What’s in a Name?

Buying domain names of real live people can be manna to the unscrupulous.

Anne Fognano is not a newbie in the online marketing world. She has run a successful affiliate business since 1997. She’s the force behind CleverMoms.com and has registered a raft of variations on the "clever moms" domain name to safeguard her valuable brand. But she never bought the domain for her own name – AnneFognano.com. When someone else did, all hell broke loose.

While domain squatting is as old as the Internet itself, the practice of buying a dot-com name and waiting for someone with a bag of cash to offer to buy it from you has lost some of its cachet – especially since pretty much all the good common names and brand names are taken these days.

However, this hasn’t stopped some folks from getting creative. Many call it "domain extortion," where someone buys your name, sets up a rudimentary Web page of you with dummy copy and then contacts you to sell you services such as Web design, hosting and other services for bloggers. This is what exactly what happened to Fognano.

"Not much I can do about it," she says, "because I don’t have my name trademarked." Since she is not a "public figure" like George Clooney or Paris Hilton, it makes it harder to make a case that her image has been co-opted for monetary gain. The FBI and her local District Attorney’s office in Virginia told her that unless she could prove that someone was looking to profit from her name, they could do little. Besides, they told her, the payout would be so little that it wasn’t worth the authorities’ time.

Domain parking in general is fairly big business, thanks in part to the popularity of PPC programs. Anyone can buy a domain that is either a name someone may type into the address bar or is a misspelling of a brand name (called typosquatting) and put nothing but Yahoo or Google PPC ads on the sites. The ads on these types of sites actually generated $400 million in sales in 2006, according to Susquehanna Financial Group, and looks to hit the $1 billion mark by the end of 2007.

Updated Version of Cybersquatting

In the domain extortion variation, someone grabs a name of a living person who has a blog or is an affiliate marketer for as low as $6 or $8 per name through an inexpensive domain registry such as GoDaddy.com. If the person that bought the domain offers to sell services to the namesake on top of giving them back their name, there’s nothing illegal that’s been done, according to authorities. In addition, the person who registered your name generally gets more than his $8 if you decide to at least take your name back.

In Fognano’s case, she decided to fight back. Going to the popular online forum for affiliates, ABestWeb.com, she posted her dilemma and let the members know that a "blog consultant, John Kitovitsu" of PurchaseMyBlog.com emailed her to show her what using his services would look like and that she could buy the domain from him. ABestWeb members, a large, vocal and tight knit community of savvy online marketers, suggested sending him a "cease and desist" letter to remove the content, which include her image and an article taken from Revenue magazine. They also suggested bringing him up before the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and even paying him a personal visit. ABestWebbers also helped her document all the text and images on the fake site and tracked down the IP address for the hosting company serving up the site. They also determined there was no business active on the Web using the PurchaseMyBlog name.

Not a Crime?

Fognano called the local police, the FBI, her local District Attorney and even the dubious website’s hosting company (in Germany). Since "Kitovitsu" had also set up a WordPress blog page for her without her permission, she got WordPress to pull down the page for violation of their terms of service. Fognano said the FBI pulled the site for her and said it would put an "FBI investigation tag" on the website. "I actually didn’t care that much," she said. "How many people are going to type my name [directly into the address bar]? But only when they use my name and image is it a big deal."

Thus far, the authorities she contacted are not calling this a crime. New York State recently signed a law providing a $1,000 fine per day for violation of people registering domain names of known people purely to sell them their own names for profit. The law goes into effect in early 2008. While it is not known if other states will follow suit, the terms may be just vague enough not to quash the practice entirely.

"It’s almost like they are taking your identity," Fognano says. "It seemed strange that it isn’t a crime."

Domain name registrars say they can only do so much. In 1999, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that registrars, such as Network Solutions, could not be held liable for registering a domain of a "known trademark." Network Solutions – which used to be the exclusive registrars of domain names in the U.S., says it used to purge "domain speculators" from its registry, especially those who registered thousands of domain names at a time. But it adds that most domain names can only be reclaimed if those who registered the names do not pay on time.

After inquiries were made, Fognano heard again from "Kitovitsu." "It’s not our intention to pose as you or use your blog for material gain," the email said. "If you decide to join our network we can have a professionally designed template made to enhance the look and feel of your blog."

"Oh, I see. It was a sales pitch," said a poster on her thread at ABestWeb. Another poster wrote that it sounded like "a scam with a bit of extortion thrown in."

Registrars and Revenue

Now that lower-cost domain name registering companies such as GoDaddy.com have entered the field, the competition for registration fees is much greater. There are hundreds of accredited registrar companies internationally that deal in the more popular .com, .net, .biz, .org, .edu and .mobi top-level domains. A new domain is registered at GoDaddy.com every 1.3 seconds, the company says. That figure comes to 12.8 million domain names every five months, according to Netcraft, up from 7.5 million in a five-month time frame last year.

Selling parked domains is also still big business. Business.com famously sold in 1999 for $7.5 million. Sex.com changed hands last year for a reported $14 million, although some reports said it was more like $11 million. Domain name sales generated $29 million in 2005, according to Zetetic. Some are just in it for the names. NameMedia, for example, apparently has more than 750,000 domain names in its marketplace. Sedo.com also acts as a kind of eBay for the domain space, selling $3 million worth of domain names per month.

