The Importance of Follow-through

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Data Design for You

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

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

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

Keep it Fresh

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

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

Keep the Traffic Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think Content First

When customers start telling you that it’s time to update your website, you’ve waited too long. That’s the position that Chris George, CEO of Think First, was in when he emailed us asking to be considered for this edition of By Design Makeover.

“We established our website (http://www.thinkfirst.us) in 2005. We have grown tremendously since that time and have not updated the design or content of our website. We receive comments all the time from prospective clients that tell us that our website does not have a lot of information about our company. We are in desperate need of a makeover,” George wrote.

Well, you came to the right place. It just so happens that makeovers are what we do here. As many of you know from past issues, the first step to a successful makeover is to review what your current page has to offer.

In reviewing ThinkFirst.us, my first thought is that the logo is nice and professional looking, but a bit generic. This leads me to look around for a tagline or some other element that will tell me what this company does. Before I get to that, the animating center section catches my attention. It starts off with, “Copernicus didn’t start the earth revolving around the sun.” Next frame, “Isaac Newton didn’t make the apple fall.” That’s clever. I see where they’re going, but I’m still not sure what they do. I see some buttons (or what appear to be buttons) under that section: Technology, Process, People, Innovation. I try to click on those, but they aren’t clickable.

Finally, I get to a tagline of sorts: “Unlike consultants, we’re experts who create and implement IT strategies that allow physician practice groups to meet their business objectives.” That’s quite a mouthful, and still doesn’t tell me much about their services.

Unfortunately, besides a clever marketing animation, this home page doesn’t have anything that leads me to believe that these guys have the expertise to take my company (or healthcare organization, since that is their primary market) to the next level. How come there’s no real content about the company or what they offer? In order to create a site that is useful for visitors and potential clients, this home page should include a company overview, their services, consultants’ bios, testimonials and company news.

This is where website makeovers can be tricky. In most cases, many of the content pieces are already there – they just need to be rearranged and given the right visual priority. But when the content on an existing site is so far off from what it should be – it’s better to start the process with a wireframe.

According to Webopedia, a wireframe is “a visualization tool for presenting proposed functions, structure and content of a Web page or Web site. A wireframe separates the graphic elements of a Web site from the functional elements in such a way that Web teams can easily explain how users will interact with the Web site.” As we discovered, the graphics are not the problem for Think First. Instead, they need a wireframe that illustrates the what, where and how much for each new content component they want to add.

The great thing about wireframes is that anyone can create one using simple tools like Microsoft Word. And presenting a well-thought-out wireframe to your Web team will most certainly result in a better end product.

First, let’s go back and create a wireframe for the existing site – so we can compare apples to apples. The first thing I notice is that the site is designed for an 800×600 browser resolution. In 2005, when the site was designed, this was considered a best practice. But now that monitors and resolutions have gotten larger, it just means we’re not making the best use of our available space. Next, I see that the marketing message takes almost 45 percent of the page. While it is a nice marketing message, it’s just taking up way too much page real estate. Finally, and the real reason this page is not successful, is there is just no real content.

Our new wireframe seems to iron out all the issues. First, it’s designed for a 1024×768 browser resolution, which is the standard size on the Web today. Next, we have made the marketing message much smaller – now it’s a little over 10 percent of total real estate. And last, but certainly not least, we added lots and lots of vital content.

Wireframes are a great way to eliminate the graphical element so you can focus on which content components are most important and how best to arrange them. With news, case studies, a featured consultant and a list of services, users are sure to understand exactly what Think First offers, and they are much better equipped to make the decision to hire them.

When designing any site, it’s best to put the content first. I’m not going to go into a rant about the evils of template websites, but I do want to mention that this is exactly why most template sites are ineffective. They offer you a pretty-looking, pre-designed website, and then ask you to squish all your content into it. That is not the ideal situation when you’re looking to create a website that performs for your business.

Now, I know that you hardcore By Design readers are wondering where we ended up with the makeover for my design firm, Sostre & Associates. Not to worry; we’ve got a final follow- up column coming soon – complete with analytics data and some post-launch thoughts – but you’ll have to wait until the next issue of Revenue (Issue 23).

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

Search Marketing Is Direct Marketing

When I say the word “marketing,” what do you think of? Probably some kind of advertising – maybe a TV commercial for Coke. That’s brand marketing, and it’s gotten the lion’s share of attention from marketers for decades.

Far fewer people are direct marketers – the folks behind the catalogs and mail solicitations that fill our mailboxes. If you know any direct marketers, you may want to hire them to run your search marketing campaigns. Let’s look at the basics of direct marketing to find out why.

The Name of the Game Is Response

Direct marketing is truly measurable marketing. Unlike most TV commercials, every direct marketing message is designed to evoke a response, such as “call this number now” or “mail your order form today.” The return on direct marketing investment is based on how many customers respond to those messages. A very successful direct marketing campaign might sport a 4 percent response rate; a failure, less than one-half of 1 percent. Direct marketers make their money by increasing response rates.

Think about it. It doesn’t cost any more to mail a catalog that drives 4 percent response as one that drives 2 percent. The creative costs, paper costs, printing costs and mailing costs are about the same for each mailing, so smart direct marketers focus on raising response to bring more return from the same investment. Direct marketers spend their time figuring out just what causes more people to respond. A different offer on the outside of the envelope might get more people to open it. A different picture and product description in a catalog might cause more people to order. A yellow sticky that says, “Before you pass on our offer, read this” might cause a few people to do just that.

But how do direct marketers know what worked? They measure the response. They measure changes in response to every small variant of their sales pitch. And they keep the changes that work and throw the rest away.

When credit card marketers send out a million pieces of mail to sign up new customers, they don’t just write a letter and mail it out. Instead they write 10 or 20 different letters and mail them to 1,000 people each. Then they mail the version of the letter that generated the best response to the rest of that million-person list.

Direct marketers constantly tweak their messages to become more persuasive. They continuously experiment with new ideas. It may seem picayune to focus on raising response rates from 2.2 percent to 2.6 percent, but just such increases mark breakthrough direct marketing campaigns.

