Judi Moore: The Leaper

About Judi MooreJudi Moore is not a super-affiliate. She’s not even sure what that is. She doesn’t see this as a detriment. Being an affiliate is also not her first career. In fact, at 52 years old, she’s had a lifetime of work in the corporate world – in about three industries, she says – only to land back in her home state of Illinois, with six grown kids, husband No. 2, a Schnauzer and a burgeoning affiliate business.

She is the first one to say that she hasn’t really got a plan. She’s a leaper, not a looker, even though her diminutive frame doesn’t scream out that she’s a fighter. Always ready with a quip, her independence and voracious mind more than make up for her stature. Her personal motto is, “Leap and the net will appear.” And that is pretty much what she’s been doing her whole life.

What makes her stand out and helped inform her independent spirit goes all the way back to high school. Before she was even out of her senior year, she received a full scholarship to Brigham Young University in Utah back in the early ’70s. It was a long way from where she grew up in Illinois, but she grabbed her sweetheart, married him and lit out for Utah in nearly the same week. He was a farmer and followed her out there to see what he could do.

By Christmas of that year she and her husband were back in Illinois. Her attempt at higher education was over. As a good Mormon, she knew some of the expectations – get married, have kids, be faithful to the faith. But what she didn’t count on was living in a society that basically devalued her studies – journalism and the fine arts.

What she also didn’t count on was having a husband that abused her and was unfaithful. In 1981, after having three children and moving to Montana for her husband’s job, it was clear that her marriage was also over.

“I’m an independent sort,” she says, “and I swept up the kids and went to town. And felt betrayed. Then he filed for divorce. While there was domestic abuse – I was excommunicated from the church. I was the bad one in their eyes.”

She thought it was more than odd that when she arrived to start school, the reception was chilly. “I never expected to be looked at funny for being the one going to school and my husband working.” While she looks back at that time and calls it a “failure in my life,” the experience taught her a lot about liberty, self-determination, the troubles with blind faith and introduced the notion that “everything that happens to you puts you to the path you are on.”

These are all helpful pieces of life’s mosaic she took into the corporate world – with three kids and no college degree. She started selling radio ads in Montana. It was just a job that began as the “little girl order taker,” but she found she was good at it and moved to other kinds of marketing. Eventually she was going to stop work to be with family – but ended up in a small mortgage firm. Mortgage lender Countrywide Financial recruited her and made her an assistant manager and then regional manager. By then she was commuting two hours each way and decided to get back to Rockford, Ill. – where she and her second husband have been for 20 years, with her three kids and his three kids.

Judi Moore Along the way, they bought and sold a small radio station in New Mexico. Her second husband, Dave Moore, was known as the guy who would come into radio stations and turn them around if they were in trouble. Meeting him turned her around as well. She says that he just made the cut – before her radical feminism ruled out anything to do with marriage. “I’m not radical anymore,” she says. “It’s young blood that runs hot.” And it was her husband and his “geekiness” that first led her to the Internet. Also, she was at Countrywide Financial as a middle manager when the company went online, and while she didn’t know about things like eBay.com, she figured if she could sell books about mortgages online she could put some money away for retirement.

Moore will be the first one to tell you that she lacks an affinity for technology. Not that she can’t do it – she says she can pretty much teach herself anything – but she thought an easy way would be to have her husband and stepson code Web pages for her.

So in 2004 she opened LunchBreakShopping.com, her mall, selling everything from crafts to fashion to movies to bridal and baby stuff. Having come from corporate America, she knew first hand that many people shop online while at the office. She says she built the mall with one hand while holding the HTML book in the other and saw a little profit in the first year she filed a tax return.

She’s still not making big bucks and she knows that a bit more care in her campaigns may get her more notice. She’s not rich and she’s actually not looking to get rich – just a little extra for her husband’s retirement would be great. He retires soon and therefore she would love to find strategies to keep her commissions coming.

One turning point was joining ShareASale.com in the summer of 2005. Up until then her sales were fairly flat. “I learned from ABestWeb forums that I should give ShareASale a shot,” she said, “and kind of didn’t make a dime until that. I started seeing little successes with them.”

She also believes that her writing background gives her a leg up. She feels she can write good, tight copy. She’s kind of a newspaper nut and she will often see something in the paper that gives her an idea for an article. Something on mortgage advice to first-time home buyers, for example. She’s seen all the horror stories about home mortgages in the flesh and can usually come up with a small article that can be peppered with common sense. “Wise old grandma kind of stuff,” she says. She’ll write it up – about 700 words – and post it. She thinks that the quality of the writing gives her rankings a boost without any paid placement. The writing comes pretty naturally and it helps to have set templates or blog-style templates for her to pour the content into.

Today she owns about 50 domain names but she says that more than half are underdeveloped. In addition to her website LunchBreakShopping.com she has sites on home mortgages, Stanley Home Products, an all-things-Santa-Claus site and something she calls Middle Aged Spread, for people like herself, she says. Middle Aged Spread runs under the JudiMoore.com domain and is where she will sell a niche item for awhile – gifts, stuffed animals, diet-related items – and then just wipe the site clean and post a whole different niche product.

That’s not what she did in the beginning. The mall was an attempt to sell all things. It didn’t work too well. But once she picked a specific area – pajamas was the breakout one – things took off from there. “I’m interested in everything,” she says.

Midwestern Moxie

And while her interests are varied, her core is very Midwestern. She wakes up about 6 a.m. to see her husband off to work. She’ll fix his lunch and take something out to thaw for dinner. First thing in the morning, her husband usually goes to his newspaper while she runs to her computer to check stats on her sites. On some mornings – if she was up late the night before – she may go back to bed after he goes to work. If there is a lot of cut-and-paste work, she will save it to do it at night.

And while she’s “tried the PPC thing,” the results have been less than impressive. “I’ve tried it and come out with two or three specific things and my conversions are okay and so I let them run.” She just recently added Google analytics but still figures 80 percent of her traffic is from organic search. “With gifts and pajamas I must have a unique voice,” she says. Her husband and sons run some sites under her banner – about Linux and Linux books, which she says are quite popular. According to Moore, her husband has the traffic but hasn’t monetized it yet.

Judi Moore While she can code and is quick to learn, she says her husband is the real geek of the family. She says they have about eight computers in the house. And while she does have a laptop, it’s not her primary machine so she has to load it with the correct files every time she takes it out to the lake. She sent her first text message when she was in Las Vegas for Affiliate Summit in January. She says she knows just enough PHP coding to be dangerous. Of the eight computers she only uses two; the others are Linux test machines. She does have a Bluetooth phone and is wireless in the house, but still leads a life that is unencumbered by technology, including going sailing whenever possible and reading up to six books at a time (her most recent, the offbeat That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, by Sylvia Boorstein).

She says her creativity and the technical side don’t go well together. Her desk is a storm of sticky notes. Whether she is going to write or code depends on which side of her brain gets up in the morning, she says. She could be writing or she could be cutting and pasting. If she’s in the zone, she’ll stay up until 4:00 in the morning getting it just right. She’ll make a list the night before and even if she says she may ignore the list the next day, at least she organized her thoughts.

And while it takes planning to help your business grow, she’s taking it easy on dwelling too much on what it all will mean for her future. Maybe she’ll go back to school and chase that college degree that was so rudely put in suspended animation. But maybe she won’t. She says she’s toyed with the idea that she would make a good affiliate manager, but that would mean walking back into the corporate world. “I’m still just learning it all as fast as I can,” she says. And that is also part of the attraction. She likens the way mortgage rules change so often to the changes in the average affiliate business. “I love that about it.”

