Blair’s Flair For Affiliate Marketing

How did a 93-year-old company that got its start selling black raincoats to funeral directors by mail wind up as a big winner in affiliate marketing?

Blair did it by building an innovative affiliate marketing program that does just about everything you’d want it to. And the effort is paying off handsomely. While year end results weren’t available, the program appeared on track to generate about $14 million for 2003.

Blair, like thousands of other corporations around the globe, is learning quickly that a low-cost affiliate program can help offset slipping revenue in other sales channels. It’s a strategy that helps Blair maintain its position as the 8th largest U.S. clothing retailer, competing with the big chains like J. C. Penney, Wal-Mart and Sears and the catalogue icons like Eddie Bauer, Spiegel and Land’s End.

“As we work to more fully integrate our offline and online marketing initiatives into a seamless cross-channel experience, our affiliate program is well positioned to play a key role in our growth,” said John E. Zawacki, CEO of the Warren, Penn.-based merchant.

The beauty of the typical affiliate arrangement for Blair is the high return on investment in the program. “There is some overhead associated with managing them, but in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t a lot,” said Jeff Parnell, Blair’s vice president for e-commerce.

To be sure, affiliate sales still make up a small fraction of Blair’s total revenue, which totaled $568.5 million in 2002. The company generates most of its sales through its traditional catalogue operation. It also operates four retail stores – three in Pennsylvania and one in neighboring Delaware. But the rapid growth of the affiliate program combined with the increasing importance of other online activities is helping Blair adapt to a shifting market.

Like the majority of large companies, Blair grew fascinated with the potential of e-commerce during the late 1990s. The reality was clear. Blair’s traditional customers were getting older and the company had to appeal to younger, more active shoppers in new ways in order to attract new business. The Internet, management was convinced, was a pathway that would lead the company to its next level of success.

Blair’s most popular offerings appeal to older women who order mostly through the catalogue. To attract more baby boomers, the company put more emphasis on Blair .com and also created a hipper new brand, Crossing Pointe, with its own catalog and Web site. As a result, Blair put itself in place to compete on price and style through catalogues, retail stores or the Internet.

During the first quarter of 2000, Blair made significant progress in its strategic plan to establish an interactive e-commerce Web site. The new site would become a key part of the company’s program to capitalize on the rapidly expanding market of online shoppers, boost sales and shrink operational costs. Blair launched the site with plenty of time to get the bugs out before the vital holiday shopping season.

It was a good start. But a lot of companies took similar steps during the dot-com craze, and many of those efforts floundered. What set Blair apart was its almost uncanny ability to make just the right moves as its strategy began to unfold.

There are always things that can be improved. For example, we wondered how Blair.com would rank against competitors on Google. So we asked 10X Marketing, a firm that specializes in search engine optimization, to find out. Neither Blair nor Crossing Pointe showed up in the top 200 sites. An archrival, Coldwater Creek, ranked ninth, and an affiliate site called Blair-Clothing.com showed up at 148. Clearly, Blair could work on that (see chart on page 26).

However, in our look at Blair, we noted eight distinctions that set Blair’s effort well above many competitors. None is rocket science. In fact, you’ll see most of these strategies recommended in other parts of this magazine. But Blair’s revenue growth is proof that they work when executed properly.

1. Effective Promotions

Chris Park, who manages Blair’s affiliate program, said affiliate marketing works for Blair because savvy affiliates are “able to market some promotions, percentage-off savings and reduced price or free shipping” all bona fide inducements to the target market.

Those are just the right perks to attract repeat online buyers, according to the 2003 Retail Consumer Retail report from Jupiter Research. The report shows:

  • Discounted shipping and handling continues to be consumers’ favorite online promotion.
  • 33 percent of buyers often or sometimes make unplanned purchases to take advantage of a special deal or promotion. For the foreseeable future, retailers will still have to provide incentives to influence these purchases.
  • High or hidden shipping and handling charges have led 44 percent of buyers to reduce their purchases at certain stores, and 36 percent of buyers have stopped buying because they have been required to register at certain stores.

“It’s one thing to put a banner (ad) up,” said Park, “but it’s quite another to say, ‘You’ll get $50 worth of free shipping.”‘

2. The Right People

Park’s presence at Blair is, in itself, a sign that Blair’s pro-gram is on the right track. It isn’t enough simply to have someone in charge of online sales. Running an affiliate marketing program at a large company is a full-time job.

“Chris is able to give affiliates his hands-on attention. He is in constant contact with them about upcoming offers and promotions – two key components to a successful AM program,” said Parnell.

“One of the biggest keys is to have at least one person dedicated to it,” said Shawn Collins, author of Successful Affiliate Marketing for Merchants. “One of the biggest mistakes I see is that people assume it’s a magic bullet all by itself, but you have to dedicate staff to it full-time.”

3. The Right Products

Time is precious to affiliates, and most won’t promote a product unless they believe in it. Blair’s longevity bespeaks the quality of its goods. Clearly, no catalog company could survive so long without products that please consumers.

“You’ve got to have value,” said Parnell. “If the products don’t sell on repeat business, the affiliates don’t want to work with you. The fuel in the affiliate marketing program engine is the merchandise.”

The new brand, Crossing Pointe, was closely tied to the Web strategy. The brand’s mission was to provide fashion items at moderate prices to the 37 million female members of the baby-boomer generation, those 36- to 54-year-old women who presented a huge opportunity for Net sales. It’s a crowded market and Crossing Pointe is unknown to many shoppers, but Blair relied on its traditional value proposition to build the brand.

“We’re not L. L. Bean when it comes to name recognition,” said Park. “We service middle-income America with value-priced clothing.”

4. Strong Partners

“Partnerships and alliances are key building blocks in today’s marketplace, so we are encouraged about our [affiliate] program’s short and long-term potential,” said CEO Zawacki.

Parnell, who came to Blair from Performics, hired his old company to provide the technology for tracking affiliate sales, but he opted to keep program oversight and the handling of key affiliate relationships under Park’s control.

