No Check, Please

Whether it is for spring to begin, for Godot or for a commission check, no one likes waiting.

The 30 to 90 days that affiliates – especially those outside the U.S. – must wait for commission checks to arrive can seem like a lifetime, and waiting in line at the bank to cash it is so 20th century.

While merchants might not be as anxious to see the money leave their accounts, replacing lost checks and answering calls about payments wastes time and money, and paper leaves an expensive trail. For recipients, being paid by check requires a trip to the bank and then waiting (there’s that word again) 24 hours or more for the check to clear.

Paper checks are also permanent – a discrepancy in the amount must be resolved by another check, or possibly returning the original draft. When merchants are issuing dozens or hundreds of checks per month, the cost of resolving disputed checks can pile up in a hurry. "Receiving a check is one of the more inconvenient payment methods," says Ron Hynes, vice president of product development of Prepaid for the Americas at MasterCard Worldwide.

Enter the electronic payment. No sitting by the window looking for a delivery person, currency exchange fees or checks that disappear into the ether. The other advantages of electronic payments – including faster processing, greater accuracy and lower transaction fees – all but guarantee that the paper check will soon become an endangered species in the online marketing space.

For the issuing party, there’s the printing (where errors occasionally happen), verifying and signing of the drafts and the stuffing of envelopes – all time-consuming tasks. Direct deposit to a recipient’s bank account is the most popular form of electronic payment, and it is increasingly being used for business-to-business transactions. B2B automated clearing house (ACH) payments grew by 10.9 percent between 2005 and 2006 to 2.3 billion transactions, according the Electronic Payments Association.

Alternative electronic payments that do not require a bank account for deposits are also on the rise, with services including PayPal and PaidByCash becoming commonly accepted methods of payment. In all, electronic payments represent more than 10 percent of online commerce transactions, and similar technology is being applied to B2B financial transactions. Adding to their attractiveness is their "green" quality, as eliminating paper checks saves trees, while fewer trips to the bank means less time behind the wheel.

Electronic payments have grown more rapidly in the consumer arena, but B2B is catching up, according to Edward Kountz, a senior analyst at JupiterResearch. "There’s more pent-up demand on the B2B side" of electronic payments, Kountz says. The lack of a unified payment standard has held back adoption, but more businesses are moving to paying electronically for the same reasons as companies accepting electronic payments – "to eliminate friction," he says.

Catching On With Networks

Performance networks are moving to electronic payments to eliminate the costs and administrative hassles of paying with paper. DoubleClick Performics began paying affiliates electronically through direct deposit in 2001, according to Ed Fleming, the company’s finance manager. DoubleClick Performics developed software that is integrated with its reporting and accounting system to streamline generating direct deposit payments. "It costs us about half the price of a stamp to process" a direct deposit payment, he says.

Currently DoubleClick Performics’ payments are split evenly between checks and electronic deposits, Fleming says. Affiliates that generate the most revenue are the most likely to participate in direct deposit. Fleming estimates that 90 percent of commission dollars are sent out electronically.

DoubleClick Performics regularly contacts affiliates to recruit more to accept being paid electronically, but some still prefer to be paid by check. Affiliates may decline to participate in direct deposit because they fear identity theft. "They don’t want to give out their banking information," Fleming says. DoubleClick Performics has had internal discussions about offering alternative electronic payment options, but there has been "no outcry or huge demand" from affiliates, according to Fleming.

Commission Junction currently offers direct deposit and is evaluating offering PayPal as an electronic payment option for affiliates, according to Dave Osman, the company’s vice president of Client Services. "There doesn’t seem to be a clear leader" in B2B electronic payments, he says. While electronic payments would save the company, "Our desire to eliminate [checks] is based on customer needs, not cost," Osman says.

LinkShare recently announced a new payment plan for publishers, which pays them weekly from the first dollar earned. By moving to a weekly payment schedule, LinkShare reduces publishers’ wait time to receive commissions and doubles the number of paydays. The new plan intends to help publishers improve their cash flow so they can invest resources in their growing businesses. LinkShare officials declined to comment for this article about its payment options.

PayPal, the eBay company that has popularized online funds transfers in the consumer realm, has developed software called MassPay for automating the processing of electronic B2B payments. MassPay can be integrated into payroll and reporting programs through a free application programming interface (API), according to Michael Oldenburg, Associate Manager of Corporate Communications for PayPal. T here are now 18 affiliate software applications that incorporate MassPay, including Affiliate Guerilla, AffiliateShop and MyAffiliateProgram.