Another way to increase return is to cull your mailing list. If you know that certain customers never seem to buy, you can eliminate those addresses from the list and add new ones that might prove more profitable. Your mailing costs are the same, but your responses will go up.

You can see that the basics of direct marketing revolve around experimenting with your messages and your mailing list to drive more and more sales for the same cost. You can apply those basics to Web marketing, too.

Web marketing, done well, is the biggest direct marketing opportunity ever, because the Web is infinitely more measurable than off-line direct marketing. Off-line direct marketers can measure only the final response – the mail order or the phone call, for example. They can’t tell the difference between those who threw the envelope away without opening it and those who read the entire message but still did not respond. If they could, they’d know whether to change the message on the outside of the envelope or change the letter itself.

The kind of measurement the Web offers is the stuff of direct marketers’ dreams.

Making Over My Own Site

Being “Dr. Makeover” comes with plenty of pressure. There’s an expectation that everything I touch will be inherently beautiful and optimized for peak performance. I have a dirty little secret, though: I rarely spend much time working on the design aspect of my own sites. What’s that old saying about the cobbler’s children?

So I’ve decided to put some shoes on my own kids’ feet and I’m making the process public. For the next two issues, I’ll provide a behind-the-scenes look into one design firm’s struggle to redesign its own site. I’ll share failed designs. I’ll ask for your objective opinions. And, hopefully, when it’s all said and done, I’ll have a better site and you’ll have a clearer understanding of what it takes to design a successful online venue.

While I generally recommend redesigning websites every 12 months, the site for my design firm – SostreAssoc.com – has had the same look since early 2005. That’s right, over two whole years. Well overdue from a time perspective, but does it really need a redesign?

The current site has a pretty good conversion rate for this type of business. Although I don’t feel it’s the best it could be, some people still like it and by most accounts it doesn’t seem to be overtly hurting sales. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Wrong.

Just because sales are coming in at a normal, healthy pace, doesn’t mean the website is performing optimally. Industry- standard conversion rates are often in the single digits. Three percent. Six percent. That means that roughly 90 percent of your site’s visitors are choosing not to do business with you (or me, in this case)! Of course, a 100 percent conversion rate is nearly impossible for several reasons, but setting your sites to that lofty goal can be more beneficial than simply striving for industry standards.

A good way to determine if your site could perform better is to review how it performs against its transitional goals. Start with a list of all the elements that contribute to the success of your site. Of course, there is the main conversion goal (in our case, increase the number of contacts we receive), but there are also a number of transitional goals we use to get users to take that conversion action. In our case, the list looks like this:

Goal: Communicate our services

Besides the overtly generic tagline, “Consulting, Design, Development,” it’s not immediately clear what services our company provides. If people don’t know what we offer, how can they buy it? Grade: D

Goal: Establish our credibility

The site uses third-party references (citations and client testimonials) to establish credibility. Grade: B

Goal: Convey our thought leadership and expertise

Our clients are always surprised at the level of thought and expertise that we bring to the table, but our website does very little to communicate that expertise. Case studies that explain exactly how we solved tough problems for our clients could help in this situation. Grade: D

Goal: Showcase our product

In the Web design industry, our client websites are our products and they have to shine. While we have a news section that highlights when a client site goes live, there is not even so much as a thumbnail of one of our client’s sites to be found on the home page. This is very, very bad. Grade: F

Goal: Make visitors aware of my writings and conference appearances

Some people visit the site not to hire Sostre & Associates, but to find more of my writings or see me at an industry conference. I wrote a book for a major publishing company. Can you find it on the home page of my site? No. I spoke at several conferences in the past two years. Were those events highlighted on the site? On a good note, I do include a link to this Revenue magazine column. Grade: D

Goal: Foster strong search engine rankings

The current site gets a fair amount of traffic from search engines but it still doesn’t come up for many top-tier, highly trafficked terms. Grade: B

Based on that evaluation, my cumulative grade is a D, and that means it’s definitely time for a redesign.

In the same way we used transitional goals to evaluate our existing site, we’re going to use those goals to drive our redesign priorities. The “problem” with transitional goals is that none of them are really more important than any other one.

In addition, we have outlying goals like generating SEO traffic and promoting my writings and conference appearances that are not directly related to the main goal of getting users to contact us.

The typical, old-school conversion process involved a linear conversion funnel where you took prospects from Step 1 to Step 2 in progressive order to close the sale. Online, there is no linear funnel. Visitors don’t always go from one Step 1, to Step 2, to Step 3 in orderly fashion. Some visitors only want to see the work, while others want to see what services we offer and still others want to start out by reading about our expertise.

Think of it this way: Traditional sales are like being a chauffeur. You drive visitors from one place to another, taking them where they want to go. Online, the visitor is in the driver’s seat and you aren’t even sitting in the car. All you can do is post road signs and hope they’re clear enough to lead the user where they want to go. And that’s where it gets difficult.

Individually, it’s easy to design a site that executes one of the transitional goals. Create a site that communicates services? Easy. Design a site that showcases a product? Simple. Develop a site that improves search engine rankings? No problem. But how do we put it all together so that everything is in balance? That’s exactly what we’ve been struggling with for the past 12 months. Since I started the redesign over a year ago, I’ve designed about 30 different layouts for the site, but I haven’t been happy with any of them.

This is where you come in. Send me (pedro@sostreassoc.com) your thoughts on the current site, or on any of the failed designs. Then next issue, we’ll take this discussion to the next level.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Bringing Your Website Into Focus

What can you do when you’ve invested in Web initiatives and it looks like the investment isn’t paying off? For some industries, embracing the Web as a way to increase business has been a long, slow road. The good news is that every day, companies are pushing the envelope to create online tools and features that move their industry forward in search of the revenue-altering effect of a successful Web presence. Zyloware is one of those companies.

