Full Steam Ahead: Q & A with Chris Henger

Performics’ new VP of affiliate marketing claims the industry is still growing and is fueled by performance-based marketing.

Earlier this year Chris Henger, a veteran of affiliate network Performics since 2002, took the helm of the company’s affiliate marketing business unit. As vice president, affiliate marketing, Henger is charged with representing publisher interests to advertisers, a role he takes very seriously. In his former position as senior vice president of marketing and development with Performics, Henger dealt with affiliate issues from a different and broader perspective. Prior to joining Performics he was senior vice president/general manager at Emusic.com, which was acquired by Vivendi Universal. Revenue editor-in-chief Lisa Picarille spoke with Henger about his new role at Performics, some short-term goals for the Chicago-based affiliate network and where the online marketing space is headed.

Lisa Picarille: You recently took on some additional responsibilities; can you outline your new duties?
Chris Henger: Running our affiliate business unit for Performics is a responsibility that I took on with great enthusiasm. I am passionate about this industry and about Performics’ opportunity to take it to the next level. I represent the affiliate business within DoubleClick’s management team and manage a talented team of affiliate marketing professionals. In my role I am responsible for the growth and prosperity of our affiliate operations and that means making sure clients are satisfied and that publishers are productive and well-compensated. The possibilities for improved publisher productivity are endless and that is an area that receives a great deal of my attention and Performics’ resources.

LP: That sort of makes you the face of Performics, at least for affiliates. That can be a tough position with some very vocal critics. Talk about how you plan to interact with the affiliate community.
CH:
I am proud to take on the responsibility of Performics’ leadership for the affiliate community. I am active at industry events like Ad:Tech and Affiliate Summit and I am always looking for ways to have more direct contact with publishers. We recently established a Publisher Advisory Board and this group has already proven to be an honest and insightful sounding board for ideas. I also represent our publisher interests to our advertiser clients. It is important that they understand the implications of the decisions they make, and I spend a lot of time talking to advertisers about publishers. There are tough critics in our industry but they have good ideas and the key is to absorb the feedback and use it to make sound decisions.

LP: Do you have mechanisms in place for addressing negative comments and effecting change?
CH:
Monitoring and addressing comments are a shared responsibility at Performics. The affiliate marketing director keeps careful track of the media, blogs and other forums, and the product manager is active in the community. Our publisher services team fields inquiries from publishers and they are the first line of support to quickly address comments and effect change on behalf of our publishers. I meet with these teams on a regular basis to anticipate changes we need to make. We also have an internal blog that we rely on to get the word out to the program managers if there is a particular issue or change in the marketplace that needs attention.

LP: What are some of the goals you have for Performics in the next 12 months?
CH:
The next 12 months are going to be very exciting for Performics. We have an aggressive growth plan in place and a lot of innovation coming with our product road map. Personally it is my goal to ensure that our employees continue to feel good about what we are building and I want to deliver the message to our publishers that I care about their needs and about growing their businesses. Actions speak louder than words. We are a heads-down team that is always striving to do right by our employees, advertisers and publishers.

LP: Performics recently announced it is providing network-level data for advertisers in the ConnectCommerceSM interface. What other functionality is planned?
CH:
Performics is committed to continuous improvement and we have an aggressive product development road map for the next 12 months. One significant feature in development has been in beta with a small group of about 25 publishers for several months. The product feature, now called OrangeLinks, was integrated into our ConnectCommerce platform in June. This feature enables publishers to sign up to receive all updated links via email or FTP and eventually via RSS. The links are pre-generated and ready to be added to the publisher’s site. We saw a phenomenal increase in sales from the beta group, and other publishers should be able to increase their commissions with OrangeLinks.
Another important feature that will be released this summer is the availability of publisher contact information within ConnectCommerce. Performics and DoubleClick have recently adopted a new product development methodology called SCRUM. With this methodology in place we are working on short “sprints” to accomplish bite-sized feature improvements or components of larger enhancements. We have dramatically reduced the development cycle and improved deliverability. You are going to see seven or eight small releases a year, instead of one or two large releases.

LP: Why does Performics work with so many catalog retailers?
CH:
We do have a very strong catalog client base that goes back to Performics’ roots as the first full-service affiliate provider. When the company was founded in 1998, the vision was to fill a gap in the marketplace for affiliate marketing services. Traditional direct marketers didn’t have the in-house expertise to tap what was the wild world of online marketing in the late nineties. The full-service value proposition really resonated with catalogers in the late ’90s, and the unique agency approach we take to affiliate marketing still resonates today.
Performics is also headquartered in Chicago, the birthplace of direct marketing and the home of large traditional catalogers like Sears and Spiegel. As a matter of fact, Spiegel was one of Performics’ original clients and we continue to manage the affiliate program with the new management at Spiegel. The other aspect is that affiliate marketing is nirvana for a direct marketer; catalogers “get it.” They really understand the power of performance- based marketing. Because of our roots in direct marketing we are pushing the envelope for catalogers today and helping them understand the dynamics of multichannel marketing.

LP: I know that Performics doesn’t accept affiliates from religious-related organizations; why?
CH:
Performics has a comprehensive, quality affiliate network and we ensure that quality through editorial review. Just like major search engines, we have human screening of all affiliate applications and we have to provide that group of screeners with a set of criteria. To date, we have not allowed applications for sites with religious content and the policy is meant to minimize subjectivity from our editorial review process. Performics’ policy is not to allow sites that are focused on a particular faith. We don’t want our staff to have to make a judgment on whether or not a site with content from one faith or another is appropriate for advertisers. Recently I have seen some church-specific sites that are doing some very interesting things with affiliate links and using the commissions as a fundraising effort. This is certainly an example of innovation and we are willing to reconsider the policy.

LP: Are there any other types of affiliates that you don’t accept, and why?
CH:
Yes, we do screen each application and there are many, actually thousands of applications that we reject each month. The most common reason we have to reject an application is that the publisher’s website is not available for review. But upon review of the site we do have criteria about content that we evaluate. The policy is posted on our website and available to any affiliate:
Websites or publishers engaging in online activity that contains, promotes or has links to any one of the following will not be accepted into the network:

  • Pornographic, obscene or offensive content
  • Violence or hate-oriented speech
  • Extensive religious commentary or attempts to preach or solicit members for a particular church or faith
  • Gambling
  • Libel or defamation
  • Illegal substances
  • Unsolicited commercial email (spam) or trademark infringement
  • Any type of misleading, fraudulent or illegal activity

LP: Are there segments you believe are ripe for affiliate expansion?
CH:
Blogs are certainly one segment that we expect to drive increasing volume. In recent years the affiliate channel has moved heavily toward commerce-driven sites. Coupons, discounts and shopping-related publishers garner a substantial chunk of sales volume and we have seen phenomenal growth from loyalty and reward sites. We’ll continue to see the bulk of the volume come from those categories. Publishers in those categories have grown increasingly sophisticated and many consumers have come to rely on shopping-related affiliates as an intermediary, as they are perceived to add value to the transaction chain. As for new expansion, we are likely going to see affiliate marketing go back to its roots and witness growth in the area of content. AdSense and programs like it are geared toward content- driven sites, and a lot of people talk about small publishers monetizing content as if it’s a new initiative. Monetizing content is what affiliate marketing is all about and that segment is ripe for expansion.

LP: You have a deep background in online music and music-related businesses. Are there any initiatives at Performics related to online music merchants or affiliates?
CH:
I often rely on my experience in the early days of interactive marketing. Our business model back then is not far removed from effective affiliate marketing – build a loyal audience of consumers and at the same time attract advertisers that wish to engage those consumers with products and services. There was no question the promise of digital music was going to drastically change music distribution; the question was when. One of the core things that was lacking was a ubiquitous device, and obviously the iPod has solved that, and now the companies in the online music business are flourishing. A lesson I learned was it is critically important to stay focused around the core value proposition you provide your customer. This certainly applies to how we manage at Performics, as we stay focused on our two core businesses: affiliate marketing and search marketing.

LP: You attended the MSN Strategic Account Summit recently. What was the most important message you took away from that event?
CH:
One of the underlying messages I took from the event was the importance of having aspirations and high standards. Creating an environment where people are held accountable for high performance often has a multiplier effect on the satisfaction they derive. At the end of the day, people want to feel they are contributors to the overall success of the business – that what they do day in and day out matters. I want to surround myself with the very best people, and share in our collective successes. I jotted down this quote, which rings especially true at Performics: “You strive to create excited, high-energy environments, but not exhausted ones.” In today’s fast-paced marketplace, it’s easy to get exhausted.
You need to have a definition of success so that when you get there it will be meaningful to reflect on the accomplishment. These types of moments are often understated because really, who has the time to laud achievement? The MSN Strategic Account Summit represented one of those instances. I left the event proud in the knowledge that Performics was out in front as the only SEM to share the stage with Steve Ballmer.

LP: Is Performics looking to leverage a more strategic relationship with MSN?
CH:
Our long-standing relationship with MSN is certainly an asset that we value. We have been optimizing data feeds for MSN Shopping for years, and were the first to adopt the MSN adCenter API for Search. We work very closely with MSN, and strongly believe there are many opportunities for advertisers within that platform.

LP: Can you give us an idea of just what role search plays at Performics?
CH:
Search plays a critical role at Performics and within DoubleClick. Performics was a pioneer in search engine marketing and among the first to realize the power of paid search. We are the leading SEM globally, and have a thriving natural search optimization practice. The affiliate and search channels are inextricably linked for Performics – affiliates use search to drive traffic, and we share many cross-channel clients. And more importantly for our advertisers, the Performics business model aligns our interests with our advertisers. A consumer who transacts with our advertiser through either channel benefits the Performics business model, whereas this is a differentiator between us and other affiliate providers.

LP: Is the reign of the “Big Three” (CJ, LinkShare and Performics) over?
CH:
Absolutely not. Performics and our two industry peers are still growing by leaps and bounds. While there will always be changing dynamics in the marketplace, our target clients – retailers – are going to continue to look for affiliate marketing solutions. Multichannel marketers and other advertisers need a proven solution, a comprehensive network and reliable technology, which is core to the Performics offering.

LP: What is the biggest competitive threat to Performics’ business?
CH:
We stay competitive by thoughtfully thinking and planning for the future. We recently completed an extensive three-year strategic planning process across Performics and DoubleClick. There is a very clear plan and set of priorities that the entire company shares on where we want to drive our business. Ultimately, business comes down to customer loyalty. If a company loses sight of the needs and wants of its customers, then it opens the door. We are fanatically focused on servicing the needs of our customers. Through strategic leadership, proactive service and sustained innovation we control our own destiny in creating loyalty with our customers.

LP: Talk about where ad networks and subnetworks fit in the performance marketing landscape and how they impact Performics.
CH:
Ad networks sure are plentiful nowadays. They can provide value in increasing reach through one media buy, and most campaigns are on a performance-based pricing model which has similarities to affiliate marketing as well. In some cases we work with ad networks for select clients, and in other cases we produce leads for our customers directly through our affiliate network.

LP: How important is it for leaders in the online marketing space to be global companies?
CH:
The Internet is a global medium and the barriers between nations, languages and communities are virtually invisible. DoubleClick is the world leader in online advertising solutions and that provides tremendous insight for our clients and employees. We are working to improve our interactions and payment processes for international affiliates because that segment is increasingly important.

