Relationship Manager Needed

Connection, communication and commitment are the cornerstones of a good affiliate marketing relationship.

I’m looking for someone to share my life with. My life is busy, complicated and filled with people who are looking to me for advice on relationships. I spend all day helping others make meaningful relationships, only to come back the next day and start all over again. I’m not in it to make a match for myself, but to help everyone around me make a match. Why, you may ask. The answer is quite simple: As an affiliate manager, that’s my job.

I manage affiliate marketing relationships for an online personals site. I’ve managed affiliate relationships for a number of years, and I’ve come to realize that what I do for work feels a lot like dating. For instance, every day I search for someone special who shares my goals and is willing to work as hard as I am to reach them. I look for someone who knows that an affiliate relationship must be built on communication, and sometimes compromise. I want to find someone with whom, in the end, I hope to make a successful match to ensure a long-term commitment.

As an affiliate manager, I recruit people and companies to join my program, and these affiliates recruit others to join the site. These two objectives are inexorably linked. The stronger a bond I create with my affiliates, the harder they will work for me. I believe in my affiliates and, above all else, I believe that I should invest as much as I can into establishing quality affiliate relationships.

I would like to share five essential tips that have helped me build successful and profitable relationships with my affiliates.

Provide Attractive Creative

It is important for an affiliate program to have fresh, well-designed creative in a variety of sizes and styles. Many affiliates judge the value of a program by the way its creative looks. It’s important to remember that a program’s creative reflects not only on the quality of the program, but also on the quality of an affiliate’s site. After all, affiliates’ sites are your first line of defense, and establishing trust and rapport with their visitors is vital.

In a lot of ways, this is like searching through your closet and picking out your best-looking outfit, getting a haircut and washing the car before you pick up a date for a nice night out. If you don’t look like you care about how you present yourself or the way you feel about your affiliation, it’s going to be difficult for your relationship to take root and bloom.

Communicate

Communication is the cornerstone of any great relationship. Not only does communication take patience, it also requires that we listen to the needs and concerns of others; it’s a two-way street. Affiliate managers need to make sure that they ask their affiliates for tips and suggestions and give advice accordingly.

If something is working well for your company, share it with your affiliates. If you’re an affiliate stuck in a rut, call your affiliate manager and talk to them about looking at your site to find ways to push the needle. In the words of recently retired Loyola University Chicago professor John Powell, “Communication works for those who work at it.” If you work at communicating with your counterparts, you will be able to increase your earnings and give your affiliates incentive to remain loyal to your program.

If you work with a network that does not share affiliates’ personal contact information such as phone numbers and email addresses, this may be a little more difficult. However, you can still make sure that you provide affiliates with the easiest ways for them to contact you. Give them all of your email addresses, phone numbers, instant message handles and, if you operate a blog, the blog’s URL. But don’t let that be all. Most networks still allow you to send out emails, newsletters and promotional offers, so take advantage of this. It is important to make sure that your communication is of the highest quality and will add value to your affiliates’ promotional efforts.

Be Available and Accessible

I am constantly receiving email and phone calls from affiliates who are so grateful that we make ourselves available to them. Nearly every night before I go to bed, I check my email; when I have new messages, I try to respond to them as soon as possible. A number of our affiliates run their sites as a side business and usually work on them after-hours. Therefore, if I can expedite my responses and make an affiliate’s work easier, our program will benefit.

Be Honest and Up Front

Never make promises you can’t keep. This is the quickest way to destroy relationships. When you are honest and up front about expectations and goals, both sides will be more willing to foster that perfect team of manager and affiliate. Give More Than You Receive In a very real way, being an affiliate manager is like being a big brother to hundreds of people. My job is to fight for the needs of my affiliates. If an affiliate needs more creative, then it’s the manager’s job to make sure the affiliate gets it. Above all else, managers should always be looking for ways to give more to affiliates – more time, more commissions, more of whatever they need.

Gone forever are the days when affiliate managers and affiliates could ignore one another and remain successful. Relationships in the affiliate marketing world take a lot of work and must be managed well in order to succeed. If you want your affiliates to work for you, start working for them. Do more than send monthly newsletters or mass emails, although those are a good start. Constantly review affiliates’ sites and look for ways to improve them or to help affiliates with any errors they may not be aware of. Then call each of your main affiliates and those with potential to be top affiliates. Develop that personal relationship and help them to grow their programs.

We would be smart to keep in mind the words of entrepreneur and author Dr. John C. Maxwell: “If your focus is on what you can put into people rather than what you can get out of them, they’ll love and respect you – and those attributes are great foundations for building relationships.”

JAMES GREEN is customer acquisitions manager and heads up the affiliate program for MingleMatch, Inc., a division of Spark Networks plc. Originally from Utah, Green formerly worked for 10xMedia and 10xMarketing.

Affiliate Market Maturing

The affiliate space is getting more sophisticated and complex, according to the findings of the AffStat 2006 Report, an annual study examining the state of the affiliate marketing industry.

Released earlier this year by Shawn Collins Consulting, the survey polled nearly 200 affiliate managers from a cross section of the industry on their overall statistics, as well as a number of issues about their affiliate marketing channels, such as staffing, recruiting and management.

Of those surveyed, 77 percent were pay-per-sale, 19 percent pay-per-lead and 4 percent bounty affiliate programs, which is almost exactly in line with the report’s 2005 breakout of how companies paid out commissions.

Over the last year, however, the size of pay-per-sale programs seems to have shifted. The latest report shows an increase in the number of affiliates in the midrange, with 23 percent of this year’s respondents reporting 5,001 to 10,000 affiliates compared to 13 percent a year ago, yet 18 percent said they had too many affiliates to manage effectively.

The trend toward smaller programs is also on the rise. A year ago, 16 percent of respondents had between 2,001 and 5,000 affiliates. The latest figure jumped 7 percent for 2006. Last year, however, 26 percent of respondents had 5,000 or more affiliates and rose just 3 percent for 2006.

Part of moving to small programs is that merchants are giving more scrutiny to the affiliate approval process. And while 17 percent still approve affiliates manually, that is down from 23 percent for the previous year.

Another interesting finding from the survey: Nearly two-thirds of in-house affiliate managers earn $40,000 to $80,000 a year. In the pay-per-sale programs, 71 percent had dedicated affiliate managers; 24 percent had fewer than 500 affiliates; 22 percent had 501 to 2,000 affiliates; 23 percent had between 2,001 and 5,000 affiliates; 15 percent had 5,001 to 10,000; and 14 percent had more than 10,000 affiliates.

Commission Junction continued to lead the pack when it came to which affiliate networks, solution providers or software solutions were being used to track affiliate programs. CJ had 31 percent of the total survey respondents, up from 26 percent in 2005. Some of that gain is likely from Be Free, which is owned by Commission Junction. Be Free dropped 2 percent to comprise 6 percent of this year’s total for respondents.

The use of homegrown tracking solutions rose to 22 percent from 17 percent in 2005. LinkShare moved up 2 percent from last year, to account for 11 percent in 2006. Performics also gained some ground; up to 3 percent from 2 percent in 2005, while ShareASale.com inched up 1 percent to reach 6 percent overall for 2006.

Still, some lost ground. My Affiliate Program//KowaBunga dropped to 8 percent from 13 percent for 2005. Direct Track dipped to 8 percent from 9 percent in 2005, while the response for “other” dipped to 5 percent from 9 percent in 2005.

There was virtually no change in attitude from 2005 to 2006 in responses to the question, “Do you permit your affiliates to bid on your trademark name in pay-per-click search engines?” Fifty-nine percent responded no; 29 percent said yes; 7 percent said yes, but with restrictions; and 5 percent did not know.

As for blogging, of those surveyed, 21 percent had a blog, compared to 15 percent last year.

And the biggest challenge for affiliate marketing for 2006, according to the report, continues to be recruiting new affiliates. This year 31 percent cited it as the largest challenge, compared with 24 percent in 2005.

The entire report can be found at http://www.affstat.com/products.shtml.

Data Double Duty

Website publishers are up in arms about the potential threat posed by employees at companies, who have access to their crucial data that could be used to compete with them.

Insiders have nicknamed the situation “Triple Jangro,” after the catchy title of a blog post on Revenews.com by David Lewis, CEO of 77Blue. The title refers to ex-BeFree/Commission Junction product manager Scott Jangro, who left the affiliate network several months ago to become a full-time affiliate.

The crux of the recent situation revolves around the threat of perceived or potential conflict of interest. Observers claim many employees of search engine companies and affiliate networks are infringing on the data privacy rights of their clients by using data from affiliates and merchants to enhance their own affiliate sites, or to go to networks and buy traffic based on inside information these employees receive from clients.

While many say they have suspected this practice for years, news of the situation came to a head at the LinkShare Partnership Summit 2006 in January. A few former Commission Junction employees attended the event as affiliates and revealed that three CJ staffers resigned after the company recently put a policy in place prohibiting employees from also being publishers.

“In the early days of affiliate marketing and affiliate networks – especially CJ – there were a lot of entrants into the space who came to us being program managers or some were publishers and gravitated toward this space,” Jeff Pullen, COO of ValueClick, says. “Over the years they have operated websites of their own on weekends and evenings and in the past we have not discouraged that. It was a good way for people to know the business. We always had a code of conduct and we are aware of the proprietary nature of the information we handle. Because we consider ourselves a leader in networking quality, we wanted to eliminate any potential appearance of a conflict of interest.”

To that end, an email was sent to everyone at ValueClick and its subsidiaries, clarifying that publicly-held ValueClick would no longer allow any employees to be publishers and violators of that policy would be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination/dismissal, according to Pullen. He says the change was spelled out and included in an updated restatement of another policy related to the issue of confidentiality.

“It really is easier, from an operational stand point, rather than to have to try and implement policies to monitor the issue, to just eliminate the practice altogether and not be concerned,” says Pullen, who noted that the new policy was not prompted by any wrongdoing nor was there any evidence of any improprieties.

Still, the new policy resulted in the departure of three employees – Chad Darling, an account representative for many of search affiliates; Andy Powell, who didn’t work with publishers but was part of the search management team; and Don Batsford, a CJ employee, who joined the company when it acquired BeFree.

