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

Fair Play: Q & A with Kellie Stevens

Kellie Stevens is the president of AffiliateFair-Play.com, which is committed to providing a better understanding and interpretation of the behaviors that impact the affiliate marketing space. Stevens’ goal is to create a fair and competitive marketplace, and she does this by focusing on the actual behaviors – not the technologies – leading to unfair competition and abuse in the marketplace. Her tireless efforts, which started in 2000, have won her the respect and affection of many in the industry as well as the ire of those who are looking to skirt ethical practices. Regardless, Stevens vows to continue her mission to provide the community with resources for striving toward fair practices in affiliate marketing.

Lisa Picarille: What motivates you to find out who is using adware or acting in an unethical manner?

Kellie Stevens: Many of the behaviors I research and document go beyond just ethics. They are behaviors which I strongly feel impact negatively on the affiliate marketing channel as a whole. Affiliates who are automatically redirecting the merchant’s own traffic (both organic and paid traffic) as their own commissionable traffic, devalue the channel overall. Affiliate links showing extensively in adware security companies have deemed that security risks have contributed to blocked affiliate links and tracking cookies flagged as security or privacy risks. This impacts on everyone. Those are just a couple of examples. It’s the overall impact on affiliate marketing, from a business perspective, that is my main motivation.

LP: How did you get started pursuing those exhibiting bad behavior?

KS: Back then there was very little information available. Security companies weren’t researching these adware companies and their software. You couldn’t go to a security site and search their database. Only a few people were even talking about how some affiliates were driving sales and revenue. So I installed a few applications to see for myself. I began talking about what I saw in the community. The day came when I had a couple of applications installed on my computer and I went to my e-commerce site checking on a customer issue. When I got to my shopping cart, I received a pop-up with a blatantly false message encouraging the customer to buy a product from the adware company. That was very personal. I contacted my State Attorney General’s office and found out they knew very little about adware, but they wanted to hear more. I talked with them about six months later and they had a much better understanding; they didn’t like the practices at all but felt there were no existing laws in place to prosecute. Things gradually evolved over time as I continued testing for myself to understand what was going on out on the Internet and reporting back to the community on a somewhat ad hoc basis.

LP: How much of your testing is done without being paid?

KS: When I first started, and for quite some time, it was all done for free. As the demand for the information and my expertise grew, I gradually increased the amount of time I spent doing research and reporting. I’m now doing this full time, so of course it’s not all for free now. I still try to balance my time, providing some amount of information for free because the issues are too important to the industry. I haven’t sat down to put numbers to how much of my activities are devoted to free content and revenue-generating information.

LP: How much is consulting? And do you work with the big networks? If so, how often?

KS: I do private consulting as well as the subscription service through AFP. But again, I haven’t sat down and put numbers to the time (hour-wise) I devote to each area. I know I put in a lot of hours each week because there is always something that needs addressing.

I don’t disclose my clients’ identities for confidential reasons. I will say that over the years I have had contact and dialogues with all the major affiliate networks to varying degrees, whether that contact was paid or otherwise. I always welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues facing the industry, whether I completely agree with the points of view or not. I have always appreciated when the networks have approached me asking, “Kellie, what do you think about”?” Dialogue is extremely important if constructive change is to happen in the industry.

LP: Why do you think that there are individuals like yourself who pursue adware folks, but that there are no formal entities to police these rogue behaviors?

KS: There are probably many reasons. The idea of some type of formal entity has been brought up several times. It’s something I’ve had requested of me on numerous occasions. In fact, I am continuously educating people that AFP doesn’t do any type of “certification.” The largest stumbling block to having some type of formal entity is probably the fact that as an industry we have yet to come to a universally (or close to universal) accepted agreement as to what behaviors are and are not acceptable. You have to define what you will be policing before you can police.

LP: You are performing a very valuable service for the industry, yet you seem to maintain a low profile. Why?

KS: I don’t think I maintain a particularly low profile. I am out and about in the community. I don’t use my research findings to just sensationalize and garner PR for myself. I think the information is too important to dilute with such tactics. And doing so marginalizes my ability to bring about change towards more fair business practices in the industry.

I have found that I have been more able to achieve change by working quietly “behind the scenes” when it comes to specific issues/incidents at times. My ultimate goal has always been, and remains: changes in certain policies and practices in the industry.

I am focusing more of my energies in 2007 towards educating the community on issues related to adware, so in that sense people will probably be “seeing” more of me.

LP: Are you ever worried that these adware firms will retaliate against you?

KS: Anyone doing this kind of work should be cognizant of such possibilities. I have spent quite a bit of time over the years cultivating the way I both approach my work and present the information to minimize those types of risks. Ultimately, I want to be spending my time doing my research and providing information to the community, not dealing with retaliation tactics, legal or otherwise.

LP: And how do you protect yourself from this potential pitfall?

KS: I try to use common sense along those lines. That means being able to support what I report and staying clear of approaching matters in a way that is viewed as just being inflammatory. My goal is to be able to provide people with objective data and information from my research. So far, this approach has served me well.

LP: What’s the best part of doing your job?

KS: I probably have to say, when I see positive change happen. When I see a merchant or network change their policies or implement internal mechanisms to better catch bad behavior. When I have an affiliate come back and tell me their conversions (and revenue) have significantly increased after they took action on information I provided them. Or when a merchant tells me they are showing higher growth and ROI/ROAS in their affiliate channel based on the information they received from me. At the end of the day, that’s what it is all really about and makes the hours in front of the test computer worthwhile.

LP: What’s the worst part?

KS: I don’t know if I would call them the worst part, but there are some things that I find frustrating.

I find there is still quite a bit of misinformation and old information out there. I see people making [what appears to be] business decisions based on the inaccurate information.

I become very frustrated whenever I hear people say, “I don’t like the practices, but there’s not anything I can do about it and it’s just a cost of doing business.” In my honest opinion, that kind of apathy just encourages the bad behavior. There are many things that could be done within our industry to combat the bad behavior. It’s a matter of being committed to doing what can be done. And to say it’s the cost of doing business is devaluing the affiliate channel.

I really become frustrated when I see companies using anti-parasite policies, compliance and fraud detection as primarily PR spin to market their business, when in reality they are eyeball-deep in the relationships. People shouldn’t believe everything they read, but rather, engage in due diligence in understanding the business models/practices of those they partner with.

LP: What’s the most misunderstood element of dealing with adware?

KS: That could probably be a full article by itself; there are so many. One is that it is easy to monitor all of the potential bad behavior out there. It isn’t by a long shot. Could the industry as a whole be doing better? Yes, but that doesn’t make it an easy task. I remember catching wind of a particular application that I wanted to test. It took me two years to finally track down a copy of the software to test. When I did, they were using quite a few techniques to hide the fact from networks and merchants that adware was involved. Programming has become much more sophisticated, allowing adware to “hide” itself more easily from the end user (that it is even installed). And distribution methods have become more stealthy and sneaky as well.

A more global, or big picture understanding of how adware is operating within online advertising as a whole is still not fully understood by many, nor are all the different ways it can impact upon online businesses and affiliate marketing in particular.

There are still many misconceptions about the very basics of how adware functions. I still hear people talking about adware replacing their affiliate links on their websites, and their implementing programming on their site to prevent this. But the majority of adware does not even do that. In fact, some of the “protective coding” they implement could actually put their traffic at higher risk for interception by certain types of adware.

LP:What percentage of commissions do you estimate are lost to the bad behavior of adware?

KS: Lost to who? Affiliates, merchants or networks? All three happen now. There are also many ways a commission can be “lost.” Some of those ways are very blatant and obvious, like the automatic overwriting of an affiliate link by adware. Other ways are less obvious, like lost traffic or redirection into another advertising channel.

I don’t think anyone knows the exact dollar amounts, in truth. I’ve heard speculation of anywhere from 5 percent to over 40 percent of revenue in the affiliate channel attributed to adware. I’ve seen reports which put total revenue for adware, which included all advertising channels and other means adware companies have of generating revenue, at anywhere from $2 billion to $20 billion a year.

The problem with coming up with hard data along these lines is knowing all the adware players and those using adware [i.e., third-party ad buys]. Security companies face an ongoing battle detecting adware applications on the end user’s computer. Most adware companies are privately held, so their financial information is not public knowledge. Others operate outside of the U.S. When you start factoring in very rogue players and the world of botnets, the picture becomes extremely cloudy.

I think most agree that there is a significant amount of online advertising dollars that end up flowing through adware coffers.

LP: What is the future of adware? Will it ever be wiped out?

KS: Adware is here to stay. You don’t put the technology genie back into the bottle. As with all things related to the Internet, what we will see is the way in which adware is behaving and playing on the Internet. This has been the case so far as well.

LP: Who should be responsible to help in this fight? The government? Merchants? The networks?

KS: I think everyone is responsible to varying degrees and in different ways: affiliates, merchants, networks, consumers, regulators and adware companies themselves. Whenever there is a lot of money up for grabs, as there is in online advertising, there will always be people out there who are willing to use unscrupulous tactics to get their hands on some of the dollars. It’s unfortunate that adware has become synonymous with such tactics. My dream is to see the industry become more proactive on addressing the issues surrounding adware and being less reactive primarily when the stuff starts hitting the fan.

Online Is Sweet

Food has recently been called everything from the new theater to the new porn. Regardless of how you think about food, you certainly can’t avoid it.

Food has become America’s No. 1 obsession and food companies – from providers of high-end gourmet goodies to those feeding the fast-food nation – are battling to get on the dinner plates of today’s consumers.

And because everybody has to eat, the opportunities are enormous. Consider this: Americans spend 10 percent of their disposable income on food. The typical American household spent an average of $2,434 on food purchases away from home.

The channels for reaching this lucrative marketplace are just as vast. Recent buzz suggests that food companies are spending or planning to spend less of their advertising budget on traditional forms of media in favor of the Internet. But just how much of food companies’ advertising budget will be allocated to online initiatives and how quickly that will take place varies depending on the brand, the brand’s audience and who’s responding to the question.

Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Datamonitor’s Productscan Online, which covers the release of new merchandise, thinks that the CPG (consumer product goods) industry, which includes food, is getting away from traditional advertising because of rampant media fragmentation, something it considers to be a major problem.

Gene Dillard, president of FoodWise, a marketing communications agency that has worked with clients such as Borden Milk and Tyson Foods, agrees that traditional forms of advertising like print are declining because “there are too many different publications that have divided the market so much.” He says advertisers are using the Web because it is more targeted and cost efficient and says there is a trend of moving more ad dollars online. He recommends his clients should “spend 15 percent of their budget online at the minimum.”

Joseph Jaffe, creator of the popular new marketing blog, Jaffe Juice, and previous director of interactive media at TBWA/Chiat/Day, says that food companies are using the Internet more but not leveraging it to its full potential.

“Food companies and CPGs have always prided themselves on their analytical marketing mix modeling and want to be able to look to what has worked for them in the past and repeat it,” Jaffe says. “But this will not work anymore because the industry is changing so quickly and exponentially and there is much that is not predicable.”

New Recipe For Success

Although food companies lag a bit behind other industries, Jaffe says he believes they are increasing their online advertising spending based on two main reasons. One is that Internet display advertising rose 18.9 percent for the first half of 2006 over the first half of 2005 according to TNS Media Intelligence (this does not include paid search advertising.) Jaffe says he believes that spending by food companies accounts for part of this substantial increase.

Reason number two: Many food companies have increased their overall advertising budgets in the last year and Jaffe believes this includes online spending. October’s Advertising Age’s Top 200 Brands found that for the first half of 2006, Campbell’s advertising spending was up 63.8 percent, Kellogg’s increased by 17.8 percent and M&M’s spent 11 percent more than in 2005.

Lisa Phillips, an analyst who covers the CPG space for eMarketer, says food companies are spending more online recently but not at the same pace as other industries such as cosmetics or pharmaceuticals.

“When it comes to product launches for food, companies are still using television.” For example, according to Nielsen//NetRatings AdRelevance AdAcross, for the period of August 2005 to July 2006, Sara Lee spent 52.3 percent of its advertising budget on network and cable television (see chart below).

Nielsen//NetRatings AdRelevance found that large food companies spent relatively small percentages on Internet display advertising (in this case, image-based impressions, which include popups, banners that scroll by, etc., but do not include sponsored search link ads or other types of Internet marketing). Altria, the parent company of Kraft, allocated 1.1 percent; Sara Lee spent 1.5 percent; while Heinz’s ketchup allocated 2.2 percent and McDonald’s spent 22.7 percent.

It’s hard to get specific numbers as analysts don’t break out food advertising separately from CPG advertising. JupiterResearch defines CPGs as food, beverages, alcohol, household products, cosmetics and beauty aids, and personal care products. Analyst Emily Riley of JupiterResearch says “CPG spending makes up only 5 percent of total online spending. Currently about 90 percent of it is display advertising such as banners, sweepstakes and sponsorships.”

However, JupiterResearch predicts that CPG spending will increase substantially in the next three years and that compound annual growth will be at 10.5 percent between 2005 and 2010 for display advertising, from $385 million to $632 million.

Aside from display advertising, what else are food-related companies doing online? Phillips says, “Food companies are still figuring out how to use the Web ” and they are definitely spending a lot of money trying to do it.” Online initiatives that attract, engage and retain users such as coupon and recipe downloads, features that foster community and sites that position themselves as information resources are among the most popular.

These bells and whistles seem to be effective ways to drive traffic. According to comScore Media Metrix, approximately 38.2 million Web users visited food sites in September – up 15 percent from last year. Comparing July 2005 with July 2006, Food Network.com had a traffic increase of 21 percent; AllRecipes.com is up 51 percent; and About Food increased by 44 percent. Many of these websites are e-tailers and are leveraging the Web with good results.

One of them is Omaha Steaks, which has been online since 1990 with CompuServe, then with its own site since 1995. Omaha Steaks’ communication director, Beth Weiss, says the online part of their business is the fastest growing and credits their aggressive affiliate campaign, which is run by LinkShare and had 2,800 active affiliates for the month of August 2006.

Weiss explains that as a direct marketing company, 97 to 98 percent of its budget is spent on things that go directly to the consumer, like sending catalogs and emails to their 2.2 million active customers who buy regularly.

“We do very little newspaper or television – only a small amount to promote for the holidays and we do no radio because historically it has not worked for us,” Weiss says. “Our target demographics are differently structured depending on where the customer shops. If they mail order or use the 1-800 number, they tend to be older; younger customers tend to be online. The thing that crosses over all the marketing channels is that because our products are high end, we market to affluent people ” they travel and read, and most are in their late 40s and above.”

What the Big Kids Are Eating

It seems that affluent people in their late 40s or older are the sweet spot for many high-end online food purveyors.

Richard Gore, president of Culinary Entertainment Group (CEG), says “food entertainment space” is driven by boomers who go to three-hour restaurant meals as an evening’s entertainment. “Boomers don’t want to stay out late to go to a concert; they have the money to spend, and they are much more interested in food than earlier generations.”

CEG’s March 2007 introduction of Food University – high-end cooking events with an accompanying website – is targeted at boomers. To reach boomers with an estimated split of approximately 60 percent female and 40 percent male in regions such as Chicago, Jacksonville, and Houston, Gore says they are using a mix of print, local radio and local cable, with “events like celebrity chef tours, where the public can mix with their favorite chefs, and provide companies involved with a huge array of experiential marketing opportunities. People see a product and how it’s being used, sample it and they’re hooked,” he says.