Founded in 1923, Zyloware is a family-owned-and-operated business that manufactures brand-name fashion eyewear frames. Recently the company made a significant investment in its website. They changed the site from an online catalog to a full e-commerce site so that eyecare professionals could keep their inventory full by ordering online. Zyloware is known as an innovator in the optical industry, and developing this functionality was an innovation over what their competitors are doing online. But are they ahead of their time?

While several Zyloware customers are using the new Zyloware.com website to place orders online, the adoption rates have grown more slowly than anticipated. Marketing manager for Zyloware, Jodie Hirsch, contacted us to see if a little makeover magic could help solve the problem. She suspected that the new capabilities available to users aren’t obvious and that is the prime reason why the system isn’t getting used as much as expected.

After looking over the site, I have to agree that much of the functionality is being hidden, but overall, the issues are much bigger. I’ve said before that sometimes you can take an existing site and make dramatic performance improvements without changing the overall design very much – this is not one of those cases. Zyloware’s existing home page could definitely benefit from a complete visual overhaul.

First, these guys work with some top-notch brands. That isn’t fully communicated on their home page. Next, the company’s business is producing frames, yet they don’t show more than one on the home page. Rule No. 1: If you are selling a product, feature that product as prominently as possible on your home page.

Zyloware only sells directly to eyecare professionals, so a secondary goal that Hirsch mentioned was to make Zyloware. com a consumer-friendly site and a valuable resource in selecting eyewear. They developed an advanced frame search engine so consumers could find eyewear products on the site and then purchase the products from the partner retail locations. The problem is that most consumers have never heard of Zyloware and with the existing home page, it’s not clear what the company does or why consumers should look any deeper into the site.

So our first order of business is to rework the navigation. Well-designed navigation does more than just help users find their way around on your site; it also communicates what the site has to offer and which areas are most important. The current site has most of the options hidden in drop-down menus. We pulled out the most important links and displayed them in a standard horizontal navigation. This will make it easy for users – both consumers and eyewear professionals – to see what the site offers and to get to those areas quickly.

Next, the original design shows one brand at a time and displays the rest in small text links below. We chose to prominently feature five of their nine brands front and center on the home page. This immediately exposes users to a good breadth of Zyloware’s eyewear offerings before they dig deeper into the site. With this type of setup, Zyloware could choose to feature its best-selling brands, its newest additions or just a good cross section of their full product line.

Our next step was to expose the frame search functionality. This is something that both consumers and eyecare professionals could use, so keeping it hidden in a drop-down menu was not giving it the attention it deserved. Also, we added some information about the company so that users who don’t have previous experience with Zyloware can learn a little bit about what they do.

Finally, we made the site wider. This is a nuance that is lost when the images are reproduced in print, but the original width of the site is about 810 pixels. That is a nonstandard size and it doesn’t really make any sense. Allow me to get technical for a bit here.

Website widths should be based on expected user screen resolutions. Users with screen resolutions of 800×600, which used to be the Web standard until about two years ago, can fit 770 pixels on their screen without having to scroll horizontally. The current Web standard is 1024×768, which can fit approximately 990 pixels before a horizontal scrollbar is introduced.

Because the site was 810 pixels wide, it was effectively too big for low-resolution users, but still too small for larger-resolution users. We increased the width to a size more suited for users with higher screen resolutions, which allowed us to expose more real estate to the site visitors.

In the end, a successful home page must communicate the value of your company to your users. It must also quickly and almost subconsciously educate them about what they can do on your site. Accomplish those goals and your users will reward you by visiting your site more and utilizing the tools you have created for them more frequently.

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

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Question Then Convert

I talk to website owners all the time who are looking to design or redesign their websites. Most tell me what colors they like and what other websites appeal to them. Next they discuss features like animation or video. Some will go so far as to send long, prepared documents that include detailed color choices, font selections and so on. The concept of Web design is still largely looked at as a visual beautification of their website.

What I rarely find are website owners who have looked at their design in the context of Internet business. Once you’ve decided to redesign, there is a certain process you must go through to ensure your new website offers more than just a pretty face. You need the right information to provide a context for the redesign process.

This is why most of the website templates that are available for purchase do not help online businesses. They often look very nice, but force you to tailor your information to the design. Successful conversion design depends on a design that is specifically created for your information.

Please don’t confuse information with content. You don’t need to have every article and tagline written before starting the design process. However, you do need to have a very clear understanding of the message you want to convey to users and what goals you want to reach.

I encourage all website owners to answer the following questions before starting a redesign.

What type of website do you need?

Almost all websites can be grouped into a handful of categories: informational, lead generation, e-commerce and support. The type of website required for each is very different. To determine what type of website you need, you first just need to answer the question, how does your site make money?

If your business makes money by selling advertising or sponsorships it probably falls into the category of informational websites. Informational sites want to attract lots of visitors and get those users to come back regularly. The more pages users visit, the better it is for business. Examples of information websites include news portals, most blogs and many community-based sites.

If your site drives revenue by generating leads which are later converted to sales or sold to another organization – you need a lead generation site. Lead generation sites need to convert users to leads as effectively as possible. Lead generation sites can take many forms but some examples include service companies, mortgage comparison companies, etc.

E-commerce sites make their money by selling products. They need to establish trust because customers usually need to enter a credit card to complete the transaction.

Support sites help their owners by helping users find answers themselves, thereby reducing the need for support staff. These sites succeed when they make it very easy for users to find specific information.

Because the goals of these websites are very different, the design needs to be different. A one-size-fits-all approach will limit the success of the site.

What do you want to say to your users?

Every company has a voice. Is your business fun and quirky or staid and serious? Established off-line businesses often have a brand manager who helps to define this voice. The idea is to convey a consistent message to people exposed to the brand. Many website owners neglect this vital part of business. At the very least, your site needs to communicate the following points:

  • What makes your company different from the competition?
  • Why should users trust you?

Think of your website as an extended sales team. Great salespeople have to say the right words at the right time to help customers realize how great your products and services are. Your website needs to do the same thing.

Who are your users?

