Insurance for Conversion Rates

Designing for conversions isn’t rocket science. It’s just the ability to design a website with particular ideas in mind. For this column we’re going to focus on some of the most powerful ways to make a site convert – emotion, unique value proposition and credibility. Master these three basic concepts and you’ll be rewarded with soaring conversion rates.

The life insurance lead generation site EFinancial.com came to us a few months ago with an all-too-common problem. Its site looked much like others in the same industry. While the generic domain name gave people some sense of name recognition, there was nothing else that differentiated the site from its competition. In the online world, that’s not a very good thing.

Combine that lackluster look with the fact that the company needs to collect good information from users to do business and you have a site in need of some conversion design magic. For EFinancial.com, our definition of a conversion is getting a user to fill out the form. And the goal, as always, is to get more people to convert.

Get Emotional

So how can we make this site stand out from the crowd? Or at least, how can we get people to submit their information before leaving to scope out the competition? How do we stop users in their tracks? By creating emotion.

As your stereotypical guy, I’m not real emotional. I don’t do chick flicks and my monotone demeanor isn’t prone to outbursts. But as a marketer, I’ve learned to elicit, titillate and embrace my customers’ emotions. You see, if you can appeal to someone on an emotional level, the chances that they will engage with your product skyrocket. Remember, you don’t have much time to make your impression.

Here is something to keep in mind. Almost every new Web browser on the market offers some sort of tabbed browsing functionality. Now users can stay on one site while they open all their links in new tabs. What this means for marketers and website owners is that it’s now even easier for people to shop around online. I regularly watch users go to Google, perform a search and then open the top four or five results in new tabs. Then they quickly scan the results pages before picking which one they are going to use. This is a scary thought for many pay-per-click marketers because it means more clicks and potentially lower conversions. The call to differentiate or die has never been more compelling.

Show Me the Value

So let’s review the existing site. It’s easy to see that the form is the focal point of the EFinancial site, followed by the family photo and logo. While it’s good the form is front and center, the company is not taking the opportunity to talk about what makes it different from the competition. When designing on the Web, never forget to tell people what makes your organization better.

The EFinancial home page contains no real “about us” text and the main headline appears to be “Start Your Free Life Insurance Quote Here.” That’s hardly an argument for its service. In fact, besides the simplicity of the page, the site doesn’t do anything to sell itself.

I turned to Marty Weishaar, marketing director for EFinancial to find out what makes the company different. He explains that EFinancial definitely does offer some benefits such as being experts at closing tough cases. This is a great point because some people, because of their health, age, lifestyle, etc., have a hard time getting life insurance. This is an audience that should definitely consider working with EFinancial.

Highlight the Credibility

Next, it doesn’t operate on a bait-andswitch mentality, which is something that Marty tells me other companies are notorious for doing. According to Marty, EFinancial will really get you the rate they advertise. Again, this is a solid, unique value proposition and should be highlighted. And its technology automates many of the steps, which makes for a faster process from start to finish, thus satisfying the “let’s get this over with” life insurance shoppers.

Another thing I notice, and one of the points I consider to be low-hanging fruit in the conversion design process, is that the company has buried some strong credibility builders (VeriSign Secured, BBBOnLine, money-back guarantee and privacy notice) under the form and below the “fold” of the page. Study after study shows that having security seals in a prominent place really does boost conversions. While many of us in the online industry understand that these seals may not offer very much in terms of actually making a website more secure, their presence does make some percentage of users more comfortable with submitting their personal information.

Finally, if the goal is to get more users to fill out the form, lose the navigation. Assuming your traffic is fairly targeted, why distract them with links for home loans and auto insurance in the navigation? Getting rid of those will help keep users focused on the task at hand.

For the redesign, we’ve taken several steps to correct the issues identified above. First, we made the family photo larger, and selected a photo and headline that draws more attention to the child. Everyone knows that sex sells, but don’t forget the emotional impact of children as a sales tool. This new image is designed to grab the reader, as opposed to merely decorating the page. That covers the emotional aspect of the redesign.

Next we added bullet points that highlight the EFinancial value propositions and some basic “about us” text that was previously unavailable on the home page. Having and communicating a strong unique value proposition should be a priority for every Internet business owner. Next we moved all those credibility- building seals to the top of the page, where the space was being underutilized anyway, and we moved the carrier logos (AIG, Transamerica, etc.,) to a more prominent position. The security seals, privacy notice and familiar carrier logos should limit users questioning the site’s legitimacy.

Want your home page 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 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.

Introducing Dr. Makeover

Not every website needs a complete redesign. Contrary to what most Web designers tell you, designing a website for results, or what I like to call Conversion Design, doesn’t require a pretty website. I’m not interested in redesigning websites just for design’s sake. So we’re shaking things up a bit for this issue of Revenue. Instead of a complete visual overhaul of one site, I’m going to answer some frequently asked questions.

Enter Dr. Makeover – my alter ego. He’s a combination of Dear Abby and Dr. Phil with an Internet business twist. And he’ll provide quality advice about how to make your website perform the way you need it to.

Dear Dr. Makeover: I’ve been using my website (ClaudineLewis.com) for over a year to promote my side business of professional voiceover services. I had a friend help create it for me and while it looks “OK” I feel like it should be more dynamic. What can I do to make sure I’m putting my best voice forward? Claudine Lewis

Dear Claudine: I really like your site. It’s simple, personal, the colors are pleasing and your photo looks genuine and professional. I already want to work with you. Sometimes we like to over-think and over-complicate websites. This one proves that sometimes even a basic site can be very effective. Of course, I have a few points of constructive criticism.

  • There’s no link back to the home page from your lower-level pages. The home page is a safe spot – a comfort zone. Make it easy for people to get back there.
  • The samples should play in an audio player of some sort, rather than making the user download an MP3. This makes it easier for people to listen to your samples. That’s really what they’re here for.
  • Speaking of samples, make some of your best ones available right on the home page. Consider recording a friendly “Welcome to my site” audio message.
  • Make your contact information available on every page.

Those tips will help get people the information they’re looking for and increase the number of contracts you get. The personal nature of your site makes you seem really approachable. That’s one of the strongest selling points in my opinion. Don’t lose that as the website continues to grow. Dr. Makeover

Dear Dr. Makeover: Please help. We have the coolest product since email, but visitors to our website (inclue.com) still don’t get it. Our RSS reader for Outlook is an easy-to-use plug-in that allows anyone to have news, blogs and even videos delivered right into Outlook. This is a product that has universal appeal, but our website isn’t communicating that. My feeling is that people either get scared off by the techi-ness of RSS, or they just don’t see the “Hey, Wow!” benefit. What can we do? Nick Gogerty, CEO of inclue!

Dear Nick: I can see some areas that could use a little improvement. First, you want to build a group mentality. People feel safety in numbers, so if you can show that 10,000 other people have already downloaded this thing, that will make visitors feel like it’s okay. I suggest keeping a live download count on your home page.

Next, you should provide some type of demo to visually spell out the benefits of using this reader. If you created a nice Flash demo that showed, for example, a Hillary Duff video being delivered and played right through Outlook, that would generate the “Hey, Wow!” response you are looking for.

Third, dump the people-from-weird-angles-on-a-white-background clip art. That is so 2001. I’d use imagery that isn’t so dated.

