Guerrilla Generosity

With the holiday season waiting just over the calendar horizon, I can’t help but remember how holidays are disasters for the unprepared. To help prepare you, I want to activate your generosity awareness.

There seem to be two kinds of affiliates: givers and takers. Giver affiliates are quick to give freebies to customers and prospects. The freebies may be gifts, but more likely come in the form of information. The right information is worth more than a gift and often worth far more than money.

There was a time – it existed primarily during the last century – that people believed they were supposed to guard information, to keep it secret, to not even dream of sharing it. That attitude has taken a U-turn.

Imagine yourself in a large, dark room with many people, each one holding a candle. But none of their candles is lit – except yours. You use your candle to ignite the candles of all the other people in the room. Now the room is glowing with illumination and brightness.

And yet, the flame on your candle has not been diminished at all. Everyone in the room gains, while you lose nothing at all. Canny affiliates share their precious information with many people because the word is out that shared information is a lot more valuable than private information.

One of the prime purposes of marketing is to educate your prospects and customers on how to succeed at their goal, whatever that goal may be – earning more money, losing weight, attracting a mate, growing their business, hiring the right people, planting and maintaining a beautiful garden.

You can accomplish that noble purpose of marketing by freely disseminating information – by giving the best possible information to the people who need it the most. The main idea is to think generously, then give generously.

One of the key personality traits possessed by successful guerrillas is generosity. I’ve always known they were blessed with infinite patience and fertile imaginations. I’ve written in awe of their acute sensitivity and their admirable ego strength. I’ve raved about their aggressiveness in marketing and their penchant for constant learning.

I’m similarly impressed, but not surprised, at their generosity. They are, every single one of them, generous souls who seem to gain joy by giving things away, by taking their customers and prospects beyond satisfaction and into true bliss. They learn what those people want and need and then they try to give them what they want and need absolutely free.

The result is delighted prospects who become customers and delighted customers who become repeat and referral customers.

What kind of things do guerrilla marketers give away for free? Let’s start with a short list and your mind will be primed to dream up more:

  • They give gift certificates to their own business, whether the certificates are for products or services.
  • They give money to worthy causes and let their prospects and customers know that they support a noble cause, enabling these people to support the same endeavor.
  • They give free consultations and never make them seem like sales presentations. They truly try to help their prospects.
  • They give free seminars and clinics because they realize that if their information is worthwhile, it will attract the right kind of people to them.
  • They give free demonstrations to prove without words the efficacy of their offerings.
  • They give free samples because they know that such generosity is the equivalent of purchasing a new customer at a very low acquistion price.
  • They give invaluable information on their website, realizing that such data will bring their customers and prospects back for more, thereby intensifying their relationships.

In addition, guerrillas are highly creative in dreaming up what they might give for free. Of course, many advertising specialties such as calendars and scratch pads, mouse pads and ballpoint pens are emblazoned with their names and theme lines, but they seem to exercise extra creativity as well. ere’s an example from the off-line world: When an apartment building went up, signs proudly proclaimed that you get “Free Auto Grooming” when you sign a lease. Soon, the occupancy rate was 100 percent. The salary they paid the guy who washed the tenants’ cars once a week was easily covered by the difference between 100 percent occupancy and 71 percent occupancy, the usual occupancy rate in that neighborhood. The key to their generosity was this question: “What might our new tenants want and appreciate?” While the usual gifts were considered, none answered the question as substantially as a free car wash each week. Hardly an obvious gift. But, just the ticket for these tenants.

That means your task is clear: Think of what might attract prospects and make customers happy. Be creative. Be generous. Then, be prepared for a reputation embracing generosity, customer service and sincere caring.

Many affiliates shy away from early holiday promotions because they don’t want to begin too soon. They don’t want to be criticized for their eager ways. But many members of a busy public will appreciate the hint of being reminded of what is just around the corner and the reminder that good planning makes for a more joyful holiday.

Tell your customers and prospects that even you may be the first to begin celebrating this holiday season; you want them to be the first to take advantage of early planning. You want them to be able to avoid emergencies, inventory problems, crowded shipping facilities and even early season bargains. You may even come up with an early shopper special or two. When you do, be sure you give those customers something extra, something special and something unexpected.

Are they going to appreciate the combination of being given information that can help them, as well as price breaks that might put a twinkle in their CFO’s eye? Is Santa jolly?

Today’s customers are attracted to giver affiliates and repelled by taker affiliates. What kind of affiliate are you?

JAY CONRAD LEVINSON is the acknowledged father of guerrilla marketing with more than 14 million books sold in his Guerrilla Marketing series, now in 41 languages. His website is www.guerrillamarketingassociation.com.

Follow Up or Fall on Your Face

Guerrilla affiliates know well the importance of customer followup and prospect follow-up because they know what it takes to succeed in business.

Why do most businesses lose customers? Poor service? Nope. Poor quality? Nope. Well, then why? I say, it’s apathy after the sale. Most businesses lose customers by ignoring them to death. A numbing 68 percent of all business lost in America is lost due to apathy after the sale.

Misguided business owners and affiliates think that marketing is over once they’ve made the sale. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Marketing begins once you’ve made the sale. It’s of momentous importance to you and your company that you understand this. I’m sure you will by the time you’ve come to the end of this article.

The Guerrilla Way to Follow Up

First of all, you need to understand how guerrilla affiliates view follow-up. Although, affiliates are not actually making the sale, the merchant they promote is; often the customer doesn’t really understand that. So, a good affiliate makes it part of their DNA to have good follow-up because they know it costs 10 times more to sell something to a new customer than to an existing customer.

They have a follow-up strategy, just as they have a marketing strategy. That follow-up strategy dictates what they’ll do in the way of follow-up and how often they’ll do it. It helps them stay on track. It helps them remember that follow-up is part of their day-to-day business.

When a guerrilla affiliate makes a sale, the customer receives a followup thank-you note within 48 hours. When’s the last time a business sent you a thank-you note within 48 hours? Maybe once? Maybe never? Probably never. Now that email is part of business, the answer should be “always” because email follow-up is so easy. I buy things online and usually get a thank-you email not in two days, not in one day, not even in two hours, but often in two minutes. Technology makes that possible. Your customers know it, so they’re learning to expect it.

The guerrilla affiliate sends another note or email or perhaps makes a phone call 30 days after the sale. This contact is to see if everything is going well with the purchase and if the customer has any questions. It is also to help solidify the relationship. Guerrillas know that the way to develop relationships – the key to survival in an increasingly entrepreneurial society – is through tenacious customer follow-up (and prospect follow-up, which we haven’t even addressed yet).

Guerrilla affiliates send their customers another note within 90 days, this time informing them of a new and related product or service. Possibly it’s a new offering that the guerrilla business now provides. And maybe it’s a product or service offered by one of the guerrilla’s fusion marketing partners (those who enter into business agreements such as mutual links and advertisements).

Guerrilla affiliates are very big on forging marketing alliances with businesses throughout the community and – using the Internet – throughout the world. These tie-ins enable them to increase their marketing exposure while reducing their marketing costs, a noble goal. More marketing, less expense. That’s a pretty healthy formula to follow.

After six months, the customer hears from the guerrilla again, this time with the preview announcement of an upcoming sale. Nine months after the sale, the guerrilla sends a note asking the customer for the names of three people who might benefit from being included on the guerrilla’s mailing list. If the company chooses to use surface mail for this, a postpaid envelope is provided. Because the guerrilla has been keeping in touch with the customer – and because only three names are requested – the customer often supplies the names.

After one year, the customer receives an anniversary card celebrating the one-year anniversary of the first sale. Perhaps a coupon for a discount is snuggled in the envelope or attached to the email.