“The people that left took a look at two different business opportunities. These are entrepreneurially focused publishers that chose to pursue that route. We hope they continue to do well. But they can not do both things.”

It’s unclear if these ex-CJ employees were running affiliate sites or doing arbitrage. Commission Junction officials declined to provide any details.

Regardless, the situation has angered many affiliates, who claim network staffers are supposed to be helping affiliate partners, not helping themselves. Despite their outrage, many affiliates, network representatives and industry watchers say the overall issue is so politically charged, they declined to have statements attributed to them and spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

The issue also sparked a lot of heated discussion on the affiliate forums and generated plenty of fodder for bloggers, many of whom admitted to posting comments on a variety of industry blogs under pseudonyms.

“The networks have been very quiet on this issue and are reluctant to make any public comments. This lack of communication is causing an increasing concern of potential wrongdoing at the networks. When the networks have to talk to their lawyers before commenting, nobody feels comfortable,” says Adam Viener, president of IM Wave, a Virginia-based search affiliate. Darling was Viener’s account manager.

Here is a typical post. “Let me get this straight, top affiliates shared their secrets with account managers at a network only to find out those account managers were their competition and using those hard-earned secrets – I’d be fuming. So much for a trusted third party.”

One angry – and anonymous – affiliate tried to put a positive spin on things. “If they quit their day jobs at the network, they were obviously making more money as an affiliate and that certainly bodes well for the state of affiliate marketing as a very lucrative career.”

Cause for Concern

Viener says he alerted Commission junction to the potentially problematic issue.

“I had a conversation with Todd Crawford [Commission Junction’s vice president of sales] about this issue at Affiliate Summit [2006], after talking with some top search affiliates who were concerned that CJ employees were looking at HTTP referrer data to determine exactly which keywords they were bidding on were converting to sales. They seemed to have some internal evidence that showed that when they identified new keyword niches with no competition, that almost immediately after there was a conversion on those terms, new affiliates popped up advertising on those terms,” Viener says.

Both Crawford and other CJ executives insist that calls to that specific database are tracked and protected. In some case only two to three people at the network have access to that sensitive information.

“To be an effective account manager we certainly have access to operational data. We have to do that job in a good and helpful way and that means seeing a variety of data,” Pullen says. “There is no scrutiny that we can’t withstand, and we encourage and hope others can say the same.”

One CJ super affiliate, who asked not be identified, says that on more than one occasion, within days of launching a new campaign, he would also see competition. “No one knows we are running the keywords, so in theory, no one should pick it up. That led to some speculation how it got started and I went away thinking that I should speak to the network about my concerns regarding who has information about keywords and referring URLs. I’m concerned about who has access to keyword data as well as what is converting and what is not converting.”

Vinny Lingham, founder of IncuBeta, poses a possible scenario:

“CJ has about 2,000 merchants, and it takes a lot of time and effort to evaluate, negotiate, research and run test campaigns. Say that one in every 10 campaigns we test out becomes a full-blown campaign, which is both scalable and profitable. We don’t focus on small campaigns, so typically we’re looking for merchants who can do a lot of volume and has great conversion rates.

“An average test campaign costs us anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 before we even see a daily profit. Can you imagine our frustration when we take a program on CJ with a network earnings of 2 or 3 and turn it into a 5 overnight, only see other affiliates jumping onto the bandwagon – almost as if they had inside information.

“If I worked at CJ or any other network and I knew who the top affiliates were, I would just wait for them to test out all the merchants for conversion rates, etc, and then run only the successful campaigns – why bother running test campaigns myself? Even worse, imagine after all our testing, the network employee gains access to the keywords we’re bidding on and the conversion rates?”

Steve Denton, recently appointed president of LinkShare, says that as employers you can have policies in place but that “ultimately you’re not going to control what people don’t do at work.”

As for LinkShare, the company encourages its employees, especially those in customer-facing jobs, to set up to affiliate accounts as part of their training, according to Denton. “We see it as a value-add. It allows our employees to know what is going on in the space from the point of view of the affiliates as well as the merchants,” he says.

However, LinkShare has a variety of controls in place to ensure the security, confidentiality and privacy of the data related to merchants and affiliates. All LinkShare employees are required to sign a confidentiality agreement and a non-compete agreement.

“Those agreements are reflective of the fact that we deal with a lot of sensitive data and they make all employees contractually aware of what they can do with any of that data,” Denton says.

LinkShare also controls the access to data by limiting certain pieces of information only to specific jobs titles as well as by workers’ roles and responsibilities, he says.

In addition, through the company’s Athena registration and affiliate validation system, LinkShare monitors which employees have affiliate accounts and what they are earnings via their social security number, Denton says.

Like CJ, affiliate network Performics has a policy in place prohibiting employees from being affiliates.

Still, observers suggest it’s not about having a policy, but more about enforcement and direct communication to affiliates about who has access to what specific data.

Lack of Communication

Some chided Commission Junction for not addressing the “Triple Jangro” issue directly with affiliates, most of whom found out about the situation only by reading online reports with sketchy details, inflamed blog comments from other publishers or after being informed via email that their own account representative had left Commission Junction. Many complained there was no official comment from CJ on the details or any attempt to reassure or placate affiliates.

“CJ did a poor job of communicating this problem to the affiliate community,” Viener says. “By not disclosing what was happening, even if there is no evidence of wrongdoing, it makes me feel uneasy. That’s wrong. I don’t feel like I have the facts; I’m not comforted because there has been no communication from the company. I need to hear what happened. There needs to be more communication,” says Viener.

“The networks should take a hard look at these e-affiliates and communicate with the top affiliates they had contact with about what programs they are running, what sites they have, and give top affiliates a chance to determine if their business practices have been compromised,” says Steve Shubitz, who operates stopscum.com.

“I don’t know if that step was necessary. There was no evidence of wrongdoing, so it was not an issue,” Pullen says. “If an individual publisher was concerned and wanted to ask any question of their account manager, that would be fine. I don’t see these as us needing to be proactive. We manage account relationships all the time and information is held in strict confidence,” Pullen says. “It was not identified as an issue in the past five or six years. The existence of the relationship has always been positive with no controversy or issues. There were no improprieties so that would be explaining a negative. Why would we explain something that is not an issue?”

Others think Commission Junction acted appropriately in dealing with the situation.

“The issue of staffers being publishers at CJ has been simmering for a long time and it’s great to see CJ take a leadership role and be protective,” Beth Kirsch, group manager, affiliate programs at LowerMyBills.com, says. “This challenges other networks with even stickier ethical issues to address the same concern. The affiliate marketing industry is maturing and focusing on these issues is part of that process. Personally, I think this is a great step.”

Putting up Your Guard

Meanwhile, the situation has left many affiliates skittish about revealing information – even to their own account managers.

“I’ve got to be a bodyguard in the future,” Viener says. “I can’t say or have conversations in the future about my business. It’s a catch-22. Because if you are secretive, people assume you are cheating.”

Some caution against disclosing many crucial data points with account managers at the networks.

“I would tell my account manager my payout terms with merchants, what keywords are converting, referring URLs or most anything else. I have the right to privacy, confidentiality and transparency with the networks, but since I’m not 100 percent sure that’s happening, I’ll opt to just keep my mouth shut,” says one affiliate, who asked not to be named.

Shubitz offers this advice: “Webmasters and publishers should assume that every single network engaged in the CPA/CPL does in fact have current employees who are stealing their data and using it to make money.”

He encourages affiliates to “Wash/obfuscate your HTTP referral code and never disclose any details about your marketing procedures, media buys, other sites you own or your site’s demographics to your network.” He goes on to note, “Immediately complain to senior management in writing if you suspect that your procedures have been compromised and in fact are being used by current network employees to make money. Continue to be a friendly ‘partner’ but don’t disclose any data that a network employee could use to steal money from you.”

Nature of the Beast

Many claim the entrepreneurial nature of online marketing breeds this type of behavior.

“People tend to be entrepreneurial and opportunistic, and you cannot fault anyone for that – it’s human nature.” Lingham says. “The difference between this and other businesses is that traditionally you just couldn’t start a business that easily, but online marketing efforts can be started with virtually zero cost,” 77Blue’s Lewis says.

Jeff Molander, president of Molander & Associates, an affiliate marketing consultancy, is surprised that it took this long for the issue to be raised. And while Molander agrees that most employers need to have policies in place to ensure the privacy of affiliate data, he says “insights and knowledge” are gained simply by virtue of job duties, daily work experiences and continually expanding knowledge of the market space. He also claims that much of what affiliates do is plainly seen in search engines.

While other industries have laws governing use and disclosure of sensitive information (lawyer/client privilege, doctor/ patient confidentiality); there is nothing like that for performance marketing, which has sparked talk of legal intervention.

“A class-action suit would damage the industry’s reputation and create unnecessary long-term distractions in our core businesses of building a sustainable and long-term industry,” Lingham says. “We need self-regulation. The government takes too long to get things done. It should be the stakeholders making these decisions.”

Instead, Lingham suggests that super affiliates and representatives from both the networks and search engines, should have a round-table meeting to discuss the issues about enforcing both data privacy and non-competes with their staff with respect to all their clients.

Most say it’s in the best interest of the networks to nip this in the bud and take a leadership role.

“The networks are in a precarious position here. Their business model only works because of the trust established with the merchants and the affiliates. If the networks aren’t open, ethical and forthcoming about these types of issues, then their role in this industry will be diminished,” says Shubitz.

Linkshare Shuffle

In early February, just six months after LinkShare agreed to be acquired by Japan-based e-commerce portal giant Rakuten for $425 million, the founders of the affiliate network have decided to step aside.

The resignations of Chairman and CEO Stephen Messer and President and COO Heidi Messer, who founded LinkShare in 1996, were not surprising according to industry watchers, but definitely signaled changing times in the performance marketing and affiliate marketing space.

Beth Kirsch, a long-time affiliate manager, who is now group manager of affiliate programs at LowerMyBills.com, called it “the end of an era.”