LP: What are Performics’ global plans?
CH:
We have an office in London that predates our integration with DoubleClick and we now have 21 offices around the world. We will certainly use that foundation as a platform for further expansion. Currently we license our affiliate marketing technology platform internationally but do not have plans to set up affiliate networks in other markets. Never say never, but we have a huge growth opportunity in the U.S. and that’s where we are concentrating today.

LP: Give me an idea of what you think the performance marketing space will look like in three years.
CH:
It is going to look even better than it does today – more growth, new and different distribution and better data across the performance-based channels. In the next three years we as an industry will have answers to many of the questions we face today. I think there will be a recognized distinction between adware and spyware. We are going to have an industry-wide resolution of ad blocking. I think we’ll see more sophisticated compensation for publishers that are tied directly to delivering on advertiser goals. We are going to have a larger pool of talent to expand with because the industry will be further developed. Performance-based marketing is a key driver in the evolution of online advertising and in three years we’ll see an industry that is taking a larger piece of the overall media pie.

Summer Reading Extravaganza

Forget about what Oprah’s recommending. Put away the latest from Philip Roth and that potboiler from James Patterson. It’s summertime and what’s really sizzling is online marketing. So, now’s the time to catch up on your reading about a variety of hot topics including affiliate marketing, performance marketing, online advertising, search optimization and more. And there’s no shortage of choices. Heck, there are currently more than 200 books for sale on Amazon with the word Google in the title. Here are some books that sound like great reading for the beach, the vacation home or the patio. Don’t forget the sunblock.

Buzz Marketing with Blogs for Dummies


Susannah Gardner (For Dummies) | 360 pages | $24.99


Another entry in the popular and wildly useful “for dummies” series, this one’s specifically on how to get blogs to do the buzz marketing for you. As we all know by now blogs have become an essential part of selling on the Web and this volume helps you get your head around the blog space – such as what a blog is going to do for your product, how it can change the way people think of your product and how the exchange of ideas that is essential to blogging can help you sell.

Newbies also get a pretty good tutorial on blogs – how to set them up, maintain them and what you should say on them. The book also covers, to a lesser degree, the legal issues, design for a better- looking blog and how to get your blog noticed.

Farce to Force:
Building Pro E-Commerce Strategies


Sarah McCue (South-Western Educational Pub) | 240 pages | $27.95


Need an e-commerce strategy? McCue walks you through the best ways to formulate a strategy and even gives you some useful templates to overlay your business model on. She outlines marketing techniques that work well and how to build programs from the ground up. Although the title is a little jokey, the author is well-versed in online marketing.

Go BIG or Go HOME


Wil Schroter (Go BIG Media) | 276 pages | $24.95


Serial entrepreneur Schroter takes a look behind the veil at companies such as Google, Skype and PayPal. He examines what these companies are doing right and what they haven’t done. Having launched nine start-ups makes him a kind of perfect spokesperson for entrepreneurship. He is currently CEO of SwapAlease.com, an auto-leasing marketplace. The companies he started include Blue Diesel, an interactive marketing agency; Kelltech Internet Services, a technology consultancy; and Atomica, a nonprofit arts organization.

Google Advertising Tools:
Cashing in with AdSense, AdWords, and the Google APIs


Harold Davis (O’Reilly Media, Inc.) | 366 Pages | $29.99


Like “Winning Results with Google AdWords” this O’Reilly book takes a stab at making sense (and dollars) from Google’s AdWords. Davis talks about the different associate programs in addition to Google, which provides great context. Topics include how to read AdSense metrics, managing AdWords campaigns, as well as hints on optimization.

Google’s PageRank and Beyond:
The Science of Search Engine Rankings


Amy N. Langville, Carl D. Meyer (Princeton University Press) | 234 pages | $35


This provides a different take on the search dilemma by answering the questions about what goes on behind the Google curtain. This book won’t tell you how to optimize or raise your rankings but will tell you the technical aspects of search. This can be valuable to the geek in us all. The author covers: How do those other Web pages that don’t have your name in them always appear at the top? What creates these powerful rankings?

The reason this book is even on this list is that the early chapters are very accessible and it is only in the later chapters that the hard, mathematical, geeky stuff is discussed. Even so, the authors say there is something for the hardcore audience and the casual one.

Internet Marketing and e-Commerce


Ward Hanson (South-Western College Pub) | 496 pages | $113.95


Even though this is written by an academic, expect ?reworks. “Rigor instead of hype” is how the book wants to be known, illustrating practices that leading companies use, showing how research results can be used to support conclusions and, of course, pointing out the unique qualities of online marketing.

No one is shortchanged here. Hanson looks at Internet marketing from the point of view of large and small business and online startups. It’s a great study in the balance of power that is even now continuing to shift in retail markets as the Web gets more powerful.

The Irresistible Offer:
How to Sell Your Product or Service in 3 Seconds or Less


Mark Joyner (Wiley) | 240 pages | $21.95


Using examples of companies such as FedEx, Columbia House Records and Domino’s Pizza, Joyner explains how to create an “irresistible offer.” As the former CEO of Aesop Marketing Corp., he has seen what kind of marketing works from the trenches. He uses real case studies to make it easy to apply it to your own business. The book is a kind of how-to that shows you how to manipulate your offer so that customers find it more attractive.

Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars: The Top 50 Ways to Grow Your Small Business


Kim T. Gordon (Kaplan Business) | 240 pages | $18.95


While not specifically about Internet marketing, any small-business owner can learn from someone on staff at Entrepreneur magazine. Among Gordon’s advice is how to stay on budget but still use expensive-looking marketing; how to tell which niches are right for you; and how to use technology (email lists, websites, etc.) and traditional marketing venues (trade papers, radio, TV, etc.).

Online Marketing that Works!


Catherine Seda (McGraw-Hill) | 256 pages | $21.95


This book hits the shelves on August 1, 2006 and exuberantly wants to introduce you to “cutting- edge Internet technologies” that mean low-cost, high-performance marketing opportunities for ventures of any size. Seda points out the effective online marketing strategies and shows how to get results for little or no cost. Seda has her own marketing consulting firm and is also the author of Search Engine Advertising

Pay-Per-Click Search Engine Marketing Handbook: Low Cost Strategies to Attracting New Customers
Using Google, Yahoo & Other Search Engines


Boris Mordkovich, Eugene Mordkovich (Lulu Press) | 196 pages | $22.95


The mouthful of a title pretty much says it all. This book attempts to crack open the genie’s bottle on getting new customers through search, and illustrates just how it can be done at a cost of only pennies to you. Along the way the book outlines basic concepts, like how pay-per-click works and why it is effective. It also has some advice on how to design a campaign, how to determine what works and how to maximize your return on investment. It also tells you about must-do’s such as get- ting listed on thousands of websites without paying a penny, targeting a specific local area through search engines and how to prevent click fraud.

The book also offers reviews of over 20 search engines, and includes tips on how to get the most out of each one. Experts in the industry also weigh in with their advice on how you can improve your search engine advertising efforts.

Put Your Business Online: How to create and promote a successful, low-cost Website


Al Kernek (Lulu Press) | 172 pages | $19.95


This book is truly for the newbie who wants to get all the nuts and bolts in one place. What you get is everything you need to know in a step-by-step structure designed to leave you at the end of the day with “a low-cost website and some affordable traffic generators that target your specific audience.” This book is written in very straightforward language and is not overloaded with “tech talk.” The “real world” tips and information can also help those who already have a Web presence.

High Performance Affiliate Marketing


by Jeremy Palmer | $49.95


This e-book is unique because the author – a 2005 Commission Junction Horizon Award Winner – updates it constantly. He covers how to find profitable products and services to promote; strategies for keywords; rankings secrets; and how to spend less money for the most traffic. In addition to the e-book, you get access to an exclusive members’ area with original content. He says all over the website that he made more than $1 million in commissions last year, so he must be doing something right.

search analytics: A Guide to Analyzing and Optimizing Website Search Engines


Hurol Inan (BookSurge Publishing) | 56 pages | $19.99


For those of you who plan a very short beach vacation, this lean and mean e-book can probably be read in just a couple of hours. It “explains how and why people search, provides detailed guidelines on analyzing the behavior of search users, and offers valuable search-related marketing insights.” The author interviewed many industry experts and website managers and presents detailed metrics and the required tools to get you started.

Search Engine Marketing, Inc.: Driving Search Traffic to Your Company’s Web Site


Mike Moran, Bill Hunt (IBM Press) | 592 pages | $49.99


This heavy tome has just about everything to do with search marketing in it. There are chapters on how search engines work, developing your search marketing program, measuring your website’s success, defining your search market strategy, how to get your site indexed, choosing keywords, how to attract links to your site and other must-have/must-know stuff. In addition, the book tells you about what people are looking for when they search, how best to sell to the kinds of visitors you’ll get and what to avoid in the way of questionable methods to get better rankings.

Search Marketing Strategies:
A Marketer’s Guide to Objective-Driven Success from Search Engines


James Colborn (Butterworth-Heinemann) | 208 pages | $37.95


Concentrating on the strategic and not the procedural approach, this book goes through all the search standbys: paid search, site side optimization and analytics. Then it talks about branding, sales and customer acquisition. The focus is on marketing strategy and not just on optimization.

Winning Results with Google AdWords


Andrew Goodman (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media) | 376 pages | $24.99


This is a title that should really get most readers’ hearts pounding. Goodman outlines some great strategies for “writing successful ads, selecting and grouping specific keywords, increasing conversion rates and maximizing online sales.” He goes over advice such as “ways to expand ad distribution, why testing ad effectiveness is crucial and how to effectively track results.” Goodman is founder of Page Zero Media, provider of search engine marketing services and strategic advice to companies seeking an online presence. He also co-founded Traffick.com.

The Dating Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Options for Increasing Revenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Love

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

Not everyone is so bullish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Social

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rules of Attraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Differentiators

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

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

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

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

Courting Affiliates

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

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

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

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

According to Brooks it’s a combination of factors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Face of CJ: Q & A with Lisa Riolo

Commission Junction’s Lisa Riolo steps into a new role with some familiar responsibilities.

As Commission Junction’s senior vice president of business development, Lisa Riolo is responsible for driving revenue for the sales and business development teams. While she’s not technically filling Todd Crawford’s shoes, Riolo will be the new face of the affiliate network, taking on many of the same challenges as the former vice president of sales, who left in February.

Owned by ValueClick, CJ is based in Santa Barbara, Calif., and has tens of thousands of publishers in its global network. In the six years that Riolo has worked there, she has led the sales, client development, search and product management teams. In her new position, she manages the 25 people who make up the sales and performance optimization departments. Revenue Senior Editor Maria Sample recently interviewed Riolo about her company’s practices and plans for the future, as well as the affiliate marketing industry and the importance of understanding people.

Maria Sample Your predecessor was very active in the affiliate community (i.e., forums, message boards, etc.). Do you plan on continuing to be Commission Junction’s face in those arenas?
Lisa Riolo Actually, the organizational structure introduced by our general manager, Tom Vadnais, positions me in a role that hadn’t previously existed. So, fortunately, I’m not faced with the challenge of having to fill someone else’s shoes. I do recognize that, since its earliest days, Commission Junction has relied upon one or two individuals to convey most of its messages. In the future, I think the affiliate community will hear and see us take more of a team approach.

