The Myths of Affiliate Marketing

There are many myths regarding affiliate marketing that ought to be tucked away where you keep the collected works of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop and Mother Goose. They may be fun to read, but they are disastrous to any affiliate marketing campaign. There are hundreds of these myths circulating, but I’ll deal with the top 10 of them here:

  1. MYTH: It’s good to have a lot of white space in advertisements, brochures and other printed material, and especially on websites.
    TRUTH: Your prospects and customers care a whole lot more about information than blank space. They want to know what your offering can do for them, not that you can afford to run a lot of white space. Usually white space substitutes for powerful ideas, a list of benefits and a fertile imagination. Attention should be drawn by substance, not emptiness. White space is aesthetically pleasing, but profits are even more delightful. Good affiliates are not bamboozled by gorgeous design at the expense of solid ideas.
  2. MYTH: Use short copy because people just won’t read long copy.
    TRUTH: People read long books, long articles and long letters. They read whatever interests them, and the more they’re interested, the more they’ll read. If you give people more data than they need, they’ll either buy from you or they won’t. If you give them less, they won’t buy, period. Studies show that readership of marketing materials falls off dramatically after the first 50 words, but stays high from 50 words to 500 words. That means your non-prospects will turn the page or click it off in a hurry, but your prospects will hang on to every word, trying to learn as much as they can. Many of them will actually wish you had told them even more.
  3. MYTH: It is costly to purchase television time.
    TRUTH: This myth was once the truth, but cable and satellite TV have obliterated it. The cost to run a prime-time commercial in any major U.S. market is now $20 or less, often as low as $5. Better still, cable TV allows you to cherry-pick where your commercials will run so that they air only in communities where your prospects live. You can advertise on CNN, MTV, ESPN, A&E, the Discovery Channel – any satellite-delivered programming. And cable companies will produce your spot for a cost near $1,000, a far cry from the $207,000 average spent on production in 2004. How does TV work for affiliates? Just ask any affiliate who has tried it. TV works wonders for anyone who is reaching the right audience with the right offer. I hope that describes you.
  4. MYTH: Sell the sizzle, not the steak.
    TRUTH: The idea is to sell the solution, not the sizzle. The easiest way to sell anything is to position it as the solution to a particular problem. If you look for the sizzle and not the problem, you’re looking in the wrong direction. Your prospects might appreciate the sizzle, but they’ll write a check for the solution. The job of the canny affiliate is to spot the problem, then offer your product or service as the solution. If you think solutions, you’ll market solutions.
  5. MYTH: Truly great marketing works instantly.
    TRUTH: First-rate sales work instantly. Great limited-time offers work instantly. But great marketing is not made up of sales and limited-time offers alone. These will attract customers, but they won’t be loyal and they’ll be won by whoever offers the lowest price. Great affiliate marketing is made up of creating a desire for your offering in the minds of qualified prospects, then peppering your offers with sales and limited-time offers. But a program of fast-buck marketing usually leads to oblivion. The best marketing in America took a long time to establish itself. Just ask the Jolly Green Giant or that lonely Maytag repairman. And then there’s Amazon.com and Microsoft and Google. None of that marketing worked instantly, but it worked for decades and still does.
  6. MYTH: Affiliate marketing should entertain and amuse.
    TRUTH: Show business should entertain and amuse. But affiliate marketing should sell your offering. This widespread myth is based upon studies that show people like marketing that entertains. They like it, but they sure don’t respond to it. Alas, the marketing community nurtures this myth by presenting awards based upon glitz and glitter, humor and originality, special effects and killer jingles. Those awards should be given for profit increases and nothing else. The only thing that should glitter should be your bottom line.
  7. MYTH: Marketing should be changed regularly to keep it fresh and new.
    TRUTH: The longer that solid marketing promotes a product or service, the better. Guerrilla affiliates create marketing plans that can guide their efforts for five or 10 years, even longer. How long have people been in good hands with Allstate? How long have Rice Krispies snapped, crackled and popped? How long has Intel been inside? Do you think these marketers would be more successful if they kept changing the marketing to keep it fresh? I think not.
  8. MYTH: Affiliate marketing is successful if it is memorable.
    TRUTH: Affiliate marketing is successful if it moves your product or service at a profit. Studies continue to prove that there is no relationship between people remembering your marketing and buying your offering. All that matters is if people are motivated to make a purchase. So don’t aim for being memorable as much as being desirable, because that leads to profitability.
  9. MYTH: Bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.
    TRUTH: Bad publicity is bad for your business. No publicity is a lot healthier for you. People love to gossip, especially about businesses that have allegedly done something so awful that it has been exposed by the media. Guerrillas love publicity but avoid bad publicity because they know it spreads faster than wildfire.
  10. MYTH: All that really counts is earning an honest profit.
    TRUTH: Good taste and sensitivity also count. Marketing, as part of mass communications, is part of the evolutionary process. Affiliate marketing educates, informs, announces, enlightens and influences human behavior. Because it does this, affiliate marketing has an obligation to offend nobody, to present its material with taste and decency, to be honest and to benefit customers. If it does that and earns profits too, it is true guerrilla affiliate marketing.

JAY CONRAD LEVINSON is the author of the Guerrilla Marketing series of books, which are published in 41 languages and are required reading in many M.B.A. programs worldwide. His website is www.gmarketing.com.

The Race to Embrace

Online marketers and merchants are quickly adopting new technologies such as blogging to help drive traffic and sell products.

Buzz Bruggeman, founder and CEO of ActiveWords, says his company has spent just $600 to advertise its ActiveWords software application. Yet thanks to his blog-centric marketing philosophy, ActiveWords was named the Third Best Software Product of the Year by Jupitermedia. The application has also been downloaded more than 100,000 times. Speaking in San Francisco at the Business Blog Summit in August, Bruggeman said more than 60 percent of those downloads come after people read the blog.

“It’s been a blessing,” Bruggeman says.

He’s not the only one getting good results. D.L. Byron, principal of Textura Design, says that his blog gets more than 1.5 million page views per month and the company has sold more than 50,000 of its Clip-n-Seal gadget as a result of the company’s blogging efforts. They have also expanded their markets to Ireland and the Caribbean, as well as into new industrial market spaces – such as getting orders from NASA – based on people finding them via the blog.

Blog On

New research is coming out rapidly, and figures are changing quickly. And while the exact numbers on the size of the market vary widely, most agree that the blogosphere is growing by leaps and bounds.

Perseus Development Corp. randomly surveyed 10,000 blogs on 20 blog-hosting services and found that as of June 2005 there were 31.6 million hosted blogs created on services like Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga and MSN Spaces. Ten million were created in the first quarter of 2005. By the end of 2005, Perseus expects there will be 53.4 million blogs.

In August, some research reports put the number of blogs at more than 70 million worldwide.