"A domain name isn’t something you own, it’s just something you have a right to use," says Elizabeth Beal, director of the Communications Law Centre at Victoria University in Canada. "So it’s not like [a cybersquatter] has been using somebody else’s property."

In this age of security, some companies are enhancing their products and discovering revenue streams in the process. Retail domain name registrar Dotser offers "domain name security" with its NameSafe and TransferLock products. NameSafe restricts actions such as account updates, name server updates, contact name changes, domain account changes and registrar transfers without prior authorization through email. They charge a small annual fee for the service. Its TransferLock prevents domain name transfers without being logged in to your account. This service is free. Dotser itself, however, was named in a typosquatting lawsuit by retailers Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman a few years ago, saying that Dotster put up ad-filled pages in misspelled domains of the retailer’s name and then only paid to keep the misspelled URLs that were generating any revenue. This is called domain kiting.

Some critics also charge that the extra fee-based services don’t prevent someone from snapping up your domain if the registrar goes bankrupt or registers a taken name by accident or if the registrar deletes your domain through a process error. That’s what happened to Gary Kremen when Network Solutions was conned into giving up his Sex.com domain – a destination that was reportedly earning him $8 million per year. It took him three years to get the name back, but he was pretty much bankrupt by then.

Because of the competition between retail registrars, it isn’t surprising that companies are trying to entice you to add services or register more versions of a domain than you may need. One variation on the hard sell is getting a fax from a "domain name monitoring" organization stating that someone was registering the dot-net version of a dot-com domain name you owned. Saying they were checking on possible trademark conflicts on domains they have registered, the company offers to register the dot-net domain for you instead. Sometimes the materials are marked "final notice" with that day’s date as the deadline.

Lapses and Losses

Members of ABestWeb also suggested Fognano file a complaint with ICANN. You can make a case and request the domain be transferred to you. In most cases, when you register a domain, you are also agreeing to mandatory arbitration. Arbitrations through ICANN can also be far less expensive than litigation, and the judgments through arbitration can be quicker – about 60 days. While ICANN recognizes the need to keep the processes for transferring domain names tight, it is well aware of the chorus of complaints from those hijacked or extorted. "The registrant may lose an established identity and be exposed to extortion by name speculators," ICANN has stated. "Domain hijacking can disrupt or severely impact the business and operations of a registrant."

Generally there is a process by which a domain name can fall back into the unregistered pool to be snatched up by any attentive domain buyer. You register YourName.com on a given date: 1/11/06. The domain expires on 1/11/07. There happens to be a 30-day grace period to allow for renewal of the domain for the standard renewal price (until about 2/11/07). If that date passes, the domain is tagged as in a "redemption grace period," during which time the domain is put in "registrar hold" and then "pending delete" – about 30 to 45 days, depending on the registrar.

ICANN allows the registrar to charge its own fee for renewal from then on, which could go as high as $160. GoDaddy charges $80 and Network Solutions charges $160. If those fees aren’t paid, the domain name is released into the pool to be bought by anyone.
Rich Miller, blogger at DomainWorks.com, says to treat your domain as a brand. Network Solutions agrees – that domains left to expire run the risk of being co-opted by anyone, it says. Miller says that you should register your domain for more than one year. This way it’s actually cheaper to register and you won’t have to remember to do it every year. There are some who say that domains that have been registered and active for a while get better Google page rankings.

Miller also suggests that you should look for the best registrar, not just the cheapest. Look up the reputation of the registrar. You may not see a difference in the features of a registrar who charges $30 versus $9, but you will see a big difference between the $9 and the $5 registrar. He always recommends registering "alternates" of your name in other top-level domains. If you own the .net but not the .com, the .com owner can trademark their name and potentially force you to give yours up. Also, he says, don’t forget to brand your name within the social networks – set up pages in MySpace and other destinations before someone else does.

And whatever brand name you are operating under, always remember to try to buy your own name as a domain. Recently, Fognano decided she would offer "Kitovitsu" $10 to buy her domain from him. She has yet to hear back from him.

Poaching Prohibited

What’s in a name? According to Shakespeare’s Juliet, not much, but if the name is trademarked it has value worth protecting. Successful companies spend millions developing a brand name and promoting their Web domains online. Some publishers, however, treat others’ trademarks like their personal ATMs by generating commissions through misleading ads.

This practice has become alarmingly present during the past few years and is often referred to by a variety of names: trademark poaching, trademark bidding, domain name poaching and PPC domain name bidding. Kellie Stevens, president of Affiliate-FairPlay.com, says it’s a difficult issue to discuss because the terminology is still not clearly defined or even completely understood.

Some in the industry say it’s actually misleading to call it trademark poaching or trademark bidding. Instead they refer to it as PPC domain name poaching because it’s really a subset of a merchant’s trademark-type words, namely their domain name. Some industry watchers say that using the phrase “trademark poaching” or “trademark bidding” has connotations of it being a legal issue under existing trademark law, but it is really a violation of the terms of services contract between the merchant and the affiliate.

