Redemption

It all started with Asa Candler, a “prescriptionist” in Atlanta 112 years ago. A modest pharmacist who dealt in tonics and medicines, he bought an unassuming recipe for a patent medicine called Coca-Cola. When he gave out handwritten slips of paper for customers to try the new drink for free, the coupon was born.

The simple yet brilliant marketing idea Candler conceived has, of course, become a staple of American shopping. During the Depression in the 1930s, grocers fell in love with coupons as a way to attract needy families into their stores. And when the supermarket took over and coupon redemption became easier in the 1960s, half of all Americans used coupons. With the advent of the freestanding insert, or FSI, in the early 1970s, reams of colorful and enticing coupons came with the country’s Sunday newspapers.

As expected, the coupon migrated to the Web and even with technology laying the pavement for better distribution and security – it is still a work in progress. Online coupons are busting out all over but they aren’t as big as you might think. The world of couponing has survived the digital age so far and has made some unique advancements, but there are still challenges ahead.

Coupon distribution continues to prevail. In 2005, U.S. coupons set a new record of 323 billion coupons distributed, the first year to pass the 300 billion mark and a nice jump of 9 percent over 2004, according to CMS, a coupon-processing firm. CMS also states that the redemption rates of Internet coupons rose from .59 percent in 2004 to .96 percent in 2005. That may seem like a small amount but it’s a big jump for a fledgling coupon vehicle. Overall coupon redemption rates hover between 1 and 3 percent year-over-year.

While some analysts have forecasted the death of the paper coupon in as short a span as five years, the trends don’t seem to reflect that. Yes, more people are using the Internet to gather coupon codes to buy from websites instead of clipping an FSI and walking into a store – but those numbers are a very small slice of the coupon pie. A resounding 88 percent of redeemed coupons are FSIs, snipped from the Sunday edition of your newspaper.

Still, some are confident that the paper coupon will disappear sooner than we think and that coupons delivered via email or to our cell phones will dominate. “Young marketers are leading the way toward eliminating the paper coupon,” says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, CEO of The Sausalito Group.

Precision Targeting

For now though, only a small percentage of redeemed coupons come from online. But the upside is that online couponing – whether via a coupon code, printable coupon or emailed coupon – is able to reach a more precise target than the traditional FSI. In fact, recent redemption studies have borne out that Hispanic coupon users redeem at higher-than-average rates. Therefore, coupon distributors are finding ways to hit the Hispanic market with coupons via cell phone (Hispanic households use more cell phones than the general population). Sealey says the benefit for marketers is that they “can target people who can actually afford to buy a Porsche.”

The efficiency that technology brings is seeing immediate results in the online coupon world. Coupon networks, for example, use technology to help with everything from RSS feeds of coupons to organizing all their expired online coupons. But even then, the technology doesn’t get in the way. “We like to call ourselves a document security company,” says Steven Boal, CEO of Coupons.com, a network enabling printable online coupons. He says that proclamations of the death of the paper coupon are greatly exaggerated “for a very important reason. Because I print paper coupons – a business that has been around a long time. Up until three years ago it hadn’t changed much. Does it change? Yes. Small percentage shifts in this business move huge dollars.”

His Coupon.com platform runs on more than 3,000 affiliate marketers’ coupon websites and some of the most high-profile coupon websites use his company’s back end, including Yahoo, Boodle.com, NBC.com, SmartSource.com and other coupon sites in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

It’s true that coupon redemption rates dropped 6 percent in 2005, but as mentioned, distribution rose sharply. What’s at issue isn’t that fewer people are using coupons but that products that wouldn’t otherwise be sold are selling, according to Matthew Tilley, director of marketing at CMS. “Consumers just aren’t responding to coupons at the same rate that they used to, but that hasn’t really dampened marketers’ enthusiasm for them.” He affirms that high redemption rates are not the goal, but that “moving more product than you would without promotion – but at an efficient cost – is really the goal.”

While the big online coupon networks can scale for brands, smaller affiliate marketers have also been able to take advantage of the interest in online coupons. Popular sites such as Amazing-Bargains.com, CleverMoms.com, Fabu.com, Shopping- Bargains.com and FlamingoWorld.com have all seen great success with their coupon sites.

Much like product affiliates, coupon affiliates must track the newest offers, post them, bring down expired offers and make sure the link goes to where it is supposed to – but do so on a fairly grand scale every day. Too often the monthly offers inundate the affiliate on the first of the month, so that (if he or she works the website alone) it could be two weeks before a coupon is posted.

“I don’t know how they do it,” Michael “Mikey” Yack, founder of FabulousSavings and Fabu.com, says. He built his coupon sites from the ground up, too, but now has 30 employees. He doesn’t do code anymore. “I’m on the phone with my merchants all day,” he says. That’s the only way he can up the value of his coupons. “Once [merchants] know you’re legit, they throw you more.”

Fabu.com is also a site that employs rather sophisticated methods to keep it all together. Yack says his team writes original product descriptions and uses automated software to take down expired links. Other technology involves automatic rotating codes to avoid inviting other affiliates to cut and paste Fabu links on to their sites. He says his exclusive link with Toys R Us changes every 18 hours so that a stolen link will no longer be good after a brief window of time. All his expired coupons switch themselves out automatically.

Technology: The Good and the Bad

Link stealing may be the biggest pet peeve of the online coupon affiliate community. And while it does occur, some affiliates and networks work with it as a nuisance. Others complain that merchants aren’t doing enough because for them it just means broader distribution. The other pet peeve is that some merchants tailor coupons just for affiliates and create other deals for all the other channels they sell in. Affiliates fear the better deals may be going to the other channels.

“There are many things low-quality coupon sites do that are deceptive,” wrote Michael Coley, founder of Amazing- Bargains.com, in a Web forum. “While these things may temporarily increase their [clickthrough rates] or sales, the long-term effect is that they lose customers. Who would go back to a site that they knew was deceptive, and what merchant would want to keep working with a site that was deceptive? Their antics backfire in the long run.”

For couponers who have been at it for a while – like any Web venture – adaptation is the watchword. “Technology is always changing and those who survive must change with it. Web services, RSS feeds, JavaScript, storefront generators, XML and other delivery tools are making it easier for coupon sites to maintain current content. However, much of the, heavy lifting remains manual for those who want to offer unique content and features,” Mike Allen, president of Shopping-Bargains.com, says.

The potential for technology to take more of the sting out of couponing online has generated more than a few companies ready to cash in on new platforms. RSS feeds for coupons have been a boon to companies that do it, such as CouponBar.com, DealoftheDay.com and PhatDeal.com. Couponing from cell phones is the next area of interest for some. Companies such as Cellfire, MoBull and Quickpons are startups that just deliver coupons via cell phones. And they are already getting buzz. Redemption rates for mobile coupons are very high – at about 23 percent – mostly because cell phone users opt in to receive the coupons or must register or download a piece of software to the phone to participate.

Allen thinks this will undoubtedly drive the mom and pop out of business. “Coupon sites,” he says, “have become mainstream businesses. All the major players have recently undergone extensive revisions, technology upgrades and aesthetic enhancements to better compete in what is now a very sophisticated and fast-moving marketplace.” He says that what was once “amateur or hobby categories” are now sites that can be called brands on their own. The larger the main players become the harder it will be for small affiliates to keep up, he says.

Boal of Coupons.com thinks the future is Web services and mobile. “We took our time with mobile,” he says. “We didn’t make it so difficult.” They waited until they figured out a way for everyone to use it instead of only customers with certain cell phone brands.

CMS’ Tilley outlines what keeps coupons hot. The face value of coupons has risen about 9 percent while product price inflation has risen only about 2 percent. Coupons that require multiple purchases are down, but their response rate is up. For nonfood products, shoppers are 30 percent more likely to use a buy-two coupon than a discount on a buy-one. For food, the buy-four is more popular than the discount on one item. And for both categories overall – food and nonfood – shoppers are 49 percent more inclined to use buy-four than a buy-three or a discount on one. And while coupons redeemed has slid from 3.9 billion coupons in 2001 to 3 billion in 2005, traditionally coupon redemption drops in a good economy.

What’s In Store?

The in-store coupon is also becoming very popular. About a third of redemptions now come from the in-store instant savings coupon or offer. Tilley says packaged goods marketers plan to migrate up to 20 percent of their coupon campaigns to online by the end of this year.