Meanwhile, she and her husband dream of the days ahead. She says they love to just “dink around together,” whether it’s traveling or going to the supermarket. They want to get to a warmer climate. He wants to sail but she’s not sure they should be that far from medical attention in case they need it. And since affiliate marketing is taking off for her this year, she thinks the dream could still happen. “But,” she adds, “if I have to pass out carts at Wal-Mart, so be it.”

She would love to move around as much as possible, now that the kids are out on their own – one’s in Iowa; one’s a midwife in Montana; another is a hospice care worker; two live in the same state as her and one was in New Jersey. Originally the attraction of affiliate marketing was that it was a business you can pack into a suitcase. Plus, she says, when you’re in radio you move around a lot, too. And while her husband switched to television and is now at the phone company, his retirement is imminent. When that happens they will be free to roam wherever they please. And that might end up being on a sailboat. Going across the country in a motor home also sounds appealing. But, she adds, whether on a boat or in a home, “I think I’ll be doing affiliate marketing until the day I die.”

Guiding Lightly: Q & A with Anne Holland

Anne Holland is the president of MarketingSherpa, which aims to help marketers advance by sharing real-world marketing data and hard-won lessons. The Rhode Island-based company publishes a wide range of metrics guides, buyer’s guides and how-to reports, as well as a 500+ case study library. Prior to founding MarketingSherpa in 2000, Holland spent 20 years in publishing. She also served as the head of marketing for Phillips Business Media – a $100 million publishing company where she helped launch one of the world’s first profitable subscription sites in 1995 – and the trade publications Interactive Marketing News in 1994 and min’s New Media in 1995. Started in Holland’s spare bedroom, MarketingSherpa was recently acquired by marketing research firm MEC Labs out of Atlantic Beach, Florida. Revenue Senior Editor Eric Reyes asked Holland about her company’s role in moving marketing forward and what lies ahead for the performance marketing space.

Eric Reyes: What was the genesis of the MarketingSherpa idea? How did you perceive the need?

Anne Holland: Before I led MarketingSherpa I was a marketer myself, so I had a pretty good gut-level understanding of what marketers needed that wasn’t being provided by research firms or publications. However, that doesn’t mean I trusted my gut! Instead I toured the U.S. and U.K. for about six months, asking marketers themselves what information they really needed to do their jobs more easily and/or with better results. The final company – MarketingSherpa – was built directly from those suggestions. Turns out our target audience wanted lots of case studies, benchmark data, creative samples and how-to instruction at a practical yet advanced level. So that’s what we provide. We still tour regularly as well as surveying and talking directly with customers weekly to keep on track.

ER: Can you outline your inventory of content – how much is available and how has it grown?

AH: There’s a lot! Basically it breaks down into three areas – all of which are created by research and reporting teams in-house here (we don’t accept contributed content).

  • Case studies and how-to articles – based on hour-long interviews with actual marketers. We delve into what worked, what didn’t, what the data was and include creative samples. We’ve got a library of thousands of these, searchable by tactic and by company/brand name. They’re all exclusive.
  • Benchmark guides, buyer’s guides and tactical handbooks – based on research into what’s working for real-life marketers. We survey tens of thousands of marketers every year, and profile hundreds of consultants and vendors. These 200- plus-page reports come in PDF for instant question answering, and we also ship a printed-and-bound copy to every customer for easy reference.
  • Summits – every year we hold three big summits for marketers: in New York, San Francisco, Boston and a fourth city (next year it’s Miami). The topics include email marketing, selling subscriptions to Internet content and B-to-B demand generation. Naturally our summits feature loads of peer-presented case studies and new data.

ER: Now that MarketingSherpa has been acquired, what will change for you and the company?

AH: Pretty much since day one, there have always been a lot of people who wanted to buy us out or invest in us. I held out for seven years because I wanted our growth to be driven by our readers’ needs, not some board of investors. Every six months I take a few days to step back and review the progress and future of the company. When I did that this past June, I realized it had gotten too big for me to handle alone anymore. It’s a common fate for an entrepreneurial- driven company. You grow it as big as you can and then you hit the ceiling of your own desires and abilities. I wasn’t born to administer this fast-growing multi-million-dollar organization. I was born to research, write and keep in touch with the needs of the readership.

So that’s when I started looking for a new corporate parent for Sherpa. The goal was to find someone who would understand and appreciate our readers and our mission, plus appreciate the great team of employees and researchers we’ve built – not just someone who would wave a bunch of cash at me. By finding the right buyer, in effect I was hiring Sherpa’s new boss. Several organizations were in the running – after carefully interviewing several of them, I chose MEC Labs based on fit.

They are a research firm that partners with folks such as The New York Times to conduct experiments on live campaigns to discover what works (and what doesn’t) in marketing. We are a research firm that partners with our 237,000 readers via surveys and studies to discover what works in marketing. Culturally the fit works too. We are all fairly intense, hardworking people who also like the ocean. Their headquarters are on the beach in Florida. Our headquarters are about a block from the beach in Rhode Island.

MarketingSherpa won’t change much – aside from continuing to grow and serve our readership even better. We’ll just have even stronger corporate leadership to allow us to reach bigger goals and do some pretty amazing research projects. On the personal side, I’ll still be here. Only instead of being stuck in meetings with accounting, HR and IT, I’ll get to focus all my time on the things I really love – research, writing and the art of marketing. And, maybe a little more time to walk on the beach.

ER: What are some of the most important goals you have for MarketingSherpa next in the 12 to 15 months?

AH: Keep her on a steady, focused course. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with expansion opportunities, or to let success go to your head so you do crazy things, launch big new ideas that don’t hold to your core business. I’m an idea person, so it’s probably toughest for me. But our big idea is No New Ideas.

Aside from that, you’ll see several launches that have been enormously researched and several years in the making, the biggest of which is our upcoming membership site launch. At the base, it simply means instead of paying $5 to $9 per article every time you want to read something, you can pay one flat annual fee. Convenience is a wonderful thing. There are also some new features – but the dev team will shoot me if I talk too soon. Watch for December-January and you’ll begin to see.

ER: Are there industry segments that MarketingSherpa is not currently focusing on but would love to get into, and why?

AH: We set our course for a very specific marketplace from day one, and it’s a darned big one that will take us many more years to serve completely. Our chosen marketplace is marketing professionals (including advertising, PR and online) in corporate America at the manager to VP level. That’s about 140,000 marketers. We also serve the consultants, agencies and vendors who serve marketers. That’s about 10,000 folks. So it’s a total market of 150,000.

ER: How much effort is dedicated to the affiliate marketing space by MarketingSherpa ? And the performance marketing space? And do you see that changing in the future?

AH: We cover affiliate and performance marketing from the point of view of the merchant or brand-side marketer. That’s who our reader is. Although many affiliates also read us, they aren’t our target audience. So, for example, the affiliate marketing team at eBay reads Sherpa, but most of their affiliates probably don’t ” and that’s fine with us.

Our coverage in the spaces is decided by the input of our readers – they tell us what they want us to focus our research on and that’s where we go. I personally would like to cover affiliate marketing a bit more than we do, but for many of the merchant-side marketers, it’s just not all that critical to their jobs.

Often an e-commerce or lead generation site will have one marketer who is responsible both for affiliate and also managing SEM. That’s crazy – too much work for anyone to do well. But that’s the way it is. We try to educate marketers via our annual Affiliate Marketing Special (now in its fourth year) every January and other studies such as our Ecommerce Benchmark Guide. Many, however, many, especially in consumer software marketing online, are not there heavily yet, if at all.

ER: What are the next two or three things you think will turn Internet marketing on its ear?

