Taking A Stand: Q & A with Brian Littleton by Chris Trayhorn, Publisher of mThink Blue Book, November 1, 2006 ShareASale is an affiliate network that has taken a hard stance on spyware, adware and parasite-ware by not allowing any downloadable applications into its network. That business model has won legions of affiliate supporters. ShareASale is growing, and is still considered the smaller, nimbler, more fun network – throwing memorable parties and playing host for standout social events. The company’s founder, president and CEO, Brian Littleton, is committed to affiliate marketing and creating a successful business by building strong relationships and sticking to his beliefs. He recently won AffiliateFairPlay.com’s first-ever Fair Practice Award (see Revenue September/October, page 18). Meanwhile, he, and everyone around him, is having lots of fun making it happen. Lisa Picarille:What made you decide not to allow downloads or applications within your network? Brian Littleton: Several years ago when the issue first came up to us, we took a look at how some of the software download applications worked – and it was obvious to me that they didn’t belong in any affiliate channel that I had any control over. As an affiliate network, our main job is to track a consumer from the point of a “click” to the point of a “sale” and commission the referring affiliate. Based on our testing, it’s impossible to accurately track this and commission the proper affiliate if there is a download or application in effect. Further, we witnessed some extremely disturbing distribution methods and behavior from some of the players in that market. Thus, to ensure that ShareASale is not party to any practices that contradict our values, we do not allow any downloads or applications within the network. It is my opinion that these downloadable applications, most of which involve customer loyalty of some kind, should be a completely separate channel from the affiliate channel, one that is tracked and commissioned differently. They perform an entirely different service than that of an affiliate – and actually remind me more of the type of action such as using my “Reward Miles” credit card for a purchase as opposed to a “sales generating” affiliate. I love consumers, but it has never been my understanding that a consumer has the right to dictate where a commission on a sale should go. That doesn’t make sense to me. A lot of times, loyalty applications and affiliates could actually help each other out if they were properly channeled, but that may take time for affiliates to welcome back into the clickstream a party which has, in the past, taken money out of their pocket. LP: What are the pluses and minuses to that business stance? BL: The only minus is the occasional client who wishes to work with an affiliate who we do not work with. In those cases, we try to convince the client why partnering with a download or application is disadvantageous to their affiliate strategy. If that doesn’t work, we guide the merchant to another network. We don’t really see a financial downside to that, because our ultimate goal is to be a sustainable and long-term “sales focused” network. Also, it’s our view that the loyalty channel, which is essentially what most of the download applications are, does not belong in the affiliate channel. The affiliate channel should be focused on bringing in new customers, new businesses. Affiliates are able to extend beyond the brand and seek out different demographics. The purpose of a loyalty marketer is to drive consumer loyalty; it’s a different goal. LP: Is there any other type of business/entity that ShareASale doesn’t work with; religious groups, sex sites, etc.? BL: We review each and every application into the ShareASale Network – and have done so for as long as we’ve been in business. While I don’t want it to be our job to prejudge anyone’s ability to become a successful affiliate, it is important to me that we keep a certain level of quality in the affiliate applications. To that end, we screen for things such as adult content, hate groups, etc. More important to us than the actual site content is being able to verify an affiliate’s contact information as well as their ownership of the site that they have applied with. Because of the effort we put into this process, I feel we offer a great value to merchants in taking as much time as we do to verify affiliate information. Beyond that, we believe in every affiliate’s right to “start small,” and tend to err on the side of the affiliate in deciding if their site should be accepted for content reasons. LP: You seem pretty tight with the ABW crowd. How has that relationship impacted your business? BL: The ABestWeb community is a great friend to ShareASale, and I hope to continue to participate there as long as they will have me. I don’t have any explanation as to why our network has become popular there except to tell you that I think it is because we make a dedicated effort to take every request seriously without regard for whether an affiliate generates $5,000 per month or $5. Every business has “big” clients that are important, and obviously we have some relationships that garner more of our attention at times; however, one of our greatest assets is the collaborative expertise of all affiliates and merchants in this industry who are willing to give us advice on each issue we come across – and I’m always grateful for the advice that they have given me over the years. LP: People cite ShareASale as the fourth-largest affiliate network. Do you aspire to be among the “big three”? BL: I aspire to put together the best product that I can for the market that we serve. If you take a close look at the individual networks that are out there, I think you will find that each has strengths within its individual market that makes it as successful as it is. For us, we started out with the hopes that we could provide a solid technology platform and a network of quality affiliates to a market that was being mostly ignored by most networks. We wanted to provide an alternative, mostly for small to mid-size companies, who didn’t feel like their needs were being addressed, and to that end we’ve been fairly successful. Our goal isn’t necessarily to become one of the “big three” but just simply to continue improving both our technology tools and network of affiliates. There are distinct markets within which we compete very well, and within those markets we want to be not only the best solution available but also a solution that our customers are happy with. LP: Do you any feel pressure to expand? BL: I founded ShareASale in the year 2000, and have been able to launch and run the company without the assistance of outside capital. A close friend of mine in this business, and I, often discuss the pluses and minuses of being “independent” and I can tell you that I don’t feel any pressure to expand outside of what I feel we do best. We’ve added people nearly every year, but we do so within the realm of what we need. Expanding a business isn’t an important goal of mine. Doing what we do, and doing it well, is important to me. LP: How many merchants are in your network? BL: At the time I am writing this there are 2,071 merchant offers in the network. That does include some merchants who may have multiple offers so the true number of merchants is a little lower than that. Of the 2,071, there are 1,866 who are participating as “pay per sale” merchants – which is our focus. Pay per sale could indicate a revenue share, such as a percentage of a sale, as well as a flat