According to a study conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project in early 2005, 6 percent of the entire U.S. adult population has created a blog.

Technorati.com estimates there are approximately 900,000 blog posts every day, or 10.4 posts per second. The blogosphere continues to double about every five and a half months. A new blog is created about every second; there are over 80,000 created daily. About 55 percent of all blogs are active, and close to 13 percent of all blogs are updated at least weekly.

So there is no doubt that blogs are being created, but who is reading them?

According to two studies by Pew, 16 percent of U.S. adults, or 32 million, are blog readers.

A June report from market researcher comScore, sponsored by SixApart and Gawker Media, states that 50 million Americans, or 30 percent of all American Internet users, visited a blog in the first quarter of 2005. Traffic to blogs increased by 45 percent from the first quarter of 2004, according to the study.

The average blog reader viewed 77 percent more pages (16,000) than the average Internet user who doesn’t read blogs (9,000 pages) for the first quarter of 2005. The report also found that blog readers average 23 hours online per week, compared with the average Web user’s 13 hours.

The comScore study also found that blog readers are 11 percent more likely than the average Internet user to have incomes of or greater than $75,000 per year. Similarly blog readers are 11 percent more likely to visit the Web over broadband either at home or the office.

The good news for online marketers is that blog readers tend to make more online purchases. In the first quarter of 2005, less than 40 percent of the total Internet population made online purchases. By contrast 51 percent of blog readers shopped online. Blog readers also spent 6 percent more than the average Internet user, the comScore study reports.

Mind Your Business

So it’s no surprise that businesses are trying to leverage this phenomenon. For merchants and online marketers, using the Internet journal format of blogs allows businesses to talk directly to customers, generate product buzz and encourage consumer loyalty, while bypassing traditional media outlets such as newspapers and magazines.

At press time there were no exact figures on how many companies, executives and employees were blogging. Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for Intelliseek, estimates that there are more than 150 official corporate blogs, with hundreds more in the works.

Big companies are getting into the act. General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz has a blog (FastLane.GMBlogs.com) that gets between 150,000 and 200,000 unique visits a month. So does Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz’s (Blogs.sun.com/jonathan), who often uses his blog to take on Sun competitors and market analysts. His blog gets about 300,000 visits a month.

Both Lutz and Schwartz have written several blog entries that raised eyebrows, but corporate blogs don’t have to be controversial to attract attention. Stonyfield Farm, a New Hampshire company that sells organic yogurt and ice cream, has five blogs (www.Stonyfield.com/weblog). Aircraft manufacturer Boeing also uses a blog to promote its brand. Randy Baseler, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, made his first entry in Randy’s Journal (www.Boeing.com/ randy) the day before rival Airbus unveiled its A380 super jumbo jet.

Google has launched a blog explaining the ins and outs of its AdSense program (adsense.BlogSpot.com) to publishers. The effort to make AdSense’s workings more transparent offers optimization tips and features descriptions to prospective and existing publishers in the AdSense network and is updated three times a week by a variety of “engineers, product managers, product marketing managers, and operations staff” on the AdSense team. Google’s AdWords program has had its own blog since May.

For online marketers the idea is to be part of the conversation in your space and to get noticed, according to Dave Taylor, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Growing Your Business with Google and well-known business blogger at www.Intuitive.com/blog.

Taylor suggests online marketers offer something of value to visitors. “Communicate with people to show them you are an expert in your area and give them a reason to buy from you,” he says. “So if you are an affiliate that sell laptops, write laptop reviews and blog about that. Include how-to’s or product guides. Blog about maintenance issues. You will give people a reason to trust you. It builds credibility.”

One often-cited story of a blog propelling someone to success is Thomas Mahon, a Savile Row tailor with a blog at www.EnglishCut.com, in which he discusses in great detail the specifics of creating expensive, custom suits – everything from buttons to selecting the right wool. Hugh Macleod, a top-10 blogger, wrote about his pal Mahon, who at the time was having trouble just paying his rent. That gave Mahon’s blog a huge traffic spike and suddenly his sales started to climb. He went from making two suits per month (at $4,000 each) to making 34 suits per month.

Mahon has also been able to expand his market beyond London. In fact, now when Mahon wants to travel to a specific location, such as New York, Los Angeles or Hong Kong, he simply lets his blog readers know and once he’s gotten orders for at least four custom suits he books his travel – a far cry from scraping by to pay his rent.

While these types of success stories are not uncommon, there is a limit to how many times lightning can strike.

“Blogs will help some affiliates become more important,” says Shel Israel, coauthor (with Robert Scoble) of the forthcoming book Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers. “A few will increase their sales by orders of magnitude. Then they will be imitated to death and, suddenly, no one will be unique anymore. It’s very important to be first with a unique story to tell. It becomes much harder to be second or third.”

Say No to Faux

Unique is good. But Taylor advises against getting too personal in a blog related to your business. “This is a business communications tool. You need to stay on topic. Talk about movies and personal things in your personal blog. Some bloggers think it should all be intermingled. I don’t.

“What if I have strong religious beliefs? That might conflict with the views and opinions of some of my readers and then I would lose business. That’s bad business. Use a blog to build credibility, not the cult of personality.”

Most agree that showing authority and knowledge about a topic as well as passion help make a good blogger.

“Personality is a word that makes me flinch,” says Israel. “You want to be professional and authoritative, but not boring. Boring is death in the blogosphere.”

Taylor says it’s the same principle that should be applied to traditional advertising – it’s about the product, not the personality. “That was the problem with the Dell ad campaign: ‘Dude, you’re getting a Dell.’ It was counterproductive because you want people to think Dell, not dude.” That issue proved to be particularly problematic for Dell when its spokesman for that campaign was arrested in New York and charged with possession of marijuana.

Some big companies are employing corporate bloggers. Microsoft hired Robert Scoble, whose blog Scobilizer is one of the most popular. Though for most affiliates and online marketers it might not be financially feasible to hire a blogger.

But there’s nothing that will destroy your credibility quicker than creating a fake blog. Most industry watchers and blog experts agree consumers can spot a fake blog immediately. They pick up on the insincerity instantly. Fake blogs simply stir up the ire of blog readers by disguising the fact that they are really ad campaigns. McDonald’s made this misstep when the company posted a new blog in advance of a Super Bowl campaign about a Lincoln-shaped french fry.

Steve Rubel, vice president of client services at CooperKatz & Co., a New York public relations firm, who also had a blog (www.MicroPersuasion.com) suggests avoiding fake blogs or just regurgitating press releases.

“It’s about finding the intersection of your passion and what people care about,” Rubel says. “Hopefully, they overlap.”

Spreading the Word

If they do, you’ll likely get other bloggers and consumers talking about you or blogging about you. That buzz can help. If other bloggers are linking to your business, it increases your ranking on Google. That helps people find you.

Clip-n-Seal’s Byron says, “Sales come from search, not ads.”