LinkShare was one of the last big affiliate and performance marketing networks to finally be swallowed up by a big conglomerate. LinkShare rival Commission Junction was bought for $58 million in cash and stock by ValueClick in October 2003; ValueClick previously purchased affiliate network BeFree in March 2002 for $128 million in stock. Performics was acquired by DoubleClick in a cash deal estimated at $58 million (plus an earn-out of up to $7 million) in May 2004; DoubleClick was acquired in July 2005 by Click Holding Corp. in a deal valued at $1.1 billion. The new era of performance marketing will feature Steve Denton, most recently LinkShare’s senior vice president of client development and distribution services, who has been tapped to head LinkShare. As president, Denton, a six-year LinkShare veteran, will lead all day-to-day operations. As part of those duties he will continue to oversee all sales efforts, as well as affiliate services and support. His new duties will include responsibility for account services, the search team, marketing and technical sales consultants.

Denton will report to John J-H Kim, CEO of Rakuten USA and executive vice president of international business headquarters, who will handle LinkShare’s legal, technical and finance functions.

“It’s very much like how Heidi and Steve split up their duties within the organization,” Denton says.

With the departure of the company’s founders, LinkShare faces some new challenges. The biggest, according to Denton, is to “move from an organization that was a privately-held New York-based affiliate network into a global role that it was intended to play, while still being the leader in affiliate and performance marketing.”

Rakuten, a public company with a market capitalization of $10 billion, bought LinkShare because it was looking to break into the U.S. market and wanted to establish an immediate presence. Founded in 1997, Rakuten has several divisions and is involved in e-commerce, media, travel and financial services, and owns a baseball team in Japan (the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles).

“Heidi and I have taken LinkShare to a great place, but now it needs to become a Rakuten company. This is the best timing – the fourth quarter is over; Valentine’s is almost over and now LinkShare has all summer to beat Google and Yahoo,” Steve Messer says.

Timing is everything. Denton says that by putting all the pieces in place during the spring time frame gives LinkShare “a runway to get on track with new initiatives, new leadership teams and the company’s continued global expansion efforts, in time for the critical back-toschool period and the hectic fourth quarter” – a time when LinkShare historically generates a hefty chunk of its revenue.

LinkShare is on track, according to Denton, to expand into the U.K. and China sometime in 2006. However, he declined to disclose specifics.

LinkShare and Rakuten also have an integration team of executives, including Denton and Kim, to deal with the merger of the two companies, which includes establishing best practices, as well as streamlining financial reporting and human resource services such as employee benefits.

Denton is vehement that integration is not a euphemism for “consolidation,” which is then often translated to “elimination” as in downsizing when a smaller company is acquired by a huge conglomerate. “Rakuten bought LinkShare for its leadership in technology and the affiliate marketing space, not to rip the company apart,” Denton says.

But there is plenty of change happening. Steve Messer says that he and Heidi needed to move on in order to facilitate that growth. Consultant Shawn Collins says the transition should be smooth.

“It might affect the culture. Denton has a different personality, but it’s not like bringing in a stranger. Everyone is familiar and comfortable with him. And people are really excited.” Messer called his departure a continuation of the global expansion plan that he and Heidi had envisioned when they sold the company to Rakuten.

Messer says that during his tenure, he increasingly saw LinkShare’s main competitors less as the other affiliate networks (Commission Junction and Performics) and more like the major search and portal players such as Google and Yahoo.

“We think that Rakuten is doing a whole lot more to be competitive in the U.S. and we can help them go head-to-head with Google and Yahoo, while the partnership with Rakuten is going to help LinkShare’s presence in markets outside the U.S,” Messer says. “Rakuten has a huge appetite going forward. I think in a few years people will be talking about how they own the whole market. The strategy we put in place will prove itself out.”

Still, Messer says leaving is not easy. “I imagine it’s like the bittersweet feeling a parent has when their children go to college. You’re proud you’ve given them the skills to survive and do well, but you’re sort of sad that they no longer need you to get along.”

He claims his first taste of this occurred when he and Heidi spent most of 2005 in Japan negotiating a deal with Rakuten and he realized that “we had built such a great company and we were gone for nearly a year and the company did phenomenally well. They really didn’t need us.”

As for what’s next for Messer, he says that after 10 years in the bustling performance marketing space, he’s looking forward to a little “breather” and anticipates being “back in the game in the summer.” He declined to disclose any specific plans, noting he’s “still thinking about what I want to do.”

However, during his time off, he says he plans to more fully formulate some new business ideas – all while sitting at the beach and doing some kite boarding. And of course, any new venture will include LinkShare co-founder Heidi Messer. “We are a team,” he says.

Sources close to LinkShare claim it’s no surprise that Steve and Heidi are leaving the company after each received a hefty payout from the September 2005 all-cash sale to Rakuten. Although LinkShare had investors at the time of the sale (including Mitsui & Co, Ltd., Mitsui & Co. (U.S.A); Internet Capital Group; and Comcast Interactive Capital, an affiliate of Comcast Corp.), Steve Messer reportedly owned 20 percent of LinkShare, while Heidi owned 11 percent. Steve’s proceeds from the sale were said to be approximately $100 million, while Heidi got over $51 million, according to sources close to the company.

“I think it’s obviously a good transaction for Heidi and I and the team,” Messer says.

“Steve and Heidi should be proud of the wonderful company they built, the leadership position they established and the vision they had,” Denton says. “All of us feel fortunate to have worked with them and we look forward to all the new challenges.”

Denied

On a cold Minnesota afternoon, affiliate marketer Connie Berg checks her email fearing the worst: a message from a dream merchant saying her affiliate application for either iShopDaily.com or FlamingoWorld.com has been denied.

You see, Berg’s sites post coupon information – a once-hot commodity now shadowed by merchant belt-tightening and recent incidences of customers getting expired or invalid affiliate-posted codes.

“No matter how much we try to convince them that 99 percent of the coupon sites are simply shopping sites that also post coupons, they don’t seem to want to give us a chance,” Berg says.

It’s certainly a frustration for Berg, still an ideal candidate with 90 percent of her traffic from direct bookmarks or type-ins and a “deal alert” newsletter going to thousands. But she’s been caught in a war between ideologies that surrounds many once-highly desired affiliate sites. Merchants are looking twice at any site that could potentially cut its profits, give the wrong idea about its brand or send an unapproved marketing message.

That’s why affiliate application turndowns extend even beyond coupon sites. Under fire are affiliate sites offering coupons, incentives, discounts, email marketing, heavy search buys, forums, downloads and even mass-market and cross-cultural appeal rather than the merchant’s defined niche.

“Five or six years ago, it was about who had the biggest affiliate program,” says Chris Kramer, media director of NETexponent. Kramer, who approves affiliate applications for The New York Times, Financial Times and others, says, “Now it’s more about ‘who is this affiliate, what are they doing and do I have to worry about what they are doing?'”

Performics, for instance, denies 20 to 40 percent of the applications it receives for programs including Bose, Eddie Bauer, Harry & David, HPshopping.com and Motorola. While AffStat 2005 found onequarter of its merchants still auto-approving applications, the buzz is that the remaining three-quarters of merchants are creating additional safeguards to determine who gets in, and who stays in.

“When we talk about this issue of merchants denying affiliates, it’s mostly due to brand sensitivity,” says Kraig Smith, co-founder of Chicago-based Media- Impressions.com. His clients include Apartments.com, Healthcare Media, HEE Corporation, LifeGem Memorials and Performics. “Many big-brand offline marketers are concerned about protecting their brand in affiliate marketing.”

After all, these days merchants can be more selective – mainly because there are plenty of affiliates to choose from.

“There’s a lot of filibustering going around about how many affiliates there are,” says Chris Henger, Performics’ vice president of marketing and product development. “There are legitimately probably 50,000 to 100,000 types of affiliates active at any point in time. While it used to be easy to stand out as an affiliate with a professional site, now you’re just one in the crowd.”

“The whole [affiliate] industry has gotten more sophisticated,” says Elizabeth Cholawsky, vice president of marketing for ValueClick, Commission Junction’s parent company. “These are real businesses with real employees working day to day to grow their revenues and customer base.”

Even Vinny Lingham, a Commission Junction super-affiliate and founder of Clicks2Customers.com, the affiliate search marketing technology provider that won CJ’s 2004 Horizon Award for Innovation, gets denied for about 10 percent of the programs he applies for.

“We’ve mainly been denied because of the fact that we’re search marketers,” he says. “From a search marketing perspective, 90 percent of the merchants realize they can’t market through search engines as well as the affiliates can.” The result, he says, is that some merchants pin search-oriented affiliates as the culprit if their own search campaigns don’t produce.

Perhaps, but Kerri Pollard, Commission Junction’s director of publisher development, says it’s more about being concerned with how an affiliate will fit into the merchant’s overall integrated marketing strategy.

“Paid search has become such a big component of all the affiliate programs,” Pollard says. “They want to make sure that whatever the publishers are doing doesn’t conflict with their own search campaign.”

Still, Lingham’s site takes top affiliate status in many programs, even globally, and Clicks2Customer’s parent company, incuBeta, is one of Business Day’s “Technology Top 100 Companies.” “In reality, if we or any other super-affiliates are not working for your company, we’re building your competitor’s business and market share instead.”

Why Deny?

Oklahoma affiliate Joel Comm has begun running DealofDay.com, a community of 125,000 bargain hunters, since he sold off ClassicGames.com to Yahoo in 1997. Three to 5 percent of his applications are denied, and the bulk of those come from financial-related merchants.

“Some merchants, like financial services, just don’t want to be part of coupon sites,” he says.

His response if denied? “I’ll just put someone else there instead,” Comm says. “There are some affiliate managers that just don’t get it, and others where the affiliate relationships are managed by the legal team – dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s. That ties their hands.”

That’s particularly apparent in the financial services arena.

“I don’t know if it’s as much price point as it is brand concern, but there is a correlation between higher price point products and brand concern; that’s not accidental,” says Peter Figueredo, CEO of NETexponent, the agency that manages the Financial Times’ affiliate programs.