MS Todd Crawford (the former vice president of sales) was considered the public face of Commission Junction. The downside of that is that he often took the heat from angry and upset affiliates. Are you prepared for that? And how will you handle those sorts of public (and sometimes personal) attacks?
LR I believe passionately that Commission Junction achieved greatness because of the publishers. I’m very open and prepared to listen to them. It’s been part of my role for the past six years.

If I end up the target of discussion, that’s OK. I’ve found that frustrations expressed reveal great opportunities to learn and improve. I tend to worry more about silence than I do about rants.

MS Part of your responsibilities include increasing Commission Junction’s market share. What plans do you have to increase market share over the next 12 to 18 months?
LR Our vision has consistently included a global perspective, and in the last 18 months, we’ve expanded our European presence from the U.K. to Germany and France. In 2006, we plan to launch offices in more countries in Europe, and continue to leverage opportunities we have in Asia.

We’re also committed to improving our clients’ experience in the CJ Marketplace. As we make it easier for them to extract information and interact with our product offering, we’ll attract new participants to our business.

MS What about plans for driving new revenue?
LR Our current plans fall into three categories. Last year, we expanded our service offering to better meet the needs of our advertisers, especially those selecting the CJ Access service level. We see additional opportunities for services that benefit other segments with our client base. Next, we’re exploring opportunities for leveraging new distribution channels created by technology innovation. And finally, we’ve reaped great benefits by collaborating with other teams in the ValueClick family of brands and plan to continue to do so.

When you look at the ValueClick products and expertise, you’ll see we have a compelling story. When you look at the metrics from just a couple of our cross-divisional efforts, you see the type of incremental lift that generates real excitement on our part.

MS What threats, if any, does the sudden proliferation of ad networks present to Commission Junction?
LR Ad networks have existed for years, some of which we’ve had relationships with for a long time. We don’t see ad networks as a threat, per se. They offer value that complements what we do at Commission Junction. We see that from our collaboration with our teammates at ValueClick Media, who run the largest independent display ad network in the U.S. The more monetization opportunities we can offer our publishers, the happier they are and the more they want to work with us.

The fact is, as heard from several outstanding publishers, they go where they get the best return on investment [ROI]. Commission Junction must understand and optimize every component of the ROI equation, from payout to time spent in our member area.

MS Can you outline the risks and benefits of sub-affiliate networks?
LR From an advertiser’s perspective, the benefits are a) you’ve potentially improved your efficiency because you’ve outsourced part of your relationship management responsibilities, and b) the sub-affiliate network may generate significant volume and extend your reach. The two primary risks of working with subaffiliate networks are a) you’re typically paying a premium for “aggregated” transactions, and b) you often do not have good visibility into the promotional methods used by the “subaffiliates” which, in all likelihood, will challenge quality standards.

From a publisher’s perspective, the benefits offered include higher commissions and often, faster payouts. The downside is productive publishers that don’t have direct relationships limit their ability to demonstrate their value. Hence, negotiating exclusive offers or higher payouts is difficult. The other risk for publishers is that, often, the sub-affiliate networks are not only outsourcing to other affiliates, but also competing with them. How often does a subaffiliate’s transaction get attributed to the network or super-affiliate?

MS Andrew Jacob, Leadpile’s CEO, seems to think his company’s Centralized Online Lead Marketplace could take the place of Commission Junction. Recently, he referred to his offering as an alternative to “traditional, old-fashioned affiliate marketing programs like Commission Junction.”
LR Isn’t it fantastic to operate in an industry where someone references a company that hasn’t celebrated its 10th anniversary yet as “old-fashioned?” Anyway, my response in these situations is usually the same: I pay attention. I never dismiss the potential importance of a future or existing player in the space. If you’re still in business, the game never ends. You’re always competing and you always have to scout and monitor what else is out there – and why. You won’t catch me not paying attention.

I do look for potential issues with other networks. For example (and acknowledging that it’s still early on), Jacob hasn’t illustrated how he plans to manage quality and scalability from the advertiser perspective. If you can’t drive and manage large-scale results on a reliable basis, you can’t drive value for your network participants. And a bid-based pricing system alone doesn’t really resolve all of the issues around quality. Nor can he simply assert, “Our sellers provide high-quality leads” with no basis. Even if the prospective customers Leadpile provided to its past advertisers were of acceptable quality, it’s a completely different thing to build a quality network.

So, it’s about quality, efficiency and scale, and no one in the affiliate marketing industry has driven all three of these as well as Commission Junction.

MS What does Commission Junction have that the competition does not?
LR The first thing we have is market-leading scale. Commission Junction is a global leader in performance-based marketing, and is the No. 1 provider of affiliate marketing managed services. Second, our commitment to upholding quality standards within our network of advertisers and publishers is unparalleled. We are the only network that has a team dedicated to monitoring and enforcing our Code of Conduct and Service Agreements. We are a trusted third party that continually strives to build and retain our clients’ (and future clients’) trust and exceed their expectations.

Third, we provide more transparency than the competition. The CJ Marketplace is the only network that openly publishes the performance metrics of advertisers, publishers and ads, allowing for a results-driven environment.

Fourth, as part of ValueClick, we can introduce our advertisers and publishers to a broader set of solutions that help advertisers meet their various online marketing goals and publishers monetize their online presence.

MS Why does Commission Junction use the term “publisher” instead of “affiliate”?
LR When we made the change from “affiliate” to “publisher,” we introduced the CJ Marketplace with the intention of influencing online marketing beyond the affiliate world. So, we adopted terms more commonly used by the ad networks. We also switched from “merchant” to “advertiser.” The strategy worked well and we have caught the attention of a broader group of online marketers.

MS How often do you interact with publishers?
LR During the past six years, my primary responsibilities involved developing our clients – both the advertisers and the publishers. When it comes to personal interaction, client meetings reflect about a 70/30 split between advertisers and publishers. Typically, though, I spend more of my time in the publisher meetings. At our annual client-facing event, Commission Junction University (CJU) and other industry events, I focus my attention almost exclusively on publishers because I need more data points from that group to understand if, and what, trends exist.

MS What makes an affiliate/publisher a “super-affiliate” at Commission Junction?
LR There are several attributes, including commissions earned, that earn publishers a CJ Performer designation. Generally, I’ve found the highest performance levels represent the top 5 to 10 percent of a program or network’s participants.

MS What traits do super-affiliates/publishers possess that separate them from the others?
LR I almost always see a balanced blend of entrepreneurial spirit, technical ability and creativity among this type of publisher. They are goal-driven and usually set aggressive benchmarks. The one unique quality I see in those with a long track record of proven results is a greater focus on flexibility than massive scale.

MS What type of online advertisers/companies do you work with?
LR We work with 1,700 advertisers. There isn’t a specific type of advertiser that we work with – we attract a broad spectrum of advertisers from small, regional businesses to global brands and from all industries.

MS What rate of measurement works best for advertisers? Publishers?
LR ROI and ROI.

MS What do you think publishers could be doing better?
LR On the whole, publishers tend to focus on attracting consumers that have already progressed toward the decision-making phase in the purchasing cycle. I think they could improve their ability to effectively move a consumer through more of the earlier phases in the purchasing cycle.

MS What do you think online advertisers could be doing better?
LR Advertisers should focus on managing their spend and resource allocation across channels. Too often I hear the statement that affiliate marketing generates the best RoAS [Return on Ad Spend] coupled with the assertion that the channel isn’t capable of producing comparable “volume” to their other channels. Managed properly, as evidenced by a number of savvy advertisers in the industry, the affiliate channel can effectively outperform the alternatives – including search and portal deals.

MS What do you like about performance-based marketing?
LR Both the left and right sides of my brain get stimulated by this work. I love the analytics and seeing the big ideas unfold. You might think the accountability in performance-based marketing, with its focus on metrics, would discourage creativity. I think it’s quite the opposite. Driving results, on a pay-for-performance basis, forces a level of effectiveness that demands creativity. I think the publishers are often at the leading edge of change and innovation.

MS What do you dislike about performance-based marketing?
LR When you compare results across marketing channels – the standards set by performance-based marketing should prevail. Yet I still see advertiser clients having to fight, internally, for budgets and resources. If the team involved is properly monitoring for quality, then blowing through a “budget” should equate to blowing through sales goals – and that’s a good thing, right? They should be feeding the revenue machine.

MS Are you involved in Commission Junction’s Internet radio show, “Affiliate Marketing Today”?
LR Yes, I participated in the decision to produce the show and it launched on March 21. Our team changed the broadcast format to take a unique approach in that it covers the continual changes in the industry, with both an advertiser and publisher perspective across beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

MS What’s happening in 2006 at Commission Junction – any big changes?
LR This year is very exciting for us and our clients. We have some significant projects in our pipeline. Also, I mentioned earlier we plan to launch in some additional European countries this year.

MS Do you think Yahoo’s ban on trademark bidding will have a big effect on SEM?
LR Right now, a conflict exists between brand marketers and performance marketers. The assumption is that you are either creating awareness or driving sales. Actually, both channels should benefit the other. I think pricing models and ROI metrics, rather than restrictions, are the best way to manage the effectiveness of a channel. As marketers’ perspectives on this issue evolve, I think Yahoo may choose to alter their policy.

MS What would happen to Commission Junction if Google suddenly went out of business?
LR At its core, Google is a distributor of information. I don’t think Google created demand that wasn’t already there. Instead, they found a way to effectively supply the information. Initially, Google altered the way people navigated the Web. If suddenly the system being used to access information disappears, what happens? People adapt and find a new source, or sources, to access information. With respect to Commission Junction, we, through our publishers, would adapt. Publishers would find new opportunities to promote offers at the emerging information sources.

You know what? These changes are already happening, but it’s gradual, not sudden. Web users navigate and source information differently today, compared to yesterday. What are we doing about this? Sensing, responding and facilitating changes within our model.

MS How has your psychology degree helped you in your career?
LR A psychology degree wasn’t supposed to help me in business – or so I recall having heard from people more often than not. I remember thinking that studying psychology would help me understand what motivates people. And, it seemed to me, if I was going to be an effective leader within any business, I better understand what motivates people. I think my theory held up pretty well.

The Research Report

How online marketers use facts, figures and forecasts.

Studies, polls, reports, surveys, statistics and forecasts. Every day the latest data on the most current trends is widely disseminated and distributed. Want to know which demographic group is most likely to spend more online, to have broadband or to download music? There’s data out there that purports to have the answers.

There’s no dearth of data, for sure, but just how much of this mountain of market research is useful for online marketers who need to make crucial business decisions is up for debate.

Kathryn Finney, a.k.a. The Budget Fashionista, uses reports from Forrester Research and comScore to learn about the top sites in women’s apparel. This gives her an idea of “who to target, who to partner with and to get an idea of where the industry’s going.”

Joe Zawadzki, founder and president of Poindexter Systems, which provides online ad management services, is less convinced about the value of some market research. “Once that research is made public, the opportunity to capitalize on that information is gone. Private data is the key.” Zawadzki says public research does have its uses, claiming it’s good for sales and venture capital fund-raising.

