To state the obvious, eBay has become a household name, at least in the US where everyone recognizes the brand as the largest online auction site. What may be less obvious is that eBay also has one of the largest affiliate programs.
That may seem odd given that most merchants use affiliates to sell goods or services, and eBay doesn’t sell goods or services. Instead, it’s a virtual warehouse filled with millions of constantly changing items being sold by other folks.
So why does eBay even need an affiliate program, and what do those affiliates do? As it turns out, eBay is a company based on a different business model, and that has led to a slightly different use for affiliate marketing. First, eBay uses affiliates to attract new bidders. It’s especially anxious to build its account base internationally, and there is some churn when deadbeat bidders are removed for failing to pay on three winning bids.
And then there are all those items passing across the auction block. EBay affiliates include sites like RollingStone.com, which links to the rock memorabilia category on eBay. They also include collectible sites that keep a sharp eye out for rarities. The Web, after all, is a great vehicle for finding rare items (see story, page 66). There’s just one limitation: You can’t be both a seller and an affiliate. As an affiliate, you can point to someone else’s auction, but you can’t point to your own.
Aficionados of the site who want to get involved find plenty of opportunities. The company offers $5 cents to $16 for every new member referred who bids or transacts within 30 days of registering on the site. The site also pays 5 to 15 cents per bid or BIN (short for “buy it now”) placed by referees per visit. Repeat bids on the same item don’t incur additional commissions, despite the fact that many affiliates believe they’re entitled to such recurring revenue. The discrepancy is simply an example of a larger trend: Affiliates tend to sign up for programs without reading the terms of service.
Another way to score affiliate cash is by referring merchants to eBay’s PayPal subsidiary, which the auctioneer acquired in late 2002. Buyers, sellers and affiliates can participate – the one catch is that the referrer needs to have a pre-existing business relationship with the referee. Once the latter sells $1,000, the referee scores $10. Another sawbuck is awarded for each additional grand until the maximum bonus of $100 is reached. Also, payouts are only applicable for the first six months after the merchant joins PayPal.
But these fees can be earned in some interesting ways. “We have shopping cart vendors who earn referral fees” by PayPal enabling their merchant servers, explains Dave McClure, director of the PayPal developer network and senior manager of the merchant services group, which launched the referral program last fall.
“In the eBay world, there’s a natural buyer-seller crossover,” he said. “But now we’re trying to move from the seller viral model to the buyer viral model. We’ve been thinking of ways for buyers to, say, petition their merchants to start accepting PayPal. This is the first step in allowing buyers to refer sellers.”
PayPal’s program may be growing, but there’s more money to be made from affiliating with eBay. In fact, it ranks among the top 10 percent of the advertisers on Commission Junction, which provides indices of merchants’ commission sizes and volumes. “EBay is a strong program with lucrative payouts,” says Lisa Riolo, vice president of client development at Commission Junction. “They have publishers who’ve earned $1 million or more. They talk about the sizes of these payouts in the eBay newsletter, so publishers can see that some of the top performers receive really large checks.”
The newsletter boasts that the largest affiliate made more than $1.4 million in commissions in February of this year, but doesn’t disclose who that big earner is. That same party became the first affiliate to hit the seven-digit-commission-in-one-month threshold last December. The newsletter puts this in perspective: The top 100 affiliates earn almost $25,000 a month each. The top 25 affiliates average more than $100,000 monthly, suggesting an annual income of $1.2 million or more.
“EBay is working with most of the top performers in the pay-for-performance space,” Riolo said. “They’re very forward-thinking, they’ve taken the principles that have been successful to them and extended them to the community they created. We’ve given them numerous awards. This is a win-win relationship for us.”
But there’s one way in which you can’t win it all. As stated earlier, eBay is very explicit about keeping sellers and affiliates separate. You can only be one or the other, so the publishers tend to be folks lacking fulfillment capabilities or other resources. Sellers who try to become affiliates are banned from the site – including those who attempt to do so using aliases – because directing traffic to one’s own listings is considered fraudulent.
Affiliates do get to participate in eBay’s developer program, which encourages third parties to create software for buyers and sellers. “We think that’s in the affiliates’ best interests,” said Vaughan Smith, senior director of Internet marketing at eBay. And sellers get to market themselves in other cost-effective ways, through the auction’s Co-Op Advertising Program, which reimburses 25 percent of the insertion fees that are placed on co-branded advertisements.
While sellers number in the millions, the affiliate community is around 10,000 strong. But most of them are active entrepreneurs, says Vaughan. This flies in the face of industry benchmarks like those of Affstat, which holds that only about 5 percent of a program’s affiliates are actually active.
“We work closely with our affiliates, and we look for affiliates who want to work with us,” explained Smith. “It’s better for the affiliates that way. The most important thing is we like people who are interested in making lots of money, and we think we’re in a great position to provide that opportunity. We want quality affiliates, rather than quantity.”