Defining a target market is business 101. One of your first steps should be to settle on the basics of who your customers are with metrics like age range, gender and income. Once the basics are defined, your next step is to identify any niche markets that would fit well with your service or product. Being able to cater parts of your website to specific niche markets can present huge opportunities for growth.

Another important step in understanding your audience is to determine how they are finding your site. Is your traffic coming from natural search engine listings, pay-per-click listings or word of mouth? Hopefully you’re attracting users from all three, in which case you need to think about what each type of user is looking to get from your site. Different traffic sources often indicate that users are at different stages in the buying cycle; for example, word-of-mouth traffic may only be interested in checking out the site, whereas pay-per-click visitors may already have their wallet out ready to make a purchase.

Having a thorough understanding of who visits your site and where they are coming from is the only way to create experiences that are appropriate for your audience.

So before you start shopping around for Web designers and writing content for your site, make sure you’ve given thought to the three major questions in this article. Design is more than just making your site look good – it’s about creating a website that accomplishes solid business goals that add to the bottom line.

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

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Improving Conversions

Kimberly Griffiths knows all too well what it feels like to be drowning in a sea of debt. Like many Americans, she’s faced credit card charges totaling tens of thousands of dollars. The difference between Griffiths and the average credit-card-toting American is that she conquered the interest-accruing beasts.

Now Griffiths is passionate about helping others conquer it too. She figures she’s got plenty of work to do, with over $1 trillion of consumer debt in America alone. That’s why she invested her time and money into building a system designed to set others free from the bondage of minimum monthly payments that never seem to make a dent in the grand total. She dubbed her online reduction strategy “One Paycheck at a Time.” It includes a book and online tools to help consumers reduce their debt, well, one paycheck at a time.

A debt-free Griffiths, though, still has one problem. Her own need to earn weekly paychecks to remain in the black keeps her from pursuing her passion to help others on a full-time basis. Her goal is to transform the lackluster OnePayCheckAtATime.com site into a revenue-generating machine that will allow her to quit her day job and focus all of her efforts on helping the millions of Americans who are stressed out over swelling credit card bills.

Meeting that goal means making some changes to her site. It seems despite her best efforts over the past 12 months to optimize her landing page, Griffiths still isn’t getting a high rate of sales. She’s tried just about everything she knows to do, from paying search engines for traffic to working with affiliates to arranging link agreements with partner sites. She has succeeded on one note – the traffic is fairly healthy. Unfortunately the conversion rate has never climbed above 1 percent. A frustrated Griffiths is left wondering what she is doing wrong. At first glance the site is pretty enough. The colors are eye-pleasing and the design is clean and up to date. Of course, anyone reading this column for any length of time knows that a pretty site with nice colors isn’t what we’re all about.

By Design Makeover - Before and After Going Beyond Pretty

Despite passing the “pretty” test, I identified a major problem before even completing the second glance. I couldn’t figure out what the site was selling. I understood the idea. It’s spelled out in the main image: “Create the life you want by becoming debt free.” Great! I’m all for that. But how, exactly, does this site help me to become debt free? Moving on, I look to the tagline for some clarification. Apparently the site offers “a no-nonsense strategy for becoming debt free.” Okay, so I am buying a strategy. But what does that mean exactly? I’m not sure.

Next I see a long form that’s asking for all sorts of information – including my credit card number. Now I’m really getting uncomfortable. I’d like to know exactly what it is I’m buying before handing over this sensitive information. And on top of that, I don’t even know how much this vaguely defined “strategy” is going to cost me. Finally my brain moves to all those words in the middle of the page – the “benefits” list. But like most users I’m just not going to take the time to read all those words. At this point, I would rather just click the “back” button on my browser and find another quick fix to my debt problem.

Here’s my point. This site fails to answer a fundamental question: What is it selling? Also, since it’s asking for credit card information: How much does it cost? The good news is that these two questions can be answered with some design tweaks, as opposed to a full visual overhaul. So let’s get to work.

To more clearly illustrate what the site is selling, I took three steps. First I changed the message in the main graphic. I wanted to incorporate the words “online system” so that people could immediately see what the site is selling. Next I updated the tagline to read: “The online budgeting system for becoming debt free.” Last I moved the screenshots above the fold so users would see them without having to scroll down, and added “View Larger” links so users could easily preview the interface for these tools without squinting.

I then brought in a highly targeted focus group to see if I had accomplished my goal. Enter Anthony Sostre, my 10-year-old son. I believe a good website should communicate its most basic message so plainly that even a preteen can figure it out. I showed him the original site and asked the million-dollar question: What is this site selling? After about 10 seconds of ums and uhs, he responded with an unsure, “Something about debt?” Next I showed him the redesigned site and asked the same question. Before I have time to start counting down the seconds, he boldly declared, “An online system for debt” and walked away. (Apparently I had used up enough of his short attention span.) The new design had passed the test. The new message is the main focal point and people should know immediately what the site sells.

Now to address the pricing issue” I have a theory: If you can avoid a problem, you should by all means do so. So in this case, I recommended that we shorten the form and not ask for credit card info right on the home page. Instead we made signing up for the program a two-step process and ask for payment in the second step. Additionally I added “Pricing” as a main navigation item so that anyone who’s interested can find it easily. No last-minute surprises.

On a macro level, I took out all that text that no one reads. (We can save lengthy text for the “About” page or some other lower-level page.) This made the landing page much shorter. I also made the form a little wider. The idea was to clear out a little more real estate on the page to allow the form more prominent positioning. I also highlighted the free bonus materials, which were always there but nearly impossible to see in the original design. Oh, and I also put a photo of Griffiths at the bottom of the page with a link to her full story so those who are struggling with debt would know that Griffiths knows what she’s talking about. She’s been there. This adds the personal touch that will make a certain percentage of users more comfortable with the product. At the end of the day, Griffiths will increase her sales one conversion at a time, and with a redesigned home page, she is well-positioned to help many consumers understand how she can help them get out of debt.

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

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

Do Your Metrics Measure Up?

