS).

Power Tools

Sometimes even the simplest tasks can only be performed using the right tools. There’s no point in using a chain saw when a paring knife will do the job.

These are not reviews, ratings or recommendations. It’s just a collection of software, services and tools that we’ve come across and wanted to share with you. Here they are in no specific order.

T3Report.com

CyData Services Inc., based in Austin, Texas, has taken its competitive analysis reports that detail the linking relationships of websites, previously sold exclusively to the online adult industry, and adapted them for the affiliate and performance marketing space.

Called T3Report.com, the subscription service performs its own spidering of the Web to gather data from more than 100,000 Web pages. The service can offer its subscribers competitive market analysis about who rivals are linking to and who is linking to them. It would allow affiliate managers with merchants to see the affiliates of their competitors. And the idea is to then target those affiliates to also join their programs or possibly emulate the strategy of competitors, according to officials at CyData.

The company claims all of the data gathered is publicly available, but previously it was hard to obtain – mostly because other services such as Google and Alexa go through only the first 1,000 pages of relevant data, leaving much data untouched.

There is a full-featured version as well as a light one of the offering, which can be subscribed to on a quarterly basis. Users pay to access the T3Report.com online system, which the company claims can be easily navigated by even novices after a brief tutorial.

The pricing is based on the number of domains in the report. For detailed analysis of less than 500 domains, the price is $2,700 per quarter. Pricing goes up for more than 500 domains.

The full version gives subscribers three levels of domain-linking information. For example, users would be able to find out who Walmart.com links to, who is linking to Walmart.com and then who links to those linking to Walmart.com. The light version does not delve as deep and offers only the first two levels of linking information for the user.

The company claims that, given an affiliate network link, the product can map that to the merchant, basically revealing what is in the “black box” with the affiliate network. This works because networks use LinkSynergy.com as the linking domain by affiliates, and then they redirect to the merchant. T3Report.com has more than 650,000 LinkSynergy links in its database, with more than 5 million added each day.

For each domain, the product can show how many unique domains link to it as well as the number of links. These statistics can reveal how many websites are promoting a specific merchant.

Company officials claim that they can spot all the websites that belong to a specific affiliate and track which products they are promoting. And given the same product on two networks, they can show which is doing better as far as promotions by affiliates.

ReturnOnAffiliate.com

These days communication is a big issue for online marketers. Return on Affiliate, an online affiliate marketing meeting space, is attempting to bridge the gaps of this industry and bring affiliate marketers, managers and associates together in a single place to communicate.

ReturnOnAffiliate.com is a community that includes message boards, instant messaging, private messaging, the ability to link to other members, invite friends and colleagues (like LinkedIn) into your circle, as well as the ability to create blogs. It’s free to set up an account, and members have access to searchable profiles of Return on Affiliate members.

Just one month after launching at the start of 2006, the site had more than 700 members. The groups include all types of affiliates, merchants and industry types. Everyone from working moms to Overstock.com executives are members. The site is attempting to use the popular social-networking concept to make managers, community leaders and even CEOs accessible to affiliates.

SimpleFeed Version 2.6

SimpleFeed (www.SimpleFeed.com), based in Palo Alto, Calif., unveiled an updated version of its SimpleFeed RSS service.

The new release (Version 2.6) rolled out in February builds off the company’s most recent major upgrade (Version 2.0), which came out in November. That edition was aimed at giving marketing departments more options for personalized content and increased control over the management, measurement and branding of RSS feeds by using templates as the basis for creating collateral to communicate with customers. By using templates, users are able to publish RSS feed that look like their websites, including the same images, colors, fonts and the like that customers use.

SimpleFeed Version 2.6 includes a handful of new features and functionality such as secure feeds and the ability to automatically import content as well as a light version of the product.