AH: Frankly, I don’t see much changing over the long haul with the exception of a lot more mobile activity in the U.S. (at long, long last) and of course video, video, video. I’m sure what we’re going to see next is a lot of “shovelware” video [sticking your TV ad online], badly measured corporate podcasts and way too many text-voting entertainment campaigns.

If mainstream off-line marketers – the giant retail chains and consumer packaged goods firms – could easily measure Internet activity against their off-line sales, then you would see the world change. The biggies still spend single digits online. Bear in mind, all of SEM spending for this year is less than everything spent on promotional products such as embossed pens and T-shirts given out as marcom. We who research Internet quite a bit tend to forget how incredibly small the spend still is compared with other vehicles.

In the meantime, the real focus that every marketer should be spending their time and money on is not what’s new, but rather, how to make the old stuff work better. Our data show that if you just improve the copywriting on your site a tiny bit, your conversions leap up. Copywriting! That’s as old-fashioned a tactic as you can get. True success is about testing the basics.

ER: You do a lot of public speaking gigs and you also conduct many of the interviews for case studies. Is there one facet of your job you prefer, and why?

AH: My job has really evolved as the company has grown over the past seven years. Research is now run by our research director Stefan Tornquist and his team, while editorial is run by editorial director Tad Clarke and his team. We also have teams running summits and memberships. These days I’m doing less research and writing myself and far more leadership. So I get to attend departmental meetings and guide the company as a whole. I miss the old days when I was chief cook and bottle washer ” but now we have so much more capacity to serve our customers’ needs. So that’s a delightful thing.

Now my favorite things are speaking about new research studies (it’s so fun to say, “Hey, here’s info marketers are yearning to know – let’s go get it!”); speaking at shows, especially when I get to meet readers who have ideas about research studies or stories we should cover (many of our best case studies come from me meeting folks on the road); and once a week personally conducting a marketer-side interview for a story I or one of our reporting staff might write.

ER: During many of your talks you give real-life Internet shopping examples of good and bad things that you’ve encountered. How many of those incidents spark research on that topic?

AH: Actually events often spark our research because attendees will ask great questions… . Those questions drive the research. I’m way, way, way too close to the research we’ve done and the marketing world to know what marketers really want to know.

When you’ve studied something intensively for years, you’re the wrong person to come up with new ideas for studies. You’ll end up in esoteric or newfangled places that your audience couldn’t care less about. One of our biggest stories – in terms of readership and reader feedback – last year was research we’d done in partnership with CNET’s B-to-B Network on what white paper titles got downloaded the most. I thought it would be [just] an OK article, but my God, it hit a huge nerve: floods of thank-you email letters from our readers in the B-to-B space.

So, you have to let your readers tell you what’s hot and what’s not. Don’t ask your editor or newsletter writer. I’m shocked that so few email newsletters do reader surveys asking about content. They all need to.

ER: What are some of the benchmarks for maintaining the quality of MarketingSherpa research and other content?

AH: We never publish data that doesn’t have enough evidence behind it to be statistically reliable. That drives me nuts about other studies (including the DMAs). They’ll survey 10 people and then call it a “study” and make a big stink about findings. We don’t publish charts if the data has to be sliced “too thin” to get a number.

We know that many readers are using us for their budgeting, forecasting and to sell their marketing plan to their CEO. We don’t want to feed them misinformation or slanted data and mess that up.

Unlike most of our competitors, we do not publish third-party content. We don’t solicit editorial from vendors or consultants or anyone else. Our editorial is researched and created in-house. That’s a lot more expensive, but it’s worth it.

On the research benchmark side, we do create partnered studies with some folks where we survey the marketplace or examine results stats we could not do alone. We also gather best-of research from some third-party sources to fill in holes and provide perspective. But we’re not like eMarketer where 100 percent of the data is compiled from other people (they do zero primary research). With us, it’s about 20 percent.

That combination of our data plus partnered studies plus best-of-third-party data is a killer combo. You get everything in one place. It’s all about convenience.

Sometimes people question our data – for example, recently several SEO experts questioned whether our data on the industry slowdown was based in reality because, from their personal perspective, business was booming. Thing is, we had data out the wazoo – data from more than 3,000 client-side marketers, from 104 top SEO firms and from third-party studies. We had more data than anyone on the planet on search marketing. From our perspective, the industry was slowing like crazy and I was able to defend that very easily.

ER: MarketingSherpa covers so many areas of online marketing. Do you consider yourself an expert in any one area of marketing?

AH: I suppose my main personal areas of expertise would be e-commerce, lead generation landing pages and email marketing. I’ve personally been involved with research we’ve conducted in all three and met many, many of the marketers themselves in these fields. I’ve also been heavily involved in our SEM research and coverage over the years, but I think SEM is something that you really cannot be expert in unless you’ve rolled up your sleeves and you do it every day yourself. I don’t. Few of the press covering SEM have.

ER: What is the next logical evolution beyond paid online content?

AH: I am so psyched about buying TV episodes online! In a past job, I was the marketer for a paid subscription [print] newsletter called Interactive Video News. Back then in the early ’90s we were all talking about 500 channels and pay-per-view cable where you’d be able to view anything on demand. Well I have on demand at home on my cable now, but it’s a very clunky interface. However, our research director Stefan Tornquist brags he doesn’t own a TV at all ” he just buys and downloads anything he wants to watch from the Internet.

Mainstream TV networks are now cross-promoting new shows by running them on cable for a few episodes to get the word out. Broadcast TV is, in effect, now just a marketing vehicle for content that’s paid for with some ads. I buy the TV episodes directly by episode online now. Love it to death. That plus buying music song by song for iPods, and the huge long tail of that, is very exciting. Media consumption is changing hugely in the way purchasing changed in the past five years due to search engines for research and ecommerce.

Colin McDougall: The Timekeeper

This past summer, super-affiliate Colin McDougall traveled around British Columbia with his family in his newly purchased travel trailer. From mid-July through Labor Day weekend McDougall worked a grand total of about 10 hours from the road. The rest of the time he spent paddling his kids around in an inflatable kayak, feeding the ducks, building sandcastles on the beach and simply enjoying his free time.

Filling up his free time by enjoying hiking and camping is something that McDougall does a lot of these days. Recently he moved with his wife and two young daughters, ages 3 and 6, to a house on a mountain in Chilliwack, British Columbia, where their backyard is literally the vast expanse of Western Canada about 80 miles outside Vancouver.

McDougall loves the natural beauty of British Columbia’s mountains, rivers and lakes. He moved there to attend college after growing up more than 3,000 miles away on the St. Lawrence River in Brockville, Ontario, which is dubbed the City of the 1000 Islands.

In many ways, McDougall lives up to some Canadian stereotypes – he is remarkably polite and friendly. He’s a skier, climber and fisherman. He loves to drink Sleeman beer with friends and is a huge fan of the Canadian rock band Rush; such a fan that in 2004 he bought expensive second-row tickets on eBay to Rush’s 30th anniversary tour concert in Toronto, Ontario, and treated the friend who first turned him on to the band.

And McDougall has been engaging in his country’s national sports pastime – hockey – since he was 7 years old and still plays in a weekly league so he can get together with his pals.

For someone who is so affable, it’s surprising that McDougall doesn’t mind the often-solitary life of an affiliate marketer, which usually means working all day alone at the computer. He claims that when he needs to focus, he takes the new trailer that is typically parked in his yard, tows it to a nearby recreation area and spends hours working alone with no distractions.

McDougall admits being an affiliate can be a bit lonely, and combats this by getting together for coffee with other self-employed workers, primarily affiliate managers from the Vancouver area that he’s met at industry shows, which he enjoys attending.