NETexponent’s Kramer says one of the reasons is that financial service companies, ranging from American Express to mortgage companies, are governed by strict rules, codes and laws.

“They can’t have affiliates out there advertising ‘no-fee balance transfers’ when there really is a fee, because they can get fined,” Kramer says. “But when it comes to companies such as Financial Times, it’s more based on brand integrity. They’ve invested a lot of money in protecting and developing their brand,” and wouldn’t want “just anybody” representing that brand. Financial Times also “fits a tight demographic of highly educated, higher-income customers,” he says. “It doesn’t serve their needs to have their ads on sites where their ideal customers are not going to be.”

However, as a trend, “declines by merchants are on a case-by-case basis,” ValueClick’s Cholawsky says. “Some merchants are tiptoeing into affiliate marketing and are very restrictive. Others accept every application. We try to encourage merchants to be more inclusive, since we’ve seen that as one of the best practices. Otherwise, there is relatively little change” across the board.

Either way, the networks say tough requirements work both to the advantage of merchants and affiliates.

“Affiliates don’t want to be associated with a network that has a lot of fraud running rampant on that network,” says Danay Escanaverino, head of Global Resource Systems’ quickly growing affiliate network, Filinet.com. “If we allow fraudulent affiliates, generating bogus leads or clicks, that makes the program difficult to run for our other affiliates, and advertisers start losing faith in the program. It’s in everybody’s best interest for us to be a little bit more vigilant about who we allow in.”

Pay-per-click or pay-per-lead merchants, however, have higher rates of declines, attempting to weed out applications likely to send bogus clicks for quick cash. It’s an issue faced every day by Jonathan Miller, who approves applications for 27 affiliate programs managed by ForgeBusiness.com.

“We get inundated with affiliates trying to get into our programs,” says Miller, who since 2001 has received tens of thousands of applications, if not more. “We used to take just about anybody that signed up, but over the past year I’ve realized that things have become a lot more fraudulent and, in some programs we manage, as many as 90 percent of the applications in some periods are fraudulent.”

It’s usually only a temporary spike, made up by syndicates doing mass submissions from outside the United States, but Miller still usually denies 30 to 40 percent of the applications he receives, many of which are fraudulent.

Though common for pay-per-click or pay-per-lead sites, other merchants generally see fraud in no more than 5 percent of their applications, says a KowaBunga insider. (KowaBunga runs MyAffiliateProgram .com.) The rate of fraudulent applications often depends upon the type of merchant, the type of product, whether the merchant pays per lead or per click, and the dollar amount of commissions for average sales. “If you have lucrative offers,” Miller says, “it will be tested by forgers.”

So Miller, like other affiliate managers, is adding extra safeguards. He now has all the network fraud protections and verifies Social Security numbers and compares application info against the Whois.com registration information for the domain. Even after an application is approved, he watches for any telltale activities, such as lots of immediate clicks or changes in banking information at the end of the first month. Then, before paying out checks that are often in the thousands of dollars, ForgeBusiness.com requests not only a W-99 form but also additional proof of the affiliate’s identity, such as a faxed copy of a driver’s license, Social Security card or business license.

“We are willing to share our identity with our affiliates,” Miller says, “and we’re now requesting that our affiliates share their identity with us.”

Still, Miller says, “There is always a worry that we will be denying legitimate affiliate applications, which is why we call every affiliate that applies that makes it through the fraud software on our networks. If the affiliates can’t be contacted, then we either wait and hope to hear from them or their application is rejected.”

So while merchants of pay-per-click and pay-per-lead programs must still watch out for fake applications, ValueClick’s Elizabeth Cholawsky says – though the company hasn’t made an official statement – that she’s not seeing any more or less overall affiliate fraud than there was years ago. If the website is legitimate, the email address gets a response, and if the tax ID number checks out, then “the initial barrier [into CJ’s program] is fairly easy for a new affiliate.”

Though acceptance is easy, Commission Junction doesn’t cut a check until it’s reviewed by a “network quality team.” In June 2005, it redoubled its efforts, bringing in Cyveillance’s phishing, identity theft and corporate-brand-abuse protection software, which includes affiliate channel compliance and control features.

With more eyes on applications, Commission Junction can now relax some of its other requirements, such as denials of applications from affiliates in certain geographical areas: “We used to exclude all of Asia, all of Russia, but now we just exclude a couple of pockets,” Cholawsky says.

Meanwhile, officials at both Commission Junction and Performics say the number of applications isn’t going up, and the number of active affiliates are about the same even with new entrants (as new ones enter, old ones drop off). At the same time, the number of merchants with affiliate programs is growing year after year.

“As affiliate programs become standard, we’re starting to see it as part of every online merchant’s sales efforts,” Cholawsky says. This seems to say that the issue of perceived growth in affiliate denials isn’t a result of increasing competition for a limited number of spots.

So what is the answer? Though requirements and the number of applications remain stable, what used to slide is now inexcusable. “Three years ago you would see the ‘under construction’ symbols, and maybe that’s what kicked you out; today I’d be shocked to even see ‘under construction’ signs,” Performics’ Henger says. “We probably have a more discerning eye today as to what is a quality site that we want to let into the network.”

Other affiliate sites are being turned down because they’re missing something that could be easily fixed (see sidebar page 51).

Once you’re in the network, remember to reread your affiliate agreement on a regular basis.

“We put a lot of work into post-screening as well, checking month to month on the top sites to make sure they’re consistent with the rules we set,” Kramer says. As such, he says, affiliates are increasingly concerned about guidelines, especially regarding search or email marketing, once they get into the program. “Years ago, nobody cared about search and it was definitely a free-for-all, where you could do whatever you want,” he says. Now it’s a much different model.

These days, affiliates like Berg have to push for acceptance into the programs they want. But they are doing it.

“I’ve had some merchants that I was able to get into by really pushing it with the networks,” Berg says. “American Eagle was really hard to get into; I had to basically promise away my life that I wouldn’t do this or that. They gave me a data feed so I can post real-time products, but they were really particular about what they would allow on the site – and I follow it to a tee.” That means no coupons for American Eagle’s site and no inclusion of the words “discount,” “sale” or “coupon.”

And affiliates like Berg are learning to cut their losses.

“Sometimes I’ve actually dropped some merchants because they didn’t even want their name mentioned in the title meta tags, even when they are the only store on that page.” She’ll either find other merchants who carry the same products or chalk it up as a lesson learned. “Sometimes,” Berg says, “you get into their program, but the restrictions are so tight that you just have to walk away.”

JENNIFER D. MEACHAM is a freelance writer who has worked for The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine. She lives in Portland, Ore.

Taxing Times

Back in the early days of the dotcom boom, rampant speculation arose about how or even if online sales should be taxed. For consumers, e-commerce was almost too good to be true: an ultimate extension of mail order, where any product could be ordered from an out-of-state seller with the click of a button, avoiding sales tax, albeit paying any shipping fees that were charged. However, since the mid-90s the e-commerce industry has evolved and U.S. economic conditions have changed, sparking legislators to make a serious push to implement some type of standardized tax code for purchases made online.

As a source of potential revenue for state governments, the topic of Internet taxation cannot be overlooked nor can the impact it may have on online marketers and affiliates searching for profits in an increasingly competitive medium.

According to a July 2004 research report from the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, states are still losing billions of dollars in uncollected sales tax revenues from transactions that occur through electronic commerce. For 2004, the report estimates that states lost between $8.9 billion and $10.8 billion from e-commerce sales alone and predicts that this amount will continue to grow. By 2008, the report estimates that revenue losses from online sales will range anywhere from $11.8 billion to a high of $17.8 billion.

These figures may sound high, but they are actually below the previous estimates made in 2001. At that time, forecasters didn’t factor in an economic slowdown and miscalculated on volume of business-to-business transactions, according to Neal Osten of the Federal Affairs Counsel, which was behind drafting the legislation known as the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA).

The Legislation

The SSUTA (outlined at www.streamlinedsalestax.org), became effective on October 1, 2005. It lays the groundwork for standardizing the way participating states define, charge and collect sales and use taxes.

The idea behind SSUTA is that by taking the burden of sorting through tax jurisdictions away from retailers, the participating states could in turn ask federal lawmakers to introduce new legislation, which could challenge the 1992 Supreme Court decision that forbids states from forcing a business to collect sales taxes unless the business has a physical presence within their state.

SSUTA required at least 20 percent of the population of states with sales tax to sign on in order to get rolling. At press time, 13 states had made all the changes in their sales and use tax statutes and administrative rules to comply. Those states are: Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and West Virginia. Utah, Tennessee, Ohio, Arkansas and Wyoming are next in line to comply.

“It is the intent of the SSUTA to treat all transactions in a competitively neutral manner,” explains the Federal Affairs Council’s Osten. “That is, sales, whether they are made in a brick-and-mortar retail operation or purchased online, are treated similarly for sales tax purposes. The agreement provides simplicity and some uniformity for out-of-state sellers in collecting a state’s sales taxes.” It’s important to emphasize that currently the agreement is voluntary for both states and sellers. “The states, whether they comply with the agreement or not, do not have the authority to require remote sellers (such as affiliates) to collect their sales and use taxes,” he says.

Osten explains that until Congress passes legislation giving those states that have complied with the agreement mandatory collection authority, remote sellers, online or not, have the option to volunteer to collect for sales made in the states that have complied with the agreement as of October 1, 2005.

If a remote seller volunteers to collect for one of the states in the streamlined system, they would have to collect for all the states in the system. Besides being compensated for collection costs, remote sellers that volunteer to collect are also given amnesty by these states if they may have had past collection responsibility in one or more of the states and did not collect sales taxes.

After Congress passes legislation and makes sales tax collection mandatory, amnesty will no longer be granted. Basically, nothing really changed for online sellers on October 1 unless they volunteered to collect for states where they did not have physical presence. Osten says that even if a company has a physical presence in one of the 18 complying states, it is not required to abide by the new agreement, which brings about an interesting point – compliance.