“[Performics] is a very important partner and they are very visible and active in selling [affiliate relationships] in their own right, but we also enhance and synergize that effect,” Parnell said. “We do a lot of our own research and follow-through.”

5. The Big Affiliates

The mainstays of the affiliate program are the big online shopping malls that feature hundreds (sometimes even thousands) of consumer shopping options. To set itself apart from competitors, Blair has paid slotting fees for preferred placement on selected sites.

“This is similar to what is done in a grocery store where companies pay a fee to have their products displayed at eye-level instead of the bottom shelf, or to be next to the chips and pop section,” said Parnell. At CouponMountain.com, for instance, Blair.com, filled the top slot on the women’s clothing page. (When we looked, Gap was in the second spot.)

At ActivePlaza.com, another affiliate, Blair.com was featured in the top slot on the women’s clothing page in October. CrossingPointe dominated the right side of the page. At a third affiliate, IShopWorld.com, Blair.com’s link was prominently featured in the top-selling women’s clothing store slot. A rival, Coldwater Creek, received even better billing with an overhead banner ad.

Blair is regularly featured on a wide range of loyalty-based sites, like EBates .com, that offer points, airline miles, rebates and other perks to Internet shoppers. And then there are the smaller storefront sites that may feature only a handful of buying opportunities.

“Blair does very well with affiliates that offer something back, sites like MyPoints and EBates, where you get something back,” Park explained.

Advertising is fine, but personal relationships also play a key role in building sales at these very important affiliates.

“The relationship we have with Blair is so strong because of the communication they have with us,” said Chris Washburn, head of business development for CouponMountain.com. “Chris Park is my communication link with Blair, and he is always sending me information about deals and coupons, which, as you can tell by our name, are very important to us.”

6. Mom and Pop

“We do work with a lot of smaller sites and we literally have thousands of mom-and-pop operations in our affiliate marketing program,” Parnell said. And, by the nature of affiliate marketing, those thousands of affiliates instantly become evangelists for Blair. Of course, Blair is continuing to recruit more.

Becoming active on the affiliate marketing industry message boards run by IAFMA.org and ABestWeb.com is a great way to get more affiliates, according to Collins, whose full-time job is marketing manager for ClubMom.com, a membership organization for mothers.

“They (message boards) are great for recruitment, so it’s great to take an active role in the industry and show that you really care,” Collins said. “I track all of the links I post and a lot of recruiting comes from there. It’s an indirect way to recruit new affiliates.”

Is there any screening before affiliates can sell Blair merchandise?

“We retain the right to approve any affiliate marketer,” Parnell said, using words like “objectionable” and “polarizing” to describe the types of sites that Blair would shun.

The big affiliate marketing program companies, like Performics and Commission Junction, also have guidelines regarding the types of sites they will work with and requirements for affiliate marketing participants.

Through Performics, the mom-and- pops earn a 9.5 percent commission on Blair sales. At Commission Junction, the commission Blair pays is 8 percent.

7. Top Line Growth

Strategies are nice, but this is business. And the changes to the online program showed measurable results almost immediately. That’s a key for any corporate e-commerce effort in the aftermath of the dot-com meltdown.

“For the first complete year [after the re-launch of Blair.com], online revenue grew to $35 million,” said Parnell. “In 2002, that number went to $58 million. By the halfway point of 2003, online sales climbed to $36 million.”

8. An Open Mind

Blair aims to extend its marketing relationships and online partnerships wherever and whenever the opportunities present themselves – even if the payoff isn’t obvious or conventional. Parnell cites Blair’s relationship with Tide, the icon detergent brand from multi-product powerhouse Procter & Gamble, as an example of the latter.

“We’re working with Tide and they’ve got a link on our site as part of their Give Kids the World program,” he said. “That’s a good example of two companies working together in a different sort of way.”

A link from Tide’s home page sends interested parties to Blair.com to complete the purchase of a model car – a die cast 1/64th scale replica of the 2003 Tide #32 Winston Cup racer. Through a link from Blair.com’s home page, shoppers get a chance to learn more and support the program. In both cases, the Web page is also a platform for Blair to plug its latest set of email specials.

“Any business book you read today talks about alliances and partnerships and ‘co-opetition,'” Parnell said. “Activities like this simply give companies like us more opportunities to work together.”

And working together is really what affiliate marketing is all about.

FRANK THORSBERG, is a veteran business writer with experience covering finance, small business, technology, sports and investments for a wide range of online and offline publications.

Guerrilla Affiliates

Because you’re reading Revenue, which is as focused upon affiliate marketing as you are, I doubt if I have to remind you of the glories of such marketing. If ever there was a win-win business proposition, this is it. If affiliate marketing is good enough for Wal-Mart, Amazon and eBay, I’m figuring that you realize it’s also good enough for you. Do you know what you have by the millions? Potential affiliates.

But (and my wife once warned me to listen extra carefully to everything that comes after the word “but”) like the Web, affiliate marketing does not do the job. It only helps to do the job.

“The job” is to market your program to planet Earth, especially to your own affiliates. They are well-meaning people, every last one of them, but they need you to show them how to cash in on their affiliation with you.

In addition to giving your affiliates a dynamite product or service, a generous commission and a vision of financial splendor, you’ve got to give them non-stop sales support. You’ve got to arm them with ultra-powerful marketing tools to help them sell your offering.

So send them ads that they can put in their e-zines, email letters they can customize for their customer lists, banners to add pizazz and profitability to their sites, even online audio marketing to keep your marketing fresh and up-to-the-moment. You’ll see the difference.

If you can create killer articles with a link to their site, they can send those articles to their newsletter readers. Traditional marketing is a full-spectrum affair, affiliate marketing is no different.

Set a time each month for a tele-class pep talk to your affiliates. Single out the ones who have done the best and share their secrets with your other affiliates. Let them know that you sincerely care about their success with your marketing support, your regular telephone presence, your tone of voice, your passion. Passion is contagious, you know. And you want passionate affiliates.

