Affiliate Market Maturing

The affiliate space is getting more sophisticated and complex, according to the findings of the AffStat 2006 Report, an annual study examining the state of the affiliate marketing industry.

Released earlier this year by Shawn Collins Consulting, the survey polled nearly 200 affiliate managers from a cross section of the industry on their overall statistics, as well as a number of issues about their affiliate marketing channels, such as staffing, recruiting and management.

Of those surveyed, 77 percent were pay-per-sale, 19 percent pay-per-lead and 4 percent bounty affiliate programs, which is almost exactly in line with the report’s 2005 breakout of how companies paid out commissions.

Over the last year, however, the size of pay-per-sale programs seems to have shifted. The latest report shows an increase in the number of affiliates in the midrange, with 23 percent of this year’s respondents reporting 5,001 to 10,000 affiliates compared to 13 percent a year ago, yet 18 percent said they had too many affiliates to manage effectively.

The trend toward smaller programs is also on the rise. A year ago, 16 percent of respondents had between 2,001 and 5,000 affiliates. The latest figure jumped 7 percent for 2006. Last year, however, 26 percent of respondents had 5,000 or more affiliates and rose just 3 percent for 2006.

Part of moving to small programs is that merchants are giving more scrutiny to the affiliate approval process. And while 17 percent still approve affiliates manually, that is down from 23 percent for the previous year.

Another interesting finding from the survey: Nearly two-thirds of in-house affiliate managers earn $40,000 to $80,000 a year. In the pay-per-sale programs, 71 percent had dedicated affiliate managers; 24 percent had fewer than 500 affiliates; 22 percent had 501 to 2,000 affiliates; 23 percent had between 2,001 and 5,000 affiliates; 15 percent had 5,001 to 10,000; and 14 percent had more than 10,000 affiliates.

Commission Junction continued to lead the pack when it came to which affiliate networks, solution providers or software solutions were being used to track affiliate programs. CJ had 31 percent of the total survey respondents, up from 26 percent in 2005. Some of that gain is likely from Be Free, which is owned by Commission Junction. Be Free dropped 2 percent to comprise 6 percent of this year’s total for respondents.

The use of homegrown tracking solutions rose to 22 percent from 17 percent in 2005. LinkShare moved up 2 percent from last year, to account for 11 percent in 2006. Performics also gained some ground; up to 3 percent from 2 percent in 2005, while ShareASale.com inched up 1 percent to reach 6 percent overall for 2006.

Still, some lost ground. My Affiliate Program//KowaBunga dropped to 8 percent from 13 percent for 2005. Direct Track dipped to 8 percent from 9 percent in 2005, while the response for “other” dipped to 5 percent from 9 percent in 2005.

There was virtually no change in attitude from 2005 to 2006 in responses to the question, “Do you permit your affiliates to bid on your trademark name in pay-per-click search engines?” Fifty-nine percent responded no; 29 percent said yes; 7 percent said yes, but with restrictions; and 5 percent did not know.

As for blogging, of those surveyed, 21 percent had a blog, compared to 15 percent last year.

And the biggest challenge for affiliate marketing for 2006, according to the report, continues to be recruiting new affiliates. This year 31 percent cited it as the largest challenge, compared with 24 percent in 2005.

The entire report can be found at http://www.affstat.com/products.shtml.

Flipping the Switch

Maybe your relationship with your network has soured. The reports are frequently late, revenue is down and your questions are not being answered in a timely fashion. You’re thinking about switching to another network, but that means learning new tracking processes and establishing relationships with an unknown group of affiliates.

So, is it really worth all the potential trouble to move over to another network?

Switching networks is a disruptive business decision that temporarily reduces income and requires additional commitment of resources to restart your affiliate program. Yet merchants large and small are choosing to change networks primarily out of frustration.

Anger Management

Merchants cite a variety of customer service reasons for jumping to another network, but they share a common theme: Merchants aren’t happy with the way things are and think they can get better service elsewhere.

While increasing revenue is the ultimate driver of most business decisions, the impulse to switch is usually a reaction to negative experiences. A nagging feeling of neglect from the network foments the frustration and leads a merchant to end the relationship. These feelings of frustration can be found on merchant and affiliate blogs and message boards and are aimed at each of the largest networks.

Ask a dozen people about the performance of their network and you are likely to get a range of opinions from highly positive to very negative, according to Noelle Bermingham, site manager of affiliate SavingsWatch.com. Bermingham says it is similar to the opinions rendered about mobile phone companies. While some people switch from company A to B to get better customer service, others are switching from B to A for the same exact reason.

Each network also has its strong and weak points, according to Bermingham, who worked as a consultant for Home Depot on its affiliate program before becoming a publisher.

The networks “all have their issues,” says Bermingham, who has worked with many of the leading networks during her career, including Performics, LinkShare and Commission Junction.

Lee Gientke, affiliate manager of ProHealth.com, was dissatisfied with the service she was receiving and decided it was time for a change. In August she switched from Commission Junction to LinkShare. A few months after the switch, Gientke is thrilled, saying she has already eclipsed her previous high in monthly income.

She attributes her improvement to LinkShare’s superior reporting capabilities, as well as a “better commitment to service,” she says. She is saving money because LinkShare includes services such as emails to affiliates at no cost that previously required paying additional fees.

Seth Greenberg, who runs eHobbies .com, used a change in technology platform as an excuse to re-evaluate his entire operation and change networks. He shares the blame as to why his program with Commission Junction was under-performing. “We haven’t done a great job internally with affiliate programs,” he says. “We weren’t taking advantage of them in a positive way.” Greenberg says that oversight of the affiliates was an internal bandwidth issue.

Greenberg decided to move eHobbies from internal fulfillment and Yahoo’s online store platform to Amazon.com’s technology and distribution services. Reprogramming the site for a new network at the same time would eliminate the need for another round of updates later.

For Greenberg, the risk was outweighed by the opportunities of starting over. “We didn’t have much to lose because we weren’t taking advantage of the channel,” he says.

Change Is Good

Regardless of motivation for switching networks, merchants undergo a cathartic experience in ridding themselves of a negative relationship. Similar to periodically cleaning out your wardrobe closet, it feels good because you are being proactive, closely evaluating what stays and what goes.

As part of the housecleaning process, merchants will cut the ties with under-performing affiliates and focus on what is being done right with the 10 to 20 percent that are bringing in the cash. While revenue will hopefully increase as a result of the change, you feel better for having done something, which will likely motivate you to work smarter in the future.

During the network switch, merchants also reflect on the internal processes that have been successful. In many cases, this new attitude and focus makes it difficult to determine whether it is the change in network or improvements within the merchant’s operation that prompt subsequent increases in revenue. If a merchant reverts to bad management habits, then the improvement could be only temporary.