Like the previous release, SimpleFeed continues to publish RSS feeds through a URL that is unique to each subscriber. Version 2.6 now offers content creators the option to require a security code or authentication. Those feeds are also sent out over a secure SSL link. If a specific Web portal doesn’t support such authentication, such as Yahoo, then only a summary of the feed, not the actual feed content, will be sent. The next version of Windows – called Vista – along with Microsoft’s forthcoming upgrade to Explorer, will both support passwords and authentication.

The product’s new Web Import feature also allows content creators to put together RSS feeds another way. Users can choose a specific page number or a page range and the SimpleFeed software will automatically spider the user’s website to pull out the correct content. That content will then be queued up to be published on the site and then subsequently pushed out in an RSS feed. This functionality enables content creators to skip the step of putting together RSS feeds manually or with templates.

SimpleFeed is also offering a light version of the product, which gives users less reporting functionality. (Users get eight reports rather than the 48 that are included in the full-featured Enterprise version.) Users of the light version do not get a fully templated RSS feed. The feed is in a template, but it cannot be changed or fully customized. Company logos can be added to feeds, however. Company officials say the light version is a good way for smaller businesses to evaluate the technology at a reasonable price ($100 per month per feed).

The product also builds on capabilities from the previous version, including SimpleTag, a personalization technology that enables customers and prospects to subscribe to content categories using checkboxes on an uncluttered subscription page. The product’s Measurement and Analytics Suite sports 48 customizable reports providing insight on key RSS statistics such as subscribers, content views and clickthroughs. Feed Publishing and Management is a Web-based tool that allows feeds to be created and managed without any prior technical knowledge. New privileges provide companies with granular control of users and workflow and can readily comply with corporate communication policies.

The Affiliate AIM List

Here’s another way to facilitate communication via a very simple concept. Affiliate AIM List (AffAimList.com) is a list of the AOL Instant Messenger handles of people in the industry. Members opt to sign up and are then added to the buddy lists of all other members. That allows everyone on the list to see who is offline or logged into IM and then contact them directly.

The Affiliate AIM List was created by affiliate Adam Viener to facilitate communication among the many different parties comprising the affiliate community. Viener, president of search marketing affiliate IMWave, is a fan of AOL Instant Messenger from way back and thought the communication tool would be a great way to foster better and more frequent communication between people. The list is not a money-making vehicle but more of a community service, Viener says.

To date, it’s been well-received, and the ever-growing list boasts some high-profile industry leaders from top companies including Circuit City, Commission Junction, eBay, Fat Wallet, HomeGain, KowaBunga, LinkShare, Performics and PrimeQ. Viener says that while he’s getting lots of requests to be added to the list, only two users have asked to be removed.

SmallPalace.com

VentureDirect Worldwide recently launched its newest online lead-generation portal, SmallPalace.com, which is aimed at the home finance and home services markets.

Mortgage refinancing has exploded into one of the fastest-growing sectors of the financial services industry. In 2005, one-third of all homeowners used cash- out mortgages to refinance their homes, and more consumers are planning to divert discretionary spending to home improvements.

SmallPalace.com focuses on delivering Web-based, category-specific leads that are generated from applicants actively seeking information on new home purchases, mortgages, refinancing or a variety of home services categories such as home security and contractors.

The SmallPalace portal joins other online lead-generation sites developed by VentureDirect Worldwide, including Direct Degree (www.DirectDegree.com) for online education, Let’s Franchise (www.LetsFranchise.com) for franchise opportunities, and The Free Forum Network (www.FreeForum.com), a co-registration site.

Pic2Vid for Marketers

Sister Technologies, which provides applications and hosted services for the automated creation and management of multimedia marketing content for online retail and mobile environments, recently released its Pic2Vid for Marketers solution suite.

Pic2Vid is a Web-based solution that automatically generates streaming video content with voiceovers from digital photos and text, enabling online marketers to enhance each product and listing with attention-grabbing video clips.

The Pic2Vid for Marketers solution suite consists of two parts: Pic2Vid Hosted and Pic2Vid Enterprise.

