The Importance of Follow-through

I am not a golfer- but I rented some clubs and hit at a driving range for the first time a few months ago. I had no clue what I was doing, but I happened to be standing next to someone who was in the middle of a lesson. I watched closely and tried to apply what the trainer was telling his student to make my swing better. After a few tries, I was consistently driving that sucker over 100 yards – with some sense of control to boot. I realize this is no great feat, but I was thrilled! This was much better than my initial attempts – some of which went backwards (don’t ask…).

Anyway – one of the main points the instructor kept mentioning was the importance of following through with the swing.

“You’re not following through,” “make sure you follow through,’ “what happened to the follow through?”

I began thinking about how follow through is critical for success in many sports. In basketball you have to follow through with your shot – in baseball you need to follow through with your swing.

Of course, the principal of follow through is not limited to sports, but I had not previously seen what a structured concept of following through would look like for the business of Web design. This became a topic of conversation at Sostre & Associates for quite some time. We pride ourselves on doing a great job of planning and consulting and developing so that a site is ready for launch, but the general consensus internally was that we could do a better job following through with that site after launch day.

With that in mind, we created a short checklist of tasks to perform post-launch for every website we create. These follow through items go beyond just making the site functional, and help ensure that it’s really successful.

Let the Data Design for You

One of the most important tenets of Conversion Design is to look past best guesses, best practices, and intuition. Oftentimes, the keen eye of an experienced designer can get things right most of the time, but proper use of your Web analytics data will steer you in the right direction all the time. Reviewing your website visitor data to discover what your users want, and then designing specifically for them is one of the most effective, and often overlooked, follow through activities you can engage in. I often recommend Google Analytics.

First, because it’s one of the most robust systems out there (especially at this pricepoint – free) and second because it allows you to schedule reports to be emailed to you daily, weekly, or monthly. This is a good way to get into the habit of reviewing your data regularly.

I also use Crazy Egg (www.crazyegg.com) to run heatmaps whenever we make layout or non-standard content changes to a site. Heatmaps analyze visitor clicks to a page and display the data as brightly or dimly colored areas based on number of clicks. They help you see how visitors interact with your site in a whole new way and can illuminate common sense design flaws that you haven’t noticed before.

Keep it Fresh

I’ve seen it time and time again where a site launches and does really well, but then it doesn’t get updated for a while and performance starts to slip. Almost imperceptibly if you aren’t keeping close tabs. One of the reasons for this is that users start to get nervous if they feel like a site isn’t being updated or maintained. They get the impression that “no one is home”.

Update highly visible areas such as prominent photos or content on a regular basis. If your site isn’t the type that gets updated,consider including some automated sources such as displaying RSS feeds from related sources to help users feel like the site is up to date.

Keep the Traffic Coming

For the final point in our list, we all know that an optimized, up to date website does no one any good if users can’t find it. Therefore your follow through wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include monitoring your website’s status with the search engines.This includes evaluating and maintaining titles, descriptions, keywords and/or tags, backlinks, social bookmarking, and more.

With all the sites out there (Google, Digg, Technorati, etc”),it would be tough to follow through with every single one – lucky for us there are several services out therethat can provide the majority of this critical information about your site very quickly. You can try www.Web-SiteGrader.com, or www.XinuReturns.com for examples. Running a report every quarter or so will help avoid any issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Just like sports, if you can learn to follow through consistently, your efforts will be much more successful. Remember that each site is different so you will want to add items to this list as time goes on.

Finally, for a quick follow-up – in the last issue, we showed how consulting firm, Think First, could use wireframes to spec out the content before moving to a full redesign.Their existing site looked nice, but offered almost no explanation of their services of unique value proposition.For good measure, we took some time this issue to finish the job by turning the wireframe into a full homepage mockup.

As you can see, the redesign stayed true to the wireframe and kept a lot of the same look and feel elements from the existing site. This is to show that a successful redesign isn’t always about colors and graphics.The core of Conversion Design is to display and organize the elements in such a way that they accomplish a desired goal. In this case – educating Think First visitors on what they have to offer.

Would you like to get your website made over for a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

Think Content First

When customers start telling you that it’s time to update your website, you’ve waited too long. That’s the position that Chris George, CEO of Think First, was in when he emailed us asking to be considered for this edition of By Design Makeover.

“We established our website (http://www.thinkfirst.us) in 2005. We have grown tremendously since that time and have not updated the design or content of our website. We receive comments all the time from prospective clients that tell us that our website does not have a lot of information about our company. We are in desperate need of a makeover,” George wrote.

Well, you came to the right place. It just so happens that makeovers are what we do here. As many of you know from past issues, the first step to a successful makeover is to review what your current page has to offer.

In reviewing ThinkFirst.us, my first thought is that the logo is nice and professional looking, but a bit generic. This leads me to look around for a tagline or some other element that will tell me what this company does. Before I get to that, the animating center section catches my attention. It starts off with, “Copernicus didn’t start the earth revolving around the sun.” Next frame, “Isaac Newton didn’t make the apple fall.” That’s clever. I see where they’re going, but I’m still not sure what they do. I see some buttons (or what appear to be buttons) under that section: Technology, Process, People, Innovation. I try to click on those, but they aren’t clickable.

Finally, I get to a tagline of sorts: “Unlike consultants, we’re experts who create and implement IT strategies that allow physician practice groups to meet their business objectives.” That’s quite a mouthful, and still doesn’t tell me much about their services.

Unfortunately, besides a clever marketing animation, this home page doesn’t have anything that leads me to believe that these guys have the expertise to take my company (or healthcare organization, since that is their primary market) to the next level. How come there’s no real content about the company or what they offer? In order to create a site that is useful for visitors and potential clients, this home page should include a company overview, their services, consultants’ bios, testimonials and company news.

This is where website makeovers can be tricky. In most cases, many of the content pieces are already there – they just need to be rearranged and given the right visual priority. But when the content on an existing site is so far off from what it should be – it’s better to start the process with a wireframe.

According to Webopedia, a wireframe is “a visualization tool for presenting proposed functions, structure and content of a Web page or Web site. A wireframe separates the graphic elements of a Web site from the functional elements in such a way that Web teams can easily explain how users will interact with the Web site.” As we discovered, the graphics are not the problem for Think First. Instead, they need a wireframe that illustrates the what, where and how much for each new content component they want to add.

The great thing about wireframes is that anyone can create one using simple tools like Microsoft Word. And presenting a well-thought-out wireframe to your Web team will most certainly result in a better end product.