Preparing to Switch

Reducing the disruptive impact on your revenue flow of switching networks requires several weeks of preparation to bring your most effective affiliates to the new network, as well as learning the new system for reporting and communications. Although sometimes the work can be done within 30 days, a two-month period of preparation will increase the likelihood that a merchant will start earning comparable revenues from a new network.

The first two weeks of a planned switch are dedicated to contacting the top performers who bring in 90 percent of your revenue, according to Todd Crawford, vice president of sales for Commission Junction. Successfully recruiting the top affiliates, setting up their accounts and updating their links can take up to 30 days, Crawford says, after which the attention is focused on the remaining affiliates that merit moving over. Merchants may see a dip in revenue during the transition, but ordinarily that disappears quickly.

During this time Commission Junction also notifies the top 20 to 30 performing affiliates on its network that a new merchant is coming on board. These affiliates often share the news about the new merchant’s arrival with their peers, creating the “network effect” of additional affiliate relationships, Crawford says. If done correctly, growing the stable of well-performing affiliates should boost revenues above previous levels.

Before notifying your current network that you are leaving, merchants should make sure that another network relationship is cemented. Commission Junction carefully screens merchants and accepts only 50 of the 1,000 or more that apply each quarter, according to Crawford. The network looks at the merchant’s existing revenue figures, and if Commission Junction isn’t sure it can do better, the company will decline to accept the merchant.

“I would rather have someone unhappy that they are not with us than have them unhappy for being with us,” Crawford says. He says it is important that both parties agree up front on realistic expectations for revenue growth and earnings per click. “The last thing I want is for people to join from a competitor and be unhappy and go back.”

Crawford, who recently won the business of outdoor equipment maker REI and shopping site Buy.com from competitors, says larger merchants are less likely to switch networks than small and mid-size merchants because the amount of work and perceived risk is greater. “It’s similar to the difficulty of turning around a large versus a small boat,” he says.

Commission Junction isn’t happy when a merchant chooses to go with another network, but Crawford says the company doesn’t want to impede a merchant’s business. He says the company allows the existing network links to stay in place for an overlapping period of 30 to 60 days. “If we turned it off as soon as they went live with someone else, we would be foregoing some revenue,” he says.

More Than Money

Merchants that switch networks primarily to save on costs or reduce the revenue share are likely to be disappointed, according to Heidi Messer, president and chief operating officer of LinkShare. Messer says merchants focusing on costs are more likely to “under-invest in the channel” and have unrealistic expectations. LinkShare screens potential customers to make sure that they will make the necessary investments in the technology platform to make the affiliate program succeed.

Having the contact information of your existing affiliates is crucial when switching networks, according to Messer, who says LinkShare has won more than 40 clients from other networks during the past year. “A migration is only as useful as the information you have about your affiliates,” she says.

Messer recommends that merchants expect the switch to a new network to take several weeks, although it can be accomplished more quickly if necessary. However, she advises merchants against overlapping the networks because it makes managing revenue and crediting sources difficult.

If a merchant switches networks, Messer says, the impact on most affiliates will be minimal. Most affiliates likely have relationships with all of the networks, so they are familiar with how to code their links and work with their reporting systems, she says.

A merchant that frequently switches networks also risks losing partnership opportunities, according to Linda Buquet, president of affiliate consulting company 5 Star Affiliate Programs. Merchants that regularly require their affiliates to change their links will develop a reputation as a “network hopper” and have difficulty finding new affiliates.

Buquet spoke with one merchant that had switched from Commission Junction to LinkShare and then back to Commission Junction. She declined to work with the company because it was viewed as untouchable by many affiliates.

Sharing Affiliates

Merchants that also have in-house affiliate programs should consider if they want to convert any of these relationships to the network as part of their switch, says James Green, affiliate manager of MingleMatch.com.

Moving your high-performing affiliates to the network could raise your earnings-per-click statistics, making you a desirable partner for affiliates, Green says. By boosting EPC, “you represent yourself better to recruit other affiliates,” he adds, but at the cost of having to share a percentage of the revenue with the network.

While adding your best affiliates to the network could enable you to attract new affiliates, you may also lose some of the direct connection, as communications must then go through the network.

Merchants might avoid having to switch if they better understood the strengths and weaknesses of each of the networks. For example, LinkShare is great at protecting large brands while being weaker at publisher development, according to SavingsWatch.com’s Bermingham. Commission Junction offers hands-off affiliate programs that enable merchants to “be more of a do-it-yourselfer,” and is improving the way it works with larger merchants, she says. Performics’ strength is in comprehensive affiliate management, but the company does not have programs that allow merchants to manage affiliate relationships themselves.

Turning the Tables

The frustrations of one affiliate lead to the creation of a network competitor. J. P. Sauve, who ran several affiliates, says he was frustrated with not being treated well by the major networks’ “our way or the highway” attitude. His emails to network representatives went unanswered, statistics were often incomplete and campaigns sometimes disappeared without warning, he says.

After sharing his frustrations with peers, Sauve co-founded MaxBounty as a competitor to the large networks. “Our policy since day one has been to treat all affiliates, big and small, with the same respect we’d expect from others,” he says. The network encourages direct communication between the merchants and publishers and competes on price by charging a lower percentage of the revenue, according to Sauve.

The decision to transfer networks requires careful consideration of your existing relationship and a dispassionate critique of internal business practices. It is a good time to focus your energies on what is working while eliminating affiliates that have not been contributing. Terminating the relationship with your network sends a clear signal that service is important, which needs to be communicated to the next partner to ensure that the problem does not recur.


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.

Managing Affiliates in a Rapidly Growing Market

Over the past two years, the online real estate traffic volume has increased exponentially. Part of this dramatic growth is driven by the low interest rate environment, but a bigger reason for the increase is the rapid shift in realtor marketing dollars away from offline media – such as print – toward online advertising venues.

Affiliates play a large role in the success of online real estate. While this rapid growth has led to new opportunities, it also brings significant challenges. Merchants who match consumers with professional service providers must maintain a consistent flow of only the highest-quality leads. Low-converting traffic will frustrate the service provider and may eventually result in unwanted churn. The observations following are true in particular for any merchant who matches consumers with professional service providers.

A good affiliate manager must connect the dots from consumer inquiry to affiliate sites prior to approving any potential affiliate. You should strive to determine the main sources of traffic that a potential affiliate brings to the table. Affiliates can generate traffic a number of ways. The most common methods are cost per click (CPC) campaigns, search engine optimization (SEO) and email marketing.

These are all generally accepted practices of online marketing and can be verified by the savvy affiliate manager. For example, if the affiliate is using CPC campaigns to generate traffic, you can verify this by typing in keywords and looking for the affiliate’s ads. If the affiliate is unable or unwilling to provide at least some examples of how the traffic is generated, then you should assume the worst. If you are unable to connect the dots, then it’s possible the affiliate is driving traffic using means such as spyware, incentivized clicks or link hijacking. Connecting the dots is important not only to prevent approving a fraudulent affiliate, but also to gauge the quality and potential volume they can deliver.