Now that his business is going well, he works when he wants to and when he is most effective. For many years, however, McDougall did not have the freedom of working when and where he wanted and it was his frustrations about lack of free time and working at inconvenient times that motivated him into the affiliate game back in 2001.

Previously for 10 years, McDougall worked as a systems administrator – first for seven years at Nortel Networks, and then for three years at BC Hydro. Although he liked his job, he didn’t like the time that he was expected to work. As the computer guy, he was expected to be first guy in the office and last guy out. Often he would be paged at 2 a.m. and would then have to go into work. The grueling hours, in addition to more than two hours of commuting time from the suburbs of Vancouver into the city each day, put an incredible strain on him.

In March 2001, McDougall was playing hockey with a friend, Chuck Anderson, who is the ex-business partner of James Martell, author of the Affiliate Marketers Handbook. Anderson offered McDougall work writing code and building tools to manage the publishing of content for a handful of websites within Martell’s business in return for some “measly checks.”

One day Anderson approached McDougall with an idea: instead of receiving a check for his coding work, Anderson would teach him the business of affiliate marketing as payment. Because McDougall had an idea about how much money Anderson was making through his website, he agreed immediately to the deal.

Just months later, when the time came for McDougall to put his knowledge into practice and build his own affiliate site, he wasn’t sure how to determine which industry would be profitable, so he opted for credit cards because that was what Anderson was doing.

By late August 2001, McDougall was hard at work building a website for credit card merchants such as American Express and Chase. He was garnering high rankings on Google with all kinds of credit card-related terms, and his business was based entirely upon natural search. He was making lots of money, and by November 2001, just nine months after he started learning the affiliate marketing ropes, his affiliate income was about 2.5 times more than his full-time job at BC Hydro.

In February 2003, he took the nine-month parental job leave allowed to men in Canada and tacked on an extra six weeks of vacation from BC Hydro. He used that time to focus completely on his affiliate business. However, due to ranking fluctuations in Google, McDougall experienced some setbacks. His training with Martell and Anderson had focused primarily on how to make money directly from affiliate commissions by ranking high in Google. McDougall was quickly finding out – the hard way – that producing sites that were built solely to rank in the search engines with little thought to visitor experience was not a long-term business strategy.

Then a major shift occurred at Google’s that caused every one of McDougall’s sites to lose their ranking. The search giant began basing its coveted rankings on visitor experience factors such as visitor duration, quality of the site and depth of the site as opposed to easily manipulated factors such as inbound links from highly page-ranked sites. McDougall realized he was headed for trouble.

He experienced a severe drop in income over the span of a few months. For August of 2003 he earned $60,000. In September 2003 his commissions were down to $20,000. By October 2003 he’d dropped to $12,000 and when November rolled around, McDougall’s income from commissions had plummeted to around $6,000.

This substantial decrease was particularly alarming because McDougall had bought lots of expensive items based on his higher income, such as vehicles, a new house and lots of toys.

Decision Time

The diminishing income forced him to make a tough decision – either return from his extended parental leave at BC Hydro or quit and revamp his affiliate business. McDougall and his wife had started a family during his full-time transition to affiliate marketing and he was feeling the pressure of additional responsibility as well as hearing doubting comments from his friends. Still, he says it was an easy decision for him to leave his job because he felt it was no longer an option. Although his wife was worried about him leaving a position with excellent benefits and vacation time, she supported his decision.

But McDougall knew that in order to make this business really work he needed to turn to others for some new direction and decided to go directly to the horse’s mouth – Google.

So, in January 2004, he flew to the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York City.

While at the event he timed it so that he would “accidentally bump into” a high-profile senior Google engineer who was presenting (Matt Cutts).

During the encounter McDougall went through every step of the process that he was using to rank high in Google, and with every point, Cutts indicated when McDougall was on the right or wrong track and he took copious notes.

Right then McDougall decided that relying on Google as a primary source of income was a fool’s game. So he came up with a new business plan to focus only on a smaller number of sites and build multiple streams of traffic to them and work hard to establish their brand. His goal: a long-term sustainable business.

Part of his current business is The Visitor Enhanced Optimization Report, or the VEO Report. It’s an e-book McDougall sells through his website that began as pages and pages of a Word document that explained how to achieve rankings in Google. He sent these notes to a few friends who were also affiliates in an effort to save them from having to go back to real jobs. One friend suggested that these notes could be turned into an e-book and McDougall started writing the book when he wasn’t working on his affiliate sites. By late 2005 he sent it off to editors and currently it’s in its third revision.

To date, McDougall has done no traditional marketing for his e-book; its sales have largely been the result of word of mouth and mentions from influencers. He was eventually asked to write a blog for Revenews.com, do an SEO radio show and speak at some conferences.

At the July 2006 Affiliate Summit in Orlando, several people asked McDougall if they could pay him $3,000 a month to mentor them, which would entail his talking on the phone with them for two hours each week. He claims he could only ignore these types of requests for advice and information for so long. That’s when he decided to create some training programs such as the VEO Mentorship Program, which he plans to launch by January 2007.

It’s not only the lucrative benefits that drive McDougall to create training programs. He wants to share his knowledge with others. By training affiliates on how to effectively promote products, how to get traffic and how to build a business, he’s teaching them how to “build on rock rather than quicksand.”

He greatly benefited from receiving advice from top people in the field, such as Williams and Campbell, along with Rosalind Gardner (a fellow Canadian superaffiliate and author) and he wants to return the favor. “I didn’t learn this business all by myself. My philosophy is that 1+1=11.”

McDougall says that people often tell him that being an affiliate sounds like hard work. “There have been too many quick solutions where affiliates think they could make potentially thousands a month by slamming up some content with auto-generation site tools, then just sit back and push buttons, scrape content and provide results.”

Quality Time

McDougall claims if you care about your brand, you’re not going to risk that by spamming Google. He believes that behavior is giving affiliates a bad name. He warns there’s a real problem for affiliates who aren’t willing to provide quality content, which adds value for the visitors to the sites.

Quality content that serves McDougall’s visitors well in turn does well in Google. “I think the future of affiliate marketing is affiliates who provide quality content and work on branding themselves. If you’re not focusing on doing those types of activities, it’s going to be tougher to make a run at affiliate marketing.”

McDougall admits to having a lofty goal of creating some kind of advisory committee that puts together a code of ethics to which affiliates must adhere – similar to the licensing system for realtors because, “quite frankly, marketing is sales, and sales is cutthroat.”

That sort of regulation is just a dream, but McDougall says that following his dreams and keeping a positive attitude have enabled him to reach his goals. “When I saw that my friend Chuck was making three times as much as me and working a third as hard, I became very motivated to change my life.”

But the biggest motivator for McDougall has been the freedom that being your own boss provides; something he has wanted to do since he was 10 years old. When he was in his late teens, he tried to start a window-washing business because he wanted to be able to set his own hours. These entrepreneurial feelings never left him during jobs at Burger King, Godfather’s Pizza and Save-on- Foods grocery store in his school days. He also credits his college karate teacher, who inspired him to follow his dream.

He feels so strongly about working for yourself that in 2005 he wrote another e-book on the topic called The Positive Mind, which outlines everything a person needs to know to become their own boss.

Today McDougall has five sites, with 90 percent of his efforts going into two of them – VEOReport.com and Crediteria.com. He’d prefer not to reveal the other three sites because they are very niche and he does not want to create competition.

Based on his hard-won experience, McDougall has managed to carve out a very full life comprised of success and lots of free time. In early November, McDougall was in the process of buying another house so he could relocate his family to Langley, BC, to be closer to friends and relatives. The town of Chilliwack is so wary of outsiders that they are often unfriendly to newcomers and that included McDougall’s family. But thanks to affiliate marketing and some good timing, he can prioritize his family’s happiness over concerns about carrying two mortgages. That, for him, is the best example of money offering the kind of freedom that he cherishes.