Some merchants claim research is helpful to them in a variety of specific areas, including understanding the competition.

Catherine Paschkewitz, manager of Consumer Marketing at HP Home & Home Office Store, which has partnerships with Forrester, JupiterResearch, eMarketer, comScore and Hitwise, says HP wants to see how Hitwise is working with the competition, which helps to understand and plan campaigns.

“We want to see how we rate versus our competitors,” says Paschkewitz. “We also do studies around search behavior and research to see how we can further optimize our program.” HP commissions comScore to create some of this custom research, but also relies on its own customer base for information, overlaying Claritas data and performing usability studies internally.

“Research is part of a process,” she says. “One part is up-front planning – looking at affiliate sites via Hitwise to see their traffic and customer profiles.”

When the HP Home & Home Office Store launched its affiliate program, for example, the team wanted to make sure it would succeed, so they researched what was working for the affiliate market, and talked to affiliates, managers and merchants who had affiliate programs, in addition to looking at research on the subject, Paschkewitz says.

HomeGain’s Affiliate Manager Marie Nilsson says merchants often use research to start a campaign.

“[It] is actually a piece of your research project in a sense, if you document your findings, draw conclusions and use it for optimizing your future campaigns,” she says. “That’s the beauty of advertising on the Internet: Provided you have the right tracking tools in place, you are able to measure each move.”

Nilsson says that once you have some experience, the research process is easy.

“As a merchant, you understand how your channel works by launching campaigns and documenting every step of the way, noting all the details, such as placement, targeting, creative used, time of year, close rates, conversion rates, CTR, pricing, etc.,” she says. This type of data becomes your future research. “Every campaign can be looked upon as an individual test in a series which compiles a research project if you outline, structure and target your tests.”

HomeGain obtains its research in several ways. It gets monthly Hitwise information, which Nilsson says “is great for understanding what your competition is doing.” The company also internally compiles metrics and data. “We use census information, which is free. We also do consumer surveys on a regular basis, all in-house,” Nilsson says.

But not all research is relevant for a merchant’s business, according to John Joseph, Performics’ senior vice president of affiliate marketing. He claims that merchants are very interested in statistics regarding overall ad spend and retail figures. “A year from now, merchants will really start using the demographic info that’s available,” says Joseph.

However, the use of research appeared to be a sensitive subject for many merchants. Calls to BestBuy.com went unanswered. Representatives from Walmart.com and Target.com declined to comment, on the grounds that this type of information is proprietary.

The Affiliate Perspective

FatLens’ co-founder and president Siva Kumar says the research his company finds the most useful is “learning about other companies with similar challenges and business models to us. We meet with and share experiences with many of the marketing personnel of other companies.”

However, Kumar notes that, “While we have perused published research from establishments like Forrester and find the information interesting, the high-level nature of the reports is not as relevant for daily decision making.”

FatLens relies on its own traffic and revenue performance data as research, because it is the “best way of learning about what is working and what we should expect to see as results.”

He claims that this type of information is most critical to help FatLens in modifying its programs as well as experimenting with new methods of traffic and revenue generation. “Our growth as a company from inception to our current revenue and traffic levels over the last nine-month period is mainly due to the research we have done on the various online customer-acquisition techniques for similar companies in terms of market segment and business models,” Kumar says.

Melissa Salas, senior marketing manager at Buy.com echoes Kumar’s reverence for research.

“It’s essential for marketers to be well-informed about industry reports, analyst projections, shopping trends, product announcements and reviews, as well as critics’ remarks. With this knowledge, you can position your company to meet your overall business objectives.”

Salas claims that marketing campaigns benefit from research as well. “Being a multi-category retailer, it is imperative to stay on top of best sellers and new product releases so marketers can create specific promotions to gain market share,” she says.

Research = Understanding

“Consumer research leads to insight,” Greg Smith, executive vice president of media, insights, planning and analytics at interactive agency Carat Fusion, says. “It gives you ideas of where to place ads.” Smith cites a past campaign in which research led his agency to recommend positioning minivan ads on parenting and kids’ sites as well as on car sites.

Smith says Carat Fusion’s use of research depends on the client’s objective, be it marketing or branding. Marketing efforts are most always motivated by sales, so the results are measured in straightforward metrics and the agency can move from site to site until it finds the best results for the client. With branding, clients are usually looking to change perceptions and attitudes, which makes the process a bit more complex. Here, Smith would use research to define the target, and then figure out where to find that audience in large numbers. Later in the process, Carat conducts “follow- on advertising” to find out if consumers bought the advertised product. The results are then presented to the client.

Carat Fusion has relationships with AdPlan (owned by AGB Nielsen Media Research) as well as comScore, Forrester and Jupiter. Smith says the company also researches its campaigns by analyzing search results and chat rooms to find out how a product is thought of, and speaking to consumers themselves.

Going Deeper

Former JupiterResearch analyst Gary Stein, now director of client services at BuzzMetrics, has noticed a trend of late that companies are conducting deeper research on the front end. Syndicated search from companies such as Jupiter, Forrester and Fathom Online acts as “preventive medicine” for their clients.

Stein estimates that clients usually have 90 percent of their campaigns nailed down, with ads placed on high-profile sites, but that the remaining 10 percent is “haphazardly planned.” That’s where research comes in – to offer insights to fill that gap.

Some research is suspect, Stein says, such as financial surveys sponsored by brokerage houses. To find reliable data, Stein recommends finding an objective source with a good track record, looking at several studies and in the end, making your own estimates. It’s an economic issue for many companies, because to get a good survey sample, they have to pay for each person, says Stein.

Stein believes some research is misleading, not in the spin it receives or the headline it gets, but in the very questions it puts forth. For example, Stein sites one study that asked, “Would you use a Bluetooth-enabled device?” of consumers who were not likely to know what a Bluetooth-enabled device was.

The best surveys are those that are weighted properly, according to another former Jupiter analyst who asked not to be named. “Numbers are good, but demographic variables are better.” He claims that most surveys by the well-regarded resources are properly weighted (see Research sidebar).

Pulse of the People

Most research industry insiders note that the majority of statistics are garnered from the U.S. Census data, released every 10 years. One company that has census information to power its business is Claritas. Prizm NE (short for New Evolution) is the company’s signature product. Introduced in 2003, it’s updated whenever there is new census data.

Prizm NE is a segmentation tool that divides the population into 66 categories based on a “geodemographic system” revealing behavioral and consumer activities. The product uses the census as its primary source, but is also infused with data from private sources and other governmental data. The 66 categories, which include controversial names such as “Shotguns & Pickups,” change based on the census. When the last report was issued in 2000, 26 names stayed the same, bringing 40 new ones to light. The geography is based on zip codes, with the census data as the foundation.

“Our syndicated services definitely affect online marketing decisions,” claims Bill Tancer, general manager – global research at Hitwise, which resells Prizm NE data. Hitwise provides research including “benchmarks so customers can see where they rank, and click-stream analysis to see why they have that rank.” Hitwise also offers traffic information so clients can see how users are getting to their sites, as well as the sites of the competition.

The majority of online marketers obtain research from established companies in the field. But smaller companies are popping up with some new ideas. Cydata Services owns T3report.com, a site that spotlights products such as T3 Competitor Report and T3 Affiliate Report (see Revenue March/April issue). These products allow affiliate managers to get the info they need to copy competitors’ marketing plans and potentially poach affiliates.

Having worked exclusively in the adult entertainment industry to date, Cydata recently turned its attention to the performance marketing arena. While some may find the company’s tactics unethical, Cydata founder and CEO Brandon Shalton claims his company is simply providing a shortcut to success, even though he does admit it is “a very disruptive service.”

He likens Cydata’s clients to smart fastfood chains, which shouldn’t “bother with all the research – just move in across the street from McDonald’s, because they’ve already done the research.” Shalton believes the T3 products let you “advertise smarter.”

Joe Pilotta, Ph.D., vice president of Big Research, feels his company is offering a unique service as well. “We produce more of an index of what the influence is on category of merchandise purchased. Our clients don’t need click data, etc., because it’s not that important.” Pilotta says his company’s data is created by sales and future intentions, so it’s never static.

Big Research obtains its data from established panels, and occasionally invites offline participants, such as listeners from radio stations, to weigh in. The company conducts its Simultaneous Media Study twice a year, which analyzes 32 different types of media. To get a complete consumer’s point of view, the study surveys 14,000 to 15,000 people.

Predicting the Future

Just as research reports and surveys of past activities play a big role in online marketing decisions, so do predictions for the future. “Forecasts give a gauge of how to prioritize – is search as big as we think it is? People want verification that people are spending money on a sector and that it’s growing,” Shar VanBoskirk, senior analyst on Forrester’s marketing strategy and technology research team, says.

HP’s Paschkewitz uses forecasts to plan for her company’s future, but adds in the site’s own data to get a more accurate picture.

Like most industry watchers, who claim that forecasts play a more valuable role for publishers rather than retailers, Performics’ Joseph says merchants don’t really act on general forecasts, such as last year’s hype of the potential of the Hispanic market (see Revenue March/April issue).

Big Research’s Pilotta says his clients definitely use forecasts to make decisions. Since the company releases its Consumer Intentions and Actions forecast every month, his clients are working with “fresh data” from 10,000 people.

“We use forecasts and trend reports to ensure that our infrastructure planning is adequately matched to the expectations of the market, FatLens’ Kumar says. “The trends also help us judge relative performances of the various marketing channels we are using and adjust our spending according to industry directions.”

Buy.com’s Salas agrees. “Reviewing forecasts and trend reports is an important part of preparing for the future of your business. Our marketing team makes business decisions based on internal customer behavioral data in addition to accurate and reliable forecasts, trend analyses and competitive intelligence,” she says.

HomeGain’s Nilsson says her company watches trends in the online real estate and marketing fields.

“We see a big shift now from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market. It’s a nationwide trend – the question of 2006 in real estate is ‘The Year of the Buyer?'”

Nilsson’s company also keeps an eye on housing price trends in local areas, as well as changes in the competitive landscape.

“For real estate, smaller online players with great technology and VC [venture capital] backing, like Zillow.com, posed a threat in the beginning of 2006. We saw this coming at an early stage and answered with adding more local neighborhood data and by marketing our free home-valuation tool more aggressively,” she says. “Another example is foreclosed homes. A lot of homeowners have interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgages; they are going to get hit hard as rates rise, and a larger percentage will default and go into foreclosure. In anticipation of this, we’ve deepened our partnerships with the foreclosure companies.”

While many statistics are dismissed as obvious or hype, data often provides merchants, affiliates, analysts and even researchers themselves with an idea of how to improve their marketing messages and overall businesses.

TV Tunes In

Broadcasters are jumping on board the online bandwagon as bandwidth makes video a reality for users.

Television networks have spent much of their 60-plus-year media reign continually adapting their revenue models for new delivery platforms such as cable and satellite. After many years of hoping that interest in multimedia Internet content would fade as quickly as sitcoms featuring former Seinfeld stars, the networks are now fully embracing online video distribution.