Food University, through a partnership with Wyndham Resorts, will engage the American public in learning how to cook more adventurous fare by providing access to celebrity chefs like Martin Yan and Sara Moulton.

Benefiting from this exposure to celebrity chefs are many high-end food purveyors, including two e-tailers, Cooking.com and igourmet.com. Both have realized revenue increases in the past year; igourmet.com’s by 50 percent. Marketing manager of Cooking.com Kari Taylor explains that “the popularity of celebrity chefs and food television has driven awareness and increased demand of cooking products”; some of their more popular products include high-dollar items like Zojirushi bread machines, Calphalon cookware and Capresso coffee machines.

Tracy Chesman, vice president of sales at igourmet.com, a purveyor of 700 cheeses and hard-to-find specialty foods such as Douwe Egberts coffee, says there has been an increased interest in gourmet foods due to the accessibility that consumers have to cooking media such as cable television and the Internet.

“We got a lot of increased traffic when Emeril was on the Food Network and talked about Maytag cheese,” Chesman says.

She adds that igourmet.com saw an increase in sales of a specific type of walnut oil when a magazine article recommended it, which showed the company there was a direct reaction from communication in the media.

The Search For Food

Both companies – igourmet and Cooking.com – credit affiliate marketing and search marketing as key drivers of their business. Cooking.com has an affiliate program run by Commission Junction and their top affiliates include eBates and Upromise.

igourmet.com has outsourced its affiliate program to outsourced program management company Pepperjam.com since 2000 and says that since its launch, sales have increased every single year.

“A huge part of igourmet.com’s success is due to the affiliates – who are essential,” says Michael Jones, COO of Pepperjam. Through igourmet.com’s LinkShare program, they can see that the amount of producing affiliates is increasing. Pepperjam says igourmet.com’s top “affiliates are loyalty programs like Upromise, Ebates, MyPoints and American Airlines AAdvantage, as well as the niche gourmet site, BacchusSellers.”

Jones adds that igourmet.com has very active and aggressive campaigns on Google, Yahoo and MSN and that search generates a large part of their business. Jones claims igourmet.com is the No. 1 listing for “gourmet cheese” and they “maximize campaigns organically on the natural listing through search engine optimization as well as through pay per click.”

Women In the Kitchen and Online

Both igourmet.com and Cooking.com say women make up the majority of their customers. For Cooking.com, their target audience is 35-to-65-year-old women with an interest in cooking, or empty nesters or mothers with younger children. The bulk of igourmet.com’s customers are mostly middle to upper class and clustered in metropolitan areas on the East Coast with a higher percentage of females (55 percent).

The 55 percent figure is in step with findings from comScore Media Metrix. They found that in July 2006, affluent females were the most popular demographic segment among food site visitors, with a 54.4 percent share.

However, vice president of research for BIGresearch, Joe Pilotta, warns that food companies should not jump to conclusions about who uses the Internet to shop for food. He said that in August 2006, BIGresearch did a survey of 15,000 people about the media influences for purchasing food and found that “the normal kind of intuitive thinking is not correct.”

Pilotta says that people who have a lower income use the Web a lot to comparison shop online before they go shopping. For example, a budget-oriented mother of young children will go online to check the food prices for items such as chicken and crackers at Safeway versus Albertson’s while preparing her shopping list before she gets in the car.

Many food sites are targeting Gen-Xers including CNET’s Chow.com, which is aimed at 25-to-45-year-olds, whom they believe are passionate about food but possibly not very skilled at preparing it. Chow.com, which launched in September 2006, includes the popular discussion boards of Chowhound.com and video tutorials on subjects like how to dice an onion, as well as recipes, restaurant reviews, party tips and coverage of food marketing.

SlashFood, a blog that is part of Weblogs.com, is another food site whose audience is primarily 25-to-45-year-olds. Sarah Gim, editor of SlashFood, says the site has easily built up traffic month-over-month since it launched in August of 2005. She says that their team of paid bloggers covers a gamut of topics, from food news to restaurant reviews to food culture, and credits the site’s popularity to the fact that “food in general is more popular than 10 years ago and many readers are motivated by issues concerning health.”

The Food Network is the most exhaustive example of a television and Web channel that has experimented with targeting everyone from foodies to newbies. The Food Network reaches 90 million homes in the United States and the core audience is 25 to 54, more female than male.

However, male viewers increase and the average age of viewers falls in the evenings, which is why shows that are similar to competitive sports, such as “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” succeed. “Iron Chef” is one of Food Network’s most popular, attracting many from outside its normal demographic – in particular, the core 18-to-49-year-old male demographic.

In October 2006, a 20-part series and accompanying website called “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie” kicked off on PBS. It introduces viewers to exotic ingredients and in-the-know chefs on an international level. According to an August 2006 Nielsen Media Research poll, 38.7 percent of PBS viewers make more than $60,000 per household and 30.8 percent have a four-year college education.

So how can food marketers reach such a wide swath of users online – who range in age, gender, education and geographic location? Because of the abundance of websites, Jupiter’s Riley says “food companies typically use interactive agencies to plan their media spending for them. The agencies will often partner with well-known content sites using demographic targeting information.” While many food companies want to drive potential customers to their websites, Riley says the ultimate goal is to provide an engaging brand experience. Food companies seek to do this through a variety of interactive components.

Interactive Is On the Front Burner

One effective component that Sara Lee used for its “Soft & Smooth Whole Grain Wheat Bread” campaign was word of mouth, which was created by AllRecipes.com to reach mothers of school-age children.

AllRecipes.com, which also provided the campaign’s recipe feature, created a custom consumer panel where qualified home cooks were invited to try their new product for free. AllRecipe.com’s vice president of marketing and partner affairs, Esmee Williams, explains that “an invitation was advertised in areas of the site where influencers were most likely to spend time.” Influencers (members who submit content and share opinions) were asked to fill out a short survey; those who fit the defined target profile were provided with online coupons good for 70 to 100 percent off a loaf of the bread.

More than 15,000 people participated, most of them in the target market. Seventy percent of the audience downloaded the coupon, and 40 percent redeemed it.

“Those who agreed to participate in the ‘taste test’ panel were also provided exclusive access to a co-branded microsite where they could share their feedback, submit recipes utilizing the product as an ingredient or forward product recommendations accompanied by a product coupon to friends,” Williams says.

Many food companies have microsites, which create environments that foster a relationship between a specific brand and audience. Among the most successful is KraftFoods.com, which frequently has been the No. 1 branded food domain during the past five years. According to Jupiter’s Riley, it has become a full-fledged destination site with recipes that incorporate Kraft products to appeal to busy moms as well as community message boards where users can swap ideas, and which Kraft can respond to and monitor.

Paula Sneed, Kraft’s executive vice president of global marketing resources, said in her keynote speech at the DMA conference in October that interaction with customers is imperative.

“We need to talk to consumers to find out their underlying motivations ” to succeed, it’s all about customer insights,” Sneed says.

eMarketer’s Phillips says food companies read user-generated content in blogs and message boards “to see which way the wind is blowing before they launch a product – it is an online focus group that offers feedback.”

In October 2006, Kraft partnered with MSN to launch Chef to the Rescue segments, which are four-to-five-minute videos that can be downloaded on demand, so users watch them at their convenience. They feature celebrity chef Cat Cora creating meals based on recipes from KraftFoods.com and are a way that Kraft serves its target audience of time-crunched mothers. Sneed explains that this is “the type of next-generation advertising that adds value to its core customer.”

Kraft Foods, along with Masterfoods USA and Sheraton Hotels & Resorts are among the initial sponsors of Yahoo Food, a section that Yahoo launched in November that offers visitors recipes, food-related articles, blog posts, celebrity interviews and video.

Intended for sophisticates as well as casual cooks, Yahoo Food offers original and syndicated content including articles from the magazine Every Day with Rachel Ray, recipes from Epicurious, original posts from 13 food bloggers like The New York Times writer Ed Levine and video from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The site also will include a Yahoo video show, “Cheap and Easy,” with clips advising users how to make dishes for not more than $5 in less than five minutes.

Diners Eat Up Video

Videos and webisodes are now de rigueur components of many food-related websites with the hopes that these elements will become viral. eMarketer’s Phillips explains that the goal is to have users find it authentic and pass it to each other, and says that today it is easy for companies “to post something on YouTube and see if it goes viral.” She says a great example that was sent to her is Smirnoff’s Tea Partay video, which is a send-up of a gangster rap song, set in Greenwich, Conn.

Another viral marketing campaign, “Long John Silver’s Shrimp Buddy,” is about a guy going on a road trip with a man in a shrimp suit. It has received good and bad critiques from online users, which exemplifies the dangers of viral marketing campaigns that lack credibility. One blogger wrote, “It’s the weakest viral campaign I have seen” and another criticized that “It’s about as genuine as Coke’s summer road trip commercials with a bunch of teenagers encountering spontaneous poetry reads and magic shows.”

Perhaps the most well-known viral campaign for a food company is Burger King’s Subservient Chicken site, which had a million hits within a day after being released, and received 20 million hits within a week. Users could control the movement of a man dressed up like a chicken by typing commands such as “do jumping jacks,” “dance” or “watch TV.” Joseph Jaffe explains that this type of engaging interaction with customers is incredibly valuable because it is more of an opt-in media versus TV, which is mass media that everybody sees. Jaffe says the average user of the Subservient Chicken site spent 7.5 voluntary minutes there. “That’s 15 30-second spots and I bet that’s worth 50 30-second spots because the viewer is engaged the whole time, he says.”

A Web campaign that includes a podcast or user-generated content requires the person to register and therefore guarantees interactivity. And by engaging with users, companies are building awareness and keeping their brand top of mind. Food companies like Burger King and Campbell’s Soup are not trying to sell Whoppers or cans of tomato soup over the Internet – they are trying to build online relationships with users with the hope that the brand experience will follow them off-line and make them brand loyalists. eMarketer’s Phillips says companies will use every interactive angle possible to engage with customers – from word-of-mouth campaigns, to ringtones, to sweepstakes, to advergames.

eMarketer’s James Belcher predicts that advergames and in-game advertising are “small but growing and important” and points to Microsoft’s 2006 purchase of Massive, a maker of in-game advertising, as proof of the momentum.

In-game advertising places targeted ads inside video games – such as on billboards as a player skateboards down a street – and serves different billboards to different users depending on their geography and age. The technology is now attracting deep-pocketed corporate sponsors who see video games as a great way to reach desirable audiences such as young males.

Sara Lee, department store Kohl’s and chip maker AMD are experimenting with in-game advertising with the sponsorship of a series of online games called “The Flushed Away Underground Adventure” that launched on AOL in October. The game called on players of all ages to solve a series of challenges that feature characters from the movie “Flushed Away.” Sponsors have an online presence in the games as well as plug their products in customized pre-roll video ads and banners.

Marketers will be interested to know that according to October’s comScore Media Metrix’s Game Metrix, a study that analyzes gamers’ cross-platform behaviors, 37 percent of heavy gamers agreed that featuring actual products or companies in games makes them feel more realistic, and half of heavy gamers believe that it is inevitable and will be in all or most games in the future. The study also found that video games appeal to not just teenage males or children – on average, gamers are 41 and have an annual income of $55,000; females account for 52 percent of the gaming audience.

A July 2006 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on analysis of 77 branded food websites that are targeted at kids, found that 73 percent of the sites contained advergames, ranging from one to more than 60 games per site. McDonald’s Ronald.com has pages for kids to color, and Capncrunch.com, which promotes the Quaker Oats cereal, offers screen savers.

M&M’s has launched advergames designed for all ages. In October, they introduced the advergame “50 Dark Movies Hidden in a Painting,” which features a Brueghel-style painting with a series of visual riddles where players move around the screen and find the 50 movie titles represented by the characters in the painting.

Another advergame, the M&M’s Trivia Game, asks questions like, “Who drives the NASCAR M&M race car?” which for most users require them to search for the answers. Kevin Ryan, CEO of multichannel advertising agency Kinetic Results, explains that CPG companies like M&M’s are incentivizing users to search on their brand for the answers. “It is all about building an experience,” Ryan says. “It is not likely people are going to buy M&M’s online – they just want people to interact with the brand. It is a prototypical experience.”

The Search For Sustenance

Ryan believes, “There is a tremendous amount of opportunity in using search as a brand conduit ” it is the foundation for growth in the next couple of years,” he says. “There is a big value for search beyond direct response.”

Search is a very effective way of valuing and measuring the impact of investments in other types of media; for example, marketers can use search as a way of monitoring the effectiveness of a TV campaign, as they will see spikes in search activity immediately after the campaign launches.

Cam Balzer, vice president of strategy planning for Performics, agrees that search is helpful for branding efforts. He says that initially some food marketers and CPGs did not see the value in buying keywords if they did not convert, but marketers are starting to understand that consumers are not always looking for immediate gratification. “Marketers are realizing there is value in buying a keyword like ‘turkey’ because although a user might not be ready to buy a turkey at that moment, they might be searching on the word while they think about the kind of turkey to prepare for the holidays.”

Of course, some keyword buys do convert well. “Some of our clients are in the food-gifting business so they buy terms like ‘holiday pears’ and ‘holiday popcorn basket.’ Those words get costly but they convert very well and the high costs pay off. It is the direct market companies that leverage those,” Balzer says.

For the most part, it seems that food companies are just starting to realize the potential of search to engage their audiences. Balzer says, “A lot of food companies are strictly promoting their brand online and they need to reach beyond people who know about them to engage new consumers. For example, there are not many players for search terms like ‘healthy snacks’ or ‘healthy meats.’ Those words are not used by the household brand names like you would think and that is where the opportunity lies.”

Performics has worked with a meat-related food company and says that contextual targeting has performed well for building awareness of its product. Balzer says, “We have seen success with what they call ‘flavor conquesting,’ which means that one brand buys another brand’s keywords. For one client – if we were buying for a turkey product, we would buy ham in the content-targeting network so if someone is reading an article about ham sandwiches, the turkey ad pops up. We know the reader is interested in a similar food product [in this case a deli meat sandwich].”

Jupiter’s Riley says over the next few years, CPG spending on search “will grow a lot,” from $40 million in 2005 to $128 million in 2010, a compound annual growth rate of 26 percent. Search is by far the most lucrative area, accounting for 40 percent of the total online ad spending in the U.S., according to JupiterResearch.

For food companies to take advantage of search, they need to have good search engine marketing programs that are concerned with both paid and organic listings. Gary Angel, CEO of SEMphonic, a search engine marketing analytics consultancy, says, “Organic listings are an incredible value since they are essentially uncharged exposure. In addition, more clicks come from organic listings than paid; so organic listings are the No. 1 potential traffic source.”

Angel claims that paid listings provide coverage across a breadth of terms that can’t possibly be highly rated organically, scale programs to drive traffic beyond organic levels as well as allow companies to control the landing page and message given to consumers.

He says many companies have shifted significant resources into organic optimization in the last year – since this was an area that was significantly underutilized. He says that paid advertising really skyrocketed two years ago and has remained very strong – but many companies have essentially reached a plateau.