First, let’s go back and create a wireframe for the existing site – so we can compare apples to apples. The first thing I notice is that the site is designed for an 800×600 browser resolution. In 2005, when the site was designed, this was considered a best practice. But now that monitors and resolutions have gotten larger, it just means we’re not making the best use of our available space. Next, I see that the marketing message takes almost 45 percent of the page. While it is a nice marketing message, it’s just taking up way too much page real estate. Finally, and the real reason this page is not successful, is there is just no real content.

Our new wireframe seems to iron out all the issues. First, it’s designed for a 1024×768 browser resolution, which is the standard size on the Web today. Next, we have made the marketing message much smaller – now it’s a little over 10 percent of total real estate. And last, but certainly not least, we added lots and lots of vital content.

Wireframes are a great way to eliminate the graphical element so you can focus on which content components are most important and how best to arrange them. With news, case studies, a featured consultant and a list of services, users are sure to understand exactly what Think First offers, and they are much better equipped to make the decision to hire them.

When designing any site, it’s best to put the content first. I’m not going to go into a rant about the evils of template websites, but I do want to mention that this is exactly why most template sites are ineffective. They offer you a pretty-looking, pre-designed website, and then ask you to squish all your content into it. That is not the ideal situation when you’re looking to create a website that performs for your business.

Now, I know that you hardcore By Design readers are wondering where we ended up with the makeover for my design firm, Sostre & Associates. Not to worry; we’ve got a final follow- up column coming soon – complete with analytics data and some post-launch thoughts – but you’ll have to wait until the next issue of Revenue (Issue 23).

Until then – would you like your website to be the topic of a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

Late for a Date

This column was supposed to be the last in our series on redesigning SostreAssoc.com, the website for my design firm Sostre & Associates. I even said in my last article that, “By the time you read this article, the new design will be live on our site and we’ll have started crunching the analytics data.” Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.

Due to various setbacks, the new site still hasn’t gone live (at least not at the time of this writing). What’s even more unfortunate is that this situation isn’t uncommon in the online world. Because we’re a Web design firm, we have control over the process and made a conscious decision to delay the site launch. But I’ve seen many scenarios where site launches are delayed for months on end, leaving website owners feeling helpless.

The truth is, sometimes delays are unavoidable. Maybe the CEO decided to change plans at the last minute – or perhaps there are some technical barriers that weren’t anticipated in the planning stages. Whatever the cause, there are some ways to get back on track, and avoid additional delays.

Here are some tips for an ontime launch:

Don’t be a perfectionist. Your website should be a living, ever-changing environment. Unlike printed collateral which you’re stuck with until your printed copies run out, you can continually tweak and improve your website. This means it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect on launch day. Make it a point to get the site online, even if there are some loose ends.

Do a phased launch. You do more harm than good when you delay an entire site launch to wait for every single new feature to be ready. Decide which elements are most important for your business and prioritize those as a phase 1 site launch. Lessimportant sections or features should then be scheduled for future phase 2 or even phase 3 projects.

Review progress regularly. If you wait until the day before launch to take your first look at the site, you may be setting yourself up for disaster. Try to review progress at regular intervals – weekly or sooner – to make sure things are looking good and provide any feedback as needed. If you’re working with an outside vendor to create your site, they should be able to provide a development URL where you can see how things are coming along.

Set a clear drop-dead launch date. A drop-dead launch date sets a lastdelay date. In other words, you may plan to launch by October 15, but you absolutely must launch by November 30, i.e., your drop-dead date.

Some situations demand a dropdead launch date. For example, a retailer who needs to get online in time for the holidays; a tax site that needs to be live before tax season; or a website that is going to be featured in a scheduled press release or news story.

Because the new Sostre & Associates website is an internal project, we never bothered to set a drop-dead launch date. Then again, that lackadaisical attitude is why we’re writing about website delays and not reviewing the statistics from our great new website, right? In short, if you want your site launched by a certain date, set a drop dead-date that your employees and vendors understand and agree with.

So with all this talk about how to launch on time, you may be wondering if there are ever good reasons to delay a site launch. Well, there most certainly are. If you’re not sure whether your site is ready for prime time, review this checklist.

Broken Images. Never launch a site with broken images. Many users will immediately leave upon seeing a broken image, and they call into question the integrity of the site. Also, they are generally very simple to fix.

Broken Links. Run your site through a link checker application like Xenu’s popular and free Link Sleuth (http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html), and make sure there are no broken links. If there are links that are broken, get them fixed before you go live.

Too many ‘Coming Soon’ sections. Sometimes you can’t get a section completed – that’s fine. It’s OK to have one or two areas that aren’t quite finished. But I’ve seen sites that have more ‘Coming Soon’ sections than actual content. That’s bad. If you do have lots of areas that aren’t complete – try to hide any links to those areas entirely so users just don’t see them.

Browser Incompatibilities. If I hear about another Web browser hitting the market, I’m going to start plucking the keys out of my keyboard. I can barely keep up with all the options available. Luckily, there are only a few browsers that your site absolutely must be functional in. Those are: Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7, Firefox and Safari. Any serious incompatibilities such as navigation or ordering process not working for any of these browsers is good enough reason to push back the launch until they do.

Getting a new website or a significant redesign off the ground can be an exciting process, but it can also get out of control very quickly. Hopefully, these tips will help avoid some headaches. Now, let me take some of my own advice and get this new site launched!

Remember, it’s never too late to put in your two cents. I personally read every email I get from Revenue magazine readers, and I love to hear feedback on the new design we’ve chosen. Send me (pedro@sostreassoc.com) your thoughts.

Would you like your website to be the topic of a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

Pedro Sostre is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Passing the Test

In the May/June Affiliate’s Corner column, I wrote about the ways super-affiliates prefer to be approached by affiliate program managers and merchants for the purpose of program recruitment.

Wooing a super-affiliate over drinks and dinner with offers of exclusive landing pages, significantly higher-than-advertised commission rates, or showering them with free product samples will certainly get their attention, but it does not guarantee that you will get the heavy hitters to join your program, however.

Even if your product is a fabulous fit for the affiliate’s audience and your commission rates are more generous than your competitors’, no super-affiliate will send copious amounts of targeted traffic (read: their highly valued subscribers with whom they’ve worked hard to develop loyal and lasting relationships) to your site unless it first passes an affiliate’s Merchant Site Test.

This test evaluates many aspects of the site from both the affiliate’s and a visitor’s perspective. I personally start with factors that will affect a visitor’s experience, and keep the following questions in mind as I peruse a merchant’s site for the first time.

Does the site load quickly or does the server bog down under graphic-laden pages? If there is a Flash home page, is there an obvious “skip intro” link or am I forced to watch the video to the bitter end? Is the site attractive and professional in appearance or are there broken links, graphics and scripting errors? Is the sales page comprehensive and well written, or is it fraught with spelling and grammatical errors or “holes” in the sales copy?