Online Is Sweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Recipe For Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Big Kids Are Eating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search For Food

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

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

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

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

Women In the Kitchen and Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interactive Is On the Front Burner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diners Eat Up Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search For Sustenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online Offers Steak and Sizzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mobile Feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve Got Content, Now What?

I find that many website owners are divided into two camps. One camp is very good at developing unique content and garnering tons of search engine traffic, but they have a hard time turning that traffic into dollars. The other camp is great at monetizing traffic, but they can never generate very much traffic. In both cases the individuals involved eventually become discouraged with their site’s lackluster performance and move on to something else.

This issue’s makeover recipient, HomeWA.com, is in the first camp. The site’s creator, Gabe Hoggarth, spent months working on HomeWA.com, a real estate information site focused on the state of Washington. He’s crafted articles full of quality information that both users and search engines love, but despite his content-building efforts, the site just isn’t making the kind of money he’d expected.

The bottom line is, how can we turn HomeWA.com’s existing traffic into a solid revenue stream? As you know, we have always chosen a home page to make over in this column. However, the HomeWA.com home page really wasn’t that bad. I don’t evaluate a home page or landing page based on how pretty the page looks. Instead I focus on the elements that will determine how effectively it communicates with users.

The home page should communicate three basic things:

What does the site offer? The site features a clear tagline, “Washington Real Estate Information,” which makes it clear what the site is about. Also, the simple navigation options and highlighted articles really drive that point home.

Why should I use this site as opposed to a competitor? HomeWA.com, like many affiliate sites, isn’t selling anything directly. Instead, it attracts a niche audience and hopes to make money when the readers sign up for or purchase the services and goods they link to. The only product that HomeWA.com directly provides is information, and Hoggarth has done a good job developing strong articles with appealing titles like “Top Home Buyer Turnoffs” which visitors seem to like. Having unique, high-demand information, while focusing in on a tight niche (Washington state home buyers and sellers) gives users a compelling reason to use this site.

How do I get what I want from this site? HomeWA.com has a simple navigational structure and provides several entry points on the home page that take users directly to the content they seek. This makes it easy for users to move on to additional pages from the home page.

Since the HomeWA.com home page answers all three of my main questions fairly effectively, I started to wonder if this really was the right site to make over. Then I remembered that despite the effective home page, Hoggarth still had a problem – his site was not generating boatloads of money.

It was obvious that a bigger-picture approach was needed. To help understand why the site isn’t generating the type of income it should, we need to look at its traffic. HomeWA.com gets most of its traffic from natural search. This means most users enter the site at the specific article that had the information they were looking for, not at the home page. We needed to start thinking about each article page as a landing page for the site, since that’s where most users got their first glimpse of what the site had to offer.

With this new perspective, I turned my sights to the article pages, and a quick review of these pages gave me all the answers I needed. First of all, there are no links to additional articles. Although the site offers loads of content, there is no simple way to get to additional content from an article page. Since related content is not visible, users are not encouraged to click through to other pages on the site. Next, there are no links to advertisers. That means there is currently no way to generate income from someone reading an article.

Without a little help, HomeWA.com will never reach its full potential. Here are three things we did to try to rectify the problems.

  • Of course, we gave the site a visual makeover. This isn’t the most important part of the makeover – but it certainly didn’t hurt. We chose to use a nature shot of Washington as the backdrop for the site. Having a customized design helps to give the site a more credible feeling. The photo could be changed to a more iconic image – the Seattle skyline for example – to reiterate the site’s focus on the state of Washington. A particular photo may be better, but that can be done after some rudimentary testing.
  • A fairly simple, but hugely beneficial change was adding a column next to each article. The column facilitates sections for additional content. This is where we can put related articles, resources, special features and some advertiser links. The purpose of the content in this area is twofold: to get users to go beyond this article and realize that there is a whole host of information on the site that they might be interested in, and it’s also a great spot to promote advertisers that will help make the site more profitable so Hoggarth can continue to develop valuable content.
  • Finally, we added some standard advertising units within the article and at the bottom of the additional column. These ad units give Hoggarth another way to monetize the site and if he doesn’t have advertisers to put in the spots, they could be used to promote additional site features. These changes will increase page views across the site and should help make HomeWA.com more profitable.

Would you like your website to receive a By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Dont forget to include “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering conversion design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He serves as president of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

Optimize Your Blog for Search

Some folks compare organic search marketing to public relations, where you are trying to get free attention for your business. They further link paid search to traditional advertising. If the comparisons make sense to you, then maybe we can torture the analogy by comparing blogs to press releases. Your company can write a blog post or a press release to try to attract attention, and they are both free.

But that’s where the similarities end. Press releases are usually sanitized to the point of lacking any personal point of view. They are literally the voice of a faceless company, while blog posts must have an intensely personal approach to be interesting. Also, press releases don’t directly reach their audience. They are filtered through mainstream media, while blogs are read directly by subscribers and even commented upon in public.

So, blogs seem very nice, but what do they have to do with search marketing? Plenty. Let’s see how.

Get Indexed Faster

If you read blogs, you are probably familiar with the concept of a Web feed, with the most common ones being RSS and Atom. Web feeds automatically send all new blog posts to your subscribers, who use a blog reader, such as Bloglines or Pluck. For the purposes of search marketing, it doesn’t really matter which kind of Web feed you use, and your blogging software probably generates each type of feed anyway. What is important is what Web feeds can do for you.

Google, Yahoo and all of the mainstream search engines have started indexing Web feeds, and because blog information is so time-sensitive, they index them quickly. To make sure that your feeds show up right away, simply ping the search engines every time you post. You can instruct your blogging software to ping each one, or you can send one ping to a free service such as Ping-o-Matic, which can ping dozens of search engines for you. As soon as the search engine receives the ping, it dispatches its search spider to scoop up the new page.

But what about your regular Web pages? Well, Web feeds can distribute more than just blog posts. Why not create a Web feed from your product catalog? Get your programmers to produce a Web feed that sends the latest catalog changes to subscribers, pinging the search engines for that feed. Now you’ll see your product catalog changes reflected in the search engines as quickly as your blog posts. If you’re accustomed to waiting a month for search index updates, you’ll be thrilled to see changes show up in a day or two when you use Web feeds.

Get More Traffic

You probably know that the highest-ranked results garner the most traffic, and that search engines rank their results in part based on the number and quality of links to your pages. Blogs are a great way to get links, especially from other bloggers, helping your posts to draw traffic.

But blogs also have a special kind of link, called a trackback, which you can actually give to yourself. Trackbacks allow you to comment on someone else’s blog post with a post of your own. So rather than leaving a comment for a blog on the other blogger’s site, you can use a trackback to write your comment as a blog post on your site, causing the other site to automatically link from its blog post to your comment. Where else can you actually give yourself a link?

And blogs are useful for more than just links. They provide information that doesn’t fit elsewhere on your site. Let’s say you are an affiliate for satellite TV service. You have lots of information on your site about installation costs and all those great channels, but blogs allow you to do more. You can write about unusual channels that aren’t available on cable. Or discuss how satellite TV fits into a home theater system. By doing so, you will capture searchers who have not decided to buy satellite TV yet – they are merely video aficionados not sure what they want. You can draw them to your blog and possibly get them interested in satellite TV when they otherwise would have stuck with cable.

Blogs are not for directly making sales, for the most part. Blogs provide background information, customer references and deep information that attract potential customers. Strive to inform with your blog and allow customers to sell themselves. Instead of a sales-y come-on, do a soft sell and have confidence that it will be enough.