“The biggest problem that I foresee with collecting sales tax online is enforcement,” says Alan Townsend, a LinkShare affiliate and marketing manager for PersonalizationMall.com. “Who’s going to be responsible for determining who’s in compliance and who isn’t? There are so many opportunities here for loopholes it’s mind-boggling. What state is the business registered in? What state is the domain name registered in? Who is it registered to?

What state is the site hosted in? What state do the products ship from? The only way for this to be fair and effective for the states and the businesses involved is to have all 50 states participate. But overall, I think the states are headed in the right direction to achieve their goal with the SSUTA; not that I’m for more taxes.”

Taxation Inevitable

Some say the push for online taxes was coming. It was just a matter of when.

“I think the recent surge in interest by both old-world brick-and- mortar firms as well as by legislators to collect more taxes from Internet sales is, in the greater context, an awakening to the explosive growth and potential of online firms and our industry in general,” says John Lemp, CEO of online affiliate network Clickbooth.com. “Ten years ago, these types of laws were extremely unsuccessful. Even five years ago such laws would never have dreamed of passing, but now traditional firms are seeing the growth Internet companies are experiencing and how a law like this could slow migration of their customers to the Web.

“In the shift from offline to online spending the big losers are the states that collect less tax,” says Ola Edvardsson, CEO of interactive strategy firm Performancy.com. “Since they are in the business of collecting taxes they are not going to sit by the sidelines and watch.”

Dave Taylor, business blog strategist at Intuitive.com, adds that “arguably the situation is different today simply because the nation faces more debt with the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and so on. Does that justify greater taxes? Perhaps.”

The Burden

Still, some worry about the impact this move will have on continued growth and how smaller businesses will handle the burden of dealing with complex tax regulations.

“Whether this slowdown will be very minor or very large is still up for debate,” Lemp says. “Personally, I wouldn’t worry about the larger- and mid-sized Internet firms as they will respond to the market and growth will continue – it’s smaller firms or individual proprietors trying to keep up with compliance that worry me the most.”

Townsend says he believes this is a Pandora’s box. Lemp agrees. “Even if these new laws are 100 percent successful in getting all 50 member states to enact them and they have consistency, they will still create enormous new costs and workloads for any small business attempting to sell products,” he says. “I have sold products in the past and the amount of paperwork and technological systems we had to create to keep up with one state’s laws was difficult enough for a small business. I worry more about the thousands of eBay sellers or small product sellers creating simple websites trying to sell products in their spare time or building product businesses from scratch. These are businesses with very limited resources and if significant amounts of those resources are tied up in purchasing compliancy software, hiring staff to file the sales and use paperwork with 50 separate states, then the new administrative and technological overhead could be too much for them.”

Although Osten has said states will pay for all the collection costs, the other obvious burdens on business owners appear to be equally daunting.

While the idea is to level the playing field, Lemp believes the opposite may happen. “Businesses that are attempting to comply and are located in states that are enforcing the new rules will attempt to compete with businesses in states not enforcing the rules or simply not complying, making an unequal playing field. Consumers are getting smarter than ever and will check prices at multiple sites and factor in sales tax and so forth when making purchases. If done right, eventually a more lenient national or at least uniform and extremely simple sales and use tax code would have much more success than what’s currently being presented.” Even Amazon.com, the king of online retailers, has stated it will not enforce the policy, bringing the competitive pricing issue further into the limelight.

Affiliate Impact

Besides all the possible logistical hurdles and potential negative consequences raised by the SSUTA, it’s important to note that the agreement does not even make clear what to tax or not to tax. Each state that complies with the agreement will still decide what’s taxable, according to Osten. The agreement only provides uniform definitions for the states to use to decide to tax or exempt an item. The agreement also does not define marketing and/or ad sales and any taxation thereof.

On the marketing front, Townsend says, “most affiliates will not be directly affected in my opinion. The vast majority of consumers shop online for the selection and the convenience of shopping whenever and wherever they want. That’s not going to change. In addition to that, online retailers will always continue to offer promotions such as coupons and free shipping; they have to in order to stay competitive online. Even if you take the convenience factor out of the equation, consumers can still get a better deal online because of the great selection and retailer promotions.”

Edvardsson agrees that affiliate marketers don’t have much to worry about. “It will have little direct effect on affiliates except if conversion rates go down in retail-based programs due to sales tax implementation,” he says.

Furthermore, advertising inventory itself is unlikely to be affected.

“Marketers that sell tangible products will be responsible for complying with these new laws,” Lemp says. That is if, in fact, it becomes law. “As far as I know, marketing, ad sales and intangible goods will not be taxed. These items should never be taxed, as a taxation system on them could possibly destroy certain industries. Intangible goods and payment systems such as PayPal do not have a physical delivery location and a location of origin can be near impossible to accurately calculate without losing significant percentages of sales.”

On the larger e-commerce front, Townsend says, “Very few retailers promote the fact that you don’t have to pay sales tax if you’re ordering outside of their home state. I can’t recall the last time I saw a banner ad for a retailer that read ‘Shop here ” no sales tax!’ Instead, online retailers promote selection, value, convenience and service, just like offline retailers do. This is what consumers are looking for.”

Additionally, shoppers will look at the total price regardless of taxes, shipping or other charges.

Down the Road

That’s not to say that there won’t be any long-term implications of either a voluntary or government-imposed online sales tax.

“The long-term effect for established businesses will be a readjustment of the marketplace unless there is still a good chunk of competing businesses that are not complying – whether international, eBay sellers or businesses located in states without consistency,” Lemp says. “The long-term effect of using the current system will be a hindrance of growth for very small, growing businesses and sole proprietorships.”

He says that as an affiliate network that works with more than 300 separate advertisers, anything that is affecting even a small portion of his affiliates could ripple back to impact his company. Though, he says, it’s not likely that the true effects of these laws would be felt for several years.

“Internet marketers can continue to do what they do best – react to the marketplace,” Lemp says. “If new regulations are put in place, advertisers will need to respond to these regulations and the marketers that work with these advertisers will need to continue to work side by side with their clients to fulfill any new needs that may arise.”

Townsend says that online retailers and affiliate marketers are smart and resourceful people and will likely invent new ways to survive.

“The cost of entry into the online marketplace is much lower than it is for offline retailers,” he says. “This drives competition and ultimately better deals for the consumer. With or without sales taxes, online retailing will continue to grow for a long time to come.”

DAVID COTRISS has spent the last 10 years writing about business, technology and entertainment for such publications as MIT’s Technology Review, Entrepreneur and Streaming Media. He has a B.S. in advertising from San Jose State University and currently resides in Los Angeles.

Flipping the Switch

Maybe your relationship with your network has soured. The reports are frequently late, revenue is down and your questions are not being answered in a timely fashion. You’re thinking about switching to another network, but that means learning new tracking processes and establishing relationships with an unknown group of affiliates.

So, is it really worth all the potential trouble to move over to another network?

Switching networks is a disruptive business decision that temporarily reduces income and requires additional commitment of resources to restart your affiliate program. Yet merchants large and small are choosing to change networks primarily out of frustration.

Anger Management

Merchants cite a variety of customer service reasons for jumping to another network, but they share a common theme: Merchants aren’t happy with the way things are and think they can get better service elsewhere.

While increasing revenue is the ultimate driver of most business decisions, the impulse to switch is usually a reaction to negative experiences. A nagging feeling of neglect from the network foments the frustration and leads a merchant to end the relationship. These feelings of frustration can be found on merchant and affiliate blogs and message boards and are aimed at each of the largest networks.

Ask a dozen people about the performance of their network and you are likely to get a range of opinions from highly positive to very negative, according to Noelle Bermingham, site manager of affiliate SavingsWatch.com. Bermingham says it is similar to the opinions rendered about mobile phone companies. While some people switch from company A to B to get better customer service, others are switching from B to A for the same exact reason.

Each network also has its strong and weak points, according to Bermingham, who worked as a consultant for Home Depot on its affiliate program before becoming a publisher.

The networks “all have their issues,” says Bermingham, who has worked with many of the leading networks during her career, including Performics, LinkShare and Commission Junction.

Lee Gientke, affiliate manager of ProHealth.com, was dissatisfied with the service she was receiving and decided it was time for a change. In August she switched from Commission Junction to LinkShare. A few months after the switch, Gientke is thrilled, saying she has already eclipsed her previous high in monthly income.

She attributes her improvement to LinkShare’s superior reporting capabilities, as well as a “better commitment to service,” she says. She is saving money because LinkShare includes services such as emails to affiliates at no cost that previously required paying additional fees.

Seth Greenberg, who runs eHobbies .com, used a change in technology platform as an excuse to re-evaluate his entire operation and change networks. He shares the blame as to why his program with Commission Junction was under-performing. “We haven’t done a great job internally with affiliate programs,” he says. “We weren’t taking advantage of them in a positive way.” Greenberg says that oversight of the affiliates was an internal bandwidth issue.

Greenberg decided to move eHobbies from internal fulfillment and Yahoo’s online store platform to Amazon.com’s technology and distribution services. Reprogramming the site for a new network at the same time would eliminate the need for another round of updates later.

For Greenberg, the risk was outweighed by the opportunities of starting over. “We didn’t have much to lose because we weren’t taking advantage of the channel,” he says.

Change Is Good

Regardless of motivation for switching networks, merchants undergo a cathartic experience in ridding themselves of a negative relationship. Similar to periodically cleaning out your wardrobe closet, it feels good because you are being proactive, closely evaluating what stays and what goes.

As part of the housecleaning process, merchants will cut the ties with under-performing affiliates and focus on what is being done right with the 10 to 20 percent that are bringing in the cash. While revenue will hopefully increase as a result of the change, you feel better for having done something, which will likely motivate you to work smarter in the future.

During the network switch, merchants also reflect on the internal processes that have been successful. In many cases, this new attitude and focus makes it difficult to determine whether it is the change in network or improvements within the merchant’s operation that prompt subsequent increases in revenue. If a merchant reverts to bad management habits, then the improvement could be only temporary.

Preparing to Switch

Reducing the disruptive impact on your revenue flow of switching networks requires several weeks of preparation to bring your most effective affiliates to the new network, as well as learning the new system for reporting and communications. Although sometimes the work can be done within 30 days, a two-month period of preparation will increase the likelihood that a merchant will start earning comparable revenues from a new network.