Finally, the home page tries to communicate too many things. I counted 11 different marketing messages all around the page. People tend to dismiss marketing talk. Instead, create one strong message. Something like, “Inclue! Delivers Your favorite News, Videos, Jobs, and Auctions straight to Outlook – FREE!” That might be a little long, but you get the idea. Dr. Makeover

Dear Dr. Makeover: I used one of those “Easy Website Builders” to create my site (ExecutiveCareerPro.com) just a few weeks ago. While my resume services are top-notch, I’m worried that my professionalism and skill level aren’t being communicated. Even though I’m limited to the changes allowed by the website builder, I can make copy changes, add pages and include graphics. What can I do to more effectively appeal to my target market of high-earning executives? Rita Fisher, CPRW and President of ExecutiveCareerPro

Dear Rita: You’re at the top of your game and it’s time to make sure everyone else knows it. Executives at this level should already understand why it’s important to have a professional resume, so selling them on those benefits may be unnecessary. Your site should really focus more on you and your credentials. The way it is now I can barely find your name on the site. Don’t bury the good information.

At the bottom of the home page you offer a free career strategy consultation. Why are you hiding that way down there? By moving that up, maybe just above the navigation, it gives potential clients an easy, no-risk way to get in touch with you to see what you can do for them.

The testimonials are a strong point on the home page, but the color scheme makes it uncomfortable to read. I’m not a big fan of templates in general, but if you have some other alternatives, you might want to consider choosing a different one.

After several more clicks, I finally stumbled on your About page. Here’s where you decided to hide all the good stuff. Your work has been featured in the book “Gallery of Best Resumes.” Congratulations. Let’s make people aware of that. I also like the photo of you. It isn’t the best quality, but it adds a personal touch and really helps to break up the blocks of text. Finally, the Professional Association of ResumeWriters’ logo shows that you are active in this industry.

Let’s bring the photo, the association logo and the book cover graphic over to the home page. Highlighting these images creates an instant, almost subconscious credibility. The idea is to help users understand what you have to offer before they even start reading the text on your page. With all the resume websites out there, the main selling point for yours is YOU. You need to toot your own horn as much as possible. Dr. Makeover

If you have a question for Dr. Makeover or want the chance to be picked for a free home page or landing page redesign, send your name, company, contact information and a brief description of your business (including the URL) to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.


PEDRO SOSTREis 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.

Over-the-Counter Advice for a Healthier Home Page

A double dose of design is not nearly as potent as performance for a site that needs a checkup.

What does design mean to you? Since the goal of this column is to teach website owners, Internet marketers and developers how to design home pages and landing pages that meet business objectives, it’s important that we are on the same page, the same line – the same word – as we explore our latest makeover. So let me just begin this month’s column by defining the term design.

I actually have an issue with the word design. The problem is that most people automatically associate design with art. Too many website owners mistakenly assume that the definition of a well-designed website is one that looks good. Let me set the record straight: A well-designed website is one that performs. Making the site look good is often part of the process of developing a site that performs – but aesthetics are only a piece of the puzzle.

I use the phrase conversion design to describe what I do. I’ve defined conversion design as the deliberate arrangement of elements such as salesmanship, copywriting and visuals to produce an intended outcome. The idea is to encourage users to take a desired action, and the end result is always the same – increased conversions.

That leads me to a second reason for defining design. You may notice that this issue’s makeover isn’t as visually dramatic as previous columns. That’s because we wanted to focus on how simple changes (as opposed to complete visual makeovers) can go a long way toward making your home page more effective. The step-by-step changes we review in this edition of By Design are improvements that any website owner can implement. Now on to the show.

For this issue, we chose to redesign StudentDoc.com, a resource website for medical students that generates the majority of its income from CPA and CPC placements. Naoum Issa started StudentDoc.com shortly after graduating medical school because he recognized a lack of online venues dedicated to helping medical students find the information and resources they need. Naoum has developed a website full of useful resources and is generating a fair amount of traffic and income. Now what? Eventually, every successful website owner wants to take their site to the next level.

Heal Thy Site

StudentDoc.com currently provides salary information, medical test preparation and advice, a medical industry job search and a host of other features that harried med students would find essential. While most of the traffic goes directly to the lower-level pages through organic search, Naoum wants StudentDoc.com to be imprinted in the minds of young medical students. Unfortunately, his current home page just isn’t having that effect. Instead, it functions more like a site map for search engine spiders.

The challenge is to redesign the home page so that it accommodates both the visitor and the search engines. As with any website, the home page should inspire confidence and make the site’s purpose immediately clear. In this case it should also encourage return visitors so that med students who may not have an immediate need for the content offerings will be inspired to return later, like when they need to prepare for their MCAT exam or when they’re ready to look for a job to pay off those student loans.

When we showed the site to our team members, the initial reaction was, “What do they do?” When a group of people looks at your website and has to ask that question, you’re in trouble. At first glance, our group thought the site offered some sort of document services for students. Since the site has no tagline and lacks the imagery to convey that it serves the medical industry, our group assumed that doc was short for documents, not doctors; hence the name StudentDoc.

Next, the site didn’t offer much in terms of encouraging users to come back for a second or third visit. There’s no way to bookmark it, register for updates, send it to a friend or any other tool that might encourage that type of action. Adding these elements will help increase the repeat traffic the site receives.

So let’s get to our step-by-step review of the changes we made:

First, we added a nice photo of medical students. Imagery can quickly set the tone for a website. Since our brains can process images faster than text, the photo makes it clear that the site is targeting medical industry students and recent grads.

Next, we updated the logo by changing the mark. We chose an image that people will readily identify as medically oriented and added a simple, yet clear tagline under the logo: “The Medical Student’s Resource Guide.” These steps solidify the messaging and prevent any confusion about the site’s purpose.

Naoum informed us that his banners weren’t particularly strong income generators. To remedy that issue we pulled them and added text links in the top banner area and forum excerpts in place of the skyscraper (728×90) ad. These text links are a quick way for users to find popular content within the site. The potential downside to this is that it seems to make the site slightly more cluttered. In this case, however, it works because the site is highly targeted so users aren’t as quick to leave. That is a good example of how conversion design chooses performance over looks.

We kept the same general color scheme, but removed the unnecessary traces of red and made the blues a little darker. The lighter, brighter blues gave the site a fun and playful emotion, whereas the new colors give the site a stronger feeling and add to the site’s credibility.

Finally, we added a row at the top of the page to house the “get people to come back” links like Bookmark Us, Register for Updates, etc. We also added a more prominent search function. These changes will encourage one-time visitors to become regular visitors and ultimately increase site traffic and sales.

While we did make some minor graphical updates, all of our changes are simple enough for any website owner to implement. These basic elements are important to keep in mind when designing a site because they will build the foundation for further tweaks and improvements. Remember, design doesn’t have to put fashion over form. Conversion design is about bottom- line results.

Would you like to get a free home page or landing page design for your website and see it featured in this column? To be considered, 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 header.


PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Pedro is currently working on a book about his new concept of conversion design. For more information, visit SellNowBook.com.

From Maui, With Love

A comprehensive but dated Hawaiian travel site gets a modern makeover.