Fifteen months after the sale, the guerrilla sends the customer a questionnaire, filled with questions designed to provide insights into the customer. The questionnaire has a paragraph at the start that reads, “We know your time is valuable, but the reason we’re asking so many questions is because the more we know about you, the better service we can provide you.” This makes sense. The customer completes and returns the questionnaire.

Perhaps after 18 months, the customer receives an announcement of still more new products and services that tie in with the original purchase. And the beat goes on. The customer, rather than being a one-time buyer, becomes a repeat buyer – the kind of person who refers others to the guerrilla’s business. A bond is formed. The bond intensifies with time and follow-up.

Let me put this in numeric terms to burn it into your mind. Let’s say you earn a $200 profit every time you send a customer to a merchant and they make a big sale. If you send the customer a thank-you note, the one-month note, the three-month note, the six-month note, the nine-month note, the anniversary card, the questionnaire, the constant alerting of new offerings, the customer, instead of making one purchase during the course of a year, might make three purchases. That same customer refers your business to four other people. Your bond is not merely for the length of the transaction but for as long as say, 20 years.

Because of your follow-up, that one customer is worth $400,000 to you (assuming three purchases per year and the referred sales, both initial and repeat). So that’s your choice: $200 with no follow-up or $400,000 with follow-up. And the cost of follow-up is not high because you already have the name of the people with whom you’ll be following up.

Following Up With Prospects

Some wise affiliates have already figured out the crucial importance of customer follow-up but still haven’t got a clue about prospect follow-up. Heed the words of author Harvey Mackay, who wrote, Swim with The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. At a 1992 presentation in Calgary, Harvey faced the audience of more than 1,000 people and claimed, “We have never failed to close the sale with a person we have identified as a prospect.”

I admit that I was shocked to hear that. A 100 percent close rate. I knew that Harvey was a great closer, but 100 percent? Then I heard what he said next: “Sometimes, we close that prospect within two weeks. Other times, it may take as long as seven years.” Seven years?

Prospect follow-up is not a single act, but a process that goes on and on. That proves to prospects that you really care, that you really will work hard satisfying them because you’re working so darned hard to get their business. The truth is that prospect follow-up is lush terrain for guerrilla affiliates. Prospects who have been contacted by others and then ignored are ripe and ready for the company that will contact them and stay in touch. They know when they are being ignored and they know when their favor is being curried.

The cost of prospect follow-up is also not high – for the same reason as with customers. Prospect follow- up, however, is different from customer followup. For one thing, you can’t send a thank-you note – yet. But you can consistently follow up, never giving up and realizing that if you’re second in line, you’ll get the business when the business that’s first in line messes up. And they will foul up. Know how? Of course you do. They’ll fail to follow up enough.


JAY CONRAD LEVINSON is the acknowledged father of guerrilla marketing with more than 14 million books sold in his Guerrilla Marketing series, now in 41 languages. His website is guerrillamarketingassociation.com.

Fair Game

In-game advertising offers geotargeting of a captive and highly lucrative audience.

National advertisers looking to reach mass audiences have had few choices online. The highly fragmented Web lacks properties that can match the millions of viewers who routinely view network TV.

However, online gaming (not to be confused with online gambling) sites are now accruing the millions of eyeballs that advertisers such as Ford, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola salivate over. Game publishers can offer interactivity and target marketing that is not possible through broadcast channels, and advertisers are now redirecting portions of their ad spends from broadcast to video games.

In-game advertising provides access to a rapidly growing audience of gamers of all ages that spend the equivalent of two workdays per week (often in three- to five-hour bursts) dealing, driving and detonating through consoles, PCs and Internet-only games. During December 2005, more than 27 million people visited game site MiniClip.com, which features casual games (trivia, cards), shooters and role-playing games, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Unlike content or search sites where visitors routinely look at a few pages before moving on, game sites often retain a visitor for as long as it takes to watch a miniseries, enabling advertisers to repeatedly pitch their brands to consumers. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, people playing games on the Electronic Arts site spent more than four hours and ten minutes per session on average during February 2006. In 2005, the ratings service gave further legitimacy to video game advertising by beginning to measure its audience reach.

Delivering a Focused Audience

Ads delivered to video games (via PCs or connected consoles such as the Xbox) will have greater retention because unlike TV viewers, game players tend not to multitask, according to Nicholas Longano, president of new media at online gaming company Massive, Inc. Players who are being chased through the galaxy by aliens or are racing their fellow avatars to capture booty aren’t likely to be simultaneously talking on their cell phones or surfing the Web.

Unlike television ads that viewers with digital video recorders are increasingly skipping over, gaming ads are always seen, according to Longano. “Advertising in video games is TiVo-proof,” he says. Longano says the ads that are displayed on Massive’s network of 137 games are guaranteed to be onscreen for a minimum of 10 seconds. The company’s network features ads from “65 blue chip” advertisers, he says, and features games from Acclaim Entertainment, Ubisoft, and Vivendi Universal Games.

In May, Microsoft acquired Massive, and said that it would integrate Massive’s technology into its adCenter advertising platform.

Advertisers go where the people are, and the masses playing games online are an attractive audience to pitch. While the dominant demographic of gamers is the desirable 18- to 34-year-old male audience, the wide variety of games are attracting a diverse membership, according to Alexis Madrigal, a research analyst with DFC Intelligence.

Action games tend to attract younger male players while casual playing of puzzle, card and word games have made females over 30 the fastest-growing segment of the online gaming world. Casual game sites are also increasing the titles aimed at mature adults and children.

Game enthusiasts are also more likely to interact with what they see online than the average Web surfer, according to Alex Kakoyiannis, managing partner of consulting firm Navigame. “Gamers are a participatory group … the whole game experience is based on interaction and participation, [so they exhibit a] different behavior.”

Revenue from advertisements delivered online to video games is expected to rise from $192 million in 2005 to $248 million this year, according to Madrigal, who says ads in offline games were not included in his calculations. The majority of ad dollars are spent on casual games and PC-based titles played online, according to Madrigal, as the more sophisticated console games have yet to fully exploit connected game play.

Ads at Every Turn

Unlike commercial television that displays ads after several minutes of programming, game sites can almost continually interject ads before, during and after gaming. In-game ads are woven within the game to appear natural to the environment, showing up on virtual billboards, posters and video screens on the online world. Navigame’s Kakoyiannis says the ads have to be contextually relevant to the game and the audience. “You shouldn’t see a product targeted to women in a shooter,” he says.

For example, Tycoon City from Atari features an ad for Toys”R”Us in downtown Manhattan, where the company has a real-life presence. Similarly, Take-Two Interactive Software’s Major League Baseball 2K6 will feature rotating ads behind the backstop and on the facades, just as they appear in the real ballparks.

Jonathan Epstein, a member of the board of directors of Double Fusion, which develops technologies for online advertisers, says in-game ads are tracked to verify their delivery. Data is collected to show how many times and for how long within a game session an impression (for example an ad in the form of a virtual billboard) is served.

Epstein says it’s also important that the ad-serving system prevents competing products (such as Coke and Pepsi) from being advertised within close proximity or time frame within a game. The typical CPM for in-game ads is between $20 and $25 for one-dimensional ads, and from $40 to $50 for three-dimensional ads, according to Epstein.

In-game advertising does not disrupt game play and limits interactivity to before and after a game, says Epstein, who has collaborated with publishers including Midway Games and Crave Entertainment. For example, clickable video ads called “level-stitials” can run after a level of a game is completed, or static ads can be placed on exit screens or leaderboards at the conclusion of a game, he says.