Regardless of the various terminology (which is often used interchangeably), in its most conservative definition, this practice involves a keyword search on a trademarked term or the merchant’s domain name that triggers a pay-per-click ad. The ads use a merchant’s trademark in the copy, and through clever coding, the display URL appears to consumers to be from the merchant.

The way it works is that consumers type an address in places other than the URL bar – such as the desktop Google bar or into their favorite search engine – and are taken to the merchant’s site or an affiliate site via an affiliate link, thus giving an affiliate a commission when none is deserved.

The basis that this commission is unwarranted is the idea that if a consumer types in a merchant’s URL or domain address, it is clear they were seeking that merchant and the affiliate provided no added value in getting the potential buyer to that destination. Therefore, the affiliate should not be compensated.

The origin of today’s trademark poaching problem dates back to 2004, when Google changed its AdWords policy to allow keyword bidding on trademarks and associated Web domains. Cunning individuals began joining affiliate programs and designing PPC ads to appear to come from a well-known merchant. When clicked on, the ad directs the consumer to the trademark owner’s site through a link that inserted the affiliate ID, therefore generating a commission for any resulting purchase. Voilà! No website is required – the ad creates a straight path to easy commissions.

WHY IT’S ATTRACTIVE

Trademark poaching is attractive because of the low barrier to entry. For just the price of a PPC ad, publishers can quickly generate handsome commissions without the usual affiliate administration overhead, and reducing the steps from click to purchase increases the likelihood of a purchase.

One PPC affiliate, who asked not to be named, says there is a “pack of about 30” PPC affiliates that closely monitor the list of new merchants at every network and “crank up campaigns on them all” in order to profit from this behavior.

The anonymous PPC affiliate says “it takes less than four minutes to create a new campaign for a new merchant,” and that this pack of rogue PPC affiliates “don’t read the terms of service” from the merchants and they “don’t care about size – they cover them all.” He says it’s like a competition among this “pack” and that they do this for hundreds of merchants.

“There’s a trickle of others trying it from time to time as well, but the way Google and most search engines work, historical performance and clickthrough rates determine who gets the spots. They’re all competing for the one spot that lands on the merchant’s domain,” the PPC affiliate explains.

He went on to note, “That’s a ton of commissions paid out for almost nothing. If a merchant can easily do this PPC themselves, why pay an affiliate a large percent commission for doing it? It’s the branded traffic the merchant has earned; giving it away to a lazy poaching affiliate is just ignorant.”

Scott Hazard, who runs the website Cooperative- Affiliates.com, says ads that mask their origin in this manner confuse the marketplace and take money away from the merchant and the affiliate channel.

“It’s more of a problem for big brands” with recognizable names, Hazard says, as the popularity of the name as a search term will generate the high volume of traffic needed to create sizable commissions.

However, another school of thought says that although big brand merchants are often targeted more – thus losing more money overall – it’s a problem for merchants of all sizes. In fact, many smaller merchants are less aware of the issue and how to police it, making them easy marks.

While determining exactly how widespread this practice has become is difficult since it’s hard to track throughout the entire industry, a PPC consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, says, that “in some smaller programs I have worked with, as a merchant consultant and/or as a PPC consultant, as much as 40 percent of their registered affiliate sales are coming from this poaching.”

The only penalties for being caught poaching is getting kicked out of an affiliate program and having your commission withheld. That’s a small price to pay compared with the upside of undetected revenue. (See the “Trademark Ads in Legal Limbo” sidebar on page 048″ for details on other potential penalties.) Trademark poaching challenges merchants because as quickly as affiliates are kicked off, others are ready to take their places, according to Hazard.

Hazard launched the website TrademarkPoachers.com in August of 2007 to provide advice and education about the practice. While his site has increased awareness of the problem, “It doesn’t seem to be happening any less,” he says. Some say that they have anecdotal evidence that nearly 50 percent of pay per click is based on trademark poaching.

Chuck Hamrick, an affiliate manager for AffiliateCrew.com, started noticing trademark poaching in mid-2006. He could see that it was impacting overall revenue for some merchants because after he removed the poachers, the affiliate channel earnings went down, while organic and paid search revenue increased by larger amounts. This showed that trademark poaching “was cannibalizing our other efforts,” he says.

In the last two years, Hamrick caught a number of well-known affiliates poaching. He gave them “two strikes and they were out” of the program. If they didn’t take down the offending ads, he would reverse their commissions. “If it happened again, it was not by accident,” he says.

TRACKING THE POACHERS

Still, merchants that do not protect their trademarks from poachers are like retailers that allow customers to walk out with the price tags still on the clothes – if you’re looking the other way, someone will inevitably take advantage of you. Although networks can help with detection, it is the affiliate manager’s responsibility to function as the security guard and prevent these losses.

Fortunately for merchants, tracking this nefarious activity is relatively simple. Reviewing commission reports is one effective method for identifying trademark poachers. High conversion rates or affiliates who rise too quickly in volume of referrals are signs of potential trademark poaching, according to Dave Osman, senior vice president of operations at Commission Junction. “[Trademark policing] is one of the biggest challenges that the affiliate channel has had,” Osman says.