The first two weeks of a planned switch are dedicated to contacting the top performers who bring in 90 percent of your revenue, according to Todd Crawford, vice president of sales for Commission Junction. Successfully recruiting the top affiliates, setting up their accounts and updating their links can take up to 30 days, Crawford says, after which the attention is focused on the remaining affiliates that merit moving over. Merchants may see a dip in revenue during the transition, but ordinarily that disappears quickly.

During this time Commission Junction also notifies the top 20 to 30 performing affiliates on its network that a new merchant is coming on board. These affiliates often share the news about the new merchant’s arrival with their peers, creating the “network effect” of additional affiliate relationships, Crawford says. If done correctly, growing the stable of well-performing affiliates should boost revenues above previous levels.

Before notifying your current network that you are leaving, merchants should make sure that another network relationship is cemented. Commission Junction carefully screens merchants and accepts only 50 of the 1,000 or more that apply each quarter, according to Crawford. The network looks at the merchant’s existing revenue figures, and if Commission Junction isn’t sure it can do better, the company will decline to accept the merchant.

“I would rather have someone unhappy that they are not with us than have them unhappy for being with us,” Crawford says. He says it is important that both parties agree up front on realistic expectations for revenue growth and earnings per click. “The last thing I want is for people to join from a competitor and be unhappy and go back.”

Crawford, who recently won the business of outdoor equipment maker REI and shopping site Buy.com from competitors, says larger merchants are less likely to switch networks than small and mid-size merchants because the amount of work and perceived risk is greater. “It’s similar to the difficulty of turning around a large versus a small boat,” he says.

Commission Junction isn’t happy when a merchant chooses to go with another network, but Crawford says the company doesn’t want to impede a merchant’s business. He says the company allows the existing network links to stay in place for an overlapping period of 30 to 60 days. “If we turned it off as soon as they went live with someone else, we would be foregoing some revenue,” he says.

More Than Money

Merchants that switch networks primarily to save on costs or reduce the revenue share are likely to be disappointed, according to Heidi Messer, president and chief operating officer of LinkShare. Messer says merchants focusing on costs are more likely to “under-invest in the channel” and have unrealistic expectations. LinkShare screens potential customers to make sure that they will make the necessary investments in the technology platform to make the affiliate program succeed.

Having the contact information of your existing affiliates is crucial when switching networks, according to Messer, who says LinkShare has won more than 40 clients from other networks during the past year. “A migration is only as useful as the information you have about your affiliates,” she says.

Messer recommends that merchants expect the switch to a new network to take several weeks, although it can be accomplished more quickly if necessary. However, she advises merchants against overlapping the networks because it makes managing revenue and crediting sources difficult.

If a merchant switches networks, Messer says, the impact on most affiliates will be minimal. Most affiliates likely have relationships with all of the networks, so they are familiar with how to code their links and work with their reporting systems, she says.

A merchant that frequently switches networks also risks losing partnership opportunities, according to Linda Buquet, president of affiliate consulting company 5 Star Affiliate Programs. Merchants that regularly require their affiliates to change their links will develop a reputation as a “network hopper” and have difficulty finding new affiliates.

Buquet spoke with one merchant that had switched from Commission Junction to LinkShare and then back to Commission Junction. She declined to work with the company because it was viewed as untouchable by many affiliates.

Sharing Affiliates

Merchants that also have in-house affiliate programs should consider if they want to convert any of these relationships to the network as part of their switch, says James Green, affiliate manager of MingleMatch.com.

Moving your high-performing affiliates to the network could raise your earnings-per-click statistics, making you a desirable partner for affiliates, Green says. By boosting EPC, “you represent yourself better to recruit other affiliates,” he adds, but at the cost of having to share a percentage of the revenue with the network.

While adding your best affiliates to the network could enable you to attract new affiliates, you may also lose some of the direct connection, as communications must then go through the network.

Merchants might avoid having to switch if they better understood the strengths and weaknesses of each of the networks. For example, LinkShare is great at protecting large brands while being weaker at publisher development, according to SavingsWatch.com’s Bermingham. Commission Junction offers hands-off affiliate programs that enable merchants to “be more of a do-it-yourselfer,” and is improving the way it works with larger merchants, she says. Performics’ strength is in comprehensive affiliate management, but the company does not have programs that allow merchants to manage affiliate relationships themselves.

Turning the Tables

The frustrations of one affiliate lead to the creation of a network competitor. J. P. Sauve, who ran several affiliates, says he was frustrated with not being treated well by the major networks’ “our way or the highway” attitude. His emails to network representatives went unanswered, statistics were often incomplete and campaigns sometimes disappeared without warning, he says.

After sharing his frustrations with peers, Sauve co-founded MaxBounty as a competitor to the large networks. “Our policy since day one has been to treat all affiliates, big and small, with the same respect we’d expect from others,” he says. The network encourages direct communication between the merchants and publishers and competes on price by charging a lower percentage of the revenue, according to Sauve.

The decision to transfer networks requires careful consideration of your existing relationship and a dispassionate critique of internal business practices. It is a good time to focus your energies on what is working while eliminating affiliates that have not been contributing. Terminating the relationship with your network sends a clear signal that service is important, which needs to be communicated to the next partner to ensure that the problem does not recur.


JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.

Managing Affiliates in a Rapidly Growing Market

Over the past two years, the online real estate traffic volume has increased exponentially. Part of this dramatic growth is driven by the low interest rate environment, but a bigger reason for the increase is the rapid shift in realtor marketing dollars away from offline media – such as print – toward online advertising venues.

Affiliates play a large role in the success of online real estate. While this rapid growth has led to new opportunities, it also brings significant challenges. Merchants who match consumers with professional service providers must maintain a consistent flow of only the highest-quality leads. Low-converting traffic will frustrate the service provider and may eventually result in unwanted churn. The observations following are true in particular for any merchant who matches consumers with professional service providers.

A good affiliate manager must connect the dots from consumer inquiry to affiliate sites prior to approving any potential affiliate. You should strive to determine the main sources of traffic that a potential affiliate brings to the table. Affiliates can generate traffic a number of ways. The most common methods are cost per click (CPC) campaigns, search engine optimization (SEO) and email marketing.

These are all generally accepted practices of online marketing and can be verified by the savvy affiliate manager. For example, if the affiliate is using CPC campaigns to generate traffic, you can verify this by typing in keywords and looking for the affiliate’s ads. If the affiliate is unable or unwilling to provide at least some examples of how the traffic is generated, then you should assume the worst. If you are unable to connect the dots, then it’s possible the affiliate is driving traffic using means such as spyware, incentivized clicks or link hijacking. Connecting the dots is important not only to prevent approving a fraudulent affiliate, but also to gauge the quality and potential volume they can deliver.

In addition to connecting the dots, a good affiliate manager should be able to make the best of a bad situation whenever possible. If a particular affiliate or campaign is under-performing, you need to investigate all possibilities to salvage some or all of the relationship. This can be done by adding, removing or modifying product offerings. You can change pricing. Perhaps most importantly, you can change creative and integration techniques.

For example: an affiliate promoting our brand at a national level wanted to drop the program due to poor results. We offered the affiliate a series of custom city-specific links better suited to his network of local sites and were able to improve the affiliate’s performance significantly.

In another case an affiliate was promoting one of our products but didn’t match the consumers with the appropriate buying service. To turn this around we encouraged this affiliate to start promoting a more appropriate home listings product. This change sent revenue climbing sharply.

In addition to understanding the affiliate- generated consumer traffic, good affiliate managers possess a keen awareness of all consumer traffic channels. To state the obvious: free traffic (SEO or brand recognition) is preferable to inexpensive traffic, which is preferable to expensive traffic.

If free traffic volume increases, the merchant providing professional services should focus more on optimization of existing affiliates and less on recruitment. Aside from ranking traffic by price, you also need to factor in quality. For instance, if SEO traffic is higher quality versus comparable channels, then you should recruit new affiliates that consistently show up well in the search engines for large-volume, relevant searches.

To gain large market share in times of rapid growth, you need to have a flexible affiliate program. One way to do this is to allow affiliates to participate on several different platforms. Affiliates who prefer the online reporting and payment structure of affiliate networks can join under either of those programs. For larger affiliates who want to partner directly, consider offering higher payouts and direct links. On the product side, flexibility could mean offering regularly updated data feeds, including XML feeds and co-branded forms as well as forms of different layout or length. On the payment side, you could let direct affiliates choose between cost per click, cost per lead or even revenue sharing arrangements. This flexibility in terms of platforms, products and pricing is paramount in helping your program expand.

With the recent explosion in Internet advertising, affiliates are bombarded with merchant offers from all angles. To rise above this noise, you need to be an extremely effective communicator. New value propositions such as better payment tiers, contests, fresh creative, case studies, new products and affiliate testimonials must be communicated regularly to existing and potential affiliates. Due to spam filters and overflowing inboxes, email newsletters are becoming a less effective communication method. Try to communicate one on one with larger affiliates whenever possible.

With so many new affiliate applicants each day, it is inevitable that a few bad apples make it through the approval process. To prevent affiliate fraud, you have to routinely deny affiliates that do not respond to initial contact. While the vast majority of existing affiliates play by the terms and conditions of the affiliate program, there are instances where you’ll need to take disciplinary action. In cases where affiliates purchase trademarked broker keywords or if an affiliate violates the CANSPAM Act, action must be taken quickly.

Other challenges include taking steps to monitor cost-per-click fraud. CPC management requires additional time for analysis and closer contact with the affiliates. Each month you need to look closely at the revenue generated per click for each affiliate. Unusual behavior is typically easy to spot and must be corrected quickly. New affiliates – especially those who start on the CPC program – can be given a monthly budget cap to your company’s exposure to any potential click or lead fraud. As trust builds with an affiliate, this cap can be raised or removed altogether.

Merchants offering CPC products should also have analytics tools with robot filtering mechanisms in place, as well as the ability to track click patterns funneled down the merchant’s site. For CPA products, you should monitor each affiliate’s lead-to-close rates and raw lead data on a monthly basis to ensure lead quality.