Now that online consumers spend just as much time at the keyboard as with the remote control (14 hours per week, according to JupiterResearch), the TV networks are joining the party. The top networks are creating custom content and partnering with online media moguls to develop streaming and download services.

Making even a fraction of the vast reserves of current and archived television programming available through streams or downloads to portable media players and mobile phones will greatly increase the partnership and revenue opportunities for online advertisers, search marketers, publishers and affiliates.

Video Takes Action

The networks’ initial forays into distributing content online primarily featured clips of programs that were distributed for free and without advertising.

News dominated the early offerings from CNN, MSNBC, Fox and the big three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). NBC was the first network to stream an entire regular newscast, when it launched its webcast of the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Late last year that trickle of content became a steady stream, thanks in large part to Apple Computer. Apple sold more than 1 million video downloads within the first three weeks of its iTunes video store opening in October 2005. Over the next few months Apple signed deals to sell downloads of TV programming from NBC, USA Network, ABC, Disney, Showtime and others through its iTunes service for $1.99 per program.

The global market for pay-per-content broadband was $360 million in 2005, and it is expected to skyrocket to $7.5 billion in 2010, according to ABI Research principal analyst Michael Wolf.

He says that previously the networks were wary of putting premium content online, afraid it would cannibalize their broadcast efforts, but Apple’s successful introduction of a new version of its iPod that plays video files convinced the networks of the feasibility of selling television content online.

According to Wolf, the most dedicated followers of popular TV shows such as Desperate Housewives or The Office are likely to also be active online media consumers.

CBS’ website had the most unique visitors among video publishers, followed by MSN Video, AOL Television and Yahoo TV according to December 2005 data from Nielsen//NetRatings.

In order to broaden the reach of video content beyond their own websites, the TV networks are turning to search engines and portals to distribute content. CBS partnered with Google to sell downloads of some of its top-rated shows including CSI and Survivor as well as “classic” shows such as The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy through the Google Video Store. Disney is developing a broadband channel that could make up to one-quarter of its prime-time offerings available on demand.

America Online is offering old TV shows from parent company Time Warner including Alice, Chico and the Man and Wonder Woman. AOL also purchased video search engine Truveo in December 2005. Yahoo is teaming up with actors/producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and reality show guru Mark Burnett to develop an online reality show called The Runner.

However, the online video market still has some things to learn about alerting consumers to its offerings. Unlike television viewers who have several options to find programs of interest, online consumers are currently dependent on search to find programs.

To find what’s on broadcast and cable TV, viewers can look to TV Guide, newspaper listings, online programming guides and advertisements on the networks themselves. Currently, it’s the early days of television distribution on the Internet, and video search engines from Google, MSN, Yahoo and AOL do not offer TV directories or guides. Instead users are primarily using search boxes. Users plug in terms and hopefully find what they are seeking.

The next 12 to 18 months will be the prime time for the expansion of television programming online as the networks and search engines reach out to large and niche publishers to aid in content distribution. But the portals are not alone – specialty video search engines including TVEyes.com and blinkx.com are challenging the biggest players for a share of the advertising revenue from online television programs.

San Francisco-based blinkx has signed up E Entertainment, BBC, ABC, NBC, HBO and British news broadcaster ITN to deliver TV programming through its video search engine. blinkx CEO Suranga Chandratillake says, “2006 will be about telling other people to put our search on their sites.” The company is also partnering with performance marketing network Miva to expand the distribution of its video search.

Publishers can “splice and dice” the blinkx television feeds to create custom channels that match their individual audiences and will be paid via a revenue share, according to Chandratillake. For example, publishers could choose to limit searches to celebrity news, or make available only content from the A&E network.

Chandratillake says that to simplify the indexing of content, the TV networks provide metadata describing each program. blinkx enhances the quality of the search results through speech-recognition technology that identifies the subject matter being discussed.

Arise Ye Networks

Although most of the current revenue from full-length TV programming is derived from subscription services or downloads, income from advertising-supported content is expected to rival payfor- content. Advertising revenue will come from banner and contextual ads displayed on search results pages, as well as video ads that appear within the program.

Since the beginning, advertising has largely financed consumers’ almost-endless appetite for television, and online it is likely to be the same. The advertising market for online video will reach $8.6 billion by 2010, according to ABI Research.

“Broadcast TV shows are filler between the ads,” Peter Carlin, a TV critic for The Oregonian newspaper, says. He recently attended the Television Critics Press Tour where the Internet rated “above ratings” as a leading topic of discussion. Figuring out how to capitalize on online video distribution is top of mind for many TV executives, Carlin says, as they are anxious to exploit the lucrative online audience that tends to be younger and slanted toward males.

Carlin says broadcasters are learning how to maximize their revenue from digital content by exploring relationships with search engines and portals, and by testing new advertising models. “Nobody wants to be like the Betamax of new media age” and be left behind, he says.

To fully exploit the possibilities, TV broadcasters must learn about search engine optimization, developing affiliate networks and performance marketing revenue models. Carlin expects that the networks won’t have a problem with taking lessons from the online experts. “Being entirely reactive is not something they are uncomfortable with,” he says.

Video Ad Specialists

Demand for video ads will also create a new industry of production companies and interactive agencies that specialize in developing and distributing video ads. Companies such as ROO, PointRoll and Eyeblaster will work with online publishers to place ads within their online and downloadable content.

Repurposing TV programming for online distribution could also ignite interest in interactive technologies that link from videos or advertisements to landing pages. The networks have turned to escalating the use of product placement within programming to offset some of the revenue lost to online advertising, according to Carlin.

American Idol has blatantly pitched Nextel’s wireless service and placed large cups with the logo of Coca-Cola prominently in front of the judges, Carlin says, and The Office has an executive producer whose job is to determine how to incorporate products into the storylines “without prostituting the show.”

Microsoft is developing technology for its AdCenter platform that will enable video ads or broadcasts to link directly to other websites and with new technologies. This could open the door for the interactive TV market that has been much ballyhooed for a decade.

Dollars Drive Creativity

The revenue generated from online video distribution is likely to affect the creative process by increasing the demand for content and opening up the market for short forms of content. Television networks will likely use feedback from their websites to assess the viability of existing shows as they debut new programs online first to gauge audience response.

Carlin believes online distribution “increases appetite for shows that are less obviously mainstream.” The TV networks are quicker than ever to cancel shows, and online metrics could give the networks valuable input in determining a show’s fate. For example, fringe shows like The Office may get more consideration by the networks because of their popularity online.

Cable channel Comedy Central is aggressively pursuing an online audience and will develop 24 new online-only programs this year, according to Lou Wallach, senior vice president of original programming and development at Comedy Central.

Comedy Central has developed a media player called the “MotherLoad” to showcase its repurposed and original content. Wallach says that comedy is well-suited for short-form videos (five minutes or less) that have become popular online. Comedy Central’s online lineup includes sketch comedy and parody shows, such as All Access: Middle Ages, which pokes fun at the black plague and the crusades. The short-form video will also give increased exposure to digital and stop-motion animation, according to Wallach.

Wallach says one video ad will be shown in between every four to five segments. In addition to banner and video ads, Comedy Central is also considering sponsorships and product placement as revenue options.

Artists are embracing the new format, Wallach says. “The talent community recognizes that this form is here to stay.”

During the next year, television broadcasters will shift from experimentation in online distribution to expecting positive returns on investment. There is a strong incentive for publishers and advertisers to work with them to successfully exploit the medium. If online video distribution fizzles, the networks will likely cancel their online programs and invest more in competing video-on-demand services delivered to televisions.

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.

Retooling the Web

Microsoft was late in recognizing the profit potential of online search. Meanwhile, upstart Google surpassed older search sites such as AltaVista, America Online and Yahoo to become the clear leader in search and, therefore, online advertising revenue.

In late 2005, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and chief technical officer Ray Ozzie wrote widely quoted memoranda acknowledging Google’s success and stating that Microsoft would refocus the company’s MSN division to address the “Internet services disruption.”

The Microsoft executives said the software giant would introduce advertising-supported services to the company’s vast portfolio of services and software, which would enable it to access a greater portion of the growing online revenue opportunities. Microsoft, which had become accustomed to defending a leadership position in desktop and server software, is now on the attack, trying to catch up to hyperactive Google, which has become an incessantly moving target.

Who Should Be Afraid

Although some online entrepreneurs may be fearful of becoming casualties in the escalating competition between Microsoft and Google, it’s traditional media companies that are much more likely to see their revenue streams reduced.

For the overwhelming majority of online sellers and service providers, the Microsoft-Google tussle will create more opportunities than it takes away, observers say. Neither MSN nor Google are primarily focused on the areas of selling products, search engine marketing, developing interactive advertising platforms or generating content. MSN may even provide a boost for the partner companies in its shopping and content portals, since MSN search does not exclude other sellers.

Google likewise opens search to anyone and everyone, and one of its main tenets is to remain inclusive. The company’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil,” a play on the nickname “Evil Empire” given to Microsoft by high-tech insiders. So far, most industry watchers claim that Google has remained true to its original precept of exposing the universe of digital information and supporting search through ads. The company does not directly sell products or services, and it continues to derive revenue from sharing in advertising dollars, which creates opportunities for both publishers and advertisers.

However, Google is showing an interest, albeit limited, in software development and distribution. Google now offers a desktop search application and Picasa, an image searching utility that could someday become supported through advertising. Google also reached an agreement with longtime Microsoft foe Sun Microsystems to cross-promote products and jointly market “Microsoft-alternative” applications such as OpenOffice.

Regarding the heightened Microsoft-Google competition, Rachel Lyubovitzky, vice president at search engine marketing company Searchfeed, says she doesn’t see any negatives for her customers. She says that by aggregating consumers who were previously a fragmented audience, the companies are “helping to organize Internet populations so that they will be more receptive to people’s messages.”

By convincing a majority of consumers to have either MSN Hotmail accounts or Google home pages, both companies are gathering information en masse, which advertisers love. However, even these users will continue to spend most of their time enjoying the diversity of content and search services available outside of Microsoft and Google, enabling plenty of room for creativity and innovation.

The online advertising market continues to grow rapidly, and Microsoft’s announcement that it would begin to support some of its multi-billion dollars in software and services through advertising is likely to further accelerate the growth. However, it may take several years for Microsoft to develop ad-supported services for the company’s recently announced Windows Live initiative, so don’t expect a major impact in the next 12 months.

Google’s new search services – which will streamline consumers’ ability to find video, music and text published in books – will likely also create a wealth of new advertising inventory options and contribute to market growth.

During the first nine months of 2005 advertisers spent $8.9 billion online, a nearly 29 percent increase over the previous year, according to Pete Petrusky, director of advisor services for accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Petrusky expects the double-digit growth of online advertising to continue for the foreseeable future, at the expense of other media buys. Online advertising revenue topped $12 billion in 2005, equal to the amount spent in consumer magazines, and closing in on the $16 billion spent on cable, according to Petrusky.

Increasing inventory through new services led by Microsoft and Google could correct what Petrusky sees as an imbalance between the amount of time spent online and the advertising dollars generated. “The Internet captures about 15 percent of people’s media consumption time,” says Petrusky, “… but only 3 to 4 percent of total ad spend” that includes magazines, newspapers, television and radio.