Steve DiPietro is amazed at how frequently he listens to prospective clients parroting clickthrough percentages, Web traffic statistics and conversion ratios with great enthusiasm but little-to-no understanding of their value to their organizations. Increasing a conversion rate from 12 to 15 percent can become a goal unto itself as marketers immersed in number crunching can lose sight of the fact that sales aren’t also growing.

Making Sense of Metrics

ALGORITHM: A set of mathematical equations or rules that a search engine uses to rank the content contained within its index in response to a particular search query.

ANALYTICS: Technology that helps analyze the performance of a website or online marketing campaign.

BENCHMARK REPORT: A report used to market where a website falls on a search engine’s results page for a list of keywords. Subsequent search engine position reports are compared with that.

CHARGEBACK:An incomplete sales transaction that results in an affiliate commission deduction. For example: merchandise is purchased and then returned.

CLICK & BYE: The process in which an affiliate loses a visitor to the merchant’s site once they click on a merchant’s banner or text link.

CLICKTHROUGH: The process of activating a link, usually on an online advertisement connecting to the advertiser’s website or landing page.

CLICKTHROUGH RATE (CTR): The percentage of those clicking on links out of the total number who see the links. For example: If 20 people do a Web search and 10 of those 20 people all choose one particular link, that link has a 50 percent clickthrough rate.

CONVERSION RATE: The percentage of clicks that result in a commissionable activity such as a sale or lead.

CONVERSION REPORTING: A measurement for tracking conversions and lead generation from search engine queries. It identifies the originating search engine, keywords, specific landing pages entered and the related conversion for each.

HIT: Request from a Web server for a graphic or other element to be displayed on a Web page.

IMPRESSION: An advertising metric that indicates how many times an advertising link is displayed.

KEYWORD: The word(s) a searcher enters into a search engine’s search box. Also the term that the marketer hopes users will search on to find a particular page.

PAGE VIEW: This occurs each time a visitor views a Web page, irrespective of how many hits are generated. Page views are comprised of files.

RANK: How well a particular Web page or website is listed in a search engine’s results.

UNIQUE VISITORS: Individuals who visited a site during the report period – usually 30 days. If someone visits more than once, they are counted only the first time they visit.

“It’s sad and somewhat surprising that after all this time there is a pervasive lack of understanding … of how these numbers correlate with how to make money,” says DiPietro,who works with clients large and small as the president of the Marlton,N.J.-based DiPietro Marketing Group.

Many marketers continue to rely on basic campaign performance data as the primary or even sole metric for measuring success, according to DiPietro. People often get caught up in the measurability of online campaigns and miss the ultimate corporative objective of a marketing campaign – to increase profitability.

Despite many marketers’ incomplete understanding of how buying keywords affects the bottom line, search marketing spending continues to grow rapidly. According to a survey conducted by the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), advertisers in the U.S. and Canada spent $5.75 billion on search engine marketing in 2005, up 44 percent from 2005. Search engine marketing spending in North America is projected to reach $11 billion per year by 2010.

Some marketers whose careers started in the brick-and-mortar world have seemingly become spellbound by the top-level data for measuring marketing campaigns and forget their “old-school” fundamental tenets about increasing sales and stockholder value, according to DiPietro. Finding methods of doubling the conversion rate of a keyword campaign is admirable, but who cares if sales don’t grow? Estimating the value of a keyword purchase by focusing on clickthrough rates or increasing traffic to the website is an easy way to justify spending, but may be totally meaningless, DiPietro says.

The clickthrough ratio is analogous to the batting average in baseball – it is easy to compute and understand, and therefore is the most relied-upon statistic. However, during the past few decades, baseball executives such as the Oakland A’s Billy Beane, who probe deeper into statistics, have learned that other metrics – such as on-base percentage – are more directly related to achieving the objective (scoring more runs). The A’s have managed to succeed while spending considerably less than competitors, and many fellow baseball executives now are looking beyond the batting average. Similarly, marketers who identify the metrics that more closely correlate to their specific goals can increase their success.

MATCHING GOALS

Getting customers to your website is an important first step in increasing revenue, but determining the return on the investment requires analyzing what happens after they arrive at your doorstep. “You must have an action attached to [increasing traffic] or the campaign is useless,” says Douglas Brooks, vice president of consulting firm Marketing Management Analytics.

Before embarking on a campaign, marketers must define the objective – be it increasing leads, sales or brand recognition – and apply the appropriate metric, according to Brooks. The most appropriate metric may depend on whether the company is focused on e-commerce sales or if sales staff is usually involved in any transaction. Different yardsticks are appropriate for companies that use their website as a direct sales channel than for companies who are focused on generating leads that are converted off-line, he says.

Companies that rely on sales personnel should look at the volume of leads a campaign generates, according to Jerry Moyer, manager of analytics at interactive agency Refinery. Moyer says he tells his media clients – many of whom continue to focus on clickthrough rates – that tracking leads is a more effective barometer of campaign performance.

Campaigns that drive traffic to a website that cannot identify where visitors came from may be over- or underestimating their effectiveness, according to Moyer. By using first-party cookies and analyzing all of the activities that occur over time, advertisers can better understand the value of the leads generated.

Using cookies enables marketers to identify the unique visitors, according to Andrew Hanlon, who owns advertising agency Hanlon Creative. Cookies enable companies to track how many times a visitor was exposed to messaging during an entire campaign, as well as counting the total number of interactions on a website before visitors enter personal information and become a lead. “Unique visitors is the most raw level of success; you have to consider how many [leads resulted],” Hanlon says.

For example, Designer Linens Outlet implemented first-party cookies and saw revenue from returning customers increase by 45 percent and shopping cart conversions increase by 20 percent, according to Web analytics firm WebTrends, which managed the campaign.

Measuring the quality of leads is as important as the clickthrough ratios or total Web traffic generated by a campaign, according to Hanlon. He says many of his Hatboro, Pa., agency’s clients ($20 million to $1 billion in sales) “rarely know what they are asking for” when trying to gauge the impact of campaigns on sales.

