Social Meets Business

An affiliate marketing experiment used Twitter to connect the community at a recent show.

As an idea, Twitter is nothing new – a method of communication between various parties. However, as a real and practical application, Twitter is revolutionary. It has the potential to reinvent communication between affiliates, networks and merchants.

Twitter was a side project of Odeo in March of 2006 and is a part of San Francisco-based Obvious Corp. Users of this new social messaging service are able to post messages 145 characters in length to answer one basic question, "What are you doing?"

These short snippets can be sent to Twitter through the Web, via instant messaging (Jabber, Gmail’s chat service, and AIM) or through text messaging on a mobile phone. When people that you have added as your contacts on the service post messages, you can also receive their messages via those avenues.

Even for the non-bloggers and nonforum participants, this invitation to share details about daily life and experiences seems to be too much to resist. According to Twitter’s creator Jack Dorsey, the service currently has about 20,000 daily active users and is growing by over 1,000 new members a day. While small in some metrics, those active users include some of the most influential bloggers and businesspeople in the online marketing world.

Interestingly, Twitter is expanding our own notions of instant communication. Companies such as the BBC, CNN, Technorati, 30 Boxes, Microformats, Ma.gnolia and even the conference Macworld have all begun to make use of Twitter’s ability to reach people instantly and efficiently with important news or service updates, wherever they happen to be at the time. Highly influential websites such as Technorati have begun to send out alerts of service outages or upgrades that were once only issued on the company’s blog.

Affiliate marketers and affiliate networks are beginning to notice the benefit of the service as well. For example, Brian Littleton, founder and CEO of ShareASale, recently began a "Twitter experiment" with his affiliate network in an effort to judge Twitter’s ability to transform network-to-affiliate communication. Brian announced the experiment both on the ShareASale blog and on ABestWeb and offered affiliates a chance to join Twitter and receive instant updates from him regarding network offers, payouts and other news from his network.

The ShareASale team has attracted dozens of affiliates to its Twitter network since the middle of January. These affiliates are regularly posting and communicating about industry news, offers and their own lives and they have created quite a unique community in just a few short weeks.

Here’s what Littleton had to say about his Twitter experiment: "Improving communication between affiliate managers and affiliates benefits both parties, as well as ShareASale, who stands in the middle. We are constantly looking for new ways that we can facilitate good communication, on a level playing field. Affiliates don’t like to be constantly harassed, and merchants often don’t know to what extent they should extend their help."

With the Affiliate Summit upcoming, we felt it was a great opportunity to get both parties interested in a new tool that could become a new way for managers and affiliates to communicate. We’ll be illustrating some of the instant effect of Twitter communication by giving away time-sensitive prizes at our booth as well as updating attendees on the whereabouts of various ShareASale team members. I think by the time we are done with this experiment you’ll see quite a few affiliate managers setting up little Twitter networks for their programs," Littleton says.

His comments point to what was the true tipping point for Twitter’s early adoption in the affiliate world: Affiliate Summit West in Las Vegas on Jan. 21–23. By the end of the summit, Littleton had over 40 influential affiliates who had signed up for his updates on Twitter. Those affiliates included some of the best and brightest in the industry. From the Friday before the summit to the days following, these affiliates were using Twitter as a way to find each other for meals, locate each other at industry parties, share information of where to find tickets to the events at night, critique speakers on the various panels and share interesting schwag finds at the booths. Dozens of "twitters" poured in through cell phones and IM clients at all times of the day and night. The web of communication and information sharing created was impressive and a unique experience.

Industry conferences provide an excellent demonstration of Twitter’s potential. Network representatives, affiliates, merchants and press reporters are constantly (and sometimes hopelessly) attempting to reach one another in the vast sea of faces and booths. While the cell phone is a great aid, it is often difficult to contact someone on a call during the heat of battle on a conference floor. Using Twitter, an individual would be able to post their location, schedule or need and have that message sent out to either just one person or a marketing team, or even a large number of contacts.

As for the ShareASale experiment, the company was able to effectively drive the affiliates on their Twitter network to their booths for special giveaways, prizes and news by sending out certain announcements throughout the summit. Littleton also used the service to locate members of his own team and arrange meetings with affiliates and clients. As an instant information sharing platform, Twitter met all expectations at the summit, and in some ways exceeded them.

However, the implications for affiliate marketing don’t end with conferences. ShareASale’s experiment with Twitter is an interesting start to what could become a revolutionary platform for instant, yet nonintrusive communication regarding offer updates, new payout structures, new coupon codes and just about any type of update a network could make aimed at participating affiliates.

Email correspondences between networks and affiliates have been lagging in terms of deliverability and the many snares and traps that an HTML email must avoid in order to reach the intended recipient. Along with that, changes in Microsoft’s new Outlook in the Vista OS will considerably hamper the use of affiliate newsletters. Some merchants have moved to blogging and reaching affiliates through such means as RSS feeds. However, affiliate adoption of RSS has been slow, and only about 30 percent of merchants and networks are blogging (with a much smaller percentage regularly updating their blog).

As more affiliate networks discover the advantages of using this type of communication to augment their existing efforts through email or RSS, I expect adoption by affiliates to continue to rise. Social communication, which blurs the pre-existing line between personal and business communication, will be this year’s hot topic in reaching and activating affiliates. Keep an eye on the growing group of affiliates using Twitter for social and business communication.


SAM HARRELSON runs, a weblog about online marketing, specifically CPA offers, programs and networks. He has held positions at Rextopia Network, PrimeQ and Aluria Software.