Transaction fees for MassPay are up to 2 percent of the value of the transaction to a maximum of $1 per transaction and are paid by the issuing party, according to Oldenburg. Money can be transferred without cost from the online account to a PayPal debit card for off-line spending, he says.

Alternative Payment Options

As an alternative to direct deposit, networks are beginning to roll out debit cards that are linked to online accounts and accept electronic transfers. These cards, also known as "prepaid," "stored value," "reloadable," or "payroll" cards, do not require affiliates to provide bank account information – only a valid address is needed to initiate an account.

Prepaid cards have the same efficiencies as direct deposit without requiring a complex sign-up process, MasterCard’s Hynes says. Prepaid cards enable companies to eliminate commission checks altogether when used in combination with direct deposit, says Hynes, which works with banks and payment processing companies to distribute MasterCard-branded cards.

Payment companies Payoneer and Ecount as well as network Axill offer prepaid card services that have no start-up fees to the network, and the cards are free for the affiliates.

These cards offer the security of gift cards (if you lose the card there’s no access to a bank account) with the added benefit of third parties, such as networks being able to deposit funds electronically. Payoneer, of New York, offers MasterCard debit cards that can be used for shopping or to get cash through an ATM, according to Yuval Tal, CEO of Payoneer.

Although the cards are free to affiliates, there are fees of up to $2 for withdrawing funds through an ATM. Affiliates who are part-time workers and use commissions as discretionary income can find it advantageous to separate their earnings from their primary bank accounts.

Just as with direct deposit, the funds are available the same day of the funds transfers, Tal says. However, if a balance is kept on the card at the end of the month, Payoneer charges a fee. While paying a fee for someone to hold onto your deposit might seem counterintuitive, Tal says that the cost of tracking and administering held-over balances is more than any interest the company could make.

Electronic Payment Options

Merchants looking to accelerate their payment processing while eliminating the cost of paper and accounting hassles have several options for going electronic. Transaction fees vary to a maximum of a few dollars per transaction, but they are all superior to the cost of paper checks.

Direct Deposit It’s easy, universally understood and safe. However, it requires validating an affiliate’s bank account number. Finding international banks to participate can be costly and time-consuming.

PayPal Many affiliates already have existing accounts so they can be very comfortable in getting on board. Little to no information is required to recruit affiliates, and PayPal can pay out in 17 currencies.

Prepaid Debit Cards Ecount and Payoneer, along with many banks backed by Visa or Mastercard, offer cards linked to online accounts. With a minimal of software integration, publishers can issue payments from within their affiliate software. Affiliates can get cash through ATMs using a card with the network’s branding.

Affiliates who set up a Payoneer account can also direct funds from any network, even if Payoneer does not have a relationship with the network, according to Tal. Each Payoneer account includes a routing number that can be used for direct deposit, similar to a brick-and-mortar bank. Affiliates can also mail endorsed checks from Google, and Payoneer will deposit the funds into their debit account, Tal says.

Debit cards can be set up so that the networks pay most or all of the transaction fees. Tal says the per-transaction fee depends on the volume of funds that the network processes. Networks that use Payoneer include AmieStreet, ROI Rocket and JoeBucks. Gary McNelly, CEO of JoeBucks, a health and beauty affiliate network, chose Payoneer because the transaction fees are less expensive than implementing PayPal. Integrating Payoneer into his reporting system required just one hour of technical staff time, he says.

Ecount of Conshohocken, Pa., offers electronic payment systems that can be used by networks to compensate affiliates and for affiliates to offer rebates to consumers with minimal administrative costs. Jay Levin, senior vice president of consumer payments at Ecount, says companies can build loyalty by offering MasterCard debit cards with their branding. "Online marketers can be tough to get off-line branding," Levin says. Offering a branded card "will give them that viral feel." As an added benefit, affiliates that work with several networks are more likely to remember and positively view a network if the logo is on a debit card that they use for discretionary income.

Ecount requires a database or XML file from the network that can be submitted via FTP or email to generate electronic payments. The company creates a custom-branded website that cardholders access to check their account balances and payments.

Ecount’s debit cards can also be used as periodic rebates for signing up for a service, Levin says. Wireless phone carriers and cable companies have issued debit cards to new customers as an incentive for signing up. Part of the cost of a new phone or cable box is returned to the customer via monthly payments to a branded card, which builds consumer loyalty at a lower cost than issuing paper checks, according to Levin.