He stresses to clients the importance of tracking leads throughout the entire sales process. “The client has to be able to act on the data – what happens with the lead after it is collected,” he says. The ability of keywords to generate leads varies widely, says Hanlon. Marketers should use metrics that create quality leads versus those that merely drive traffic.

If branding is the goal, then measuring increases in traffic can be appropriate since many keywords generate low-quality leads, Hanlon says. Companies looking to reinforce messaging through multiple media should consider several online metrics, according to Jason Palmer, vice president of product strategy at WebTrends.

LANDING CLIENTS

Some campaigns are incorrectly viewed as ineffective because of low conversion rates, according to consultant Hanlon. Landing pages that were not designed to entice visitors to delve deeper into a website could turn away potential leads, so their effectiveness must also be evaluated. Landing pages should have interesting content such as blogs or unique offers to encourage clickthroughs, says Hanlon. Companies should measure conversion ratios after visitors hit a landing page, and if they are shown to be “dead ends,” they should revise the landing pages to add more content, he says.

Software companies including WebTrends and Salesforce.com are developing applications that zero in on landing-page performance. For example, Webtrends Dynamic Search evaluates the effectiveness of the landing page and keyword in matching specific company objectives.

Tweaking the content of a landing page can increase the percentage of clicks converted to leads by as much as a factor of 10, according to Kraig Swensrud, senior director of product marketing at Salesforce.com. Tracking and improving landing-page conversions is equivalent to increasing money spent on Google AdWords, he says. “Everything is interconnected – as soon as you have visibility on [landing-page] conversion rate, you can impact change,” says Swensrud.

FROM CLICKS TO SALES

The best metrics link gains in Web traffic or clickthrough percentage to the overall business objectives – increasing sales, profitability and effect on the stock price. Consultant DiPietro recommends the break-even sales analysis is applied to off-line marketing should be applied online. Companies should calculate how many sales – based on the profit margin per average sale – would have to be generated to determine whether or not a campaign is a good investment.

“Whether it’s participating in a trade show, setting up an affiliate program or a PPC campaign, work it back to break-even sales,” DiPietro says.

Connecting the dots between Web analytics and sales data has been largely a manual process for DiPietro, who spends more hours than he would like handcrafting spreadsheets to complete his analysis.

Web analytics firms such as WebTrends, Omniture and WebSideStory are addressing this software void with applications and services that can link Web and sales data to simplify calculating the return on investment. These applications can incorporate Web data such as traffic analysis, email marketing and search marketing performance with customer relationship management sales data.

Accurately gauging the value of a campaign to a company’s bottom line, tracking a visit as it becomes a lead and until the sales cycle is completed is what should be measured, according to WebTrends’ Corey Gault. Web data should be combined with higher-level key performance indicators (KPIs) such as cost per visit, cost per lead and cost per sale, he says. “KPIs can also be combinations of various metrics, such as revenue dollar per marketing dollar spent, or percent of orders from repeat purchasers,” says Gault.

Measuring the lifetime value of online branding campaigns is challenging for companies that also sell off-line, as the ability to automate the process ends at the desktop. Refinery’s Moyer says customer surveys are an efficient method to link online with offline impressions. The surveys incorporate data collected by contacting customers about their behaviors before and after campaigns, and factor in both online and off-line (broadcast, print, outdoor) impressions. This enables companies to calculate how the campaign contributed to the overall sales effort, he says.

Metrics should factor in all of the times a company interacts with the customer, not only the most recent, which can skew performance data, according WebTrend’s Gault. “Many marketing analytics solutions credit the conversion to the last campaign touched, effectively undervaluing all the programs that initiated awareness and consideration.”

Vendors are also re-engineering their products so that sales data can automatically be integrated with Web analytics to complete the campaign-to-revenue analysis.

“The ability to tie marketing metrics with sales metrics is one of the biggest problems that customers have,” according to Salesforce.com’s Swensrud. To address the difficulty in understanding the impact of keyword purchases on sales, the company introduced Salesforce for Google Adwords late in 2006. The software, which is sold as a service, traces the leads generated by keyword purchases and follows them through the sales process to determine their return on investment.

COMPARING OPTIONS

Although comparing current campaign- to-revenue performance with historical data is informative, marketers should create a baseline of return on investment so that they understand the relative value of each type of online campaign.

The cost per thousand of a keyword campaign may seem relatively low when compared with cost of an email marketing campaign. However, determining the return on investment of each can justify what appear to be higher costs per customer contact, according to Marketing Management Analytics’ Brooks. He says calculating the individual return on investment for each type of online campaign enables an apples-to-apples comparison.

For example, the lifetime value of a customer acquired through keyword buys might be a fraction of that of someone originally contacted via email. After factoring in revenue, marketers can better decide the best marketing mix for their collective media expenditures.

The volume of statistics contained in monthly Web analytics reports can make it a challenge to interpret the metrics that matter most. The bottom line: Don’t forget about the bottom line.

JOHN GARTNER is a Portland, Ore.- based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift, and is the editor of Matter-mag.com.

You’ve Got Content, Now What?

I find that many website owners are divided into two camps. One camp is very good at developing unique content and garnering tons of search engine traffic, but they have a hard time turning that traffic into dollars. The other camp is great at monetizing traffic, but they can never generate very much traffic. In both cases the individuals involved eventually become discouraged with their site’s lackluster performance and move on to something else.

This issue’s makeover recipient, HomeWA.com, is in the first camp. The site’s creator, Gabe Hoggarth, spent months working on HomeWA.com, a real estate information site focused on the state of Washington. He’s crafted articles full of quality information that both users and search engines love, but despite his content-building efforts, the site just isn’t making the kind of money he’d expected.

The bottom line is, how can we turn HomeWA.com’s existing traffic into a solid revenue stream? As you know, we have always chosen a home page to make over in this column. However, the HomeWA.com home page really wasn’t that bad. I don’t evaluate a home page or landing page based on how pretty the page looks. Instead I focus on the elements that will determine how effectively it communicates with users.

The home page should communicate three basic things:

What does the site offer? The site features a clear tagline, “Washington Real Estate Information,” which makes it clear what the site is about. Also, the simple navigation options and highlighted articles really drive that point home.