Pic2Vid Hosted is a fully hosted, Web- based solution aimed at auction-site power sellers, small and mid-size retailers and service providers, and online marketers and affiliates. The company’s Pic2Vid Enterprise is a turnkey, scalable hardware/software solution for large brick-and-mortar retailers with significant online businesses, including auction sites, shopping sites and industry portals, as well as resellers such as aggregators, service providers, Web publishers and creative agencies. A demo of the Pic2Vid Consumer version can be found at Pic2Vid.com.

Sister Technologies is also working on a new tool, based on the Pic2Vid and “M- Plat” online editing platforms that will enable advertisers to create short video clips that would appear alongside organic search engine listings.

There are only a handful of steps involved in creating a video, and within approximately two minutes a user can create a 15-second clip that could appear beside their organic search listing or as part of a paid listing. Pricing is about 1 cent per minute of broadcast. A one- minute clip that receives a thousand views would cost the advertiser $10.

Have You Heard the Word?

Tell a friend: Word of mouth rocks. It’s how many people find a dentist, a plumber, a pediatrician and a realtor, even a shrink. You tend to trust your friends. So when one of your close pals swears by her hairstylist, raving about what a “shear” delight he is, you are apt to give him a shot rather than thumbing through the phone book and blindly calling random barbers. Then you’ll tell your friends. “

Small wonder this type of hype is highly coveted.

Now countless companies are trying to glean lessons from the phenomenon of friend-given recommendations. It’s increasingly difficult to cut through the advertising clutter, as consumers gain more and more control over the messages they receive in this world of DVRs and video on demand. Thus, companies invest an estimated $100 million to $150 million a year on word-of-mouth or buzz marketing.

Intelliseek’s “2005 Consumer-Generated Media and Engagement Study” polled 660 online consumers and explored attitudes and opinions across key consumer-generated media venues – including Internet message boards, forums, blogs, direct company feedback and offline conversation. The study found that, compared to traditional advertising, word-of-mouth behavior continues to grow in importance in consumer awareness, trial and purchase of new products.

Consumers are 50 percent more likely to be influenced by recommendations from peers than by radio or TV ads, which is a slightly higher level of influence and trust than found in a 2004 study coauthored by Intelliseek and Forrester.

Yes, everyone knows that good word of mouth can do wonders for a company’s reputation and its bottom line. Of course, the flip side is that the masses can also bad-mouth you and ruin your chances at future fame and fortune. The reality is that, while everyone wants to get good word-of-mouth buzz, not many companies understand how to garner that much sought-after street cred and high regard.

If you’re an affiliate, buzz marketing is an affordable way to generate interest and develop traffic. Even the smallest of affiliate sites can engage customers in this way. It takes strategic thinking but not an ad budget to rival Coke or Pepsi. What is required, however, is some dedication to spreading an idea, a few passionate people and a willingness to talk. A lot. The payoff is that you’ll encourage some folks to check you out online. And you might even earn better commissions as a result.

But currently, word-of-mouth marketing appears to be a fickle business, but if marketers apply some strategy, they are sure to be singing its praises. Whether you tell your friends your secrets or not is up to you.

Take a Bite From Apple’s Book

Apple Computer is one of the best-loved brands around. Even though it claims less than 5 percent of the PC market, fans are rabid about its products. And take a look down the street – see any white ear buds? The prolific iPod phenomenon is proof of how Apple is transforming the music business through good buzz.

One reason Apple got to be so popular in the first place can be traced to Guy Kawasaki, best known for his former role as chief evangelist at Apple; he helped spread the company’s Macintosh operating system through word of mouth. Soon after, other tech firms like Microsoft hired their own evangelists. Kawasaki has authored eight books on marketing, and he thinks that today’s high tech changes will make it easier to spread the word.