Axill, an international network located in Piscataway, N.J., has been aggressive in pursuing the expediency of electronic affiliate payouts. The company, which is a subsidiary of online marketer Northgate Technologies of India, offers same-day payouts to affiliates who sign up for the company’s Visa debit cards. However, same-day payouts are limited to affiliates that accrue a minimum of $25 in commissions. As with other debit cards, funds can be withdrawn at ATMs from the Axill-branded cards.

International Payment Options

Paying affiliates outside of the U.S. is often costly in transaction or currency exchange fees, and affiliates who are paid by check do not have immediate access to funds. Wire transfers can cost up to $50 each, and checks from U.S. banks can take up to a month to clear out of the country – if affiliates can find a local bank willing to cash them. Recipients living outside the U.S. may also be required to pay additional fees to exchange U.S. dollars for their local currency.

DoubleClick Performics’ Fleming says making payments to foreign banks "is by far the biggest issue" in using direct deposit. The fees (associated with foreign bank transfers) "are a drawback for using electronic payments" outside of the United States, he says.

PayPal’s MassPay enables publishers to issue payments in 17 currencies to 190 countries, with transaction fees of 30 cents each plus up to 2.9 percent of the balance, according to Oldenburg. A single batch of up to 250 payments can handle multiple currencies.

Since approximately 98 percent of his affiliates are outside of the U.S., JoeBucks’ McNelly says minimizing the cost and complexity of international payments was a must. Most of his new affiliates in India, Russia and Asia choose to be paid via a Payoneer account, and they like being notified by email of a funds transfer, he says. "We haven’t had many complaints [about using Payoneer], which is unusual, because [affiliates] complain about everything," he says.

Ecount can issue electronic payments to only U.S. and Canadian residents and will add three European markets in 2008.

Payment methods will continue to evolve with technology as merchants and online marketers look for ways to create efficiencies.

Pimp My Shopping Cart

A former computer special effects artist, Christina Hills, ditched her star-studded career working magic for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and The Perfect Storm to move to Northern California’s Sierra Nevada and launch her business as a shopping cart consultant.

As owner of ShoppingCartQueen.com, an affiliate of 1Shopping Cart.com and a few other related merchants, she quickly found that "the more affiliates can match the look of the merchant’s site to the look of their website, the better their sales will be."

Industry watchers say customers clicking from one page to the next don’t want a disconnect; they don’t want to realize they’re suddenly on another site. That makes them wonder what page they landed on and if they can trust that site. It also makes them nervous about entering their credit card information. Internet experts cite these reasons, even if they’re not always conscious thoughts, as chief among why customers abandon the purchases in their shopping carts and move on.

A solution for these issues is affiliate-side shopping cart functionality. Orders go from your affiliate site to a software system that requires only one input of customer purchase and shipping information and then parcels out the individual orders to the respective merchants – all while counting toward each of your merchant’s affiliate program sales.

It’s a tricky endeavor when you consider all of the routes an affiliate sale can take and the different order coding each merchant requires. But resourceful affiliates are making it work.

"Most of our clients are affiliates," says Martin Toha, founder of OrderMachine .com. "They started marketing for a company, realized they could do it for themselves better, started becoming affiliates and did it that way. Many even buy the shopping cart to resell it." Sure, it’s easy for customers to make purchases using Buy Now buttons that send them straight to, say, Amazon.com. But the merchant’s sales message isn’t specifically honed to your customer’s needs. And once the buyer jumps off your site, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to find their way back to shop your other merchant options. Besides, the payoff for affiliate-side carts is more than just continuity. It also boosts sales, says Martin Wales at 1Shopping Cart.com. "We’ve seen 300 to 400 percent increases in sales when [affiliates actively upsell and start using] their own carts." The percentage of affiliates using their own shopping carts is small, but growing.

"How much would you pay the worst support person in the world to follow up with all your customers and take phone calls?" Wales says. "Compare that to a cart that takes 15 minutes to set up and does all of the work and reporting for you."

Return on Investment

Even 1ShoppingCart.com’s most expensive version, selling for $15,000, is still a deal, Wales says. "There are people getting that money back in two and a half months."