Managers can bid on their trademarks through Google AdWords to see the affiliates that are also bidding as another method of identifying potential poachers. Checking data for the location and time of day where commissions are generated can also help to identify poachers. To head off potential poachers, merchants can specify with AdWords that bidding not be allowed on their trademark or the trademark as part of their domain name.

Google will take down ads from affiliates or competitors that include domain names or URLs if the trademark holder complains, according to the policy stated on the AdWords website. However, Google will not block keyword bidding on trademarks and will not otherwise mediate disagreements over trademark poaching.

THE CASE FOR AND AGAINST

However, there are some merchants that will ask their PPC affiliates to do trademark bidding. AffiliateFairPlay’s Stevens says that there are pros and cons to this tack and merchants that allow it employ the rationale that they would prefer to see their affiliates ranking higher in the search engines than their rivals.

However, these merchants often fall into two categories – those that understand the issue and allow it to happen; and those merchants that are not aware of the implications.

When a merchant understands it and still allows domain name bidding, it’s usually because the affiliate manager can make themselves look good to superiors by showing lots of sales; or the merchant wants to inflate their EPC and sales volume to make their program’s metrics look attractive; or the merchant has made a deal with someone – such as a legitimate consultant – who in exchange for the sweet, low-hanging domain name fruit, obligates themselves to do something else, like pump those margins into deeper product and general keyword PPC on the merchant’s behalf, according to a PPC expert.

For those who don’t completely understand the issue, the reasons to allow it are slightly different: The merchant believes these posted sales are the result of “power” affiliates’ magic and doesn’t understand they’re allowing their brand, via their site name, to be leveraged by someone who does only that; or they have no idea what’s happening and believe these are actually their best affiliates; or someone such as a PPC agency or an outsourced program manager has them hoodwinked into believing this is a good practice.

However, there are instances when this type of bidding can be helpful, according to some PPC experts.

If a merchant has chosen to have coupons, then a search for “merchantname coupons” will be filled with SEO coupon affiliates ready to meet that need in the engine’s natural organic listings. The same principle works for reviews of merchants’ product or services. Most often, consumers seeking reviews don’t want to visit a merchant’s site. Instead, they want a supposedly unbiased view. Therefore, allowing an affiliate to bid on MerchantNameReview.com might be desirable to the merchant.

The Big Decision

One search expert, who asked not to be named, says there are two questions a merchant must ask before making the decision on domain name bidding.

No. 1: Do I allow my affiliates to bid on “MerchantName.com” where they send people directly to MY MERCHANT website and where they earn a commission?

No. 2: Do I allow my affiliates to bid on “MerchantName.com” where they send people directly to THEIR AFFILIATE website and where they earn a commission if someone clicks through to my merchant site from their affiliate site?

Most observers say the answer to the first question, should be – “No way, this is the merchant’s traffic and they earned it. It’s fat with ROI (often a 19x return) and it’s theirs.”

On the second question, the answer is not as clear. Allowing affiliates to do this might keep competitors from squatting on the name with their PPC ads. Search engines could see the merchant’s ads as more relevant because the domain name is the same word as the keyword, meaning that the merchant should be able to still occupy the top search spots with ease.

The Role of the Networks

Networks including Commission Junction offer trademark policing as a value-added service, and specialist companies such as Trademark Tracker and Name Protect can search out poaching ads as part of their broader trademark protection services.

While the industry is in agreement that trademark poaching is unacceptable, there is little consensus on related trademark use by affiliates in their advertising efforts. From keyword bidding on trademarks to the use of trademarks in ad copy, merchants, ad networks and affiliate networks each have their own rules and perspectives on what is permissible, and often those vary depending on individual contractual relationships.

“Ultimately, trademark poaching is in the eye of the beholder,” says CJ’s Osman. “The burden is on [affiliates] to learn each of their [merchants’] rules and to receive permission before incorporating trademarks into their ads.”

Buying a trademark as a keyword in conjunction with other words, such as “iPod and covers” is often allowed or encouraged because search engines do not want to exclude “broad match” terms. With the permission of the trademark owner, trademarks are also permitted as part of the affiliate’s display URL (e.g., www.affiliatesite.com/coupons or /reviews).

Through statistical data and the ability to observe dozens or hundreds of merchants at the same time, the networks have the power to stop this practice, but some think they don’t go far enough in their efforts.

“Good networks will show the referral URLs to the merchant, making it easy to find these poachers if they look, and reverse their orders [don’t pay them] and remove them from their affiliate program for violating the rules,” one PPC expert says.

According to one PPC consultant, who asked not to be named, the networks don’t ban this bogus practice for a variety of reasons – all related to money:

  • Merchants who want to shine their metrics (and show their bosses how well their programs are running) would go to another network.
  • Unscrupulous OPMs (outsourced program managers) would suggest alternative networks for new clients.
  • Unscrupulous OPMs would migrate programs to other networks, and when the reported sales went up, they’d be proven “right” about suggesting the migration.
  • Some merchants would not be able to make deals with their PPC consultants or agencies, and a new network that allowed this practice would be the only alternative.
  • Many less-than-savvy merchants would accuse the network of firing their “best” affiliates.