I also check to see whether the site uses excessive newsletter sign-up popups or advertising fly-ins. Do site preview pop-ups such as Snap Shots block my view of the text each time I cursor over a link? Does a new window open every time I click a link? Although I may understand a merchant’s motivation for using such tactics, I am more concerned that visitors to the site will find such intrusions confusing and/or annoying to the point that they are likely to exit the site and kill any chance of a sale.

Appearance, functionality and copy rarely pose problems with professionally designed and maintained sites. Nor are they an issue for ClickBank affiliates who can code links to send traffic directly to the order form. However, having to bypass a merchant’s home page means that pay-per-click arbitrage isn’t an option for some affiliates, while others will have to write sales copy rather than a product review. Although some affiliates may be willing to make that effort to promote one exceptional product, most will pass on the program if the merchant offers a diverse or large selection of goods.

Another significant factor that I will evaluate is search functionality. Visitors must be able to search for and find what they want quickly and easily. For example, does a clothing site let visitors drill down to choose between designers, color and function, or does a click on the “Dresses” link slowly load a page that displays 50 thumbnails of cocktail, evening and wedding dresses?

If the visitor can find a product that she wants to buy, good affiliates will check to see whether the order process is functional, intuitive and secure. Does the site post a “Hacker-Safe” logo and a privacy policy? Are shipping policies and prices easy to locate, or does a customer have to go through the entire order process to determine the cost to ship to Canada or if GST and PST will be added to her order? Can the customer ship to an address different from the billing address and can she have that dress gift wrapped for her cousin in Amsterdam?

What happens if our customer has questions about either the product or her order? Is there a sizing guide or a customer FAQ? Does the site offer order tracking? Is there a contact link, Live Help badge or telephone number displayed on every page for support?

I’d be thrilled to see all but the last item on that list, as a prominently posted telephone number that encourages phone orders means that potential commissions will be lost through traffic leakage.

Traffic leakage occurs at any point on a site that allows visitors to leave the site without making a purchase through the affiliate’s link. Affiliates that pay for their traffic are particularly sensitive to this problem, and most affiliates will not join a merchant’s affiliate program if there is any leakage at all.

Phone orders must therefore be tracked to the referring affiliate – which does not mean asking your customers from which site they originated. Merchants who aren’t equipped with the technical wizardry to track phone orders should allow affiliates to send their traffic to a version of the site that does not post a phone number, and trust that their super-affiliates’ promotional efforts will more than make up for any sales that may be lost by doing so.

Most traffic leaks occur when merchants link to other sites that may be of interest to their visitors, or to partner sites with which they have reciprocal link agreements. Traffic leakage also occurs when a merchant with two or more online stores links to those other sites without compensating affiliates for sales from any and all of their stores.

The most offensive type of outbound link traffic leaks are affiliate or contextual advertising links (i.e., Google Adwords ads) from which the merchant hopes to profit. Most affiliates consider this practice more “traffic theft” than traffic leakage and will not only not join the program, they will also warn other affiliates of the merchant’s commission-stealing practices.

That’s not to say that as a merchant you shouldn’t promote other merchants’ products. You should. But do it on the back end or from within the secure area of your site, only after your own affiliates have had a fair chance to earn a commission for sending traffic to your site.

As you can see, the Merchant Site Test is comprehensive and super-affiliates are picky to the nth degree! If any aspect of the site misses the bar, most super-affiliates will go on to consider your competitor’s offer and promote their products without so much as a TYBNTY (thank-you-but-no-thank-you) note for your time and treats.

If you’re lucky enough to have a super- affiliate take time from her busy promotional schedule (or lounge chair) to explain why she’s chosen not to join your program, consider implementing her recommendations as soon as possible – and let her know as soon as the changes have been made.

Don’t stop there

Visit a Web developer’s forum and ask for feedback about your site. Ask your site visitors for their comments and suggestions as well. Check the affiliate networks for clues about what your competitors are doing right. For example, ask yourself how a merchant that pays only 8 percent commissions has an EPC that is triple that of the merchant who pays 12 percent. Do your own Merchant Site Test to find out why affiliates love to promote their program.

Getting just one super-affiliate on board can substantially increase a program’s earnings. The first super-affiliate in a program will generally use this advantage to heavily advertise the site or product using pay per click.

As other super-affiliates join the program and competition between affiliates increases, most will rise to the challenge and step up their promotional efforts using a diverse array of creative methods. Exposure to both the product and the affiliate program tend to increase exponentially at that point – which makes for very happy merchants and managers.

When you design your site with a view to building long-term relationships with visitors and potential super- affiliates, you too can get that kind of happy – perhaps even rich.

Rosalind Gardner is a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online. Her best-selling book is available on Amazon and www.SuperAffiliateHandbook.com.

Making Over My Own Site

Being “Dr. Makeover” comes with plenty of pressure. There’s an expectation that everything I touch will be inherently beautiful and optimized for peak performance. I have a dirty little secret, though: I rarely spend much time working on the design aspect of my own sites. What’s that old saying about the cobbler’s children?

So I’ve decided to put some shoes on my own kids’ feet and I’m making the process public. For the next two issues, I’ll provide a behind-the-scenes look into one design firm’s struggle to redesign its own site. I’ll share failed designs. I’ll ask for your objective opinions. And, hopefully, when it’s all said and done, I’ll have a better site and you’ll have a clearer understanding of what it takes to design a successful online venue.

While I generally recommend redesigning websites every 12 months, the site for my design firm – SostreAssoc.com – has had the same look since early 2005. That’s right, over two whole years. Well overdue from a time perspective, but does it really need a redesign?

The current site has a pretty good conversion rate for this type of business. Although I don’t feel it’s the best it could be, some people still like it and by most accounts it doesn’t seem to be overtly hurting sales. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Wrong.

Just because sales are coming in at a normal, healthy pace, doesn’t mean the website is performing optimally. Industry- standard conversion rates are often in the single digits. Three percent. Six percent. That means that roughly 90 percent of your site’s visitors are choosing not to do business with you (or me, in this case)! Of course, a 100 percent conversion rate is nearly impossible for several reasons, but setting your sites to that lofty goal can be more beneficial than simply striving for industry standards.