Implementing tight controls will ensure you have a good handle on your existing base of affiliates, which makes it easier to expand your program as your company grows.


MARIE NILSSON is the affiliate manager for HomeGain, a wholly owned subsidiary of Classified Ventures, based in Emeryville, Calif. She has a background in project management for the telecom and chemical industries and holds a Master of Science degree from Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Clean Sweep

You’re thinking of working with a merchant, but you don’t want to be involved in any program that includes affiliates using questionable, if not illegal, practices. But how can you know for sure whose program is squeaky clean and whose is not?

It’s not easy to tell which merchants have clean programs. Maybe that’s because it’s not easy to pin down exactly what “clean” means.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” says Kellie Stevens, president of AffiliateFairPlay.com. “The answer varies. Clean means different things to different groups. The definition varies even among affiliates.”

The general consensus at the most basic level is that a clean program will not allow parasites of any kind to sign up and will remove offenders if they are discovered. This means that affiliates with downloadable applications that are installed without the knowledge of the consumer or that redirect affiliate links or overwrite affiliate cookies are out.

But there are those even stricter in their definition.

“For some, even if a user can opt out of the download, they consider that parasite-ware,” Stevens says. “So if a merchant partners with that affiliate, they are considered to be supporting the parasite financially and they risk being labeled as unclean.”

“As far as some affiliates think, there is no clean program,” says Shawn Collins, a consultant. “They have a very black-and-white view of anyone who uses adware. They think there are no possible [good] intentions from anyone who uses adware.”

Collins calls that “a simplistic and lazy viewpoint.” “Maybe they don’t understand the issues completely or they are taking this stand from a selfish or competitive viewpoint,” he says.

Under that stringent definition of clean, Collins says any affiliate manager that partners with any loyalty, reward or incentive program would be considered dirty. He disagrees.

“If an affiliate is using the adware for something like shopping and the application is very compliant in allowing users to uninstall the program, I think that’s okay,” Collins says. “Not all adware should be grouped together. It’s not like they are all drive-by downloads or installed or bundled without users’ consent.”

He notes that many in the online marketing community do not consider RemindU from UPromise a parasite, but notes that it uses the same technology as eBates, which is often targeted as being a parasite by affiliates.

Affiliate managers themselves seem a little more lax about what constitutes a rogue affiliate. According to a poll on AffiliateManger.net, a community message board and forum, 54 percent of affiliate managers stated that some adware affiliates are dirty and some are clean. Talk about straddling the middle ground.

But affiliates don’t always see eye to eye with program managers. Most affiliates agree that parasites typically prey on merchants that are ignorant about such nefarious practices or affiliate managers that turn a blind eye to these activities because their program is making a lot of money from rogue affiliates.

It’s a Matter of Trust

That’s why developing trust between affiliates and those managing programs is a crucial component of doing business. Both parties must feel that they’ve entered into a partnership. When you do business with partners there is an implied level of trust that the relationship needs to work for both parties.

“The trust sustained between a network and affiliate is paramount,” says Bret Grow, vice president of LinkMo Advertising Network. “Our affiliate trusts that we keep our links alive, pay a competitive price for their sales/traffic and report it honestly. Networks trust affiliates to provide credible data and lawful traffic no matter the level of volume.”

Andy Newlin, affiliate marketing supervisor for SierraTradingPost.com, knows about trust. He’s earned it. Two years ago, his program was widely criticized by very vocal affiliates. But Newlin listened to those critical affiliates and worked hard to weed out the bad affiliates. His continued clean up efforts and willingness to listen earned him a certain level of trust and respect with the online marketing community. Now if a bad apple slips in, affiliates alert Newlin and he takes care of it immediately. In other words, affiliates are now willing to cut Newlin a little slack.

“Back then I didn’t know about running a clean program and relied on affiliates to educate me,” Newlin says. “And once I had a good idea what a bad affiliate was, I took on every affiliate account and tested it myself and then made a decision on whether or not they were clean and could stay in the program. Every now and then an affiliate will alert me that a spyware or parasite-ware affiliate has snuck in. I’ll thank the affiliate for letting me know and then take the appropriate actions right away.”

Newlin says that if you take the advice of good affiliates and ask for their help, they get over the hard feelings.

Some affiliate managers are revered by the affiliate community as managers who run clean programs. Chris Sanderson of AMWSO, an affiliate marketing firm based in Bangkok, Thailand, and Andy Rodriguez of Andy Rodriguez Consulting are the most notable and mentioned the most often.

“Eighty percent of the [ABestWeb] board hates LinkShare,” says Haiko de Poel Jr., president of ABestWeb.com. “But they love Chris Sanderson. And if he says a program is clean, then come hell or high water, affiliates believe him. By definition, a trusted program is a Chris Sanderson program or an Andy Rodriguez program. There is a huge trust factor with those guys and affiliates.”

This summer Rodriguez held the first Affiliate Program Manager Certification seminar in Florida. The response was so overwhelming that Rodriguez has a second one planned for October.

“Andy is probably the most trusted affiliate manager out there, and it comes as no surprise that he’s the first to offer such a seminar,” says Greg Rice, an outsourced affiliate program manager with Commerce Management Consulting in Medina, Ohio. “As a veteran affiliate, I’m very interested in this topic.” Rice worked as an affiliate several years ago when Rodriguez managed the affiliate program for Tiger Direct.

“That’s where I got firsthand knowledge of how he inspires trust in people. If he says he’ll do something, he does it. He quickly resolves issues and he did a lot of cleaning up of that program to get the parasites out,” Rice says.

Rodriguez says it’s all about building relationships with people.

“If you respect people and are honest with them, they respond to that,” he says. “In my opinion that is what affiliate marketing is about – people and treating them with the same respect you expect to be treated [with].”

But people change jobs, so don’t confuse the merchant with the affiliate manager of that program, advises de Poel. “I know of a couple of programs that were well-managed and clean, but once the affiliate manager left, the programs went to trash. Things like that happen every day.”

Investigate, Sherlock

To get more information on a merchant, you can also talk to affiliates already in the program.

“The quickest way to find out about an affiliate program is to check in with existing affiliates,” Newlin says. “The affiliates will definitely know if the program is clean. With most other sources – such as lists on websites – you run the risk that they may not be up to date or they could be run by a competitor.”

Also check the online affiliate forums or message boards. Many have lists that are frequently, but not constantly, updated. And with thousands of active affiliates, you can always pose questions on the boards about a specific program and see what kind of response you get.

“Trust the forums. If a program is not clean, the posters on these boards won’t hesitate to chime in and tell you immediately,” Newlin says.

Rice agrees: “There’s a good chance that if someone is up to something, then someone on the boards have caught wind of it.”

And in some cases, companies that are known for using adware or parasite-ware will post a list of their partners right on their website. “Once you see who is on that list, we can avoid doing business with them,” Rice adds.

Protect Thyself

Making sure someone is running a clean program is hard work, but for most online marketers it’s something that they need to do for themselves.

Newlin says that both for affiliate managers and affiliates the only real way to be sure about anything is to do your own testing. While it takes some level of expertise to perform the testing and you have to know what to look for (such as testing applications to see if they override the affiliate tracking or the affiliate cookie), it’s worth the effort, he says.

“Before you put the links on your page, actually cut and paste the links into the browser to make a test purchase to see if it tracks,” AffiliateFairPlay.com’s Stevens suggests.

For affiliates, de Poel says there are key things to look for and specific questions to ask affiliate managers. Look for programs that offer a fair commission rate in the industry. Find out if the affiliate manager has more than one point of contact. Can you reach them by phone, email, instant messenger? Make sure the program has the tools and resources to help the affiliate (data feeds, product showcases, frequently updated creative). Is the affiliate manager active in the industry? Do they post on message boards? Are they visible at industry events? Does the affiliate manager quickly address concerns?

While Stevens is sympathetic to affiliates’ concerns, she wants to see them take more action.

“We need to put more focus on holding the affiliates’ feet to the fire,” she says. “They are right that they are losing justly earned revenue, and they are entitled to that. But they need to take a stance and do less complaining. It’s always ‘Microsoft should be detecting problems. Google should be doing this or that.’ They want everybody else to take on the issue. They need to say ‘What can I do for myself to fix these problems?’ “

Especially since affiliates are unlikely to get support from consumers on this issue.

“The average consumer has no idea what link hijacking is and that cookies are being overwritten,” Rodriquez says. “They don’t have a clue and they don’t care. The pressure has to come from the merchants and OPMs that are managing programs. This is crap and it’s hurting the industry.”

Certification or Regulation?

LinkMo’s Grow says that one of the biggest problems his company faces is a lack of affiliate identity verification. His company is inundated daily with fraudulent affiliate sign-ups. “Manually sifting through all of them to find those who are legitimate is time-consuming,” he says. “But no matter how much work it is, it’s critical to weed out crooks that would send bad data and spam across the network.”

Instead of guessing who is doing what, Grow says a possible solution to the problem is an industry-wide, third-party, affiliate verification service. LinkMo is developing a new service called Certified Affiliates to determine which affiliates are legitimate and which are fraudulent before they gain access to any network. LinkMo plans to reward affiliates who get certified through CertifiedAffiliates for the time and expense the service saves LinkMo.

Certification is not a new idea. de Poel says he tried it a few years ago. He started ATrustedMerchant.com, a program that gave out certification logos to merchants that met the predefined criteria for running a clean program.

But several companies that failed to receive certification due to the inclusion of parasitic affiliates raised a stink about their competitors being certified. Calls from the legal department at one of the companies followed, and the whole situation raised issues about the legality of compliance.

“It really become a pushing point for me,” de Poel says. “Everyone keeps on wanting me to make a list of clean merchants, but it got to a point where the list was not valid and there was inaccurate information on the site. It’s just too dangerous to certify merchants as being clean or trusted. Things change too fast to make sure that once a merchant got the certification they stayed clean.”

de Poel was also surprised at the lack of volunteers to help in his efforts, given the volume of messages on his forum devoted to voicing complaints about dirty programs.