But mere passion isn’t quite enough. You also need solid marketing savvy, which means marketing your affiliate program anywhere and everywhere you can.

Guerrillas know that all the media work better if they’re supported by the other media. Feature your affiliate program on your Web site. Put your Web site onto your TV commercial. Mention your advertising in your direct mail. Refer to your direct mail in your telemarketing. Plant the seeds of your affiliate program offering with some kinds of marketing, then fertilize them with other kinds.

You’re not really promoting your affiliate program unless you’re cross-promoting it. Your trade show booth will be far more valuable to you if you promote it in trade magazines and with fliers put under the doors of hotels near the trade show. Guerrillas market their affiliate programs with the same zest and vigor devoted to their primary offering.

Multimedia

Your prospects, being humans, are eclectic people. They pay attention to a lot of media, so you can’t depend on merely one medium to motivate a purchase. You’re got to introduce the notion of your affiliate program, remind people of it, say it again, then repeat it in different words somewhere else. That share of mind for which guerrillas strive? They get it when they combine several media. They say in their ads, “Email, call or write for our free brochure.”

They say in their yellow pages ad, “Get even more details at our Web site.” They enclose a copy of their magazine ad in their mailing. They blow up a copy to use as a sign. Their Web site features their print ads.

Guerrillas are quick to mention their use of one medium while using another because they realize that their affiliates equate broadscale marketing with quality and success. They know that people trust names they’ve heard of much more than strange and new names; and guerrillas are realistic enough to know that people miss most marketing messages, often intentionally. (The remote control is not only a way for TV viewers to save their steps but also a method of eliminating marketing messages.)

No matter how glorious their newspaper campaign may be, guerrillas realize that not all of their prospects read the paper so they’ve got to get to these people in another way. No matter how dazzling their Web site, it’s like a grain of sand in a desert if it is not pointed out to an unknowing and basically uncaring public.

Cross-promoting your affiliate program in the media is another way to accomplish the all-important task of repetition. One way to repeat yourself and implant your affiliate program message is to say it over and over again. Another way is to say it in several different places. Guerrillas try to do both. Nothing is left to chance.

If you saw a yellow pages ad that made you an offer from a company you’ve never heard of and another with the same offer except that the ad said, “As advertised on television,” you’d probably opt for the second because of that added smidgen of credibility. I rest my case.

Psych ’em

The psychology of marketing an affiliate program requires basic knowledge of human behavior. Human beings do not like making decisions in a hurry and are not quick to develop relationships. They certainly do want relationships, which is what affiliate programs are all about, but they’ve been stung in the past, and they don’t want to be stung again.

They have learned well to distrust much marketing because of its proclivity to exaggeration. All too many times they’ve read of sales at stores and learned that only a tiny selection of items were on sale. They’ve been bamboozled more times than you’d think by the notorious fine print on contracts. And they’ve been high-pressured by more than one salesperson. In short, they’ve been used.

That’s why they process your marketing communications about your affiliate program in their unconscious minds, eventually arriving at their decisions because of an emotional reason even though they may say they are deciding based on logic. They factor a lot about you into their final decision – how long they’ve heard of you, where your marketing appears, how it looks and feels to them, the quality of your offer, your convenience or lack of it, what others have said about you, and most of all, how your offering can be of benefit to their lives.

Although they state that they now want to help you sell what you’re selling, and they do it in a very conscious manner, you can be sure they were guided by their unconscious minds. The consistent communicating of your affiliate program benefits, your message and your name has penetrated their sacred unconscious mind. They’ve come to feel that they can trust you, and so they decide to sign up and work their tails off for you.

Any pothole in their road to purchasing at this point might dissuade them. Are they treated shabbily on the phone or forced to wait for an email response? You’ve lost them. Do they access your Web site for more information and either find no Web site or find one littered with self-praise? They’ll leave. Do they visit you and feel pressured or misunderstood? They’re gone.

You’ve got to realize that the weakest point in the marketing of your program can derail all the strong points. Excellence through and through, start to finish, is what potential affiliates have come to expect from businesses, and these days, they won’t settle for less.

Understand Them

Just keep in mind that affiliate marketing is a 360-degree process, and you’ve got to do it right from all angles at all times. When it comes to affiliate marketing, people have built-in alarm systems, and any shady behavior on your part sets the bells to clanging, the sirens screaming.

It is very difficult to woo a person from the programs they support right now to your program. Although they are loathe to change, they do change. And when they do, they knock themselves out as high-energy affiliates and all because you’ve proven that you understand the psychology of human beings and the true nature of marketing. That depth of understanding is what they’re hoping for.

If you give your affiliates exactly what they hope for, there’s a strong chance they’ll help you get what you hope for.

Guerrilla marketers are able to get what they hope for because they know that the key to successful guerrilla marketing is in embracing not the concept of competition, but the beauty and advantage of cooperation. And cooperation is the lifeblood of affiliate marketing, it’s raison d’tre.

One of the most rewarding, inexpensive, underused and effective methods of all marketing is to align your marketing efforts with the efforts of others. In the

U.S. this used to be known as “tie-ins.” A Business Week cover article referred to it as “Collaborative Marketing.” In Japan and by guerrillas worldwide, this make-everybody-wealthy marketing tactic is called “fusion marketing.” Affiliate marketing is the highest form of fusion marketing because it is so performance-based and has mutual gain as its goal.

Fusion marketing is the guerrilla saying, “Hey Sara, if you enclose my brochure in your next mailing, I will enclose your brochure in mine. And I’ll give you $5.00 for every new customer who mentions your name.” And it is, “OK, Randy. And if you put up a sign for my store in your business, I’ll put up a sign for your business in my store. If I get a customer who says you sent them, I’ll give you ten bucks.”