Advanced functionality also makes today’s carts the ultimate in affiliate branding. "Because our system includes the warehouse and the affiliate functions together," says Dan Steinberg, an international payment consultant at OrderMachine.com, "the invoice can actually indicate the name of the affiliate that brings the sale in. The entire process, from beginning to end in a sale, can be private-labeled."

OrderMachine’s partnerships with Yahoo’s store, Amazon.com and other merchants and payment gateways simplify the process: Any products sold through these partners can be imported into its system so customers can create an order right at the affiliate’s site. For 3 percent of gross sales, affiliates can now offer customers an easy, one-step process to order all kinds of affiliate products directly from their own site. That’s a huge plus.

Other advances in affiliate-side technology include 10-year-old WebCart.net, which now offers new customer-friendly features, such as regular credit card alongside PayPal processing (also offered by 1ShoppingCart.com), affiliate gift certificates and even affiliate-generated coupons.

"It’s up to the merchant and affiliate to negotiate how the commission and the coupon will be paid," says WebCart CEO Jason Ciment. "If you negotiate well, you can credit the coupon against your commission."

Plus, WebCart offers private-label capabilities and is programmed with freeware database software MySQL. "MySQL gives it the power of an Oracle-based system; it could store 30,000 products and it wouldn’t blink," says Ciment, who developed the software initially for his sites Mountain Net.com and MagMall.com. It sells in $500 (no private labeling or subscription modules), $800 and $2,500 versions.

Even more shopping cart vendors are integrating behind-the-scenes functions that help affiliates’ businesses run much more smoothly. The new shopping cart model, says AISMedia.com CEO Thomas Harpointner, is to "really integrate the website into just standard business instead of something on the Web. From a modular standpoint, I think we’re going to see a lot more integration in the future, like shopping carts integrating Peachtree software for accounting."

His company’s newly revamped Excerpo Storefront integrates features such as OrderMachine-like manual filling of orders, robust product comparison engines, automated cross-sell engines and couponing based on the amount of business customers have previously done with the site.

"These are features common on enterprise sites, but not readily available for small businesses," Harpointner says. "And an average increase of 10 or 15 percent on every order can really add up over time." Built from custom software upgrades originally done for big-name merchants, it also allows affiliates to enter all of their products – along with affiliate links – into their choice of high-functioning, merchant- quality site templates.

Unlike carts such as OrderMachine and Yahoo Small Business, Excerpo doesn’t charge transaction fees. It’s $99 to set up, with one-time licensing fees from $99 to $199.95 plus $39.95 per month for hosting (includes technical support, 250 megabits of data space, updates). It, like many others, can grow with you, so customers can consistently use the same functionality they’ve grown accustomed to even if your site goes from 10 items to 10 million.

1ShoppingCart.com’s cart pages can even be hosted on up to 100 different sites; a great solution for those hosting multiple sites who only want to purchase one cart and gather reports on all online income.

"A basic shopping cart can really just take orders," says Rob Bell, creator of 1ShoppingCart.com. "But it takes so much more to even get a potential customer to that point. That’s why [the new] services provide it all."

Typical costs to run 1ShoppingCart.com – if you opt not to purchase a one-time license – is $29 per month for the basics and $79 for added functions like autoresponders, affiliate tracking, customizable layouts for private-label partners and newsletter database management.

"There’s a big advantage to having a hosted solution like ours, which has invested a quarter of a million in appliances just to protect from server attacks and has 99.9 percent uptime; it takes all the technology worry out," Bell says.

Affiliate-only sites frequently use the system to build prospect lists and qualify sales, even if they plan to send customers to merchants for actual purchases.

Templates Make It Easy

For shopping cart functionality without all the bells and whistles, templated services have sprung up. Sites like open-source developed osCommerce.com, ZenCart .com, AlgoZone.com or CubeCart.com offer shopping cart functionality in freeto- download catalog templates with standard administrative back-office functions. Most allow PayPal or AuthorizeNet for customer payment, so affiliates won’t need a merchant account or online gateway to make use of it.

For $59 to $159 there are off-the-shelf shopping cart programs from Atomic Shops.com or eCommerceTemplates.com. Off-the-shelf options vary. AtomicShops automatically secures credit card payments through Verisign certificates (a monthly hosting fee applies). ECommerceTemplates offers fully customizable stores with drop ship features for affiliates to manipulate in Frontpage, Dreamweaver or Adobe GoLive. Many facilitate PayPal and back-office payments. Some even negotiate merchant accounts, like those through MBank Card.com: "They allow people like momand- pop shops, maybe with a little less credit, to be able to sell online," says Patrick Schrodt, Atomic Shops’ affiliate manager. MBankCard.com charges $10 a month, plus 0.25 percent of the transaction and a 29-cent transaction fee.