In addition to connecting the dots, a good affiliate manager should be able to make the best of a bad situation whenever possible. If a particular affiliate or campaign is under-performing, you need to investigate all possibilities to salvage some or all of the relationship. This can be done by adding, removing or modifying product offerings. You can change pricing. Perhaps most importantly, you can change creative and integration techniques.

For example: an affiliate promoting our brand at a national level wanted to drop the program due to poor results. We offered the affiliate a series of custom city-specific links better suited to his network of local sites and were able to improve the affiliate’s performance significantly.

In another case an affiliate was promoting one of our products but didn’t match the consumers with the appropriate buying service. To turn this around we encouraged this affiliate to start promoting a more appropriate home listings product. This change sent revenue climbing sharply.

In addition to understanding the affiliate- generated consumer traffic, good affiliate managers possess a keen awareness of all consumer traffic channels. To state the obvious: free traffic (SEO or brand recognition) is preferable to inexpensive traffic, which is preferable to expensive traffic.

If free traffic volume increases, the merchant providing professional services should focus more on optimization of existing affiliates and less on recruitment. Aside from ranking traffic by price, you also need to factor in quality. For instance, if SEO traffic is higher quality versus comparable channels, then you should recruit new affiliates that consistently show up well in the search engines for large-volume, relevant searches.

To gain large market share in times of rapid growth, you need to have a flexible affiliate program. One way to do this is to allow affiliates to participate on several different platforms. Affiliates who prefer the online reporting and payment structure of affiliate networks can join under either of those programs. For larger affiliates who want to partner directly, consider offering higher payouts and direct links. On the product side, flexibility could mean offering regularly updated data feeds, including XML feeds and co-branded forms as well as forms of different layout or length. On the payment side, you could let direct affiliates choose between cost per click, cost per lead or even revenue sharing arrangements. This flexibility in terms of platforms, products and pricing is paramount in helping your program expand.

With the recent explosion in Internet advertising, affiliates are bombarded with merchant offers from all angles. To rise above this noise, you need to be an extremely effective communicator. New value propositions such as better payment tiers, contests, fresh creative, case studies, new products and affiliate testimonials must be communicated regularly to existing and potential affiliates. Due to spam filters and overflowing inboxes, email newsletters are becoming a less effective communication method. Try to communicate one on one with larger affiliates whenever possible.

With so many new affiliate applicants each day, it is inevitable that a few bad apples make it through the approval process. To prevent affiliate fraud, you have to routinely deny affiliates that do not respond to initial contact. While the vast majority of existing affiliates play by the terms and conditions of the affiliate program, there are instances where you’ll need to take disciplinary action. In cases where affiliates purchase trademarked broker keywords or if an affiliate violates the CANSPAM Act, action must be taken quickly.

Other challenges include taking steps to monitor cost-per-click fraud. CPC management requires additional time for analysis and closer contact with the affiliates. Each month you need to look closely at the revenue generated per click for each affiliate. Unusual behavior is typically easy to spot and must be corrected quickly. New affiliates – especially those who start on the CPC program – can be given a monthly budget cap to your company’s exposure to any potential click or lead fraud. As trust builds with an affiliate, this cap can be raised or removed altogether.

Merchants offering CPC products should also have analytics tools with robot filtering mechanisms in place, as well as the ability to track click patterns funneled down the merchant’s site. For CPA products, you should monitor each affiliate’s lead-to-close rates and raw lead data on a monthly basis to ensure lead quality.

Implementing tight controls will ensure you have a good handle on your existing base of affiliates, which makes it easier to expand your program as your company grows.


MARIE NILSSON is the affiliate manager for HomeGain, a wholly owned subsidiary of Classified Ventures, based in Emeryville, Calif. She has a background in project management for the telecom and chemical industries and holds a Master of Science degree from Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Four Ways to Make More Money

Have you ever wondered why big Web sites like AOL, Yahoo and MSN don’t run many cost-per-action (CPA) deals in their ad spaces?

It’s simple: They don’t have to. They make much more money selling ads based on impressions rather than the number of customers or leads generated. Who wouldn’t prefer to get paid for just showing the ad instead of having to rely on it really performing?

If a large property can’t sell all its ad space, even at discounted remnant ad rates, it might throw in a CPA deal here and there, but that’s a rare exception.

On the other hand, the most common way to compensate an affiliate is through a CPA deal. A merchant who runs an affiliate program can pretty much choose its own acquisition cost because it only pays for results. It’s rare that an advertiser’s affiliate program has the highest acquisition cost of all its channels. Instead, affiliate programs are seen as a way of acquiring customers at the lowest possible cost. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But the same company might be willing to spend two to three times the fixed CPA acquisition cost to acquire the same customer from CPM-based (cost per thousand viewers) ads on large Internet properties. Why? Because low-cost affiliate programs offset the costs of higher CPM campaigns and offline channels. Together, they result in an acceptable overall acquisition cost.

I’m not saying that you should start hiring sales reps and putting together a media kit for your sites. But you might be very well served by looking at additional revenue streams such as CPM and CPC income, or something called coregistrations.

Here are four potential additional revenue streams for your site.

Use An Ad Network

It makes all the sense in the world for a smaller site to outsource ad sales. There are a lot of advertising networks out there that will sell your ad space for you for a cut. If they have good advertisers, your smaller site may become part of large ad buy by a well-known brand.

Of course, there are some downsides. You might have to give up as much as 50 percent of the ad revenue. And it can take forever to get paid, because you get paid after the ad network gets paid. But, all in all, joining an ad network might be very worthwhile if you can get accepted.

How do you qualify for that? Well, requirements vary. It helps if you can show you have relevant traffic, focused content, high traffic and a professional look and feel.

Pay-Per-Click Search

Another way to generate income is to get accepted in a content network for contextual advertising. You drop a piece of code onto your pages, and the advertising network will serve to your site text-based ads that are relevant to your content. Take a look at pay-per-click engines such as Google, Overture, Kanoodle and FindWhat.

You will then tap into a pool of advertisers who might not even have a standard affiliate program, but who are willing to pay a premium to get the clicks your pages have to offer.

Most pay-per-click networks only display the top three to four bids on a specific keyword on syndicated sites like yours. This ensures that you always get the highest earnings per click that the search engines have to offer for a specific keyword.

Even after you split the revenue, it can turn out to be a very good deal.

Also, the classified ad format that pay-per-click engines uses tends to work very well. Why? Users like them. They have blue links. And blue hyperlinks are the only ad formats that have consistently worked since the early days of the Web.

Sometimes you might make more from the revenue from the contextual text links than the main offer you’re promoting on the page. You need to test and watch your numbers carefully though.

Build A Quality Email List

If you only make money by driving traffic to advertisers who pay you on performance, then why not get some repeat revenue from them?