Sara and Randy immediately see the wisdom in the guerrilla’s affiliate offer. Their marketing exposure has just been expanded. Their marketing costs have just been reduced. Hey, this is a good idea! Of course it is! Why do you think you’re watching all those McDonald’s commercials that turn into Coca-Cola commercials and end up as Finding Nemo commercials? Why do you think so many members of frequent flier clubs have learned that their airlines have fused with hotel chains, auto rental companies, even cruise lines? Because there’s a whole lot of fusing going on. And today, the majority of it is affiliate marketing, by whatever name you choose.

Gone Cyber

Now it’s online. It’s happening very visibly among the large businesses, but it’s happening more frequently among small businesses, even teeny-tiny businesses. The gas station fuses with the video store. The restaurant fuses with the clothing store. The sporting goods store fuses with the ski area and the tennis club and the golf course. It’s happening all over.

The purpose of an affiliate marketing arrangement is mutual profitability. Glad we’re clear on that one. Realize that almost everyone in your community and on your planet is a potential affiliate, that almost all of them will see the wisdom in your suggestion of a connection for mutual profit.

The key for you to keep in mind at all times is that your affiliate program is a lot like your product or service. It must spring from a basic marketing plan. It should adhere to your marketing calendar. It requires patience, repetition, consistency, and aggressiveness in your overall marketing effort.

It takes commitment to your plan, an assortment of marketing tools, constant testing, precise measurement of results, and your time, energy, imagination and knowledge. But it does not take your money. It provides you – and your affiliates – with money if you go about it the right way.

In this magazine, you’re learning how to go about it right. In this article, you’re learning how to market it right. You can’t ask your Dad or your college professor to help you on this one. Affiliate programs are too new for them. But they’re right on the money for you.

There is no real magic in marketing. And there is no real magic in affiliate marketing. But when you combine the two and season them with your own marketing insight, “abracadabra” might become your battle cry.

Jay Conrad Levinson, is the author of the Guerrilla Marketing series of books, the most popular marketing series in history, with 14 million copies sold in 39 languages. GuerrillaMarketingAssociation.com features marketing ideas and information about its affiliate program.

No Free Lunch For Merchants

It sounds like a no-brainer: Tap into a sales force of self-employed affiliates who’ll handle everything from producing product information to Web design to advertising. Let them do all the work, and pay them anywhere from a few pennies to a few dollars – but only if they produce to your exact requirements. What’s not to like?

It’s a strategy that works for Bluefly, the online retailer of discounted designer clothing. In 2003, sales from its affiliate program ranged from 11.5 to 16 percent of the total each month. “We’re really excited with the progress we’ve made. We’re still early on in the process of refining our affiliate program, but I don’t see any reason why affiliates couldn’t contribute more than 20 percent of our sales,” said Bluefly executive vice president Jonathan Morris.

While Bluefly’s total expenses were up, its marketing expenses actually decreased 17.4 percent. The company chalked that savings up to a switch from advertising to email and pay-for-performance marketing, including affiliate sales. As a result of this change in focus, Bluefly’s cost to acquire a customer dropped nearly 38 percent, down from $16.20 to $10.05 per customer.

“The beauty of affiliate programs is that they’re performance based. The amount of commission you pay is dependent on the amount of sales you drive – not always the case in advertising,” Morris said.

But it’s something of a misnomer to describe affiliate marketing as pure pay-for-performance. It’s not exactly a free lunch. In fact, overhead costs can eat into profits, while there’s a danger that inept or unethical affiliates can hurt the brand and actually drive customers away. To really get a handle on the upside to an affiliate program, a merchant must uncover the hidden costs – and risks.

Micro Management

Few affiliate programs are truly self-serve. Amazon.com’s is a good example of one company with proprietary technology that lets affiliates sign themselves up, quickly and easily. Yet, even with the hundreds of thousands of pay-for-performance marketers hyping everything on the site from books and DVDs to toaster ovens, every affiliate must be individually approved before starting, a process that typically takes less than 24 hours.

Merchants can outsource most of the affiliate management to network services such as BeFree, LinkShare and Performics. Networks provide the software infrastructure and varying degrees of human oversight to handle automated sign-ups, link generation and the pushing of special promotions and information. Their staff will sometimes untangle snafus and soothe irate affiliates.

But none of the companies contacted by Revenue put their affiliate programs on automatic. Instead, they devoted anything from a couple of staffers to a full-blown department to managing the program. “For probably the first two years after we started our affiliate marketing program in 1998, we didn’t do a whole lot with it, didn’t dedicate internal resources toward it. We just expected it to run on auto-pilot,” said Bruce Matthews, vice president of business development for electronics retailer Tiger Direct. As a result, affiliates brought in a few sales but the revenue they generated wasn’t exactly eye-popping. The program was floundering.

Then, Tiger Direct decided to commit. “We dedicated more resources, and started to pay attention and make it work,” Matthews said. In 2001, the company added a staff position devoted to affiliate relations, began fixing problems in the program and added tools for the affiliates. The result: Tiger Direct affiliates now boost the bottom line by over $1 million a month in sales. Matthews said it took a year of solid work to bring Tiger Direct’s affiliate sales from under $100,000 to that million-dollar mark.

Online department store outlet Overstock.com saw a similar boost when it got serious about affiliate marketing. After it revamped its program and made it a strategic initiative, the company saw its top-line revenue generation from affiliates grow eightfold in 17 months. But the program needs a lot of attention, said Shawn Schwegman, CTO and vice president of sales and marketing. “You’re developing relationships, and that takes relationship management.” Overstock.com has a five-person team responsible for 30,000 affiliates, headed by the company’s director of marketing.

Hidden Costs

Whether or not the retailer has staff whose sole job description is affiliate relations, overhead for the program is spread throughout the entire company, from the accounting department that cuts the checks to the janitorial service that hauls off the coffee containers emptied by night owl employees.

The true cost of an affiliate program, said Prakash Bharwani, senior manger in interactive marketing for 1-800-Flowers, is, first of all, the salaries of his staff. “Then, there’s the indirect staff members, my IT team, my accounting team, my creative team, my colleagues. Then the infrastructure costs, server space. There’s a customer knowledge team, and we use up their time to understand how the affiliate program is working.” Bharwani said that promotions offered through affiliates should be added directly to the revenue share to get a true picture of how much the affiliate program costs the company.