The various formats and locations for displaying ads provide vast inventories. With an average of 20 to 30 ads displayed per game-hour, according to Epstein, games that average 90 million hours of game play per month could potentially display 2 billion ads per month. Most game companies have their own formats for ads, but there is an interest in developing sizes compatible with the standards set by the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Product placement within games is becoming a popular method for game developers to offset some of the development cost. For example, makers of racing games will partner with an auto manufacturer to make their vehicles the default car. However, sometimes (as with the rhetorical question about the chicken and the egg), it is difficult for gamers to determine whether game development proceeds product placement, or whether the prominent display of well-known brands is the genesis of the game itself.

Another example of a product being placed within games includes Ubisoft’s upcoming title CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder, which will feature credit card company Visa’s fraud-monitoring system to track down the bad guys.

“Advergaming” is the term given to games that are developed specifically to showcase a product, and where the advertiser subsidizes the development cost. Atom Entertainment created Hemi Highway to showcase the Dodge Charger, and the company recently launched the Shockwave.com Game Studios division to focus on advergame development.

Advergaming finances the creation of casual arcade-style games where the graphics and story are not as sophisticated as console games, but the often-humorous game play can nonetheless become addictive. “Building a custom game is a minimum of a $200,000 investment,” Lee Uniacke, vice president of sales for Atom Entertainment, says.

Atom Entertainment’s advergaming group links advertisers with game developers who create titles around a product. “It forces them to be creative within a structure, and this enables their true creativity to come out,” says Uniacke, of the game development process.

Uniacke says the amount of revenue the company is generating from advertising has tripled this year over last, thanks in part to the Shockwave In-Game Network (SIGN), which launched in November. SIGN games includes five titles such as Circuit Racer and H2Overdose that display in-game advertisements and require a minimum of a $30,000 spend from advertisers, according to Uniacke.

Online gaming sites generally require users to register to play, giving publishers the ability to target ads to specific demographics. Shockwave.com’s ad-serving system can control ad campaigns so that they only appear before 13- to 21-year-old males, and the company also can geotarget campaigns to specific regions, according to Uniacke.

Uniacke says advertisers can test-market campaigns online and get instant data on their effectiveness before rolling out a national campaign through broadcast. “Instead of spending four months on a campaign, you can get feedback within a day,” he says, adding that the cost is analogous to an $8 CPM.

Displaying ads around the games (on login screens and on the borders of online games) can also be lucrative for publishers. For example, casual game site Pogo.com served nearly 950 million ads during February 2006, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

Gaming company WildTangent offers advertiser sponsorships of casual games such as Polar Bowler and Tornado Jockey, according to Bill Clifford, general manager of advertising platforms. Sponsors receive a 15- or 30-second pregame video advertisement, Clifford says.

To get developers interested in creating games that feature advertising, WildTangent shares the ad revenue with the game’s creators, says Clifford. Typically developers would get paid when a consumer chooses to pay to download a game, but receive no compensation when gamers play the free trial version online. WildTangent’s program can increase the developer’s compensation “by 10 times over what they were receiving,” he says.

Earlier this year WildTangent announced a program where gamers can earn virtual incentives by watching ads. The companies’ virtual “WildCoins” can be used to purchase additional game play time with the company’s pay-for games, or they can be redeemed within games for health points or weapons.

WildTangent is extending the virtual booty offering offline, as consumers who purchase real goods from partners including Coca-Cola will receive WildCoins coupons that can be used online, according to Clifford.

Ads Cut Game Costs

Many online casual games and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games are financed by subscription fees, but in-gaming advertising is likely to supplement or even replace this revenue stream.

Worldwide online game subscription revenue grew 43 percent to $1.84 billion in 2005 and could reach $6.8 billion by 2011; according to video-gaming market research firm DFC Intelligence. Once games reach more than a million registered users, publishers could lower the subscription fees or make the games free by attracting national advertisers.

Popular MMOs Shadowbane and Anarchy Online now offer free levels of the game that are ad-supported. DFC Intelligence’s Alexis Madrigal says games such as Runescape 4, which currently has 4 million subscribers who each pay $5 a month, could increase reach and revenue if advertising were integrated. “You could squeeze $5 worth of advertising out of each user easily,” says Madrigal.

However, fantasy role-playing games located in alien worlds or occurring during the days of yore aren’t natural locations for conventional ads. Madrigal also warns that publishers that display online ads through console or PC games risk alienating their audience. “If you are paying $50 for a game and then $15 a month for a subscription, the tolerance for ads is pretty low,” he says.

The increase in broadband adoption and console games that can be played online will grow the virtual communities of game enthusiasts who log in for hours at a time. As long as the ads are prevented from overwhelming game play, game companies will continue to capture advertising dollars from broadcast.

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.

From Maui, With Love

A comprehensive but dated Hawaiian travel site gets a modern makeover.

Break out your favorite Hawaiian shirt and toss a lei around your neck – we’re headed to Maui! Well, Maui.us, anyway. Unfortunately, when we found the three-year- old online travel guide, it was wilting faster than a week-old hibiscus. But don’t fret – we can revive this online travel site.

They say content is king, and I agree. If you want to garner a loyal audience, you need to present the content that audience is seeking (with frequent updates, I might add). Maui.us CEO John Bottomley said he spent thousands of hours building his site. With an interactive map, a comprehensive activity guide, a meticulous hotel directory and a slew of other exclusive features, Maui.us certainly has all the content it needs to become “the major travel gateway to the island of Maui” that Bottomley always dreamed it would be.

Still, Maui.us is hardly generating the new traffic, repeat visitations or conversions Bottomley anticipated when he launched the site in 2002. So while content may be king, let’s not forget to invite conversion design, his lovely and talented queen, to the luau. Conversion design is the process of designing to meet business objectives, such as converting traffic into sales.

The Problems

In order to live up to its potential, Maui.us needs to exude the authority, trust and credibility that people expect from a major travel gateway. The site must also instantly communicate its compelling offerings and make it crystal clear why visitors need them. Finally, to make the conversion design transformation complete, we need to place more emphasis on the site’s top moneymakers. Bottomley says that these are, in order of importance, the custom vacation builder, hotel bookings and the activities guide.

The bottom line is that Maui.us lacks visual appeal, which can be assessed within 50 milliseconds, according to a report published in the Behaviour & Information Technology journal. That suggests that Web designers have about 50 milliseconds to make a good impression. Keeping that in mind, here’s a list of shortcomings we can remedy to make those first 50 milliseconds really count.

Outdated appearance. The site’s outdated graphics and cliche island imagery leave users wondering whether the site is still active. Savvy travelers today are flooded with online options, and they refuse to waste their time on a site that might be outdated. Remember, they are looking for information and resources they weren’t able to find at the first five Maui sites they visited. We need to make visitors feel confident that Maui.us can provide the answers they need.

Inconsistent and cryptic site wide navigation. In our last two makeovers, we pointed out a common problem: too many items in the main navigation. While that is also an issue at Maui.us (count a whopping 12 items), the even bigger problem is inconsistent placement and appearance of the main navigation. On an 800 x 600 browser, you actually have to scroll down to see the nav. What’s more, the placement and arrangement of the links changes from page to page.

Then there are the cryptic icons; so cryptic that users “don’t think to click on them,” says Lisa Ramos, sales director for Sostre & Associates. (Ramos just happens to be planning a trip to Hawaii in a few months, making her exactly the audience that this site needs to woo.) “The icons just look like part of the design,” she notes. “At first, I thought the site only offered hotel and air search. That discouraged me from exploring the site further.”

Wide text columns. It’s hard enough to read text online. By taking your column of text and stretching it across the length of your Web page, you’re essentially guaranteeing that no one will read it. Just for fun, here are the numbers for some top information websites: MSNBC articles feature text columns that are 460 pixels wide, BBC articles post at 405 and Yahoo news stories come in at about 550. Compare that to Maui.us, which stretches its text columns to almost 700 pixels wide. As a general rule, the maximum width for columns of text should be around 500 pixels.