Build an email address list to make repeat offers. Good email is not dead. If you have a visitor to one of your sites, you should provide them with enough value so they give you their email address to stay in touch. Make sure your visitors opt in, so that you’re not contributing to the notorious spam problem.

Think about what would appeal enough to your visitors to make them want to hear from you again. Is it content on a particular topic? A special report featuring a buyer’s guide of the top 10 gadgets in your particular space? Special offers or coupons from your advertisers? Getting names and addresses for snail mail is even better.

Add Quality Coregistrations

What are coregistrations? Basically it means that you’re adding a number of checkboxes to your email form so that partners or advertisers can feature their offers. You get paid for every name your form generates for your advertisers.

There has been quite a bit of trading and selling of names with coregistrations that has diluted the quality of coregistration data and has sometimes given coregistrations a bad reputation. But the basic concept works as long as you don’t abuse it with 15 or 20 prechecked boxes on your form like many sweepstakes sites did in the past.

The best route to go is probably outsourcing. A number of companies let you add coregistrations to your registration path that completely blend into your own design.

That means your visitors will both sign up for your list and be added to a number of other lists through a third-party-hosted registration script. You’re basically outsourcing the whole management of coregistrations on your site to a company that will get advertisers and manage the data for you.

Bottom Line

You deserve to get paid as much as possible, don’t you? Try adding these other revenue streams in addition to the standard CPA ad. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

OLA EDVARDSSON has extensive experience as an affiliate. He is also CEO of the Internet marketing agency Performancy Inc.

What Clicks At Performics

To the surprise (and delight) of many, 2004 has put the spotlight back onto e-commerce for the first time since the dot-bomb exploded in the spring of 2000. Web stocks rose over the first three quarters, while mainstream stocks were weighed down by geopolitics.

Google went public with the kind of swagger that conjured up memories of the late ’90s. Online spending continued its rapid rise. And big advertising companies went shopping for smaller Web properties.

ValueClick bought Commission Junction. And Internet ad giant DoubleClick bought Performics.

Few have more insight into the recent past or the long-term future than Performics President and CEO Jamie Crouthamel, who shares his views in this one-on-one chat with Editor in Chief Tom Murphy.

TM: How and when did you get into the affiliate marketing business?

JC: I started Performics, which at the time was called Dynamic Trade, in 1998 and we started as an affiliate marketing service provider addressing the needs of the catalog industry, now really the multichannel marketing industry. The needs they had at the time were affiliate marketing and performance-based technology as well as services and execution help as they were executing these programs.

TM: Why and when did you change the name from Dynamic Trade to Performics? What was the strategy on that?

JC: Early on in affiliate marketing, the term performance marketing wasn’t really being used. As we grew the business and saw other performance marketing opportunities start to evolve out of affiliate marketing, Performics was a better descriptor of what we were trying to accomplish. Today, we view ourselves as a performance-based marketing services and technology company. The fact that we’re leaders both in affiliate marketing and search engine marketing points to our focus in those areas. The two needs that companies have to be able to execute on are technology to facilitate these programs and marketing expertise to execute on them as well.

TM: The acquisition by DoubleClick is complete, and now the real work begins. What changes do you foresee at Performics in the coming months?

JC: DoubleClick acquired Performics because we have a proven track record for success. So many things will remain the same. But we immediately began to work together to build DartSearch, which is a DoubleClick solution, powered by Performics’ technology. Performics also uses DartMail for merchant email campaigns and affiliate communication, and our clients think the product is terrific. Already, we see the benefit of being part of a larger company and ultimately clients and affiliates will enjoy that benefit too. We now have global reach with 19 offices around the world, so as our clients look to expand into new markets, we have the right resources in place. In addition, DoubleClick has great research and a lot of talent. Affiliate marketing is a very good fit within the DoubleClick suite of products. The biggest changes at Performics are always driven by growth. For example, we already have more than 130 employees and will add at least another 30 or more before the end of this year.

TM: The acquisition is another sign the interactive media business is converging. Is the day of the independent affiliate network coming to an end? Do you think a new network could start up independently at this point?

JC: The online marketing industry is consolidating, and affiliate marketing is part of that. Last year, there were four major networks, and now there are three, with two of us owned by larger online advertising companies. So clearly the industry has consolidated. A new network would have many barriers to entry, because established affiliate networks have already built successful companies and achieved some level of efficiency with their businesses. That still does not mean it would be impossible to launch a new network, but a new affiliate network alone wouldn’t be enough today. Marketers want access to multiple performance- based marketing channels, and they expect more from fewer vendors. They want to participate in several performance- based marketing opportunities. Affiliate networks that provide only affiliate marketing services while ignoring other performance-based marketing services lessen the value they can provide clients and hurt their own chances for success in today’s environment.

TM: Are there ways that you would say Performics is different from the other major affiliate networks?

JC: We’re very different in that we look at the performance-based marketing sector as a whole versus components of it being affiliate marketing or search marketing or other forms of it. We started out in affiliate marketing. If you look at affiliate marketing today, and back then, it really set the benchmark for performance- based marketing. Today, everything is really compared to it. It’s interesting to note that affiliate marketing, often the most cost-effective channel in an online marketing mix, provides a platform for pricing. And any media today is really based off of an effective affiliate marketing or rev-share measurement that people use. We started off with that and we started seeing other concentrations of performance-based marketing around affiliate marketing. The first one, which really is pretty obvious, is search marketing. So we broke that out as its own practice per se. We’re the only major affiliate marketing leader who is also a leader in search marketing. We looked at what our clients needed and branched out from there.

TM: A lot of affiliates do search engine marketing as well as affiliate marketing. How does your company avoid competing with your own affiliates on that level?

JC: One way is we know very much about every affiliate in our network. We take great pride in that. Every affiliate who enters our network is screened and it’s understood what their business model is, versus an open network where they come in unfiltered and just start performing their activities. Many clients prefer that Performics run their affiliate marketing program and their search marketing program in parallel because of the inter-workings of the two programs you just described. There are a lot of affiliate programs and a lot of affiliates within those programs who help to complement the marketer’s search program. There are many terms and many categories in which the affiliates are better off participating. That’s advantageous to the affiliate and to the merchant.

TM: There are other areas emerging in the performance marketing field that seem to be fairly lucrative. I wonder if Performics might start competing in such areas as search engine arbitrage or creating blogs to increase revenue flows.

JC: We keep looking at performance-based marketing opportunities as they would be beneficial to advertisers. We always represent the advertiser in ways that would be beneficial to them. We probably wouldn’t get into the blog creation market because that would basically be creating content, which we don’t necessarily do. We just help our advertisers take advantage of it. So as blog advertising may or may not unfold, we would participate in that. With search arbitrage, we tend not to work in that market. But we would convince our clients that it’s better for them to run their own programs so they can reap the benefits of those programs.

TM: You guys are well known for your proprietary tracking technology. How is that system run? Is that a cookie-based system?