Because merchants have a right to run their own program, networks don’t and shouldn’t take an all-encompassing stance against it, the PPC consultant says.

Commission Junction’s policy is not to allow the use of trademarks in third-party ads without the express permission of a merchant, according to Osman. The rules that each merchant sets depend on their individual objectives, with some opting to be more flexible in allowing trademark use, he says. “All [merchants] do not view their [affiliates’] use of their trademarks in the same light: They have different marketing needs and therefore make allowances when necessary. For this reason Osman says, “I don’t think consistency [across the industry] is possible.”

Affiliates bidding on a domain name and sending the traffic to their own sites is seen by some but not all in the industry as trademark abuse. “One type of trademark poaching – typo squatting – is the intentional use of a misspelling of the trademarked URL, and is considered trademark infringement by most marketers,” says Osman. In recent years, companies Dell and Lands’ End successfully sued affiliates for generating commissions through typo squatting and direct linking.

Merchants can best protect their trademarks by spelling out what is allowable in their contracts with affiliates and by educating their network partners. Network ShareASale provides a dedicated area for posting banned keywords and text explaining the merchants’ choices, easily available referral URLs marked on every sale so the merchant can see the details, a feedback system for merchants to tag terms-of-service-violating affiliates to others, and other mechanisms making implementation of a merchant’s choices easier and more effective.

“Each merchant has different ideas when it comes to this issue, so our goal is to try to make as much information as possible available to both the affiliates and merchants on our network so that they can run their programs as they wish to run them,” says ShareASale President and CEO Brian Littleton. He encourages merchants to upload their individual agreements as well as a list of prohibited keywords so that all parties are clear on what is allowed.

One observer says that merchants need to ask the networks different questions instead of just asking for advice on whether or not they should allow domain name bidding in their programs. Rather, the merchants should be posing questions to the networks such as: What will the networks do for me? What tools will they give me to support and facilitate my choices on these issues? How will they help me police a decision to disallow it and what repercussions/tools will they give me to stop people who do it and won’t stop?

Domain name poaching is not going away anytime soon, but search experts promoting best practices say that savvy merchants and affiliate managers that educate themselves on the complex issues will realize the practice is a shortsighted path to profits, and ultimately bad for the entire industry.

The Pay Per Click Dance

A few years ago, if your site wasn’t listed in Yahoo you might as well have given up. Yahoo was practically the only game in town, being the search engine of choice 75 percent of the time. There were all sorts of secret ways to get a better listing, and you had to know these and implement them or your site was invisible. Then, along came a little company called GoTo.com with its cheeky idea to let sites bid on better positioning in search results. A revolution was started.

GoTo.com morphed into the king of pay-per-click search engine marketing, Overture.com., which was just purchased by Yahoo. When you couple that with the near-psychic accuracy of search results returned by Google through its Google Ad Words, you had better know how to tame these behemoths or once again you’ll be invisible. Once you have mastered the strategies, your top-placed search results will send anxious buyers streaming to your site. Within 48 hours, your return on investment on specific keywords can be analyzed, judged and tweaked to improve your bottom line.

This is where affiliate marketing gets interesting. For as long as people have been commissioned to sell other people’s products, cleverness and innovation have produced the top sellers. I remember years ago a charismatic salesman came to my family’s house with an array of shiny new pots and pans. He proceeded to make a delicious meal, accompanied by never-ending sales patter. Before he left that night my dad had parted with a significant portion of his hard-earned cash for these magical pots. A very clever marketing tactic indeed.

Affiliates have grasped this concept from the get-go. These days, good money can be made by going beyond banners and cleverly investing in and managing a pay-per-click search strategy. But what if both the merchant and the affiliates are both doing PPC marketing? That’s the big question every company that operates an affiliate program ought to be asking itself these days. In fact, good affiliates do use PPC and in many cases they’re doing it better than the merchants.

So, how does that affect your business model and what kinds of policies should you establish around this issue? Well, it depends on what your marketing strengths and weaknesses are and it depends on how well you have analyzed your own marketing dollars’ ROI. To simplify it, there are basically three different ways to approach this issue: 1) Let your affiliates do anything they want with PPC search engines, 2) Prohibit affiliates from doing any PPC marketing, or 3) Compromise, and develop a strategy that allows you and your affiliates to divvy up the PPC traffic.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each of these models.

1. Anything Goes

If you let your affiliates do anything they want, you’ll get the same results as if you have NO policy. Good affiliates will research low-cost, high-traffic keywords relating to your site and products and will actively manage these bids to leverage what they pay for the words against what you pay them for the sale or lead. The “pro” is that the affiliates are bearing the cost of this marketing strategy. The “con” is that you are possibly paying more for that sale than you have to.

2. Nothing Goes

The second option is to prohibit affiliates from doing PPC marketing. Why? Because the knee-jerk reaction to No. 1 is, “Well now, wait a second, I could be getting all that traffic instead of them and paying less for it.” So you decide to pour your marketing dollars into PPC traffic on not only your brand name but on all your products and every keyword imaginable to “corner the market.”