Why should I use this site as opposed to a competitor? HomeWA.com, like many affiliate sites, isn’t selling anything directly. Instead, it attracts a niche audience and hopes to make money when the readers sign up for or purchase the services and goods they link to. The only product that HomeWA.com directly provides is information, and Hoggarth has done a good job developing strong articles with appealing titles like “Top Home Buyer Turnoffs” which visitors seem to like. Having unique, high-demand information, while focusing in on a tight niche (Washington state home buyers and sellers) gives users a compelling reason to use this site.

How do I get what I want from this site? HomeWA.com has a simple navigational structure and provides several entry points on the home page that take users directly to the content they seek. This makes it easy for users to move on to additional pages from the home page.

Since the HomeWA.com home page answers all three of my main questions fairly effectively, I started to wonder if this really was the right site to make over. Then I remembered that despite the effective home page, Hoggarth still had a problem – his site was not generating boatloads of money.

It was obvious that a bigger-picture approach was needed. To help understand why the site isn’t generating the type of income it should, we need to look at its traffic. HomeWA.com gets most of its traffic from natural search. This means most users enter the site at the specific article that had the information they were looking for, not at the home page. We needed to start thinking about each article page as a landing page for the site, since that’s where most users got their first glimpse of what the site had to offer.

With this new perspective, I turned my sights to the article pages, and a quick review of these pages gave me all the answers I needed. First of all, there are no links to additional articles. Although the site offers loads of content, there is no simple way to get to additional content from an article page. Since related content is not visible, users are not encouraged to click through to other pages on the site. Next, there are no links to advertisers. That means there is currently no way to generate income from someone reading an article.

Without a little help, HomeWA.com will never reach its full potential. Here are three things we did to try to rectify the problems.

  • Of course, we gave the site a visual makeover. This isn’t the most important part of the makeover – but it certainly didn’t hurt. We chose to use a nature shot of Washington as the backdrop for the site. Having a customized design helps to give the site a more credible feeling. The photo could be changed to a more iconic image – the Seattle skyline for example – to reiterate the site’s focus on the state of Washington. A particular photo may be better, but that can be done after some rudimentary testing.
  • A fairly simple, but hugely beneficial change was adding a column next to each article. The column facilitates sections for additional content. This is where we can put related articles, resources, special features and some advertiser links. The purpose of the content in this area is twofold: to get users to go beyond this article and realize that there is a whole host of information on the site that they might be interested in, and it’s also a great spot to promote advertisers that will help make the site more profitable so Hoggarth can continue to develop valuable content.
  • Finally, we added some standard advertising units within the article and at the bottom of the additional column. These ad units give Hoggarth another way to monetize the site and if he doesn’t have advertisers to put in the spots, they could be used to promote additional site features. These changes will increase page views across the site and should help make HomeWA.com more profitable.

Would you like your website to receive a By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Dont forget to include “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

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

Redemption

It all started with Asa Candler, a “prescriptionist” in Atlanta 112 years ago. A modest pharmacist who dealt in tonics and medicines, he bought an unassuming recipe for a patent medicine called Coca-Cola. When he gave out handwritten slips of paper for customers to try the new drink for free, the coupon was born.

The simple yet brilliant marketing idea Candler conceived has, of course, become a staple of American shopping. During the Depression in the 1930s, grocers fell in love with coupons as a way to attract needy families into their stores. And when the supermarket took over and coupon redemption became easier in the 1960s, half of all Americans used coupons. With the advent of the freestanding insert, or FSI, in the early 1970s, reams of colorful and enticing coupons came with the country’s Sunday newspapers.

As expected, the coupon migrated to the Web and even with technology laying the pavement for better distribution and security – it is still a work in progress. Online coupons are busting out all over but they aren’t as big as you might think. The world of couponing has survived the digital age so far and has made some unique advancements, but there are still challenges ahead.

Coupon distribution continues to prevail. In 2005, U.S. coupons set a new record of 323 billion coupons distributed, the first year to pass the 300 billion mark and a nice jump of 9 percent over 2004, according to CMS, a coupon-processing firm. CMS also states that the redemption rates of Internet coupons rose from .59 percent in 2004 to .96 percent in 2005. That may seem like a small amount but it’s a big jump for a fledgling coupon vehicle. Overall coupon redemption rates hover between 1 and 3 percent year-over-year.

While some analysts have forecasted the death of the paper coupon in as short a span as five years, the trends don’t seem to reflect that. Yes, more people are using the Internet to gather coupon codes to buy from websites instead of clipping an FSI and walking into a store – but those numbers are a very small slice of the coupon pie. A resounding 88 percent of redeemed coupons are FSIs, snipped from the Sunday edition of your newspaper.

Still, some are confident that the paper coupon will disappear sooner than we think and that coupons delivered via email or to our cell phones will dominate. “Young marketers are leading the way toward eliminating the paper coupon,” says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, CEO of The Sausalito Group.

Precision Targeting

For now though, only a small percentage of redeemed coupons come from online. But the upside is that online couponing – whether via a coupon code, printable coupon or emailed coupon – is able to reach a more precise target than the traditional FSI. In fact, recent redemption studies have borne out that Hispanic coupon users redeem at higher-than-average rates. Therefore, coupon distributors are finding ways to hit the Hispanic market with coupons via cell phone (Hispanic households use more cell phones than the general population). Sealey says the benefit for marketers is that they “can target people who can actually afford to buy a Porsche.”

The efficiency that technology brings is seeing immediate results in the online coupon world. Coupon networks, for example, use technology to help with everything from RSS feeds of coupons to organizing all their expired online coupons. But even then, the technology doesn’t get in the way. “We like to call ourselves a document security company,” says Steven Boal, CEO of Coupons.com, a network enabling printable online coupons. He says that proclamations of the death of the paper coupon are greatly exaggerated “for a very important reason. Because I print paper coupons – a business that has been around a long time. Up until three years ago it hadn’t changed much. Does it change? Yes. Small percentage shifts in this business move huge dollars.”