A good way to determine if your site could perform better is to review how it performs against its transitional goals. Start with a list of all the elements that contribute to the success of your site. Of course, there is the main conversion goal (in our case, increase the number of contacts we receive), but there are also a number of transitional goals we use to get users to take that conversion action. In our case, the list looks like this:

Goal: Communicate our services

Besides the overtly generic tagline, “Consulting, Design, Development,” it’s not immediately clear what services our company provides. If people don’t know what we offer, how can they buy it? Grade: D

Goal: Establish our credibility

The site uses third-party references (citations and client testimonials) to establish credibility. Grade: B

Goal: Convey our thought leadership and expertise

Our clients are always surprised at the level of thought and expertise that we bring to the table, but our website does very little to communicate that expertise. Case studies that explain exactly how we solved tough problems for our clients could help in this situation. Grade: D

Goal: Showcase our product

In the Web design industry, our client websites are our products and they have to shine. While we have a news section that highlights when a client site goes live, there is not even so much as a thumbnail of one of our client’s sites to be found on the home page. This is very, very bad. Grade: F

Goal: Make visitors aware of my writings and conference appearances

Some people visit the site not to hire Sostre & Associates, but to find more of my writings or see me at an industry conference. I wrote a book for a major publishing company. Can you find it on the home page of my site? No. I spoke at several conferences in the past two years. Were those events highlighted on the site? On a good note, I do include a link to this Revenue magazine column. Grade: D

Goal: Foster strong search engine rankings

The current site gets a fair amount of traffic from search engines but it still doesn’t come up for many top-tier, highly trafficked terms. Grade: B

Based on that evaluation, my cumulative grade is a D, and that means it’s definitely time for a redesign.

In the same way we used transitional goals to evaluate our existing site, we’re going to use those goals to drive our redesign priorities. The “problem” with transitional goals is that none of them are really more important than any other one.

In addition, we have outlying goals like generating SEO traffic and promoting my writings and conference appearances that are not directly related to the main goal of getting users to contact us.

The typical, old-school conversion process involved a linear conversion funnel where you took prospects from Step 1 to Step 2 in progressive order to close the sale. Online, there is no linear funnel. Visitors don’t always go from one Step 1, to Step 2, to Step 3 in orderly fashion. Some visitors only want to see the work, while others want to see what services we offer and still others want to start out by reading about our expertise.

Think of it this way: Traditional sales are like being a chauffeur. You drive visitors from one place to another, taking them where they want to go. Online, the visitor is in the driver’s seat and you aren’t even sitting in the car. All you can do is post road signs and hope they’re clear enough to lead the user where they want to go. And that’s where it gets difficult.

Individually, it’s easy to design a site that executes one of the transitional goals. Create a site that communicates services? Easy. Design a site that showcases a product? Simple. Develop a site that improves search engine rankings? No problem. But how do we put it all together so that everything is in balance? That’s exactly what we’ve been struggling with for the past 12 months. Since I started the redesign over a year ago, I’ve designed about 30 different layouts for the site, but I haven’t been happy with any of them.

This is where you come in. Send me (pedro@sostreassoc.com) your thoughts on the current site, or on any of the failed designs. Then next issue, we’ll take this discussion to the next level.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Bringing Your Website Into Focus

What can you do when you’ve invested in Web initiatives and it looks like the investment isn’t paying off? For some industries, embracing the Web as a way to increase business has been a long, slow road. The good news is that every day, companies are pushing the envelope to create online tools and features that move their industry forward in search of the revenue-altering effect of a successful Web presence. Zyloware is one of those companies.

Founded in 1923, Zyloware is a family-owned-and-operated business that manufactures brand-name fashion eyewear frames. Recently the company made a significant investment in its website. They changed the site from an online catalog to a full e-commerce site so that eyecare professionals could keep their inventory full by ordering online. Zyloware is known as an innovator in the optical industry, and developing this functionality was an innovation over what their competitors are doing online. But are they ahead of their time?

While several Zyloware customers are using the new Zyloware.com website to place orders online, the adoption rates have grown more slowly than anticipated. Marketing manager for Zyloware, Jodie Hirsch, contacted us to see if a little makeover magic could help solve the problem. She suspected that the new capabilities available to users aren’t obvious and that is the prime reason why the system isn’t getting used as much as expected.

After looking over the site, I have to agree that much of the functionality is being hidden, but overall, the issues are much bigger. I’ve said before that sometimes you can take an existing site and make dramatic performance improvements without changing the overall design very much – this is not one of those cases. Zyloware’s existing home page could definitely benefit from a complete visual overhaul.

First, these guys work with some top-notch brands. That isn’t fully communicated on their home page. Next, the company’s business is producing frames, yet they don’t show more than one on the home page. Rule No. 1: If you are selling a product, feature that product as prominently as possible on your home page.

Zyloware only sells directly to eyecare professionals, so a secondary goal that Hirsch mentioned was to make Zyloware. com a consumer-friendly site and a valuable resource in selecting eyewear. They developed an advanced frame search engine so consumers could find eyewear products on the site and then purchase the products from the partner retail locations. The problem is that most consumers have never heard of Zyloware and with the existing home page, it’s not clear what the company does or why consumers should look any deeper into the site.

So our first order of business is to rework the navigation. Well-designed navigation does more than just help users find their way around on your site; it also communicates what the site has to offer and which areas are most important. The current site has most of the options hidden in drop-down menus. We pulled out the most important links and displayed them in a standard horizontal navigation. This will make it easy for users – both consumers and eyewear professionals – to see what the site offers and to get to those areas quickly.

Next, the original design shows one brand at a time and displays the rest in small text links below. We chose to prominently feature five of their nine brands front and center on the home page. This immediately exposes users to a good breadth of Zyloware’s eyewear offerings before they dig deeper into the site. With this type of setup, Zyloware could choose to feature its best-selling brands, its newest additions or just a good cross section of their full product line.

Our next step was to expose the frame search functionality. This is something that both consumers and eyecare professionals could use, so keeping it hidden in a drop-down menu was not giving it the attention it deserved. Also, we added some information about the company so that users who don’t have previous experience with Zyloware can learn a little bit about what they do.

Finally, we made the site wider. This is a nuance that is lost when the images are reproduced in print, but the original width of the site is about 810 pixels. That is a nonstandard size and it doesn’t really make any sense. Allow me to get technical for a bit here.

Website widths should be based on expected user screen resolutions. Users with screen resolutions of 800×600, which used to be the Web standard until about two years ago, can fit 770 pixels on their screen without having to scroll horizontally. The current Web standard is 1024×768, which can fit approximately 990 pixels before a horizontal scrollbar is introduced.

Because the site was 810 pixels wide, it was effectively too big for low-resolution users, but still too small for larger-resolution users. We increased the width to a size more suited for users with higher screen resolutions, which allowed us to expose more real estate to the site visitors.

In the end, a successful home page must communicate the value of your company to your users. It must also quickly and almost subconsciously educate them about what they can do on your site. Accomplish those goals and your users will reward you by visiting your site more and utilizing the tools you have created for them more frequently.

Would you like your website to be the topic of a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

The Web, Take Two

Like new confections spilling out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the brain trusts at Web companies big and small over the last three years or so have spun out a brand new Web. Like candy, this version of the Web is flashier, full of speed, comes in a cool wrapper, has good stuff inside and is highly addictive.