But the “con” of this approach is that your spending will go up dramatically, your management resources will go up dramatically to stay on top of thousands of words daily (sometimes hourly) and, worst of all, good affiliates who are good at this kind of marketing will drop out of your program.

3. Compromise

Finally, there’s the idea of compromising on a strategy that allows both sides to engage in PPC marketing. Helping affiliates make money will help you make money in the long run. How do you develop a good plan? You simply have to evaluate what you can manage and pay for effectively and what affiliates could do better and more profitably.

For example, let’s say you have tested and done well in Overture with 300 top keywords and trademark names relating to your business. You’ve analyzed the stats and you’ve proved that staying in the top position for most of those returns a healthy margin between bid price and sales/lead volume. But you’re maxed out in terms of marketing budget or marketing staff to double or triple your buys.

This is where your affiliates come in handy. Provide them with proven keywords and let them “have at it” on Google Adwords or any of the other PPC engines, like Findwhat or Kanoodle. Also, in order to keep competition between you and your affiliates to a minimum, ask that they not outbid you on Overture and police this aggressively. Take space No. 1 and No. 2 and let your affiliates take bids that place them at Nos. 3, 4, 5 and so on, and you have effectively shut out your competition on valued keywords and phrases.

The main thing is to evaluate and then articulate a well-thought-out policy for you and your affiliates. Decide on the best use of your resources and budget, and then help your affiliates use this powerful sales channel to their best advantage. It will benefit you both.

LINDA WOODS helps companies start and manage affiliate programs. Long known as the Affiliate Goddess, her new company, PartnerCentric.com, offers strategy consulting, training and outsourced program management services.

Been There Done That: Q & A with Shawn Collins

It’s very difficult to find anyone in affiliate marketing better known than Shawn Collins, who earned his first commissions more than seven years ago.

Wearing his newest hat, as president/CEO of Shawn Collins Consulting, he provides outsourced affiliate program management. But he is, perhaps, better known as a co-founder of Affiliate Summit, as the author of the top-selling book Successful Affiliate Marketing for Merchants and for launching the highly successful affiliate program for ClubMom, a membership shopping site.

As a result of his numerous roles, Collins has not only become ubiquitous, but has helped to shape the industry through its childhood. He’s emerged as an expert for spotting new trends. Indeed, Revenue Editor-in-Chief Tom Murphy discovered some surprises when he interviewed Collins about where affiliate marketing is headed.

TOM MURPHY: You’re very well known in the industry as a superaffiliate, a guru, an association leader, a leader of an industry summit and, most recently, as a program consultant. How do you really define yourself these days?

SHAWN COLLINS: I guess I’ve been on every angle of the industry, working as an affiliate and affiliate manager. I worked with First Directory Preferred years ago. I guess, overall, I’d probably characterize myself as a cheerleader of the industry as well as a shepherd trying to push it in a direction that I think will be helpful for the industry.

TM: Do you think there’s a chance of spreading yourself too thin?

SC: I don’t think so, but my wife thinks I spread myself too thin a long time ago.

TM: You recently published your AffStat survey, which had some very interesting statistics in it. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know what’s going on in affiliate marketing. I had heard, for example, from a number of sources, that only about 5 percent of affiliates make any real money and only about 2 percent fall into the superaffiliate category. But your AffStat report shows 20 percent of affiliates making more than $2,000 a month. Do you think that’s an accurate figure?

SC: Yes. I had a pretty good cross-section here who were participating in the survey, from the very small mom-and-pops to some of the really big players. And I know who contributed the answers, so I think it’s a very accurate depiction.

One of the things that skews the numbers when they talk about 5 percent or 2 percent is that, in the past, there was a very big emphasis on quantity over quality of affiliates. And people are very proud to claim they had 75,000 or 100,000 affiliates. But naturally, you’re not going to have 15 percent of those being too powerful. These days, you see a lot more of a boutique approach to it, where people have 1,000 or 5,000 affiliates, so it’s much more realistic to have a good 20 percent or more be superaffiliates.

TM: I’d like to hear your thoughts on a few of the issues facing affiliates, including PPC, predatory advertising, Froogle and things like that. But, first, do you think these things taken together are really just symptoms of an evolving industry?

SC: Yeah, I really think they’re inevitable. It’s a more sophisticated industry than it was back in the ’90s. I think they’re good things. They’re hurting some of the smaller affiliates, but they’re making things easier for the affiliate managers because they’re shrinking the number of affiliates they have to deal with.

TM: It sounds almost like a natural, evolutionary process where there’s a survival of the fittest. Do you think that’s what is taking place?

SC: Absolutely. Back in 2000, and earlier than that, you really didn’t see any superaffiliates out there. You had SchoolPop and some others, but there’s been a big emergence of these sites over the past couple of years – various sites that have a tremendous amount of traffic, with membership sites and things. They’ve really taken a big bite out of the industry. They account for a big portion of the activity that goes on.

TM: Predatory advertising seems to be perceived as public enemy No. 1 in the community. Do you see that as a problem that’s getting better or worse going forward?