While some retail affiliates wouldn’t dream of dealing in coupons, some couponers like Allen simply think it’s harder to be a retail product affiliate. “General coupons are easier to deal with than many specific retail products,” he says. “Why essentially recreate the retailer’s website on your own? It’s not good for organic search and most affiliates don’t have the resources to do all the split tests and so forth needed to optimize product layouts for multiple retailers. Why compete with what they do best?”

Fabu.com’s Yack has a real simple and direct assessment. “We’ve been working on Fabu for nine months. I have ads in 180 newspapers; I have three publicists. A lot of these sites still look the same as if they came from the wayback machine. I built Fabu because times are changing ” and I’m getting paid for having a link on my site – how crazy is that?”

Insurance for Conversion Rates

Designing for conversions isn’t rocket science. It’s just the ability to design a website with particular ideas in mind. For this column we’re going to focus on some of the most powerful ways to make a site convert – emotion, unique value proposition and credibility. Master these three basic concepts and you’ll be rewarded with soaring conversion rates.

The life insurance lead generation site EFinancial.com came to us a few months ago with an all-too-common problem. Its site looked much like others in the same industry. While the generic domain name gave people some sense of name recognition, there was nothing else that differentiated the site from its competition. In the online world, that’s not a very good thing.

Combine that lackluster look with the fact that the company needs to collect good information from users to do business and you have a site in need of some conversion design magic. For EFinancial.com, our definition of a conversion is getting a user to fill out the form. And the goal, as always, is to get more people to convert.

Get Emotional

So how can we make this site stand out from the crowd? Or at least, how can we get people to submit their information before leaving to scope out the competition? How do we stop users in their tracks? By creating emotion.

As your stereotypical guy, I’m not real emotional. I don’t do chick flicks and my monotone demeanor isn’t prone to outbursts. But as a marketer, I’ve learned to elicit, titillate and embrace my customers’ emotions. You see, if you can appeal to someone on an emotional level, the chances that they will engage with your product skyrocket. Remember, you don’t have much time to make your impression.

Here is something to keep in mind. Almost every new Web browser on the market offers some sort of tabbed browsing functionality. Now users can stay on one site while they open all their links in new tabs. What this means for marketers and website owners is that it’s now even easier for people to shop around online. I regularly watch users go to Google, perform a search and then open the top four or five results in new tabs. Then they quickly scan the results pages before picking which one they are going to use. This is a scary thought for many pay-per-click marketers because it means more clicks and potentially lower conversions. The call to differentiate or die has never been more compelling.

Show Me the Value

So let’s review the existing site. It’s easy to see that the form is the focal point of the EFinancial site, followed by the family photo and logo. While it’s good the form is front and center, the company is not taking the opportunity to talk about what makes it different from the competition. When designing on the Web, never forget to tell people what makes your organization better.

The EFinancial home page contains no real “about us” text and the main headline appears to be “Start Your Free Life Insurance Quote Here.” That’s hardly an argument for its service. In fact, besides the simplicity of the page, the site doesn’t do anything to sell itself.

I turned to Marty Weishaar, marketing director for EFinancial to find out what makes the company different. He explains that EFinancial definitely does offer some benefits such as being experts at closing tough cases. This is a great point because some people, because of their health, age, lifestyle, etc., have a hard time getting life insurance. This is an audience that should definitely consider working with EFinancial.

Highlight the Credibility

Next, it doesn’t operate on a bait-andswitch mentality, which is something that Marty tells me other companies are notorious for doing. According to Marty, EFinancial will really get you the rate they advertise. Again, this is a solid, unique value proposition and should be highlighted. And its technology automates many of the steps, which makes for a faster process from start to finish, thus satisfying the “let’s get this over with” life insurance shoppers.

Another thing I notice, and one of the points I consider to be low-hanging fruit in the conversion design process, is that the company has buried some strong credibility builders (VeriSign Secured, BBBOnLine, money-back guarantee and privacy notice) under the form and below the “fold” of the page. Study after study shows that having security seals in a prominent place really does boost conversions. While many of us in the online industry understand that these seals may not offer very much in terms of actually making a website more secure, their presence does make some percentage of users more comfortable with submitting their personal information.

Finally, if the goal is to get more users to fill out the form, lose the navigation. Assuming your traffic is fairly targeted, why distract them with links for home loans and auto insurance in the navigation? Getting rid of those will help keep users focused on the task at hand.

For the redesign, we’ve taken several steps to correct the issues identified above. First, we made the family photo larger, and selected a photo and headline that draws more attention to the child. Everyone knows that sex sells, but don’t forget the emotional impact of children as a sales tool. This new image is designed to grab the reader, as opposed to merely decorating the page. That covers the emotional aspect of the redesign.

Next we added bullet points that highlight the EFinancial value propositions and some basic “about us” text that was previously unavailable on the home page. Having and communicating a strong unique value proposition should be a priority for every Internet business owner. Next we moved all those credibility- building seals to the top of the page, where the space was being underutilized anyway, and we moved the carrier logos (AIG, Transamerica, etc.,) to a more prominent position. The security seals, privacy notice and familiar carrier logos should limit users questioning the site’s legitimacy.

Want your home page to be the topic of a future edition of 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. Please put “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.

Sex Education

You may or may not approve of what they are marketing, but nearly everyone can learn something from the strategies that the adult industry uses to capture consumers online. The thriving adult industry has a history of pioneering many online marketing techniques and continues to provide useful lessons in how to attract and convert an audience.

From the creation of the affiliate model to monetizing user-generated content, where sex sites go, mainstream marketers often follow. The selling of sex products and content has grown to become a more than $2.5 billion annual business, according to publisher AVN Online, as each year 72 million people visit the more than 4.2 million adult content websites.

Spoil Your Partners

While search marketing and display advertising provides most of the traffic in many industries, affiliates drive most of the visitors to sex sites. Adult affiliates are treated more like partners, and publishers are unafraid to show their gratitude. Keeping affiliates happy is paramount in the hyper-competitive adult world, says Clark Chambers, general manager of adult affiliate network NicheBucks.

Like many consumers, affiliates don’t have much brand loyalty and will work the partners that offer the better returns if they aren’t satisfied. Chambers, who got into the business because a friend needed someone to oversee his exploding affiliate program, rewards his best affiliates with gifts on top of their generous commissions. He has given jewelry, video games and digital music players to his best affiliates, including one teenager in Russia who makes more than $7,000 a month.

Affiliates do the primary search engine marketing and optimization, which reduces the risk for publishers and eliminates competing with them for the same keywords. Chambers makes sure that his affiliates have access to current conversion statistics and a variety of marketing tools, including a steady stream of images through RSS feeds to attract new customers. Adult sites will even host the affiliate websites for free, according to Chambers, who has been managing adult affiliates for eight years.

Adult sites will pay more than the first month’s subscription fees in commissions to keep the traffic coming, according to an adult industry consultant who asked that his name be withheld (he says his family doesn’t know where he works). The payouts are very generous to prompt affiliate webmasters to work harder for the program, and because they can easily find other content sites to promote, the consultant says. Publishers also emphasize the personal touch by being readily available to their affiliates and quickly responding to their phone calls, and by meeting in person at industry events.

Promoting Competitors

The adult industry has not only nearly perfected the art of affiliate relations, but also grows stronger through publishers earning extra revenue by also acting as affiliates themselves. “Co-opetition” is the practice of promoting competitors’ websites when visitors try to exit a website without buying something, according to Jim Lillig, president of marketing consultancy Synergy Intermedia. “It’s a last resort after exhausting all the other ways to monetize” visitors, he says.

While many publishers may not be willing to promote competitors by acting as an affiliate, Lillig says publishers may be able to earn more revenue from those who don’t buy from them than those who do. Lillig, who helped to build Mr. Skin, a subscription website focusing on celebrity nude scenes, into a successful franchise says, “98 percent of customers leave most websites without buying something.” Admitting that you may not have a product that suits every taste is a difficult but significant realization for publishers looking to maximize their revenue.

Ed Kunkel, the chief operating officer of SexSearch.com, agrees that pitching competitors’ products helps to grow sales across the industry. “[Competitors] have the audience you need and vice versa,” Kunkel says. “It’s a huge world you have access to; there is plenty (of demand) for everyone to make enough money. … Since there is no way of completely dominating a market, you might as well share the wealth amongst each other.”

Analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence says that publishers who link to their competitor’s sites can benefit. “Intercepting a person before they leave a site in an unobtrusive way would be successful in capturing some number of sales,” according to Sterling. He says applications developers such as customer relations management software company LivePerson are experimenting with displaying competing products as a last resort.

By acting as an affiliate for niche adult publishers (such as sites focusing on older women or those of a specific ethnicity), publishers can also track the conversion rates of different types of content and then develop their own competing sites, according to Lillig. He recommends creating multiple niche sites to highlight areas of content as well as to learn more about consumer habits. Also, publishers who present information about competing products gain credibility with their audience, he says.

Analyst Sterling says companies can increase their reach by parsing their content and creating niche websites, such as search technology vendor Marchex’s development of local search sites from a single database. “The creation of niche sites is a good idea if it can be done skillfully and it’s not just spam,” Sterling says.

The adult industry is a tight-knit group who know each another and “form a big circle,” referring traffic to each other in the belief that it’s better if consumers buy from a competitor than if they don’t buy at all. Adult publishers who trade links with competitors can increase their traffic without having to purchase advertising, Lillig says.

However, that circle often traps customers by generating pop-up windows when customers try to exit, an annoying practice that continues to get some adult publishers in legal trouble. Lillig says that while the pop-ups may be frustrating, adult sites studied the practice and identified the exact number of pop-up windows to maximize revenue. Though pop-ups are still in use, many adult companies now ban affiliates who create pop-ups that trap users with unending windows.

Leading the Technical Charge

Lillig says Mr. Skin was one of the first companies to watermark an image and allow it to be spread around the Internet as viral marketing to enhance branding. Mr. Skin reached millions of potential customers by putting its logo on images and by embedding pre-roll ads into celebrity videos that were circulated via email and through peer-to-peer networks. “They became moving ads,” he says.

The adult industry also popularized giving free sample content in exchange for customers providing valid email addresses and co-registration, which gives customers the option of simultaneously signing up for newsletters from competing adult sites, according to Lillig. He says adult marketers took an early lead in tracking email performance, including who opened emails and where they clicked.

Adult sites have also been adept at identifying seemingly unrelated trends in entertainment and integrating them into their product. For example, one of the fastest-growing segments is “reality porn,” an imitation of reality TV programs that has prompted adult publishers to launch dozens of niche sites.

Another cultural phenomenon being integrated into adult sites is gambling (see article on page 66). Playboy.com will open its first Internet casino by the end of 2006, and 121 Gaming Inc. this summer launched GrandNevada.com, which features naked card dealers.

Publishers need to study the latest trends and find complementary ways to expand their reach, says 121Gaming president and CEO Howard Mann. “We saw an opportunity to go in a different direction with something that added entertainment value,” says Mann, of his combining gaming with nudity.

Adult content publishers are frequently the earliest adopters of technologies such as streaming video and webcams that later are adopted by other industries. “The VCR became popular because people wanted porn, and VHS won out because that was the format that porn adopted,” Mann says. Media companies who are currently evaluating which of the new high-capacity DVD formats (Blu-ray or HD-DVD) to sell should watch to see which technology the porn industry favors.

In addition to technology and cultural trends, adult marketers are also quick to turn the latest publishing trends into tools for deriving additional income. Affiliates are authoring blogs about the adult industry to increase their natural search result rankings, and publishers are creating MySpace profiles for their rising acting stars to differentiate their brands, according to NicheBucks’ Chambers.

The Upper Hand

Of course adult sites have a distinct advantage over their general audience counterparts – sex sells, and the demand for content is almost limitless. “If there is one thing that is universal, it’s that men love to look at naked women,” says 121Gaming’s Mann. Even without any marketing, millions of people will search for adult content. “I know adult networks that get similar traffic to Yahoo,” he says.

Conversion raters are higher on adult versus PG personals searches, according to Mark Brooks, the editor of Online Personals Watch. The “conversions are best when people are looking for sexual connections,” he says. Brooks, who previously worked for AdultFriendFinder, says adult publishers can make back the commissions paid to affiliates to acquire a customer within one month, while it may take three months or more for mainstream personals.

However, because of the generous payouts on adult personals sites, publishers have to spend additional time managing their affiliate relationships. “You have to look after [the affiliates], allow them to call you on the phone and take their requests seriously,” Brooks says. Publishers also have to be steadfast in making sure their affiliates do not damage their brand by being overly aggressive. While he was at the company, AdultFriendFinder stopped allowing affiliates to do email marketing because there was too much abuse.

Lessons Not Learned

The adult industry has mastered how to tempt consumers with just enough content to prompt them to purchase without compromising sales, something that most retail sites have been reticent to experiment with thus far. Adult publishers successfully convert traffic by providing affiliates with free samples of their content, a strategy that publishers should adopt, says Shawn Collins, co-founder of the Affiliate Summit conference.

In the adult world, the profits are in the video content, and affiliates lure and hook customers by showing image galleries (often thumbnails) of naked people, and then directing them to the publishers who sell unlimited access accounts. Collins says video, audio or print media companies could greatly expand their conversions by using affiliates to distribute free samples of their content.

For example, the television networks or movie sellers could distribute clips from their sitcoms or films to affiliates to pique consumer interest, which enables customers to realize the value of the content, according to Collins. Media companies have yet to exploit the power of distributing content through affiliates, Collins says, and were slow to team up with video search engines such as YouTube.com to increase their exposure.

This strategy of partnering with large search engines and requiring users to register is the opposite of the niche marketing that has been critical to the adult industry’s success. Video search engine sites have too much content to successfully promote niches (such as British comedy or period-piece dramas) that would convert well as independent affiliate sites.

“Showing teaser videos and allowing them to be distributed virally” could boost the sales of online video, Collins says. Online music stores should allow affiliates to host and play select songs for free, and Amazon should share its technology for previewing a few pages of a book with affiliates. Reuter’s news is one of the video services that allow affiliates to display its content, but the company keeps all of the revenue from its pre-roll ads, which takes away the incentive from affiliates.

As the adult industry has shown, whetting consumers’ appetites by letting them peek at the goods goes a long way in prompting conversions. Adult publishers prove that by working closely with affiliates, innovating by embracing technology and treating competitors as assets, publishers can create new products and increase their revenue.


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

Introducing Dr. Makeover

Not every website needs a complete redesign. Contrary to what most Web designers tell you, designing a website for results, or what I like to call Conversion Design, doesn’t require a pretty website. I’m not interested in redesigning websites just for design’s sake. So we’re shaking things up a bit for this issue of Revenue. Instead of a complete visual overhaul of one site, I’m going to answer some frequently asked questions.

Enter Dr. Makeover – my alter ego. He’s a combination of Dear Abby and Dr. Phil with an Internet business twist. And he’ll provide quality advice about how to make your website perform the way you need it to.

Dear Dr. Makeover: I’ve been using my website (ClaudineLewis.com) for over a year to promote my side business of professional voiceover services. I had a friend help create it for me and while it looks “OK” I feel like it should be more dynamic. What can I do to make sure I’m putting my best voice forward? Claudine Lewis

Dear Claudine: I really like your site. It’s simple, personal, the colors are pleasing and your photo looks genuine and professional. I already want to work with you. Sometimes we like to over-think and over-complicate websites. This one proves that sometimes even a basic site can be very effective. Of course, I have a few points of constructive criticism.

  • There’s no link back to the home page from your lower-level pages. The home page is a safe spot – a comfort zone. Make it easy for people to get back there.
  • The samples should play in an audio player of some sort, rather than making the user download an MP3. This makes it easier for people to listen to your samples. That’s really what they’re here for.
  • Speaking of samples, make some of your best ones available right on the home page. Consider recording a friendly “Welcome to my site” audio message.
  • Make your contact information available on every page.

Those tips will help get people the information they’re looking for and increase the number of contracts you get. The personal nature of your site makes you seem really approachable. That’s one of the strongest selling points in my opinion. Don’t lose that as the website continues to grow. Dr. Makeover

Dear Dr. Makeover: Please help. We have the coolest product since email, but visitors to our website (inclue.com) still don’t get it. Our RSS reader for Outlook is an easy-to-use plug-in that allows anyone to have news, blogs and even videos delivered right into Outlook. This is a product that has universal appeal, but our website isn’t communicating that. My feeling is that people either get scared off by the techi-ness of RSS, or they just don’t see the “Hey, Wow!” benefit. What can we do? Nick Gogerty, CEO of inclue!