Poor use of photos. Occasionally you can get away with using poor images. I’ve even been known to discourage the use of gratuitous images in conversion design. But come on – we’re talking about Maui here. If there was ever a time to leverage photos and imagery, this is it. Images help to create an emotional response, and that’s what people want when they’re planning a Hawaiian vacation. After all, it’s not often that someone needs to make a trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so we must encourage the emotional desire to take the trip of a lifetime.

The Solutions

Now that we’ve identified the issues, let’s get to work. Our first step was to go to iStockphoto (www.iStockphoto.com). When you need great images, and you have a limited budget, this is the place to go. iStockphoto offers professional-quality photos and illustrations for ridiculously low prices (about $1 each for Web quality). A search for the term “Maui” yields 462 mostly professional images of the stunning Hawaiian isle. After downloading a few that didn’t work out, we settled on a relaxing scene from Big Beach, Maui.

Next, we whittled the navigation options down to five. We kept the links to the seven other items, but we worked them in toward the bottom of the page to reduce viewer confusion. Next, we placed the main navigation right at the top of the page, like most websites, so it wouldn’t jump around as users moved from page to page. Last but not least, we worked a little conversion design magic to give the site a more current look, while maintaining our focus on the big three income generators. After all, that’s what conversion design is all about.

When Bottomley submitted his site, his original goal was to “make a top-ranking site that MUST be as beautiful as the natural beauty of Maui itself!” Of course, meeting that challenge is surely impossible (have you ever been to Maui?), but I believe we’ve brought the site much closer with this new design. The real proof will come with the increased number of users that decide to use Maui.us for vacation planning.

Would you like to get a free home page or landing page design for your website and see it featured in this article? To be considered, please 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 header.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a Miami-based consulting and development firm that also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites, including Audio-BookDeals.com, EquestrianMag.com and iTravelMag.com. Sostre is currently working on a book about his concept of conversion design, scheduled for release in summer 2006. For more information, visit conversionpublishing.com.

A Brand New Day for BrandNewDad.com

Not every website sells widgets. But that doesn’t mean every website doesn’t need an effective home page.

In this column, we chose an information portal as our subject. So instead of addressing questions like what the site is selling, and how to make a purchase, our focus was on the proper display of content, use of colors and communicating the benefits of registration.

Our subject is BrandNewDad.com. The site has a wealth of information for fathers, with helpful feature articles, pregnancy information, forums, a shopping directory and various other valuable resources. Unfortunately, the owner succumbed to the common temptation to jam-pack the home page with more options than the eye can bear. The result is a cluttered, confusing, jumbled mess.

As BrandNewDad.com owner Dave Trenck put it, “The site is too busy. ” I’d like to be able to highlight the community aspects of the site, the personalization features and, of course, intertwine all the various affiliate links and support the various CPM and CPC ad placements.”

The goal of this redesign – just as with OriginalDogBiscuit.com (the online purveyor of doggie treats we featured in the last issue) – is to increase conversions. Ultimately, that’s what it is all about.

That’s why I’ve coined the term “Conversion Design” to describe the business of design. You’ll be hearing much more about this concept as the year unfolds because it encompasses critical Web design elements that spark increased conversions, like color theory, usability and copywriting.

How do you increase conversions on a site that does not peddle products? Conversion Design is not always about direct sales. Sometimes it’s about indirect sales, or even qualified sales leads. Trenck’s goal, for example, is to woo site registrants so that in addition to serving up personalized content, he can display targeted ads that convert at higher percentages than their untargeted counterparts. In this case, registrants are considered conversions.

Our task was to redesign the home page to make the site’s benefits crystal clear. At the same time, the home page would need to soft-sell the advantages of free registration. The end result would be more registered users, more repeat visitors and more ad revenue for BrandNewDad.com. That’s good news for Trenck, but we’ve got to wade through the bad news to get there.

When we showed the original site to our small yet highly critical focus group, phrases like “too wordy,” “too much info,” “unclear navigation” and “no main point of interest” echoed through the meeting. Vincent Flanders, author of Web Pages That Suck: Learn Good Design by Looking at Bad Design, probably would have agreed. He lists having too much material on one page as one of his top 10 Web design mistakes. According to Flanders, “With so much content vying for attention, it’s initially impossible for the eye to settle on one thing. People get confused and people leave.”

BEFORE

Sostre & Associates’ art director Jason Graham has a slightly different take on the issue of displaying too much content: “A good site should lead me or suggest to me what content I might find useful. The biggest problem with BrandNewDad.com is that even though things are categorized, it doesn’t feel like they are.”

Graham’s guiding concept for our approach: Group the content into clearly defined categories so visitors can easily move through the page. This is referred to in the design industry as “chunking.”

AFTER

“The idea is to categorize and then visually group information, as opposed to letting it all bleed together,” Graham says. “We can do that by adding more white space between the elements and making the headlines or titles larger. Chunking helps to make the page scannable so we can still include all the same information that the website currently has, but now it’s easy to understand.”

Besides better content organization, we took three additional steps in our quest to make the home page more user-friendly: reducing the navigational elements, decreasing the number of colors and increasing the white space.

Like other sites with loads of content, BrandNewDad.com wants users to see it all. That’s why the site has so many options in its main navigation. In our experience, however, having too many navigation buttons can overwhelm visitors. So we reduced the number of buttons to five and repositioned the missing navigation items.

Next up: colors. The site uses six colors throughout the various user-interface elements. This mishmash spectrum contributes to the busy, uncomfortable feeling our focus group verbalized. We cut this number in half and allowed a three-color scheme to help unify the design.

White space can be tricky. On one hand, if we overdo it, we waste space that could be displaying information. On the other hand, if we don’t have enough white space, we end up with a cluttered mess. In this case, we definitely needed to increase white space to achieve the “chunking” Graham mentioned.

Our redesign simplified the site without sacrificing important information, making it easier for new visitors to understand the site’s benefits. Once the visitors are sold on the site, enticing them to register and personalize their experience is much more likely. We can encourage registration by highlighting personalization features and positioning the “register” and “sign in” links in standard locations.

We’ve taken the important first steps of giving this home page a much-needed overhaul. But the work should not stop there. An essential aspect of Conversion Design is continuous testing and review. Websites should be reviewed and tweaked frequently to ensure that their creators are getting the best possible outcome. User feedback and a careful eye for conversion rates should be the guiding factors in this process.

Would you like to get a free home page or landing page design for your website and see it featured in this column? To be considered, please 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 header.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a consulting and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs. Pedro is currently working on a book about his new concept of Conversion Design, scheduled for release this summer.

Have You Heard the Word?

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

Small wonder this type of hype is highly coveted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a Bite From Apple’s Book

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

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

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

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

G’head, Squeeze the Charmin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create Community

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

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

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

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

Viral Videos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the Backlash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Commerce

Until now online shopping has been a lonely endeavor. Think Sandra Bullock in “The Net,” the 1995 film where she works from home, orders everything online and has few friends outside of cyberspace. Even 10 years later most people still shop online alone, sneaking it in during work hours or squeezing it in after everyone’s in bed.

“If you look at the first 10 years of e-commerce, it was solitary, not social,” says Rob Solomon, vice president of the Yahoo Shopping Group. “Yet, if you look at the pre-e-commerce world, that’s all shopping was; e-commerce changed that. E-commerce isn’t going to be a solitary thing that much longer.”

That’s because social networking is having its third rebirth online, and this time experts think it will stick.

“E-commerce will be much more than 5 percent [of retail revenue] three years from now,” Solomon says, “because this will change the landscape of it.”

As such, affiliate sites are building loyal fan bases and gaining steady clickthroughs by encouraging buyers to bring their offline friends along for the shopping experience.