But remember that providing all this content in your blog is not enough. You need to make sure that you are optimizing your content with the right keywords in your titles and your body copy – even in the name and description of the blog itself if that makes sense. That ensures you get search traffic for your great blog posts.

Get Wider Visibility

So far, we’ve looked at how blogs help your search marketing with the mainstream search engines, such as Yahoo and Google, but you should know that new blog search engines, such as Technorati, are increasingly attracting searchers who’ll find you only through your blog. Visit these new search engines to see if there are ways for you to improve your blog’s search results. Technorati, for example, allows you to claim your blog, so that your own blog description can be shown to make your posts more attractive.

But search engines have come under fire for allowing new kinds of search spam, called splogs. Splogs are fake blogs created by splicing together purloined content with boatloads of links (to the splogger’s real websites) to artificially increase search rankings. To combat splogs, some blog search engines are using new criteria to rank search results. Ask.com (formerly Ask Jeeves) offers a blog search facility linked with Bloglines, its blog reader program, which ranks results in part based on the number of a blog’s subscribers rather than merely how many links are made to them. This usage data is much harder to fake than links are, so searchers may see better results on these specialized search engines (making them even more popular).

Now is the time for you to launch your blog, or take your existing blog to the next level. With the right content, you’ll reach your target customers in new ways, while improving your organic search marketing at the same time.

MIKE MORAN is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience. Mike is also the co-author of the book Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and can be reached through his website MikeMoran.com.

Mistakes Lead to Success

Learn from your missteps and the path to affiliate success will be paved with opportunity.

Lurk around any affiliate marketing forum for more than a few minutes, and you will surely encounter a post that reads much like this: “Affiliate marketing sucks! I’m not making ANY money and I’ve tried EVERYTHING – Google AdWords, AdSense and affiliate programs. NOTHING works. My sites have loads of content and I even started a blog. I get a ton of traffic, but for every dime I spend on PPC, I’m lucky if I make a penny. More often than not I earn squat.

I followed the advice of those so-called affiliate marketing ‘gurus’ and coaches, but at this point I don’t believe ANYONE is really making money as an affiliate. Those success stories are a total scam. ~Disgruntled FORMER Affiliate”

Affiliate marketing success stories are a “total scam”? No one is making money? Our disgruntled former affiliate must have missed the keynote address at Affiliate Summit 2006 West last January by Anne Holland of Marketing Sherpa, and failed to get the information from any one of about 100 blog entries.

Here’s a brief recap. Ms. Holland said affiliate marketing bounties and commissions will reach $6.5 billion in 2006 – and that figure didn’t include projected earnings from contextual ad networks such as Google AdSense.

Although it may be hard to believe that thousands of affiliates will share $6.5 billion dollars in earnings when your ROI is in the red – believe it. The affiliate commissions’ pie gets bigger every year and anyone who is willing to learn what it takes to be a professional affiliate can take a slice.

If you really want a piece of that pie, review your site and ask yourself the following questions. Determine whether your site needs improvement. Success could be as simple as making one or two of the changes recommended below.

Do you lack knowledge or experience in your niche market?

Just because your auntie had a double hip replacement 10 years ago does not qualify you to give advice on that topic, unless you are an orthopedic surgeon.

Anyone searching for “hip replacement surgery” on Google wants and deserves information published by medical professionals. If your credibility isn’t immediately shot by that double-hip-replacement-4-you.com domain address, it will be as soon as your visitor attempts to confirm your identity and credentials on your “About Us” page.

People buy from people they like and trust. Build credibility with your visitors by working with topics about which you are knowledgeable, or about which you are willing to gain expertise.

Does your site’s appearance or lack of order turn people away?

Does that olive-on-pink color scheme really appeal to the Prada crowd? If visitors can look beyond the amateur “look and feel,” will they find what they want easily from amongst the 50 banner ads on your home page?

You have approximately three seconds to engage your visitor. Greet them with a pleasing appearance. Also make sure that your site’s theme and objective are congruent and immediately apparent. Navigation should be categorical and consistent throughout your site.

If you find it difficult to make an objective assessment, ask for a brutally honest review of your site from an experienced webmaster, preferably a super-affiliate.

Do you rely on a single source of income?

Affiliate programs can and do change their terms of agreement. I’ve seen commission rates cut in half and some affiliate programs shut down with no advance warning. “Google AdSensers” should also beware. Many experienced surfers now click Back buttons rather than support sites whose only purpose is to promote Google’s advertisers.

Hedge your bets. Successful affiliates build comparison or review sites that help visitors make informed choices about a variety of products offered by different merchants.

Do you sell rather than endorse products?

“ABC Widget is the BEST-ever widget in the whole history of widgets! No other widget even comes close. Buy ABC Widget NOW!!!!!”

You wouldn’t buy in to that kind of hype and neither will your visitors. Give your visitors credit for knowing that no product or service is ever perfect. Be honest. Endorse your merchants’ products with informative and balanced product reviews.

Do you waste time promoting two-tier programs to other affiliates?

For every $1,000 dollars I earn promoting a merchant’s products as an affiliate, I may earn a buck through the efforts of webmasters I referred to the program.

Invest your time and effort relative to your earnings. Promote those products and services that make you money and let other affiliates find their own programs.

Are you burning up rent or grocery money on pay-per-click campaigns?

The fastest way to the PPC poorhouse is to use generic ad copy that sends all traffic to your home page.

Prequalify visitors by mentioning a specific product or type of product in your ad title, then send them to a landing page that promotes that product. Test your campaigns by sending 250 to 1,000 clicks to the page. Determine your conversion rate then, set your maximum cost per click. Control advertising expenditures by setting daily budget, keyword targeting and negative keywords options.

Are you wasting good traffic?

Do you want to quintuple your earnings and your conversion rate? Then build a list.

Create an auto-responder series and encourage visitors to sign up for a free downloadable report or weekly tips. Invite subscribers to revisit your site by following up with topical information, new product and discount offers.

Invest an hour or two each week to communicate with your current subscribers. It is cheaper, more valuable and more fun than building new PPC campaigns to attract more nameless traffic.

Does your site fail to stack up against the competition?

What sets super-affiliates – the 5 percent of affiliates who sell 95 percent of a program’s products – apart from their peers?

Low-earning affiliates use the same old merchant copy or private-label rights articles to save time and energy; super-affiliates write their own articles, reviews and endorsements. Super-affiliates provide contact information and answer visitors’ questions. They create forums to build community and improve visitor retention rates. Super-affiliates survey their visitors and then give them what they want.

Give your visitors more than they expect and they’ll return the favor.

Do your visitors know you? Although your site may be hugely informative, it may lack repeat visitors because it fails to entertain or provoke curiosity.

The remedy is simple: Brand yourself. Stand apart from the vast majority of sites on the Web, which are completely boring and anonymous. Inject your humorous, witty or even curmudgeonly personality.

Are you working from a plan? Are you patient and persistent?

As the old saying goes, “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” Plan your site from the ground up before registering a domain or opening your HTML editor. Act on and stick with your plan.

Also, when you give up on a project too soon, you guarantee failure. So, put any unrealistic expectations of overnight riches aside, accept that there is work to do and stay with your project for the long haul.

Use the points above to determine whether your site hits or misses the mark. Implement the recommended solutions if required.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s a safe bet that you will make some along the way. It’s not likely that any one mistake will kill your affiliate business. Simply correct the error and go on. The worst mistake a new affiliate can make is not to learn from their mistakes. The best thing that you can do, however, is to learn from the mistakes of others.

All mistakes are just opportunities in disguise.