But unlike the dot-com crash of six years ago, it seems these new companies (and some old ones thinking in new ways) have figured out how to make the Web user king, keep the eyeballs and make money.

Think about what has happened since 2001: Google has put search front and center; online affiliate marketing was born; smaller computer programs on websites have made shopping and collaborating easier; and user-generated content has redefined entertainment and online marketing. With redefinitions come labels, and since 2004 these innovations in the Web experience have been called Web 2.0 – to mean a second generation of Web-based services and technologies.

Angel Djambazov, marketing and business development manager of affiliate management tool Popshops, says, “Web 2.0 lends itself to more interactivity between the user base and the site.”

Web 2.0 also has been called the “participatory Web” that involves consumer action, not just reaction to your website or message. Web 2.0 has been called the explosion of video – homemade and commercial video slathered freely and easily across the Web. Web 2.0 has also been called the rapid rise of blogs (highly personal websites), widgets, RSS feeds and the podcast.

Web 2.0 is really all these things. Tim O’Reilly – founder of O’Reilly Media, publisher of technology books – coined the term and in essence meant it as a perceived shift in the Internet as platform.

He has defined it this way: “Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform.”

Where 1.0 was HTML Web pages you read like a book, 2.0 is Ajax-coded pages where mini-programs are swirling away on your desktop telling you the weather, what to eat, showing you videos or – most important to marketers – reporting your traffic. YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, craigslist, Wikipedia, Digg, Photobucket and del.icio.us would all be considered Web 2.0 sites.

Adapting for the 2.0 World

For online marketers, now is the best time to be in a Web 2.0 world. There are hundreds if not thousands of companies who claim their technology or service is Web 2.0-enabled. Pundits say it’s not just another bubble. Venture capitalists are expressing their confidence with their checkbooks, sending $844.4 million into Web 2.0 companies last year, according to Ernst & Young and Dow Jones VentureOne. Advertisers are also coming on board and they are predicted to spend $1.5 billion on online video alone by 2009, according to eMarketer.

Mike Moran, author of Search Engine Marketing, Inc., says there are three main changes for marketers and advertisers in a Web 2.0 world: You can now target even the smallest group; you can measure every single message’s effectiveness; and you must change your message in response to what customers say and do. Fortunately, he says, Web 2.0 helps you do all of these.

The most recent Web 2.0 lightning rod is the widget or Web widget. It is a kind of mini-program that can be embedded into a Web page and operates separately from your website. Widgets can contain anything from updated weather to interactive ads, videos and photo slide shows, to calendars, feeds to games and polls. Widgets are often Adobe Flash or JavaScript, which make them lightweight and easy to embed.

Because widgets are transportable – meaning a thousand folks can place the same widget with the same information on a thousand different websites – marketers are nervous of the threat to their business. “Widgets allow for individuals to take or use parts of the content from a marketer’s site and apply that content to their own Web page,” says Sam Harrelson of CostPerNews.com. “Of course, that can be threatening to a large segment of online marketers.

“For those marketers attempting to monetize their sites or programs with page view metrics, it should be threatening.” He says that YouTube did not become a major Web property and bring a billion-dollar price tag because it just had funny clips of people doing funny things.

“It provides a perfect example of how a company can grow quickly, in terms of numbers of users and advertising dollars, through the use of these democratized or decentralized ways of serving unique content.” Harrelson adds that marketers should be on the cutting edge anyway, looking for ways to measure what is going to happen on the Web, with or without widgets.

Currently there are thousands of widgets available – most of them free – on the Web and some that are embeddable media players come branded with advertising. Recently MySpace.com banned the use of most kinds of widgets that come with ads in them from being placed on MySpace profiles. Critics said the move was made so that MySpace could control the ad messages to its 90 million monthly visitors.

Making Technology Work (Well)

Another Web 2.0 technology in search of scale is the RSS feed. An RSS feed is a format that allows certain content to be pushed to your computer. Newsletters, favorite blogs or columnists and news sites use it when they have frequent publishing schedules. Users can subscribe to a feed and receive only that information they sign up for. Usually, Web users must install a feed reader to subscribe to the content. While use of feeds is popular, Feed aggregator FeedBurner also sees great potential for the ad market in feeds. “There are a lot of blog authors creating great content on a variety of topics, but advertisers are challenged to find flexible and scalable deployment of a blog ad campaign,” says Brent Hill, vice president of business development at Feed- Burner. While FeedBurner continues to extend its ad network for RSS feeds to include ads on blogs, Hill says that advertisers need to realize that quality sites, reach and effective placements of feeds will help drive advertisers to the well.

As companies are adapting their messages for the cell phone, so is Web 2.0. Mini-blog site Twitter, for example, is making it easier to use connected mobile devices to add to Twitter threads. Twitter basically only allows 140 characters to be posted at a time. This limitation seems well-suited to the legions of text-messagers already sending short notes to each other. In addition, Twitter now has a short code or abbreviated message system where the word “weather” and your ZIP code will get you back the information you seek.

This is just one example of the user-centric mobile Web experience that’s exploding. Companies such as Mobio, SoonR and Loopt all allow cell phone users to receive specific kinds of information directly to their mobile device, usually event or dining listings, physical locations of friends in your network or data pushed to your phone.

All these technologies are part of the greater social Web or social media; usually video, audio or other content that users can interact with. Web 2.0-styled social media applications can be found at sites such as Wikipedia, Second Life, Digg, MySpace. com and Flickr. The media can usually be shared, rated and oft times edited by visitors. This is also called user-generated content and is defined as content on the Web influenced but not necessarily created by visitors to those websites.

Consumers = Participants

The impact of user-generated content on marketers has been great. As Moran points out, Web 1.0 users were considered consumers by marketers; now with Web 2.0, they are participants. He says that now readers “comment on your blogs, change your wikis, create blogs of their own, create hate sites if they don’t like your products and produce ‘mashups’ of your content and functions.”

This sea change has given rise to the term “social media optimization”; what Rohit Bhargava, vice president for interactive marketing with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, calls “changes to optimize a site so that it is more easily linked to, more highly visible in social media searches on custom search engines and more frequently included in relevant posts on blogs, podcasts and .” He says that while that sounds a lot like search engine optimization, the difference is that Web 2.0 will make it easier to get your message out through tagging and bookmarking sites, widening your linkability, helping your content fit onto more niche websites and blogs and encouraging users to blend your message with other messages, or what is called the mashup.

On a participatory level, wikis are the exemplar of social networks that don’t require fancy technology. Wikipedia, for example, has taken the concept of building an online encyclopedia that every visitor can contribute to and made it very successful. Now there are wikis devoted to paleontology, linguistics, Swedish and Russian textbooks, law-student life, Star Trek, maps and collaborative novels, just to name a few.