SC: I think it’s been limited to a degree over the last year or so, but it’s still a very relevant issue and I think it will be around for a while. Certainly, some of the affiliate managers have taken a cue from the networks. I think the affiliate managers have to be more proactive in their approach to stopping it instead of just sort of waiting for something to happen.

It is sort of a double-edged sword because a lot of the affiliate managers on a moralistic level would like to get rid of predatory advertisers. But when they have pressure from their bosses on the bottom line, they end up having to take those (predatory) affiliates because they’re seeing higher numbers with them. It puts them between a rock and a hard place. They want to do the right thing, but they want to keep their job[s].

TM: There’s a similar thing with spam. Nobody likes it. It hurts the image of the community. It hurts the consumers. And, arguably, it hurts the merchants and manufacturers, who spend a lot of time building up brand names. Do you think that’s also a double-edged sword for the merchants?

SC: With the parasites, there are some good adware products. But I think with spam, there’s never a good spammer. I think that has really hurt the industry tremendously because it’s resulted in the CAN-SPAM Act and that changed the face of affiliate marketing in one fell swoop this year.

TM: You wrote about the CAN-SPAM Act recently in a brief and in your blog. Could you reiterate your key points?

SC: Basically, a lot of the CAN-SPAM [requirements] are logical things, like you have to have an unsubscribe option and take care of things that any permission mailer always takes care of. But one of the things that makes it very difficult for affiliate marketing is the need to have a suppression list. If I’m an affiliate and I usually feature four different merchants in my newsletters, I’m now going to have to crush my entire subscriber list against their list of unsubscribes who never want to hear from them again. That makes it awfully challenging, not only to get that technology and make it work, but it throws some hurdles in front of affiliates who run email promotions.

TM: Some affiliates are feeling deeply threatened by Froogle, Google’s spider-driven shopping service. What kind of impact do you see from that in the affiliate area?

SC: Just from the power of Google, I think it’s certainly going to have a greater and greater impact on the smaller affiliates. A lot of the merchants like it because it gives them more exposure, the same as Shopping.com or Yahoo’s comparison-shopping engine. I think it’s a very positive thing in terms of affiliate programs getting more exposure and more penetration, but it’s definitely one of the things leading to a smaller world of affiliates out there.

TM: From what you said, it sounds like the number of people making some real money is on the rise, but the overall number of affiliates is declining. Is that right?

SC: Yes. Through a sort of natural selection, I guess. Since people used to take all comers, you’d get tons of sites from Geocities, and the free sites on AOL, and different free hosting services. So a lot of affiliates would be made up of free services where they never even bothered to put a link up. I wouldn’t even characterize them as affiliates because they didn’t know how to put a link up.

TM: I saw you referred to a lot of affiliates as “dead affiliates” in your report, people who haven’t provided a click in the last month or so. What sort of proportion do you think that is of the total number of affiliates out there?

SC: For the larger programs that haven’t done any sort of maintenance to clean out people who’ve been inactive for a while, they probably fall into that 95-5 rule (where only 5 percent of affiliates are making money). But (for) people who’ve tried to communicate often with the inactive affiliates, and sweep them out if they haven’t been active, it’s a much different percentage. But I think 80 percent of the programs probably have the 95-5 rule going on.

TM: That’s a pretty high proportion. And it’s contrary to a lot of other things we’re seeing going on with big business today. Most businesses in the last two years or so since the recession have been trying hard to maximize their efficiencies. And it seems like the affiliate program may be one of those areas that’s been overlooked. At the same time, I see affiliate programs contributing a bigger proportion of top-line growth to corporations these days. What’s your advice to corporations in general?

SC: It makes all the sense in the world to shrink the number of affiliates to just those affiliates who are going to be performing and who show some promise. But affiliates who have emails that bounce back and haven’t shown an impression in six months, I don’t think it’s worth carrying them on the affiliate roles. One of the reasons you see this perpetuating is that it’s all performance-driven. So even though they may be taking up some bandwidth, they’re really not costing anything for the companies that are keeping them on. But it makes more sense to me to shrink the size of the affiliate program so you know who’s promoting you and how they’re doing it, and you have a relationship with them.

TM: How do you think pay per click is changing the world for affiliates?

SC: In the last couple of years, there were a whole lot of affiliates basically using PPC – not even having their own Web sites. It was quite a successful tactic. I did it myself for quite a while, just driving activity right to the merchant. But in the last six months, a lot of merchants have been clamping down and adding a lot of restrictions because they found they’ve been bidding against their own affiliates and paying more than they have to. They’ve been concerned that a lot of searches normally would have ended at their site anyway. When an affiliate buys the keywords for a trademarked name, it’s a waste of money for the merchants because it would have been organic traffic for them.

TM: Do you think that’s an issue that will go away on its own because merchants will put a stop to it?

SC: I think what a lot of them are doing is damming the ability to bid on trademark names. Then they’re selecting certain generic keywords and saying, if you want to be in our program you can only bid a certain amount for these terms. And if you don’t like it, you just can’t do any pay-per-click promotions with us. Eventually, it will just sort of fade out and the affiliates will still do it successfully because there are a ton of words you can use without having to infringe on their trademarks. So I think that will be a strong channel for affiliates for a long time to come.