Newspapers, which have been losing revenue to online classified ad services such as Craigslist and Yahoo, will likely have more trouble competing online when both Google and Microsoft enter the arena. Television broadcasters will see their advertising revenue decline further as Microsoft and Google make it easier for people to browse video and audio content online.

Although both companies are rolling out dozens of new services, they cannot keep up with the wide variety of services created by entrepreneurs – there are too many moles to whack for either company to be dominant in all areas. In the areas where Microsoft and Google do compete with smaller companies, having a powerful brand alone isn’t enough to convince consumers to switch, according to Greg Sterling, program director with analyst firm The Kelsey Group.

“New services can’t be marginally better; they have to be much better” to prompt changes in user loyalty, Sterling says. For example, MSN search and Google’s comparison-shopping engine Froogle and Gmail email have had trouble gaining traction. Therefore, there will always be enough room for innovators such as Digg.com, Flickr.com or MySpace.com to innovate and carve out a niche (or be acquired by big players looking to expand).

Competition Is Good

The intensifying Microsoft-Google rivalry will create a better audience for advertisers and will spur innovation in the technologies that enable people to more quickly find what they are seeking. Microsoft’s interest in advertising- supported services will also provide a necessary counterbalance that prevents Google from becoming a dominant player.

“The more options, the better” for advertisers, says Michael Stalbaum, CEO of interactive marketing and advertising agency UnREAL Marketing. For several years Google has been expanding its reach as the largest player in the largest segment of online advertising dollars, so increasing competition from Microsoft could provide an important alternative solution.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, the volume of Internet search queries grew 15 percent between June and October 2005 to more than 5.1 billion. Nearly 48 percent of those searches were performed on Google, a figure more than double the closest competitor, Yahoo, and more than four times MSN’s share of search.

If Microsoft were able to become a stronger competitor in search, “it would be a positive for advertisers,” Stalbaum says, because Google may have to revamp its pricing structure. “Prices may come down a little bit,” he says.

Technology at the Core

The primary front in the battle between Microsoft and Google is technology, which will force all participants to continually innovate or risk losing their audience. If Google or Microsoft enters an emerging service area, the existing companies have additional incentive to upgrade their existing products.

For example, in early 2005, Google and Microsoft announced separate projects for digitizing books and making the content searchable. In December, publisher HarperCollins responded by announcing it would do the same for its content.

Charlene Li, principal analyst as Forrester Research, says the increasing competition “gives better products, which leads to better spending options” for advertisers. Products tend to be not only better, but come out more quickly once the powerhouses are involved. “Microsoft and Google participating, and to a lesser extent AOL, accelerates the product development cycle,” says The Kelsey Group’s Sterling.

Google Labs produces a steady stream of new services that make information more accessible, and the company’s willingness to share unfinished ideas with developers is accelerating the rate of technological change. Not surprisingly, Microsoft has shown an increasing willingness to publicly preview technologies and similarly make available its application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers to tinker with and enhance.

Opening up the technologies has proved a boon for third-party development. Innovations from Microsoft and Google are giving momentum to the next generation of interactivity online, designated as “Web 2.0.” Google has included Web 2.0 technology AJAX (asynchronous Javascript and XML) to build interactive Web applications such as Google Maps and Google Reader, a program that aggregates RSS feeds.

Google is also testing new technologies for publishers to structure and describe their content to make it easier to search. Salar Kamangar, vice president of product management at Google, says Google Base (which he emphasizes is not a classified ad service) is an experiment in allowing publishers to tell Google how their data is structured so that the company can deliver better results to consumers.

Rather than requiring Google’s search algorithm to guess how to identify an online seller’s product inventory, Google Base enables publishers to disclose how they format information. Data entered into Google Base is then made available to any Google property, such as Froogle or Local listings. This “increases the amount of content that Google properties can draw from,” Kamangar says.

Similarly, publishers looking to optimize their presence in search results can use Google’s Sitemaps tool to reveal how their sites are organized. Sitemaps “enables us to crawl their sites more effectively,” says Kamangar, adding that spidering websites today relies on following trails of links, making it difficult to detect dynamically generated pages. These efforts give publishers more of a say in how technology is used to influence their search standing.

Microsoft’s next-generation browser, Internet Explorer 7, will automatically discover RSS feeds and include tools for managing feeds. Microsoft also built RSS support into the Vista operating system, which will greatly increase the ability of publishers to widely distribute content by opening up RSS to a mass audience. Microsoft is also developing extensions to RSS known as simple sharing extensions (SSE) that will enable feeds to be shared and synchronized. For example, SSE could give publishers and affiliates the ability to automatically share information about advertising inventories and campaign performance.

The efforts of Google and Microsoft to outdo each other with sophisticated publishing and search technologies increases the burden on marketers to keep up with the innovations or risk having their websites appear lifeless by comparison.

Some publishers are using the available APIs for these emerging technologies to create “mash-ups” that mix data from multiple providers to create new hybrid applications. For example, Frappr.com lets individuals map where their online friends are, while ChicagoCrime.org shows where crimes are committed by matching police data with Google Maps.

Targeting Targeted Ads

Advertisers and consumers will benefit from the increasing competition as Microsoft and Google implement technology that tailors the online experience for each person. Personalized searching and browsing will create audiences that are more receptive to marketing messages.

Through the MSN AdCenter platform, Microsoft began offering advertisers a method of targeting ads to a particular demographic by leveraging data collected from its millions of registered users. When a signed-in user comes to an MSN site, Microsoft anonymously matches the demographic information to the visit, enabling the company to know the gender, age and location of the people who frequent their properties.

By enabling advertisers to target users by demographic characteristics, Microsoft is introducing targeted marketing “in an innocuous way,” says David Berkowitz, director of marketing at online advertising agency Unicast. He says targeted advertising will become “arguably the most groundbreaking innovation for advertisers.”

Berkowitz says that rather than competing with Google based on audience reach (quantity), Microsoft is relying on superior information (quality) about its customers to sway prospective advertisers. “MSN’s plan is not really about better software, but about delivering demographics,” Berkowitz says. Having demographic information about a large audience of registered users gives Microsoft an advantage in targeted marketing. “Forty million Hotmail users is a huge asset.”

Senior director of advertising and marketing Eric Hadley says Microsoft will evolve MSN AdCenter to target ads to people who set up personalized home pages on its websites, including the recently launched Start and Windows Live destinations. MSN AdCenter was first launched to support advertisers on its websites, but then will be rolled out to third-party publishers, putting it as a direct competitor to Google’s dominant AdWords and AdSense products.

Hadley says a future version of the MSN AdCenter will integrate a consumer feedback mechanism. “If you hover over an ad [with your mouse], there will be a pop-up window to say ‘why am I getting this ad?'” Users would be able to request not to see the ad again if the product or service is not of interest to them. For example, married people might not want to receive ads for matchmaker services.

A not insignificant challenge for Microsoft to make MSN AdCenter a success will be to build the marketing relationships with national and regional online publishers and advertisers. Determining how to split the business model for its applications and online services between subscriptions and support through advertising places a learning curve on a company built on selling products.

Microsoft and Google are vying to create personalized experiences by customizing search results based on prior searches, tailoring information preloaded onto home pages, and delivering ads based on user actions.

For a user who has not signed in before visiting an MSN site, Microsoft will use behavioral marketing techniques to generate contextual ads based on the person’s experiences on its network of sites. For example, Hadley says if an unknown customer is browsing the MSN Music site and searches for artists Kanye West and 50 Cent, ads for other rap artists would appear.

Behavioral marketing is effective in generating high conversion rates for advertisers, says Unicast’s Berkowitz. However, because it tracks consumer actions in the background, “it is a bit creepy,” he says. Microsoft and Google need to respect privacy when building personalization services to maintain consumer confidence. “A consumer has to decide who is trustworthy and who is evil. That’s going to be a major wild card” in determining whether or not users will feel comfortable in visiting a website.

Berkowitz also says, however, that companies must be careful in their pursuit of personalization services to prevent consumers from having too narrow of an experience. Google is experimenting by personalizing search results based on prior searches, but this increases the “risk that exposure to other things that might be of interest” could occur.

“I wonder how far you want to go down that personalization road before you lose the communal experience entirely,” he says. For example, Berkowitz says that while he is primarily a New York Mets fan, he doesn’t want a search engine to stop recommending articles about the rest of the league.

Looking forward, Microsoft and Google will determine if and how to commercialize the myriad of beta services that are currently under development while keeping one eye on what the other is doing.

Microsoft will learn the ropes of the ad-supported model for services and software while trying to grow and leverage its audience of registered users. According to MSN’s Hadley, the biggest challenge for Microsoft will come after the AdCenter platform is opened to third-party publishers. “How do we absorb all this demand from [large companies like] American Express to mom-and-pop” marketing firms? “As soon as we open the gates, we have to bring people in quickly with high quality.”

Algorithm-obsessed Google will continue to refine its search technology to better match customer expectations. “We are very far from being where a person can ask a question that brings back a single answer” that matches what they were looking for, says Google’s Kamangar.

For the rest of the decade and likely beyond, Microsoft and Google will continue to play the leading roles in the unfolding drama of the growth of the Internet as a platform for commerce and entertainment. Their perpetual sparring will spur all of the players involved to perform their best to satisfy the audience.

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 MIT’s Technology Review.com.

Affiliate Market Maturing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in Translation

Ten years ago, Jaime lived outside Managua, Nicaragua, worked in a shoe factory and took college classes. The then-35-year-old did not own a car and shared a house, a TV and a stereo with his parents, along with his brother and sister- in-law. Both Jaime and his brother helped his parents pay the rent, and the rest of Jaime’s paycheck went toward saving for a move to the United States.

Now Jaime lives in Daly City, Calif. He works as a bookkeeper in San Francisco and rents a house with his girlfriend, Aura, and her 12-year-old son, Juan. Together they share a car, own a TV, a computer, a stereo and cell phones.

They got on the Internet five years ago and Jaime spends about two hours a day online, surfing the Web and doing email. Aura has difficulty reading and does not use the computer at all, but her son spends about an hour a day playing computer games.

Jaime reads news about Nicaragua at the La Prensa website and reads U.S. national and local news in Spanish at the Univision and StarMedia sites. He also regularly reads the Latino Channel on AOL, especially for entertainment and sports news.

The La Prensa site also helps keep him up to date with his favorite baseball team, El Boer, as well as delivering news about his other hobbies – following the Brazilian soccer team and seeing what’s happening in the boxing arena. To follow news about his new local sports teams – the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers, he watches TV. He also uses the Spanish version of Western Union’s website, geared for U.S.- based Hispanics, to check exchange rates, but he goes to the physical location to send money back home.

For his past two trips to Nicaragua, Jaime bought plane tickets at Expedia.com, a site he visits often to check prices. As time passes, he says he feels more comfortable with the security of purchasing online, but he has only bought plane tickets from the Web so far because he likes the experience of shopping in a brick-and-mortar store so he can check the quality of products and walk around.

Because of the financial opportunities in the United States, many of Jaime’s relatives also now live here. Jaime feels that he is living the American dream. He does not know that he is quickly becoming a marketer’s dream. As a 45-year-old bilingual male with a combined household income of more than $50,000 – 8 percent of it disposable – Jaime and his household are part of a U.S. demographic with a purchasing power that dwarfs all other minority groups.