While blogs and podcasts (downloadable audio shows) are also considered Web 2.0 innovations, the blog or Weblog technically has been around since just before the dot-com crash. Blogs and podcasts are beginning to be embraced by marketers also. Blog tracker Technorati reports that as many as 75,000 new blogs are created every day. While sites such as PayPerPost.com have made it easier for marketers to simply pay a third party to create a blog about their product, the effectiveness metrics are absent in that arrangement. Recent research has begun to balk at the reach of podcasts. Pew Research released a study that said only 12 percent of Internet users have downloaded a podcast and Forrester Research says that as few as 1 percent of all North Americans have downloaded a podcast.

A Web 2.0 spin on broadcasting information on the Internet is a company such as Userplane that enables webchats, webcasting and instant messaging. They sell themselves as a very Web 2.0 sort of company. Michael Jones, CEO, says that “Web 2.0 companies I come across all started as Web services companies. We saw an interesting need to have an online communication tool, and we started to say maybe there is an interesting way to turn on the lights in these rooms.” The company is beginning to host live webchat town halls with political candidates, which they hope will grow as the political season heats up.

Ad network MIVA also identifies itself as a very Web 2.0 company and has even outlined trends for 2007. Seb Bishop, president and CMO, has stated that mobile video sharing will offer an even greater level of immediacy than the Web, that mobile search will become localized – meaning mobile search will be less about browsing and more about fulfilling a need in real time and that advertising will become “democratized.”

Some critics have said that Web 2.0 is nothing but a marketing slogan itself. Russell Shaw, a columnist for ZDNet.com, has simply said that Web 2.0 “does not exist.” He says that things labeled Web 2.0 “are forward lurches of various standards and technologies; some compatible, some not, some revolutionary, some evolutionary, some impractical. Some are collaborative; others are highly competitive with each other.” He agrees with skeptics who say that the term is essentially meaningless and irrelevant.

CostPerNews’ Harrelson, however, perceives loads of relevancy in the new Web, especially as it relates to marketers. “Once marketers realize that the inventory available on publisher and affiliate sites is growing at near exponential rates, they will realize that metrics based on limited inventory such as CPA or CPC are increasingly inefficient,” he says. “That, more than anything, will lead to a re-examination of traditional marketing methods online and move the equation of metrics toward something more 2.0-ish.” He adds that “attention data is the new black. ” My practical advice to companies is to start developing attention metrics. That’s where the next black gold lies.”

Question Then Convert

I talk to website owners all the time who are looking to design or redesign their websites. Most tell me what colors they like and what other websites appeal to them. Next they discuss features like animation or video. Some will go so far as to send long, prepared documents that include detailed color choices, font selections and so on. The concept of Web design is still largely looked at as a visual beautification of their website.

What I rarely find are website owners who have looked at their design in the context of Internet business. Once you’ve decided to redesign, there is a certain process you must go through to ensure your new website offers more than just a pretty face. You need the right information to provide a context for the redesign process.

This is why most of the website templates that are available for purchase do not help online businesses. They often look very nice, but force you to tailor your information to the design. Successful conversion design depends on a design that is specifically created for your information.

Please don’t confuse information with content. You don’t need to have every article and tagline written before starting the design process. However, you do need to have a very clear understanding of the message you want to convey to users and what goals you want to reach.

I encourage all website owners to answer the following questions before starting a redesign.

What type of website do you need?

Almost all websites can be grouped into a handful of categories: informational, lead generation, e-commerce and support. The type of website required for each is very different. To determine what type of website you need, you first just need to answer the question, how does your site make money?

If your business makes money by selling advertising or sponsorships it probably falls into the category of informational websites. Informational sites want to attract lots of visitors and get those users to come back regularly. The more pages users visit, the better it is for business. Examples of information websites include news portals, most blogs and many community-based sites.

If your site drives revenue by generating leads which are later converted to sales or sold to another organization – you need a lead generation site. Lead generation sites need to convert users to leads as effectively as possible. Lead generation sites can take many forms but some examples include service companies, mortgage comparison companies, etc.

E-commerce sites make their money by selling products. They need to establish trust because customers usually need to enter a credit card to complete the transaction.

Support sites help their owners by helping users find answers themselves, thereby reducing the need for support staff. These sites succeed when they make it very easy for users to find specific information.

Because the goals of these websites are very different, the design needs to be different. A one-size-fits-all approach will limit the success of the site.

What do you want to say to your users?

Every company has a voice. Is your business fun and quirky or staid and serious? Established off-line businesses often have a brand manager who helps to define this voice. The idea is to convey a consistent message to people exposed to the brand. Many website owners neglect this vital part of business. At the very least, your site needs to communicate the following points:

  • What makes your company different from the competition?
  • Why should users trust you?

Think of your website as an extended sales team. Great salespeople have to say the right words at the right time to help customers realize how great your products and services are. Your website needs to do the same thing.

Who are your users?

Defining a target market is business 101. One of your first steps should be to settle on the basics of who your customers are with metrics like age range, gender and income. Once the basics are defined, your next step is to identify any niche markets that would fit well with your service or product. Being able to cater parts of your website to specific niche markets can present huge opportunities for growth.

Another important step in understanding your audience is to determine how they are finding your site. Is your traffic coming from natural search engine listings, pay-per-click listings or word of mouth? Hopefully you’re attracting users from all three, in which case you need to think about what each type of user is looking to get from your site. Different traffic sources often indicate that users are at different stages in the buying cycle; for example, word-of-mouth traffic may only be interested in checking out the site, whereas pay-per-click visitors may already have their wallet out ready to make a purchase.

Having a thorough understanding of who visits your site and where they are coming from is the only way to create experiences that are appropriate for your audience.

So before you start shopping around for Web designers and writing content for your site, make sure you’ve given thought to the three major questions in this article. Design is more than just making your site look good – it’s about creating a website that accomplishes solid business goals that add to the bottom line.

Would you like your website to be the topic of a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company name, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Improving Conversions

Kimberly Griffiths knows all too well what it feels like to be drowning in a sea of debt. Like many Americans, she’s faced credit card charges totaling tens of thousands of dollars. The difference between Griffiths and the average credit-card-toting American is that she conquered the interest-accruing beasts.

Now Griffiths is passionate about helping others conquer it too. She figures she’s got plenty of work to do, with over $1 trillion of consumer debt in America alone. That’s why she invested her time and money into building a system designed to set others free from the bondage of minimum monthly payments that never seem to make a dent in the grand total. She dubbed her online reduction strategy “One Paycheck at a Time.” It includes a book and online tools to help consumers reduce their debt, well, one paycheck at a time.