“Consumers looking for the best of the best, the first of the first, the most relevant of the relevant increasingly don’t connect to ‘just any other consumer’ anymore,” according to TrendWatching.com, a report focused on spotting new trends. “They are hooking up with (and listening to) their taste ‘twins’; fellow consumers somewhere in the world who think, react, enjoy and consume the way they do.”

To tap this trend, the best-selling affiliates are adding social networking elements outside the norm. They’re offering ways for buddies to view each other’s potential purchases, give and get advice in any form they want, pay each other’s bills and even get cash for recommending something their buddy ultimately buys.

Influencing Others’ Potential Purchases

Forrester Research found that consumers who buy fashion online are more likely to interact socially by sending product links to friends. With more than 40 million – mostly young, higher-income females – having purchased clothing online to date, this market is ripe for affiliate-site options that seamlessly allow second opinions.

Take eDressMe.com, run by Tango dress designer Joanne Stoner, who uses Yahoo’s storefront to offer her dresses alongside more than 1,000 others from New York designers. The site conference calls in mothers and daughters with its personal shoppers to look at online dress options together and reach an agreement.

“It’s just the right forum because the daughter is around to shop, the mother is around to pay for it and the personal shopper will be the one who decides whether the outfit is appropriate or not,” Stoner says. The result? eDressMe.com gets about 6 million unique visitors per month and has been No. 1 in most natural search rankings for “cocktail dresses” and “evening dresses” for three years running.

While online buddy shoppers can’t actually see the other person’s outfit on, they now have options like My Virtual Model, an animated model sized to a customer’s exact measurements and customized with faces, hairstyles and builds. Merchants like Adidas.com, LandsEnd.com, LLBean.com, Sears.com and iVillage.com (20 percent commission) all offer the virtual model for “trying on” clothing as part of their affiliate offerings. The saved model can be used at all participating merchants, with final outfits “imailed” to buddies for feedback. Shoppers using My Virtual Model reportedly spend more, buy more and return fewer items.

Buddy emails and conference calls are just two of the many new ways shoppers will soon be able to provide pre-purchase feedback through shopping sites. “There is so much more you can do with IP communications if you tailor it for the e-commerce experience,” says Rob Seaver, CEO of website-embedded IP communications provider Vivox.com. “What if you could talk to people who recently purchased the same item? What if you could see into other people’s shopping carts? What if you’re considering a purchase of the ‘Desperate Housewives’ DVD collection, and while you’re looking at that there’s an ad that says, Join five people in a small affinity group talking about ‘Desperate Housewives’? By bringing the social networking aspect and e-commerce together, you can increase interaction on a site and, consequently, increase sales.”

For example, in conjunction with Friendster.com allowing users to post Amazon.com affiliate links, it now offers Net Zero.com’s free computer-to-computer calling with a banner ad on its log-in page. Buddies only need a USB headset and microphone to bring the offline experience online.

Give Advice, Get Advice

Amazon.com is a leader in product reviews with more than 6 million entered by its users. And in November, Amazon patented how its reviews are conducted.

According to Amazon’s lead engineers, “The click through and conversion rates of recommendations based on collaborative filtering vastly exceed those of untargeted content such as banner advertisements and top-seller lists.”

Still most others claim it’s a non-issue. “All the major sites have product and user reviews,” says Martin Levy at eDeals.com, which posts reviews alongside merchant, auction and coupon results for product searches on one page.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 33 million American Internet users have reviewed or rated someone or something online. And Forrester Research found that, in Europe, more than 50 percent of online consumer electronics buyers check product reviews from other customers, 30 percent purchased something online based on someone else’s online rating and 15 percent wrote a review themselves.

TrendWatching.com cataloged these results in its late-2005 “twinsumer” report.

“The twinsumer phenomenon is turning millions of reviews, ratings and recommendations into truly valuable results fitting one person’s very particular preferences or even lifestyle – whether it’s a one-off twinsumer union or an ongoing relationship. Twinsumer therefore isn’t about access to reviews or ratings or even trust in general (those are fast becoming hygiene), but about relevance.”

The name of online mall Yub.com says it all. It’s “buy” written backward. The company, launched in February 2005 and snapped up by Buy.com, is all about consumers recommending products to other consumers. Offering nearly 5 million affiliate-fed products, Yub.com provides a place where people sign up to meet (and give Yub valuable consumer data), hang out and get merchant-negotiated cash-back rates of up to 25 percent for free members and up to 34 percent for “premium” members, paying $24.95 per year. Users also get 1 percent when their buddies buy something endorsed in their profile.

“The voice of our members is an incredible resource for both merchants and online shoppers,” said Jared Morgenstern, president of Yub.com, in a launch release. “Merchants receive the benefit of satisfied customers who become product evangelists, and online shoppers learn the latest in trends from the most reliable source – their friends. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

Insiders are finding that the best way to help “product evangelists” refer other shoppers is by giving them the communication tools they’re most apt to use. They may want chat, email, instant message, text messages, on-demand cell phone or land-based phone calls, calls to other computers with headsets, photo or video uploads or live webcam communication.

“One of the things people don’t like doing online is not having any sort of interaction when they’re picking out, say, a dress,” says Karen Hoskins, Logitech’s webcam PR specialist. The addition of webcam communication “is a more personal element to shopping online.” Sellers on eBay now can even upload pre-shot Webcam footage for 99 cents per video listing (first upload free).

“But to make it more like real life,” Vivox.com’s Seaver says, “the next step will be to have the real-time interaction among users.” Vivox has a managed IP service that integrates all of the various real-time IP-based communication methods. It costs a few hundred to several thousand dollars per month, so sites usually roll costs into membership fees charged to users.

For sites wanting to add their own social network, Vivox already powers WorldFriends Networks’ (WFN) new WorldFriends Phone service. Buddies can view personal hot lists, identify members online and escalate interpersonal interactions from IM – regardless of the branded IM service they may currently use – to voice to video with one click. All of these services can be private-labeled: WFN customizes and operates the personals service, combining profiles from more than 150 sites in 18 countries viewable in up to five languages.

“There is no up-front cost to join our network and avail of our service,” says Dominic Penaloza, in sales partner for Meta4-Group.com, WorldFriends Network’s parent company. “However, we do have a modest set up fee that is payable from the user-fee revenue share.” Partners get a “generous” share of all user fees, which run $24.99 per month or one year for $99.99 ($8.33 per month).

And don’t forget the forums for tapping into buddy-type recommendations.

“There is an amazing amount of discussion on everything – from digital cameras to professional chef knives – on all of the specialized user forums out there,” says Michael Tchong, founder of Trend Setters.com and UberCool.com. “That’s shopping engineering at its best.”

Pay Each Other’s Bills

eDressMe.com is just one example of sites using social networking to have one person find an item and another person pay for it. Gift card revenues have exploded to $55 billion dollars, according to Tchong. “That inherently includes the social element – because you buy a gift card to give to someone else.”

BarnesandNoble.com’s new shopping cart software builds on its social features (blog-like back-and-forth reviews and posts of a reviewer’s other recommended reads) by including pop-up reminders to “send an online gift certificate” now.

Getting Paid for Social Networking

“When consumers rally around a specific topic, recommendations are instantly relevant, as long as they don’t stray too far from the topic at hand,” TrendWatching .com reports. “No wonder virtual communities are fertile breeding grounds for meeting one’s twinsumer.”

Perhaps the most affiliate-friendly virtual community to date is Squidoo.com, launched in early December by Internet marketing guru Seth Godin, author of New York Times best-sellers Permission Marketing and Purple Cow.

Users create profiles and build a topic-specific reference Web page known as a lens. Fifty percent of net revenue from a lens, whether from automated Google AdSense ads or affiliate sales for Squidoo’s 500 merchant partners, go back to the lensmaster.