The first task of the affiliate manager or team is recruiting and approving new affiliates. Many large retailers approve each application by hand, paging through the affiliate’s site, making sure it’s professional and a good representative of the company. Even though 1-800-Flowers works with LinkShare, Bharwani said the first 30 or 40 minutes of his day is devoted to approving affiliate applications.

Merchants will differ on what’s acceptable, they all share the risk of having their brand value diminished by its appearing on a shoddy affiliate site. Rick McGrath, director of e-commerce partner development for auto parts merchants J.C. Whitney Co., said, “Everybody starts someplace, and I try to maintain a low barrier of entry. But I need to see a clear commercial intent.” Sites that have pictures of the family vacation or someone’s favorite rock band will get the boot. And McGrath has no interest at all in sites that offer get-rich-quick-through-affiliate-marketing offers or multi-level marketing schemes.

Next, he screens for downloadable applications like the Gator eWallet or WhenU, another deal-breaker. “That’s objectionable. I see that as undermining the affiliate program, in my humble opinion,” said McGrath.

Bluefly’s Morris said he scrutinizes affiliate applications closely, and then continues to monitor the affiliates in the program. “We make sure they use the creative we provide and that the environment in which our creative appears is appropriate.” Bluefly staffers manually check affiliate sites, focusing on the ones doing the most business, but also performing random checks on less active affiliates. Besides a general level of professionalism, Bluefly makes sure the sites have adequate privacy policies and disclosures, and, he said, “are legitimately providing a service to their customers by promoting Bluefly.”

The Creative Touch

Affiliates aren’t professional designers, and even the sharpest affiliate can’t compete with the full-blown creative teams that retailers have in-house. Bad product photos scanned from a magazine, misspellings and incorrectly colored logos can make the merchandise look shoddy. To counter this, retailers end up creating special ads, content and images especially for affiliates.

“You don’t want to just keep telling them, ‘Don’t do this,'” 1-800-Flowers’ Bharwani said. “You want to tell them, ‘Do this. If you want to send out an email, don’t send it with those ugly orange and pink colors, use this instead.’ We not only give them creative, but also help them with things like email templates.”

Whether it’s producing separate-but-equal ad campaigns or simply reformatting existing digital assets, this work can stress the company’s resources or add to the overhead. It has the potential to divert time and attention from other forms of advertising. Overstock.com, with over 30,000 affiliates, has a dedicated designer producing materials for affiliates to use. Because the company buys limited lots of products, it instituted data feeds that every night automatically update dynamically displayed products on affiliates’ sites.

Crying Game

Good communication like that is important when working with affiliates, merchants say, not only to help affiliates succeed but to stave off problems. When affiliates feel they’ve been treated unfairly, they can strike back and really dent the merchant’s reputation. Internet message boards are rife with backbiting and flaming recriminations against merchants who disappointed.

“If you have a few disgruntled affiliates or an issue that comes up, you have to be very proactive in resolving it,” Bharwani said. Merchants must deal with a wide range of personalities and operations, from highly professional types to loners in dark rooms. “There are guys who are big corporations and guys who are running it out of their homes. And each person matters.”

Affiliate marketing may not be for every merchant. To avoid damaging the brand or siphoning off resources from critical projects, merchants must have the resources and culture to manage the program well. “You have to allocate resources, absolutely,” says Tiger Direct’s Matthews. “I believe you get out of it what you put into it. The key, he says, is to “balance what they want with what makes sense for you in a business case.”

The bottom line: While there are risks, there are also rewards.

SUSAN KUCHINSKAS, managing editor of Revenue, has covered online marketing and e-commerce for more than a decade. She is also the co-author of Going Mobile: Building the Real-time Enterprise with Mobile Applications that Work.

What’s Mary Kay Got To Do With It?

One of the most common myths about the Internet is that this new-fangled technology makes business mysterious, complex or risky. The truth is that the basic laws of doing business still apply. Sure, there are some new technical concepts to grasp, but business is still business. That has not changed. Case in point: affiliate marketing and the Internet.

During the dot-com boom-bust cycle, thousands of businesses failed, primarily due to bad business models, not bad technology. The silver lining is that online merchants became more conservative, resulting in a shakeout of most of the idiotic ideas. Darwin would be proud: The fittest companies survived. Business on the Internet is here to stay. Online spending has grown quarter after quarter. Most American homes now have Internet connections. The number of high-speed connections is skyrocketing. Even stodgy old brick-and-mortar companies with online sales channels are experiencing solid growth.

A large and growing chunk of those online sales are coming through affiliate marketing. Why? Because affiliate marketing is based on a very well-established sales strategy – the outside sales force. Affiliates are very much like the troops of lipstick-wielding Mary Kay consultants or the ubiquitous Tupperware party animals.

Technology may be what makes it cool. But a powerful sales force is what makes it work. If you have a good product, an outstanding compensation plan, a well-thought-out incentive system, personal relationships and excellent sales materials, your business will explode behind zealous salespeople who are eager to evangelize the greatness of your company and its products.

Technology may be great for checking on the number of ads served through your Web site, but it ain’t going to sell your stuff. That’d be like asking the sweaty guys at the Mary Kay fulfillment center to go door-to-door hawking skin softener. No sale.

What works in affiliate marketing is the same set of strategies that works in direct sales. Focus on recruitment. Offer reasonable compensation. Add incentives. Build loyalty. Provide great service.

What won’t work is relying on technology to run your affiliate program.

If an offline company wanted to expand its outside sales force, it wouldn’t think of hiring people without interviewing them and assessing their capabilities. The company also wouldn’t think of sending that person off to sell the product without great sales collateral and constant motivational support. Conversely, a good salesperson wouldn’t consider helping a company that didn’t pay good commissions punctually, offer good customer service or market a credible product.