Dear Nick: I can see some areas that could use a little improvement. First, you want to build a group mentality. People feel safety in numbers, so if you can show that 10,000 other people have already downloaded this thing, that will make visitors feel like it’s okay. I suggest keeping a live download count on your home page.

Next, you should provide some type of demo to visually spell out the benefits of using this reader. If you created a nice Flash demo that showed, for example, a Hillary Duff video being delivered and played right through Outlook, that would generate the “Hey, Wow!” response you are looking for.

Third, dump the people-from-weird-angles-on-a-white-background clip art. That is so 2001. I’d use imagery that isn’t so dated.

Finally, the home page tries to communicate too many things. I counted 11 different marketing messages all around the page. People tend to dismiss marketing talk. Instead, create one strong message. Something like, “Inclue! Delivers Your favorite News, Videos, Jobs, and Auctions straight to Outlook – FREE!” That might be a little long, but you get the idea. Dr. Makeover

Dear Dr. Makeover: I used one of those “Easy Website Builders” to create my site (ExecutiveCareerPro.com) just a few weeks ago. While my resume services are top-notch, I’m worried that my professionalism and skill level aren’t being communicated. Even though I’m limited to the changes allowed by the website builder, I can make copy changes, add pages and include graphics. What can I do to more effectively appeal to my target market of high-earning executives? Rita Fisher, CPRW and President of ExecutiveCareerPro

Dear Rita: You’re at the top of your game and it’s time to make sure everyone else knows it. Executives at this level should already understand why it’s important to have a professional resume, so selling them on those benefits may be unnecessary. Your site should really focus more on you and your credentials. The way it is now I can barely find your name on the site. Don’t bury the good information.

At the bottom of the home page you offer a free career strategy consultation. Why are you hiding that way down there? By moving that up, maybe just above the navigation, it gives potential clients an easy, no-risk way to get in touch with you to see what you can do for them.

The testimonials are a strong point on the home page, but the color scheme makes it uncomfortable to read. I’m not a big fan of templates in general, but if you have some other alternatives, you might want to consider choosing a different one.

After several more clicks, I finally stumbled on your About page. Here’s where you decided to hide all the good stuff. Your work has been featured in the book “Gallery of Best Resumes.” Congratulations. Let’s make people aware of that. I also like the photo of you. It isn’t the best quality, but it adds a personal touch and really helps to break up the blocks of text. Finally, the Professional Association of ResumeWriters’ logo shows that you are active in this industry.

Let’s bring the photo, the association logo and the book cover graphic over to the home page. Highlighting these images creates an instant, almost subconscious credibility. The idea is to help users understand what you have to offer before they even start reading the text on your page. With all the resume websites out there, the main selling point for yours is YOU. You need to toot your own horn as much as possible. Dr. Makeover

If you have a question for Dr. Makeover or want the chance to be picked for a free home page or landing page redesign, send your name, company, contact information and a brief description of your business (including the URL) to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.


PEDRO SOSTREis 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.

Over-the-Counter Advice for a Healthier Home Page

A double dose of design is not nearly as potent as performance for a site that needs a checkup.

What does design mean to you? Since the goal of this column is to teach website owners, Internet marketers and developers how to design home pages and landing pages that meet business objectives, it’s important that we are on the same page, the same line – the same word – as we explore our latest makeover. So let me just begin this month’s column by defining the term design.

I actually have an issue with the word design. The problem is that most people automatically associate design with art. Too many website owners mistakenly assume that the definition of a well-designed website is one that looks good. Let me set the record straight: A well-designed website is one that performs. Making the site look good is often part of the process of developing a site that performs – but aesthetics are only a piece of the puzzle.

I use the phrase conversion design to describe what I do. I’ve defined conversion design as the deliberate arrangement of elements such as salesmanship, copywriting and visuals to produce an intended outcome. The idea is to encourage users to take a desired action, and the end result is always the same – increased conversions.

That leads me to a second reason for defining design. You may notice that this issue’s makeover isn’t as visually dramatic as previous columns. That’s because we wanted to focus on how simple changes (as opposed to complete visual makeovers) can go a long way toward making your home page more effective. The step-by-step changes we review in this edition of By Design are improvements that any website owner can implement. Now on to the show.

For this issue, we chose to redesign StudentDoc.com, a resource website for medical students that generates the majority of its income from CPA and CPC placements. Naoum Issa started StudentDoc.com shortly after graduating medical school because he recognized a lack of online venues dedicated to helping medical students find the information and resources they need. Naoum has developed a website full of useful resources and is generating a fair amount of traffic and income. Now what? Eventually, every successful website owner wants to take their site to the next level.

Heal Thy Site

StudentDoc.com currently provides salary information, medical test preparation and advice, a medical industry job search and a host of other features that harried med students would find essential. While most of the traffic goes directly to the lower-level pages through organic search, Naoum wants StudentDoc.com to be imprinted in the minds of young medical students. Unfortunately, his current home page just isn’t having that effect. Instead, it functions more like a site map for search engine spiders.

The challenge is to redesign the home page so that it accommodates both the visitor and the search engines. As with any website, the home page should inspire confidence and make the site’s purpose immediately clear. In this case it should also encourage return visitors so that med students who may not have an immediate need for the content offerings will be inspired to return later, like when they need to prepare for their MCAT exam or when they’re ready to look for a job to pay off those student loans.

When we showed the site to our team members, the initial reaction was, “What do they do?” When a group of people looks at your website and has to ask that question, you’re in trouble. At first glance, our group thought the site offered some sort of document services for students. Since the site has no tagline and lacks the imagery to convey that it serves the medical industry, our group assumed that doc was short for documents, not doctors; hence the name StudentDoc.

Next, the site didn’t offer much in terms of encouraging users to come back for a second or third visit. There’s no way to bookmark it, register for updates, send it to a friend or any other tool that might encourage that type of action. Adding these elements will help increase the repeat traffic the site receives.

So let’s get to our step-by-step review of the changes we made:

First, we added a nice photo of medical students. Imagery can quickly set the tone for a website. Since our brains can process images faster than text, the photo makes it clear that the site is targeting medical industry students and recent grads.

Next, we updated the logo by changing the mark. We chose an image that people will readily identify as medically oriented and added a simple, yet clear tagline under the logo: “The Medical Student’s Resource Guide.” These steps solidify the messaging and prevent any confusion about the site’s purpose.

Naoum informed us that his banners weren’t particularly strong income generators. To remedy that issue we pulled them and added text links in the top banner area and forum excerpts in place of the skyscraper (728×90) ad. These text links are a quick way for users to find popular content within the site. The potential downside to this is that it seems to make the site slightly more cluttered. In this case, however, it works because the site is highly targeted so users aren’t as quick to leave. That is a good example of how conversion design chooses performance over looks.

We kept the same general color scheme, but removed the unnecessary traces of red and made the blues a little darker. The lighter, brighter blues gave the site a fun and playful emotion, whereas the new colors give the site a stronger feeling and add to the site’s credibility.

Finally, we added a row at the top of the page to house the “get people to come back” links like Bookmark Us, Register for Updates, etc. We also added a more prominent search function. These changes will encourage one-time visitors to become regular visitors and ultimately increase site traffic and sales.

While we did make some minor graphical updates, all of our changes are simple enough for any website owner to implement. These basic elements are important to keep in mind when designing a site because they will build the foundation for further tweaks and improvements. Remember, design doesn’t have to put fashion over form. Conversion design is about bottom- line results.

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, 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, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Pedro is currently working on a book about his new concept of conversion design. For more information, visit SellNowBook.com.

Comparison Shopping Engines Drive Sales

Rev your sales by driving comparison shoppers your way.

Could comparison shopping be the gas fueling tomorrow’s affiliate sales? In 2005, three of the top comparison-shopping engines pulled in a whopping combined $351 million, thanks to merchant commissions. Yet insiders at the top shopping- comparison sites say the best days are still ahead.

“Comparison shopping really is vertical search and its day is just starting to dawn,” Mike Aufricht, chief marketing officer of mega-shopping-engine Shopping.com, says.

Already the number of comparison shoppers online is growing faster than the number of new Internet users. comScore reports that the Internet audience grew 5 percent over 2005. The number of comparison shoppers, meanwhile, grew nearly twice that much, according to comScore.

What started as a way to directly compare prices and features for technology at various online retailers is now expanding to all kinds of products and services sold by retailers online and off. Some comparison engines categories are already top of mind, such as travel, books and soft goods like apparel. Others are just gaining a foothold, such as education, financial services, automotive, healthcare and real estate.