His Coupon.com platform runs on more than 3,000 affiliate marketers’ coupon websites and some of the most high-profile coupon websites use his company’s back end, including Yahoo, Boodle.com, NBC.com, SmartSource.com and other coupon sites in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

It’s true that coupon redemption rates dropped 6 percent in 2005, but as mentioned, distribution rose sharply. What’s at issue isn’t that fewer people are using coupons but that products that wouldn’t otherwise be sold are selling, according to Matthew Tilley, director of marketing at CMS. “Consumers just aren’t responding to coupons at the same rate that they used to, but that hasn’t really dampened marketers’ enthusiasm for them.” He affirms that high redemption rates are not the goal, but that “moving more product than you would without promotion – but at an efficient cost – is really the goal.”

While the big online coupon networks can scale for brands, smaller affiliate marketers have also been able to take advantage of the interest in online coupons. Popular sites such as Amazing-Bargains.com, CleverMoms.com, Fabu.com, Shopping- Bargains.com and FlamingoWorld.com have all seen great success with their coupon sites.

Much like product affiliates, coupon affiliates must track the newest offers, post them, bring down expired offers and make sure the link goes to where it is supposed to – but do so on a fairly grand scale every day. Too often the monthly offers inundate the affiliate on the first of the month, so that (if he or she works the website alone) it could be two weeks before a coupon is posted.

“I don’t know how they do it,” Michael “Mikey” Yack, founder of FabulousSavings and Fabu.com, says. He built his coupon sites from the ground up, too, but now has 30 employees. He doesn’t do code anymore. “I’m on the phone with my merchants all day,” he says. That’s the only way he can up the value of his coupons. “Once [merchants] know you’re legit, they throw you more.”

Fabu.com is also a site that employs rather sophisticated methods to keep it all together. Yack says his team writes original product descriptions and uses automated software to take down expired links. Other technology involves automatic rotating codes to avoid inviting other affiliates to cut and paste Fabu links on to their sites. He says his exclusive link with Toys R Us changes every 18 hours so that a stolen link will no longer be good after a brief window of time. All his expired coupons switch themselves out automatically.

Technology: The Good and the Bad

Link stealing may be the biggest pet peeve of the online coupon affiliate community. And while it does occur, some affiliates and networks work with it as a nuisance. Others complain that merchants aren’t doing enough because for them it just means broader distribution. The other pet peeve is that some merchants tailor coupons just for affiliates and create other deals for all the other channels they sell in. Affiliates fear the better deals may be going to the other channels.

“There are many things low-quality coupon sites do that are deceptive,” wrote Michael Coley, founder of Amazing- Bargains.com, in a Web forum. “While these things may temporarily increase their [clickthrough rates] or sales, the long-term effect is that they lose customers. Who would go back to a site that they knew was deceptive, and what merchant would want to keep working with a site that was deceptive? Their antics backfire in the long run.”

For couponers who have been at it for a while – like any Web venture – adaptation is the watchword. “Technology is always changing and those who survive must change with it. Web services, RSS feeds, JavaScript, storefront generators, XML and other delivery tools are making it easier for coupon sites to maintain current content. However, much of the, heavy lifting remains manual for those who want to offer unique content and features,” Mike Allen, president of Shopping-Bargains.com, says.

The potential for technology to take more of the sting out of couponing online has generated more than a few companies ready to cash in on new platforms. RSS feeds for coupons have been a boon to companies that do it, such as CouponBar.com, DealoftheDay.com and PhatDeal.com. Couponing from cell phones is the next area of interest for some. Companies such as Cellfire, MoBull and Quickpons are startups that just deliver coupons via cell phones. And they are already getting buzz. Redemption rates for mobile coupons are very high – at about 23 percent – mostly because cell phone users opt in to receive the coupons or must register or download a piece of software to the phone to participate.

Allen thinks this will undoubtedly drive the mom and pop out of business. “Coupon sites,” he says, “have become mainstream businesses. All the major players have recently undergone extensive revisions, technology upgrades and aesthetic enhancements to better compete in what is now a very sophisticated and fast-moving marketplace.” He says that what was once “amateur or hobby categories” are now sites that can be called brands on their own. The larger the main players become the harder it will be for small affiliates to keep up, he says.

Boal of Coupons.com thinks the future is Web services and mobile. “We took our time with mobile,” he says. “We didn’t make it so difficult.” They waited until they figured out a way for everyone to use it instead of only customers with certain cell phone brands.

CMS’ Tilley outlines what keeps coupons hot. The face value of coupons has risen about 9 percent while product price inflation has risen only about 2 percent. Coupons that require multiple purchases are down, but their response rate is up. For nonfood products, shoppers are 30 percent more likely to use a buy-two coupon than a discount on a buy-one. For food, the buy-four is more popular than the discount on one item. And for both categories overall – food and nonfood – shoppers are 49 percent more inclined to use buy-four than a buy-three or a discount on one. And while coupons redeemed has slid from 3.9 billion coupons in 2001 to 3 billion in 2005, traditionally coupon redemption drops in a good economy.

What’s In Store?

The in-store coupon is also becoming very popular. About a third of redemptions now come from the in-store instant savings coupon or offer. Tilley says packaged goods marketers plan to migrate up to 20 percent of their coupon campaigns to online by the end of this year.

While some retail affiliates wouldn’t dream of dealing in coupons, some couponers like Allen simply think it’s harder to be a retail product affiliate. “General coupons are easier to deal with than many specific retail products,” he says. “Why essentially recreate the retailer’s website on your own? It’s not good for organic search and most affiliates don’t have the resources to do all the split tests and so forth needed to optimize product layouts for multiple retailers. Why compete with what they do best?”

Fabu.com’s Yack has a real simple and direct assessment. “We’ve been working on Fabu for nine months. I have ads in 180 newspapers; I have three publicists. A lot of these sites still look the same as if they came from the wayback machine. I built Fabu because times are changing ” and I’m getting paid for having a link on my site – how crazy is that?”