“The ubiquity and freedom of broadband are absolutely changing the world, making it easier to build brands, not harder. You used to have to have $3 million to buy a Super Bowl ad,” Kawasaki says. “MySpace and Facebook have been able to build great products and use word-of-mouth and guerrilla marketing to build amazing brands. Nowadays, blogging and podcasting are considerably more powerful means of word of mouth than people simply spreading the word by, well, word of mouth.”

Kawasaki’s advice to marketers hoping to build buzz is to first create a great product and then let customers try it out, let them test-drive. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll spread the good word.

G’head, Squeeze the Charmin

A couple of marketers are taking Kawasaki’s advice and letting the public experience their products in a very hands-on way in the form of “pop up” stores. It’s tough to cut through the clutter, so some brands are renting space on a short-term basis to let consumers experience their goods and generate buzz.

Kodak and Illy Caffè both wanted to let consumers see and experience their products in a hands-on environment. So each opened brief “art exhibits” at their self-created temporary galleries. Kodak’s galleries, which were open during the month of November in New York City and San Francisco, didn’t have merchandise for sale, just photos on the walls and new cameras for gallery-goers to check out.

“The vision behind the Kodak Gallery is to invite consumers in to experience photography and to feel and touch the products. It is much more about the learning experience and getting immersed in the digital experience,” says Kate Imwalle, who helped put together the Kodak Gallery in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood. “This gallery is about the power of photographs and celebrating community.”

Kodak promoted the gallery and encouraged foot traffic, but a key component of the experiment was the lack of outright product-pushing. That way, gallery-goers could relax and enjoy the environment.

Galleria Illy at 382 West Broadway in New York had a coffeehouse vibe and tons of art events – acclaimed painter Julian Schnabel created coffee mugs, and NYU film students shot a series of films – to get American consumers hip to its brand. The rental was short term in the high-priced SoHo neighborhood; it opened Sept. 15 and closed Dec. 15. The idea was to give people a chance to experience the brand in the artsy milieu of a coffeehouse/art gallery.

“The galleria was a physical manifestation of our brand. It was like our business card,” says Greg Fea, president and CEO of Illy Caffè North America. “People got to experience Illy and education and culture. They had a full immersion experience with the brand. It was received really well. We’ve been extremely pleased. We had events around art and culture, because culture is a big part of coffee. ” People in New York got to know us better. We served 20,000 coffees, like 300 to 400 on weekend days, and 200 a day during the week.”

Kodak and Illy both advertised without being overt about it. Instead, they created places where people gather and could talk about photographs or coffee. They created communities.

Create Community

Communities happen online, too. A perfect example of how rock bands have used word of mouth to gain recognition for their songs and gigs is found at MySpace.com. Basically, MySpace combined the Internet Underground Music Archive’s song-posting service with Friendster.com’s meet-your-buddies’-buddies community model while ditching that site’s control-freakish attitude on how members can and can’t use the service.

More than 42 million members have joined MySpace.com since its inception in 2003. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the website for $583 million last summer.

“Our band has been a part of MySpace since 2003, and we have like a million friends now,” say Pete Wentz, lyricist and bassist of Fall Out Boy, a punk/pop band that will be featured on a MySpace record compilation. “There’s a whole group of kids who are disenfranchised. So you’ve got to go to sites like MySpace.com to reach those people.”

MySpace.com founder Chris DeWolfe says that his company will remain true to user-generated, not corporate-dictated content. “Music labels now understand word of mouth. It happens in an organic manner on MySpace.”

Viral Videos

Now that broadband is a reality, videos can get passed around virally. Spending on online video advertising is anticipated to triple in the next two years, according to research firm eMarketer. Spending will reach $640 million in 2007, up from $225 million 2005. Advertisers will spend at least $1.5 billion or more by the end of the decade.

Coffee company Illy has video podcasts to immerse people in the brand. And Nike has a stealth video campaign out, too. In it, Brazilian soccer sensation Ronaldinho sits on the grass. Someone hands him a metal box. He takes out new cleats, laces them up, then juggles a ball and kicks it into the crossbar four times in succession. A swoosh is subtle but clearly visible through the 2-minute, 44- second commercial. And no, this isn’t a Nike spot on TV.