While many merchants listed on CJ get all their affiliate members from the network’s directory, roughly half of eBay’s affiliates discover the affiliation opportunities by surfing through the links on the auction site. The remaining half come from Commission Junction.
Unfortunately, eBay wouldn’t disclose what portion of its revenues come from affiliate marketing. The company’s latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicated overall sales and marketing expenditures of $192.7 million during the first quarter of 2004, mostly dwarfing the numbers posted by other publicly held merchants participating in Commission Junction.
With such scope, you’d think that eBay would be quite capable of running its own affiliate program in-house. But the site handed this business to CJ in March 2001. “We essentially decided that we’re experts at running a marketplace, and Commission Junction’s comparative advantage is running a network with lots of affiliates,” said Smith. However, eBay also has an in-house staff of six people who work with affiliates on improving their performance.
Smith’s sidekick, Eva Hung, manager of Internet marketing, adds, “EBay decided to work with Commission Junction because it’s simply the best solution for building and managing a strong pay-for-performance program. Three years later our publisher base is still growing and our pay-for-performance channel is responsible for a significant portion of eBay’s customer acquisitions.”
The auctioneer certainly dispels the myth that affiliate programs and television advertisements don’t mix. EBay’s show tune-inspired TV spots are so catchy that fans are blogging about the lyrics enthusiastically on the music video site Clipland.com.
The ads and the affiliate marketing are intended to be synergistic. “When people ar
e online and they see an affiliate ad present itself in front of them, they remember what they saw on TV and that prompts them to come to the site and transact,” said Smith. “Then repeat users come from the offline ads.”
As with all programs, there are some grumbles among affiliates whose expectations about commissions are unclear: Many presume they’re entitled to commissions on repeat bids on a listing, a frequent occurrence in competitive auctions. The terms of service state that an affiliate gets only one such payout per referee visit that comes from visitors clicking off the referrer’s site. Many affiliates’ reports show reversals of commissions ensuing from such repeat bids Ã apparently, that’s a software glitch that eBay adjusts manually on all transactions, said Kelly Stevens, president of the testing and analysis site Affiliate Fair Play. The site consulted eBay on this very topic.
“The Commission Junction cookie should expire after that one-time commissionable event, and it doesn’t expire; it just tracks any further bids or Ã”buy it now’ transactions, so eBay has to manually reverse them,” Stevens said, explaining this is essentially a conflict between Commission Junction’s technology and eBay’s stated policy.
One member of eBay’s program is GovindaMall at Govinda.nu, which participates in several hundred other affiliate programs, 20 percent of them through Commission Junction. Govinda Proprietor Wu Chung Fai says that, based on the number of Web surfers that he has referred to the auction site, his earnings per click are on the lower end of the spectrum, comparable to the rate he gets paid by Amazon.com. However, his traffic is “easy to convert” because there’s “something for everyone” on the site, he said. And he noted that eBay’s “editor kit offers great flexibility to add content to an affiliate site.”
However, he lamented that the program has grown to the point that the market is “saturated in terms of current commissions,” and there’s “too much competition from other affiliates.” He also questioned the reliability of eBay’s tracking mechanisms for tallying up referrals.
Another affiliate also had some beefs about the program. “I am not happy with some aspects of eBay’s program Ã notably one incident that remains uncorrected,” said Amber Lowery of EastCoastWebs.com, a three-person site building firm. “Several months ago, I contacted [eBay] because mature and inappropriate business category auctions (with text and images) were showing up on my pages and I run several family-friendly certified sites. There was no way to filter this and I ended up dropping eBay from all of my sites that promoted the Business/ Industrial Category. The part that upset me was that no one at eBay seemed to care, despite the fact that the material in the auctions was against eBay’s own [Terms of Service], as well as the TOS of the affiliate network, CJ. This problem remains uncorrected.”
Lowery also had positive comments. “On the upside,” she said, “I do find eBay’s [Application Programming Inter-face] to be helpful, easy to use and comprehensive. Display of auctions is in real time and actually provides not only revenue but also makes for decent content when integrated nicely into one’s pages. I do see both positives and negatives in the eBay program.”
How does eBay feel about such an incendiary opinion? “The affiliate industry is fragmented: There are the people who work hard and the people who don’t,” said Smith. “Very often the vocal ones aren’t the ones who are earning the most, so they have plenty of time on their hands to make negative comments. From time to time we do change the way in which we compensate affiliates, and each time we do that we try to communicate how we do so. But inevitably there are people who still misunderstand these changes.”
To put that another way, eBay’s affiliate program may not be much different from many others after all.
JACKIE COHEN is managing editor of Revenue. She has been covering online affiliate programs since 1998. She previously edited the Net Returns section at The Industry Standard.