If your online company wants a successful affiliate program, it needs to stop trying to attract every affiliate on the face of the planet. Be selective. Do your homework. Look for the good ones. Find the sites that have something complementary to your product offerings. Make your commission offer exciting, fair and extremely reliable. Think up great motivational offers. Mary Kay saleswomen work their fannies off for a pink Cadillac. This also works wonders in the online gambling world where top affiliates sometimes drive away with Ferraris. That may not be appropriate for every program, but every program could consider an extraordinary reward for top performers.

Money isn’t the only thing that motivates the salesperson in the direct sales model. There are weekly motivational meetings with recognition given for success. This can be done easily and inexpensively with tele-seminars, regular newsletters and bonuses handed out to top producers. Or, by giving your affiliates top-notch custom-made Web pages with your products data-fed onto their site, like an Amway catalog with the salesperson’s name, phone number and affiliate ID dynamically generated on it.

Treat your affiliates like valued salespeople and they will be loyal and productive. But this can’t be done with thousands of faceless ID numbers on a statistics report.

You’re probably thinking: “Oh, I can’t do that! I have 5,000 affiliates and not even one whole staff person focused on it.” Fine. Then, you need to rethink your affiliate marketing strategy. If you don’t assign human resources to this powerful force, you won’t see the results. Period.

If you expect to join a network, get 2,000 affiliates overnight and then watch the sales explode, you are sadly mistaken. It takes constant and creative effort to nurture this kind of sales channel. Try focusing on less than 100 who are really devoted to your program and work with them personally to build their traffic and sales. If you can’t afford a full-time, experienced and well-paid affiliate manager, consider farming out the management tasks to an outsourcing company that specializes.

Technology is not the most important thing here. Human beings are. Yes, you should use the best tracking interface you can afford. But if you really want to have the best affiliate program you can afford, you’d better start with the best affiliates you can find.

LINDA WOODS helps merchants to start and manage affiliate programs. Through her company, AffiliateGoddess.com, she and her team offer strategy consulting, training and outsourced management services.

Should I Promote This Merchant

There are thousands upon thousands of affiliate programs offered by various Internet merchants. Deciding what programs to promote can be a daunting task. Let’s explore the factors most successful affiliate marketers consider when faced with this decision.

First and foremost, you must consider your site visitors’ propensity to purchase the product or service or take the “desired action” (filling out a lead form, etc.). You should consider the attractiveness of the merchant’s site and offer, but you also need to consider your ability to properly pre-sell the product or service and your interest in doing so. After all, if you don’t refer a qualified buyer, and if the merchant’s site doesn’t convert your referrals, you won’t be successful with this offer.

Once you’re satisfied, both you and your customers will be interested in what a merchant has to offer, then consider the following six factors.

1. The Agreement Read the Terms and Conditions of the program, and be sure you understand and agree with all the points. If there is no such document, move on.

2. Compensation Terms How much a merchant is willing to pay you is surely important, but you must also consider the expected conversion rate. Look at the program’s earnings-per-click, or EPC. A program that pays you $5 per lead may be far more attractive than one offering an average commission of $25 per sale. Using this example, if 10 out of 100 of your referrals submit a lead form, you’ll earn $50, with an effective EPC of 50 cents. If just one in 100 of your referrals makes a purchase, you’ll earn $25 with an effective EPC of a quarter. You’ll also need to consider the volume of clickthroughs, which isn’t part of the EPC measurement. In other words, if very few of your site visitors click on the lead campaign and many more click on the per-sale campaign, you could end up earning more total commission on the per-sale campaign, even though it does not convert as well.

The average EPC is public knowledge for many programs. If it isn’t disclosed, I urge you to write to the program manager to ask about the average EPC. I suggest participating in programs with a minimum EPC of 10 cents (unless you expect very high volume).

3. Return Days and Lifetime Commissions “Return days” refers to the length of time a cookie is set on your referral’s computer to allow you to earn commissions even if the referral returns directly to the merchant’s site.

The importance of return days will depend on the length of time a customer typically takes to decide to purchase a particular product. As a general rule, I suggest you consider programs with a minimum of 30 return days.

Many merchants expect customers to make repeat purchases. It’s even built into many situations, like ongoing services. As an affiliate, you should be compensated for future purchases, so look for these types of programs to offer lifetime commissions. (Especially good are those tracked by a database, where your referred customer is “assigned” to you and your ongoing commissions aren’t dependent on cookie tracking.)

4. Leakage I define leakage as any time affiliates don’t get credit for commissions they rightfully earned (based on the program’s terms and conditions). Below are a couple examples of leakage. Again, don’t hesitate to ask the program managers how they minimize these issues for their affiliate partners.

Phone Orders: There are ways to credit affiliates with their phone orders. (Contact me at my company if you’d like more information.)

Participation of Parasite Affiliates: This critical issue is beyond the scope of this article, but clearly you want to avoid programs that have relationships with affiliates who will intercept your referrals and claim the commissions for themselves. There are many sites and discussion groups where you can find lists of affiliate programs that have parasites participating in their programs.

Even if you’ve earned commissions, there are unscrupulous merchants who may not pay as they have promised or are very slow payers. Again, check the affiliate discussion boards before you start promoting any merchant to see if other affiliates have registered complaints about them.

5. Program Management If you’ve gotten this far in your evaluation of an affiliate program opportunity, then I suggest you also look for information about the program’s management. Have you been provided with full contact information for an individual you can reach with your questions or comments? If so, chances are, you’re going to get the support and guidance you will need to promote this merchant. On the other hand, if you’re given a generic email address (affiliates@companyxyz.com) that you find is unresponsive to your inquiries, this should be a red flag. I also suggest you avoid programs that use “customer service” to handle all kinds of affiliate matters.