But Bruggeman adds, “Blogs are not about eyeballs. It’s about the conversation.”

“Word of mouth is very important,” Taylor says. “It’s important to know how people are getting to you, not just how people are searching for you.”

But word of mouth can be a double-edged sword. Many fear the consequences of letting consumers freely express their opinions. Those with the fear aren’t sure about allowing readers to post comment in their blogs.

However, some bloggers allow comment, even negative ones, as a way to add a level of credibility. It’s an individual choice. Israel says he uses what he calls the Living Room Policy.

On his blog (www.ItSeemsToMe.com) Israel writes, “If you come into my home and you are rude to me or my guests, I will ask you to be more polite. If you persist in being rude, I will throw you out of my home and will not allow you back into the house. If you begin with the clear intent of being offensive, you will be tossed out and banned without warning. I also take a dim view of anonymous comments. I am suspicious of people who take a position and will not demonstrate the courage to reveal who they are. I often just dump out those comments whenever I feel like it. This does not mean that I don’t welcome disagreement. But if you’re going to come onto this site with a spray paint can in your hand, you’re out of here.”

While you can control whether to allow others to comment on your blog, you have no control over what others say about you or your company on their blogs.

For example: Jeff Jarvis, the creator of Entertainment Weekly magazine and a high-profile blogger (www.BuzzMachine.com), took Dell Computer to task for the company’s alleged refusal to fix or replace Jarvis’ broken computer.

BuzzMachine frequently receives more than 5,000 visitors a day, and an open letter that Jarvis wrote to top Dell executives was the most linked-to post on the blogosphere for that day, according to Intelliseek’s BlogPulse. The post was also either linked to or discussed by at least .01 percent of all blog posts written that day, according to BlogPulse.

Back before the Net, Jarvis might have been just another dissatisfied customer. But today his widely circulated criticism triggered dozens of other bloggers and hundreds of others to publicly complain about service they’ve received from Dell’s technical support.

That problem is not unique to Dell. Many companies are not prepared to handle how their customers can share their experiences virally, says Intelliseek’s Blackshaw.

In the end, complaints that appear in blogs can do as much damage as a negative advertising campaign. Prompted by the incident with Jarvis, Dell’s public relations department began forwarding complaints with personally identifiable information to the customer service department so that representatives could contact dissatisfied consumers directly.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and an investor in IceRocket, wrote in his August blog (www.BlogMaverick.com) that blogs have changed customer complaints.

“It used to be an old customer service mantra that ‘one upset customer can tell 20 people about how poorly your company performed, and those 20 people could tell 20 more, and your business could really suffer.’ Keep all your customers happy, and you won’t have to worry,” Cuban says.

“Those numbers are miniscule compared to today. In today’s world, one upset customer can write in their blog about how upset they are about your product or service and it could be linked to by any number of other blogs, which in turn are linked to by any number of blogs, which is in turn picked up by a TV news show. In 24 hours or less, tens to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have heard the complaint, and your business and brand are at risk.”

Searching for Blogs

But before you can handle a potentially problematic situation, you have to know what is being said about you or your company and where it’s being said. It’s a good idea to subscribe to blogs with RSS (really simple syndication) feeds as well as use RSS to send out your feeds. As of August, just 11 percent of blog readers, or about 2 percent of U.S. Web users, were using RSS tools to manage blog feeds, according to a report released by Nielsen NetRatings.

Nearly 5 percent of blog readers use feed aggregation software, and more than 6 percent use a feed aggregating Web site to monitor RSS feeds from blogs, according to a Nielsen NetRatings June survey of 1,000 online users who had visited blog sites.

The report also found that 66 percent of blog readers either did not understand RSS or didn’t know it existed, according to the report, which is titled, “Understanding the Blogosphere.”

Another way to monitor who is saying what about your business is to use niche search engines like Feedster, IceRocket (to be renamed www.BlogScour.com), PubSub and Technorati. These search engines are already monitoring and indexing millions of blogs so they can be searched. Technorati tracks more than 15 million blogs, and that number is growing every week. In July IceRocket claimed to track 18 million blogs, up from about 15 million four months before.

Many speculate that paid search and contextual advertising will progress into the context of customer-created dialogue. Search will be less about acquiring customers and more of a tool to insert brands into conversations between individual people, markets and groups of like-minded folks.

So monitoring, analyzing and archiving that conversation is becoming valuable. And like most other areas of the Net, where there is great opportunity there is also the potential for fraud.

Another obstacle in the efforts to organize and search blogs is that some companies appear to be using computer programs to create spam blogs or “splogs.” The sole purpose of these splogs is for posting links to their websites. The problem for blog search engines is that when users query certain terms the served results can end up being links to these splogs, instead of to the consumer-generated content the searchers were looking for.

Cuban says these blog search engines are being spammed in monstrous proportions in the blogosphere because it’s so easy to do. He writes, “Blogs are coming at us left and right. We are killing off thousands a day, but they keep on coming. Like Zombies.”

He puts some of the blame on Google, which owns Blogger.com. The service enables users to set up free blogs. However, some say the onus is on search engines to come up with better algorithms, not on the blogging software to stop splogs.

Making Money

There are lots of blogs, but are online marketers making money?

Weblogs Inc. is a network of 80 blogs. It is generating a steady stream of revenue from network ads and direct ads. The network ads are automatically served by Google and Tribal Fusion, and direct ads are the result of contracts with such advertisers as Equifax, Pacific Poker, Palm, Subaru and Volvo. According to founder Jason Calacanis, the majority of the company’s revenues come from direct ads, which currently command a CPM rate of between $4 and $12, whereas network ads generate CPM between $1 and $4.

Weblogs Inc. generates more than $1,000 per day from Google AdSense alone and has recently surged as high as $2,000. More than half of Weblogs’ advertisers end up buying space on more than one of the network’s blogs, says Calacanis, but to interest a direct advertiser, a blog’s traffic must exceed 1 million page views per month.

John Battelle, co-founding editor of Wired magazine and founder of The Industry Standard, has started Federated Media, which will serve as an ad and marketing network for high-quality blogs. FM will function much like a book imprint or record label, aggregating like-minded blogs, (about 10 to 20 per category to start). The categories include technology, media, pop culture, entertainment/gaming and sports segments.

BlogAds has a network of 750 blogs. Advertisers have run the gamut from carmaker Audi to political and other special interest groups. BlogAds expects to have 2,400 ads on blogs for the month of August, up from 700 a year ago. The average blogger makes $50 a month from displaying BlogAds, but some bring in more than $5,000 monthly, CEO Henry Copeland says.

Advertisers can find the separate groupings, along with traffic numbers and prices, and do a partial or full network buy. The theory behind the new networks is that bloggers can group themselves together much better than a top-down organization – because of the large volume of blogs – and advertisers get to select blogs by category, and on top of it reach millions who don’t read the top blogs but do read myriad others.