The result? Thirty-seven percent of those who went online or used an Internet application in January 2006 used a shopping comparison site, according to Nielsen// NetRatings. That’s a whopping 57 million consumers in January alone. In the financial category, 15 percent of financial consumers based in the United Kingdom used a price-comparison engine in January before picking their purchase – up from 6 percent in 2003, according to Forrester Research. And here’s the kicker for affiliates: Forrester also found consumers who use comparison sites spend 25 to 30 percent more online than those who don’t.

Affiliates, Start Your Engines

So what new revenues are affiliates bringing in by adding comparison-shopping engine functionality? A whole lot, if you ask affiliate David Felts.

In 2002, Felts had one website with static affiliate links organized in directory format. Three months into running it he received his first affiliate check: $22. He now runs 40-plus niche price-comparison sites pulling from a database of over 1 million products from more than 50 stores. His main site, iShopHQ.com, receives an average of 400 visitors a day. In December 2005, gross revenue from his network exceeded $9,500.

Providing the ability for his customers to view in-stock products from multiple vendors in an aggregated, yet simple, format “definitely gives me an edge over single- vendor affiliates, and helps drive sales,” he says. Vendor data feeds are automatically

downloaded and unzipped; data import jobs pull the new feeds into the database, and more jobs reconcile the inventory and rebuild the search index. The whole process kicks off every day at 2 a.m., giving up-to-date inventory daily. He hosts all the sites from his own server at his house using a business-class broadband connection. “As a Web application developer by trade, I was able to do all the programming myself,” Felts says, “and my search engine marketing background enabled me to leverage PPC and SEO to complement my affiliate marketing efforts.”

With search results filtered by price, price range, feature set, brand or whatever users want, price-comparison engines are indeed changing the process of comparison shopping, both on and off the Web.

“Rather than flipping through catalogs, writing down sale items from newspaper ads or scouring the Yellow Pages and calling local retailers,” says NexTag vice president of product shopping Mark Bradley, “[shoppers] can now conduct product – and

many services – in a few seconds with a few mouse clicks.”

While comScore’s mid-2005 study of consumer electronics comparison shoppers found 75 percent were merely window shopping, 25

percent did buy within the next 90 days. Only 10 percent bought online, though. That’s a figure top comparison engines are working hard to increase. Some have added buy-now incentives. Some have built-in peer pressure in the form of real-time blogs and peer-to-peer reviews. Some offer special deals only found online.

“Consumers are just beginning to understand the power of the Internet when it comes to shopping: comparison,” Farhad Mohit, founder of the Shopzilla.com comparison engine, says. “In the offline shopping world, there hasn’t been a service like this that lets you have all the choices for all the stores.”

While the Sabre system in travel allows people to tap in to all the flights and seats that are available, there is no Sabre for shopping. “In a very real way, we are building the Sabre in our industry,” Mohit says of today’s top comparison engines. “All of us are attempting to do this.”

But for affiliates, paying to be included in comparison-shopping sites is not very thorough searches for just about any seen as a benefit, according to industry observers. That’s primarily because most merchants are already sending feeds to the big comparison engines and since most of those charge a cost per click, rather than a percent of the sales price, click costs also quickly add up. For instance, Shopzilla collects the equivalent of 10 to 15 percent commission in click costs for every product sold. Affiliates would profit only if their commissions were substantially higher.

A few enterprising publishers are launching their own comparison engines, simply adding search technology within their existing catalog of affiliated merchant products. Take Pepperjam.com, which since 1999 has amassed a loyal following of a reported 6.5 million unique visitors monthly to shop its QVC-advertised collection of grandmother’s-recipe pepper jams and a growing assortment of affiliated merchant products. With more than $100 million in affiliate sales through LinkShare, Commission Junction and Performics in 2005, this 25-employee super-affiliate in March launched the Pepperjam Comparison Shopping Blog, its house-made search and customer review forum.

“Over the past six years, as we’ve grown as a company, we’ve received calls from a merchant or affiliate manager saying, ‘How can we work more closely with Pepperjam to get more sales for us?’ Now it’s going to be easy,” says Kristopher Jones, Pepperjam’s co-founder and CEO. Featured search placement goes to merchants who increase their commission or open a Pepperjam online merchant account and bid their product to the top. “With 6.5 million visitors already coming to our site,” Jones says, “now, in order to get the premier real estate on Pepperjam, [merchants] are going to have to give us more.”

While Pepperjam has more than 1 million products in its catalog, the largest product selections are found on the existing biggies of comparison sites, which include up to 100 million products each. So, the secret for most affiliates to profiting on this trend is to get in as an affiliate of a comparison-shopping engine already offering categories their site visitors need. Shopping.com, PriceGrabber.com, NexTag.com, Shopzilla.com and many other engines have affiliate programs, either through co-branding, custom banners or text links.

“Consumers are just starting to realize that general search is very difficult for doing shopping,” Shopping.com’s Aufricht says. “Consumers talk about the chaos that’s created by using general search engines to do their shopping. They talk a lot about having to click from a search engine to a website, back to the search engine, taking notes along the way, opening multiple browser windows simultaneously. That’s very unwieldy and very time-consuming. Shopping comparison engines allow you to do all of this very quickly from one website. It’s a value proposition that’s very appealing to consumers.”

Not the NASCAR Crowd

The purchase prices for three of the top engines that were sold in 2005 seem toconfirm industry

watchers’ expectations for growth. Shopping.com went to eBay for $634 million, Shopzilla.com was sold to media conglomerate E.W. Scripps for $525 million and PriceGrabber was acquired by Experian for $485 million, plus expenses.

Companies buying these shopping engines are justifying the hefty price tags with the promise of a potentially lucrative and loyal shopping following. NexTag’s Bradley says the demographics for electronics is typically higher income/higher education, while there is a more broadbased appeal for apparel and sporting goods – those run the full gamut when it comes to education and income.

With the addition of such categories as education and healthcare, across-theboard comparison shoppers are “a very general audience now,” Bradley says. “We touch a lot of people simply shopping for anything online.” Meanwhile at Shopzilla, “women are our target demographic; 70 percent of women use Shopzilla.com,” Mohit says.

Though you may think of comparison shoppers as cheapskates, they’re not. At Shopping.com, Nielsen//NetRatings reports 42 percent of its shoppers have household incomes of more than $75,000 and 48 percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Shopping.com also reports 80- plus percent of its shoppers prefer to shop for brands they trust, with less than 10 percent considering lowest price to be the primary driver behind their buying decision. According to comScore Media Metrix, that translates to five times the revenue per lead of other leading portals and search engines.

PriceGrabber brings in all ages, from 18 to 54, with high incomes (users report an average yearly income of $71,000) and college educations (77 percent). The average order is $450. NexTag, meanwhile, seeks to “close that gap between the savers and the non-savers,” Bradley says. “Since comparison shopping is morphing from lowest pricing and grabbing to social shopping, we’re adding in content, recommended merchants, special deals and coupons that you can’t get anywhere else.”

For now, online comparison shopping is anyone’s race. “You put all those numbers together,” says comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni, “and what that says to me is: It’s having a pretty major impact on the way consumers spend their dollars.”

Fine-tuning Your Engine

As far as placing your comparison engine on your site, “every site’s different,” Bradley says about comparison search engine box placement. “Above the fold is the best, but it really depends on their navigation and how they have their advertising laid out currently. You can do very effective testing over a month’s period.”

Must-haves are things like images, product reviews and search technology that allow users to not only search by general search terms, like shirts, but also search for specifics like a camera make and model, and corresponding product reviews. At the least, says Peter Koning, a British Columbia-based M.B.A. and founder of Affiliate-Software- Review.com, “affiliates need to get to that next stage if they want to survive, as more technology is used in the shopping experience,” he says.

“It comes down to basic business principles: If you understand your audience and are listening to them and answering their

questions, then you need to go a little further and give them a little help so they can self-serve and educate themselves. Try to separate yourself from your bias as an affiliate, where you only get paid for a sale, with the real challenge of establishing your credibility so they are willing to trust you. At minimum, put up a one-page comparing products on your site. Show them you’re not biased and you’ll really provide value,” Koning says.