By 2007, the Selig Center for Economic Growth projects that disposable income in the Hispanic market will approach $1 trillion, which represents 9.4 percent of all disposable income in the United States.

Hispanics in America

Understanding the untapped opportunity of Hispanics online requires knowing more about the U.S. Hispanic population. And these days, there is no shortage of research, reports and studies examining this group.

In 2002 the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States with 13.4 percent of the population – or 38.8 million people. By 2020, Latinos are projected to be 21 percent of the population, and a third of them will be under age 18, which is another highly desirable segment for marketers.

But it’s not just the size of this group, it’s how much money they are making and where they are spending it. Hispanics are increasingly the major driving force behind revenue growth in consumer product and service markets, a $690 billion market that has attracted the attention of online marketers and retailers.

And while the median income for American households increased just 6 percent between 1996 and 2001, the median income of Hispanic households rose by 20 percent, from $27,977 to $33,565, during the same period. As of 2002, 31 percent of U.S. Hispanic households had an income of $50,000 or more, according to Scarborough Research and Arbitron.

So, as the Hispanic population is making more money, larger numbers of Hispanics are also getting online. Market researcher Centris found that the number of Hispanic online households in 2003 was 5.5 million.

A study by AOL/Roper reported that Hispanics go online 13.8 hours per week at work and 9.5 hours at home, compared with 8.4 hours at home for the general online population.

Hispanics Internet users tend to be younger than the overall population. Research from comScore Media Metrix shows that 60 percent of Hispanics online were 34 years old or younger, compared to 50 percent of the total Internet user population.

As Hispanics get greater Internet access, they are also starting to shop online more. According to Scarborough Research and Arbitron, 33 percent of online Hispanic adults made at least one purchase in 2002. Although that is significantly lower than the 56 percent of all Internet users who bought something online in 2002, as estimated by eMarketer, it is still increasing year-over-year. Still, according to Scarborough Research and Arbitron, only 13 percent of Hispanics purchased something online 10 or more times.

When U.S. Hispanic adults get involved in e-commerce it’s typically travel and banking, according to the AOL/Roper U.S. Hispanic Cyberstudy. Also, Hispanics tend to consume more types of entertainment, including purchasing tickets, than Internet users overall.

The study also found that Hispanics engage in online communications and other forms of communications at a high rate. A study by the UCLA Center for Communication Policy reports that substantially more Hispanic users than non-Hispanics consider the Internet an extremely important source of information – 44 percent versus 32 percent.

An Untapped Market

Considering the growing purchasing power of Hispanics, the higher-than-average amount of time they spend online and the categories that they spend in, there is a surprising lack of affiliate programs aimed at Hispanics.

Geoffrey Gonzalez, president of Ahorre Marketing, a Hispanic marketing services company, agrees. “I think it is a tremendous opportunity,” he says, but adds that the programs are “pretty much nonexistent.”

In September 2000, affiliate consultant Shawn Collins wrote about the potential of the affiliate marketing industry for Hispanics in Latin America in an article on ClickZ.com, “Brave New Affiliate World.”

Collins admits that the market has not taken off as he projected. “I thought it was about to explode five years ago, but it never happened,” Collins says. “The Hispanic market is a very under-served area for sure.”

Linda Woods, president and CEO of Partner Centric, agrees. “We have been waiting for this to happen; I think a lot of money is being left on the table,” she says.

There are many theories as to why the online marketing community has yet to seize this seemingly huge opportunity. Some believe the merchants need to lead the effort, while others claim it is the affiliate networks that need to act first to facilitate the opportunity. Still others say that the affiliates need to create demand in order for programs to take off.

Language Barrier

However, most agreed it is a language issue and that the expense and commitment associated with developing a Spanish language infrastructure is deterring the merchants and the networks from moving first.

Spanish language is very important to 67 percent of Hispanic Web users, according to the AOL/Roper U.S. Hispanic Cyberstudy, which reports that 40 percent of all Hispanics consider themselves bilingual, 40 percent consider themselves Spanish-dominant and 20 percent are English-dominant. For those who are bilingual, their preference for English or Spanish depends on if they are native- or foreign-born.

Some experts say there cannot be affiliate programs aimed at Hispanics until there are complete Spanish-language versions of major merchant websites. Many company websites, such as Target.com, offer a bit of Spanish, but pages of merchandise, site navigation and the shopping cart are in English.

“Some companies have a landing page in Spanish, and then the rest of the site is only in English,” Collins says. “What kind of ridiculous user experience is that?”

Most major e-commerce sites, such as Sears.com and Wal-Mart.com, do not even have Spanish landing pages. AOL offers channels such as news, entertainment and sports channels in Spanish, but their e-commerce channel, called Shopping, is in English only.

“A merchant company can create a great conversion engine, but when Hispanics get to the shopping cart, all of the instructions are in English and the customer support is in English,” says Matias Perel, CEO of Miami-based interactive agency Latin3. “If an affiliate brings the 20 percent [of the Spanish-dominant Hispanics] to the site, it’s going to be hard for the affiliate to see a positive return on investment.”

Brian Littleton, president of affiliate network ShareASale.com, agrees. “The merchants have to be the first people to step on board. If they determine that it is a market that is available and should be targeted, then that is the basic first step in selling. Obviously the network platform and the affiliates need to be there, but that is down the road. E-commerce came before affiliate marketing.”

Some industry watchers wonder if merchants are worried that focusing on one group will have other growing ethnic groups feeling left out. “Perhaps merchants think it is a slippery slope where if they create a site for Spanish-speaking Hispanics, they will need to create a site for many other ethnic groups and languages,” says Kathryn Finney of TheBudgetFashionista.com.

What About the Networks?

Another theory suggests it’s possible that merchants are waiting for demand from the affiliate networks and publishers before they go through the expense and commitment of building Spanish-language capabilities.

“It’s something of a chicken-and-egg thing,” Collins says. “Why go through the trouble and expense to convert everything if there is not a network to bring you down there? They need Commission Junction, LinkShare, etc., to invest there. Affiliates haven’t gone there because there are no programs to promote.”

In addition, the traditional networks, such as Commission Junction and LinkShare, are not set up to accommodate Spanish-dominant affiliates.

For example, at Commission Junction, when a publisher searches on “Hispanics” for programs to promote, the search yields several programs including Amigos.com, Date.com, FriendFinder.com, SpanishToys.com and Yahoo Personals. But like many of the shopping carts at big online retailers, the interface is in English only; Spanish-dominant affiliates cannot sign up if they can’t navigate the English-only site.

Many merchants describe their affiliate program, or “programa de afiliados,” in Spanish but switch to English once the user reaches the enrollment pages.

Ahorre.com’s Gonzalez points out, “You can’t walk a user through in Spanish until page 9 and then switch to English when it gets to page 10. It’s misleading. It’s very similar to mortgages. You can promote, market, talk, speak and write everything in Spanish for mortgages, but the bottom line is that the contract is in English, and that hasn’t been changed by our laws.”

For example, the bookseller Ofertón de Libros has two complete versions of its site and two complete descriptions of its affiliate program, as well as contracts for both. However, the affiliate contract on the Spanish site is non-binding, but links to the English contract, meaning that the user needs to sign the contract in English to join.

A Spanish-language interface at the networks’ sites would facilitate the enrollment of Spanish-speaking affiliates into Spanish-language affiliate programs. But if the affiliates can’t sign up, the networks can’t know that the demand is there.

“The affiliates who can’t speak English would not know how to join,” says Linda Buquet of 5 Star Affiliate Programs. “My guess is that the networks won’t do it until they know the affiliates are there.”

To date, none of the major affiliate networks (Commission Junction, LinkShare, Performics or ShareASale.com) offer outreach in Spanish. ShareASale’s Littleton says, “These things are definitely in the plans for companies like ourselves and, I am sure, other networks as well.”

Affiliate Demand

Each group seems to be looking at the other to get the ball rolling. From the networks’ view there is also concern about whether there will be demand from affiliates to make a program successful, according to Partner Centric’s Woods.

“I think a lot has to happen before affiliates get into it,” she says.

Littleton agrees. “It is hard to put a lot of resources and work behind a product when the majority of affiliates are not ready and the majority of merchants are not ready,” he says. “All of the pieces are needed for a successful push into any market, whether it is Hispanic or European or Asian.”

Latin3’s Perel says, “The last thing you want to do is build an affiliate program directed to Hispanics and then find that you fail on the transaction part.”

A Need for Content

An affiliate program cannot work if there is not enough relevant content. So, the key to a successful affiliate program is to recruit affiliates with contextually relevant sites that have a proven track record for driving traffic, according to Buquet.

“Until they know the relevant content is there, the networks won’t do it,” she says. Page views are up 30 percent in the U.S. Hispanic market, but they’re up only 6 percent in the U.S. general market, according to comScore Media Metrix. Some point to this as proof that Hispanics are spending more time on the same sites because there is a lack of good Spanish content on the Web.

According to the AOL/Roper study, more than half of all offline Hispanics (56 percent) cite lack of Spanish content as a reason for not going online at home. About half (49 percent) also say it is because there aren’t enough sites and activities online that would interest Hispanics.

It’s in the Works

Regardless of whom you speak to – merchant, network or affiliate – there is a sense that the development will happen with time. But there is trepidation expressed as well as optimism by all parties.

“Everyone knows that Hispanics are a vast audience, but I don’t think that anyone is doing it well yet,” says John Ardis, vice president of business strategy at ValueClick. “Everyone is still scratching their head. There is no shining example to point to. There is a paralysis about when to step forward. It is not just a translation job; whole concepts have to be translated to do it right. It can affect the offline merchandise – if we build it online, do we have to have duplicative merchandise in our offline world?”

Joseph Anthony of Vital Marketing says, “In time, with the proper commitment and appropriate research, these brands will find a lot for them to target. They just can’t sit back and keep doing what they are doing.”

Mark Lopez, publisher of AOL’s Latino, agrees. “As the market develops and companies see the potential of this market and see the Internet as a really mass medium to reach these audiences, I think there’s going to be more investment in the back end to make sure the whole interactive product is in the same language.”

Targeting Hispanics

The research and the online experts say the opportunity to reach the Hispanic market is huge and the development is in the works. Meanwhile, affiliates are scratching their heads about how to tap into this market.

Language is the first concern for any potential affiliate. Other advice from experts in the field includes translating concepts, not just words; being culturally sensitive to the target audience (realize that Mexicans are different than Cubans); targeting the appropriate products with appropriate price points; and testing and retesting the market.

Some experts claim that companies may be wrongly assuming that if customers have an Internet connection and a credit card, they can understand English well enough to make a transaction. A Feedback Research study found that 79 percent of Spanish-speaking Hispanics who have used the Internet for five years or less are already highly engaged in online activities.

There is evidence that it is important to reach out in Spanish even if the user is bilingual. comScore Media Metrix found that 49 percent of the 12.6 million U.S. Hispanic Internet users prefer sites that are either in Spanish or bilingual. “While English content can and does reach large numbers of Hispanics, marketers must also provide relevant Spanish-language content to fully reach U.S. online Hispanics,” the report stated.