“Squidoo lets online entrepreneurs sell thousands of products without signing up for different affiliate programs or building and hosting a website,” Godin says. “In just a few minutes, they can present a thoughtful collection of items – and then spend their time promoting the site.”

The bonus for adding yourself to social commerce sites like this can be immense. Relevant content garners higher Google PageRanks and can highlight your best blog posts, point to the products and services you write about, autofeed with RSS news when you’re out of town, track your site’s name mention on other blogs and promote upcoming podcasts and offline events.

Gather.com is another social commerce site now in beta testing. All of its members are bloggers, an area ripe for commercialization. Bloggers, some of whom simply repost blog entries or newsletter content from their own site, are paid out of revenue generated from Gather.com’s in-house ad network, where affiliate ads are welcome. Ads appear based on interests specified in a user’s profile.

“Because we’ve got just a few dozen advertisers since [our Nov. 15] launch, they’re getting prices that are much better than what they’re getting at Google or Overture,” says Gather.com founder and CEO Tom Gerace, the brains behind BeFree’s affiliate network (it sold for more than $100 million to ValueClick in 2003). “Plus they’re able to target an audience – membership is 5,500 and growing – that’s already loyal to coming back to our site.”

Then there’s Yahoo’s Shoposphere beta, which launched Nov. 14. It aggregates and sorts Pick Lists created by Yahoo Shopping’s community, allowing users to “search, view, read about and purchase specific products recommended by people they know and trust, experts they’ve never met, and everyone in between.” Affiliates can use Yahoo’s Open Web Service APIs, which include shopping search, price compare, reviews and product specifications.

“This creates a whole new value chain that allows those people who were only consumers in the past to become sellers,” says Yahoo’s Solomon. “Not too many other people can execute on this like we can. Amazon.com is positioned, but without the social networking all ready they’re really at a disadvantage.” Yahoo won’t roll out revenue sharing with Shopospherekeepers, however, until later in 2006.

All in all, tapping into this social networking trend boils down to making your online shopper’s experience more like one they’d have on land.

“One of the affiliate managers I work with said he was so tired of seeing stores that looked alike, and wanted to see different things in online shopping like capturing the social experience,” says John Gilhooly, publisher of mallDTS.com, which launched in October 2005. “Malls have always been a great social experience for people, so we get a little more of that online to make it seem like they’re actually engaged in offline shopping, online.” He’s made the experience so authentic, he says, that “two people actually called recently and asked for directions to the mall.”

Sources like TrendSpotting.com are predicting this is just the beginning.

“The twinsumer trend is part of an all-encompassing trend changing who and what consumers rely on when making purchase decisions, both need- and impulse-driven,” the report states.

But will the business model work, or will content-based sites crash like revenue-share Themestream.com did in 2001? The tagline for the 1995 movie “Mallrats” hints at the perils of crossing your fingers for commerce in a social environment: “They’re not there to shop. They’re not there to work. They’re just there.”

But industry insiders say that, thanks to the buddy factor, consumers are ready to come online and actually buy this time. “Instead of getting the lowest price and leaving, shoppers are staying on the site and getting some value for that,” eDeals.com’s Levy says. “Then they’re there when a merchant comes out with a special offer and they can take advantage of that. That’s what eDeals is doing ” something very similar to Yahoo. And if Yahoo is doing this, then you can see that this is where the market is heading.”

JENNIFER D. MEACHAM is a freelance writer who has worked for The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore.

Home Page Makeover Unleashed

In this first installment of Revenue Magazine’s “By Design Makeover,” I worked with my team at Sostre & Associates to choose one site and give that lucky winner a visual redesign of its home page. After reviewing more than 50 submissions from readers like you, we finally selected – drum roll, please – OriginalDogBiscuit.com.

We chose this site because it serves as a prime example of a challenge website owners commonly face – designing an effective home page. I am convinced that online retailers could drastically improve conversions by redesigning their home page, and I am out to prove it. So stick with me as we walk through this makeover geared toward increasing conversion rates for OriginalDogBiscuit.com.

Before you design a website it is critical to thoroughly understand the product or service that you are peddling. That’s why we started the makeover process with a conversation with Elyse Grau, owner of The Original Dog Biscuit Co., to learn as much as possible about her products.

Grau says her company’s value proposition is quality. In other words, the biggest benefit of buying her biscuits is the ingredients. The Original Dog Biscuit uses all natural, human-grade, mostly organic ingredients, no preservatives, sugars or salts. The results leave dogs barking for more of this healthier snack.

Grau’s customers are health-conscious dog lovers. So it comes as no surprise that her best-selling products are regular and special diet dog biscuits, with dog gifts and dog supplements taking a backseat to these staples. The Original Dog Biscuit Co. also touts great incentives for frequent buyers, including discounts and free products.

Armed with this information, we needed to understand how users interact with the website. This is User Interaction 101. A first-time visitor has three primary questions: What is this site selling; why should I buy from this site; and how do I buy from this site?

Your website’s home page is charged with providing quick answers (sometimes in less than 10 seconds) before you require anything of the user.

Now let’s check out how the original design responds to those questions.

What is the site selling? The Original Dog Biscuit Co. may have a clear domain name and logo, but the website sends mixed signals. A quick glance at the home page screams of salmon oils instead of the company’s best-selling biscuits.

The three product categories – Dog Biscuits, Dog Gifts and Supplements – are each given the same weight in the navigation. That makes it confusing for customers who came to the site looking for dog biscuits with the best ingredients and best taste.

What’s more, the home page doesn’t display any images of the actual products being offered. This imagery is commonly referred to in the industry as a “hero shot.” And according to MarketingSherpa’s Landing Page Handbook, a good hero shot can increase brand recognition and response rates. That’s our goal!

Why should I buy from this site? As we learned from our business owner interview, the unique value of the doggy treats is ingredients that are far superior to your average grocery store brand. The problem is that the site doesn’t communicate that value proposition.

Well, OK, technically it does in that hard-to-find text blurb in the middle. But people don’t always read text, especially text that stretches across the page with no distinguishing characteristics. And the Our Ingredients link is sandwiched between the Frequent Buyer Program and Privacy Policy links, neither of which will draw much attention. This is where a good tagline comes in.

Wait ” it already has a tagline. Yes, and if you squint really hard you can almost see it right there under the logo. Can you see it? It says, “Best Ingredients. Best Taste.” It’s not the best tagline in the dog-biscuit world, but if it was visible, it might help.

How do I buy from this site? Now let’s assume that a user gets past the first two questions. They understand that the site sells dog biscuits and that the high-quality ingredients make this a much better brand for their canine friends. There’s still one more problem: How do they make a purchase?

Although not immediately recognizable, the phone number isn’t too hard to find.

Since there are no product images on the home page, we have to dig a little deeper to find the dog biscuits we want. But once we get there, adding them to the cart is fairly straightforward.

Bottom line: OriginalDogBiscuit.com could use a few improvements. I’ve pinpointed a few specific areas that need some immediate help:

  • Too much navigation
    When there are too many navigation options, it’s hard for the eye to pick anything out, much less see what’s really important.
  • Corporate identity inconsistency
    The logo is attractive and has personality, but it doesn’t flow with the rest of the page.
  • Missing unique value proposition
    The unique benefit for dog owners who buy from this site is that their pets are getting treats that are healthier than their mass-market counterparts. This value is not communicated on the home page.
  • Ordering phone number not prominent
    Many users still want to pick up the phone and call. The placement of the number is not prominent enough.
  • Wrong focus
    The first thing a visitor sees on the site is “salmon oil.” This is not the primary business of the website and, although there should be a place for news and announcements, it is taking too much real estate in the current design.

Now comes the fun part. Sostre & Associates art director Jason Graham spearheaded the visual aspect of this redesign. He was excited about the project because, “Their logo and packaging looks terrific. They obviously invested a lot into their brand identity, and we can capitalize on that.”