You’ll also want a defined marketing message. In January, Forrester researcher Benjamin Ensor found that price comparison sites aren’t top of mind even for previous users. “The more we can educate consumers when they first come to us through a search engine, the more likely they are to return,” Shopping.com’s Aufricht says. The message is simple, he says: “We need to generate awareness that comparison shopping exists and the advantages of consumer search engine sites. The biggest advantage is to be able to search across millions of products across thousands of merchants. As a result, you’re going to find the right product, at the best price, and probably most important, do it with the least amount of effort.”

For the 10 percent or more searching exclusively for price, University of Indiana Professor and new-economy researcher Michael Baye in 2005 uncovered some stats that make good promotional verbiage for site visitors: “Consumers save 18 to 20 percent, on average, by comparison shopping for products online versus visiting the nearest brick-and-mortar retail outlet.”

Here’s Shopzilla’s marketing strategy: “We have a higher conversion rate because we prepare our shoppers in advance to make a purchase once they click on a listing,” Mohit says. “By having all the information up front, they’re not going to click on a listing that doesn’t make sense to them.”

NextTag’s marketing advice comes from Bradley: “Reviews for merchants that don’t have brand-name recognition are very important. If a customer comes in and hasn’t heard of that merchant, reviews from satisfied clients definitely help them make a sale.”

The Finish Line

And there’s plenty more for comparison shopping down the line: Yahoo Shopping, with 100 million products in its database but no engine affiliate program as of yet, will be the first to bring out a comparison- shopping service for mobile phones. “So you’re at point of sale and simply type in the product model number and have access to comparison information,” says Rob Solomon, vice president of Yahoo! Shopping Group. “That is a game changer from a consumer perspective, because it gives a lot more power to consumers on price. In the future, they will be able to scan in a bar code or take a picture of the product. It’s just a phone call, and it isn’t an incremental cost at all (depending on your phone plan). You could also use a pay-per-call technique in the future; I can imagine a universe where that happens fairly soon. It’s nascent, but it’s coming and it’s very interesting.”

Whether turning to an existing comparison engine or launching your own, experts say you’ll do well to get in now. “The general question is whether online shopping is going to continue at its torrid pace, but it’s tough to see it slowing down anytime soon,” says comScore’s Fulgoni. Even better news: “On top of that, when users go to broadband, their spending rates just rocket, plus the broadband user is spending 35 percent more time online,” he says. “This just plays into the hands of anybody that’s offering a value-added service online. Comparison engines have got to be one of the beneficiaries.”

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

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.

Lost in Translation

Ten years ago, Jaime lived outside Managua, Nicaragua, worked in a shoe factory and took college classes. The then-35-year-old did not own a car and shared a house, a TV and a stereo with his parents, along with his brother and sister- in-law. Both Jaime and his brother helped his parents pay the rent, and the rest of Jaime’s paycheck went toward saving for a move to the United States.

Now Jaime lives in Daly City, Calif. He works as a bookkeeper in San Francisco and rents a house with his girlfriend, Aura, and her 12-year-old son, Juan. Together they share a car, own a TV, a computer, a stereo and cell phones.

They got on the Internet five years ago and Jaime spends about two hours a day online, surfing the Web and doing email. Aura has difficulty reading and does not use the computer at all, but her son spends about an hour a day playing computer games.

Jaime reads news about Nicaragua at the La Prensa website and reads U.S. national and local news in Spanish at the Univision and StarMedia sites. He also regularly reads the Latino Channel on AOL, especially for entertainment and sports news.

The La Prensa site also helps keep him up to date with his favorite baseball team, El Boer, as well as delivering news about his other hobbies – following the Brazilian soccer team and seeing what’s happening in the boxing arena. To follow news about his new local sports teams – the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers, he watches TV. He also uses the Spanish version of Western Union’s website, geared for U.S.- based Hispanics, to check exchange rates, but he goes to the physical location to send money back home.

For his past two trips to Nicaragua, Jaime bought plane tickets at Expedia.com, a site he visits often to check prices. As time passes, he says he feels more comfortable with the security of purchasing online, but he has only bought plane tickets from the Web so far because he likes the experience of shopping in a brick-and-mortar store so he can check the quality of products and walk around.

Because of the financial opportunities in the United States, many of Jaime’s relatives also now live here. Jaime feels that he is living the American dream. He does not know that he is quickly becoming a marketer’s dream. As a 45-year-old bilingual male with a combined household income of more than $50,000 – 8 percent of it disposable – Jaime and his household are part of a U.S. demographic with a purchasing power that dwarfs all other minority groups.

By 2007, the Selig Center for Economic Growth projects that disposable income in the Hispanic market will approach $1 trillion, which represents 9.4 percent of all disposable income in the United States.

Hispanics in America

Understanding the untapped opportunity of Hispanics online requires knowing more about the U.S. Hispanic population. And these days, there is no shortage of research, reports and studies examining this group.

In 2002 the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States with 13.4 percent of the population – or 38.8 million people. By 2020, Latinos are projected to be 21 percent of the population, and a third of them will be under age 18, which is another highly desirable segment for marketers.

But it’s not just the size of this group, it’s how much money they are making and where they are spending it. Hispanics are increasingly the major driving force behind revenue growth in consumer product and service markets, a $690 billion market that has attracted the attention of online marketers and retailers.

And while the median income for American households increased just 6 percent between 1996 and 2001, the median income of Hispanic households rose by 20 percent, from $27,977 to $33,565, during the same period. As of 2002, 31 percent of U.S. Hispanic households had an income of $50,000 or more, according to Scarborough Research and Arbitron.

So, as the Hispanic population is making more money, larger numbers of Hispanics are also getting online. Market researcher Centris found that the number of Hispanic online households in 2003 was 5.5 million.

A study by AOL/Roper reported that Hispanics go online 13.8 hours per week at work and 9.5 hours at home, compared with 8.4 hours at home for the general online population.

Hispanics Internet users tend to be younger than the overall population. Research from comScore Media Metrix shows that 60 percent of Hispanics online were 34 years old or younger, compared to 50 percent of the total Internet user population.

As Hispanics get greater Internet access, they are also starting to shop online more. According to Scarborough Research and Arbitron, 33 percent of online Hispanic adults made at least one purchase in 2002. Although that is significantly lower than the 56 percent of all Internet users who bought something online in 2002, as estimated by eMarketer, it is still increasing year-over-year. Still, according to Scarborough Research and Arbitron, only 13 percent of Hispanics purchased something online 10 or more times.

When U.S. Hispanic adults get involved in e-commerce it’s typically travel and banking, according to the AOL/Roper U.S. Hispanic Cyberstudy. Also, Hispanics tend to consume more types of entertainment, including purchasing tickets, than Internet users overall.

The study also found that Hispanics engage in online communications and other forms of communications at a high rate. A study by the UCLA Center for Communication Policy reports that substantially more Hispanic users than non-Hispanics consider the Internet an extremely important source of information – 44 percent versus 32 percent.

An Untapped Market

Considering the growing purchasing power of Hispanics, the higher-than-average amount of time they spend online and the categories that they spend in, there is a surprising lack of affiliate programs aimed at Hispanics.

Geoffrey Gonzalez, president of Ahorre Marketing, a Hispanic marketing services company, agrees. “I think it is a tremendous opportunity,” he says, but adds that the programs are “pretty much nonexistent.”

In September 2000, affiliate consultant Shawn Collins wrote about the potential of the affiliate marketing industry for Hispanics in Latin America in an article on ClickZ.com, “Brave New Affiliate World.”

Collins admits that the market has not taken off as he projected. “I thought it was about to explode five years ago, but it never happened,” Collins says. “The Hispanic market is a very under-served area for sure.”

Linda Woods, president and CEO of Partner Centric, agrees. “We have been waiting for this to happen; I think a lot of money is being left on the table,” she says.

There are many theories as to why the online marketing community has yet to seize this seemingly huge opportunity. Some believe the merchants need to lead the effort, while others claim it is the affiliate networks that need to act first to facilitate the opportunity. Still others say that the affiliates need to create demand in order for programs to take off.

Language Barrier

However, most agreed it is a language issue and that the expense and commitment associated with developing a Spanish language infrastructure is deterring the merchants and the networks from moving first.

Spanish language is very important to 67 percent of Hispanic Web users, according to the AOL/Roper U.S. Hispanic Cyberstudy, which reports that 40 percent of all Hispanics consider themselves bilingual, 40 percent consider themselves Spanish-dominant and 20 percent are English-dominant. For those who are bilingual, their preference for English or Spanish depends on if they are native- or foreign-born.