Online Offers Steak and Sizzle

Search is one of the channels through which Niman Ranch, a premium brand of meat, is acquiring new customers on a pay-for-performance basis. Niman Ranch pays its online marketing agency, LSF Interactive, only when new Web visitors buy – not for visitors that browse but don’t buy (leads) and not for existing customers that purchase again (repeat customers).

The comprehensive campaign includes search, email, banner advertising and comparison shopping engines such as Shopzilla and Yahoo’s shopping comparison tool.

Daniel Laury, CEO of LSF Interactive, explains that because they are compensated on a pay-for-performance basis, their job is to get the best conversion rates, which they do by tweaking the ad copy and landing pages and by fine-tuning their targeting. He says that recruitment through email and banners enables them to target users better.

According to Kinetic Results’ Ryan, companies have to foray into advertising on multichannels in order to reach audiences who are increasingly not only online but multitasking while they are online. Today people are on their computers instant messaging, while emailing and playing a video game. They have the television on in the background while they talk on their mobile phones. While they flip through the newspaper on the bus, they are listening to the radio or to their iPods. To reach these multitaskers, food companies have to develop campaigns that integrate several components.

An example of this is “Sara Lee’s Joy of Eating” campaign, which is being promoted on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Martha Stewart Living Radio channel and with an interactive presence on the Sirius website. The campaign also includes television ads, a Sara Lee microsite, online advertising, point-of-sale and visuals on packaging and bakery delivery trucks.

Some think that the Internet will never be a main channel for major food brands to reach customers. Datamonitor’s Productscan Online’s Vierhile believes that “There is no real compelling reason for consumers to visit food company sites except for recipes, which are really a one-off.” He believes that if anything has changed over the last 20 years, it is that food companies “have to get the products on the shelf.” To accomplish this, Vierhile thinks that food companies are focusing more on product packaging and in-store promotion.

In-store promotion includes free samples, shelf-edge talkers, in-store coupons, advertisements on conveyor belts, messages on the floor as well as in-store media on TV monitors. According to an August 2006 BIGresearch Simultaneous Media Survey of over 15,000 people, the top media influences for purchasers include in-store promotion – with the most significant influencer being coupons (see chart below).

A Mobile Feast

BIGResearch’s Pilotta says that “Coupons are still very effective even though approximately 1 percent are redeemed.” According to a Prospectiv October 2005 study, approximately 10.5 percent of consumers get their coupons from online sources, about 30 percent of consumers said they would like to receive coupons through online channels and more than half would like to receive coupons online if they were tailored to their interests.

A growing alternative to sending coupons inserted in newspapers is to send them in email newsletters. Email Data Source says that supermarkets that send email newsletters are successful in driving traffic to their Web properties. Supermarkets’ weekly newsletters offer specific targeting, can be personalized and include recipes, online specials and links to weekly ads.

Another innovative way for food merchants to deliver coupons and offers is through mobile marketing platforms including ipsh, VeriSign’s m-Qube, Motricity’s GoldPocket Wireless and MobileLime’s Mobile Rewards.

“Mobile advertising is better than online advertising – it is much more targeted,” says Bob Wesley, president and CEO of MobileLime. “The merchant can communicate with their customers before, during and after each purchase transaction, directly influencing buying behaviors at the point of sale. It is the ultimate in one-to-one communication because a person’s cell phone is a unique ID that is portable.”

For example, Chevy Chase Supermarket is using MobileLime’s Mobile Rewards platform to offer its patrons information-based alerts and instant savings on items store-wide through their mobile phones. Chevy Chase Supermarket was able to tell its customers that they were having a limited- time offer on Edie’s ice cream. This drove a large crowd of customers to stop by the store for the ice cream and also helped to increase loyalty sales on other items for which Chevy Chase sent alerts while shoppers were in the store.

In September 2006, Go-Tan, an Asian food brand, ran a marketing experiment in a supermarket in the Netherlands. Customers shopping in the supermarket (and anyone walking within a 100-meter distance) who had an open Bluetooth connection were reached by a contact request from the Go-Tan device about discounted Go-Tan products available in the store. More than 25 percent of Dutch mobile users leave their Bluetooth with an open connection, which means that Bluetooth could prove to be an appealing channel to establish direct and immediate communication with end users.

Food seems to be a natural match for the Internet. People love to talk about food and share food with others – and foodrelated sites are capitalizing on this social nature by offering various social media tools. It is predicted that food-related sites will continue to grow as interest continues – Yahoo indicated that they launched Yahoo Food because they saw it as a big opportunity and anticipate that CPG companies as well as health and diet companies will buy inventory in the section.

While the Internet is not the No. 1 channel for reaching consumers, most everyone agrees that it is vital for food companies to have an online presence. The KraftFoods.com URL is featured along with the 1-800 number on Kraft’s brand packaging, in their advertising and in Kraft’s Food and Family magazine. If food companies want to reach consumers with a multichannel campaign, Kraft Foods’ Sneed points out that all of the disciplines have to be integrated to maximize the potential for effectiveness.

For example, in 2006, Kraft Foods employed many marketing channels when they wanted to target Easy Mac macaroni and cheese cups to college kids instead of mothers. Kraft Foods used print ads, television spots and built a youthful and innovative website called Scam Some Mac, which includes short videos, an advergame and a viral element that lets you ask others to send you some mac & cheese.

Consumers can expect to see more pioneering online campaigns as food companies increase their spending on Internet initiatives in hopes of engaging users. With the growing amount of traffic to food-related sites, food companies will throw money at their online efforts although some will wonder if online exposure leads to off-line conversion.

Jaffe points out that people can tune out a television commercial with a remote control and ignore a magazine ad by turning the page, but to watch a video or participate in a sweepstakes online, users are required to register. Jaffe says that, “People are always trying to measure the value of an online campaign but maybe people should be trying to validate the value of an off-line campaign.”

In the end, it is finding an optimal mix of media, including Internet initiatives, which will move a company forward. Kraft Foods’ Sneed says, “Companies should not be afraid of trying new and innovation online campaigns – they need to be leaders, not followers.”

Out of Commission

How to Limit Commission Theft

  1. Find a trusted network and merchants. Ask other affiliates about their experiences with network partners, and if you are not being protected, take your business elsewhere. Likewise, if a merchant partner advertises via adware that is known to facilitate commission theft, you may be better off without them.
  2. Study your reports yourself for anomalies such as drops in conversion rates. Look at your server logs as well as network analytics to identify inconsistencies between the ratio of customers who appear to purchase and your commissions. If you are driving traffic but people suddenly aren’t buying, it may be a problem of theft.
  3. Test the software yourself. Even though isolating a computer and infecting it with suspicious software is a hassle, what you learn will be invaluable. Watching the activity when visitors come to you or your merchants’ websites will enable you to understand the scope of the problem.
  4. Educate yourself through affiliate marketing forums and the legal landscape. Affiliates and software experts are the best source of information available. While there is some misinformation, being well-versed in the issues is your best defense. Several court cases are pending that could decide the legality of overwriting commissions.
  5. Tell customers not to download software that you suspect is assisting commission theft. If the evidence convinces you that some free applications are harming your business, advise your current and potential customers not to use it.

We all operate to a great degree on trust. Whether you are an affiliate, advertiser, network or merchant, being able to succeed in business largely relies on others adhering to their written or implied agreements. We assume that most people will be honest and not interfere with our transactions.

“The overwhelming issue [in affiliate relationships] is about trust,” says Joseph Matheny, chief technical officer of advertising network AdValiant. But unfortunately that trust continues to be violated by some who capture commissions rightly due to others or take credit from a merchant that is not earned.

“There are those who haven’t bought into the rules of affiliate marketing,” Larry Adams, product manager for Performics, says. Subversive software, the anonymity of hiding behind affiliate IDs and sneaky scripting on websites make it easy to steal commissions and avoid detection. The potential to redirect commissions without fear of prosecution “provides a strong financial incentive not to follow the rules,” according to Adams, who says, “this is not a problem that is ever going to go away because there is economic opportunity.”

While there are reporting and auditing tools that can flag some of the most blatant attempts at padding commissions, dishonest affiliates can marginally enhance their earnings from their partners with little fear of detection or repercussions. Scott Jangro, president of marketing services company MechMedia, estimates that loss of commissions due to theft is “in the single digits” and “part of doing business that you should expect.”

Not-So-Grand Larceny

Commission theft generally falls into two categories: when tracking mechanisms meant to follow visitors from an affiliate or advertiser to a merchant are ignored or overwritten, or when someone claims a commission from a merchant for a transaction that they did not initiate. Unethical affiliates can stealthily overwrite competitors’ cookies during visits to their sites, or they can “advertise” with companies that disrupt the buying process by launching pop-up windows that falsely create commissions by erasing the true referring ID.

Like its brother nemesis click fraud, commission stealing has existed since before the Web was dynamic and will likely always plague online marketing. In 2002, networks Commission Junction, Be Free (which was subsequently acquired by CJ) and Performics agreed to address the problem by creating a code of conduct for affiliates to follow. LinkShare developed it’s own formal code of conduct.

CJ and Performics agreed that affiliates should insert a text identifier known as “afsrc=1” in their query strings to identify themselves to merchants and publishers. Affiliates and software developers should look for that string and back off from attempts to claim their own fees.

Performics’ Adams says employing afsrc=1 “will protect against software used by a lot of marketers who play by the rules,” and distribute applications that respond accordingly when they detect the code. The affiliate code of conduct has been revised twice since its inception, and Adams still advises new affiliates to implement the afsrc=1 code.

Implementing the afsrc=1 code “protects from a narrow class of programs” such as consumer rebate software like Upromise or eBates that follow the rules, according to attorney and adware/spyware expert Ben Edelman. But many adware companies do not conduct themselves along these guidelines, according to Edelman. Affiliates rely on the networks and each other for policing with “some affiliates paying bounties to those who turn in others,” he says.

The afsrc=1 parameter and affiliate code of conduct is not enforced consistently and “gave too much wiggle room to the networks,” according to Kellie Stevens, president of Affiliate Fair Play. Stevens, whose company provides affiliate consulting services, says “afsrc=1 is now a moot point,” because it is not uniformly implemented and is ignored by adware applications. “Many affiliates have no idea [about afsrc=1] and don’t know they are supposed to be using it,” according to Stevens.

Adware from companies such as Zango (formerly known as 180solutions) and DirectRevenue enable their advertisers, who are affiliates or merchants, to insert pop-up windows that can interrupt the buying process and cancel commissions from other affiliates and/or create commissions for themselves. These applications, which consumers download in order to receive free software, music or videos, have led to several lawsuits (some of which were dismissed) claiming unfair business practices. Zango recently settled a case with the FTC over charges of deceptive practices with consumers and paid a $3 million fine, but did not admit guilt.

Dave Methvin, software expert and chief technology officer of PCPitstop.com, began studying how Zango’s software works because customers who had their PCs scanned at his website were emailing him about problems browsing the Web. “It became a crusade because so many of our users had infected computers,” he says.

Methvin installed the Zango software and watched as his visit to a Verizon website was interrupted by a pop-up window that created a commission for an affiliate whose site he had never visited. “When I started the transaction, Verizon wouldn’t have owed anyone a commission,” he says.

“Clearly there are unfair things going on,” says Methvin, who likened Zango’s enabling of partners to interfere with affiliate relationships to someone who provides a criminal with a gun and bullets but doesn’t want to be held accountable when it is used in a crime.

Zango’s software looks for keywords contained on a website or for specific URLs, and when found, launches a Web page or pages from affiliate websites in pop-up windows that have been observed to generate as well as overwrite commissions.

Zango director of public relations Steve Stratz says his company’s software does not itself overwrite cookies or otherwise subvert affiliate commissions. However, Stratz confirmed that Zango’s terms and conditions with its advertisers does not prevent them from altering cookies or creating pop-up windows that interfere with transactions, and he has no intention of asking them not to. Stratz says Zango sells to its advertisers all of the URLs and keywords that are used by its clients to open up pop-ups, including pages that open up only when someone visits a merchant’s shopping cart. Zango’s software will load pop-ups when a trademarked product names appears on a page.

“For us to regulate the world of cookies and the various and sundry ways that they are used goes beyond the scope of our mission as a company,” says Stratz. He says if companies want to protect their home pages or trademarks from pop-ups, they can always outbid their competitors. “We don’t apologize for the aggressive nature of our ad network,” Stratz says, adding that 200,000 people willingly download Zango software each day.

(For more on Zango, see the Affiliate’s Corner column on page 94.)

Network Protection

Technology does not exist that can prevent cookies or affiliate links from being ignored or to proactively defend against commission theft, according to attorney Edelman. It is impossible to prevent cookies from being overwritten, although consumers can protect their computers by installing applications that detect adware or spyware.

Since there is no panacea for protecting commissions, affiliates should employ the strategies for limiting loss, which foremost requires carefully selecting and working with your network partner.

The primary responsibility for monitoring commission theft lays with the networks, according to Steve Sauve, chief technical officer of network MaxBounty. “The merchant is paying a network for a service, and it is our responsibility to do quality control,” he says.

Sauve says that on average his company terminates two to three affiliates per month for commission stealing. In his experience defrauding merchants is a bigger problem than affiliates stealing from one another. “You need to actively monitor the network and watch to see where the traffic comes from,” he says. If an affiliate’s commission is out of alignment with the historical conversion rates, Sauve says the network should investigate.

Performics’ Adams says networks need to be proactive to make certain that affiliates aren’t participating with adware software vendors. “One of the most transparent things is anomalous performance. If they’ve been in a network for a while without showing results, then jump up to the top 20,” then something is likely amiss, he says. Performics tracks daily and trailing averages, and has a network performance group to monitor how affiliates drive traffic. “Looking at geography [of the initiating IP address] is also a good clue [for identifying bogus commissions], as illicit activity is often offshore,” according to Adams.

If affiliate reports show an unwarranted boost in performance, or if another affiliate has suspicions, Performics undertakes a remediation process to determine if the affiliate should be bounced from the network.

Affiliate Fair Play’s Stevens says if an affiliate isn’t getting enough support from the network in battling lost commissions, then it is time to shop around. However, larger affiliates “have to participate with the big networks because they need big brands to draw the traffic.” She says that networks need to be more candid in instructing new affiliates about the occurrence of commission theft and more closely monitor the commission-reporting process.

Merchants should aid affiliates by terminating relationships with those who are known to steal commissions, according to Stevens, but they are constrained by a lack of information. She says that if a dishonest affiliate is part of a large network, it may be hard to identify that specific affiliate, and so the merchant would be forced to terminate the entire network; a difficult decision if the network overall is performing well. Merchants sometimes make side deals with known cheats because of the revenue they generate, Stevens says.

Networks such as ShareASale are drawing affiliates by being selective about the companies that they choose to do business with and promoting their “clean” affiliate relationships, according to Stevens.

Selectivity

According to AdValiant’s Matheny, networks could eliminate 50 percent of the lost commissions by caring for their affiliates properly. His company is developing MediaTrust, a custom link-generation technology that would make it more difficult for software to circumvent the referral process.

Matheny, who has a background in Internet security, says that the system is similar to a public and private key system used in encryption software where each side (in this case the affiliate and the network) holds part of the information necessary to complete a transaction. The software, which is due in the first quarter of 2007, would make it more difficult for an application to fake a referral transaction.

The best method for understanding if, or how, commissions are being stolen is for an affiliate to set up a test computer and install any suspicious software, according to Performics’ Adams. He recommends you visit your site and your merchants’ sites with the “infected” computer and watch for deceptive behaviors.