And while blogs will never replace other forms of content on the Web, they do have a distinct role to play, according to Jon Gibs, senior research manager at Nielsen NetRatings. “While these sites will likely never have the traffic of some of the larger ad networks, blogs do have a specific role to play in the online advertising mix,” Gibs said in the report.

“Advertisers should look to blogs as a way to organically grow trends by leveraging the role of bloggers as peer influencers. By associating their message with the blog’s image, advertisers can legitimize new trends they are hoping to promote to a niche audience.”

It’s a Commitment

Israel says that most bloggers like to take the position that every business should blog, “but that’s just not true.”

“There is a tremendous time commitment. It’s not just about doing your own blog, but about seeing what others are saying and being part of the bigger conversation. If you don’t have the time or the inclination, then you shouldn’t be a blogger,” he says.

Rubel say it’s a lot of effort but “you get what you put into it.”

Still, even if you don’t have the resources or commitment for blogging, you can’t just ignore it.

“You can no longer ignore the blogosphere,” Israel says. “It’s here and it’s where the fastest-growing news is taking place. Its influence is enormous, and it’s continuing to grow. And it’s not going away. It’s only going to get bigger.”

Killer Content Brings in Money

There are three main factors that determine the success of your Web site:

  • Effective site optimization;
  • Site popularity; and
  • Great content.

Site optimization is the process of placing your keywords in the right places and making sure your Web site is accessible to search engine spiders so that they can find you and index your content more easily.

Site popularity can be achieved by online and offline marketing (mainly good PR) and the number of people who link back to you. This is often confused with page rank, but page rank is only one factor in determining your site’s popularity.

The best long-term solution for high search engine ranking, and the factor that is easiest to tweak, is to create first-rate content. You don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner to do it. You just need to focus on addressing the needs of your customers, and by doing that effectively you will also attract search engine spiders in droves.

Many search engine marketers would have you believe that the best way to get high search engine rankings is to stuff your pages full of keywords and use tiny text at the bottom of the page to create great spider fodder. They don’t focus on the usability of the page or think about how users want to view your copy.

This may be a good short-term strategy, and may get you good rankings, but in the long term that’s not a good idea. Spiders are getting smarter. They know when you are trying to spam them. From your customers’ perspective this also does a lot to minimize the credibility of your Web site.

We have all been to sites where the copy was poorly written and grammatically incorrect. It looks sloppy and leaves customers questioning the wisdom of giving you their credit card numbers. It doesn’t matter how many clicks you get or what your rankings are if you can’t convert a visitor to a buyer. First-rate copy serves all of your audiences – spiders and customers alike.

As far as high quality content goes, remember that it should offer significant value to your customers and other sites. Why other sites? Because they’ll link to your site. Good content should also be unique and be updated regularly, so that people will come back to your site often to see what’s new.

Structuring Your Content

When thinking of how to structure your page to make it usable for both spiders and customers, a good rule of thumb is to start to think like a newspaper publisher. The same rules apply when determining what your Web site copy should look like. The newspaper editor focuses on the way readers like to view content. The editor knows that users typically scan the headlines first and then, when something piques their interest, they zero in on the content they want to read.

If you structure your pages the same way, it will increase the usability of your site and also make it more spider friendly. Make good use of headline sizes to clearly identify to your readers what is the most important copy on your pages. Direct them to where you want them to go by allowing them to see at a glance which items are the most important. Include your keywords in your headings to reinforce the focus of the page for both users and spiders.

The same rules apply whether you are building landing pages to submit to paid search engines or for organic traffic. Users and spiders want clear, grammatically correct copy that helps them to find the value in your pages fast. You only have about 13 seconds to catch your users’ attention, so every page on your site should focus on one message, and include a clear call to action. It’s really just following the basics of direct response marketing and applying that to your Web site.

Once you have created great headlines, pick one topic per page and write decent articles that appeal to your users. More pages equal more spider food and more specific landing pages where you can send users for one-click information. What works for one Web site in terms of content may not work for another, so you’ll have to keep testing until you see what mix of copy makes users want to stay on your site, return again and convert to a sale.

Here are some examples to help you start thinking about what valuable content might look like:

  • CD retailer: Provide reviews of new releases and bands;
  • Accounting: Offer regular updates about legal changes that affect your clients;
  • IT trainer: Show IT folks how to train their internal clients, or offer some free online training or white papers;
  • Gardener: Show beautiful gardens from around the world, and offer tips on gardening;
  • Travel agent: Offer reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions on different areas.

As you may have realized by now, creating and updating your content is a lot of work. It’s also hard to stay motivated if you don’t see immediate gains. It takes a very long time for word to spread about your Web site. Just as with paid placement, you have to test creative frequently. With paid placement you can see results immediately whereas with this, you need to wait a long time to get feedback. You need to hang in there and over time you will see that it really does pay off.

Another relatively pain-free way to offer frequently updated content is to create a blog. There are many great inexpensive blogging tools out there that will integrate well with your Web site and allow you to update your content on the fly. Savvy search engine marketers are rushing to add them to their sites. But be sure the quality of your blog is high. Blogs are easy to set up and are proving to be very spider friendly. After all, what the search engine wants to see is just what your users want: frequently updated, quality, relevant content. Nobody wants to read yesterday’s news, least of all search engine spiders. Increasing conversion is what it’s all about, and that’s what makes a successful Web site.

MARY O’BRIEN is a partner at Traffic- Mentor Inc. She has worked in Internet marketing for five years and was formerly senior director of sales at Overture.com.

The Write Stuff

Imagine you’re in a store. You’re browsing and minding your own business. Then, all of a sudden, a pushy salesperson ruins your shopping trip. What could be worse? On the other hand, a helpful, honest, knowledgeable clerk can turn an otherwise annoying shopping errand into a pleasure.

The same applies online. Blaring banners are like obnoxious sales clerks; shoppers want to avoid them. If you want visitors to value your site, you need to offer more than banners and obvious links to products. You need to give ’em a reason to come back. Enter content – the stories, letters, news, photos, drawings and other types of information that add value to your site.

“The key is attracting people to your site by offering information that is free and useful,” said Elizabeth Karolczak, president of OSKAR.com, the parent company of ContentFinder.com, a site that lets people find sources of syndicated content. “It shouldn’t be just sell, sell, sell.”

Yes, the name of your game may be selling, and not all sites need this type of content. Many successful affiliates operate online stores that contain very little content and win their customers over with a no-frills approach to shopping. Shoppers come to those sites simply to buy something quickly at a good price with no hassle. The drawback to that approach is that the customers leave as quickly as they arrive, limiting the time they spend in the store and how much they buy.

Giving people a reason to read and linger increases the likelihood of them seeing more of your site and more of your offers. The more frequently that information changes, the more incentive your visitors have to return to your site.