JC: There are different elements to it, and there is also a cookie component as well. As with any tracking technology, if you’re trying to track some return-day or some come-back to the site, you have to use cookies. So every tracking technology uses cookies. But there are other elements to it as well.

TM: In our last issue, Steve Messer from LinkShare raised some eyebrows by suggesting cookie systems weren’t accurate enough for this business. Would you care to comment on that?

JC: Well, in our technology, one element of it is a cookie technology. And DoubleClick, which now owns us, also leverages cookie technology. And everybody in the industry uses cookie technology, including LinkShare because they track some type of return-day. So I would think that’s a standard.

TM: Is there something beyond that you use to back up the accuracy of the cookies?

JC: Yes, we have other means that are a little technical to describe in an interview that also do backups to it. But if you’re trying to track any sort of return to a site once you leave, cookies are about the most accurate way to do that. There’s no tracking that is 100 percent. For every pro, there’s a con to it as well.

TM: There’ve been some complaints on the forums that links from Performics don’t go live right away, and that of course makes it harder for affiliates to check their links as they upgrade their sites. Why does that happen and can it be changed?

JC: I don’t know the technical answer to that. But once our links are created, they’re basically live in the system within seconds of being created. So it might be getting approval of those links instead of technically being ready.

TM: Like some other networks, Performics is said to block its affiliates from speaking directly to merchants, which could prevent affiliates from seeking higher commissions.

JC: That’s not true. We encourage meetings between our merchants and our affiliate partners. There’s contact information where a merchant can contact an affiliate. In most cases, an affiliate can contact a merchant. In a lot of cases, a merchant prefers that Performics handle the potential thousands of conversations on their behalf. So it’s really an efficiency request by the merchant, but it’s not a restriction.

TM: People seem to be a lot more aware of predatory advertising now. Do you think that problem is lessening, growing or staying about the same?

JC: I think it has picked up over the last few years. I think it has leveled off. It has become more heightened in the marketplace, and I think that’s why people hear more about it now. At Performics, we’re strong opponents of it. We’ve taken steps with our code of conduct, with our partnering with Commission Junction on that. Again, we screen every affiliate in our network, so it’s difficult for the spyware or the wrong side of the equation, predatory advertising, to take advantage of our merchants.

TM: Blogging, of course, is exploding with affiliates right now because they’ve figured out they can get high search engine rankings. What do you think is going to happen with that trend?

JC: We’re watching blogging very carefully. I don’t have any predictions at the moment. It’s a very efficient form of moving creative content back and forth, but there’s still a kind of non-standards going on right now with blogs being created and with blog writers. So I think there are still a lot of things that will unfold in that area.

TM: As merchant revenue grows in the affiliate marketing arena, do you think some of the smaller affiliates will be forced out by bigger players in their field?

JC: No, I do not. I think the beauty of affiliate marketing is that it’s a way for small publishers or affiliates to participate in the marketing mix of a merchant. I think that’s the beauty of affiliate marketing, that publishers of all shapes or sizes can participate because of the leverage you can get out of an affiliate program.

TM: Do you think, as the industry grows, more merchants will bring their programs in house instead of going through a network?

JC: Again, from the past question, I’d say not, because affiliate marketing allows publishers of all shapes and sizes to participate efficiently in it. It allows for the next evolution. Affiliate marketing seems to create new performance-based marketing vehicles. That’s the catalyst of it. So participating in a network that gives you broader reach in new opportunities allows you to see those emerging trends.

TM: What do you see as the biggest challenges for affiliate marketing in the coming months? It’s an area that changes all the time. Is there anything on the horizon now that seems like a threat to affiliate marketing?

JC: I don’t think there’s a threat per se to it, but I think what you’ve seen over the years is a trend toward more tightly controlled networks. You’ve seen folks who’ve run massive affiliate programs with tens or hundreds of thousands of affiliates starting to scale those back in an effort to get better understanding and control of their affiliate marketing program, as merchants are performing their other performance marketing-based activities.

TM: You said you screen affiliates closely. Do you also remove unproductive affiliates from your ranks? Do you keep them active in hopes they’ll start producing?

JC: Performics reviews each affiliate applicant as a service to all clients. Many Performics clients provide criteria for their program, and the evaluation matches the affiliate against the provided criteria. If a new affiliate applies to our network, we don’t necessarily make a judgment upon application about how productive that applicant will be, but we do make sure they have an active Web site and check for any content or practices that violate Performics’ policies, including our Code of Conduct for Fair Practices. Performics may remove affiliates that do not generate transactions over a period of time, usually one year. Many clients ask that we clean up non-productive affiliates more regularly, but before we remove an affiliate, we attempt to contact them to inquire about the status of their account. We do our best to encourage productive referrals from and commissions for all affiliates.

TOM MURPHY is Editor in Chief of Revenue and the author of Web Rules.

Share and Share A Link

Talking about Steve Messer’s role in online affiliate marketing is like talking about Davy Crockett’s role on the wild frontier. Since founding LinkShare in 1996, Messer has been a leader in the rapidly expanding pay-for-performance channel. Deloitte & Touche has named LinkShare the fastest growing technology company in the New York area for the past two years, and ABestWeb.com called LinkShare the best affiliate network provider in 2002.

In this conversation with Editor in Chief Tom Murphy, Messer showed one of his secrets is the willingness to challenge conventional thinking, particularly in assessing the value of small- to mid-size affiliates

TM: You’re an attorney with a specialty in communications law, so I have to wonder what you’re doing running an affiliate marketing company.

SM: In 1995-96, I finished law school and was recruited to a think tank up at Columbia Business School that was called Columbia Institute for TeleInformation. There I recruited two other people from Columbia – Cheryl Ho and Horace Meng – as well as my sister, Heidi, who is now president of LinkShare. All of us had a technology and communications background, so LinkShare was a natural fit for us. (Meng is now LinkShare’s CTO; Ho directs media relations.)

TM: LinkShare has been around for about eight years as affiliate marketing mushroomed. Would you say the opportunities for affiliates during that time have gotten better or worse?

SM: LinkShare started the affiliate marketing concept in 1996 and we got the patent in ’99 for what we do, for what is today called affiliate marketing. If you had asked me that question two years ago, four years ago, six years ago, I’d say exactly what I’m going to say today, which is that every year the entrepreneurial spirit has driven this market into completely new directions that were unexpected when we started this in ’96.

TM: Would you say those are better directions or worse?

SM: Much better. Typically, you find that entrepreneurs build on the work of prior entrepreneurs. So this market takes what has been effective for the last seven or eight years and continues to build something new on top of it. For the most part, that has been great. Occasionally, you do find that someone takes it into a not-so-positive area.

TM: I know LinkShare is a closely held company, but what can you tell us about your revenue and your growth rate?

SM: We do not disclose revenue because we are a private company. We are obviously the largest company in the space. If you look at some of the statistics that do come out, that are public, we won the Deloitte & Touche “Fast 50” award two years in a row. The first year we won it with a 32,000 percent growth rate over a five-year period. Last year we won it with a 27,000 percent growth over a five-year period.