A debt-free Griffiths, though, still has one problem. Her own need to earn weekly paychecks to remain in the black keeps her from pursuing her passion to help others on a full-time basis. Her goal is to transform the lackluster OnePayCheckAtATime.com site into a revenue-generating machine that will allow her to quit her day job and focus all of her efforts on helping the millions of Americans who are stressed out over swelling credit card bills.

Meeting that goal means making some changes to her site. It seems despite her best efforts over the past 12 months to optimize her landing page, Griffiths still isn’t getting a high rate of sales. She’s tried just about everything she knows to do, from paying search engines for traffic to working with affiliates to arranging link agreements with partner sites. She has succeeded on one note – the traffic is fairly healthy. Unfortunately the conversion rate has never climbed above 1 percent. A frustrated Griffiths is left wondering what she is doing wrong. At first glance the site is pretty enough. The colors are eye-pleasing and the design is clean and up to date. Of course, anyone reading this column for any length of time knows that a pretty site with nice colors isn’t what we’re all about.

By Design Makeover - Before and After Going Beyond Pretty

Despite passing the “pretty” test, I identified a major problem before even completing the second glance. I couldn’t figure out what the site was selling. I understood the idea. It’s spelled out in the main image: “Create the life you want by becoming debt free.” Great! I’m all for that. But how, exactly, does this site help me to become debt free? Moving on, I look to the tagline for some clarification. Apparently the site offers “a no-nonsense strategy for becoming debt free.” Okay, so I am buying a strategy. But what does that mean exactly? I’m not sure.

Next I see a long form that’s asking for all sorts of information – including my credit card number. Now I’m really getting uncomfortable. I’d like to know exactly what it is I’m buying before handing over this sensitive information. And on top of that, I don’t even know how much this vaguely defined “strategy” is going to cost me. Finally my brain moves to all those words in the middle of the page – the “benefits” list. But like most users I’m just not going to take the time to read all those words. At this point, I would rather just click the “back” button on my browser and find another quick fix to my debt problem.

Here’s my point. This site fails to answer a fundamental question: What is it selling? Also, since it’s asking for credit card information: How much does it cost? The good news is that these two questions can be answered with some design tweaks, as opposed to a full visual overhaul. So let’s get to work.

To more clearly illustrate what the site is selling, I took three steps. First I changed the message in the main graphic. I wanted to incorporate the words “online system” so that people could immediately see what the site is selling. Next I updated the tagline to read: “The online budgeting system for becoming debt free.” Last I moved the screenshots above the fold so users would see them without having to scroll down, and added “View Larger” links so users could easily preview the interface for these tools without squinting.

I then brought in a highly targeted focus group to see if I had accomplished my goal. Enter Anthony Sostre, my 10-year-old son. I believe a good website should communicate its most basic message so plainly that even a preteen can figure it out. I showed him the original site and asked the million-dollar question: What is this site selling? After about 10 seconds of ums and uhs, he responded with an unsure, “Something about debt?” Next I showed him the redesigned site and asked the same question. Before I have time to start counting down the seconds, he boldly declared, “An online system for debt” and walked away. (Apparently I had used up enough of his short attention span.) The new design had passed the test. The new message is the main focal point and people should know immediately what the site sells.

Now to address the pricing issue” I have a theory: If you can avoid a problem, you should by all means do so. So in this case, I recommended that we shorten the form and not ask for credit card info right on the home page. Instead we made signing up for the program a two-step process and ask for payment in the second step. Additionally I added “Pricing” as a main navigation item so that anyone who’s interested can find it easily. No last-minute surprises.

On a macro level, I took out all that text that no one reads. (We can save lengthy text for the “About” page or some other lower-level page.) This made the landing page much shorter. I also made the form a little wider. The idea was to clear out a little more real estate on the page to allow the form more prominent positioning. I also highlighted the free bonus materials, which were always there but nearly impossible to see in the original design. Oh, and I also put a photo of Griffiths at the bottom of the page with a link to her full story so those who are struggling with debt would know that Griffiths knows what she’s talking about. She’s been there. This adds the personal touch that will make a certain percentage of users more comfortable with the product. At the end of the day, Griffiths will increase her sales one conversion at a time, and with a redesigned home page, she is well-positioned to help many consumers understand how she can help them get out of debt.

Would you like your website to be the focus of a future edition of a By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He serves as president of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.SostreAssoc.com to learn more.

Redemption

It all started with Asa Candler, a “prescriptionist” in Atlanta 112 years ago. A modest pharmacist who dealt in tonics and medicines, he bought an unassuming recipe for a patent medicine called Coca-Cola. When he gave out handwritten slips of paper for customers to try the new drink for free, the coupon was born.

The simple yet brilliant marketing idea Candler conceived has, of course, become a staple of American shopping. During the Depression in the 1930s, grocers fell in love with coupons as a way to attract needy families into their stores. And when the supermarket took over and coupon redemption became easier in the 1960s, half of all Americans used coupons. With the advent of the freestanding insert, or FSI, in the early 1970s, reams of colorful and enticing coupons came with the country’s Sunday newspapers.

As expected, the coupon migrated to the Web and even with technology laying the pavement for better distribution and security – it is still a work in progress. Online coupons are busting out all over but they aren’t as big as you might think. The world of couponing has survived the digital age so far and has made some unique advancements, but there are still challenges ahead.

Coupon distribution continues to prevail. In 2005, U.S. coupons set a new record of 323 billion coupons distributed, the first year to pass the 300 billion mark and a nice jump of 9 percent over 2004, according to CMS, a coupon-processing firm. CMS also states that the redemption rates of Internet coupons rose from .59 percent in 2004 to .96 percent in 2005. That may seem like a small amount but it’s a big jump for a fledgling coupon vehicle. Overall coupon redemption rates hover between 1 and 3 percent year-over-year.

While some analysts have forecasted the death of the paper coupon in as short a span as five years, the trends don’t seem to reflect that. Yes, more people are using the Internet to gather coupon codes to buy from websites instead of clipping an FSI and walking into a store – but those numbers are a very small slice of the coupon pie. A resounding 88 percent of redeemed coupons are FSIs, snipped from the Sunday edition of your newspaper.

Still, some are confident that the paper coupon will disappear sooner than we think and that coupons delivered via email or to our cell phones will dominate. “Young marketers are leading the way toward eliminating the paper coupon,” says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, CEO of The Sausalito Group.

Precision Targeting

For now though, only a small percentage of redeemed coupons come from online. But the upside is that online couponing – whether via a coupon code, printable coupon or emailed coupon – is able to reach a more precise target than the traditional FSI. In fact, recent redemption studies have borne out that Hispanic coupon users redeem at higher-than-average rates. Therefore, coupon distributors are finding ways to hit the Hispanic market with coupons via cell phone (Hispanic households use more cell phones than the general population). Sealey says the benefit for marketers is that they “can target people who can actually afford to buy a Porsche.”