“If you update with relevant information, you increase the value of your site,” said Jim Pitkow, CEO of Moreover.com, which aggregates content from various publishers. “Content enriches the user experience and drives loyalty.”

User loyalty is exactly what some affiliates are after as they create content, get their visitors to do it or get merchants to provide it. And they find that attracting loyal users boosts traffic and revenue.

“The result of providing high quality editorial is that we are literally the No. 1 ‘senior magazine’ on the Internet according to search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves,” said Reece Halpern, publisher of GrandTimes.com, an affiliate site that serves seniors.

GrandTimes.com takes a three-fold approach to content. It has a newsfeed from InterestAlert.com, an affiliate news site that provides free stories. It also posts outside content, articles from book publishers and other sources with whom they’ve established relationships over the past decade. Plus, one in-house magazine-quality article appears per week. This is all done with just two people: Reece and his wife. It doesn’t take a team of Pulitzer winners to make great content. But it does take dedication and persistence.

Create It Yourself

“I believe the key to our success is that we provide high quality content on a weekly basis,” said Halpern, who updates content from his home on Sunday nights. “Competitors who provided [public relations] material disguised to look like editorial are no longer around.”

Other affiliate sites agree that quality is important. “Most sites post only fluff,” said Bob Narindra, VP of LovingYou.com, a relationship site that has a staff of only three. “You want content that isn’t available everywhere else.”

Original content takes basic writing skills. If you are up for it, this can be the perfect creative outlet. It’s a good idea to brush up on your writing skills or ask someone you know who has a knack for turning a phrase. And you don’t want to turn off your audience by, for example, raving about every product you review (and sell). You’ll lose credibility very quickly and visitors will skip over your site as untrustworthy.

If you want to spice up your site, don’t use too much sugar. Whether you’re reviewing books, selling CDs, or critiquing clothes, let your words be immaculate. You want readers to respect you. That means telling the brutal truth. If everything you say is positive, then readers won’t buy what you’re selling and your site will suffer as a result. So give them quality content and everyone will be contented.

This means you can’t insult your readership with egregious errors. While it might sound like an obvious no-brainer, run a spell check and grammar check, even if you think you’re Mensa material. After all, mistakes happen.

And try to update it regularly. “When we went on vacation, our traffic would drop by 20 percent,” said Narindra. “So now if we have to leave town, we write content in advance.” The three partners manage to make the site look like it offers a lot by switching the order of the featured stories.

Get a Little Help

Most affiliates are on a tight budget, so they do it all themselves or consider farming out some writing. But if you are going to count on someone else to help you create content, make sure they really care about the topic they are writing about. The more passionate they are, the more likely they are to work for bargain rates or for free.

Many affiliates look to their own audience to find contributors passionate about the topic. Some invite visitors to express themselves. Amazon.com publishes book descriptions sent by publishers, but reader reviews are what guide many visitors’ purchasing decisions.

Jonni McCoy runs an affiliate site called MiserlyMoms.com and her site’s main objective is to sell copies of her own books. But she has cleverly enticed readers to submit articles to fill out her site’s offerings. There are “working from home” stories from readers, “miserly tips” from readers and even recipes from readers.

“The articles, tips, recipes and stories draw people in to read,” said McCoy, who even posts guidelines for people who want to contribute. “I get about 2,000 hits per week.”

If you have, say, a car site, get users to submit advice, set up polls and then post the results. People love seeing how others respond. A message board is another great tool. You can get the software free or cheaply by Googling such terms as “free message board software.” Look at what your visitors talk about to find out what topics are of interest to your readers. It’ll give you great ideas on what articles will grab readers.

Rely on Pros

A syndicator or content licenser can also help you figure out what your needs are and how to best serve your viewers.

“We’ve been doing this for seven years,” said Jeffrey Massa, president and CEO of YellowBrix, a content syndicator. “We are happy to share our experience with clients. Identifying the type of content that would be beneficial to your users is simple.”

But getting their expertise and advice can be costly. The last option is to license content from a content provider. The upside is that it lends your site legitimacy. Visitors know that you can be trusted, that you offer something valuable.

And syndicated content is not just for those with deep pockets. Halpern uses InterestAlert.com, which provides free news. But syndicators who charge may be worth the expense. Most syndicators get the rights to publishers’ content free of charge or on the cheap, because publishers like the traffic generated by licensing out their content. Moreover.com delivers 3 billion to 5 billion links per month. But the big content guns charge you because they invest in systems that make it easier for you to get what you want. That’s their service.

To compare a couple: YellowBrix has 3,700 sources and technology that categorizes and summarizes the content according to your needs. One client pays just over $1,000 a month while other clients pay more than $20,000 a month. Moreover’s feeds start in the thousands of dollars per year; clients range from Economist.com to a Wisconsin agricultural site. Publishers range from WSJ.com, the BBC and WashingtonPost.com.

“It’s very affordable, accessible, viable and compelling,” said Moreover’s Pitkow. “If you had to pay each of these publishers individually, you’d pay a lot more.”

Shop Smart

If you are considering licensing content, there are a number of things to keep in mind.

Understand what you are trying to accomplish. Then prepare a budget.

The cost of content varies, and you can pay monthly or annual fees. If you’re getting a newsfeed, you’ll probably get charged by the month; if you’re paying for access to a database, you’ll likely pay an annual fee up front.

When you approach a publisher or syndication source, make sure you’ve done your homework and you know how many site visitors you’ll deliver. Prices can vary depending on the content provider and how many eyeballs gain access. Publishers may want to know how you are going to use their content and how many people will see it. You can pay anywhere from nothing – what Halpern pays for an InterestAlert.com feed – to tens of thousands per month. Other providers charge by the categories and breadth of your needs, not by the number of viewers or page impressions.

Tech Issues

Be aware of what you are getting. Small affiliates usually have little technical expertise, so they need to be particularly clear about how they would like to receive content.

“Format problems can cause a lot of headaches,” warned ContentFinder’s Karolczak. Before you sign a license, have the contract spell out the exact number of articles (or cartoons or graphics, or whatever) you’ll get, how often, in what format (HTML or XML, for example) and how they’ll be delivered (via FTP or PDF, etc.). Otherwise, you’ll be doing a lot of technical work converting the content. Then, by the time you get it up, it’ll be out of date. You don’t want to drain your resources, so just be sure to state exactly what you want to receive.

Crediting the original publisher is another thing to consider. Accreditation can lend your site legitimacy. Readers will respect your content if they know it’s coming from a reputable source. On the other hand, some syndicators offer you a private label option – that is, you don’t have to say where you got it – but that’ll cost you more.

Flaunt It

After you’ve given your site a facelift with fabulous content, you should strategize on how to promote it: You want your audience to see your stuff.

“The No. 1 way to get people to come to your site is through an email with a hypertext headline,” said YellowBrix CEO Massa. “Everyone reads email. Give ’em a headline.”