“The community is coming out and saying they all want clean programs. Managers want this and affiliates want this, but no one is willing to do the damn work to make it happen. They all want to pass it off to someone else to do the work,” de Poel says. “I asked for help with ATrustedMerchant.com and only five people offered to pitch in. That’s not right.”

Stevens agrees there are many obstacles to certification. “It’s a huge technical challenge, and whoever undertakes such an effort is going to need a large pool of resources in terms of the time it takes, people and money,” she says. “I just don’t know if certification of affiliates is a viable financial business model.”

Consent is a huge issue in the certification process. Clean merchants will readily agree to a voluntary accreditation process, but anyone using questionable practices is not likely to submit to the necessary scrutiny, according to Stevens.

“It’s a sticky wicket,” she says. “People that want to conduct tests regardless of having the consent of the merchant or affiliate may face a lawsuit if they don’t pass.”

Instead Stevens would like to see some test-purchase protocols that could be used by affiliates.

The Networks’ Role

Some claim that the solution might not rest with affiliates, but rather with pressuring the networks to kick affiliates with parasite-ware out of their networks.

“A certification process is no good if networks continue to allow dirty affiliates in. At that point it doesn’t matter if I’m certified as clean,” Rice says. ShareASale.com is the largest network that has rigorous policies regarding adware, spyware and parasite-ware. To ensure no offenders enter its program, ShareASale does not allow any downloadable applications. Period.

“Affiliates could pressure the networks by refusing to do business with them,” Rice says. “The whole issue is driven by money, and right now the networks think that allowing parasites means more money for them. Affiliates need to show them it’s short-sighted and untrue.”

Many vocal affiliates are always informing the networks about nefarious activities. But these whistle-blowing affiliates often don’t feel that appropriate measures are taken against the offenders.

“The networks need to take action on the information from affiliates about bad practices,” Newlin says.

Collins says it’s going to be hard to satisfy all parties. “There’s just no way to placate people. If affiliates are required to provide more information about themselves to get into programs, then they consider that an invasion of privacy, but on the other hand the same affiliates are hollering that programs often let anybody in, including rogue affiliates. They want things to change but they don’t want it to impact them,” he says.

He cites LinkShare’s implementation of more restrictions with its Athena program, an enhanced affiliate registration and management system that allows merchants to verify affiliate contact information when an affiliate first registers in the network and when the affiliate changes any element of their contact information.

“People were screaming from the rooftops that this was an invasion of privacy,” Collins says.

“Project Athena is a great idea that was needed and I give kudos and credit to Steve (Messer, Linkshare CEO), but the execution of the project was chaotic and a disaster,” Rodriquez says. “When launching something of that level, you need to test in beta and retest in beta and test again and then bring it out. They had the launch before it was ready, but it was good for the industry.”

Many affiliates remain distrustful of the networks and say that despite publicly paying lip service to the issue of parasites, most networks are not doing enough and will get their comeuppance.

Rice says he believes “a day will come when this activity is illegal and affiliates will remember who did business with parasites and they will get what they deserve.”

Some encourage affiliates to vote with their wallets.

“Return on investment is key for the networks,” Rodriquez says. “And the networks don’t own affiliates, so affiliates should go where they can get the best return on their money.”

If the networks aren’t doing enough, then some would welcome government intervention.

SierraTradingPost.com’s Newlin would like to see the government step in and take over the regulation of affiliates. “I see parasites stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they should be sued for it. The government should help,” he says. “I envision it like the CAN-SPAM regulation.”

But Newlin concedes that the government lacks the manpower to truly crack down on cyber-crimes. “They are probably not hitting 90 percent of the spammers,” he says.

Some affiliates say New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer may be the one to finally exterminate parasites.

Spitzer, a candidate for governor of New York in 2006 is best known for his high-profile crusades against conflicts of interest in business. Now he’s focused on cyberspace. In April, he filed a civil lawsuit against Intermix Media of Los Angeles accusing the company of secretly installing software that delivers nuisance pop-up advertisements. He says such programs are fraudulent and threaten to discourage e-commerce.

Spitzer has publicly stated that he looks forward to a time when technology will provide a comprehensive solution to stop spammers, parasites and spyware, but until that time there needs to be a cop in cyberspace who will stop the most egregious abuses.

But any mention of the government getting involved raises heated debate. Rodriquez is opposed to the government getting involved. “The last thing we need is for the government to say this is under their control. That is the very last thing we need. Still, he admits that the industry has evolved and there are tools and companies that are taking advantage of the system.

“If some of the activities in the online world were happening in the regular brick-and-mortar space, some of these people would be in jail,” Rodriquez says.

The Clean Advantage

But just because a program is clean doesn’t mean it is well-managed, according to Newlin.

It’s a lot of work to run a clean program, but there are rewards.

“If you are clean, then legitimate affiliates will promote you harder,” Newlin says. “A lot of super-affiliates will not even touch merchants that have parasites. If the affiliate manager is not selfish in driving their own channel within their company, they will make sure the affiliate program isn’t going through the roof. It’s in their best interest to see if the parasite applications are stealing affiliate commissions in their own channel.”

AffiliateFairPlay’s Stevens expects things to change as the industry evolves and affiliate managers become more savvy about the online market, “but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Rodriquez says that, in the end, in order for the online marketing space to grow and succeed, everybody has to win. “To become successful you need to help others be successful.”

Stand By Me

The last of the big independent affiliate and performance marketing networks was finally swallowed up by another large international conglomerate.

In early September, Japanese e-commerce portal Rakuten took its first step into the U.S. market by agreeing to acquire privately held New York-based performance marketing network LinkShare for approximately $425 million in cash.

Speculation was swirling around the online marketing community for several months that LinkShare, which has investors including Mitsui & Co. Ltd., Mitsui & Co. (U.S.A); Internet Capital Group, and Comcast Interactive Capital, an affiliate of Comcast Corp., was looking for a buyer.

Enter Rakuten. The public company, with a market capitalization of $9.7 billion (as of September 5) was looking to break into the U.S. market and wanted to establish an immediate presence. Founded in 1997, Rakuten has several divisions and is involved in e-commerce, media, travel and financial services and owns a professional baseball team in Japan (the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles).

“LinkShare’s performance-based marketing expertise across affiliate, search and email capabilities provides Rakuten with an excellent first step to launch our U.S. operations and continue our international expansion,” said Hiroshi Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten. “We can leverage LinkShare’s client relationships and technology advantages worldwide, so that LinkShare will be able to achieve significant growth in the future.”

For many big players in online marketing, pairing up with larger, more diversified companies that provide additional financial resources is nothing new.

LinkShare rival Commission Junction was bought for $58 million in cash and stock by ValueClick in October 2003; ValueClick previously purchased affiliate network BeFree in March 2002 for $128 million in stock; Performics was acquired by DoubleClick in a cash deal estimated at $58 million (plus an earn-out of up to $7 million) in May 2004; DoubleClick was acquired in July 2005 by Click Holding Corp. in a deal valued at $1.1 billion.

There are conflicting views on why LinkShare sold for so much more than its competitors.

One poster on affiliate marketing forum AbestWeb.com called the sale price “An insane amount of money!!” while another wrote, “I was actually surprised they got it for as little as $425 million. Especially considering MySpace was purchased for around $580 million and Shopzilla.com went for around $560 million. I guess the going price for big sites like these is between $400 million and $600 million I can’t believe ValueClick paid so little for CJ; they certainly got a deal there.”

Other industry watchers claim that the high selling price is a combination of a better economic climate and the growing popularity and desirability of performance marketing.

“The price – especially compared to their competitors – is startling,” says Shawn Collins, a consultant. “But the economy is in better shape than a year ago. Affiliate marketing is more respected and on firmer ground. It’s a real testament that affiliate marketing is going well.”

Haiko de Poel Jr., president of online affiliate community AbestWeb.com, says that affiliate marketing is only a little hotter than when CJ was purchased two years ago.

“Even though the climate is better and affiliate marketing is a little hotter, it’s not enough to justify $425 million. There is no way you can tell me that LinkShare is worth twice what was paid for CJ and BeFree combined. There’s just something wrong with that. In fact, there are just too many things wrong with this whole deal.”

LinkShare, which was established in 1996, has a network of more than 500 merchants including J.C. Penney, 1-800-Flowers .com, American Express, Avon Products and Dell. It has more than 10,000 affiliates in its network and claims that for 2004, approximately 2 percent of U.S. retail e-commerce, or $1.4 billion, passed through the LinkShare network.

LinkShare’s chairman and CEO, Steve Messer, says, “By partnering with a successful portal with global aspirations, LinkShare has positioned itself to take advantage of the increasingly universal nature of the Internet and e-commerce.”

Messer goes on to say, “Our merchants and our affiliates will benefit because taking the network worldwide can only increase volume, which means growth for everyone.” Messer, along with the rest of LinkShare’s senior management team, including President and COO Heidi Messer, will remain with the company.

Affiliate Alan Townsend, marketing manager for PersonalizationMall.com, says the sale of LinkShare is bittersweet.

“I can tell you that Steve Messer is passionate about affiliate marketing and LinkShare. I don’t think this deal is just about money. I think if anyone wants LinkShare to succeed, it’s him. I’m confident that he’ll help make decisions for LinkShare that will allow them to grow well into the future,” Townsend says. “With that being said, I think it’s always bittersweet to see a great company that you love get sold. It’s much easier to buy a company than it is to build one.”

In the short term, affiliates are questioning everything. When will they be paid? How will they be paid? Who will pay them? What changes are going to be made? What improvements are going to be made? How will current issues be resolved?

Townsend notes that continued communication with affiliates will be key for LinkShare’s future success.

“I think LinkShare has to keep the affiliate community informed throughout this entire process. Affiliates deserve to know how this is going to impact their livelihoods,” Townsend says. “In the long term, affiliates are going to benefit. The new owners will want to see growth. LinkShare will be trying to expand into new markets quickly. Eventually LinkShare will have a global presence that will attract more affiliates and more merchants. As a result, LinkShare services, such as check processing, affiliate support, etc., will have to improve to meet the growing needs of these affiliates and merchants.”