Since the networks have offered little details about commission theft, affiliates should search forums and message boards for links to investigations of adware by software experts. “There is not a lot of centralized factual information,” advises Edelman, who says affiliate forums are the best places to start.

Affiliate Fair Play’s Stevens says that lack of a concerted voice among those in the industry is hindering the fight against commission stealing. More sharing of information between networks would deter affiliates from bad behaviors because they wouldn’t find it so easy to hop from partner to partner, she says.

AdValiant’s Matheny says he recently spoke with a competitor about starting a consortium for sharing information and establishing industry standards. Presenting a unified front amongst competitors would have a psychological effect, according to Matheny, if commission thieves believe that “we won’t let you get away with it.”

Affiliates who take undeserved commissions “should be flagged,” by those in the industry, Matheny says. MaxBounty’s Sauve says his company would volunteer data about affiliates to a group effort, “but there would be a danger of false positives.”

Sharing too much information would reveal how commission thieves are tracked and bad affiliates could use the knowledge to avoid detection, according to Performics’ Adams. His company prefers handling issues with clients privately to establishing a blacklist of affiliates who have cheated. “We wouldn’t want to throw them under the bus.”

JOHN GARTNER is a Portland, OR-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift, and is the Editor of Matter-mag.com.

A Call to Action

Someone is hijacking your traffic and stealing your commissions. That someone might be a competing affiliate marketer, or worse, the merchant whose products you are promoting.

To my dismay, I discovered that traffic from one of my sites was being diverted when a friend sent me some screen captures of that site’s home page. The first screen shot showed my site open in a browser window with 80 percent of the page behind an AdultFriendFinder pop-up window – despite the fact that my site does not have a pop-up to AdultFriendFinder.com on the home page.

The main domain in the pop-up window’s address bar was AdultFriendFinder.com, but the affiliate ID was not my affiliate ID for AdultFriendFinder, or for any site within FriendFinder’s network.

A portion of the URL included my domain name (preceded by .sub), which clearly indicated interest in referrals from my site. However, this was not so FriendFinder could compensate me – their long-standing, loyal affiliate – for referrals from that page, but rather to ensure that its Zango advertising campaign was returning a good ROI. This fact was made apparent from the prominent white-on-blue banner splayed across the bottom of the pop-up window that read, “This ad served by Zango software downloaded by Zango.com. Click here to learn more.”

Enter Zango, a company formed by a merger of Hotbar and 180solutions in June 2006. During its incarnation as 180Solutions, the company was dropped as an affiliate by the major networks, including Commission Junction and LinkShare, for invalid activity (cookie stuffing, etc.). 180’s detrimental effects on affiliate commissions have been well-documented by anti-spyware expert Ben Edelman and others.

Zango’s current service works as follows. In exchange for access to free programs and tools, surfers are required to download the Zango Search Assistant. With the Search Assistant installed, Zango’s advertisers’ Web pages are popped open when certain keywords are detected in Internet search or browser windows.

Now enter Zango’s advertisers. If a domain address is listed in an advertiser’s campaign and a visitor to that site has the Zango Search Assistant installed on their computer, the advertiser’s window will pop open, virtually obliterating the view of the first page visited. The situation occurs regardless of whether a Zango surfer reaches the page via paid or natural search engine listings.

But wait, it gets worse. Merchants and their competitors are bidding on their own and each other’s domain names, to ensure that their own ads are popped by Zango when their sites are visited. So, even if the Zango surfer finds your site behind a pop-up and clicks on one of your affiliate links, chances are good that the merchant site that opens with your affiliate ID embedded will be covered up by yet another pop-up window coded with an ID that isn’t yours, which means that as an affiliate you can say goodbye to your commissions.

Zango claims a customer base of 20 million users that grows by “more than 200,000 new opt-in consumers every day,” according to a September 26, 2006 press release from the company.

When you add 100 million MySpace teenyboppers who all want to redesign their profiles with VideoCodeLab’s free design tools – available through a Zango download – it’s no wonder that advertisers are jumping on the Zango bandwagon.

However, I can’t understand why a merchant partner would list an affiliate’s domain name in its Zango advertising campaign and risk accusations of commission shaving, or worse, losing affiliates by the boatload. So, I asked FriendFinder’s CEO Andrew Conru, and Lars Mapstead, vice president of marketing. Both stated that Zango supplied FriendFinder with a list of keywords that included my domain name. In another conversation, Mark Ippolito, Zango’s vice president of sales, confirmed that Zango provides its advertisers with a list of suggested industry-related keywords upon request.

To their credit, FriendFinder removed my domain name from their campaign soon after my request. The pop-ups continued, however, and further research uncovered that LoveAccess.com, another dating service with an affiliate program, was also bidding on my domain name. Steve Piotrowicz, director of marketing for LoveAccess.com, had “no comment” on my request to remove my domain name from his campaign or on how Zango’s advertising tactics impact affiliate marketers.

To find out which of my other merchants’ sites were being advertised on Zango, I opened a test advertiser account at Zango through AdConnect.Zango.com, and learned that the scope of the problem extends into every sector of the industry. Commission Junction merchants such as LowerMyBills, Esurance and Magellan’s had bids up to .518 cents per impression and up to 12 advertisers bidding on their URLs.

Attempts to enter URLs for Google, Yahoo, eBay, WeightWatchers and Expedia were “predenied” by Zango as they were insufficiently targeted, Zango’s Ippolito explained. However, he flatly refused to remove my domain name from Zango’s list. (If only it had been that easy!)

Interestingly enough, when I suggested to Ippolito that advertisers should bid on the term Zango, after hesitating a moment he replied that Zango “retains the right to refuse certain listings.” Go figure.

When asked how he would react if paid traffic to his site was repeatedly diverted to other sites, Ippolito responded that my question was “irrelevant” and “best discussed over a glass of red wine,” followed by another assertion that although Zango’s business methods are “aggressive,” they are “entirely legal.”

Legal? Let’s take that scenario off-line. How long would it take the police to arrest Zango’s workers if they showed up with 10-story sheets of plywood to block 80 percent of a storefront each time someone was poised to enter the premises?

What Zango does is legal only because the case hasn’t yet been properly made. Even given a successful outcome, worldwide enforcement would be a logistical nightmare.

So, what’s an affiliate to do to prevent shaving to the point of decapitation? Ending your affiliation with the merchant would seem to be the easiest solution. Unfortunately, giving up does not solve the problem. Merchants and affiliate competitors will continue to bid on your URLs, and their Zango pop-ups will still obliterate your home pages to divert traffic from the other merchants that you promote.

A more drastic alternative would be to give up affiliate marketing entirely and go back to work for some employer who wouldn’t steal from your paycheck. That, however, is not an option for most of us and it certainly will not make things right.

Here are a few suggestions that may help to start making things right:

  • Open up a Zango advertiser account and enter your own domains and the domain names of your merchant partners to find out which are being targeted.
  • Contact Zango at 425-279-1200 and leave a message demanding that your URL be removed from their keyword lists. They probably won’t respond, but your call will be on the record come court time.
  • Next, contact applicable merchant partners and ask that your URLs be removed from their campaigns immediately. Discuss your concerns for lost revenue, and you may want to introduce the term “commission shaving” at some point in your conversation. If your merchant’s program is affiliated with a network, file a complaint with that network as well.
  • If either Zango or your merchant partners refuse to stop popping in your territory, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, the FTC at http://www.ftc.gov/ and your local district attorney’s office.

Regardless of complaints from affiliates or the threat of class action lawsuits, it is time for ethical merchants to take the high road and close their Zango accounts.

As for those affiliates who cherish their little 45-cent Zango leads too much to play on the white side with real affiliates – the Zango affiliate voodoo dolls are currently in mass production.

ROSALIND GARDNER is a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online. Her best-selling book is available on Amazon and www.SuperAffiliateHandbook.com.

Taking A Stand: Q & A with Brian Littleton

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 own 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.

Anne Fognano: The Mother Lode

The old adage that necessity is the mother of invention is certainly true when it comes to this mother.

More than a decade ago Anne Fognano, then a new mom, needed a way to earn additional income while being able to work from home.

She had just completed her master’s degree in clinical psychology when her son Austen was a year old. And while it was her dream to be a therapist working with children, she also loved being a mom and wanted to be home with her kids.

However, she was also used to engaging her mind and needed to keep busy. She was a Prodigy user, and paying for dial-up service she surfed the Web looking for parenting sites and family-oriented Web pages, but found little that was interesting or useful to her. Being an extremely curious person, Fognano began opening up the source code to some of those sites and then taught herself some HTML.

In 1997 she started a website for Beanie Baby collectors after being appalled by the scalping that surrounded the hot collectibles. Although not a massive collector, she just thought Beanie Babies were cute, and was irate about people taking advantage of kids by doing unsavory things like tracking the shipments to Hallmark stores or tracking UPS shipments and stealing them.

She also admits that she had a lot of time on her hands and no specific focus or mission. Her site FunkyMommys.com was designed as a trading board for moms and kids to swap Beanies without fear of being ripped off. At the height of the Beanie Babies craze, the site had more than 2,000 members but Ty, the maker of Beanie Babies, began to enforce its trademark in cyberspace and sent cease and desist letters to those using the word “beanie” and even “beans.”

Although Fognano at the time thought that she could have fought Ty (her message board was called Bouncing Beanie Board), she didn’t have the time or money for a protracted legal battle with a big company. She also could have just changed the name of her board; instead, she pulled down the site and contemplated her next move.

THE COUPON CRAZE

By now it was 1997 and Fognano still had a mortgage to pay and two young children to care for at home. So, she decided to put up an online resale shop for moms. She settled on a doll-house theme (see image) and then spent $2,000 to have an artist and programmer create the site. Fognano was very pleased with the way it turned out and thought the site was beautiful. Moms could post ads and pay her 25 cents for each one. Things were going pretty well. The site was getting some decent traffic and Fognano was adding even more content including coupons from an early dot-com drugstore (PlanetRX.com). The popularity of the coupon portion of the site led her to add a coupon box in the lower right corner of the page. Soon she noticed that 98 percent of her traffic was clicking directly on the coupon box.

But instead of being delighted, Fognano was devastated that she had worked so hard and spent so much money to create this site she loved but people were only interested in the coupons. After she emerged from her funk, she signed up with two of the first merchants to have affiliate programs – Amazon and Barnes & Noble – and she decided that she needed to dump her beloved doll-house theme and concentrate on the coupons.

Currently, Fognano has three very successful coupons sites – CleverMoms.com, CleverDads.com (manly things), CleverBabies (baby and toddler items through 5 years old). She is a super affiliate and works with Commission Junction, Linkshare and Performics. She has one employee. Previously, she had two – one full time and one part time. But earlier this fall, she discovered that she could handle some of the load herself as both of her kids went off to school for the first time.

Fognano had been home-schooling her children because each of them had unique learning issues. Her daughter had a language impairment and Fognano battled the school for years. It now has a program and Haille, who is now 9 years old, can attend classes full time. For the last year a teacher had been coming to the Fognano’s home to help. Her son Austen, now 11, is a very gifted student and there was no advanced placement class for his grade. So, Fognano home-schooled him until the third grade.

THE MOTHERING INSTINCT

“I’m one of those mothers that want things to be perfect for my kids,” she says. “I took care of them when the school wasn’t.”

She likes to take care of people. Fognano’s two employees were both stay-at- home moms that she has never met in person or even talked to on the phone, despite that the one in Portage, Wisconsin, has worked for Fognano for four years and the one in Syracuse, New York, had worked for her for one year.

While she admits it was slightly odd to be paying people to work for her that she’d never met, she says it was a great arrangement. Both of the moms were previously loyal visitors to her site and began sending Fognano deals – sales and coupons – and she decided that she should start paying them for their efforts.

Although Fognano has been an affiliate for almost a decade, 2006 has been a year of changes for her and her business. Sending her kids off to school meant more time to attend conferences, shows and events – something she never had time for previously.

Earlier this year she attended a conference in Dallas for women in business (EWomen Network in June). She referred to the event as “one big Oprah show,” but she heard some great speakers and took home some sage advice. Top of the list was learning to delegate.

While she still admits to having this kind of “do everything yourself” attitude, she realizes that is a vicious cycle since there is always something to be done, which means she would never stop working. She said it was amazing this summer when she felt comfortable enough to delegate responsibilities to her employees and take some time off for the Affiliate Summit in Orlando.

In the past she says she would have been in her hotel room updating her site or running from Disney World back to the hotel to check on things. This time it was a relief to know that someone else could handle all the duties. That freedom meant that she was able to have quality face-to-face contact with her peers – many of whom she’s developed longstanding email or instant message relationships with over the years.

And she’s working less as well, dropping down from about 10 hours per day, which was previously just early in the morning and then again late at night – to about four hours a day. But in that shorter workday she’s focusing on more strategic issues such as branding her site and trying to get media coverage to educate users on how to use online coupons and where to get those savings and promotional codes.

“Many customers really have no idea about online coupons. It’s astounding to me. There is a lot of work to be done to get discounts,” she says, adding that she never shops online unless there is a coupon. “It’s an annoying thing if you know someone is getting a discount and you aren’t. If I see a promotional coupon box and then can’t find a coupon, then I won’t shop there.”

The new schedule is also allowing for many things that have been neglected for years, according to Fognano, such as her daily exercise routine, things she enjoys like sewing and scrapbooking, and nine years of photos in shoe-boxes that need to be organized into albums.

In addition, she’d also like to do some writing about online shopping – maybe for business and consumer magazines. And while her experiences and success story would be good fodder for a how-to book on affiliate marketing, she says that route doesn’t immediately appeal to her.

MEASURING SUCCESS

“There are too many different factors associated with being successful in affiliate marketing. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time,” she says, recalling that when she began there were only a handful of coupon competitors. “You could count them on one hand.”

She claims that most of her visitors are type-in traffic and that she doesn’t get a lot of eyeballs from the search engines. But once people get to your site, you’ve got to give them a reason to come back. Her writing helps in that department.

She already has an email newsletter that she sends out every Thursday to her large base of subscribers. She often writes stories about her husband and kids and things that are going on in her life. These personal stories are not intended to be a marketing trick but a reason for visitors to come back to her site. She thinks getting personal has helped others identify with her on a deeper level and created loyalty.

“It’s just me being me,” she says. “About 70 percent of the time, I try to be funny and mostly I succeed. People are always writing to me to let me know they could really relate to what I was writing about.”

But there are times that she gets some negative comments and feedback on her personal tales, but those are far outweighed by the positive responses she typically receives.

She recalls a story she wrote where she mentioned waking up late one morning and rushing around trying to get the kids ready for school, while her county policeman husband was moving at a snail’s pace. Many people wrote to her saying that she should have never called out her husband in a public forum and “shame on her.” She was shocked at the response.

Regardless, she enjoys the interaction with her customers. “This business is not always about making a buck,” she says. “If I can have something that people look forward to every Thursday, that makes me happy.”

Maybe that’s because she has also far exceeded the goals she originally set for herself when she started out with her doll-house resale site: to make $1,000 a month. Many of her work friends from back then shunned her because she chose the mommy track rather than opting to climb the corporate ladder. Now she makes more money than most of them, although she declined to provide specifics on how much she earns as an affiliate.