GrandTimes.com encourages visitors to sign up for a weekly email that previews its latest articles. People will click on a link if they see something that interests them. LovingYou.com’s Narindra agrees that email is the best way to market your content. But be sure that you only send it to people who opt in and always give them the option to unsubscribe.

Perhaps the best reason to create compelling content is that it just may open up other revenue streams and help with your branding.

LovingYou.com has sold its content to Excite, IWon.com, AOL Time Warner properties and other online entities. And the sites credit LovingYou.com as the source with a link, which means more people linking, higher search engine results, more page views and more spidering. Narindra is excited about this because it means more in the coffers as well as more visibility for the brand. And the interest isn’t limited to the online world.

“Once a producer at Inside Edition [a TV program] came across our site, loved it and contacted us for help with a Valentine’s show,” said Narindra. The licensing of content is a nice byproduct that’s surprised the team. And now Inside Edition has approached them for help with another segment they are doing on couples getting married. Narindra said, “It’s a great relationship because once you help them once or twice, then they think of you first.”

DIANE ANDERSON has more than a decade of experience writing about the Internet and technology for The Industry Standard, Wired Digital, The Net and other publications.

Profits By Design

Link all you want, but unless your site helps visitors find what they want while enjoying the process, they won’t stick around long enough to buy anything. The big secret is creating a well-designed Web site. That’s easily said, but difficult to accomplish. Quality sites have fresh, interesting content; easy-to-understand organization; visual appeal; and affiliate links that are relevant and attractive.

We asked five very successful affiliate sites to share their tricks for designing a hard-working, pleasing site that keeps users coming back for more. Each site exemplifies a key principle of good Web design.

Build a solid foundation

Thoughtful planning of the structure and content before design began has helped Kitchens.com to fulfill its aim of being the Web’s most comprehensive consumer resource for kitchen design and remodeling. Today the site ranks as the fifth most visited affiliate site in Alexa’s Home Improvement category. Click the site’s “shop” link and you’ll find a sizeable custom storefront linking to dozens of merchants.

Kitchens.com wants to walk its visitors through complex projects (such as kitchen remodeling) while making it look easy and fun. The site is minimalist, with only a few links on any given page. Like a recipe, the site breaks projects into easily digestible steps.

Editor Kate Schwartz stressed the importance of planning when it comes to building a successful affiliate site. Schwartz said the founders spent a full year analyzing the kitchen industry and determining what users would expect from a kitchen design and remodeling Web site before launching Kitchens.com.

“It was expensive, in that one designer and the original editor spent an entire year working on it,” Schwartz said. But the careful planning paid off in reduced maintenance costs, because the site worked well and really did provide just about anything anyone would want to know about kitchens. The structure also allows for updates to be made as new products or styles evolve without the need for adding new sections or reorganizing. Now, said Schwartz, “Basically, we tend to add rather than modify or change.”

Find the right style

A site must appeal to its target audience by developing a unique style using color, typography, arrangement and voice. PowerBasketball.com, a resource for youth basketball coaches, manages to seem friendly and yet professional. Guy Power launched the site in 1998 as a personal project. It’s now the fourth most-visited site in Alexa’s Basketball category. PowerBasketball is an Amazon affiliate, and book and video sales can earn four figures each quarter during the basketball season, which is not bad for a one-man show.

Power wanted visitors to be pleasantly surprised to find a site that offers so much without charging a monthly fee. A self-taught designer, he went through several iterations of site design. “I have spent so much time searching the Internet and studying design, layout, and color schemes,” he said. “You name it, I have tried it. I always liked the look of simplicity and subtle color scheme – the newspaper look.” Power replicated that look by laying out stories in relatively narrow columns on a white background, and adding only a minimal amount of color.

Indeed, visiting PowerBasketball.com gives one the feeling of being on the inside, privy to the knowledge of professionals. The design is a sharp contrast to the amateur look of the site’s competition. Power feels that the current site design will satisfy his visitors for some time to come.

Organizing content and distributing it across the site was tricky. “The hardest part of design has always been to position chunks of content on the main page that will allow the visitor the opportunity to find information that appeals to them without weighing it down.” He wanted to offer enough content on the main page to reassure visitors that the site was substantive, while encouraging them to wander through the rest of the site. Power achieves this by highlighting a small selection of recent stories in the center of the home page but also offering a number of other jumping-off points around the primary content in smaller type. By mimicking the design of more established media outlets, PowerBasketball gets to play with the big guys.

Let content rule

BaseballProspectus.com was launched in 1996 by a group of baseball insiders and sports writers to become an online resource for updated information in conjunction with the group’s annual Baseball Prospectus books. The site, in effect, complements the books.

The Site’s Spartan design makes sense for baseball enthusiasts, who expect endless statistics and reports without much fanfare. In fact, many of the pages look much like the typical stats page in a newspaper’s sports section where sports junkies find their data.

Expect that to change, though. The demands of ever-increasing content are driving a re-design. “We’ve got thousands of paying customers, dozens of stat reports, huge databases filled with player information, moderated chats and as many as 35 new articles per week from a large number of writers,” said co-founder and executive vice president Gary Huckabay. “We have too much stuff for our current design.” The goal of the second-generation design is to make more content accessible via the home page while keeping load time down.

For Baseball Prospectus, content is king. “Promote and spend all you want, but at the end of the day, you absolutely must have the best content in your business,” said Huckabay. “We work very hard to go find the best analysts and writers we can, and that’s the key.”

Maintain consistency

Kendall Holmes launched OldHouseWeb.com in 1998 to be a repository of information, he said, “for homeowners and contractors about living with, working on and restoring old houses. We also sought to build a community of enthusiasts, so old house lovers could connect with each other and share ideas and techniques.”

Old House Web sells a variety of merchandise through HomeStore.com, Rockler.com, and Amazon.com. The site’s biggest sellers on a daily basis are books focused on restoration and remodeling.

Holmes said the basic design concept is to keep it simple. “We try to fit with our audience like an old, comfortable pair of shoes or blue jeans,” he said. That simplicity extends to terminology and navigation. The thousands of pages of information are divided into logical chunks with common-sense topic names, such as “doors,” “cabinetry” or “flooring,” rather than more technical or cutesy terminology.

To simplify navigation, the site employs “breadcrumb trails,” a textual representation at the top of the page showing where the user has been. For example, someone reading an article on waxed plaster finishes would see a bar at the top of the page reading “Home > Walls > Plaster,” making it easy to retrace steps. “But we’re also realistic that no matter how logical the layout is to us, most users aren’t going to be able to follow our logic,” Holmes said. “So we put a search box on every page.”

Attention to design extends to affiliate relationships as well. Said Holmes, “With anything we sell, from anyone, one of our requirements is that we need to maintain our look and feel, so that we can deliver our user experience … even if the final transaction takes place elsewhere.”