Some experts say there cannot be affiliate programs aimed at Hispanics until there are complete Spanish-language versions of major merchant websites. Many company websites, such as Target.com, offer a bit of Spanish, but pages of merchandise, site navigation and the shopping cart are in English.

“Some companies have a landing page in Spanish, and then the rest of the site is only in English,” Collins says. “What kind of ridiculous user experience is that?”

Most major e-commerce sites, such as Sears.com and Wal-Mart.com, do not even have Spanish landing pages. AOL offers channels such as news, entertainment and sports channels in Spanish, but their e-commerce channel, called Shopping, is in English only.

“A merchant company can create a great conversion engine, but when Hispanics get to the shopping cart, all of the instructions are in English and the customer support is in English,” says Matias Perel, CEO of Miami-based interactive agency Latin3. “If an affiliate brings the 20 percent [of the Spanish-dominant Hispanics] to the site, it’s going to be hard for the affiliate to see a positive return on investment.”

Brian Littleton, president of affiliate network ShareASale.com, agrees. “The merchants have to be the first people to step on board. If they determine that it is a market that is available and should be targeted, then that is the basic first step in selling. Obviously the network platform and the affiliates need to be there, but that is down the road. E-commerce came before affiliate marketing.”

Some industry watchers wonder if merchants are worried that focusing on one group will have other growing ethnic groups feeling left out. “Perhaps merchants think it is a slippery slope where if they create a site for Spanish-speaking Hispanics, they will need to create a site for many other ethnic groups and languages,” says Kathryn Finney of TheBudgetFashionista.com.

What About the Networks?

Another theory suggests it’s possible that merchants are waiting for demand from the affiliate networks and publishers before they go through the expense and commitment of building Spanish-language capabilities.

“It’s something of a chicken-and-egg thing,” Collins says. “Why go through the trouble and expense to convert everything if there is not a network to bring you down there? They need Commission Junction, LinkShare, etc., to invest there. Affiliates haven’t gone there because there are no programs to promote.”

In addition, the traditional networks, such as Commission Junction and LinkShare, are not set up to accommodate Spanish-dominant affiliates.

For example, at Commission Junction, when a publisher searches on “Hispanics” for programs to promote, the search yields several programs including Amigos.com, Date.com, FriendFinder.com, SpanishToys.com and Yahoo Personals. But like many of the shopping carts at big online retailers, the interface is in English only; Spanish-dominant affiliates cannot sign up if they can’t navigate the English-only site.

Many merchants describe their affiliate program, or “programa de afiliados,” in Spanish but switch to English once the user reaches the enrollment pages.

Ahorre.com’s Gonzalez points out, “You can’t walk a user through in Spanish until page 9 and then switch to English when it gets to page 10. It’s misleading. It’s very similar to mortgages. You can promote, market, talk, speak and write everything in Spanish for mortgages, but the bottom line is that the contract is in English, and that hasn’t been changed by our laws.”

For example, the bookseller Ofertón de Libros has two complete versions of its site and two complete descriptions of its affiliate program, as well as contracts for both. However, the affiliate contract on the Spanish site is non-binding, but links to the English contract, meaning that the user needs to sign the contract in English to join.

A Spanish-language interface at the networks’ sites would facilitate the enrollment of Spanish-speaking affiliates into Spanish-language affiliate programs. But if the affiliates can’t sign up, the networks can’t know that the demand is there.

“The affiliates who can’t speak English would not know how to join,” says Linda Buquet of 5 Star Affiliate Programs. “My guess is that the networks won’t do it until they know the affiliates are there.”

To date, none of the major affiliate networks (Commission Junction, LinkShare, Performics or ShareASale.com) offer outreach in Spanish. ShareASale’s Littleton says, “These things are definitely in the plans for companies like ourselves and, I am sure, other networks as well.”

Affiliate Demand

Each group seems to be looking at the other to get the ball rolling. From the networks’ view there is also concern about whether there will be demand from affiliates to make a program successful, according to Partner Centric’s Woods.

“I think a lot has to happen before affiliates get into it,” she says.

Littleton agrees. “It is hard to put a lot of resources and work behind a product when the majority of affiliates are not ready and the majority of merchants are not ready,” he says. “All of the pieces are needed for a successful push into any market, whether it is Hispanic or European or Asian.”

Latin3’s Perel says, “The last thing you want to do is build an affiliate program directed to Hispanics and then find that you fail on the transaction part.”

A Need for Content

An affiliate program cannot work if there is not enough relevant content. So, the key to a successful affiliate program is to recruit affiliates with contextually relevant sites that have a proven track record for driving traffic, according to Buquet.

“Until they know the relevant content is there, the networks won’t do it,” she says. Page views are up 30 percent in the U.S. Hispanic market, but they’re up only 6 percent in the U.S. general market, according to comScore Media Metrix. Some point to this as proof that Hispanics are spending more time on the same sites because there is a lack of good Spanish content on the Web.

According to the AOL/Roper study, more than half of all offline Hispanics (56 percent) cite lack of Spanish content as a reason for not going online at home. About half (49 percent) also say it is because there aren’t enough sites and activities online that would interest Hispanics.

It’s in the Works

Regardless of whom you speak to – merchant, network or affiliate – there is a sense that the development will happen with time. But there is trepidation expressed as well as optimism by all parties.

“Everyone knows that Hispanics are a vast audience, but I don’t think that anyone is doing it well yet,” says John Ardis, vice president of business strategy at ValueClick. “Everyone is still scratching their head. There is no shining example to point to. There is a paralysis about when to step forward. It is not just a translation job; whole concepts have to be translated to do it right. It can affect the offline merchandise – if we build it online, do we have to have duplicative merchandise in our offline world?”

Joseph Anthony of Vital Marketing says, “In time, with the proper commitment and appropriate research, these brands will find a lot for them to target. They just can’t sit back and keep doing what they are doing.”

Mark Lopez, publisher of AOL’s Latino, agrees. “As the market develops and companies see the potential of this market and see the Internet as a really mass medium to reach these audiences, I think there’s going to be more investment in the back end to make sure the whole interactive product is in the same language.”

Targeting Hispanics

The research and the online experts say the opportunity to reach the Hispanic market is huge and the development is in the works. Meanwhile, affiliates are scratching their heads about how to tap into this market.

Language is the first concern for any potential affiliate. Other advice from experts in the field includes translating concepts, not just words; being culturally sensitive to the target audience (realize that Mexicans are different than Cubans); targeting the appropriate products with appropriate price points; and testing and retesting the market.

Some experts claim that companies may be wrongly assuming that if customers have an Internet connection and a credit card, they can understand English well enough to make a transaction. A Feedback Research study found that 79 percent of Spanish-speaking Hispanics who have used the Internet for five years or less are already highly engaged in online activities.

There is evidence that it is important to reach out in Spanish even if the user is bilingual. comScore Media Metrix found that 49 percent of the 12.6 million U.S. Hispanic Internet users prefer sites that are either in Spanish or bilingual. “While English content can and does reach large numbers of Hispanics, marketers must also provide relevant Spanish-language content to fully reach U.S. online Hispanics,” the report stated.

There are programs that do target the 20 percent Spanish-dominant U.S. Hispanic market. For example, 21st Century Insurance supplies its affiliates with creative in Spanish for car insurance deals. Partner Centric’s Dan Fink, who manages 21st Century, says the “Spanish creatives represent about 15 percent of our creative content and do bring in a good amount of quotes as well.”

Pedro Sostre of Sostre & Associates is a design consultant and an affiliate who owns several sites that provide creatives to affiliates in Spanish. Sostre’s FreeBookClubs.com promotes two Spanish-language book clubs – Mosaico and Circulo.

“The Spanish-language clubs are on par with some of the other niche clubs,” says Sostre, who also notes that his book club targeted to the African-American market does extremely well, as does the Large Print book club (aimed at the older market).

In addition, Sostre helps run the affiliate program for ServerPronto.com, which also provides its creative in Spanish. Most of the affiliates that use those creatives are targeting a South American audience. Because the company serves clients internationally, ServerPronto’s Spanish-language website and marketing are not specifically geared for U.S. Hispanics.

Be Bilingual

While there are many sites, including Mexgrocer.com and Amigos.com, that also offer some Spanish-language pages, some claim the experience does not need to be entirely in Spanish – it is sufficient to reach out with a bilingual message that leads the user to a Spanish-language page at an English-language site.