A templated site works best when used either as a complete retail site, with its own domain name, or as a stand-alone storefront accessed off of an existing site offering things outside of products – such as advice, forums or newsletters. Some templates, however, do include functions like newsletter databases and distribution software. Mal’s e-commerce freeware, at Mals-e.com, even allows affiliates to design the cart to match the look of their sites and incorporate PayPal as the payment option.

For some reason, the templated sites also show up more frequently in natural search listings, a boost for past customers who just can’t quite remember your site’s name. Search engine placement is critically important these days. Shopping service Shopzilla found that 59 percent of Internet buyers start shopping at a search engine rather than going directly to a merchant, up from 46 percent three years ago.

But maybe a single shopping cart doesn’t offer the bells and whistles you’re after. Or maybe you’d like to try your hand before committing. Aside from trial versions there are other strategies for giving customers a faster and friendlier checkout process.

My Credit Card Information

Visitors create their own wallet-type information at a secure section on your site, where the contact and credit card information is logged for later processing. Most merchants allow back-end fulfillment, which means that you can take the information you have and manually send individual orders to their individual merchant – all using the same customer information for that order. Some merchants even give incentives to affiliates who do their own processing.

Taking an active part in processing orders also gives affiliates a real-time sense of what products are selling best. They then start stocking the products that sell well, cutting deals with merchants for wholesale prices on those items, forwarding the orders to designated dropshippers for fulfillment and passing the savings along to the customer.

Personalize for Customers

Bring visitors back by helping them create wish lists, or personal "homepages" with links to items they’re interested in. Remind visitors to actually make the page their homepage (or at least bookmark it) and refer friends there for gift ideas. Encourage wedding, birthday or new-home registries – anything to make a hectic person’s life easier. Keep logins simple by having them just type in their email address. Capture the email addresses and you can send out helpful suggestions for new, similar items they might want to add to their list.

Automate Clickthroughs

When it comes to helpful emails, some shopping carts have the ability to automate this for you. CEO Joshua Baer of Unsub Central says a number of affiliates are using automated programs for "time-based" emails, staying in touch with customers as soon as they click on a link. The program automatically sends them an email, written based on the link they clicked, that suggests similar merchants or products they’ll find on the affiliate’s site.

If this feature isn’t offered with your shopping cart, then Baer has this suggestion: When customers click the Submit button, have the merchant’s landing page open in a separate browser. That way, when they’re through placing the order and close the window, they are already back at your site.

Program Submit buttons to open a new screen on your own site, and then you also can immediately show your customers alternate selections to the one they just clicked. "For those that are using it, the results are incredible," Baer says. "[An affiliate] that normally might get a 10 to 20 percent open rate might jump to 40 or 50 percent." The implication, of course, is that this strategy also works for customers.

Niche Gateways

Let’s say you manage a travel site making money from clickthroughs to various travel merchants. World Choice Travel, at WCTravel.com, has an integrated shopping cart feature that searches all airlines and travel programs online for the best fares.

By opting to go with one merchant that supplies links to all of your potential product options, you greatly simplify the search for your user and can even brand the process all the way to the credit card statement.

If you offer five types of product categories, you often can find one merchant for each category offering an affiliate program for all the products you normally would sell separately. This makes it easy to structure your sites as either a "gateway" for products in different categories or create five different landing pages, where visitors will go when they search, that are your branded pages for the new all-in-one merchants.

Back-End Fulfillment

Chris Malta, an eBay-certified solution provider and CEO of drop-ship directory provider WorldwideBrands.com, has seen more people combining affiliate techniques with their own drop shipping. As mentioned above, this method enables you to pass along discounts your customers wouldn’t normally get by ordering with the merchant’s Buy Now link. Drop-shippers handle the software portion of getting orders to the merchants. Only about 30 percent of drop-shippers handle shipping for orders placed outside of their respective countries of origin, so shop around if you’re looking to add international sales.

Thanks to advances in shopping cart technology, affiliates now have a lot of ways to help their customers through the online process – even if those affiliates aren’t filling orders themselves.

 

JENNIFER MEACHAM‘s stories have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, the AARP magazine and CBSMarketWatch.com. She’s a former reporter for the Seattle Times.