Holmes credits the flexibility of the Web services system at Amazon.com with dramatically boosting sales of Amazon merchandise. Old House Web uses the e-commerce giant’s XML feed to brand its own version of the Amazon sales pages, putting its own look onto the design. Rather than just linking to a book page on Amazon, this service lets Old House Web seem to have its own information page with pictures, reviews and samples. People may not even realize they’re using Amazon until they check out.

Help visitors find their way

Ron Hornbaker, founder and editor of BookCrossing.com, struck upon the idea for his site one day in March 2001 and pulled the basics together in one all-nighter. The site is a radical take on an online public library. Anyone is free to join and trade books simply by leaving the book in a public place. Books are tracked online using serial numbers registered on the site and pasted inside them. Members frequent the Web site to write reviews, discuss books via message boards and follow the travels of the books that they “release into the wild.”

Today, the site boasts over 160,000 members and 26 million monthly page views. BookCrossing.com generates up to $2,000 a month in commissions from book sales, and, for good measure, it also sells groceries, ink jet cartridges and gifts that bring in several hundred dollars per month.

When it comes to design, Hornbaker has few hard and fast rules. He stressed that navigation is more important than a hip or modern look. “I’m more concerned with offering a consistent, intuitive navigation interface, combined with a clean, readable content section, that works at all browser window sizes down to 600 pixels wide,” he said. In other words, don’t exclude people just because their monitors are too small.

“The charter is a little place in my head that knows what looks good, and what looks bad,” he said. He’s a fan of simplicity, so he lets text do double-duty for information and navigation. At the same time, he likes to keep a lot of information next to the main content. The deluge of data added to the site each day makes for cluttered pages. For example, each book listing offers seven purchasing links to affiliate sites. He minimizes the clutter by keeping design consistent from page to page and by using small fonts to make these links easy to navigate and easy to read.

“Growing a community Web site is a lot like growing a garden,” Hornbaker said. “You’ve got to lay it out with the right spacing and structure, plant the right seeds, build appropriate trellises to guide the growth, hope for some luck with the sun and the rain (or buy water and fertilizer), and then maintain vigilance in pulling weeds and keeping out pests most every day. The neat difference in this analogy is that a well-planned Web site can continue to grow if tended by only one or a few people, whereas you’ll probably lose control of a backyard garden before it covers your entire block.”

To use another analogy, just try to imagine a library that gets larger and larger without a good index.

CHRISTOPHER NULL is a longtime technology, business, and entertainment journalist. He founded the popular Web site FilmCritic.com in 1995 and is currently editor in chief of Mobile PC magazine.

Bringing E-commerce Back Home

Jeannie Otero wanted to change her life. A single mom with two young daughters, she hated the three-hour round-trip commute to her job in Miami, time she would rather spend with her girls. She dreamed about starting her own business, thought about investing in real estate. But she had the age-old problem: You have to have money to make money.

Then, she heard that a good way to make money was to build a Web site that connected shoppers with online merchants. “I put up this funky little site called PartyClowns.com,” Otero laughed. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all. It had a bunch of links to coupons, and it didn’t actually have anything about party clowns.” But it was the first step in her road back home.

Otero had entered the world of affiliate marketing, a sort of parallel economy in which anyone at all can become an online retailer with almost no investment or experience. Two years later, she’s generating a good supplemental income and looking forward to quitting her day job. She’s discovered that all an affiliate needs is a combination of some smarts, some personality, some common sense and a ton of ambition.

Affiliate marketing has quietly become a booming industry, involving thousands of U.S. corporations, millions of affiliates and hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s the deal: You sign on as a commission-only salesperson for an Internet retailer. You use all the creativity, intelligence and perspiration you can muster to get customers for that merchant – customers it might not find on its own. For every customer you refer to the merchant, whether it’s for a paid purchase, a new subscription or a name for its email-marketing list, you get a commission. Because merchants pay only for results, they consider affiliate programs a form of advertising called pay-for-performance.

Affiliates have the whole world of commerce at their fingertips. They can put together an array of products from global selection of retailers and offer them to their own customers. They typically build one or more Web sites that mix content with links to products on merchants’ e-commerce sites, and sometimes feature products in email newsletters or place ads on others’ sites. They never see or touch the merchandise themselves; the merchant handles all aspects of payment, warehousing and shipping. They get paid once a month, or whenever their commissions reach a pre-determined threshold.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. While just about anyone can sign up for an affiliate program and put up a site, earning those nice commission checks is another story. While figures are sparse, the Internet Affiliate Marketing Association estimates that fewer than 5 percent of Internet affiliates have revenue of over $100 a month. That’s because affiliates face some of the same challenges as any other entrepreneur. Inexperience and a lack of basic business skills short-circuit some people’s attempts. Others don’t have the drive to persevere without a boss standing over them.

According to AffTrack, a service provider that aggregates statistics about the industry, 2 percent of affiliates make 98 percent of the commissions. “Affiliation is so easy to get into, that you might only have 10 percent of people who sign up actively promoting merchants, and a smaller amount still might be making any real money,” said AffTrack CEO Scott McNulty.

Like any other frontier, the affiliate world is rambunctious and confusing. There’s more than a whiff of the old envelope-stuffing scam to this industry, where you’ll find site after site promising that you can earn thousands of dollars working at home a few hours a day. It’s also gotten a bad rap from unethical affiliates, who bear some guilt for contributing to the spam deluge. When evaluating affiliate programs, don’t forget to apply the rule that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

Retailers know affiliates can drive sales and keep customers coming back, but they give most of their attention to the top producers. “Retailers have begun to think about the way affiliate programs will work for them in a more efficient way in terms of driving quality traffic and repeat traffic,” said Carrie Johnson, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

This doesn’t mean that there’s less opportunity for you as an affiliate. But it does mean that you’ll have to work smarter and better to be part of that successful 2 percent. Like everyone else in this tight-fisted era, online retailers expect more for their money.

While there’s more competition, there is still plenty of opportunity. Affiliate marketing is the second wave of transformation in the global marketplace. The first wave, the rise of the commercial Internet, put the power of information in the hands of consumers, letting them compare prices among merchants anywhere in the world. This second wave has leveled the playing field between huge conglomerates and individuals who represent online merchants.

Raison d’Etre

Sending traffic to merchants’ sites is the affiliate’s major goal. While you’ll find plenty of affiliate sites that are just lists of links, many experts say that it’s unique content that draws visitors and keeps them there long enough to get interested in your merchant’s offerings. “Your site has to have a reason to exist,” said Brad Waller, vice president of affiliate and business development for EPage, a content syndicator. “It’s rare that someone can create a site and make money from affiliation without doing anything himself. No one will look at it because it’s not original.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional Web designer or an experienced writer. Most affiliate sites are highly personal; like Otero’s, they’re often sparked by a personal interest in a particular subject.