“I don’t have to make a specific amount per year. I don’t focus on that. As long as we have our bills paid, then I’m happy with the income the site generates.”

She’s also thrilled to be able to work at home. It’s one of the best things about her job. She says that she’s not exactly the affiliate in her pajamas at the computer, or the affiliate marketer sitting out by the pool, but she’s got a lot of freedom. She can have coffee with a friend whenever she chooses. She can attend a sewing conference. She can have lunch with her husband. She can volunteer at her kids’ schools.

But working at home requires self-discipline. Much of that discipline comes from Fognano’s educational background. She paid her own way through college and graduate school, which took her 12 years since she could only take classes as she could afford them. She used to fly to Vermont for 12 days every six months and the rest of her curriculum was done as independent study. While getting her master’s degree she would drive two hours each way to attend classes. She got straight A’s all through her education because she “couldn’t bear to get a B.”

That discipline, coupled with Fognano’s desire to help people and her love of being a mom, is the driving factor in her success. She also has a strong sense of what’s right for her.

“I could not stick an offer up for a quick buck – like something for a gambling site,” she says. “What if someone got hooked on gaming? I just wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I make sure to deal with ethical people that are not spammers. I want things to be ethical, honest and up front.”

The bottom line: “I’m just a mom doing this. I thought I’d never be in sales and never in marketing. I’m just a mom who opened a resale shop online hoping to make money and the coupon site is a fluke or should I say, a blessing. I love doing it.”

The title on her business card says it all – Mama in Charge.

Performance Marketing Prognostication

It’s that time of year again when we ask industry movers and shakers to look back at the past 12 months and forward to the next year in performance marketing. Here’s what those in the know have to say.

Looking back, what do you think were among the most significant themes to emerge in 2006 in the performance marketing space?

“There has been a huge shift in traffic sources – with two main groups – the first being PPC, which has been a major source of affiliate traffic in 2006 and has brought with it significant issues such as “Brand Bidding.” The second being blogs, which I believe will be a major driving force in the coming years.”
– Brian Littleton, founder and CEO, ShareASale

“When the situation calls for it, affiliates and affiliate managers can band together and stand their ground on an issue.”
– Scott Hazard, president, Brightside Media

“No truly new themes emerged. We saw click fraud penetrate the consciousness of the mainstream media at the same time there is a growing sense of animosity (possibly jealousy?) towards Google inside and outside our industry. Some merchants are reviewing their trademark bidding terms and looking to accommodate affiliates. Finally, you did see a lot of affiliates publicly say they were moving away from black hat and toward white hat activities.”
– Brook Schaaf, principal, Schaaf Consulting

“The desire to achieve better scale (less overhead, more revenue) drove every major corporate merger as well as CJ’s failed LMI project. It’s what makes Adwords attractive and successful.”
– Jeff Molander, CEO, Molander & Associates

“Just how vibrant and powerful the performance marketing community is. This can be seen in the response to LMI, the upward trend in budgets for performance marketing by advertisers and the growth in publications, events and forums serving the community.”
– John Grosshandler, event director, eComXpo

“The re-emergence of brand as an important part of the marketing equation after years of focus on ROI and search.”
– John Battelle, founder and chairman, Federated Media Publishing

“Google actively trying to squash private-label PPC arbitrage affiliates in the name of ‘better user search experience.'”
– Tim Ash, president, SiteTuners.com

“Cooperation. 2006 displayed greater willingness by merchants, publishers and networks alike to adopt ‘cooperative selling’ strategies.”
– Kurt Lohse, founder and CEO, KeyCode.com

“New trends such as the use of video and advertainment continued to grow in 2006 but pose challenges for strict ROI/CPA advertisers.”
– Joshua Sloan, director of online marketing, 1and1.com

“Search is a bigger part of affiliate marketing than many people thought.”
– David Lewis, president, 77 Blue

“Clearly 2006 will be marked by what some are calling ‘The Affiliate Massacre of 2006’ where Google updated their quality score rankings in Adwords and started placing penalties on affiliate landing pages. In many cases this caused minimum cost-per-click fees to go from 10 cents to $5 or $10 on many keywords. This effectively shut down PPC advertising for many affiliate landing pages. This change is causing many merchant advertisers to rethink their policies for PPC marketing since publishers who were running large-scale campaigns and linking directly to the merchant’s site using the merchant display URL and an affiliate link were largely unaffected by the recent change.”
– Adam Viener, president, imwave.com

“A few years ago, you could quickly tell whether or not an online marketer ‘got’ affiliate marketing by discussing affiliates. Those that ‘got it’ conveyed respect for the affiliates. Those that didn’t, well, they tended to use adjectives like ‘little’ or ‘questionable’ when describing their role in the model. In 2006 the performance marketing community witnessed affiliates asserting their right to be treated respectfully. It is no longer acceptable to be a participant in this space and not get it.”
– Lisa Riolo, online marketing professional

“Affiliates/publishers are in the driver’s seat now, not merchants/advertisers. Affiliates have money, power and traffic and their requirements; business practices and needs dominate the relationship. Merchants need them more than they need merchants who are unable to comply or cooperate with terms. They can deliver the goods; can merchants respond adequately to their demands? If not, NEXT!”
– Linda Woods, president, PartnerCentric

“Behavior targeting seemed to be a popular buzzword but I never heard too many real success stories. Online marketers are actually getting comfortable with the basics and are now casting an eye toward testing and optimization to squeeze out better results.”
– Greg Schraff, director of strategy and business development, Brooks Bell Interactive

What will be the ‘big thing’ that we can expect to happen in 2007 in online marketing?

“A return to the importance of new-traffic- generating affiliate marketers.”
– Brian Littleton, founder and CEO, ShareASale

“Yahoo and Microsoft will debut new products to compete with Google.”
– John Battelle, founder and chairman, Federated Media Publishing

“I expect to see many more super-affiliates stepping up to the plate and saying, look, we need to take responsibility for engaging in upright business practices. You’ll see them become open to educating newcomers in the industry. It won’t be about cutting out your competition, but developing a bigger and more powerful affiliate workforce. And I expect to see managers becoming excited about the possibilities of capturing the loyalty of those affiliates by becoming truly affiliate-friendly.”
– Anik Singal, CEO, Affiliate Classroom

“Performance models such as CPO and CPA are the main driver. Advertisers as well as networks/providers realize that success-based commission models are king and key for success. Globalization is the most important issue. Globalize or die.”
– Holger Kamin, executive account director, Zanox

“There is no doubt in my mind that user-generated content will really start to take fire – especially around video. Still, merchants will have to be innovative to get beyond the sheer volume of media – music, podcasts, pictures and now video in circulation.”
– Wayne Porter, senior director special research, Facetime Security Labs

“User-generated content such as short online videos will proliferate at an even larger scale and pace and show that it can convert as advertisements.”
– Jim Kukral, publisher, ReveNews

“Video ads will continue to grow in popularity as traditional marketing agencies attempt to maintain their grip on ‘their’ industry as they gripe all the way to Congress.”
– Todd Taylor, manager business development, TaxBrain.com

“2007 will bring far more practical offline marketing applications online. It will also signify the beginning of the ‘big shift’ to correct the disproportional ad spend on the traditional mediums.”
– Kurt Lohse, founder and CEO, KeyCode.com

“Social e-commerce will emerge with innovations focusing on peer group favorites and recommendations. The ‘wisdom of crowds’ will begin to drive serious transaction volume in niche markets.”
– Jeff Molander, CEO, Molander & Associates

“Social media marketing strategies that spawn, leverage and influence consumer- generated media are the hot thing at the moment. Companies and affiliates that create environments where their target audiences can gather, share useful information – and don’t overtly interfere with the experience – are those that will be the most successful.”
– Rob Key, founder and CEO, Converseon

“More off-line ad channels (print/radio/ TV) will wake up to the growing importance and measurability of online advertising while more online advertisers will wake up to the branding potential of online marketing despite confusion and difficulties with performance tracking.”
– Joshua Sloan, director of online marketing, 1and1.com

“I think the launch of Microsoft Vista may change the landscape of search marketing and make Microsoft AdCenter more important than it is today. I also think that Yahoo’s Panama project will be a big shift for search marketers. There will be a lot of adjustments as platforms change and traffic starts flowing more towards Microsoft.”
– Adam Viener, president, imwave.com

“The emergence of mobile phone marketing in the U.S. It’s just a matter of time before affiliates worldwide are able to promote affiliate links via digital and print signage. Consumers will then utilize their video-capable mobile phones to transact with merchants.”
– Shawn Collins, president, Shawn Collins Consulting

“I expect Google will continue to morph into other non-search areas. Under this scenario, Google will begin to offer tools that very much resemble an affiliate marketing or CPA network. This will put many traditional affiliate marketers directly in competition with Google for customers. Those non-branded entities relying solely on search will be hurt the most. Such a move is likely to trigger a rash of online mergers and acquisitions as big names and even traditional brands circumvent the search engines and buy their way into bigger pieces of the pie.”
– Mike Allen, president and chief executive shopper, Shopping-Bargains.com

“Technological innovation will become even more important in 2007. Between the growth in online video, broadband adoption and new tools for contextual advertising, behavioral marketing and detecting fraud, the gulf between those who leverage the newest trends and tools and those who rely on yesterday’s approaches will widen.”
– John Grosshandler, event director, eComXpo

“Video, video and more video.”
– Matt Ranta, affiliate manager, Vanns.com

“Continued decline in the effectiveness of current search engine optimization methods. Traffic building through social networking media will continue in effectiveness and popularity throughout 2007.”
– Rosalind Gardner, super-affiliate and author

What are the major challenges in the performance marketing space moving forward?

“Still getting online marketers beyond just keeping their heads above water, for example, just running the actual marketing< campaigns so that they have the bandwidth to concentrate on performance factors and tactics they can employ to improve performance.”
– Greg Schraff, director of strategy and business development,
Brooks Bell Interactive

“Volume. How to sift through the masses to identify the diamonds in the rough, whether they are advertisers, affiliates or partners. Emails and newsletters no longer get through, and when they do, are seldom read.”
– John Grosshandler, event director, eComXpo

“Effectively and ethically integrating the use of video ads into affiliate marketing.”
– Matt Ranta, affiliate manager, Vanns.com

“Keeping up with the speed of innovation on the Internet!”
– Linda Woods, president, PartnerCentric

“Globalization and multichannel approach to reach each and every possible market on this globe.”
– Holger Kamin, executive account director, Zanox

“It boils down to an emphasis on quality and restraint and the need to mature beyond the ‘growth at all costs’ mentality as well as adjusting merchants’ expectations and teaching them to think long term so that system pollution doesn’t kill the environment in which we all do commerce, operate and converse.”
– Wayne Porter, senior director special research, Facetime Security Labs

“Consolidation and intense competition due to a changing marketplace where search engines no longer do only search. With shareholder pressures on the ‘big 3’ engines to continually grow revenues at nontraditional paces, there will be new efforts to go after non-search money wherever it can be found.”
– Mike Allen, president and chief executive shopper, Shopping-Bargains.com

“The need for improved accountability. It’s all well and good for affiliates to have considerable discretion to find novel and creative ways to promote merchants’ offers. Indeed, that independence is the essence of affiliate marketing. But how can a merchant make sure its offer is presented appropriately, ethically, lawfully and in a way that offers fair value to the merchant as well as to users? At present many affiliates keep their methods secret, and affiliate networks don’t do as much as they could to tell merchants what their affiliates are doing. Increased transparency would improve affiliate accountability, helping merchants feel confident that affiliates’ behavior is appropriate and lawful.”
– Ben Edelman, anti-spyware consultant

“The affiliate industry can no longer rely on arbitraged search traffic. It’s a diminishing resource. Instead, it’s absolutely incumbent upon smart affiliates to morph rapidly into the new frontier of online marketing – word of mouth, viral, social media, blogging and other consumer-generated approaches that companies are only now beginning to grapple with. There are myriad opportunities for those that embrace the Web 2.0 world.”
– Rob Key, founder and CEO, Converseon

“Self-regulation is key in 2007. It’s not in our best interest to have the federal government legislate issues for us. Instead, we must band together and squash the bad actors.”
– Shawn Collins, president, Shawn Collins Consulting

“I see all the Web 2.0 trends making a huge impact on not just performance marketing, but all online marketing.”
– Anik Singal, CEO, Affiliate Classroom

“The two sides – affiliates and merchants – have different goals. It is a constant challenge for both parties to try to find a common goal which isn’t always as simple as just “sell more stuff.”
– Brian Littleton, founder and CEO, ShareASale

“Keeping links from being whacked by ad blockers and trying to set our sites apart from those in the space which
give the space a bad name.”
– Scott Hazard, president, Brightside Media

“The biggest challenge moving forward is Sarbanes Oxley and the network aggregators. There has to be absolute tracking integrity within all the affiliate networks – or the model will ultimately become extinct and be replaced with direct (and auditable) relationships.”
– Mary Beth Padian, senior director, Upromise

“Brands will attempt ‘ubiquitous messaging’ regardless of whether the focus is to increase awareness or generate sales. I think a big part of this stems from the promise of behavioral targeting. Look at the popularity of MyYahoo or Netvibes – and how, with respect to content, the users’ ability to bring preferred publishers’ material to them changes their online navigation. Users can browse in the comfort of their own home page. What does this mean for advertisers? I think you’ll see increased effort by the advertisers to create a presence within user-generated content. Subtle or otherwise, ethical or not, the marketers will not settle for a possible ad to appear over on the right margin in the Google AdSense block. No, they’ll be pushing for coverage in blog posts or a logo in a video.”
– Lisa Riolo, online marketing professional

What’s the one word you would use to describe the current state of online marketing?

“Irrelevant”
– David Lewis, president, 77 Blue

“Burgeoning”
– Greg Schraff, director of strategy and business development, Brooks Bell Interactive

“Transitory”
– Lisa Riolo, online marketing professional

“Disconnected”
– Matt Ranta, affiliate manager, Vanns.com

“Fabulous!”
– Rosalind Gardner, super-affiliate and author

“Turbulent – as always.”
– Tim Ash, president, SiteTuners.com

“Exciting”
– Joshua Sloan, director of online marketing, 1and1.com

“Evolving”
– Shawn Collins, president, Shawn Collins Consulting

“Important”
– Adam Viener, president, imwave.com

“Heretical”
– Rob Key, founder and CEO, Converseon

“Immature”
– Jeff Molander, CEO, Molander & Associates

“Vibrant”
– Todd Taylor, manager business development, TaxBrain.com

“Crowded”
– Mike Allen, president and chief executive shopper, Shopping-Bargains.com

“Momentous”
– Kurt Lohse, founder & CEO, Keycode.com

“Nascent”
– Wayne Porter, senior director special research, Facetime Security Labs

“Rocketing”
– Anik Singal, CEO, Affiliate Classroom

“Flux”
– John Battelle, founder and chairman, Federated Media Publishing

“Growing”
– Brook Schaaf, principal, Schaaf Consulting

“Fast”
– Brian Littleton, founder and CEO, ShareASale

“Dynamic”
– Scott Hazard, president, Brightside Media

We asked a wide range of industry gurus, experts, affiliates, consultants, program managers and industry watchers four seemingly simple questions about the state of online marketing.