This “Touch of Gold” video was viewed at a nascent website called YouTube.com an astonishing 1.9 million times after being up on the site for only a month. Nike, a pro at underground publicity, creates under-the-radar campaigns that spread like wildfire – and doesn’t shell out millions to do so.

Nike’s latest play-for-no-pay stunt also includes “Dance with the Ball” and “Don’t Tread on Me: Manifesto.”

“If you want to talk to U.S. soccer fans, you have to go online,” says Nike spokesperson Dean Stoyer. “Soccer is a huge initiative for Nike, and the soccer community lives online. We’re always looking for new ways to be on the cutting edge.”

A few weeks ago, YouTube.com was just two guys – Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, CEO and CTO, respectively (both early employees of PayPal). Currently, YouTube uploads 10,000 videos per day, moving 12 terabytes of video daily – an entire Blockbuster store and a half worth of footage.

The site highlights the most-viewed videos and who’s linking to each clip. MySpace, BlogSpot.com and Friendster all helped steer traffic to Touch of Gold. The best part: YouTube is like photo-hosting site Flickr.com, only for videos – and it’s free. People can upload and share clips with the world.

Beware the Backlash

A word of caution to any would-be word-of-mouth marketers: Be careful what you wish for. For example, take Sony, which recently hired graffiti artists in various cities to paint comics on outdoor surfaces (it paid local merchants for the right to do so). The artwork showed kids playing with various toys with dazed, expressionless faces and hypnotized eyes. Upon closer inspection, the toys they are playing with aren’t rocking horses, marionettes or skateboards, but Sony PSP (PlayStation Portable) game devices.

The ads never mention the company or the product. The concept behind the campaign was that people would see the graffiti, recognize the PSP, think they were cool and tell others to check it out.

The only problem was that in locations like San Francisco, real artists tagged the work “Fony” and wrote scathing manifestos telling the electronics giant to leave city sidewalks alone. This is a perfect example of attempted word of mouth gone terribly wrong. Sony got plenty of buzz, but it also branded itself a poseur in the indie art community.

Likewise, the Intelliseek study found strong negative reaction to shill marketing or artificial buzz, in which consumers are paid or offered incentives to recommend products or brands. One-third of respondents said they would be disappointed if a trusted contact did not fully disclose a paid or incentive-based relationship; 26 percent said they would never trust the opinion of that friend again; and 30 percent said they would be less likely to buy a product or service.

“Trust is the currency of effective advertising,” says Pete Blackshaw, Intelliseek’s chief marketing officer who oversaw the study. “But it’s highly fragile.”

Boston-based BzzAgent has clients like Lee Jeans, Penguin Books and Ralph Lauren. Its “agents” are regular people who volunteer to receive products and plug them. Technically, disclosure is encouraged, but it’s left up to the individual. Tremor, Procter & Gamble’s four-year-old word-of-mouth division, has a group of selected “cool” teens to help hype products. Both firms have gotten a lot of buzz for the buzz they create for clients. But not all the buzz is bueno.

In October, nonprofit advocacy group Commercial Alert sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging a thorough investigation of P&G’s Tremor, which has enlisted about 250,000 teenagers in its buzz marketing salesforce. Commercial Alert charges that Tremor targets teens with deceptive advertising.

“The Commission should carefully examine the targeting of minors by buzz marketing, because children and teenagers tend to be more impressionable and easy to deceive,” says Gary Ruskin, Commercial Alert’s executive director. “The Commission should do this, at a minimum, by issuing subpoenas to executives at Procter & Gamble’s Tremor and other buzz marketers that target children and teenagers, to determine whether their endorsers are disclosing that they are paid marketers.”

DIANE ANDERSON is an editor at Brandweek. She previously worked for the Industry Standard, HotWired and Wired News.