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.