  1. Looking back, what do you think were among the most significant themes to emerge in 2006 in the performance marketing space?
  2. What will be the big thing that we can expect to happen in 2007 in online marketing?
  3. What are the major challenges in the performance marketing space moving forward?
  4. What’s the one word you would use to describe the current state of online marketing?

Here’s a look at what each one of them had to say, in no particular order:

 

Joshua Sloan, director of online marketing, 1and1.com

  1. New trends such as the use of video and advertainment continued to grow in 2006 but pose challenges for strict ROI/CPA advertisers.
  2. More offline ad channels (print/radio/TV) will wake up to the growing importance and measurability of online advertising while more online advertisers will wake up to the branding potential of online marketing despite confusion and difficulties with performance tracking.
  3. Fighting over trademark PPC bidding continued and continues to keep advertisers and affiliates on their toes. What’s legal in one country isn’t necessarily so in others. Ethical and legal dilemmas for companies and affiliates still exist. Click fraud and other forms of online fraud do not seem to be getting better.
  4. Exciting.
 

Shawn Collins, president, Shawn Collins Consulting

  1. Affiliate 2.0, the next generation of affiliate marketing tactics and technologies, was a predominate theme in 2006.
  2. The emergence of mobile phone marketing in the U.S. It’s just a matter of time before affiliates worldwide are able to promote affiliate links via digital and print signage. Consumers will then utilize their video-capable mobile phones to transact with merchants.
  3. Self-regulation is key in 2007. It’s not in our best interest to have the federal government legislate issues for us. Instead, we must band together and squash the bad actors.
  4. Evolving.
 

Adam Viener, president, imwave.com

  1. Clearly 2006 will be marked by what some are calling “The Affiliate Massacre of 2006” where Google updated their quality score rankings in Adwords and started placing penalties on affiliate landing pages. In many cases this caused minimum cost-per-click fees to go from 10 cents to $5 or $10 on many keywords. This effectively shut down PPC advertising for many affiliate landing pages. This change is causing many merchant advertisers to rethink their policies for PPC marketing since publishers who were running large-scale campaigns and linking directly to the merchant’s site using the merchant display URL and an affiliate link were largely unaffected by the recent change.
  2. I think the launch of Microsoft Vista may change the landscape of search marketing and make Microsoft AdCenter more important than it is today. I also think that Yahoo’s Panama project will be a big shift for search marketers. There will be a lot of adjustments as platforms change and traffic starts flowing more toward Microsoft.
  3. From the affiliate’s perspective, performance marketing companies are maturing, and dealing with the growth of the business while keeping up with the constant changes in the marketplace will continue to provide major challenges for performance marketing entrepreneurs.

    Setting the right policies for their programs that will enable them to continue to attract the talented performers who can make a difference in their campaigns. To do this a good affiliate manager needs to understand the numbers, the cost per acquisition of a new customer or sale from ALL of their channels, and craft policies that will enable the company to maximize sales at the best possible cost. In today’s market the old decisions to not allow affiliates to use the company’s display URL in search engine ads needs to be reanalyzed.

  4. Important.
 

Rob Key, founder and CEO, Converseon

  1. Performance marketing is growing up and morphing, although perhaps a bit too slowly. LinkShare’s vision, ValueClick’s growth and Google’s new forays demonstrate that performance marketing is going mainstream and can no longer be seen as a stepchild of the overall media efforts. Performance marketing has always meant accountability. We’re seeing our approaches becoming increasingly adopted by more mainstream media entities. The issue for the traditional affiliate marketing world is how to play with the more mainstream media, and how to get a seat at the table so that it’s taken as seriously as possible to ensure integrated efforts and minimize channel cannibalization. Affiliates has to become fully integrated with search strategies, word-of-mouth initiatives and CPM media buys. With a few exceptions, the big media entities are still slow to embrace affiliate marketing as part of their mix. Part of this is simply terminology and lexicon. It’s time that affiliate and media started speaking more of the same language.
  2. Social media marketing strategies that spawn, leverage and influence consumer-generated media are the hot thing at the moment. They’re also the strategies that many companies are grappling with most. Consumers want to hear from consumers, not traditional marketers. Businesses want to hear from other businesses. Companies and affiliates that create environments where their target audiences can gather, share useful information – and don’t overtly interfere with the experience – are those that will be the most successful. But this world is moving fast. Discrete content communities, social networks, blogs and other CGM venues are emerging daily. These venues are becoming micro-media properties, and like much media, those that get the audience first and provide ongoing compelling content, will be difficult to dislodge. I expect a land grab for these long tail communities by companies and affiliates alike. Both have equal opportunity to spawn these communities. The question is, who will be the quickest and most effective?

    Essential to success here is the ability to listen and map to this consumer-generated media conversation. New technologies, like Converseon’s Conversation Miner that scour and analyze this CGM conversation, are becoming essential elements to any online marketing campaign. After all, if you can’t understand the landscape and listen, as well as talk, you’re going to be talking past audiences, and perhaps overlook the most important constituents. Companies will indeed have to “join the conversation.”

  3. Affiliate marketing has historically been successful because it provided services and capabilities that companies themselves were either unable, unwilling or ill-prepared to tackle. But as merchants becoming increasingly sophisticated, especially with natural and paid search strategies (including long tail search, the affiliate industry can no longer rely on arbitraged search traffic. It’s a diminishing resource. Instead, it’s absolutely incumbent that smart affiliates morph rapidly into the new frontier of online marketing – word of mouth, viral, social media, blogging and other consumer-generated approaches that companies are only now beginning to grapple with. These online strategies are where search marketing was two to three years ago. My advice to affiliates who want to flourish in this environment: Evolve rapidly, now. Darwinism won’t be kind to those who rely on the same old tactics for success. On the other hand, those affiliates who do dive successfully into this new world will provide that value-added marketing dimension that companies are hungry to embrace. There are myriad opportunities for those that embrace the Web 2.0 world.
  4. Heretical. Nothing is sacred. We’re in a state of incredibly accelerated evolution. What can be demolished probably will be. And like in all evolution, there will likely be several mutated states before new stabilized species emerge.
 

Jeff Molander, CEO, Molander & Associates

  1. Scale: The desire to achieve better scale (less overhead, more revenue) drove every major corporate merger as well as ValueClick/CJ’s failed LMI project. It’s what makes Adwords so attractive and wildly successful. Reduction of inventory: Ad inventory is becoming even more scarce and prices are rising, especially in search.
  2. CPA will trump CPC pricing models. Innovative product search players like Jellyfish.com and Snap.com will cash in. Google and Yahoo Search will manage to enter the game although success will be limited and hindered by class action lawsuits focused on click fraud and “bad clicks sold” arising from failure to disclose (and reprice clicks from) low-quality distribution partners.

    Driven by the popularity of MySpace, Facebook and social media, affiliate managers will rush to tap into the long tail of affiliate-related transactions. Social e-commerce will emerge with innovations focusing on peer group favorites and recommendations. The “wisdom of crowds” will begin to drive serious transaction volume in niche markets.

  3. Scale: Retailers experienced in performance marketing are aching to figure out how affiliate marketing can be scaled upward (more leads, more transactions) while concurrently generating a better return on customer retention spending (repeat sales via affiliates) at a fair cost.
  4. Immature.
 

Todd Taylor, manager business development, TaxBrain.com

  1. Even more large companies have entered or are considering performance marketing and Revenue magazine went bimonthly and most importantly there was actually enough slush money in the industry to have a golf tourney at AS06 East – therefore, it must be real!
  2. Video ads will continue to grow in popularity as traditional marketing agencies attempt to maintain their grip on “their” industry as they gripe all the way to Congress.
  3. Second-tier advertiser merchants who enter the industry may have trouble creating affiliate brand awareness for their program, as they must compete for mind-share and visibility against the larger or more established programs.
  4. Vibrant.
 

Mike Allen, president and chief executive shopper, Shopping-Bargains.com

  1. Affiliate marketing went mainstream in 2006 in that major brands and media companies are now willing to invest in and support the pay-for-performance model. After demonstrating strong Q4 successes in 2005, many traditional retailers now see affiliate marketing as what it is – pay for performance – and a way to maximize their advertising dollars with predictable expenditures and results. No traditional media buy can deliver a guaranteed minimum ROI. In 2006, the skeptics of performance marketing began to have a change of heart.
  2. I expect Google will continue to morph into other non-search areas. Under this scenario, Google will begin to offer tools that very much resemble an affiliate marketing or CPA network. This will put many traditional affiliate marketers directly in competition with Google for customers. Those non-branded entities relying solely on search will be hurt the most. Such a move is likely to trigger a rash of online mergers and acquisitions as big names and even traditional brands circumvent the search engines and buy their way into bigger pieces of the pie.
  3. Consolidation and intense competition due to a changing marketplace where search engines no longer do only search. With shareholder pressures on the “big 3” engines to continually grow revenues at nontraditional paces, there will be new efforts to go after non-search money wherever it can be found. Google Checkout is only the beginning. I predict search engines will find new ways to become intimately involved in the performance marketing space themselves.
  4. Crowded.
 

Kurt Lohse, founder and CEO, KeyCode.com

  1. Cooperation. 2006 displayed greater willingness by merchants, publishers and networks alike to adopt cooperative selling strategies.
  2. 2007 will bring far more practical off-line marketing applications online. It will also signify the beginning of the big shift to correct the disproportional ad spend on the traditional mediums.
  3. The major short-term challenges are search engine bias against online marketers and net neutrality laws.
  4. Momentous.
 

Tim Ash, president, SiteTuners.com

  1. Google is actively trying to squash private-label PPC arbitrage affiliates in the name of better user search experience.
  2. International affiliate programs. There is now Internet critical mass in many other countries.
  3. Improving the conversion rates of offer landing pages. If you don’t, you’re dead.
  4. Turbulent – as always.
 

Ben Edelman, anti-spyware consultant

  1. What I hear most from affiliate merchants – not to mention attorneys and even regulators – is the need for improved accountability. It’s all well and good for affiliates to have considerable discretion to find novel and creative ways to promote merchants’ offers. Indeed, that independence is the essence of affiliate marketing. But how can a merchant make sure its offer is presented appropriately, ethically, lawfully and in a way that offers fair value to the merchant as well as to users? At present many affiliates keep their methods secret, and affiliate networks don’t do as much as they could, to tell merchants what their affiliates are doing. Increased transparency would improve affiliate accountability, helping merchants feel confident that affiliates’ behavior is appropriate and lawful.
 

Jim Kukral, publisher, ReveNews

  1. User-generated content such as short online videos will proliferate at an even larger scale and pace and show that it can convert as advertisements.
  2. Supercalafragalisticexpialadocious.
 

Wayne Porter, senior director special research, Facetime Security Labs

  1. Oddly enough a few years ago the answer to that question is whether or not enough people would even bother to shop online. Clearly they have no problems doing so.

    Merchants are beginning to pick up on how sophisticated the fraud issues really are. The key for the winner will be the ability to balance scalability and click/lead quality. Players like Google have relied heavily on being able to machine scale, but have had increasing trouble with quality control and rogue elements that grow more sophisticated all the time; nor are they alone. It is a bit ironic that PPCSEs are not held to as high a standard as traditional affiliate networks.

    I look for Yahoo and MSN to attack this front heavily next year as click fraud control becomes a differentiator. We should also reflect on revenue and technology risk. ValueClick via CJ had to rush the LMI issue to provide an alternative to the patent wars, and clearly from Google’s filings there is an extreme concentration risk via JavaScript, which usually is benign. However, there has been increasing hostile attacks on legitimate networks and through an array of vectors – even IM.

    If you coupled that with the frailty of cookies either through malware scanners removing them, users actively deleting them or natural cache attrition as surfers are more active – the performance marketing industry faces some severe risks on multiple fronts moving forward.

  2. There is no doubt in my mind that user-generated content (UGC) will really start to take fire – especially around video. We already see this happening with the popularity of YouTube, Google Video, click-based Revver and innovations like community-powered video such as Magnify.net which can offer large brands the messaging in a format they are accustomed to. Still, merchants will have to be innovative to get beyond the sheer volume of media – music, podcasts, pictures and now video in circulation.

    The indie film thought shapers have been waiting for this inflection point for a long time and they are poised and ready with rifles raised. The traditional gatekeepers still remain in place, but there are now powerful forces to be reckoned with in terms of UGC disrupting the traditional top-down communication stream – much like blogs have done. In addition the emphasis will be on interactive, immersive ad campaigns that cross between the real world and the virtual one. From Second Life grids to the Web to a dead drop on a country road. Users want to be entertained and they want it to be sophisticated.

    This does provide an opportunity for enterprising affiliates who often have better creative DNA than merchants if they can move away from the myopia of simplistic deal structures. Smaller affiliates will continue to feel the squeeze of the powerhouses, but should do OK by dominating niches and working with mid-tier or emerging brands.

  3. The problems are myriad and affect different groups. The erosion of the once-fertile CPA space will happen as the market has become super-saturated with dozens of networks and they must start to shrink unless they too specialize. Co-registration, another once-lucrative market, will suffer. Most “thin” arbitrage players will also get knocked out of the game and affiliates will rise up and realize it really is about being unique and having content. Controlling partner sprawl and the problems inherent with this phenomenon will continue to plague large affiliate networks and PPCSEs. Advertising powerhouses will be forced to provide more visibility into their networks as premium merchants demand to know where and how their brand is being presented. Some are starting to care.

    Once again the rise of a tough and well-funded rogue element is looming – the mass tide of botnets, experienced fraud rings, rampant content theft, aggressive Web agents and the lot are rapidly gaining contextual marketing skills and sociological and technical sophistication. If the e-commerce industry in general ­ – both PPCSE, merchants and network aggregators – do not rise up and clean things up, security companies or perhaps legislation and litigation will do it for them. I am not bullish on this cooperation based on past experience, but it is possible. If security firms, e-commerce firms and law enforcement worked in tandem, the tide could be turned.

    It boils down to an emphasis on quality and restraint and the need to mature beyond the “growth at all costs” mentality as well as adjusting merchants’ expectations and teaching them to think long term so that system pollution doesn’t kill the environment in which we all do commerce, operate and converse.

  4. Nascent.
 

Holger Kamin, executive account director, Zanox

  1. MSN Search Launched; MySpace working with Google; eBay and Yahoo; Web communities and blogs are on the rise. Big mergers are changing the landscape of this industry.
  2. Performance models such as CPO and CPA are the main driver. Advertisers as well as networks/providers realize that success-based commission models are king and key for success. Globalization is the most important issue – globalize or die.
  3. Globalization and multichannel approach to reach each and every possible market on this globe.
  4. Paradigm Shift.
 

Anik Singal, CEO, Affiliate Classroom

  1. Two themes jump out at me, and they are intimately related to each other: transparency and professionalism. The entire industry seems to be waking up to the fact that both sides of the affiliate marketing equation – merchants and affiliates – need to open up to each other about their business practices.

    Every day I talk to forward-looking merchants and managers who are eager to hold themselves to the same standards of transparency that mainstream bricks-and-mortar businesses do. They’re also actively seeking affiliates who are willing to play by the rules of fair business practices. They want affiliates who are well-versed in best practices, diversified marketing methods, compliance and good old-fashioned ethics.

    Which ties into the theme of professionalizing affiliate marketing. The history of business has proven that you can’t have transparency without professionalism. I see merchants and affiliates literally thirsting for professionalism in every aspect of affiliate marketing. They want to raise the bar and see those professional standards become part of their online careers.