The efficiency that technology brings is seeing immediate results in the online coupon world. Coupon networks, for example, use technology to help with everything from RSS feeds of coupons to organizing all their expired online coupons. But even then, the technology doesn’t get in the way. “We like to call ourselves a document security company,” says Steven Boal, CEO of Coupons.com, a network enabling printable online coupons. He says that proclamations of the death of the paper coupon are greatly exaggerated “for a very important reason. Because I print paper coupons – a business that has been around a long time. Up until three years ago it hadn’t changed much. Does it change? Yes. Small percentage shifts in this business move huge dollars.”

His Coupon.com platform runs on more than 3,000 affiliate marketers’ coupon websites and some of the most high-profile coupon websites use his company’s back end, including Yahoo, Boodle.com, NBC.com, SmartSource.com and other coupon sites in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

It’s true that coupon redemption rates dropped 6 percent in 2005, but as mentioned, distribution rose sharply. What’s at issue isn’t that fewer people are using coupons but that products that wouldn’t otherwise be sold are selling, according to Matthew Tilley, director of marketing at CMS. “Consumers just aren’t responding to coupons at the same rate that they used to, but that hasn’t really dampened marketers’ enthusiasm for them.” He affirms that high redemption rates are not the goal, but that “moving more product than you would without promotion – but at an efficient cost – is really the goal.”

While the big online coupon networks can scale for brands, smaller affiliate marketers have also been able to take advantage of the interest in online coupons. Popular sites such as Amazing-Bargains.com, CleverMoms.com, Fabu.com, Shopping- Bargains.com and FlamingoWorld.com have all seen great success with their coupon sites.

Much like product affiliates, coupon affiliates must track the newest offers, post them, bring down expired offers and make sure the link goes to where it is supposed to – but do so on a fairly grand scale every day. Too often the monthly offers inundate the affiliate on the first of the month, so that (if he or she works the website alone) it could be two weeks before a coupon is posted.

“I don’t know how they do it,” Michael “Mikey” Yack, founder of FabulousSavings and Fabu.com, says. He built his coupon sites from the ground up, too, but now has 30 employees. He doesn’t do code anymore. “I’m on the phone with my merchants all day,” he says. That’s the only way he can up the value of his coupons. “Once [merchants] know you’re legit, they throw you more.”

Fabu.com is also a site that employs rather sophisticated methods to keep it all together. Yack says his team writes original product descriptions and uses automated software to take down expired links. Other technology involves automatic rotating codes to avoid inviting other affiliates to cut and paste Fabu links on to their sites. He says his exclusive link with Toys R Us changes every 18 hours so that a stolen link will no longer be good after a brief window of time. All his expired coupons switch themselves out automatically.

Technology: The Good and the Bad

Link stealing may be the biggest pet peeve of the online coupon affiliate community. And while it does occur, some affiliates and networks work with it as a nuisance. Others complain that merchants aren’t doing enough because for them it just means broader distribution. The other pet peeve is that some merchants tailor coupons just for affiliates and create other deals for all the other channels they sell in. Affiliates fear the better deals may be going to the other channels.

“There are many things low-quality coupon sites do that are deceptive,” wrote Michael Coley, founder of Amazing- Bargains.com, in a Web forum. “While these things may temporarily increase their [clickthrough rates] or sales, the long-term effect is that they lose customers. Who would go back to a site that they knew was deceptive, and what merchant would want to keep working with a site that was deceptive? Their antics backfire in the long run.”

For couponers who have been at it for a while – like any Web venture – adaptation is the watchword. “Technology is always changing and those who survive must change with it. Web services, RSS feeds, JavaScript, storefront generators, XML and other delivery tools are making it easier for coupon sites to maintain current content. However, much of the, heavy lifting remains manual for those who want to offer unique content and features,” Mike Allen, president of Shopping-Bargains.com, says.

The potential for technology to take more of the sting out of couponing online has generated more than a few companies ready to cash in on new platforms. RSS feeds for coupons have been a boon to companies that do it, such as CouponBar.com, DealoftheDay.com and PhatDeal.com. Couponing from cell phones is the next area of interest for some. Companies such as Cellfire, MoBull and Quickpons are startups that just deliver coupons via cell phones. And they are already getting buzz. Redemption rates for mobile coupons are very high – at about 23 percent – mostly because cell phone users opt in to receive the coupons or must register or download a piece of software to the phone to participate.

Allen thinks this will undoubtedly drive the mom and pop out of business. “Coupon sites,” he says, “have become mainstream businesses. All the major players have recently undergone extensive revisions, technology upgrades and aesthetic enhancements to better compete in what is now a very sophisticated and fast-moving marketplace.” He says that what was once “amateur or hobby categories” are now sites that can be called brands on their own. The larger the main players become the harder it will be for small affiliates to keep up, he says.

Boal of Coupons.com thinks the future is Web services and mobile. “We took our time with mobile,” he says. “We didn’t make it so difficult.” They waited until they figured out a way for everyone to use it instead of only customers with certain cell phone brands.

CMS’ Tilley outlines what keeps coupons hot. The face value of coupons has risen about 9 percent while product price inflation has risen only about 2 percent. Coupons that require multiple purchases are down, but their response rate is up. For nonfood products, shoppers are 30 percent more likely to use a buy-two coupon than a discount on a buy-one. For food, the buy-four is more popular than the discount on one item. And for both categories overall – food and nonfood – shoppers are 49 percent more inclined to use buy-four than a buy-three or a discount on one. And while coupons redeemed has slid from 3.9 billion coupons in 2001 to 3 billion in 2005, traditionally coupon redemption drops in a good economy.

What’s In Store?

The in-store coupon is also becoming very popular. About a third of redemptions now come from the in-store instant savings coupon or offer. Tilley says packaged goods marketers plan to migrate up to 20 percent of their coupon campaigns to online by the end of this year.

While some retail affiliates wouldn’t dream of dealing in coupons, some couponers like Allen simply think it’s harder to be a retail product affiliate. “General coupons are easier to deal with than many specific retail products,” he says. “Why essentially recreate the retailer’s website on your own? It’s not good for organic search and most affiliates don’t have the resources to do all the split tests and so forth needed to optimize product layouts for multiple retailers. Why compete with what they do best?”

Fabu.com’s Yack has a real simple and direct assessment. “We’ve been working on Fabu for nine months. I have ads in 180 newspapers; I have three publicists. A lot of these sites still look the same as if they came from the wayback machine. I built Fabu because times are changing ” and I’m getting paid for having a link on my site – how crazy is that?”