Break out your favorite Hawaiian shirt and toss a lei around your neck – we’re headed to Maui! Well, Maui.us, anyway. Unfortunately, when we found the three-year- old online travel guide, it was wilting faster than a week-old hibiscus. But don’t fret – we can revive this online travel site.

They say content is king, and I agree. If you want to garner a loyal audience, you need to present the content that audience is seeking (with frequent updates, I might add). Maui.us CEO John Bottomley said he spent thousands of hours building his site. With an interactive map, a comprehensive activity guide, a meticulous hotel directory and a slew of other exclusive features, Maui.us certainly has all the content it needs to become “the major travel gateway to the island of Maui” that Bottomley always dreamed it would be.

Still, Maui.us is hardly generating the new traffic, repeat visitations or conversions Bottomley anticipated when he launched the site in 2002. So while content may be king, let’s not forget to invite conversion design, his lovely and talented queen, to the luau. Conversion design is the process of designing to meet business objectives, such as converting traffic into sales.

The Problems

In order to live up to its potential, Maui.us needs to exude the authority, trust and credibility that people expect from a major travel gateway. The site must also instantly communicate its compelling offerings and make it crystal clear why visitors need them. Finally, to make the conversion design transformation complete, we need to place more emphasis on the site’s top moneymakers. Bottomley says that these are, in order of importance, the custom vacation builder, hotel bookings and the activities guide.

The bottom line is that Maui.us lacks visual appeal, which can be assessed within 50 milliseconds, according to a report published in the Behaviour & Information Technology journal. That suggests that Web designers have about 50 milliseconds to make a good impression. Keeping that in mind, here’s a list of shortcomings we can remedy to make those first 50 milliseconds really count.

Outdated appearance. The site’s outdated graphics and cliche island imagery leave users wondering whether the site is still active. Savvy travelers today are flooded with online options, and they refuse to waste their time on a site that might be outdated. Remember, they are looking for information and resources they weren’t able to find at the first five Maui sites they visited. We need to make visitors feel confident that Maui.us can provide the answers they need.

Inconsistent and cryptic site wide navigation. In our last two makeovers, we pointed out a common problem: too many items in the main navigation. While that is also an issue at Maui.us (count a whopping 12 items), the even bigger problem is inconsistent placement and appearance of the main navigation. On an 800 x 600 browser, you actually have to scroll down to see the nav. What’s more, the placement and arrangement of the links changes from page to page.

Then there are the cryptic icons; so cryptic that users “don’t think to click on them,” says Lisa Ramos, sales director for Sostre & Associates. (Ramos just happens to be planning a trip to Hawaii in a few months, making her exactly the audience that this site needs to woo.) “The icons just look like part of the design,” she notes. “At first, I thought the site only offered hotel and air search. That discouraged me from exploring the site further.”

Wide text columns. It’s hard enough to read text online. By taking your column of text and stretching it across the length of your Web page, you’re essentially guaranteeing that no one will read it. Just for fun, here are the numbers for some top information websites: MSNBC articles feature text columns that are 460 pixels wide, BBC articles post at 405 and Yahoo news stories come in at about 550. Compare that to Maui.us, which stretches its text columns to almost 700 pixels wide. As a general rule, the maximum width for columns of text should be around 500 pixels.

Poor use of photos. Occasionally you can get away with using poor images. I’ve even been known to discourage the use of gratuitous images in conversion design. But come on – we’re talking about Maui here. If there was ever a time to leverage photos and imagery, this is it. Images help to create an emotional response, and that’s what people want when they’re planning a Hawaiian vacation. After all, it’s not often that someone needs to make a trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so we must encourage the emotional desire to take the trip of a lifetime.

The Solutions

Now that we’ve identified the issues, let’s get to work. Our first step was to go to iStockphoto (www.iStockphoto.com). When you need great images, and you have a limited budget, this is the place to go. iStockphoto offers professional-quality photos and illustrations for ridiculously low prices (about $1 each for Web quality). A search for the term “Maui” yields 462 mostly professional images of the stunning Hawaiian isle. After downloading a few that didn’t work out, we settled on a relaxing scene from Big Beach, Maui.

Next, we whittled the navigation options down to five. We kept the links to the seven other items, but we worked them in toward the bottom of the page to reduce viewer confusion. Next, we placed the main navigation right at the top of the page, like most websites, so it wouldn’t jump around as users moved from page to page. Last but not least, we worked a little conversion design magic to give the site a more current look, while maintaining our focus on the big three income generators. After all, that’s what conversion design is all about.

When Bottomley submitted his site, his original goal was to “make a top-ranking site that MUST be as beautiful as the natural beauty of Maui itself!” Of course, meeting that challenge is surely impossible (have you ever been to Maui?), but I believe we’ve brought the site much closer with this new design. The real proof will come with the increased number of users that decide to use Maui.us for vacation planning.

Would you like to get a free home page or landing page design for your website and see it featured in this article? To be considered, please 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 header.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a Miami-based consulting and development firm that also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites, including Audio-BookDeals.com, EquestrianMag.com and iTravelMag.com. Sostre is currently working on a book about his concept of conversion design, scheduled for release in summer 2006. For more information, visit conversionpublishing.com.

A Brand New Day for BrandNewDad.com

Not every website sells widgets. But that doesn’t mean every website doesn’t need an effective home page.

In this column, we chose an information portal as our subject. So instead of addressing questions like what the site is selling, and how to make a purchase, our focus was on the proper display of content, use of colors and communicating the benefits of registration.

Our subject is BrandNewDad.com. The site has a wealth of information for fathers, with helpful feature articles, pregnancy information, forums, a shopping directory and various other valuable resources. Unfortunately, the owner succumbed to the common temptation to jam-pack the home page with more options than the eye can bear. The result is a cluttered, confusing, jumbled mess.

As BrandNewDad.com owner Dave Trenck put it, “The site is too busy. ” I’d like to be able to highlight the community aspects of the site, the personalization features and, of course, intertwine all the various affiliate links and support the various CPM and CPC ad placements.”

The goal of this redesign – just as with OriginalDogBiscuit.com (the online purveyor of doggie treats we featured in the last issue) – is to increase conversions. Ultimately, that’s what it is all about.

That’s why I’ve coined the term “Conversion Design” to describe the business of design. You’ll be hearing much more about this concept as the year unfolds because it encompasses critical Web design elements that spark increased conversions, like color theory, usability and copywriting.

How do you increase conversions on a site that does not peddle products? Conversion Design is not always about direct sales. Sometimes it’s about indirect sales, or even qualified sales leads. Trenck’s goal, for example, is to woo site registrants so that in addition to serving up personalized content, he can display targeted ads that convert at higher percentages than their untargeted counterparts. In this case, registrants are considered conversions.

Our task was to redesign the home page to make the site’s benefits crystal clear. At the same time, the home page would need to soft-sell the advantages of free registration. The end result would be more registered users, more repeat visitors and more ad revenue for BrandNewDad.com. That’s good news for Trenck, but we’ve got to wade through the bad news to get there.

When we showed the original site to our small yet highly critical focus group, phrases like “too wordy,” “too much info,” “unclear navigation” and “no main point of interest” echoed through the meeting. Vincent Flanders, author of Web Pages That Suck: Learn Good Design by Looking at Bad Design, probably would have agreed. He lists having too much material on one page as one of his top 10 Web design mistakes. According to Flanders, “With so much content vying for attention, it’s initially impossible for the eye to settle on one thing. People get confused and people leave.”