TM: When you talk about a 27,000 percent growth rate, can you give us a starting point or a finishing point on that?

SM: That would be the equivalent of giving you my revenues, which we don’t do. But I appreciate the question.

TM: With the long-awaited Google IPO, it seems like it’s a good time for other companies to think about going public. LinkShare, I would think, would be a prime candidate. Have you thought about going public?

SM: You know, LinkShare filed to go public in 2000 and the market window closed before that was possible. So we have some experience with that process. A company typically goes public for three reasons. One is they believe they can get a great currency to do tons of acquisitions. The second is they need liquidity for their investors or to raise capital to grow their business. And the third is, to be frank, ego. In LinkShare’s case, we’ve been profitable for three years and we continue to be extremely profitable. So we have quite a bit of true currency to do acquisitions that we want to. Being a public company is not necessarily the most positive thing these days, and it requires a lot of restrictions on the company and how it works. Our goal is to focus on our partners and our investors and, at this point, continuing our business as we think best.

TM: LinkShare’s home page says you have “over 10 million partnerships in the network.” What does that mean?

SM: We use a metric known as relationships as a way to judge how effective our business is and how well we’re doing. We’ve actually used that metric of 10 million relationships for over three years. The reason we use that metric is because an affiliate can join our network and not participate with any of the merchants; that has a potential for revenue of zero dollars. But another affiliate could join and partner with 10 of our merchants; that would be the equivalent of 10 relationships. That gives us a sense of where the potential revenue is for that affiliate and that partner. So the more relationships we have, the greater the revenue potential for our partners and our customers.

TM: Of those 10 million relationships, how many have been paid commissions during the last few months?

SM: When you look at our base, you see an extremely large and diverse base which is unusual in the industry. We have heard people talking about how only a few players are making money. That’s actually not the case at all. We find that almost all the growth of our company is coming from what we call the core producers. That would be the small- and mid-sized sites that don’t necessarily drive the volume of the majors, but are actually growing at a much faster rate. I’ll give you an example. If you look at the top 50 affiliates we have from last year, from the year-end perspective, and you look at the top 50 today, there are only about eight that remain from last year. They haven’t gone away, but we have new people constantly entering that list.

TM: Do you clean out your database after a while and break off relationships with affiliates if they’re not producing?

SM: We look at it from a relationship perspective. A relationship in our system has a time limit like any other contract. When that comes to expiration, it ends. By virtue of that, they do go away. We believe that if someone is registered in our system, there’s always a chance to reactivate them, so we don’t necessarily destroy the prior information.

TM: One of your investors is Comcast Interactive Capital. It seems like there’s a natural synergy between online shopping and TV shopping. Have you had any discussions with Comcast about doing something as a cooperative effort?

SM: We don’t disclose internal discussions, but you’re not wrong in the sense that, if you look at our business, the reason Comcast was so eager to work with us is, first, we all have cable backgrounds. The second thing that is interesting is that our technology is already interactive TV-enabled. So the idea that you could translate what we do online to the interactive television world was really exciting and compelling to them. And it’s nice to see now that Comcast is the No. 1 player in that space.

TM: A lot of people see a growing role for the niche networks, and there seem to be more of them popping up. It makes me wonder if LinkShare would consider spinning off a division to focus on a particular industry, or perhaps start a second company.

SM: Creating a niche network is challenging unless it’s built off somebody else’s technology because the volume that a niche network can drive is so small that it can’t really support what a transactional network needs. LinkShare’s tracking is set up like a bank’s. It doesn’t use cookies because it cares about accuracy and it cares about privacy and it has to be able to keep a record and an audit trail of exactly what happened. That equates to a bank. Cookie-based technologies are the equivalent of cashing 10 checks at a bank, but only nine of them get credited to your account. It’s not an accurate way of doing business. So as you begin to focus on different segments of the business, you still have to have that accuracy. That requires money. With most of the niches, you have don’t have enough money to support an accurate business.

TM: Some merchants are running their own in-house programs. And there’s an argument to be made, as affiliate marketing becomes a bigger part of the revenue stream for a particular company, it might make sense to take that in-house to reduce the costs. What’s your take on that?

SM: You don’t really see it happening often with any of the major players. You see it in some of the smaller players, and frankly that’s the scarier side of the business. The smaller players have a higher incentive to manipulate the information because there’s no third-party audit going on. That can happen behind the scenes, and there’s nowhere to go to resolve the issue. When you get to high volumes, the big names don’t want to do it themselves; they don’t want to put their brand on the line. What they’re looking for is a company that will represent that this is a fair and accurate program and also do all the underlying work. Large companies who try to do this on their own typically don’t succeed at it or find that the cost of doing it doesn’t really work. Geoffrey Moore, a legend in the business school world and in the business thinking world who wrote Inside the Tornado, has a great concept called core competency, which is that you should only focus on your core. Anything else you do just distracts you and you’ll do poorly, and over time you’ll only lose and it will become a drain on your company. He spoke at our summit event, which we held in New York in January, and he focused primarily on why LinkShare is the exact example of why you should not be doing this on your own, why you cannot survive. And I think he’s dead on. Obviously, I have an incentive to believe that, but I think he’s right.

TM: Let’s look at your revenue models for both affiliates and merchants. Can you first give us a typical model for working with a mid-sized merchant?

SM: With all merchants we do an evaluation. There is no standard package in our business. Because we’ve been doing this for eight years now, we do a needs assessment. We ask them, “What kind of resources do you have for this program? Here is what a well-run program requires you to do.” Then we usually walk through and say, “Do you have the expertise to do these things, and do you have the people to do these things?” At the end of that, we make an evaluation and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s what you’re going to do. And here’s what it costs to perform that.”

TM: Roughly speaking, what kind of figures would you throw out to a mid-sized company about costs?

SM: On a monthly basis, the lowest is about $3,000. And it can go up to $25,000-plus, depending how big [they are] and what they want to do.

TM: Let’s look at the affiliate side now. What is a typical model for working with your affiliates?

SM: On the affiliate side, we have two teams who work with them. One is called distribution services, which is a concierge-level service designed to help our partners grow. We look for high potential partners and we look for up-and-comers. We also look to support our existing partners who are doing high volume. And finally we go out there and source new business. The second team is our support group. It goes beyond answering basic questions like “How do I copy and paste?” They’re also there to provide you with proactive information, such as “Have you thought about working with this merchant or that merchant?”

TM: You recently gave a $15,000 award to a superaffiliate for driving growth with a large number of merchants. Do you plan to give that incentive each quarter?