A productive affiliate should be viewed as a true business partner or an in-house salesperson. Therefore, look at the quality of the sales promotion support. For example, does the program go “beyond the banner” and provide affiliates with good content in the form of articles you can publish and/or emails you can send to your subscribers? Do you have access to individual product links or a product data feed? Has it provided you with a list of its most important keywords and keyword phrases? Does the program manager keep affiliate partners informed of the hottest-selling products and most successful promotions? Are you provided with coupon/promotion codes or other special deals that you can offer your customers?

6. Reporting Most well-run programs will allow you to log in to your account 24/7 so that you can view your performance in real time.

While there are no guarantees, following these guidelines should help you to partner with those merchants who offer you the greatest chance of success. Above all, remember to work smart, run your affiliate activities professionally and be aware of red flags.

JIM GRIBBLE is managing director of LinkProfits.com, which he founded in 1999 to manage partnership programs. He also runs LinkProfit.net, an exclusive business development network, and PartnerIndustry.com, a resource for merchants and affiliates.

Bringing E-commerce Back Home

Jeannie Otero wanted to change her life. A single mom with two young daughters, she hated the three-hour round-trip commute to her job in Miami, time she would rather spend with her girls. She dreamed about starting her own business, thought about investing in real estate. But she had the age-old problem: You have to have money to make money.

Then, she heard that a good way to make money was to build a Web site that connected shoppers with online merchants. “I put up this funky little site called PartyClowns.com,” Otero laughed. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all. It had a bunch of links to coupons, and it didn’t actually have anything about party clowns.” But it was the first step in her road back home.

Otero had entered the world of affiliate marketing, a sort of parallel economy in which anyone at all can become an online retailer with almost no investment or experience. Two years later, she’s generating a good supplemental income and looking forward to quitting her day job. She’s discovered that all an affiliate needs is a combination of some smarts, some personality, some common sense and a ton of ambition.

Affiliate marketing has quietly become a booming industry, involving thousands of U.S. corporations, millions of affiliates and hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s the deal: You sign on as a commission-only salesperson for an Internet retailer. You use all the creativity, intelligence and perspiration you can muster to get customers for that merchant – customers it might not find on its own. For every customer you refer to the merchant, whether it’s for a paid purchase, a new subscription or a name for its email-marketing list, you get a commission. Because merchants pay only for results, they consider affiliate programs a form of advertising called pay-for-performance.

Affiliates have the whole world of commerce at their fingertips. They can put together an array of products from global selection of retailers and offer them to their own customers. They typically build one or more Web sites that mix content with links to products on merchants’ e-commerce sites, and sometimes feature products in email newsletters or place ads on others’ sites. They never see or touch the merchandise themselves; the merchant handles all aspects of payment, warehousing and shipping. They get paid once a month, or whenever their commissions reach a pre-determined threshold.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. While just about anyone can sign up for an affiliate program and put up a site, earning those nice commission checks is another story. While figures are sparse, the Internet Affiliate Marketing Association estimates that fewer than 5 percent of Internet affiliates have revenue of over $100 a month. That’s because affiliates face some of the same challenges as any other entrepreneur. Inexperience and a lack of basic business skills short-circuit some people’s attempts. Others don’t have the drive to persevere without a boss standing over them.

According to AffTrack, a service provider that aggregates statistics about the industry, 2 percent of affiliates make 98 percent of the commissions. “Affiliation is so easy to get into, that you might only have 10 percent of people who sign up actively promoting merchants, and a smaller amount still might be making any real money,” said AffTrack CEO Scott McNulty.

Like any other frontier, the affiliate world is rambunctious and confusing. There’s more than a whiff of the old envelope-stuffing scam to this industry, where you’ll find site after site promising that you can earn thousands of dollars working at home a few hours a day. It’s also gotten a bad rap from unethical affiliates, who bear some guilt for contributing to the spam deluge. When evaluating affiliate programs, don’t forget to apply the rule that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

Retailers know affiliates can drive sales and keep customers coming back, but they give most of their attention to the top producers. “Retailers have begun to think about the way affiliate programs will work for them in a more efficient way in terms of driving quality traffic and repeat traffic,” said Carrie Johnson, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

This doesn’t mean that there’s less opportunity for you as an affiliate. But it does mean that you’ll have to work smarter and better to be part of that successful 2 percent. Like everyone else in this tight-fisted era, online retailers expect more for their money.

While there’s more competition, there is still plenty of opportunity. Affiliate marketing is the second wave of transformation in the global marketplace. The first wave, the rise of the commercial Internet, put the power of information in the hands of consumers, letting them compare prices among merchants anywhere in the world. This second wave has leveled the playing field between huge conglomerates and individuals who represent online merchants.

Raison d’Etre

Sending traffic to merchants’ sites is the affiliate’s major goal. While you’ll find plenty of affiliate sites that are just lists of links, many experts say that it’s unique content that draws visitors and keeps them there long enough to get interested in your merchant’s offerings. “Your site has to have a reason to exist,” said Brad Waller, vice president of affiliate and business development for EPage, a content syndicator. “It’s rare that someone can create a site and make money from affiliation without doing anything himself. No one will look at it because it’s not original.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional Web designer or an experienced writer. Most affiliate sites are highly personal; like Otero’s, they’re often sparked by a personal interest in a particular subject.

“The personal touch makes a big difference,” Otero said. For example, she created a special Web page with a rave review of one baby item, just because she thought it was so neat. “I had eight visitors and made $20,” she said. Now, she writes introductions and personal notes for most of her Web pages and plans to write a personal review for the best product in each category for her BabyShoppingGuide.com site.

A smart way to decide what your first site should be about is to choose an audience, according to Robert Bennett, an affiliate with eight years’ experience who also runs affiliate programs for several ISPs owned by his company, Archieboy Holdings. “Do you have any connections in any industry, or any opportunity to market to a certain group that other individuals don’t?” he asked. “Identify the market you’ll target, then figure out what products they might be interested in.” For example, if you lead a youth organization, you could look for products related to school or sports, then build your site content around those products. Ideally, the products become part of the content.