First we took the most important elements and positioned them right in the center of the page. Now their top products are prominently featured, along with their value proposition, and Add to Cart links allow customers to begin shopping right away. Then we surrounded that imagery with supporting elements, like testimonials, articles and frequent-buyer discounts.

“Everything on the home page supports the user’s desire to buy or learn more about the product and the person selling it,” Graham says. “The new home page gives users lots of reasons to feel good about buying the product.”

In the competitive world of e-commerce, online shoppers are always looking for reasons to not buy from a website. Having a less-than-optimal home page can give them what they perceive as a good reason.

Remember the saying, “On the Web, your competition is only three clicks away”? Well, it may be old (in Internet time), but it is still true. This By Design Makeover is sure to keep the competition at bay and dog owners happy with a user-friendly store to buy nutritious doggy treats.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a Miami-based consulting and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs, including AudioBookDeals.com, BestCredit Solutions.com, EquestrianMag.com, iTravelMag.com and Look-Your-Best.com.

Defining Affiliate Marketing

Guerrillas know that affiliate marketing is just a fancy word for selling and treating people well. It’s more common sense and patience than anything else. But people often think affiliate marketing is a bunch of things it isn’t.

You’re going to save a lot of money, time and stress simply by avoiding these many misconceptions about what you really do for a living – especially if it’s you who has the misconception. If you are sharply focused on what your business really and truly is, you’ll disappoint no one, including yourself. I want your expectations to be based on clear reality, not smoky information that will happen when you know for certain what affiliate marketing isn’t. So, let’s look at what affiliate marketing is not.

  1. Affiliate marketing is not advertising. Don’t think for a second that because you’re advertising, you’re marketing. No way. There are over 100 weapons of affiliate marketing. Advertising is one of them. But there are also 99 others. If you are advertising, you are advertising. You are doing only 1 percent of what you can do. If you do think affiliate marketing is running a lot of ads, go immediately to the rear of the subscription list.
  2. Affiliate marketing is not direct mail or email. Some companies think they can get all the business they need with direct mail and email. Mail-order firms may be right about this. But most affiliates need a plethora of other marketing weapons in order for their direct marketing to succeed. If you are doing direct mail or emailing only, you’re off to a brilliant start and I commend you, but I caution you that you are not a guerrilla.
  3. Affiliate marketing is not telemarketing. For business-to-business marketing, few weapons succeed as well as telemarketing – with scripts. Telemarketing response can be dramatically improved by augmenting it with advertising. Yes, advertising. And direct mail. Yes, direct mail. And even email. Yes, email. But be warned, marketing is not telemarketing on its own.
  4. Marketing is not brochures. Many companies rush to produce a brochure about the benefits they offer, then pat themselves on the back for the quality of the brochure. So, does that brochure qualify as marketing? Proudly display it on your website. Offer it all over the place. It is a very important part of your marketing arsenal when mixed with 10 or 15 other very important parts. However, it doesn’t work all by itself. You’ll need more.
  5. Affiliate marketing is not being in the Yellow Pages. Most, and I mean most, companies in the United States run a Yellow Pages ad and figure that takes care of their marketing. In 5 percent of the cases, that’s the truth. In the other 95 percent, it’s disaster in the form of marketing ignorance. Sure, you should have a Yellow Page ad as part of your arsenal – if people are used to finding businesses like yours in the Yellow Pages – but remember that it’s only part of your marketing weaponry.
  6. Affiliate marketing is not show business. There’s no business like show business, and that includes marketing. Think of affiliate marketing as sell business, as create-a-desire business, as motivation business. But don’t think of yourself as being in the entertainment business, because affiliate marketing is not supposed to entertain. If it does entertain, it does so while increasing the momentum that leads to a sale. But affiliate marketing as entertainment? I don’t think so.
  7. Affiliate marketing is not a stage for humor. If you use humor in your marketing, people will recall your funny joke, but not your compelling offer. If you use humor, it will be funny the first time and maybe the second time. After that, it will be grating and will get in the way of what makes marketing work – repetition.
  8. Affiliate marketing is not an invitation to be clever. If you fall into the cleverness trap it’s because, unlike the savvy guerrilla, you don’t realize that people remember the cleverest part of the marketing – even though it’s your offer they should remember. Cleverness in affiliate marketing is a vampire, sucking attention away from your offer.
  9. Affiliate marketing is not complicated. It becomes complicated for people who fail to grasp the simplicity of affiliate marketing, but at its core affiliate marketing is user-friendly to guerrillas. They begin with a seven-sentence guerrilla marketing plan, create a marketing calendar and select from 100 weapons – half of them free. It’s not too complicated.
  10. Affiliate marketing is not a miracle worker. More money has been wasted due to marketers expecting miracles than to any other misconception of marketing. Marketing is the best investment in America if you do it right, and doing it right requires commitment, patience and planning. Expect miracles and you’ll get ulcers.

Before I let you scour the Net for more nuclear-powered gems for your business as well as a myriad of opportunities for affiliates, I feel honor-bound to let you know that affiliate marketing is a way for you to earn profits with your business, a chance to cooperate with other businesses in your community or your industry and a process of building lasting relationships.

As you ponder this, think about the fact that we have left the age of single-weapon marketing and now reside in the age of multiple-weapon marketing. Where once it took but one marketing tool to make the sale, today it takes several. But the principles of saying the same thing in each method of communication remain the same – to advance the relationship to a sale.

Marketing is a topic that intimidates many business owners, so they steer clear of it. For guerrillas, affiliate marketing has no mystique at all and is a whale of a lot of fun because they enjoy launching a marketing attack and knowing they’ll succeed.

JAY CONRAD LEVINSON Is the author of Guerrilla Marketing and the author of the best-selling Guerrilla Marketing series of books, which are published in 41 languages and are required reading in many M.B.A. programs worldwide. His website is www.gmarketing.com.

The Cookie Conundrum

Cookies will drive you nuts. As you know, cookies – or very small files that recognize you as uniquely you to particular websites – are kind of the backbone of affiliate marketing. If the cookie didn’t exist, there would be no way for you to claim the sale or track your core customers. This would effectively kill affiliate sites in their tracks.

Or will it? Recent studies on cookies have only confused matters. Survey respondents have said they delete cookies off their hard drives as frequently as every week. JupiterResearch in April released its cookie study that said nearly 40 percent of those online trash cookies monthly. Burst Media weighed in with its findings, echoing Jupiter’s study: 38 percent of online consumers nix their cookies once per month. Nielsen NetRatings pushed up the panic by stating that 43.7 percent of its respondents said they dumped cookies monthly. An InsightExpress survey said 56 percent. But then it backpedaled, saying probably fewer than that number actually delete cookies, citing data that when study participants were asked to immediately trash their cookies, only 35 percent did it correctly.

Even more baffling to the average user are the different kinds of cookies that exist: first-party cookies; third-party cookies; tracking cookies; local shared objects. It boggles. Even Walter Mossberg, a well-respected tech columnist for The Wall Street Journal, came out strongly against tracking cookies and suggested they be classified as spyware. In the same breath he did admit that first-party cookies are what make the Web a fun, personalized experience.

Even so, the studies seem pretty grim. If the results are accurate, then nearly half your sales would be freebies – meaning that 50 percent of your commissions would also disappear.

But then in April, Atlas Institute released an analysis of some of those studies and concluded many simply weren’t true. Atlas found that 40 percent of those who said they deleted their cookies monthly didn’t do it when they said they did. Cookies were generally present twice as long as respondents stated on their surveys.