BEFORE

Sostre & Associates’ art director Jason Graham has a slightly different take on the issue of displaying too much content: “A good site should lead me or suggest to me what content I might find useful. The biggest problem with BrandNewDad.com is that even though things are categorized, it doesn’t feel like they are.”

Graham’s guiding concept for our approach: Group the content into clearly defined categories so visitors can easily move through the page. This is referred to in the design industry as “chunking.”

AFTER

“The idea is to categorize and then visually group information, as opposed to letting it all bleed together,” Graham says. “We can do that by adding more white space between the elements and making the headlines or titles larger. Chunking helps to make the page scannable so we can still include all the same information that the website currently has, but now it’s easy to understand.”

Besides better content organization, we took three additional steps in our quest to make the home page more user-friendly: reducing the navigational elements, decreasing the number of colors and increasing the white space.

Like other sites with loads of content, BrandNewDad.com wants users to see it all. That’s why the site has so many options in its main navigation. In our experience, however, having too many navigation buttons can overwhelm visitors. So we reduced the number of buttons to five and repositioned the missing navigation items.

Next up: colors. The site uses six colors throughout the various user-interface elements. This mishmash spectrum contributes to the busy, uncomfortable feeling our focus group verbalized. We cut this number in half and allowed a three-color scheme to help unify the design.

White space can be tricky. On one hand, if we overdo it, we waste space that could be displaying information. On the other hand, if we don’t have enough white space, we end up with a cluttered mess. In this case, we definitely needed to increase white space to achieve the “chunking” Graham mentioned.

Our redesign simplified the site without sacrificing important information, making it easier for new visitors to understand the site’s benefits. Once the visitors are sold on the site, enticing them to register and personalize their experience is much more likely. We can encourage registration by highlighting personalization features and positioning the “register” and “sign in” links in standard locations.

We’ve taken the important first steps of giving this home page a much-needed overhaul. But the work should not stop there. An essential aspect of Conversion Design is continuous testing and review. Websites should be reviewed and tweaked frequently to ensure that their creators are getting the best possible outcome. User feedback and a careful eye for conversion rates should be the guiding factors in this process.

Would you like to get a free home page or landing page design for your website and see it featured in this column? To be considered, please 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 header.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a consulting and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs. Pedro is currently working on a book about his new concept of Conversion Design, scheduled for release this summer.

Home Page Makeover Unleashed

In this first installment of Revenue Magazine’s “By Design Makeover,” I worked with my team at Sostre & Associates to choose one site and give that lucky winner a visual redesign of its home page. After reviewing more than 50 submissions from readers like you, we finally selected – drum roll, please – OriginalDogBiscuit.com.

We chose this site because it serves as a prime example of a challenge website owners commonly face – designing an effective home page. I am convinced that online retailers could drastically improve conversions by redesigning their home page, and I am out to prove it. So stick with me as we walk through this makeover geared toward increasing conversion rates for OriginalDogBiscuit.com.

Before you design a website it is critical to thoroughly understand the product or service that you are peddling. That’s why we started the makeover process with a conversation with Elyse Grau, owner of The Original Dog Biscuit Co., to learn as much as possible about her products.

Grau says her company’s value proposition is quality. In other words, the biggest benefit of buying her biscuits is the ingredients. The Original Dog Biscuit uses all natural, human-grade, mostly organic ingredients, no preservatives, sugars or salts. The results leave dogs barking for more of this healthier snack.

Grau’s customers are health-conscious dog lovers. So it comes as no surprise that her best-selling products are regular and special diet dog biscuits, with dog gifts and dog supplements taking a backseat to these staples. The Original Dog Biscuit Co. also touts great incentives for frequent buyers, including discounts and free products.

Armed with this information, we needed to understand how users interact with the website. This is User Interaction 101. A first-time visitor has three primary questions: What is this site selling; why should I buy from this site; and how do I buy from this site?

Your website’s home page is charged with providing quick answers (sometimes in less than 10 seconds) before you require anything of the user.

Now let’s check out how the original design responds to those questions.

What is the site selling? The Original Dog Biscuit Co. may have a clear domain name and logo, but the website sends mixed signals. A quick glance at the home page screams of salmon oils instead of the company’s best-selling biscuits.

The three product categories – Dog Biscuits, Dog Gifts and Supplements – are each given the same weight in the navigation. That makes it confusing for customers who came to the site looking for dog biscuits with the best ingredients and best taste.

What’s more, the home page doesn’t display any images of the actual products being offered. This imagery is commonly referred to in the industry as a “hero shot.” And according to MarketingSherpa’s Landing Page Handbook, a good hero shot can increase brand recognition and response rates. That’s our goal!

Why should I buy from this site? As we learned from our business owner interview, the unique value of the doggy treats is ingredients that are far superior to your average grocery store brand. The problem is that the site doesn’t communicate that value proposition.

Well, OK, technically it does in that hard-to-find text blurb in the middle. But people don’t always read text, especially text that stretches across the page with no distinguishing characteristics. And the Our Ingredients link is sandwiched between the Frequent Buyer Program and Privacy Policy links, neither of which will draw much attention. This is where a good tagline comes in.

Wait ” it already has a tagline. Yes, and if you squint really hard you can almost see it right there under the logo. Can you see it? It says, “Best Ingredients. Best Taste.” It’s not the best tagline in the dog-biscuit world, but if it was visible, it might help.

How do I buy from this site? Now let’s assume that a user gets past the first two questions. They understand that the site sells dog biscuits and that the high-quality ingredients make this a much better brand for their canine friends. There’s still one more problem: How do they make a purchase?

Although not immediately recognizable, the phone number isn’t too hard to find.

Since there are no product images on the home page, we have to dig a little deeper to find the dog biscuits we want. But once we get there, adding them to the cart is fairly straightforward.

Bottom line: OriginalDogBiscuit.com could use a few improvements. I’ve pinpointed a few specific areas that need some immediate help:

  • Too much navigation
    When there are too many navigation options, it’s hard for the eye to pick anything out, much less see what’s really important.
  • Corporate identity inconsistency
    The logo is attractive and has personality, but it doesn’t flow with the rest of the page.
  • Missing unique value proposition
    The unique benefit for dog owners who buy from this site is that their pets are getting treats that are healthier than their mass-market counterparts. This value is not communicated on the home page.
  • Ordering phone number not prominent
    Many users still want to pick up the phone and call. The placement of the number is not prominent enough.
  • Wrong focus
    The first thing a visitor sees on the site is “salmon oil.” This is not the primary business of the website and, although there should be a place for news and announcements, it is taking too much real estate in the current design.

Now comes the fun part. Sostre & Associates art director Jason Graham spearheaded the visual aspect of this redesign. He was excited about the project because, “Their logo and packaging looks terrific. They obviously invested a lot into their brand identity, and we can capitalize on that.”

First we took the most important elements and positioned them right in the center of the page. Now their top products are prominently featured, along with their value proposition, and Add to Cart links allow customers to begin shopping right away. Then we surrounded that imagery with supporting elements, like testimonials, articles and frequent-buyer discounts.