    More and more affiliates and managers tell me they actually view the affiliate marketing industry as a lifetime career . To me, that says professionalism will become one of the most talked-about ideas in our industry in 2007.

  2. As an entrepreneur in the field of affiliate education and training, I believe 2007 will be the year in which merchants and affiliates both realize affiliate marketing has been a very lucky industry. We’ve seen massive growth in spite of the fact that all the players have been learning the game – even developing the rules – on the playing field. It’s been very rough and tumble and a wild ride, yet we’ve evolved our own business models, practices, culture and conventions while learning on the job.

    But with that growth – and all that money at stake – all of us, including the biggest players, now need to hold ourselves to higher standards. We must do that if we want our revenue to grow without interference from the outside. That’s why transparency and professionalism will literally force themselves upon us in 2007. The stakes keep getting higher.

    So I expect to see many more super-affiliates stepping up to the plate and saying look, we need to take responsibility for engaging in upright business practices. You’ll see them become open to educating newcomers in the industry. It won’t be about cutting out your competition, but developing a bigger and more powerful affiliate workforce.

    And I expect to see managers becoming excited about the possibilities of capturing the loyalty of those affiliates by becoming truly affiliate-friendly. They’ll be doing that through innovative and humane management practices, such as offering comprehensive and innovative training and development programs.

  3. Many people will disagree with me, but as I work with affiliates in the trenches I see all the Web 2.0 trends making a huge impact on not just performance marketing, but all online marketing. Interactive communities and “spaces,” social bookmarking and social search – those are grassroots trends being developed by audiences that spend lots of time and money online.

    Web 2.0 is not just about teens and college kids any more. Research by organizations like Pew has shown that a significant percentage of grown-up people with grown-up incomes could live without search engines. Who can blame them when the results are relevant one day but off-kilter the next? Spam is also making email a less-reliable form of communication.

    But people have realized that Web 2.0 can satisfy your need for self-expression plus help you build and communicate with a whole network of like-minded friends. That’s why all kinds of people today are blogging, sharing their favorite links and shout-boxing their ideas about everything, including products. While I might be too young to have experienced it, I’m told this is a trend back to the early days of the Web.

    That’s when a list of links on a Web page wasn’t scraped with automated software, but handpicked with care. People want to be able to have that kind of trust in websites. And they are realizing that the only way to reclaim that trust is by finding which sites their online neighbors turn to.

    For the smartest people in performance marketing today, those Web 2.0 micromarkets represent a massive opportunity. Yes, reaching them is not just a challenge, but probably impossible through traditional marketing channels. But it’s the perfect fit for affiliates, especially affiliates who are well-versed in those spaces.

  4. Can I make up a word? Rocketing.
 

Brian Littleton, founder and CEO, ShareASale

  1. There has been a huge shift in traffic sources – with two main groups. The first is PPC, which has been a major source of affiliate traffic in 2006 and has brought with it significant issues such as “brand bidding.” The second is blogs – which I believe will be a major driving force in the coming years as well.
  2. A return to the importance of new-traffic-generating affiliate marketers.
  3. The two sides, affiliates and merchants, have different goals. It is a constant challenge for both parties to try to find a common goal, which isn’t always as simple as just “sell more stuff.”
  4. Fast.
 

Brook Schaaf, principal, Schaaf Consulting

  1. No truly new themes emerged. We saw click fraud penetrate the consciousness of the mainstream media at the same time there is a growing sense of animosity (possibly jealousy?) toward Google inside and outside our industry. Some merchants are reviewing their trademark bidding terms and looking to accommodate affiliates. Finally, you did see a lot of affiliates publicly say they were moving away from black-hat and toward white-hat activities.
  2. I don’t see as much of a buzz around an idea like RSS or rich media as the continued entry into the marketplace of more content and paid search publishers. For their part, merchants will continue to experiment with new channels and partners.
  3. This is a competitive marketplace. Publishers must continue to adapt in order to perform and marketers must manage more and more relationships.
  4. Growing.
 

John Battelle, founder and chairman, Federated Media Publishing

  1. The re-emergence of brand as an important part of the marketing equation after years of focus on ROI/DR/search.
  2. Yahoo and Microsoft will debut new products to compete with Google.
  3. Understanding how to integrate with conversational marketing online, and learning the new “hybrid” model of both performance and creative/branding-driven marketing.
  4. Flux.
 

Scott Hazard, president, Brightside Media

  1. When the situation calls for it, affiliates and affiliate managers can band together and stand their ground on an issue.
  2. Not sure, but I’m afraid it will center around Google.
  3. Keeping links from being whacked by ad blockers and trying to set our sites apart from those in the space, which give the space a bad name.
  4. Dynamic.
 

Mary Beth Padian, senior director, Upromise

  1. Confirmation yet again of the value of relationships.
  2. RSS feeds for special offers and coupons becoming more commonplace on affiliate sites – even loyalty sites!
  3. The biggest challenge moving forward is Sarbanes-Oxley and the network aggregators. There has to be absolute tracking integrity within all the affiliate networks – or the model will ultimately become extinct and be replaced with direct (and auditable) relationships.
  4. Nascent.
 

Linda Woods, president, PartnerCentric

  1. Affiliates/publishers are in the driver’s seat now, not merchants/advertisers. Affiliates have money, power and traffic, and their requirements ­ – business practices and needs – dominate the relationship. Merchants need them more than they need merchants, who are unable to comply or cooperate with terms. They can deliver the goods; can merchants respond adequately to their demands? If not, NEXT!
  2. Tools, tools and more tools for affiliates. With the announcement of CJ’s Web services and many other players creating technology tools to either improve reporting, functionality or efficiency, the next “big thing” is, who can provide what to better service affiliates’ growing hunger for technology tools?
  3. Keeping up with the speed of innovation on the Internet!
  4. Exciting!
 

David Lewis, president, 77 Blue

  1. Search is a bigger part of affiliate marketing than many people thought.
  2. A shift to the extremes. Merchants will begin to completely embrace or flat out reject publishers utilizing search. Past decisions will not be factored in. New decisions will be made and there will be no way to predict where anyone will stand on the issue on December 31, 2007.
  3. Trust. People do not pick their partners wisely and misjudge “the other side.”
  4. Irrelevant.
 

Rosalind Gardner, super-affiliate and author

  1. White hats came into style in a big way, and were even more prevalent after Labor Day.
  2. Content authority and visitor-optimized sites are now all the rage … and everything old is new again as the meaning of “value-added” gains ground amongst the gray-hat set.
  3. Continued decline in the effectiveness of current search engine optimization methods.
  4. Traffic building through social networking media will continue in effectiveness and popularity throughout 2007.
  5. No change here. Getting heard and getting seen. Affiliate managers and merchants will have to work increasingly harder and smarter to put their products in front of affiliates who will actually promote them. Rewards and incentives for top affiliates will increase while commission rates for less-productive affiliates will decrease.
  6. Fabulous!
 

Matt Ranta, affiliate manager, Vanns.com

  1. Video, video and more video.
  2. Effectively and ethically integrating the use of video ads into affiliate marketing.
  3. Disconnected.
 

John Grosshandler, event director, eComXpo

  1. Just how vibrant and powerful the performance marketing community is. This can be seen in the response to LMI, the upward trend in budgets for performance marketing by advertisers and the growth in publications, events and forums serving the community.
  2. Technological innovation will become even more important in 2007. Between the growth in online video, broadband adoption and new tools for contextual advertising, behavioral marketing and detecting fraud, the gulf between those who leverage the newest trends and tools and those who rely on yesterday’s approaches will widen.
  3. Volume. How to sift through the masses to identify the diamonds in the rough, whether they are advertisers, affiliates or partners. Emails and newsletters no longer get through, and when they do, are seldom read.
  4. As President Bush likes to say, “Strategery.”
 

Lisa Riolo, online marketing professional

  1. A few years ago, you could quickly tell whether or not an online marketer “got” affiliate marketing by discussing affiliates. Those that got it conveyed respect for the affiliates. Those that didn’t, well, they tended to use adjectives like “little” or “questionable” when describing their role in the model. In 2006 the performance marketing community witnessed affiliates asserting their right to be treated respectfully. It is no longer acceptable to be a participant in this space and not get it.
  2. Brands will attempt “ubiquitous messaging” regardless of whether the focus is to increase awareness or generate sales. I think a big part of this stems from the promise of behavioral targeting.

    Look at the popularity of MyYahoo or Netvibes – and how, with respect to content, the users’ ability to bring preferred publishers’ material to them changes their online navigation. Users can browse in the comfort of their own home page. What does this mean for advertisers? I think you’ll see increased effort by the advertisers to create a presence within user-generated content. Subtle or otherwise, ethical or not, the marketers will not settle for a possible ad to appear over on the right margin in the Google AdSense block. No, they’ll be pushing for coverage in blog posts or a logo in a video.

  3. Revenue Science, Tacoda and BlueLithium represent a possible disruption for performance marketers. The assumption of many is that the budgets will shift away from other display ads. I think behavioral targeting may also disrupt search and affiliate because it is equally data-driven and ROI-focused. The advantage of behavioral targeting is that it focuses on all aspects of the consumer’s buying behaviors, not just the research and purchase decision phases typically pursued by the performance marketers.
  4. Transitory.
 

Greg Schraff, director of strategy and business development, Brooks Bell Interactive

  1. BT seemed to be a popular buzzword but I never really heard too many real success stories. My observation is that online marketers are actually getting comfortable with the basics and are now casting an eye toward testing and optimization in order to squeeze out better results.
  2. Following my comments above, more structured and strategic testing and optimization efforts. A/B, multivariate and companies that provide these services.
  3. Still getting online marketers beyond just keeping their heads above water, i.e., just running the actual marketing campaigns so that they have the bandwidth to concentrate on performance factors and tactics they can employ to improve performance.
  4. Burgeoning.

Performance Powerhouse: Q & A with Steve Denton

Earlier this year Steve Denton was named president of LinkShare, following the resignations of Chairman and CEO Stephen Messer and President and COO Heidi S. Messer, who led LinkShare’s development from its founding in 1996 through its $425 million sale to Rakuten in late 2005. Denton heads up all day-to-day operations including management and continuous development of the talent and processes required to drive LinkShare’s continued growth. Revenue Editor-in-Chief Lisa Picarille spoke with Denton about the cultural, organizational and other big changes that LinkShare is dealing with in order to achieve its goal of becoming a performance marketing powerhouse.

Lisa Picarille: What’s changed since LinkShare became part of Rakuten last year?

Steve Denton: Rakuten USA is the company set up in Boston, and the CEO of Rakuten USA is John Kim and he’s the CEO of LinkShare. LinkShare was the first international acquisition for Rakuten. It’s been great working with John and the entire team at Rakuten, including Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO. Rakuten is now the sixth-largest Web services companies in the world from a market cap standpoint. And having access to those resources from that organization has been very rewarding and very fulfilling. When there are new products we want to roll out, new markets we want to enter, new geographic footprints that we want to establish, I don’t have to wait for two years to accumulate the capital to do that. I have an owner that has the resources and that’s why we sold the company. We also sold the company because we don’t just compete against affiliate companies. We are in a performance marketing industry – so we are competing against everyone out there that is going for inventory on these publishing or distribution sites.

As far as the way we operate the business, there has been no real change. The financial results roll up into Rakuten. That is obviously a structural change. There’s a new board of directors. But as far as running the day-in-and-day-out business there’s John Kim and myself. We have seven teams’ employees working with counterparts in Japan on integration projects to see where we can find some synergies and some best practices from both organizations. That’s taken a good amount of time and we just looked at the final presentations [in June] and there have been some subtle changes there that you wouldn’t notice externally. We’ve been the beneficiaries of development resources from Japan, which again, Jonathan Levinson, our CTO, came from Rakuten. But as for the nuts and bolts, it’s all about continuing to build on what we have.

LP: What impact has there been for LinkShare since the departure of Steve and Heidi [Messer]?

SD: Clearly anytime the founders that established a business and an industry leave, they are missed. But as an organization we are moving forward. I run the day-to-day business or the customer-facing business. I deal with distribution services, merchant services affiliate support, marketing, product development, client development and search. All of those roll up to me. And beyond the customer-facing – tech, legal, GNA, finance – John Kim manages that.

We’ve been focused on three things since this past February: the leadership transition; strengthening our core offering; and the cultural transition from being a New York-based privately held business to a business unit in a division in a large international media company. That’s been a big transition – culturally, and the leadership change, that’s been a big focus.

The second big thing – strengthening the core offering – not that we had any issues with the core offering and some of the products we announced at the symposium – rolling out Link Locator Direct, which is our first Web services offering. It enables affiliates to have easy access to links, and have them defined in categories: coupons, hot products, logos, general promotion, free shipping and best converting.

We’ve made some changes to our merchandising product. We have a client in beta now for whom we’ve recently categorized the data feeds; so, working with normalization and unification. Synergy Analytics has been in beta for some time. We held the affiliate and merchant advisory boards in San Francisco at the [LinkShare] Summit; we got some great feedback. And working with the development teams, and it’s our intent to take both of those products out of beta by the end of the summer, then run dual reporting for six months as the performance testing and get the feedback from the users. It’s been in beta a long time but that’s because it’s a product that’s going to change and revolutionize the way we do things here at LinkShare and send information to our partners. That’s been a big focus.

LP: What changes have you made at LinkShare since being appointed president?

SD: Lead generation, ad networks, AdSense itself and shopping comparison, performance- based and what used to be known as affiliate marketing deals have all evolved. I think that we need to embrace that and find a way to be inclusionary with that, rather than just watching it grow up around you.

People ask me if the affiliate marketing industry is slow – no. I don’t define affiliate marketing as just what I do; I look at performance marketing. Anytime you are paying a third-party website a commission for some sort of thing that is a measurable and definable event – applications, sales, subscription – that’s inventory that a company like LinkShare should be going after. Because we’ve got great merchants, and we’ve got great distribution partners. That’s inventory we should be going after.

LP: What are some of the initiatives LinkShare has planned over the next 12 months?

SD: It’s been a busy four months: leadership transition, cultural changes, integration with Rakuten. The Synergy Analytic product – getting it out of beta is just step one, but then refining that product and taking the feedback from users and enhancing that product over the next six months and beyond is key for us. The work we’ve been doing on the merchandising data feeds and expanding that out. Taking this new locator direct and expanding our Web services offering in new ways of distribution of links is critical. Then we’ll be in the middle of back-to-school, then right into fourth quarter, and that’s not a time to roll out new products. So, our road map is fairly well-defined, with some of the exciting things we did last year and with Athena and enhancements we’ve been making to that – the affiliate analytics and the changes to that. It’s been busy. And launching U.K., that road map is fairly well-defined. And at the end of the day it puts us in a space where we can make LinkShare a safer, more reliable and more profitable place to do business on the Web. We’re focused on the right things.

LP: Is the reign of the “Big Three” (CJ, LinkShare and Performics) over?

SD: When you talk about the big three, I think Yahoo, Google and Rakuten, and we’re all going to be just fine.

LP: Interesting that you don’t count Microsoft in there at all.