SM: We do have a titanium award. And our LinkShare Club program, which started in the fourth quarter of last year, is the first loyalty club for an affiliate marketing company. It was extremely successful. We did award a $15,000 titanium award. But we also award, every week, lots of cash – thousands of dollars. In our Earn More in Q4 program, which was the first program in which we awarded the titanium award, over $350,000 in bonuses were paid. Every week, people were getting a tremendous amount of money. That was great. We were able to see some of the things our partners are able to do. Affiliates can do some amazing things when given the right motivation.

TM: Speaking of motivation, beyond cash, how often do you communicate with your affiliates? What kinds of things do you do to motivate your affiliates?

SM: Great question! We have the Club Award, an email that goes out every week to let the affiliates know where they stand in hitting their goals. We also do other things for promotions inside. We have Consumer Promote, where we tell affiliates what a merchant is promoting, what specials they have that week. We also have promotions of what the affiliates are selling to the merchants every week, so the merchants can see affiliates have a service they want to sell. We have weekly meetings where if we hear there are special deals or we source special offers for our merchant partners, we bring it to them. And that’s essentially an affiliate saying “Can you get me a sponsor for this or that?” So we spend a tremendous amount of time communicating with them. But that’s all online or on the phone. We also take it a step further and, twice a year, we have both a symposium and a summit. The summit is an intermediate to advanced level thought leadership opportunity for people to get together and take this industry and really move it a step forward. The summit is an amazing event. The second thing we do is the LinkShare Symposium, which is now going on seven years in existence. It’s an invitation-only event. We have about 700 people come out to see incredible speakers, listen to panels and then, in the afternoon, conduct Deal-Maker Direct – an opportunity for them to sit down at a table and meet all the affiliates and merchants together so they can try to cut some deals. This year, we’re taking it a step further by doing the LinkShare Golden Links Award. We’re doing a black-tie, evening event where affiliates and merchants have been nominated for awards. It’s also where we’ll be awarding the titanium award to winners and given them their checks.

TM: What’s your company’s position on “parasiteware?”

SM: We’ve taken a very unique position in the industry. We originally changed our affiliate agreement about a year before anyone else realized this was an issue. A year later, we added the anti-predatory advertising addendum. What that does is to contractually restrict what downloadable software can do before it can work within LinkShare. We are today the only company taking such a strong stance. We chose not to participate in the Code of Conduct because we felt it was too loose a set of rules. It didn’t hold anyone’s feet to the fire. So we’ve taken a very strong position. We’ve kicked out players who were unwilling to sign the addendum. And once they sign the addendum, we do require ongoing testing to make sure they’re in compliance.

TM: There’s been a lot of talk about Norton’s program that blocks ads. Has LinkShare been in discussion with Norton, trying to get them to change the defaults on their software?

SM: We are. We’ve met with Norton many times. We continue to have discussions and dialogues with them. We’re fortunate in the sense that we have a very good story with the names behind us to help them understand we are more than just a behind-the-scenes company. We’re a real entity with real names behind us. So that’s been very good for us. We also work not just with Norton but with any of the other parasiteware removal companies to make sure they don’t make mistakes and think that we might be associated with them.

TM: What do you think is the biggest challenge to affiliate marketing for the next couple of years?

SM: To be honest, there are a lot of concepts out there without a lot of data behind them. There are very good concepts that end up with very poor results. For example, we see a phrase up there that is “shrink to grow,” which means to shrink your program down to grow its revenue. We’ve seen that time and time again fail as a concept and hurt affiliates. Affiliates are up-and-comers. Affiliates are people who can add value to a merchant’s products and help them to differentiate in a positive way. These concepts are sometimes wishful, but they most likely are inaccurate. The data is often overlooked, and that’s the place we probably should be looking first.

TM: By shrink to grow, you’re talking about a company weeding out its less active affiliates and trying to emphasize growth by the most productive people, is that right?

SM: True. The numbers just don’t pan out. When you look at the top players who are out there, they’re all growing at a slower rate than e-commerce. Yet their commission rates are growing at double the rate we see in the marketplace. So what you’re doing is you’re paying more and more for less volume and less traffic. And over time that makes the programs less effective on behalf of the merchants. You also find those top players offer a very low-level, value-add: cash-back models, coupons and loyalty-type programs. Those models don’t help our merchant partners get new customers, and the costs of retaining customers continue to increase. So, if our partners’ goals are to find new customers, they need to look into new markets and they need to manage a blended average of new partners and new customers with their existing base of retention sites.

TOM MURPHY is editor in chief of Revenue and author of the book Web Rules: How the Internet is Changing the Way Consumers Make Choices.

The Secret to Being Super

They’re called superaffiliates, but there are no secret powers behind their amazing sales. They follow the same path every other affiliate does: They publish a Web site, sign up for affiliate programs, download the affiliate codes and troll on the search engines.

But they work a little smarter, make a few more calls, send a few more emails and do a lot more testing. And what they do better than anyone else is integrate all of the standard affiliate marketing pieces – email lists, merchant relationships and showcased products – to get more people to their site and more people to buy. Their efforts net results only dreamed of by other affiliates: transactions by the thousands, and monthly commissions often measured in six figures.

To illustrate the point, Revenue decided to introduce our readers to Bob DiCerbo, a Chicago resident who never dreamed he would be working just 20 hours a week to make a very comfortable living. He started ClearSave.com with his wife in October 2002, affiliating with merchants such as Overstock.com, Nordstrom.com, QVC.com, Land’s End, FoodSmart.com and Pet Food Direct. Now he does little more than chat up affiliate managers, tweak keywords and cash checks.

ClearSave is a “check here first” site, where visitors come just to see if any of the merchants they regularly patronize are offering discounts, sales, coupons or bargains. The 2-year-old site gets a whopping 300,000 hits per day. Merchants drool over that kind of traffic. And DiCerbo and his wife pull in enough commissions to pay themselves salaries and hire a part-time assistant. Eventually, they expect their “super” efforts to send their kids to college.

What exactly is a superaffiliate? Well, it’s not one particular thing. It could be one person or 100. It could be an individual or it could be a company. It could be a site offering discounts, rebates, rewards, funding for charities, dating services, apparel, travel arrangements, downloadable music or any of the Internet’s hot products. One thing they all have in common is that they’re treated well – even heavily recruited.

Being a big dog has its benefits. “Merchants reach out and help us put together creatives just for us because we’re doing so well,” said DiCerbo. Many affiliates also get higher commissions, special offers and other assistance from merchant partners.

Here are some ideas from DiCerbo and others on how you can get similar treatment.

Find the best programs.

DiCerbo believes one reason he does better is simply by keeping the lines of communication open with the right merchants. “Only a handful of merchants – Overstock, Avon, Sierra Trading Post, Blair and Eddie Bauer – will actually reach out and call and talk to you to see what it is you actually need,” he said.

Glenn Sobel, founder of AffiliateAdvisor.com and webmaster for DatingTek.com, said some of the best programs offer lifetime commissions. “The key is to look for programs that pay residual income – I’m just kicking back right now and enjoying my Internet income,” he said from his Vegas retirement home. Dating sites are a prime example. When an affiliate refers someone, many programs give a commission for the new member and each time that person renews the membership.