“Everything on the home page supports the user’s desire to buy or learn more about the product and the person selling it,” Graham says. “The new home page gives users lots of reasons to feel good about buying the product.”

In the competitive world of e-commerce, online shoppers are always looking for reasons to not buy from a website. Having a less-than-optimal home page can give them what they perceive as a good reason.

Remember the saying, “On the Web, your competition is only three clicks away”? Well, it may be old (in Internet time), but it is still true. This By Design Makeover is sure to keep the competition at bay and dog owners happy with a user-friendly store to buy nutritious doggy treats.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a Miami-based consulting and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs, including AudioBookDeals.com, BestCredit Solutions.com, EquestrianMag.com, iTravelMag.com and Look-Your-Best.com.

Pedro Sostre: Follow Your Passion

Pedro Sostre is all about art and good design. And he’s not afraid to voice his opinions on either subject.

“Most websites suck in terms of design,” he says, though he also admits there are many design-oriented sites that are extremely well-done and that he’d be hard-pressed to single out just a handful of them.

When it comes to art, he’s fond of the impressionist style of painting. He loves art with bold colors. He leans more toward more modern work and loves Piet Mondrian and his counterparts, but he’s not very fond of pop artists like Andy Warhol.

A passion for art and design seems to permeate everything he does – especially his work.

Sostre, principal and creative director of Sostre & Associates, is a Miami-based affiliate who also does Web development and consulting.

He’s one of Commission Junction’s top performers – with a network earnings ratio of five bars. He’s been a publisher with Commission Junction since 2003 and runs a number of sites, from book clubs to cosmetics to equestrian vacations, including AudioBookDeals.com, BestCreditSolutions.com, EquestrianMag.com, iTravelMag.com, Look-Your-Best.com and Tax-Stuff.com.

Sostre started his professional design career in 1998 doing identity and brand consulting along with designing logos and business cards. Around 1999, when the Internet was gaining in popularity, Sostre started to get more involved in designing websites. “I really just wanted to see what it was all about,” he says. “Then I realized there was money to be made.”

Like most who wanted to ride the Internet gravy train, Sostre had no formal training with computers or the Web. He came from a graphics design and visual communications background at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

“In school we didn’t have very many computers. I think I took one programming class, but there was nothing related to the Internet,” he laughs.

However, after working on the design portion of several clients’ websites, Sostre would often see sales jump from $5,000 to $50,000 a month. Suddenly he wondered why he wasn’t doing this for himself. So in 1999 he started working on his first affiliate website and launched it in 2000. Not surprisingly, SiteDesignMagazine.com was aimed at site designers.

“I still have that site today, but now it’s like a stepchild that doesn’t get much attention,” he says.

Sostre concedes that at the time he launched his first site, he “had no idea what was going to work” and he just “put up a bunch of stuff.” The good news was that certain elements showed lots of promise.

“Affiliate marketing was not mature back then,” he notes. “I just kind of did it myself and kept trying new stuff.”

He didn’t have anyone to look to for advice or tips when he started. BeFree was the network Sostre signed up with when he first started out. “It’s not like Commission Junction is now, where they provide advice and help for publishers. It was like ‘Here are the merchants’ links, just grab them and go,’ ” he says.

And if he did come across someone willing to share online marketing war stories, they weren’t really making any money anyway.

“Most affiliates were in their own little sheltered environments,” he says. “The people that were doing well didn’t have the time to be out and talking. They were hard at work on their sites.”

Sostre took note of that. He kept his head down and mostly just figured things out for himself. He says he simply used basic principles of salesmanship and marketing. “I applied what I knew from traditional business.”

During college and high school he had a variety of sales jobs – Godiva and Structure (now Men’s Express) – that taught him a lot, and he says much of his early retail sales training came in handy. He’s also not afraid to take risks and make mistakes.

“I spent a lot of money that I didn’t need to spend, but every cent taught me something,” he says.

Currently Sostre has about 20 sites that are close to done and approximately seven that are completely up and running. He also owns another 100 domains and is trying to figure out how best to use them.

“I can be very fickle and get bored easily. That’s when I move on to different stuff,” he says. If I’m losing on one site and then realize that there’s another area where no one has done very well, then I might consider creating a site to fill that need.”

Typically, like with his equestrian site, EquestrianMag.com, Sostre identifies a market or industry, looks at the existing sites and evaluates them. If there are a lot of bad sites, but he still thinks there are enough people interested in the topic, he will buy a domain name and launch a new site.

The three sites Sostre considers to be his best-performing are FreeBookClubs.com, AudioBookDeals.com and iTravelMag.com.

He does pay per click on his own websites. He doesn’t do bulk email or PPC arbitrage. Because many of his sites are online magazines, he also has to refresh content frequently. He hires freelance writers and updates the site with new articles once a month and uses free press releases. However, he refuses to use keyword articles and search engine spam.

“I know there are people out there that capitalize on that to get the traffic,” he says. “I won’t do that.” But there are several things he has done that have helped him achieve success. “I’m doing something I love. I love designing websites and trying to find new ways to increase business using the Internet, and that’s what I get to do all day long. I’m constantly trying new things. You have to try everything and don’t be afraid to fail. And I’m always learning. Whether it’s a new programming language or a new sales principle, I try to be in a constant state of learning.”

And no matter how successful he becomes, he’s never afraid to seek help or learn from someone else. Recently he considered one of his sites nearly dead. It had only a couple of sales in the last year. But he resuscitated the site by working with an affiliate manager friend. Sostre takes extra care not to take any of the credit for his friend’s hard work and the improvement in performance.

“My affiliate manager friend took it over and improved the program. It was huge challenge, but she knew the program could be good,” he says. “She got the program to a good point where sales went from two per year to 100 sales per month. It showed me what a good affiliate manager can really do.”

In order for Sostre to consider one of his properties successful it has to meet specific criteria: it fills a specific need and he starts to get inquiries on how to advertise on it. “The money comes after that,” he adds.

Professional success has helped Sostre gain personal success as well, which he defines as being able to work from home and spend as much time as possible with his family. His wife is a stay-at-home mom, so she deals with the busy schedules of his four kids.

Sostre really likes to help out, but working from home means having strict boundaries. When he’s working, his office is off limits to the kids, “when they feel like listening,” he says. If Sostre is in the middle of big project or on a tight deadline, his wife is great about occupying the kids in the pool or taking them to visit grandma.

And like most affiliates that work from home, this self-described workaholic can set his own schedule. He says it changes every now and again. On rare occasions he wakes up at 6 a.m., but most of his workdays start around 9 or 10 a.m. – unless he gets “dragged out of bed earlier for a phone call.”

“I’m not an early person,” Sostre says. “I usually stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. or sometimes later. That’s when my brain is turned on.”

By working from home he also avoids a nasty commute to downtown Miami, which can take up to 90 minutes each way in heavy traffic, which is almost always, he claims.

The disadvantage of his job is that few people outside the affiliate community understand what Sostre does for a living.

“I don’t talk to enough people that even know what affiliate marketing is. My mom is convinced that I’m doing something illegal,” he jokes. “I’ve resorted to saying ‘Internet stuff’ when explaining what I do to friends and family.”

Commission Junction certainly knows what Sostre does. As one of CJ’s top performers, he’s often asked by the affiliate network to give tips to new publishers and advertisers on how to run strong programs. Although he’s eager to help others, he seems almost embarrassed to talk about his success. He seems hesitant to admit he’s got a big bag full of great tips and tricks.

It’s not that he’s concerned about someone borrowing his recipe for success. “I’ve talked very openly with a lot of people about how I did it, but everything is not easily duplicated, so it’s not like I’m worried that someone else is going to steal my business,” he says.

Mostly, it’s just that he’d rather not seem preachy or like a know-it-all. Instead, he prefers to talk about his personal experience and let people take what they want or need from his story.

Sostre says he likes to keep a low profile, but in the last year or so he’s been encouraged by a well-connected friend in the industry to be more visible in the affiliate community.

“My friend is remarkable. She’s trying to get me to talk to people. After asking me a couple hundred times, I gave in and let her introduce me to some people.”

That’s led to some interesting opportunities. Over the last several months, Sostre was on a panel at the Affiliate Summit 2005 in Las Vegas in June; he was a speaker at eComXpo, a virtual tradeshow for online marketers; and he’s done some writing for industry trade publications.

“I haven’t done a whole lot of publicly before now,” he says. “I’ve stayed out of the industry. I’m used to doing things on my own. I was not one that visited the newsletter sites and message boards – especially once the experts and gurus came out. I’m just not that keen on listening to them.”

Maybe that’s why he seems so reticent to give out advice. Ironically, about 25 percent of his business is consulting services related to advising others on website design.

One piece of advice he doesn’t hesitate to give out: “People who are innovators try new things. Now people are just trying to duplicate success. Free iPods are huge, and these are not from the original company that made it a success. I hate that. Experiment. Do something new.”

New technologies such as blogging and podcasting offer opportunities, says Sostre. While he’s long been interested in blogging but hasn’t had much time to spend on it, he notes that podcasting is likely not for him. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work well for others.

“People should be open to try new stuff. I thought online marketing was interesting. I tried it and it worked for me as well as a whole lot of other people, even though many marketing experts were sure that it was never going to go anywhere. The more you try the more you can succeed.”

He also can’t emphasize enough the importance of design.

“Most websites really need design improvement and help,” he says. “Mostly it’s someone just attempting to make a few bucks. You know, people want to make an extra $100 per month. Then they realize they can make $500 per month, then $1,000. These are not people that are going to spend time to learn design. I believe that’s why many fail.

“I would like to see the Internet mature in terms of design as other marketing media has. Why do you think Target and Apple do so well? Good design and marketing. Some marketers understand how design impacts them, so they’ll pay a professional,” he says.

According to Sostre, the next step for affiliates is to grow beyond affiliate marketing.

“I’d love to see the affiliate community do something good,” he says. “We need to seek to do something more than just making money.”

However, he explains that he means “do good” from a business standpoint.

“Well, I’m not Mother Teresa or a member of Greenpeace, so when I say do good I mean from a business sense. I would like to see more affiliate sites grow to become top resources in their respective industries. I see a lot of affiliate sites that are just directories or they have content that is not that useful. It’s just there to attract people to the site. I’d like to see affiliates creating real websites that serve as leading resources.”

As for Sostre’s future, he wants to continue to grow his business. Over the next two years he’d like to double his revenue and hire a couple more employees.

“I really love what I’m doing right now and I would hope to be doing the same thing in two years,” he says. “As the president of Sostre & Associates, I get to determine what industries we move into and what websites we develop. This keeps me from getting bored with a particular industry or website. As creative director I get to meet with our clients, learn about their businesses and discover ways to increase it, which is a challenge that I really enjoy.”

Know Your Audience

When designing a Web site, you must take the intended audience into careful consideration. Whether the Web site is business-to-business or business-to-consumer, the design will require a format that caters to the desired type of visitor, and it must also guide them through the intended process as comfortably and efficiently as possible.

First, take into account whether the target demographic is business- or consumer-oriented. In the B2B arena, and particularly in the business service industry, the primary goal is to establish trust in the prospective client.

Business-to-business Web sites usually avoid the kind of hype and pizazz that a consumer Web site may have. A highly sales-oriented site promoting an immediate purchase is simply not appropriate for establishing trust to promote a sale that may require a large risk on the part of the purchaser. The prospective purchaser will perceive this risk as being higher when little information is given to back up any claims that have been made.

It is best in this case to provide easily accessible information to the visitor to make them feel more comfortable with the offer before presenting any extensive hype about the product or service. It is also advisable to make testimonials or case studies available to the visitor, as well as comparisons of the competition.

Instant Visual Clues

In addition, a more visual tactic for establishing trust would be to present the logos and names of well-known clients. These provide instant visual references for the visitor and can help keep their interest long enough to make the sale or establish contact. If the product or service is complex or the value is not immediately obvious, it may be advisable to lead the customer to call and talk to someone one on one. Highly specialized services and products are likely to raise a lot of questions in the customer’s mind. Most of these questions would be best answered over the phone rather than having the visitor perform a tedious search through FAQ pages.

In contrast to business-oriented sites, consumer-targeted sites offering low-risk purchases should make the process of buying as easy and straightforward as possible. Clear presentation of a good offer on the home page will help establish a different kind of trust in the visitor than that of a B2B site. This type of trust tells visitors that they are receiving a fair price and quality service. A simple two- or three-step sales process will encourage the customer to return to make more purchases. In consumer-based Web sites, ease of use and good value mean everything for customer retention, and customer retention means everything for robust profit margins.

Knowing how much information to present about the product or service is critical in working with the attention span of the consumer. First, take into consideration the financial risk that the product presents to the consumer. Obviously, a customer looking to purchase asset protection online, for example, would not jump into the purchase without knowing that he or she can trust the service. This scenario presents a huge financial risk on the part of the visitor. In this case, you would want to provide complete information about the service and comparative information regarding the competition. Presenting a low price point immediately in this case can actually break down any trust that has been established as it cheapens the offer and its reputability. The consumer may have many questions as well. For this reason, the entire emphasis would be to establish enough trust so that the visitor calls or acquires some form of consultation.

By contrast, a low-priced item such as a magazine subscription can be sold with very little information because it does not require a large financial risk on the part of the visitor. Also, if a product is well known due to extensive branding, the visitor may not need as much information before being pushed toward the purchase. In these cases, the emphasis should be put on the value of the offer and the price point.

Visual cues such as starbursts, arrows or bright red writing can capture the visitors’ attention just long enough to present the offer to them. Save these tactics for impulse buys, and use the information you acquire from the visitor to promote other offers on your site through auto responders or newsletters.

Purchase Price Is Key

You must also take into consideration the wealth of your average visitor. Most sites are aimed at a middle-income family. However, there are products and services that cater toward very high-end customers. If this is the case, price point is not nearly as important. In fact, wealthier visitors tend to directly correlate price with quality. Because of this, a low price may actually deter a wealthy visitor from the purchase. For wealthy visitors, don’t present the price immediately, but make it available, and pay much more attention to the style and artistic aspects of the site.

Designing for the proper demographic is one of the more difficult aspects of creating a site that converts well to sales. There is so much to take into account, including the audience, the industry, the financial risk of the visitor and more. These suggestions are just the beginning as far as special considerations that must be made to ensure high conversion rates. Be as aware as possible of the state of mind of your visitors. Jumping into the visitors’ shoes, so to speak, is the best way to really know what will work. In fact, a great way to do this is to simply research your competition from a visitor’s perspective.

GREG SHEPARD is CEO of NetTraction.com, an online marketing company found at GotRevenue.com. He has eight years of experience in online marketing and 16 in business development.

Keeping Design Simple

When building a Web site to convert sales, one must make the visitor very comfortable and try to avoid the frustrating pitfalls that commonly plague online merchants.

It’s important to remember that keeping visitors on a Web site and guiding them through the sales process is just as important as getting them there in the first place. Here are several simple tips for attracting visitors, retaining them and getting your site to make money and reach profitability.

Design

Aesthetically, a site should be clean, clear and attractive to the eye, saving bright colors only for important sales process features such as the headlines, offers, important details and purchase links. Avoid offending visitors with vibrant animated GIFs or flash advertisements. They are not only disruptive of the sales process and may lead visitors away from your site, but they also distract and annoy the visitor causing many to abandon your site before buying. That is not what you intended.

Dimensions

Different screen resolutions require that you test your site to make sure that all relevant information is available at as low as 800 x 600 pixels. Make your site no wider than 750 pixels to ensure that no side scrolling will be necessary. A visitor that has to scroll for every line of text will likely leave. Use your space wisely. It’s probably better to have a small amount of empty space than to cram every detail into a small area. On the other hand, you don’t want to leave out any valuable information.

Load Time And Compatibility

Be sure your site loads efficiently and correctly on all the major browsers over a dial-up connection. Many novice site designers are reviewing their work over broadband connections. Just because an image is small does not mean the file size is also small. It is recommended that you compress your images so that your site loads in less than five seconds on dial-up when it is not cached on your drive. Try using JPEG format for images containing gradients or many colors such as photographs. Use GIF-formatted images for buttons and text art containing only a few colors. Also, try to use HTML color whenever possible instead of images.

Sales Process

Clearly present an attractive offer such as a discount or free sample and establish a sense of urgency. Your offer is your hook. Make certain it is attractive or you have nothing to help you stand out against your competition. Accompany your offer with a testimonial or guarantee to establish trust and summarize the features and benefits of the product. You can provide more details about the product on a different page for those who want to know more, but it is advisable to keep the front page of your site simple and sales oriented. Purchase links should always be visible.

Purchase Process

Be sure your purchase process is simple. Remember, at this point you have the sale. You should be doing everything in your power not to lose it. A visitor should be able to get from your home page to an order confirmation in no more than three clicks. This may sound difficult, but it can greatly increase your conversion. A huge mistake that is being made in online marketing is the long and involved registering process and subsequent requirement of customers to log in. The so-called benefits of this feature are to save customer information and acquire opt-in information. However, this process can greatly affect conversion. If you must have customers register, gather their information after they have entered their credit card number and avoid having them enter the same information twice.

Billing information should always be gathered first. Make the customer commit to the purchase prior to entering shipping information or upselling to other products.

Monetization

Monetization means squeezing additional revenue from sources on your site other than your primary offer. Unfortunately, many have misconstrued this concept to mean that one should place affiliate banners throughout the site through which commissions can be earned. This is a huge mistake. Try placing related offers on the order confirmation page or exit pop-under window. This way you can sell your product and make affiliate commissions without disrupting the sales process. Additionally the purchase can be followed by auto-response emails with special offers or reminders on a periodic basis to retain customers.

You can also earn additional revenue or gather valuable information from a non-buyer. For example, if customers do not have a cookie in their browser indicating they purchased from your site, a pop-up could be displayed which offers them an entry to win a product if they sign up for a newsletter. This is an offer many can’t refuse. Choose something you can afford for your sweepstakes, and don’t give it away until you know that the information you’ve gathered is worth the wholesale price of the product. You can then promote your product in your newsletter and retain the ability to promote your offer in the future.

Monetization can also be achieved through the use of an upsell. Upselling items allows you to offer the visitor a complementary item during the purchase process. These items should require a minimal commitment on the part of the customer and minimal explanation on the part of the merchant. For example, if a customer were purchasing a snowboard online, a snowboarding magazine could be offered at the point of purchase. This should only require the customer to click on a single button indicating that they want the additional product. The information can then be fed securely from the form on the merchant’s site to the purchase form for the product on the partner’s site through an affiliate link so that the merchant can earn commissions and thus monetize the site.

GREG SHEPARD is CEO of NetTraction, an online marketing company found at GotRevenue.com. He has eight years of experience in online marketing and 16 in business development.

Coupon Hoopla

You’ve been there. You’re at the grocery store to buy one single item. You have your groceries on the counter, your cash in your hand. But the person in front of you has a never-ending stash of coupons. The cashier enters in code after code. You start looking for an open clerk, cursing the customer ahead of you.

Well, coupons aren’t nearly as annoying online. Frugal shoppers can save money in the privacy of their own homes, redeeming as many coupons as their hearts desire. And it doesn’t slow other shoppers down one bit. Everyone wins. Especially people like Mike Allen.

Allen not only has an eye for a bargain, he loves to offer good deals to others. “I saw that coupon codes sure could save you a lot of money,” says Allen, who speaks in a slow, soft Southern accent. “But they sure are hard to find.” That’s why he decided five years ago to devote an entire Web site to online coupons. Shopping-Bargains.com features 500-plus merchants.

Coupon sites say their revenue varies widely month to month, but some gross more than $10,000 a month and the ones contacted by Revenue say they’re expecting a whopper of a holiday season. EdealsEtc says months in the fourth quarter sometimes result in six-figure revenue.

“Q4 is always good for us,” agrees Joel Comm, who runs DealOfDay.com. “But 2004 is gonna be the best year for coupons so far.”

The uncertain economic outlook combined with a long-running trend toward value shopping has created vast opportunities for affiliates to promote sales by providing coupons to people who just can’t live without them. In 2002, according to Forrester Research, consumers downloaded 242 million grocery coupons, coupons they print out and take to brick-and-mortar stores. That’s almost one coupon per American, and that’s just for groceries.

A raft of online coupon sites exist. Large sites like CoolSavings and CouponCart.com let you print coupons to redeem in offline stores. Others like FatWallet, UPromise, Spree.com, eBates and KeyCode offer cash-back incentives or rewards to shoppers. If a merchant gives an affiliate, say, a 5 percent commission, the affiliates might pass on 2 percent of that to their customers.

But even the sites that offer savings on online purchases range from small niche hobby sites to larger companies like CouponMountain, which employs eight people in Los Angeles, has 750 merchant partners and does a lot of marketing. And with about two-thirds of the US households now online, there’s still plenty of room for affiliates who can build a site that rises above the crowd.

Adam Schwartz and Craig Nelson were eating sushi in San Francisco and saw an ad on the window that read: “See our coupon on the Internet!” They thought online coupons were a great idea and started CouponSurfer in September 1998.

Brad Wilson started DealsDuJour.com with his brother Campbell in 2001. The 20-something brothers bought things, mostly electronic gadgets, online and when they scouted a good deal, they told their family and friends about it. Their hobby started as a pastime, soon blossomed into an email newsletter and then later became a business.

How many sites are devoted to online coupons? A lot. DealzConnection tries to list destinations for online bargain hunters. It lists 42 with forums, 41 that have price comparisons and 232 other bargain sites, plus 104 dead sites (not all coupon sites survive).

Site Design

As in many other areas of affiliate marketing, design is critical. Having a home page that is fresh every day is a great start. The best coupon sites list the deals in a variety of ways so that consumers can easily find what they want.

Many have current deals ranked and listed by popularity. New coupons occupy their own space; expiring coupons are placed somewhere else, so users can find deals before they’re no longer valid.

Many sites let you search alphabetically by merchant to find the store you prefer. And most have a category breakdown, so you can scan that to find a coupon for a gift for your Aunt Hilda’s birthday, whether you are looking to get her a karaoke system or a trip out of town.

Affiliates need to think more about aesthetics and the user experience. “Sites aren’t making it appealing and clean and idiot-proof,” says Wilson. “I sit my mom down. She is absolutely useless online. I see if she can make it through the user interface and if she can navigate, then we go with it.”

“A simple interface that has agreeable color schemes is important,” agrees Travis Bowman, president of EDealsEtc.com. “You also need to optimize for speed and test for speed and multi-browser compatibility. A good logo is also critical.”

But design and navigation aren’t the only considerations. Deals are ever-changing, and keeping up in the coupon biz definitely isn’t for the faint of heart.

Update Your Deals

“You cannot neglect it for one minute. You have to be on top of it,” warns New Yorker Abe Rapaport of JumpOnDeals .com “There are merchants whose coupons are expiring. Others are putting new deals out there. Customers contact us with their concerns. We have to keep up with all of them.”

Keeping up and using legitimate coupons is a full-time job. There’s nothing more frustrating to consumers than taking the time to pursue an offer that already expired. Burn your customers, and you’ll burn yourself.

“You need to link deals into a searchable database,” offers DealOfDay’s Comm.

Shopping-Bargains.com’s Allen and his wife revamped their site and hired ColdFusion programmers to help make the static site dynamic with a database that automatically schedules coupons to expire. Since they relaunched in January, keeping the site updated has been “dramatically easier,” says Allen.

“Users expect accurate and current deals,” says Allen. “They want a comprehensive listing. It’s very hard work to keep merchants happy and users happy.”

But once you have a site that is designed well and is updated regularly, you’re ready to tell people about it.

Marketing Moxie

Sites that focus on online deals must do a lot to separate themselves from the pack. Wilson says his goal is to give consumers the better things in life at a better price. The company’s motto: “Shop smart, live rich.” Wilson says it still takes a lot of work to get attention.

“Paid search can work but you really need the right metrics,” says Wilson. “Search engine optimization is incredibly competitive but it’s always worth the effort.”

Many of the affiliates contacted by Revenue simply love search engine optimization. Tagging pages properly isn’t easy, and getting someone with expertise to help can be expensive. Bidding keywords and buying PPC advertising – Google has a 5 cent cost-per-click minimum; Overture has a 10 cent minimum – are also tested tactics. But they aren’t for everyone.

“Keyword placement is too expensive for this niche,” argues Comm. Instead, he’s syndicating content. That way, his site gets double the exposure, and search engines are twice as likely to pick up his pages.

A few sites like PhatDeal.com and eDealsEtc.com say they are even considering buying offline advertising -newspaper ads, billboards or radio time in their local markets to attract traffic, a tactic described in Issue 3 of Revenue (Beyond Search Engines).

The smart coupon sites also let you sign up for an opt-in newsletter that gives shoppers links to popular deals, turning first-time visitors into repeat buyers. And many use “Tell a Friend,” which lets users click on a link and do the viral marketing for them.

“The best is when an affiliate manager recommends us to other merchants,” says Bowman. “Word of mouth works for consumers as well as retailers.”

A few sites have added email notification systems that help convert browsers into customers. Bedford, Mass.-based CouponSurfer.com has set up a “Coupon Butler” service that informs users when a particular product they are interested in is available at a discount. Such newsletters and notices help.

But the best means of attaining visibility? Word of mouth. “The goal is for people to have an easy experience, become repeat visitors, sign up for emails and tell their friends and family about us,” says Wilson. “One of these visitors is worth five of the other kind.”

Everyone loves loyal customers. That’s why many sites encourage visitors to click a link to bookmark their sites as a favorite, sign up for an opt-in newsletter and tell a friend.

DealsDuJour.com recently received the Titanium award at the LinkShare awards ceremony, which Wilson says has helped it to garner a lot of positive attention. Mentions in the press don’t hurt either. Dan Baxter founded DealCatcher.com, which gets 3 million page views per month and promotes more than 500 merchants. He says appearances in the The Wall Street Journal, PCWorld and USA Today have been boons to his business.

But even if you get the best media attention and the greatest industry awards, you are still going to have to work hard. Your challenge is to get people interested and coming back. Content is important, too.

“You have to save your members either time or money or both time and money,” says CouponSurfer’s Schwartz. “You have to offer them value.”

Thinking about your audience is the key to success in the discount game. Luckily, online retailers are always trying to invent and offer new promotions. DealsDuJour.com’s Wilson has witnessed an increase in merchants in 2004 getting their holiday marketing plans in place earlier this year.

Work With Merchants

“I’ve been impressed. Merchants were already concerned in July about Q4,” says Wilson. “The usual suspects think ahead. Overstock.com and those guys are really focused on affiliate channels.” Then again, Overstock.com has 10 people focused on affiliates (see story page 40). But other merchants would be wise to think about offering discounts and disseminating deals.

“Merchants mistakenly think people will buy no matter what,” says Rapaport. “But if you aren’t offering deals, your competitor is. So you really need to offer coupons to people.” Rapaport suggests giving visitors a variety of coupons from which to choose – whether it’s a dollar amount off, a percentage off or free shipping. “Test and see which codes do better,” he says.

So what sorts of deals perform the best for merchants? Rapaport thinks free shipping offers are better than no special offer at all, and JupiterMedia’s Patty Evans hails them as a great deal to offer, especially this time of year.

“Free shipping is the master plan. It is consumers’ top concern; they react to it better than other discounts, even if they aren’t saving as much as they could with different offer,” says Evans. “It’s tangible and definitely priority around the holidays.”

Work Around The Clock

“It’s a juggling act,” says Joel Comm of DealOfDay.com. “It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the offers. There are so many merchants and there’s so much competition.”

Maintaining a coupon site is so much work that Mike Allen realized last year he needed to make a choice between his job as a marketer and his job as a governmental training specialist at Mississippi State University. So he quit his university job and devoted himself full time to being an affiliate this year. Because he has four kids at home, he had to rent office space. “It’s too noisy at home,” he laughs.

And the business has ups and downs. Online savings affiliate sites see their business fluctuate with retail cycles. It’s not predictable income, and you have to be prepared to work when the shopping fevers strike.

“This is the hardest easy money you’ll ever make,” says Allen. “It’s only easy because you aren’t sweating.”

Keep in mind if you want to dance in the discount disco, you better be ready to work your tail off. There’s no break in this business. Says Rapaport: “We will be here on Christmas and the day after doing the after-holiday sales.”

DIANE ANDERSON is managing editor of Revenue.