“The personal touch makes a big difference,” Otero said. For example, she created a special Web page with a rave review of one baby item, just because she thought it was so neat. “I had eight visitors and made $20,” she said. Now, she writes introductions and personal notes for most of her Web pages and plans to write a personal review for the best product in each category for her BabyShoppingGuide.com site.

A smart way to decide what your first site should be about is to choose an audience, according to Robert Bennett, an affiliate with eight years’ experience who also runs affiliate programs for several ISPs owned by his company, Archieboy Holdings. “Do you have any connections in any industry, or any opportunity to market to a certain group that other individuals don’t?” he asked. “Identify the market you’ll target, then figure out what products they might be interested in.” For example, if you lead a youth organization, you could look for products related to school or sports, then build your site content around those products. Ideally, the products become part of the content.

Creating your site is a lot like merchandising a store. You could go broad or deep. For example, you might spend time finding absolutely everything anyone could ever want for camping and put it all in one place. From freeze-dried food to sleeping bags to flashlights to first aid kits, you’ve got links to it. On the other hand, like Jeannie Otero did, you could identify a niche, and then scour the Web for every baby Halloween costume available. In either case, the work you do to find and maintain fresh, working links and to gather or create interesting content is the value you add – and the way you make money.

It’s easy to find affiliate programs:

Just search for the merchant’s name plus “affiliate.” Many programs are completely automatic. “Just grab any banner, fill out the form, add the code to your

Web site, and you’re done!” one vitamin retailer promises.

If you’re working with many different merchants, maintaining one-to-one relationships with them all could get hairy. You’ll need to check that the merchandise you feature is still available, and then keep track of what they owe you and when they pay. While most merchants are honest, the message boards are rife with complaints and feuds about payments and other problems.

For more hand-holding and help, you could join an affiliate network. Networks are services that help affiliates and merchants find each other. Then, what’s more important, they manage the process of keeping track of commissions and paying the affiliate. There are several advantages to joining a network:

  • You can get organized and comparative information about a number of merchants without having to search through individual e-commerce sites;
  • In some cases, the network will act as a matchmaker, suggesting partnerships or products that make sense;
  • Some offer support, productivity tools and forums to help newbies learn;
  • They may offer reporting tools that let you analyze your various relationships and see how much income they produce; and
  • They back up your bookkeeping. Instead of keeping track of commissions and payments from multiple merchants, you get a single check each month from the network.

There are many different networks, and affiliates tend to choose them based on the merchants in the network; many work with multiple networks in order to get the range of products they want. Despite the growing interest in the

business and concomitant number of affiliates, “Good affiliates are always in demand,” said Hayley Silver, director of affiliate development for LinkShare, a network that offers tools and services for merchants and affiliates. “[For merchants], they’re your salespeople. No one is ever going to turn down a strong salesperson.”

Content Connection

Once you have an array of products and services to sell and an audience to address, it’s time to flesh out your Web site to make it a true destination. While everything on your site could be considered content, most of it will be in the form of text. That includes your original writing, articles that you reprint, classified ads and user-generated content in the way of forums and message boards. You can arrange to receive automatic updates of syndicated articles and news feeds, either free or for a charge. There are even content sites that offer affiliate programs. They provide free content and, if a visitor to your site clicks back to their site and pays to subscribe or read premium content, you get a little lagniappe.

According to affiliate marketing guru Ken Evoy, your site must satisfy the needs of visitors, the search engines and the merchants; if you serve visitors well, you’ll go a long way toward satisfying the other two players. Site visitors want outstanding information and interesting, highly relevant links. Lots of fresh, relevant content encourages visitors to bookmark the site, come back, and tell their friends.

After all, people who want a book on a particular subject or a recipe could go directly to an online bookseller and search its inventory. They also could plow through literally thousands of entries returned by a search engine. “If someone was searching for information and finds your editorial [content], that person feels smart for having found you, and you become a trusted source of reference,” said Evoy. “By the time that person arrives at the site of a merchant you recommend, she is presold.”

That doesn’t mean your content should consist of plugs for products. Quite the contrary. If your content simply hypes products, your readers won’t trust you. If you write a book review, for example, tell your readers what you really think of the book – good or bad. You’ll earn their respect with your honesty. Then they can decide whether to click on the link you provide to an online bookseller. If all your reviews are positive, your visitors will probably end up looking for a more objective Web site.

High-Traffic Destination

The most authoritative site on the Web is wasted if no one sees it. So, your next task is to lure visitors. If you’ve started with a pre-existing audience or circle of influence, provide them with valuable information and your traffic will grow by word of mouth. Others will find you through search engines.

There are two approaches to increasing your site traffic via search. Some people focus on optimizing pages for the different search engines, while others approach their Web sites as writers and editors, assuming that if the site seems relevant, search engines will find it without extra effort.

Optimizers geek out over page statistics and the workings of various search engines. They analyze how many times key words appear in each page and use them over and over to get a higher ranking for the page. They religiously check how high their pages rank in searches, then tweak pages in order to get them higher still. There are lots of software applications that help automate this process. Optimizers often engage in arcane practices such as “cloaking” or coding phantom pages that exist only to fool search engines. In order to play these games well, you’ll need to know HTML and even some programming languages like PERL.

Experts, on the other hand, focus on becoming the go-to resource for people interested in something specific. This approach requires a passion for the topic; a smidgen of previous experience won’t hurt, either. Instead of trying to trick the search engines, they create focused pages and pack them with information that “appeals to humans, not search engines,” as Evoy said. Because search engines are designed to help people find what they’re looking for, this method can create pages that rank high in search results with much less work.

But successful affiliates say you should never sit back and wait for traffic to find you. Be prepared to constantly expand your customer base with shrewd marketing. “There are lots of different tactics and techniques,” said Hollis Thomases, president of Internet marketing services company WebAdvantage. Affiliates can place banner ads on other Web sites, buy keywords on search sites, exchange links with appropriate sites, send emails to existing customers or contact the media and try to get press. Some affiliates spread their content around the Web by writing articles for other Web sites, making sure to include a link to their own sites. “All publishers tend to try all of them at one time or another, refining and tweaking to see what works best,” Thomases said. “That’s where the art comes in.”

Now, can you sit back and watch the checks roll in? Uh uh. Prepare for steady work to make your site better. Whether you go the optimization route and spend your work time fiddling with keywords and links to improve your ranking in the search engines or take the expert approach and create a series of new pages, treat your Web site as a living thing. Nurture it and the fruit of your labor will be financial success and the pride of owning your own thriving business. And, maybe, spending more time with your kids.

Susan Kuchinskas, managing editor of Revenue, has covered online marketing and e-commerce for more than a decade. She is also the co-author of Going Mobile: Building the Real-time Enterprise with Mobile Applications that Work.