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

The Passion of the Site

All the planning in the world won’t make up for a lack of interest.

My financial services affiliate site has hit the skids. Let’s take stock and I’ll show you how it ended up in the poorhouse.

Before I launched the site, I did my research. I discovered that the highestpaying merchants in Commission Junction’s Financial Services category rose to the top when results were sorted by sale. In early February of this year, for example, E-Loan paid a hefty $150 commission per funded motorcycle loan and $60 to $90 per funded auto purchase loan. Commissions for a qualified mortgage refinance application were between $50 and $75.

E-Loan defines a “qualified application” as one with “all necessary fields filled in, including a valid name and social security number for a loan product that can be offered by E-Loan or one of its partner lenders.”

Talk about easy money! Referred visitors to the E-Loan site don’t have to buy a thing. As long as they can type their information correctly into the application form blanks, you could be raking in the big bucks.

In addition, I found that Google AdSensor did especially well with financial sites. When Google AdWords recommends that advertisers place a minimum bid of $5 for keywords like “credit card” and “loans” just to get their ads displayed, AdSense revenues on the same terms are rich and rewarding.

And goodness knows there was no shortage of credit demand. According to Overture’s Keyword Selector Tool, almost 900,000 surfers searched for terms including the phrase “credit card” in December 2005. About the same number searched for “loan,” while the keyword “mortgage” topped the charts with 1,317,728 queries in the same month. One might conclude that the number of credit seekers is inflated during the Christmas spending frenzy. But how many more people need credit solutions when the bills arrive in January?

Furthermore, the market for credit certainly showed no sign of decline. According to an ACNielsen survey released on Jan. 24, Americans are among the world’s most cash-strapped people. After basic living expenses are paid and discretionary items bought, nearly a quarter of Americans (22 percent) have no money left at the end of the month. At 19 percent, Canadians came in a close third behind Portugal, which tied the U.S. for first place.

Let’s review: high commissions and a huge, hungry market – that should have been a one-way ticket to Easy Street. Maybe the site was the problem.

The Right Stuff

When you visit the site, you see a nice design that includes the requisite number of pictures of people jumping for joy.

Site navigation is consistent throughout and the categorical structure is simple, limiting a visitor’s choice to credit cards, credit repair, credit reports, debt consolidation and loans on the first tier. Specific credit card and loan types are made available on the second tier.

Because we didn’t want to overwhelm visitors with too many complicated options, an Editor’s Top Pick is included at the top of every product page, and the number of choices per category is limited.

Informative articles including “What To Consider Before Approaching Lenders” and “5 Killer Steps to Avoid Credit Card SCAMS” are posted to educate and motivate users to visit merchants who will help ease their financial burden. Credit card and savings calculators are available to figure out how long it will take to pay off loans and how much interest can be earned from saving. A glossary defines unsecured credit card, balance transfers and more than 35 other important financial terms and concepts. Contact, Privacy Policy, Disclaimer and About Us pages are all in place.

Last but not least, there is an opt-in form on every page that offers a chance to sign up for my newsletter, “FREE Money-Saving Tips & Credit Advice.” Subscribers receive an eight-part e-course delivered over a period of three weeks. The e-course covers topics such as applying for credit, mortgage lending and debt consolidation. It also goes into moneysaving hints and tips, how to repair bad credit, and saving for retirement.

So far, so good. The site is rich in information and other incentives to keep visitors interested. After receiving the last installment of the e-course, however, subscribers never hear from me again.

What a mistake! Especially since building relationships by regularly communicating with my subscribers has always been the lifeblood of my affiliate marketing business. Even my merchant partners confirm that my lists are some of the most productive they’ve ever seen.

Readers of my affiliate marketing newsletter or book will attest to the fact that I harp constantly about the need to establish a trust relationship with their audiences. During site reviews, I tell webmasters who haven’t placed a lead-capture form on their site to either build a list or go out of business. Those who act on the warning see their conversion rates soar. For example, one webmaster whom I convinced to install a lead-capture form later remarked, “Holy cow dung! I’ve already got 1,000 subscribers and make $2,500 whenever I send a broadcast. Thank you, Ros!”

OK, he didn’t say “cow dung,” but the rest of the message is verbatim.

The Root of the Problem

So, why didn’t I follow my own advice and write a regular newsletter for my credit and loan site?

Well, I discovered that chasing the almighty dollar doesn’t work. When I ignored my first rule of business, “follow your passion,” the second rule, “build relationships,” was impossible to follow without unacceptable compromise.

Although I am passionate about helping people improve their financial situation and can write all day long about wealth-building strategies and techniques, the dry-as-toast subject of credit and loans doesn’t exactly fuel my fire. Call me Pollyanna, but the thought of encouraging debt just feels wrong.

While I could hire a ghostwriter to write a year-long broadcast series, proofreading the material would be a huge yawn, and this Pollyanna would balk at the sham. Worse, I’d live in perpetual dread of having to research and answer subscribers’ questions.

Boredom, drudge work and dread. My goodness, but doesn’t that sound exactly like a J-O-B? What a foolish choice to make when I already had a proven formula for highly profitable affiliate sites.

Learn from my mistake. Pick a topic you love, chat with newsletter subscribers who share your interests, and then say, “Goodbye debt, hello AAA credit ratings!”

By the way, if you are passionate about the credit and loan niche, I know of a slightly-used website in which you might be interested.

ROSALIND GARDNER is a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online.

From Maui, With Love

A comprehensive but dated Hawaiian travel site gets a modern makeover.

Break out your favorite Hawaiian shirt and toss a lei around your neck – we’re headed to Maui! Well, Maui.us, anyway. Unfortunately, when we found the three-year- old online travel guide, it was wilting faster than a week-old hibiscus. But don’t fret – we can revive this online travel site.

They say content is king, and I agree. If you want to garner a loyal audience, you need to present the content that audience is seeking (with frequent updates, I might add). Maui.us CEO John Bottomley said he spent thousands of hours building his site. With an interactive map, a comprehensive activity guide, a meticulous hotel directory and a slew of other exclusive features, Maui.us certainly has all the content it needs to become “the major travel gateway to the island of Maui” that Bottomley always dreamed it would be.

Still, Maui.us is hardly generating the new traffic, repeat visitations or conversions Bottomley anticipated when he launched the site in 2002. So while content may be king, let’s not forget to invite conversion design, his lovely and talented queen, to the luau. Conversion design is the process of designing to meet business objectives, such as converting traffic into sales.

The Problems

In order to live up to its potential, Maui.us needs to exude the authority, trust and credibility that people expect from a major travel gateway. The site must also instantly communicate its compelling offerings and make it crystal clear why visitors need them. Finally, to make the conversion design transformation complete, we need to place more emphasis on the site’s top moneymakers. Bottomley says that these are, in order of importance, the custom vacation builder, hotel bookings and the activities guide.

The bottom line is that Maui.us lacks visual appeal, which can be assessed within 50 milliseconds, according to a report published in the Behaviour & Information Technology journal. That suggests that Web designers have about 50 milliseconds to make a good impression. Keeping that in mind, here’s a list of shortcomings we can remedy to make those first 50 milliseconds really count.

Outdated appearance. The site’s outdated graphics and cliche island imagery leave users wondering whether the site is still active. Savvy travelers today are flooded with online options, and they refuse to waste their time on a site that might be outdated. Remember, they are looking for information and resources they weren’t able to find at the first five Maui sites they visited. We need to make visitors feel confident that Maui.us can provide the answers they need.