dollar amount. LP: How many affiliates? BL: While we do discuss some numbers with merchants who call to ask, I try to avoid discussing the size of the network mostly because I think concentrating on the numbers isn’t a very good way to describe to a new merchant how affiliate marketing works. It is my personal feeling that merchants are mostly responsible for their ow n success whether they participate in ShareASale or any other network. Using a number like “100,000 affiliates in the network,” for example, is misleading to a prospective merchant because there is really zero likelihood that all 100,000 would ever become sales-generating affiliates in their program. For some merchants, one or two affiliates can make a successful program, and for others, it is 1,000 or 2,000. … ShareASale has been a successful platform for both of those types of merchants. LP: Would you consider a merger or acquisition to grow the company? BL: As a businessman, the potential for mergers/acquisitions is always a discussion that I would be open to. It isn’t, however, our main focus. We want to finish our own goals in putting together the best technology that we can, coupled with a quality network that merchants can grow with. I feel like there are large opportunities for growth even without considering the possibilities of M&As. LP: Performics and Zanox are both based in Chicago, like ShareASale, and Zanox would give you a presence abroad. Would you consider teaming up with another company to expand your business? BL: I’ve been lucky enough to meet with the folks both at Performics and Zanox, as well as LinkShare, who also have offices in the Chicago area. We’ve got quite a good group of affiliate marketers in Chicago including several merchants and affiliates. It should probably be renamed “Affiliate Row” as there are about five companies specifically concentrating on affiliate marketing within a five-block radius or so in this part of Chicago. LP: Are there any plans to expand into other geographic areas? BL: Geographically, I can’t say that we do – but in terms of markets we are hoping to have a full Spanish-language site available soon so that we are able to move into markets that otherwise would not be open to us. LP: So, it’s a Hispanic version of ShareASale? When is that happening and what prompted that move? BL: In my opinion, just taking the United States as an example, Spanish-language populations are and will continue to be important avenues for economic growth. It is one of my personal goals to learn Spanish myself – as well as a goal of this business to be able to provide a product for that market. LP: What are the biggest challenges facing ShareASale over the next year? BL: Growth puts a huge strain on resources both technological and human. Over the next year we expect to continue on a fairly high growth curve and thus will be faced with continual challenges to remain ahead of the curve. Things such as database design, fault management and even something as simple as timely payments can be affected purely by the scale of their scope – so we’ll be quite busy just tackling those challenges. Affiliate marketing itself is also becoming more challenging for merchants, and ShareASale will be providing tools to merchants to counter those challenges. Take, for example, the collision between the “affiliate channel” and the “loyalty channel”; we will need to provide better tools to merchants so that they can separate, track and commission these two channels differently without conflict, so that the two channels can be complementary and help each other grow. There are countless examples just like that one, where a technology provider has opportunity for innovation and we will be working on each one. LP: What are the goals for the company over the next year or two? BL: As has always been our goal, we want to put together the best product we can. Our affiliates tell us that they want more and more brand name merchants, so we are working on that. Our merchants tell us they want better reporting tools and methods for multi-commissioning a sale, and we are working on that. In our particular industry, I haven’t found it to be too effective in laying out goals too far in advance, due to the ever-changing landscape. Being a relatively small company, we have used to our advantage our ability to be flexible – and customize our solutions for merchants and affiliates as they need them. That is probably one of our biggest advantages; actually, as we get a lot of feedback from clients who tell us we were the “only one who would do what we needed,” etc. LP:Why did you put together Think Tank? What are you looking to accomplish at this event? BL: The ShareASale Think Tank is an event that we are putting together for November 4, 2006, at the Wynn Las Vegas – despite various unofficial events, parties and get-togethers. … This will be our first organized event including both sessions and social activities. Our goal is pretty simple: We want to bring a select group of ShareASale merchants to the Think Tank and allow them the opportunity of “pitching” their program in front of some of the best and brightest affiliates in the industry. Affiliates in attendance will be able to critique individual offerings, brainstorm new ideas on conversion/creatives/etc., all leading to an improved program for the merchant as well as a new personal relationship with those affiliates in attendance. Of course, true to ShareASale, there will be social events to keep everyone from feeling like they are at a conference. If things all go well we are hoping to put on a Think Tank event every six months or so with different focuses to encompass all of the diversity that is an affiliate network. LP: Tell me what you consider to be ShareASale’s greatest differentiator in this marketplace. BL: To me, it is simply the willingness to work with our two greatest assets: merchants and affiliates. Affiliate marketing technology isn’t something that you can create and put into a box to sell off the shelf. Each new merchant who comes on board has the opportunity to work with us directly to make sure that they are getting exactly what they need in terms of specific reporting, creatives or even payment setup. Affiliates are treated the same way if they have specific needs that we are able to accommodate. Our ability to be flexible has allowed us to not only win client contracts in areas of competition, but also strengthen existing relationships. Especially with merchants, it has been really helpful for some of them to be able to deal directly with me on certain issues such as customized technology and contracts. We also have been able to continue to provide a level of support to our clients that has remained high despite the increased growth in number of merchants and affiliates – and this is something that is important to us going forward as well. Everyone at ShareASale pitches in and helps us where we need help on a given day; it isn’t unusual. Filed under: Revenue Tagged under: 14 - November/December 2006, Adware, affiliate marketing, affiliate networks, Features, Interview, mtadmin, Toolbars About the Author Chris Trayhorn, Publisher of mThink Blue Book Chris Trayhorn is the Chairman of the Performance Marketing Industry Blue Ribbon Panel and the CEO of mThink.com, a leading online and content marketing agency. He has founded four successful marketing companies in London and San Francisco in the last 15 years, and is currently the founder and publisher of Revenue+Performance magazine, the magazine of the performance marketing industry since 2002.