Creating your site is a lot like merchandising a store. You could go broad or deep. For example, you might spend time finding absolutely everything anyone could ever want for camping and put it all in one place. From freeze-dried food to sleeping bags to flashlights to first aid kits, you’ve got links to it. On the other hand, like Jeannie Otero did, you could identify a niche, and then scour the Web for every baby Halloween costume available. In either case, the work you do to find and maintain fresh, working links and to gather or create interesting content is the value you add – and the way you make money.

It’s easy to find affiliate programs:

Just search for the merchant’s name plus “affiliate.” Many programs are completely automatic. “Just grab any banner, fill out the form, add the code to your

Web site, and you’re done!” one vitamin retailer promises.

If you’re working with many different merchants, maintaining one-to-one relationships with them all could get hairy. You’ll need to check that the merchandise you feature is still available, and then keep track of what they owe you and when they pay. While most merchants are honest, the message boards are rife with complaints and feuds about payments and other problems.

For more hand-holding and help, you could join an affiliate network. Networks are services that help affiliates and merchants find each other. Then, what’s more important, they manage the process of keeping track of commissions and paying the affiliate. There are several advantages to joining a network:

  • You can get organized and comparative information about a number of merchants without having to search through individual e-commerce sites;
  • In some cases, the network will act as a matchmaker, suggesting partnerships or products that make sense;
  • Some offer support, productivity tools and forums to help newbies learn;
  • They may offer reporting tools that let you analyze your various relationships and see how much income they produce; and
  • They back up your bookkeeping. Instead of keeping track of commissions and payments from multiple merchants, you get a single check each month from the network.

There are many different networks, and affiliates tend to choose them based on the merchants in the network; many work with multiple networks in order to get the range of products they want. Despite the growing interest in the

business and concomitant number of affiliates, “Good affiliates are always in demand,” said Hayley Silver, director of affiliate development for LinkShare, a network that offers tools and services for merchants and affiliates. “[For merchants], they’re your salespeople. No one is ever going to turn down a strong salesperson.”

Content Connection

Once you have an array of products and services to sell and an audience to address, it’s time to flesh out your Web site to make it a true destination. While everything on your site could be considered content, most of it will be in the form of text. That includes your original writing, articles that you reprint, classified ads and user-generated content in the way of forums and message boards. You can arrange to receive automatic updates of syndicated articles and news feeds, either free or for a charge. There are even content sites that offer affiliate programs. They provide free content and, if a visitor to your site clicks back to their site and pays to subscribe or read premium content, you get a little lagniappe.

According to affiliate marketing guru Ken Evoy, your site must satisfy the needs of visitors, the search engines and the merchants; if you serve visitors well, you’ll go a long way toward satisfying the other two players. Site visitors want outstanding information and interesting, highly relevant links. Lots of fresh, relevant content encourages visitors to bookmark the site, come back, and tell their friends.

After all, people who want a book on a particular subject or a recipe could go directly to an online bookseller and search its inventory. They also could plow through literally thousands of entries returned by a search engine. “If someone was searching for information and finds your editorial [content], that person feels smart for having found you, and you become a trusted source of reference,” said Evoy. “By the time that person arrives at the site of a merchant you recommend, she is presold.”

That doesn’t mean your content should consist of plugs for products. Quite the contrary. If your content simply hypes products, your readers won’t trust you. If you write a book review, for example, tell your readers what you really think of the book – good or bad. You’ll earn their respect with your honesty. Then they can decide whether to click on the link you provide to an online bookseller. If all your reviews are positive, your visitors will probably end up looking for a more objective Web site.

High-Traffic Destination

The most authoritative site on the Web is wasted if no one sees it. So, your next task is to lure visitors. If you’ve started with a pre-existing audience or circle of influence, provide them with valuable information and your traffic will grow by word of mouth. Others will find you through search engines.

There are two approaches to increasing your site traffic via search. Some people focus on optimizing pages for the different search engines, while others approach their Web sites as writers and editors, assuming that if the site seems relevant, search engines will find it without extra effort.

Optimizers geek out over page statistics and the workings of various search engines. They analyze how many times key words appear in each page and use them over and over to get a higher ranking for the page. They religiously check how high their pages rank in searches, then tweak pages in order to get them higher still. There are lots of software applications that help automate this process. Optimizers often engage in arcane practices such as “cloaking” or coding phantom pages that exist only to fool search engines. In order to play these games well, you’ll need to know HTML and even some programming languages like PERL.

Experts, on the other hand, focus on becoming the go-to resource for people interested in something specific. This approach requires a passion for the topic; a smidgen of previous experience won’t hurt, either. Instead of trying to trick the search engines, they create focused pages and pack them with information that “appeals to humans, not search engines,” as Evoy said. Because search engines are designed to help people find what they’re looking for, this method can create pages that rank high in search results with much less work.

But successful affiliates say you should never sit back and wait for traffic to find you. Be prepared to constantly expand your customer base with shrewd marketing. “There are lots of different tactics and techniques,” said Hollis Thomases, president of Internet marketing services company WebAdvantage. Affiliates can place banner ads on other Web sites, buy keywords on search sites, exchange links with appropriate sites, send emails to existing customers or contact the media and try to get press. Some affiliates spread their content around the Web by writing articles for other Web sites, making sure to include a link to their own sites. “All publishers tend to try all of them at one time or another, refining and tweaking to see what works best,” Thomases said. “That’s where the art comes in.”

Now, can you sit back and watch the checks roll in? Uh uh. Prepare for steady work to make your site better. Whether you go the optimization route and spend your work time fiddling with keywords and links to improve your ranking in the search engines or take the expert approach and create a series of new pages, treat your Web site as a living thing. Nurture it and the fruit of your labor will be financial success and the pride of owning your own thriving business. And, maybe, spending more time with your kids.

Susan Kuchinskas, managing editor of Revenue, has covered online marketing and e-commerce for more than a decade. She is also the co-author of Going Mobile: Building the Real-time Enterprise with Mobile Applications that Work.