SD: I do, but you said three, not four. I think Microsoft all the time. I spend a lot of time thinking about Microsoft. I spend a lot of time thinking about Yahoo. I spend a lot of time thinking about Google. And eBay. And Amazon. And ValueClick. That’s what changed. Because all those folks are in my game. They all have performance- based products – they are called different things. They look different, but they’re all in this space. It’s just not LinkShare against CJ and Performics. We are competing against well-funded big organizations with many assets. What you need to talk to your clients about is, How can I help you with your performance- based needs?

LP: But many of the big three you talk about have mainstream mindshare. What is LinkShare going to do to establish itself among those players?

SD: LinkShare is a B-to-B company – not a customer-facing brand. Although Rakuten is a customer-facing company in Japan. As a B-to-B, we need to stay focused on executing where we are. It’s new markets, new product and new ways to monetize. As we move forward there are lots of other areas we can make headway in. Like mobile. That’s an area in which we are very successful at LinkShare in Japan. We have a significant amount of transactions through mobile devices. As new platforms become available for us to work with, that’s an area where we can do really well.

However, the affiliate terminology limits us. I would submit that LinkShare brought affiliate marketing mainstream. We are recognized as the pioneer in affiliate marketing. When you are the leader in any space, it’s great; people look to you for your thought leadership but you can get pigeonholed as well. The difference between lead generation and ad networks and AdSense is those are affiliate sites, but just the way you compensate them and contractually the way that the relationship is set up may be different, but at the end of the day a third-party website is getting paid to drive a commissionable action to your site. And who manages that salesforce for you – that’s where the differentiation lies. So, if an ad network is managing that salesforce for you and they’re taking a financial risk and they’re putting their money to work and they are working on a spread – then that is called an ad network. If Google is doing it and they’re sharing a percentage of it – that’s called AdSense. But yeah, it’s jargon. But the bottom line is websites are getting paid commissions to drive commissionable and measurable events.

We need to stay focused on providing our clients with new ways to engage with their customers, new ways to monetize those engagements and expanding that global footprint.

LP: How are you doing that?

SD: We are opening our LinkShare U.K. office [on July 1, 2006]. We have space over there and we are staffing it up. We’ve got people on the ground. We already had the LinkShare U.K. network, but we’re putting people on the ground there and aggressively going after that marketplace now. There will be five to seven people to start out. Mostly customer-facing – sales, service, distribution, affiliate support, things like that. I’m really excited about that. That’s the resources of Rakuten. I can make the commitment to do that and aggressively go after that market. Our clients expect that from us, being part of a global company.

LP: Give me an idea of what you think the performance marketing space will look like in three years.

SD: From a LinkShare standpoint, we’ll reflect the needs of our customers, we’ll help them grow their business cost-effectively by acquiring new customers at a fair price or on a pay-for-performance basis. We’ll introduce new products, new channels of distribution and new marketing. International expansion is key in this space. New tools, Web services.

The performance space in the next three years. Let’s take a look back three years. Search has transformed this landscape. And that was very new three years ago. I imagine there will continue to be transformations like that in the future. The key with LinkShare is to remain flexible enough to ensure that we can offer our customers any new performance-based marketing tactic.

We do that today, but need to remain flexible to continue to give them insight to the ROI – whether it’s a click to a sale, or subscription or pay per call or mobile.

As our merchants find new ways to monetize and exchange with their customers we need to be there – one dashboard – to provide that feedback. I think the methods are going to vary but LinkShare’s core value proposition will not. The performance marketing space will still exist – it will experience robust growth as we see today, continue to grow. The performance-based marketing industry outpaces the growth of e-commerce. That’s where we need to stay focused: on this platform that can track all of that and provide the markets and the channels that our clients need to get there. I think it’s a two-pronged approach – platforms and channels.

CJ’s Missing Link

When Commission Junction announced its Link Management Initiative (LMI) on May 23, the reaction from the affiliate community was swift and decisive. It was interpreted as a mandatory change for affiliates from HTML to JavaScript links and it was not embraced. In fact, it sparked petitions, anti- LMI buttons, forums and message boards decrying LMI and hundreds of blog entries questioning Commission Junction’s, actions and motives.

Every online marketing constituency – affiliates, affiliate managers, merchants, other rival networks, agencies and industry watchers – weighed in on LMI. Observers and insiders speculated the change was motivated by CJ’s parent company ValueClick’s desire to use affiliates to gather traffic information on customers as well as perform some behavioral targeting.

Following the community outcry, Commission Junction has backed off its position that LMI will be mandatory. The company sent this update to publishers in mid-August.

“On August 30, 2006, publishers will notice changes in getting links in the CJ Account Manager. This change will make it easier for publishers to choose either HTML or JavaScript links. To reiterate, there are no plans to remove support for HTML links.

However, advertisers will have the option to designate a link as JavaScript-only (with the exception of keyword links), if they deem it necessary. Commission Junction encourages its advertisers to support both HTML and JavaScript link formats, to meet the varied needs of publishers.”

CJ executives were unavailable at press time to comment.

The change of positioning was hinted at on the most recent ValueClick earnings call on August 6, 2006. CEO Jim Zarley said, “We are not mandating it [LMI] however, and it could take a considerable amount of time to do such a migration [from HTML links]. “We got a response loud and clear from our publishers that they are not willing to do this on a wholesale basis, but we believe that over time, maybe it takes a year or two, that this will be the way that the market will go. So we are going to be patient with it. Right now, we are just working with our publisher on a one-to-one basis, and eventually I would anticipate that we will get there over time.”

One source close to CJ says that the overall Link Management Initiative encompasses more than just JavaScript versus legacy links and that LMI is intended to provide additional options related to links. Several sources, who asked not to be named, say, “There is more than meets to the eye to LMI,” but no one offered any specific details. However, all hinted that the scope of the overall initiative had not been completely revealed.

“Long term, whatever is driving this hasn’t gone away, but CJ has realized that they cannot do it quickly or force it on affiliates, so they have at least slowed down,” says Scott Jangro, owner of affiliate MechMedia, who is also a former BeFree and CJ executive. “JavaScript might be the way to go someday in the future, but certainly not in the current technological climate.”

Jangro, a very vocal opponent of LMI (see sidebar on page 101) says, “As long as you’re defining LMI as the mandatory elimination of plain HTML links in favor of JavaScript, I don’t see any upside for affiliates. Affiliate marketing is so much more than renting out space on a website in which a third party can serve ads.”

He offers an example: A website includes a blog entry how-to on repairing your projection television set. There are text affiliate links in the content pointing to a merchant that sells the parts required. He says it would make “no sense to serve some of the text in my page as JavaScript. To someone who doesn’t have JavaScript enabled (as well as search engine spiders), the text would be invisible.”

The bottom line, according to Jangro, is that JavaScript can only make a page less reliable, perform more slowly and be more difficult to maintain.

Jeremy Palmer, a super-affiliate who runs QuitYourDayJob.com, explains that most of the benefits of LMI are to merchants that get more control over the “who, what and when.” He also says that, “LMI also benefits CJ’s Network Quality team because they have more insight into the traffic sources and behaviors of their affiliates. Right now, they rely on an image pixel to gather this information, but if an affiliate omits the pixel, they are unable to get this data.”

On the flip side, Palmer has many concerns including creative control. “I seldom use the creative offered by merchants in the CJ account manager,” Palmer says. “Being able to customize images and ad copy is what helps separate me from the competition.”

Anne Fognano of CleverMoms.com agrees. “The links are cookie cutter with designated creative that may or may not present the message affiliates want to get out to their customers. Affiliates who run Java creative will have links that are too similar, and the unique site feel that many affiliates work to employ for these merchants will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain,” she says.

“There is no upside,” says Scott Hazard, president of Brightside Media and a superaffiliate. “The downside ranges from inability to use databases, to the fact that JavaScript takes away basic design elements. Limiting an affiliate with JavaScript links is keeping that affiliate from using their creativity in presenting the merchant or the merchant’s product to the customer.”

“I am not sure of the upside of LMI, but a downside that I see is that some affiliates can’t use the codes in their article management systems and possibly other systems. Personally, my article system strips the code out,” Wendy Shepherd, a super-affiliate who runs TipzTime.com, says. “In this case, I have to use the old CJ links for as long as they are available. When those links are phased out, I won’t be able to use the links within articles or reviews in the article system anymore.”

For many, the problem is that in order to use JavaScript they will have to change nearly 90 percent of their links, which can be a laborious process. That effort is likely to take a vast amount of time, resources and money if they need to hire someone to handle the process. All that can translate into decreased revenue.

“I think LMI will be a hindrance. Some of the bigger affiliates have created internal systems that rely on using their own redirect to an affiliate link, and I am not sure how they can adapt when LMI becomes compulsory, unless they rebuild their infrastructure,” says Shawn Collins, president of Shawn Collins Consulting. “Also, I am among a great many affiliates that redirect affiliate links through META redirects, .htaccess files, etc. This makes things more efficient in the event that a merchant changes networks or closes their affiliate program. I am able to simply change the affiliate link in one place to control dozens or hundreds of instances of that affiliate link.”

QuitYourDayJob’s Palmer also raises issues about the load time of the JavaScript code and users that might disable JavaScript, which is not supported by all browsers, while traditional hypertext links are 100 percent supported.

Spyware expert Ben Edelman says that it’s uncertain what effectiveness LMI will have at blocking improper activities like forced clicks, “because it seems wrongdoers can easily circumvent the additional security provided by LMI.”

Still, some affiliates are searching for something positive.

Adam Viener, president of search affiliate IMWave, says, “The upside of having JavaScript links is that in certain situations you can have dynamic code that can be updated with the latest special deal or promotion. For example, if you wanted to have a ‘deal of the day’ link, that would be a perfect use for a JavaScript link.”

However, he notes, “The problem is JavaScript links don’t work in every situation, and offering them as an option is a great idea. Moving to a 100 percent JavaScript solution just won’t work for many affiliates and for many websites.”

FREEDOM OF CHOICE

Because JavaScript won’t work for everyone, affiliates didn’t like the idea that CJ appeared to be making this mandatory. Affiliates interpreted this stance as Commission Junction not listening to their concerns, and that caused much concern.

“I personally think that CJ should take into account what affiliates want instead of pushing them to use what they think is better for affiliates. If they don’t listen to their affiliates, this will have an effect on their business,” TipzTime’s Shepherd says.

Others say that CJ “will have to chalk LMI off to a poor PR effort and settle for ways to provide JavaScript links as options,” according to Viener.

“I don’t think they will be able to switch everyone over to these links, and may risk alienating some of their top affiliates if they attempt to force this on everyone. I would like to see them offer these as options, and remove them from being the default option. It has been quite a pain to keep hitting the legacy code button every time I want to get a link from them. Personally, I haven’t implemented one JavaScript link from them at this time,” Viener says.

“I’m sure they invested a lot of time and resources in LMI. It is a shame to lose that, but they will lose market share if they force it on affiliates,” says Hazard. “Affiliates have money and time invested in their online properties and operations. For a network to demand such an extensive change and restructuring is an over-the-top move in my opinion. The reaction it got seems to support that.”

Many say that if CJ doesn’t listen to its affiliates, they may shy away from using the network’s merchants and opt to work with those merchants on other platforms. In some cases, affiliates have already reduced the amount of time they are spending on CJ merchants rather than swap out the links.

MERCHANT DILEMMA

“I am aware from my interactions with many other affiliates, that many have reduced, and in some cases even stopped generating legacy links because it is so time-consuming to do so since the introduction of the JavaScript links,” CleverMoms’ Fognano says. “I am not aware of anyone I interact with on a daily basis using the Java links yet.”

Affiliate and best-selling author (The AdSense Code: What Google Never Told You About Making Money with AdSense) Joel Comm didn’t pull any punches. “For our site, DealofDay.com, CJ’s LMI requires that we totally revamp our back-end administrative tool. As of now, I’m still not sure how well the new links will work. If it comes down to it, we will just write off CJ merchants from promotion on our site. I don’t understand the logic behind making it more difficult for affiliates to link to merchants. If I were a CJ merchant, I would be extremely upset.”

Many are, but they are extremely cautious about commenting publicly.

“This was not good for affiliates or merchants. It’s only good for ValueClick,” says one CJ merchant who requested anonymity. “But there isn’t much that affiliates could do except vote with their feet and leave. That really sends a message.”

eBay, CJ’s largest advertiser, has already informed its affiliates that it will not require JavaScript links and instead it’s working on its own HTML tracking methodology. Here’s what eBay told publishers in an email:

“Many of you have asked us what eBay’s recommendation is regarding LMI and the promotions you are currently running for eBay. We have been working on a new HTML tracking methodology specifically for eBay that will work seamlessly with the Commission Junction interface so that all of the current reporting capabilities will remain supported. While we do not have a deployment date, we are confident that it will be deployed prior to the holiday season, and we recommend waiting to change any tags related to eBay US and eBay International auction-related accounts until the new eBay tag schema is available. Given that Commission Junction is taking a phased approach for publishers to change out their tags, we think this approach will cause you the least amount of disruption.”

UNITED FRONT

Many are taking a wait-and-see approach to assess the overall industry impact.

Others claim this is one of the few issues that have united nearly the entire affiliate community.

“It has caused the affiliate community to come together to sign Scott Jangro’s online petition. I think it is one of the first times we have seen the affiliate marketing community agree on something,” IMWave’s Viener says. “Clearly everyone, except maybe some people at CJ, agree that the forced LMI initiative is a bad idea. We can only hope it goes away as fast as it has arrived.”

“I think the other networks have learned something from it. If you are going to insist that your affiliates change out millions of links, there needs to be something of value in it for them. The word ‘mandatory’ should probably not be used,” Hazard says.

This strife could work in the favor of other networks.

“I think it’s got both affiliates and merchants at least concerned enough to start looking elsewhere for their affiliate solutions. LinkShare, Performics, ShareASale and the other networks, on the other hand, are loving it,” says Jangro.

“Recently there has been an increasing shift on the part of both merchants and affiliates away from the ‘big three’ networks and onto more focused and specialized tracking platforms,” says Stephanie Schwab, vice president of Converseon, which offers an alternative platform. “I think this trend will continue to grow, and if CJ pushes LMI it will accelerate even faster.”

ThePartnerMaker.com’s president, Jeff Molander, says, “CJ has already seen the defection of retail-focused advertisers and this will likely continue. First they forced BeFree customers into a public network (something they actively voted against when they chose BeFree years ago). Now the LMI sends the message that scale and automation is more important than what affiliate marketing has traditionally been built on: labor-intensive relationships.”

He continues, “ValueClick is happy to keep the many lead-generation and offer-based advertisers within CJ as these advertisers are seeking a performance-based solution that scales. ” LMI supports this.”

Choots Humphries, co-president of ad network LinkConnector, says that his company also uses JavaScript links (LinkConnector Hot Link) but makes it a voluntary decision for affiliates, since there are individual challenges and advantages to implementing the technology. “Having it be an option is the key,” he says.

Deborah Carney, the affiliate manager at Rextopia.com, likens the situation to when Coca-Cola pulled Coke off its shelves in favor of New Coke in 1985. It was an infamous public relations debacle, and the beverage giant was forced by public pressure to bring back the much-beloved soda as Classic Coke.

“Anytime you take away something and force people into a new business model, it doesn’t work,” Carney says.

Many pointed out that although other advertising systems such as Google’s AdSense use JavaScript and have never provided affiliate flexibility and control, the uproar regarding LMI is because CJ and competing affiliate systems have always granted such control and “taking it away feels like a loss,” according to Edelman.