TM: Another interesting statistic in the AffStat report – I’m combining a couple of categories here – says 40 percent of affiliates have negotiated higher payments from programs. Does that fit with your anecdotal experience? And does that present a headache for affiliate managers?

SC: I was actually surprised by that figure myself. I’ve found, in personal experience, even for some smaller sites of mine, if I approach affiliate managers and tell them what I think I can do for them, a lot of them are willing to negotiate and make a special deal for you. So I think it’s really possible for just about any affiliate to do that. A lot of them never ask because they don’t realize it’s a possibility. But I don’t think the average affiliate manager would mind being asked, because then they know it’s an engaged affiliate and they can get more activity out of them.

TM: As a consultant, would you recommend to affiliate managers that they keep the door open to negotiations with affiliates? Or is there a time constraint that may limit their activities and put a lot of pressure on them?

SC: It’s something you’d have to model for. You just can’t put out projections for a year expecting to pay the rate you advertise on your site – say, a 7 percent commission. If you do that, you’re going to end up blowing out your budget. Because if you say you’re going to pay a 7 percent commission for everybody and you give 10 percent to superaffiliates, you might spend twice as much as you expected on commissions. If you don’t model for that, you’re going to be in trouble.

TM: How do you see the future for networks versus in-house programs? Do you see a bigger share for networks, or a bigger share for in-house programs?

SC: The networks still have the bulk of the activity in the space. When I did the AffStat report at the end of 2002, I think the networks had about 80 percent of the market share. But I think we’ll see an expanding role for in-house programs such as My Affiliate Program and DirectTrak. They’re getting more and more of the network programs to switch over, and they’re very aggressively recruiting new clients. I think in the next couple of years, we’ll see more prevalence of that kind of program.

TM: What do you think that means to the affiliates out there?

SC: It makes things a little more challenging to them in some ways if they have to go to a lot of different places to log onto their stats. But, otherwise, it’s a good thing for affiliates because it’s a little cheaper to run in-house programs so, theoretically, the affiliate programs can pay more to the affiliates in commission.

TM: The merger between Commission Junction and ValueClick is now a done deal. Nobody is sure what will happen to CJ in the future. What do you think is the future for big networks? And do you think this merger and other trends in networking open more opportunities for niche networks?

SC: It’s exciting to see this happen. It sort of validates the way the industry is moving, that it definitely has a future. It’s sort of surprising to some people that it took this long for there to be some consolidation because there have been rumors about various companies getting together for years and years. But it definitely sets the stage for some niche players out there who can take care of certain types of clients, with certain levels of start-up fees, because right now the bigger networks are not really an available resource for some of the mom-and-pops who are out there. It leaves an open door for ShareASale and MyAffiliate programs to capitalize on anyone who’s not in the Fortune 500.

TM: There are always new technologies coming down the pike, and I think we can all agree that’s a good thing. There wouldn’t be affiliate programs now if there hadn’t been technologies in the past few years that make it possible. Some technologies, such as the Norton firewall product introduced recently, block banners and can make links unclickable. Are there ways the affiliate community can change things when a company introduces a product that creates obstacles to what they do to make their living?

SC: I think the individual affiliates are powerless. We really have to rely on the networks banding together and going to Norton or whoever might make a similar product. One of the prime targets of these products are the domains that are serving all the banners and the clickable URLs for affiliate programs. The products are going after the URLs for LinkShare and Commission Junction and other companies, so it’s certainly in their best interest to get their hands dirty and try to take care of this as soon as possible. (See ReveNews.)

TM: Do you know if they’re doing that?

SC: I don’t know. I know in the past that was going on. Then, the end-user was asked if they wanted to block ads, and now it’s a default that I’ve just heard about. I don’t know how active the networks are. I would imagine they’re out there trying to find some sort of resolution for it.

TM: What will be coming up at your summit this year?

SC: The plan for the whole agenda is to be very focused on networking. We’ll certainly have our share of speakers and panels. But for every conference I’ve gone to during the last decade, it seems like the feedback from the people is always that they wished there was more networking, and nobody seems to be catching on to that. Every time you go to a conference you see the same cast of characters up there on a panel and running some PowerPoint, and it seems like it’s boring everybody. But the organizers aren’t seeing that. So my partners, Missy Ward and Ryan Phelan, and I figured we’d create a conference for people who hate conferences. We’ll have an emphasis on the things people love: the formal and informal networking as well as the educational sessions. And so we’re sort of expanding beyond what the past affiliate marketing conferences have been to make it more of a performance-marketing conference for affiliates.We’re also bringing in the experts on email and search to all get together for a four-day event. I don’t know if you ever heard of speed-dating, where people date for 30 seconds and then move on. We’ve sort of adapted that goofy concept to speed-networking, where you sit opposite another person for 30 seconds and give them your card and have these mini-meetings. You get a lot more comfortable and have a lot more interaction on a level that you can’t really see. (Note: For more information about the upcoming summit, please visit AffiliateSummit.com.)

TOM MURPHY, editor in chief of Revenue, has been writing about business and technology for more than 25 years. He is also the author of Web Rules: How the Internet is Changing the Way Consumers Make Choices.

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.