It wasn’t a conspiracy. In many cases, it was just bad recall. In some instances, respondents assumed cookies were being deleted by anti-spyware products installed on their computers. Some of the deletion numbers are so high because users think the software is doing it for them. In many cases it isn’t. This puts anti-spyware and anti-adware software makers in a strange position: is it their responsibility to help you manage your cookies, or is it just a whole lot of paranoia?

Of the most popular anti-spyware software, about 75 percent come with “cookie management” options. What that means varies from maker to maker. When most anti-spyware programs do their normal scans (daily, weekly, monthly or however the user sets it) they will catch cookies but rarely do anything about them. The default is to generally ignore them. If the program offers a check box to dump certain kinds of cookies on a regular schedule, it has to be turned on by the user. Most anti-spyware makers believe the majority of their users are going with default settings. In fact, some studies have said that the so-called “computer savvy” also keep cookies longer than they say and believe they are deleting them when they aren’t.

All this misperception, in many ways, boils down to a few basic facts that most anti-spyware software makers can agree on: taken on their own, most cookies are not harmful. Cookies carry no code and so they cannot carry viruses. While cookies may carry information on where users have gone on the Web, most of it is anonymously tracked – meaning such data doesn’t contain personal information. The Wall Street Journal’s Mossberg wrote it was akin to a company knowing what channels you watched on TV without telling you it was monitoring you. Generally it’s more like following a set of footprints in the sand to see where they go, but the tracker has no idea if the person making the prints is Jane Doe, Jane Doe’s mom or Santa Claus.

One of the persistent problems, says Phil Owens, product director of CounterSpy, a product of Sunbelt Software, is that “most average users perceive that the program is doing the [cookie] removing” for them. He adds that most anti-spyware software makers are in a bit of quandary about cookies. They are “gray,” Owens says, because they are not malicious. Therefore, you’d think it isn’t software makers’ responsibility to clean cookies. Owens says this is a tough call. “On the one hand, maybe we should play a role and tell people cookies are benign until proven wrong. We can help quell that concern. On the other hand, market pressure by consumers is great. They will say, ‘This software found this but you didn’t,’ even if it is not malevolent.”

“The general public doesn’t understand the value proposition of the cookie,” says Rick Carlson, president of Aluria Software, which makes Spyware Eliminator. That’s why version 4.0 – released in February – has a whole separate tab in its scan results that lists the newest cookies. “Previous versions never detected cookies,” Carlson says, “but we put it in because consumers wanted it. And they wanted to be able to detect and remove them.” He says that sometimes spyware can place a cookie and that there is an outside chance that spyware reads other peoples cookies. Consumers wanted insurance for those remote possibilities, he says.

One of the most high-profile of antivirus software from McAfee currently doesn’t do any cookie tracking or identification either in its McAfee AntiSpyware 1.1 or VirusScan 9.0. McAfee spokesman Hector Marinez says the programs do not delete cookies or recommend deletion of cookies. He adds that the upcoming McAfee AntiSpyware 2.0 will have a cookie tracking function where cookies are identified and the user can choose to delete them. VirusScan 10.0 will not have cookie tracking.

Currently, anti-virus and anti-spyware from Microsoft does not scan for cookies, in part because the remembered passwords and Web page settings in cookies help tailor the Internet experience for visitors of Microsoft properties such as MSN. To help boost commerce, it’s been reported that the beta version of Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware does not disable tracking cookies. However, GIANT Company Software, the company that developed the anti-spyware product and was acquired by Microsoft in December, disabled tracking cookies.

Owens adds that he can conceive of a function in future versions of CounterSpy where the software scan can tell you exactly what each cookie is for, such as whether it was for a retail purchase you made or whether it was placed there by potential spyware.

Spyware Eliminator has its tabs even though Aluria’s Carlson says he would probably have preferred to have Eliminator ignore cookies. “We are extremely sensitive to the affiliate community,” Carlson says. Within the software tab, it clearly states that cookies “pose little risk.”

While anti-spyware companies are trying to figure out if they will take a stand, marketers themselves have stepped up to the plate and started their own grassroots awareness groups. One of the most prominent is Safecount.org, started by Cory Treffiletti, managing director of Carat Interactive’s San Francisco office, and Nick Nyhan, president of Dynamic Logic in New York. Safecount wants to start a “good list” of sites with trusty reputations. So far, the “good list” campaign is in the very early stages, “to show who plays by the rules,” says Treffiletti. A good list can show “you remain marketer-friendly and consumer-friendly.”

Another body is the advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology, which is trying to help the anti-spyware industry start at the very beginning and define what constitutes malicious data or vehicles for code versus harmless files. Eventually the center wants to write “dispute- resolution procedures” as well.

One company is even using a kind of backup program that automatically saves a copy of cookies before anti-spyware software can do the job. United Virtualities of New York uses something called persistent identification element, or PIE, exploiting attributes in Flash software. Some analysts, however, have labeled it “deceptive.”

Lawmakers are weighing in as well. So far lobbies have managed to get Congress to keep cookies out of anti-spyware legislation. But the most recent bill, the Internet Spyware Prevention Act of 2005, known as the I-Spy Act, is so broadly defined that cookies could very well be included in a legal interpretation. Marketing agencies are also trying very hard to keep cookies out of legislation.

Right now Safecount.org is a small, all-volunteer movement and may not reach enough momentum by the time some of the top anti-spyware software makers have implemented more hands-on cookie administration in their next versions. Alternatives for the affiliate marketer start with what you can do on your own site.

The first thing you could do is to include a brief introduction to cookies on your website. It doesn’t have to take up a lot of room and could even be on its own page with a link that says something like, “A word about cookies.” You can start by explaining cookie deletion versus cookie rejection. Deletion is when a visitor manually dumps a cookie or when anti-spyware software trashes it either through alerting the visitor or by an automatic setting. This is never consistent because every brand of anti-spyware software handles it a tiny bit differently. Tech-savvy visitors may have set their browsers to reject cookies. While Internet Explorer can be set to not accept any cookies and make users feel a lot safer, most online retail sites need cookies turned on to finish a purchase.

Web analytics company WebTrends recommends that businesses focus on serving only first-party cookies (sent from the website you are visiting) and not third-party cookies (sent from a vendor or advertiser on a Web page). WebTrends also advises only carrying the most necessary information in a cookie to avoid privacy worries. Think twice, company officials at WebTrends say, about employing “unproven and risky alternatives to cookie tracking” such as those in Flash or solutions that “trick” a browser into receiving a first-party cookie.

Also, affiliates could list the benefits of cookies – that a cookie helps remember user’s purchase history and passwords, and helps commissions go to the right people. Don’t be afraid to spell it out for your repeat customers: “Keeping your cookie keeps me in business.” Carlson says groups like the Anti-Spyware Coalition (www.antispywarecoalition.org) can only help so much and that standards just don’t start in a committee room but out in the world. “We are just a $20 million in revenue company,” he says, compared to the really huge anti-spyware makers. “We are the flea on the back of a dog.”

Other proactive measures for an affiliate include going to Internet security sites and staying abreast of the latest in hacks, scams, phishes and technological advances. You may think it is asking a lot to suddenly become an expert in deception, but it might be a comfort to remember that you are not alone. In terms of affiliates or retailers online, if there were a cookie problem that was reflected in the bottom line, there would be an uproar. The retailers themselves would step up if their highest earners were fading. If money is being lost, ears prick up.

As affiliates take a bigger role in what companies sell, you can bet their voices will be heard. As with the grassroots bodies and coalitions, pulling together can make a big difference. Advertising companies on the Web rely heavily on the cookie, and they are already drawing up standards. Affiliates should consider doing the same. After all, what does a salesperson really do: Inform and persuade.

ERIC REYES lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes about technology and business. His work has appeared in Business 2.0, the New York Daily News, the San Francisco Chronicle and Worth magazine. He has directed and contributed to websites such as Amazon.com and Excite.com.