Inconsistent and cryptic site wide navigation. In our last two makeovers, we pointed out a common problem: too many items in the main navigation. While that is also an issue at Maui.us (count a whopping 12 items), the even bigger problem is inconsistent placement and appearance of the main navigation. On an 800 x 600 browser, you actually have to scroll down to see the nav. What’s more, the placement and arrangement of the links changes from page to page.

Then there are the cryptic icons; so cryptic that users “don’t think to click on them,” says Lisa Ramos, sales director for Sostre & Associates. (Ramos just happens to be planning a trip to Hawaii in a few months, making her exactly the audience that this site needs to woo.) “The icons just look like part of the design,” she notes. “At first, I thought the site only offered hotel and air search. That discouraged me from exploring the site further.”

Wide text columns. It’s hard enough to read text online. By taking your column of text and stretching it across the length of your Web page, you’re essentially guaranteeing that no one will read it. Just for fun, here are the numbers for some top information websites: MSNBC articles feature text columns that are 460 pixels wide, BBC articles post at 405 and Yahoo news stories come in at about 550. Compare that to Maui.us, which stretches its text columns to almost 700 pixels wide. As a general rule, the maximum width for columns of text should be around 500 pixels.

Poor use of photos. Occasionally you can get away with using poor images. I’ve even been known to discourage the use of gratuitous images in conversion design. But come on – we’re talking about Maui here. If there was ever a time to leverage photos and imagery, this is it. Images help to create an emotional response, and that’s what people want when they’re planning a Hawaiian vacation. After all, it’s not often that someone needs to make a trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so we must encourage the emotional desire to take the trip of a lifetime.

The Solutions

Now that we’ve identified the issues, let’s get to work. Our first step was to go to iStockphoto (www.iStockphoto.com). When you need great images, and you have a limited budget, this is the place to go. iStockphoto offers professional-quality photos and illustrations for ridiculously low prices (about $1 each for Web quality). A search for the term “Maui” yields 462 mostly professional images of the stunning Hawaiian isle. After downloading a few that didn’t work out, we settled on a relaxing scene from Big Beach, Maui.

Next, we whittled the navigation options down to five. We kept the links to the seven other items, but we worked them in toward the bottom of the page to reduce viewer confusion. Next, we placed the main navigation right at the top of the page, like most websites, so it wouldn’t jump around as users moved from page to page. Last but not least, we worked a little conversion design magic to give the site a more current look, while maintaining our focus on the big three income generators. After all, that’s what conversion design is all about.

When Bottomley submitted his site, his original goal was to “make a top-ranking site that MUST be as beautiful as the natural beauty of Maui itself!” Of course, meeting that challenge is surely impossible (have you ever been to Maui?), but I believe we’ve brought the site much closer with this new design. The real proof will come with the increased number of users that decide to use Maui.us for vacation planning.

Would you like to get a free home page or landing page design for your website and see it featured in this article? To be considered, please send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals and, of course, your URL, to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject header.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a Miami-based consulting and development firm that also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites, including Audio-BookDeals.com, EquestrianMag.com and iTravelMag.com. Sostre is currently working on a book about his concept of conversion design, scheduled for release in summer 2006. For more information, visit conversionpublishing.com.

A Brand New Day for BrandNewDad.com

Not every website sells widgets. But that doesn’t mean every website doesn’t need an effective home page.

In this column, we chose an information portal as our subject. So instead of addressing questions like what the site is selling, and how to make a purchase, our focus was on the proper display of content, use of colors and communicating the benefits of registration.

Our subject is BrandNewDad.com. The site has a wealth of information for fathers, with helpful feature articles, pregnancy information, forums, a shopping directory and various other valuable resources. Unfortunately, the owner succumbed to the common temptation to jam-pack the home page with more options than the eye can bear. The result is a cluttered, confusing, jumbled mess.

As BrandNewDad.com owner Dave Trenck put it, “The site is too busy. ” I’d like to be able to highlight the community aspects of the site, the personalization features and, of course, intertwine all the various affiliate links and support the various CPM and CPC ad placements.”

The goal of this redesign – just as with OriginalDogBiscuit.com (the online purveyor of doggie treats we featured in the last issue) – is to increase conversions. Ultimately, that’s what it is all about.

That’s why I’ve coined the term “Conversion Design” to describe the business of design. You’ll be hearing much more about this concept as the year unfolds because it encompasses critical Web design elements that spark increased conversions, like color theory, usability and copywriting.

How do you increase conversions on a site that does not peddle products? Conversion Design is not always about direct sales. Sometimes it’s about indirect sales, or even qualified sales leads. Trenck’s goal, for example, is to woo site registrants so that in addition to serving up personalized content, he can display targeted ads that convert at higher percentages than their untargeted counterparts. In this case, registrants are considered conversions.

Our task was to redesign the home page to make the site’s benefits crystal clear. At the same time, the home page would need to soft-sell the advantages of free registration. The end result would be more registered users, more repeat visitors and more ad revenue for BrandNewDad.com. That’s good news for Trenck, but we’ve got to wade through the bad news to get there.

When we showed the original site to our small yet highly critical focus group, phrases like “too wordy,” “too much info,” “unclear navigation” and “no main point of interest” echoed through the meeting. Vincent Flanders, author of Web Pages That Suck: Learn Good Design by Looking at Bad Design, probably would have agreed. He lists having too much material on one page as one of his top 10 Web design mistakes. According to Flanders, “With so much content vying for attention, it’s initially impossible for the eye to settle on one thing. People get confused and people leave.”

BEFORE

Sostre & Associates’ art director Jason Graham has a slightly different take on the issue of displaying too much content: “A good site should lead me or suggest to me what content I might find useful. The biggest problem with BrandNewDad.com is that even though things are categorized, it doesn’t feel like they are.”

Graham’s guiding concept for our approach: Group the content into clearly defined categories so visitors can easily move through the page. This is referred to in the design industry as “chunking.”

AFTER

“The idea is to categorize and then visually group information, as opposed to letting it all bleed together,” Graham says. “We can do that by adding more white space between the elements and making the headlines or titles larger. Chunking helps to make the page scannable so we can still include all the same information that the website currently has, but now it’s easy to understand.”

Besides better content organization, we took three additional steps in our quest to make the home page more user-friendly: reducing the navigational elements, decreasing the number of colors and increasing the white space.

Like other sites with loads of content, BrandNewDad.com wants users to see it all. That’s why the site has so many options in its main navigation. In our experience, however, having too many navigation buttons can overwhelm visitors. So we reduced the number of buttons to five and repositioned the missing navigation items.

Next up: colors. The site uses six colors throughout the various user-interface elements. This mishmash spectrum contributes to the busy, uncomfortable feeling our focus group verbalized. We cut this number in half and allowed a three-color scheme to help unify the design.

White space can be tricky. On one hand, if we overdo it, we waste space that could be displaying information. On the other hand, if we don’t have enough white space, we end up with a cluttered mess. In this case, we definitely needed to increase white space to achieve the “chunking” Graham mentioned.

Our redesign simplified the site without sacrificing important information, making it easier for new visitors to understand the site’s benefits. Once the visitors are sold on the site, enticing them to register and personalize their experience is much more likely. We can encourage registration by highlighting personalization features and positioning the “register” and “sign in” links in standard locations.

We’ve taken the important first steps of giving this home page a much-needed overhaul. But the work should not stop there. An essential aspect of Conversion Design is continuous testing and review. Websites should be reviewed and tweaked frequently to ensure that their creators are getting the best possible outcome. User feedback and a careful eye for conversion rates should be the guiding factors in this process.

Would you like to get a free home page or landing page design for your website and see it featured in this column? To be considered, please send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject header.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a consulting and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs. Pedro is currently working on a book about his new concept of Conversion Design, scheduled for release this summer.