There are programs that do target the 20 percent Spanish-dominant U.S. Hispanic market. For example, 21st Century Insurance supplies its affiliates with creative in Spanish for car insurance deals. Partner Centric’s Dan Fink, who manages 21st Century, says the “Spanish creatives represent about 15 percent of our creative content and do bring in a good amount of quotes as well.”

Pedro Sostre of Sostre & Associates is a design consultant and an affiliate who owns several sites that provide creatives to affiliates in Spanish. Sostre’s FreeBookClubs.com promotes two Spanish-language book clubs – Mosaico and Circulo.

“The Spanish-language clubs are on par with some of the other niche clubs,” says Sostre, who also notes that his book club targeted to the African-American market does extremely well, as does the Large Print book club (aimed at the older market).

In addition, Sostre helps run the affiliate program for ServerPronto.com, which also provides its creative in Spanish. Most of the affiliates that use those creatives are targeting a South American audience. Because the company serves clients internationally, ServerPronto’s Spanish-language website and marketing are not specifically geared for U.S. Hispanics.

Be Bilingual

While there are many sites, including Mexgrocer.com and Amigos.com, that also offer some Spanish-language pages, some claim the experience does not need to be entirely in Spanish – it is sufficient to reach out with a bilingual message that leads the user to a Spanish-language page at an English-language site.

Many companies are targeting Hispanics with bilingual messages. Ahorre.com advertises its Household MasterCard credit card in English and Spanish on the same page. Target.com has banners on its Spanish landing page that mixes languages to say “Nuestra Gente – Hispanic Heritage. Discover the Cultura and Tradicion.”

Reebok used this “Spanglish” this year in its much-hyped BarrioRBK campaign, which was produced specifically for the U.S. Hispanic youth market. The site is marked with Spanish and English tag lines as well as Spanglish tags directing visitors to “Volver a Home” or “Return to the Home Page.”

Latin3’s Perel, who designed the site, explains, “We created this website in Spanglish because we realized that young Latinos are bilingual or, because they came here very early, they are English dominant. Because we want to connect with them, we give it a Spanish flavor, so the key here was to have copy writers who have a clear understanding of when to use English and when to use Spanish.”

But there are other reasons not to reach out solely in Spanish. Research firm Cultural Access Group found that Hispanic youths prefer English-language television and radio programming over Spanish-language fare by a margin of nearly two to one, and overwhelmingly prefer English-language Internet sites.

“I think a lot of younger Hispanics are more comfortable in English,” says Sostre. “I am in my 20s, and if I see a site that is completely in Spanish, I think it is targeted at my mom or my grandmother.”

He warns that you might risk insulting a potential user if you communicate with them only in Spanish. “A lot of Hispanics find it offensive if you assume that they don’t speak English.”

A Question of Culture

Affiliates may find that language is less important than culture. Lopez, the AOL Latino publisher, says “the Hispanic audience definitely has cultural dimensions that are really different than the general market.”

For example, Reebok’s BarrioRBK site features a Reggaeton dance game, a music area that includes the top 10 Latino artists, and information about famed Mexican soccer team Chivas.

Because Hispanics online skew younger, Ahorre’s Gonzalez claims affiliates might also do well to target them with lower-priced items. “The growth in Hispanics online is in the youth market, and the youth market is into music – they are into iPods and they are into CDs. Try to sell reasonable price points; if you target up to $99 you should do well.”

Not everyone agrees that low-price items are the way to go. According to Lopez, Hispanic demographics tend to be younger than the general market, but he adds that their buying power is increasing year to year. “Hispanics are becoming more sophisticated just like the general market.”

Nacho Hernandez, president of iHispanic Marketing Group, says, “U.S. Hispanics spent $5.6 billion in 2003 purchasing on the Web.” In fact, Sharper Image, which is known for its high-end electronic goods, has a Spanish-language version of its website targeted at Hispanics in the U.S. and has a “programa de afiliado.”

But some argue that the current research and demographics don’t tell the whole story. Many claim the Hispanic market is not that distinct and will become less distinct over time – much like the offline world where Hispanics become acclimated to American lifestyles and habits.

“In recent years, there has been a shift in online advertising – less of a focus on demographics and more of a focus on psychographics or behavior,” wrote Barry Parr in his MediaSavvy blog. “Demographics are usually the wrong way to target online advertising. You may believe that the most likely user for your products is a woman between the ages of 25 to 44, but what you’re really looking for is anyone who might want to use your product. ” On the Web, you can target users by context and behavior. That’s a lot more powerful than demographics. “”

Vital Marketing’s Anthony concurs. “I think that marketers may be overanalyzing the Hispanic market in terms of feeling that Hispanics are only going to go to sites that are relevant to Hispanic cultural content or contain some type of concentrated cultural information,” he says.

The debate continues about how to target this growing Hispanic group, but for now many agree that for affiliates to succeed, they need to recognize that the Hispanic segment is one with unique requirements – including differences in language, culture and spending habits. Reaching out with cultural references that appeal to Hispanics, and experimenting with Spanish, bilingual and Spanglish messages, are some of the ways to get started. Programs will have better conversion rates if they can demonstrate that they have considered the wants and needs of Hispanic shoppers.

The best way for affiliates to determine the appropriate way to drive traffic is through experimentation. “Top affiliates must be committed and continually test, measure results, make adjustments and retest the market,” Hernandez says.

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

Linkshare Shuffle

In early February, just six months after LinkShare agreed to be acquired by Japan-based e-commerce portal giant Rakuten for $425 million, the founders of the affiliate network have decided to step aside.

The resignations of Chairman and CEO Stephen Messer and President and COO Heidi Messer, who founded LinkShare in 1996, were not surprising according to industry watchers, but definitely signaled changing times in the performance marketing and affiliate marketing space.

Beth Kirsch, a long-time affiliate manager, who is now group manager of affiliate programs at LowerMyBills.com, called it “the end of an era.”

LinkShare was one of the last big affiliate and performance marketing networks to finally be swallowed up by a big conglomerate. LinkShare rival Commission Junction was bought for $58 million in cash and stock by ValueClick in October 2003; ValueClick previously purchased affiliate network BeFree in March 2002 for $128 million in stock. Performics was acquired by DoubleClick in a cash deal estimated at $58 million (plus an earn-out of up to $7 million) in May 2004; DoubleClick was acquired in July 2005 by Click Holding Corp. in a deal valued at $1.1 billion. The new era of performance marketing will feature Steve Denton, most recently LinkShare’s senior vice president of client development and distribution services, who has been tapped to head LinkShare. As president, Denton, a six-year LinkShare veteran, will lead all day-to-day operations. As part of those duties he will continue to oversee all sales efforts, as well as affiliate services and support. His new duties will include responsibility for account services, the search team, marketing and technical sales consultants.

Denton will report to John J-H Kim, CEO of Rakuten USA and executive vice president of international business headquarters, who will handle LinkShare’s legal, technical and finance functions.

“It’s very much like how Heidi and Steve split up their duties within the organization,” Denton says.

With the departure of the company’s founders, LinkShare faces some new challenges. The biggest, according to Denton, is to “move from an organization that was a privately-held New York-based affiliate network into a global role that it was intended to play, while still being the leader in affiliate and performance marketing.”

Rakuten, a public company with a market capitalization of $10 billion, bought LinkShare because it was looking to break into the U.S. market and wanted to establish an immediate presence. Founded in 1997, Rakuten has several divisions and is involved in e-commerce, media, travel and financial services, and owns a baseball team in Japan (the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles).

“Heidi and I have taken LinkShare to a great place, but now it needs to become a Rakuten company. This is the best timing – the fourth quarter is over; Valentine’s is almost over and now LinkShare has all summer to beat Google and Yahoo,” Steve Messer says.

Timing is everything. Denton says that by putting all the pieces in place during the spring time frame gives LinkShare “a runway to get on track with new initiatives, new leadership teams and the company’s continued global expansion efforts, in time for the critical back-toschool period and the hectic fourth quarter” – a time when LinkShare historically generates a hefty chunk of its revenue.

LinkShare is on track, according to Denton, to expand into the U.K. and China sometime in 2006. However, he declined to disclose specifics.

LinkShare and Rakuten also have an integration team of executives, including Denton and Kim, to deal with the merger of the two companies, which includes establishing best practices, as well as streamlining financial reporting and human resource services such as employee benefits.

Denton is vehement that integration is not a euphemism for “consolidation,” which is then often translated to “elimination” as in downsizing when a smaller company is acquired by a huge conglomerate. “Rakuten bought LinkShare for its leadership in technology and the affiliate marketing space, not to rip the company apart,” Denton says.

But there is plenty of change happening. Steve Messer says that he and Heidi needed to move on in order to facilitate that growth. Consultant Shawn Collins says the transition should be smooth.

“It might affect the culture. Denton has a different personality, but it’s not like bringing in a stranger. Everyone is familiar and comfortable with him. And people are really excited.” Messer called his departure a continuation of the global expansion plan that he and Heidi had envisioned when they sold the company to Rakuten.

Messer says that during his tenure, he increasingly saw LinkShare’s main competitors less as the other affiliate networks (Commission Junction and Performics) and more like the major search and portal players such as Google and Yahoo.

“We think that Rakuten is doing a whole lot more to be competitive in the U.S. and we can help them go head-to-head with Google and Yahoo, while the partnership with Rakuten is going to help LinkShare’s presence in markets outside the U.S,” Messer says. “Rakuten has a huge appetite going forward. I think in a few years people will be talking about how they own the whole market. The strategy we put in place will prove itself out.”

Still, Messer says leaving is not easy. “I imagine it’s like the bittersweet feeling a parent has when their children go to college. You’re proud you’ve given them the skills to survive and do well, but you’re sort of sad that they no longer need you to get along.”

He claims his first taste of this occurred when he and Heidi spent most of 2005 in Japan negotiating a deal with Rakuten and he realized that “we had built such a great company and we were gone for nearly a year and the company did phenomenally well. They really didn’t need us.”

As for what’s next for Messer, he says that after 10 years in the bustling performance marketing space, he’s looking forward to a little “breather” and anticipates being “back in the game in the summer.” He declined to disclose any specific plans, noting he’s “still thinking about what I want to do.”

However, during his time off, he says he plans to more fully formulate some new business ideas – all while sitting at the beach and doing some kite boarding. And of course, any new venture will include LinkShare co-founder Heidi Messer. “We are a team,” he says.

Sources close to LinkShare claim it’s no surprise that Steve and Heidi are leaving the company after each received a hefty payout from the September 2005 all-cash sale to Rakuten. Although LinkShare had investors at the time of the sale (including Mitsui & Co, Ltd., Mitsui & Co. (U.S.A); Internet Capital Group; and Comcast Interactive Capital, an affiliate of Comcast Corp.), Steve Messer reportedly owned 20 percent of LinkShare, while Heidi owned 11 percent. Steve’s proceeds from the sale were said to be approximately $100 million, while Heidi got over $51 million, according to sources close to the company.

“I think it’s obviously a good transaction for Heidi and I and the team,” Messer says.

“Steve and Heidi should be proud of the wonderful company they built, the leadership position they established and the vision they had,” Denton says. “All of us feel fortunate to have worked with them and we look forward to all the new challenges.”