To help choose great merchants, would-be superaffiliates should read contracts carefully before signing up. Contracts should spell out exactly what earns a commission, when commissions are paid, how long affiliate referrals are tracked and what happens if buyers come from more than one affiliate site. If the contract doesn’t spell it out, then add it in writing. “There are a lot of issues like that that really matter,” said Sobel. “They greatly impact your income.”

Provide only those products your visitors want.

This may seem elementary, but many new affiliates spend months discovering it. A site posting sports scores, for instance, should have links to sports magazines and sports betting, not printer ink.

“We wouldn’t promote Overstock as hard as we do if our audience didn’t think it … met their needs for discounted products,” said DiCerbo. “The proof is in the pudding.” That pudding consists of $40,000 to $50,000 in monthly sales, resulting in commissions of $2,800 to $3,500 for ClearSave.

Loyalty site FreeRide.com, which gets 30,000 hits per day and affiliates with hundreds of merchants, asks visitors for demographic information when they register. “But a lot of the way we figure out our demographic is by watching their activity – What are they buying?” said FreeRide.com director Corey Newhouse. FreeRide then beefs up selection for that audience.

“Once you’ve found the ideal types of products, choose one or a handful of really good quality products and promote those well,” said Internet Marketing Center founder Corey Rudl, who built his one-man affiliate operation into a $6.6 million-per-year company. Top affiliates in his program use this strategy to earn $4,000 to $8,000-plus each month.

Email your site visitors.

Superaffiliates always collect email addresses when visitors come to their sites. They have visitors sign up for free offers, newsletters or access to more information already on the site. More than 200,000 of ClearSave’s visitors have filled in their email addresses when prompted to “sign up for exclusive deals, bargains and coupons.” DiCerbo blasts them carefully honed emails once or twice a month. Jermaine Griggs, the superaffiliate featured in our story on religion sites (see page 68), credits his email list for the success of his piano lesson sites. Visitors enter their first name and email address anytime they want to pick a free lesson, see a full music score or add a comment to the lesson forum. The options are free anyway, so Griggs turns them into selections that require visitor input: “I could automatically direct them to all 60 lessons, but ‘Choose a free lesson’ is better than saying ’60 free lessons,'” Griggs said. “This way they enter their information. We have a 60 percent conversion rate with that list, and we’re building it by 6,000 people each month.”

Finally, if you really want to win big, produce a newsletter and promote the heck out of it. Have site visitors subscribe through an opt-in section of the site’s home page, and load the newsletter with advice, news or updates on your industry. Affiliates can work great deals with merchants just by the breadth of their newsletter subscription base.

Hire help when needed.

DiCerbo has part-time help finding new coupons and codes to post on the site. He also has an IT person on retainer. Superaffiliates must either be webmasters or have one on hand. These days, even knowing HTML may not be enough. “We found that XML is much more search engine friendly,” said Rick Schneider, VP of business development for World Choice Travel, an all-affiliate travel merchant. “XML lets you more deeply integrate an affiliate product with the merchant’s brand.”

There are even small companies that are really superaffiliates. They run virtual online stores with lots of customer support, information, great design and other labor-intensive elements. That’s what FreeRide.com – which uses “tokens” redeemed for merchant gift cards to reward visitors for purchases, surveys or Web surfing – does. It’s a four-employee loyalty site run by New York-based Endai Worldwide, an online marketing and technology company with 20 employees of its own. From his loft office overlooking downtown Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, Newhouse knows this isn’t an ordinary affiliate company. But it could be a glimpse at what in just a few years might be the norm. Major affiliates are already being acquired by their merchants – Hotels.com owns hundreds of affiliate sites.

Help searchers find your site.

Keywords, search engine placement, refer-a-friend programs, viral marketing – these are a few of the steps to bringing new viewers to your site. Pay-per-click search engines let affiliates quickly test search words. Through Google AdWords, DiCerbo creates his own ads, chooses keywords to match the ad to his target Google audience and pays only when someone clicks on the ad. He said his site has the most success with high commission products like perfume and footwear. He tries words often provided by his merchants and then tinkers with different landing pages – those pages that actually advertise the product, rather than directing people to the home page – to find out which word and page combinations would help to make the most sales.

Griggs gets even more distance from his hosting service, which gives him unlimited email accounts with his domain name. “If you have an attractive domain name, you can easily offer free theirname@your site.com email addresses to site visitors,” Griggs said. “I’m getting at least 1,000 [viral] impressions a day with that strategy, because my site names appear at the bottom of every email they send out.” Griggs also suggests that affiliates search out the forums or online chat rooms where their ideal customers congregate.

Meanwhile, FreeRide.com is trying its hand at co-registration campaigns, where visitors to other sites can check a box and be added to FreeRide’s list. “So far so good,” Newhouse said.

Once visitors get to your site, keep them there through easy navigation, great design and an established sense of community. “The bottom line is, you’re selling ideas and you’re selling community,” said Web site designer Dean Peters. One way to establish community is through personal endorsements and testimonials. Place them well and make them convincing pieces of friendly advice rather than an obvious cash grab. Testimonials “could increase the response you receive by 400 percent or more,” said Rudl, who has trained 75,000 affiliates in his strategies.

Roll up your sleeves.

This is a day-and-night business. Click-through problems aren’t reserved for 9 to 5; if not cared for immediately, these problems can harm sales. Affiliates must be able to respond as soon as problems occur. That doesn’t mean you actually have to work 24 hours a day. Many successful affiliates grow with just 40 hours per week of combined staff time. But they’re regularly checking their stats, regularly checking their site operations, regularly testing new promotional methods and regularly working with merchants to improve their affiliate offerings. “It’s definitely roll up your sleeves and a lot of grunt work to see what works and what doesn’t,” DiCerbo said.

Test response rates for different affiliate banner ads and text links. Put them in different spots on your site. Try different articles and newsletters. Use different autoresponders. Test promotions on the small scale before taking them to your mass list. “While this might seem like a lot of work, it will ultimately increase their traffic and their affiliate commissions,” said Rudl.

Newhouse at FreeRide.com seconds that: “Giving people a variety of ways to take an action helps a lot.”

Be ready to respond to changes.

“I never look too far out into the future,” DiCerbo said. “The e-commerce landscape changes so quickly that I’m not going to say that the way we’re doing business now is the same way we’ll be doing it next year. Paid search is a new thing that has just taken off. The spam area is closing down. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

In the end, the superaffiliate must be committed to working regularly on its site, must talk frequently with its merchants, must constantly be in touch with its customers and must be able to wait for its efforts to pan out. The buyers often don’t come running. But with the right products and the right customer capture mechanisms in place, at least they’ll be following the right tracks.

JENNIFER MEACHAM has worked for Revenue, The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine.