It sounds like a no-brainer: Tap into a sales force of self-employed affiliates who’ll handle everything from producing product information to Web design to advertising. Let them do all the work, and pay them anywhere from a few pennies to a few dollars – but only if they produce to your exact requirements. What’s not to like?
It’s a strategy that works for Bluefly, the online retailer of discounted designer clothing. In 2003, sales from its affiliate program ranged from 11.5 to 16 percent of the total each month. “We’re really excited with the progress we’ve made. We’re still early on in the process of refining our affiliate program, but I don’t see any reason why affiliates couldn’t contribute more than 20 percent of our sales,” said Bluefly executive vice president Jonathan Morris.
While Bluefly’s total expenses were up, its marketing expenses actually decreased 17.4 percent. The company chalked that savings up to a switch from advertising to email and pay-for-performance marketing, including affiliate sales. As a result of this change in focus, Bluefly’s cost to acquire a customer dropped nearly 38 percent, down from $16.20 to $10.05 per customer.
“The beauty of affiliate programs is that they’re performance based. The amount of commission you pay is dependent on the amount of sales you drive – not always the case in advertising,” Morris said.
But it’s something of a misnomer to describe affiliate marketing as pure pay-for-performance. It’s not exactly a free lunch. In fact, overhead costs can eat into profits, while there’s a danger that inept or unethical affiliates can hurt the brand and actually drive customers away. To really get a handle on the upside to an affiliate program, a merchant must uncover the hidden costs – and risks.
Few affiliate programs are truly self-serve. Amazon.com’s is a good example of one company with proprietary technology that lets affiliates sign themselves up, quickly and easily. Yet, even with the hundreds of thousands of pay-for-performance marketers hyping everything on the site from books and DVDs to toaster ovens, every affiliate must be individually approved before starting, a process that typically takes less than 24 hours.
Merchants can outsource most of the affiliate management to network services such as BeFree, LinkShare and Performics. Networks provide the software infrastructure and varying degrees of human oversight to handle automated sign-ups, link generation and the pushing of special promotions and information. Their staff will sometimes untangle snafus and soothe irate affiliates.
But none of the companies contacted by Revenue put their affiliate programs on automatic. Instead, they devoted anything from a couple of staffers to a full-blown department to managing the program. “For probably the first two years after we started our affiliate marketing program in 1998, we didn’t do a whole lot with it, didn’t dedicate internal resources toward it. We just expected it to run on auto-pilot,” said Bruce Matthews, vice president of business development for electronics retailer Tiger Direct. As a result, affiliates brought in a few sales but the revenue they generated wasn’t exactly eye-popping. The program was floundering.
Then, Tiger Direct decided to commit. “We dedicated more resources, and started to pay attention and make it work,” Matthews said. In 2001, the company added a staff position devoted to affiliate relations, began fixing problems in the program and added tools for the affiliates. The result: Tiger Direct affiliates now boost the bottom line by over $1 million a month in sales. Matthews said it took a year of solid work to bring Tiger Direct’s affiliate sales from under $100,000 to that million-dollar mark.
Online department store outlet Overstock.com saw a similar boost when it got serious about affiliate marketing. After it revamped its program and made it a strategic initiative, the company saw its top-line revenue generation from affiliates grow eightfold in 17 months. But the program needs a lot of attention, said Shawn Schwegman, CTO and vice president of sales and marketing. “You’re developing relationships, and that takes relationship management.” Overstock.com has a five-person team responsible for 30,000 affiliates, headed by the company’s director of marketing.
Whether or not the retailer has staff whose sole job description is affiliate relations, overhead for the program is spread throughout the entire company, from the accounting department that cuts the checks to the janitorial service that hauls off the coffee containers emptied by night owl employees.
The true cost of an affiliate program, said Prakash Bharwani, senior manger in interactive marketing for 1-800-Flowers, is, first of all, the salaries of his staff. “Then, there’s the indirect staff members, my IT team, my accounting team, my creative team, my colleagues. Then the infrastructure costs, server space. There’s a customer knowledge team, and we use up their time to understand how the affiliate program is working.” Bharwani said that promotions offered through affiliates should be added directly to the revenue share to get a true picture of how much the affiliate program costs the company.
The first task of the affiliate manager or team is recruiting and approving new affiliates. Many large retailers approve each application by hand, paging through the affiliate’s site, making sure it’s professional and a good representative of the company. Even though 1-800-Flowers works with LinkShare, Bharwani said the first 30 or 40 minutes of his day is devoted to approving affiliate applications.
Merchants will differ on what’s acceptable, they all share the risk of having their brand value diminished by its appearing on a shoddy affiliate site. Rick McGrath, director of e-commerce partner development for auto parts merchants J.C. Whitney Co., said, “Everybody starts someplace, and I try to maintain a low barrier of entry. But I need to see a clear commercial intent.” Sites that have pictures of the family vacation or someone’s favorite rock band will get the boot. And McGrath has no interest at all in sites that offer get-rich-quick-through-affiliate-marketing offers or multi-level marketing schemes.
Next, he screens for downloadable applications like the Gator eWallet or WhenU, another deal-breaker. “That’s objectionable. I see that as undermining the affiliate program, in my humble opinion,” said McGrath.
Bluefly’s Morris said he scrutinizes affiliate applications closely, and then continues to monitor the affiliates in the program. “We make sure they use the creative we provide and that the environment in which our creative appears is appropriate.” Bluefly staffers manually check affiliate sites, focusing on the ones doing the most business, but also performing random checks on less active affiliates. Besides a general level of professionalism, Bluefly makes sure the sites have adequate privacy policies and disclosures, and, he said, “are legitimately providing a service to their customers by promoting Bluefly.”
The Creative Touch
Affiliates aren’t professional designers, and even the sharpest affiliate can’t compete with the full-blown creative teams that retailers have in-house. Bad product photos scanned from a magazine, misspellings and incorrectly colored logos can make the merchandise look shoddy. To counter this, retailers end up creating special ads, content and images especially for affiliates.
“You don’t want to just keep telling them, ‘Don’t do this,'” 1-800-Flowers’ Bharwani said. “You want to tell them, ‘Do this. If you want to send out an email, don’t send it with those ugly orange and pink colors, use this instead.’ We not only give them creative, but also help them with things like email templates.”
Whether it’s producing separate-but-equal ad campaigns or simply reformatting existing digital assets, this work can stress the company’s resources or add to the overhead. It has the potential t
o divert time and attention from other forms of advertising. Overstock.com, with over 30,000 affiliates, has a dedicated designer producing materials for affiliates to use. Because the company buys limited lots of products, it instituted data feeds that every night automatically update dynamically displayed products on affiliates’ sites.
Good communication like that is important when working with affiliates, merchants say, not only to help affiliates succeed but to stave off problems. When affiliates feel they’ve been treated unfairly, they can strike back and really dent the merchant’s reputation. Internet message boards are rife with backbiting and flaming recriminations against merchants who disappointed.
“If you have a few disgruntled affiliates or an issue that comes up, you have to be very proactive in resolving it,” Bharwani said. Merchants must deal with a wide range of personalities and operations, from highly professional types to loners in dark rooms. “There are guys who are big corporations and guys who are running it out of their homes. And each person matters.”
Affiliate marketing may not be for every merchant. To avoid damaging the brand or siphoning off resources from critical projects, merchants must have the resources and culture to manage the program well. “You have to allocate resources, absolutely,” says Tiger Direct’s Matthews. “I believe you get out of it what you put into it. The key, he says, is to “balance what they want with what makes sense for you in a business case.”
The bottom line: While there are risks, there are also rewards.
SUSAN KUCHINSKAS, managing editor of Revenue, has covered online marketing and e-commerce for more than a decade. She is also the co-author of Going Mobile: Building the Real-time Enterprise with Mobile Applications that Work.