Many companies are targeting Hispanics with bilingual messages. Ahorre.com advertises its Household MasterCard credit card in English and Spanish on the same page. Target.com has banners on its Spanish landing page that mixes languages to say “Nuestra Gente – Hispanic Heritage. Discover the Cultura and Tradicion.”

Reebok used this “Spanglish” this year in its much-hyped BarrioRBK campaign, which was produced specifically for the U.S. Hispanic youth market. The site is marked with Spanish and English tag lines as well as Spanglish tags directing visitors to “Volver a Home” or “Return to the Home Page.”

Latin3’s Perel, who designed the site, explains, “We created this website in Spanglish because we realized that young Latinos are bilingual or, because they came here very early, they are English dominant. Because we want to connect with them, we give it a Spanish flavor, so the key here was to have copy writers who have a clear understanding of when to use English and when to use Spanish.”

But there are other reasons not to reach out solely in Spanish. Research firm Cultural Access Group found that Hispanic youths prefer English-language television and radio programming over Spanish-language fare by a margin of nearly two to one, and overwhelmingly prefer English-language Internet sites.

“I think a lot of younger Hispanics are more comfortable in English,” says Sostre. “I am in my 20s, and if I see a site that is completely in Spanish, I think it is targeted at my mom or my grandmother.”

He warns that you might risk insulting a potential user if you communicate with them only in Spanish. “A lot of Hispanics find it offensive if you assume that they don’t speak English.”

A Question of Culture

Affiliates may find that language is less important than culture. Lopez, the AOL Latino publisher, says “the Hispanic audience definitely has cultural dimensions that are really different than the general market.”

For example, Reebok’s BarrioRBK site features a Reggaeton dance game, a music area that includes the top 10 Latino artists, and information about famed Mexican soccer team Chivas.

Because Hispanics online skew younger, Ahorre’s Gonzalez claims affiliates might also do well to target them with lower-priced items. “The growth in Hispanics online is in the youth market, and the youth market is into music – they are into iPods and they are into CDs. Try to sell reasonable price points; if you target up to $99 you should do well.”

Not everyone agrees that low-price items are the way to go. According to Lopez, Hispanic demographics tend to be younger than the general market, but he adds that their buying power is increasing year to year. “Hispanics are becoming more sophisticated just like the general market.”

Nacho Hernandez, president of iHispanic Marketing Group, says, “U.S. Hispanics spent $5.6 billion in 2003 purchasing on the Web.” In fact, Sharper Image, which is known for its high-end electronic goods, has a Spanish-language version of its website targeted at Hispanics in the U.S. and has a “programa de afiliado.”

But some argue that the current research and demographics don’t tell the whole story. Many claim the Hispanic market is not that distinct and will become less distinct over time – much like the offline world where Hispanics become acclimated to American lifestyles and habits.

“In recent years, there has been a shift in online advertising – less of a focus on demographics and more of a focus on psychographics or behavior,” wrote Barry Parr in his MediaSavvy blog. “Demographics are usually the wrong way to target online advertising. You may believe that the most likely user for your products is a woman between the ages of 25 to 44, but what you’re really looking for is anyone who might want to use your product. ” On the Web, you can target users by context and behavior. That’s a lot more powerful than demographics. “”

Vital Marketing’s Anthony concurs. “I think that marketers may be overanalyzing the Hispanic market in terms of feeling that Hispanics are only going to go to sites that are relevant to Hispanic cultural content or contain some type of concentrated cultural information,” he says.

The debate continues about how to target this growing Hispanic group, but for now many agree that for affiliates to succeed, they need to recognize that the Hispanic segment is one with unique requirements – including differences in language, culture and spending habits. Reaching out with cultural references that appeal to Hispanics, and experimenting with Spanish, bilingual and Spanglish messages, are some of the ways to get started. Programs will have better conversion rates if they can demonstrate that they have considered the wants and needs of Hispanic shoppers.

The best way for affiliates to determine the appropriate way to drive traffic is through experimentation. “Top affiliates must be committed and continually test, measure results, make adjustments and retest the market,” Hernandez says.

ALEXANDRA WHARTON is an editor at Montgomery Research, Inc., Revenue’s parent company. During her four years at MRI, she has edited publications about CRM, supply chain, human performance and healthcare technology. Previously she worked at Internet consulting firm march FIRST (formerly USWeb/CKS).

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.

It’s Just Direct Marketing

As I go around the country teaching workshops on pay per click (PPC) I get asked many varied questions on search engine marketing (SEM), depending on which city I happen to be in. Larger marketers seem to have more sophisticated questions; smaller marketers tend to focus on subsistence tactics. However, one theme seems to reoccur frequently: the myth that SEM is some kind of rocket science.

Smaller businesses and many members of marketing departments at large and even Fortune 1000 companies have bought into the idea that SEM is something that can only be properly utilized by those who know the correct “voodoo” to make it work.

But really, SEM is just another form of direct response marketing and many of the same principles apply. Why else do you think those nasty 24-page sales letters work so well at driving conversions from search engine traffic? Personally, I hate those letters, but I am not their targeted audience.

The marketers who write long sales letters typically have years of experience in direct response marketing and have figured out how to use search to reach the same customers that they would target with any other marketing vehicle. They are successful because their message resonates with their intended customers (mostly Internet newbies) and they apply the same controls to their search marketing campaign as they do to any other campaign.

So how can you apply the same tactics? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating the use of long-winded sales letters with 15 calls to action set in strategically placed buttons. They may or may not work for your product – depending on your offer – whether your consumer is educated in your marketplace and your price point. What I am saying is that you too can adapt their techniques to reach your intended goal.

Here are some direct response marketing principles that should also apply to your SEM campaigns:

  • It takes work. In order to truly be successful at search engine marketing you have to constantly test your response rates. Those who throw up a campaign and expect to just sit and watch the dollars roll in without any labor investment are just wasting their time. Successful marketers test copy, keywords, placement, pricing, messages, landing pages, etc.
  • You have to test. In direct response marketing, testing rules is never-ending. Just like testing in direct mail, the cost of the campaign can be justified if the lift in the conversion rate is enough to offset the expense. To measure the effect, you have to A/B split-test your traffic, testing new landing pages against the old. For retail sites with thousands of products, you can minimize the expense by testing just the product pages driving the most sales. If the lift in conversion offsets the cost of optimizing the pages, keep testing and roll out new ones.
  • You have to track results. Just as savvy offline marketers can tell which piece of mail and from which specific message a customer converted, you have to be able to tell which keyword, message and referrer drove your sale. Tracking is easy to do on PPC, harder on search engine optimization, but critical on both.
  • Creative is key. Google rewards those with high click-through rates (CTR) on PPC by better placement, and the way to get high CTRs is to write great copy that resonates with your audience. A good copywriter can make the difference between a successful PPC campaign and one that bleeds cash. Similar to an offline campaign, online creative (i.e., your search listings) should be tested frequently because even a small lift in conversion can affect profitability.
  • It’s all about the benefit. Successful marketers remember that the customers’ needs are paramount at all times. They sell on benefits, not features, and look for the messages that play on their customers’ emotional responses to their product or service. Include in your creative the things that work best such as your unique sales proposition, calls to action, list of benefits, money-back guarantees, etc. Never test more than one element at a time, or you won’t know which one contributed to the lift or falloff. Over time, you will discover offers that work only online, but like offline marketing, it comes through the same test-and-learn discipline.
  • The “Lead to Sale” conversion rate is important. Just as in the offline world the key to conversions from search is providing the right hook in your listing at the right phase of the buying cycle, and then converting that lead into a paying customer with the right offer on your landing page.
  • Analysis is your friend. Like any good offline campaign, you learn a great deal from analyzing your testing and conversions. Sometimes, new search engine marketers make the mistake of analyzing all their online test campaigns as one big program. This can really skew your testing as the set of results from one search engine campaign can vary dramatically from another. Likewise one set of keywords can perform significantly better than the rest; but because even changing a keyword from singular to plural can have dramatically different results, you have to test and analyze each variable separately.
  • It’s all about CPA or CPL. All search engine marketing campaigns need to be analyzed in just the way you would analyze your efforts in the offline world. Cost per acquisition (CPA) or cost per lead (CPL) is your common denominator and the only number that really counts in the long term.
  • Create customer loyalty.Search engines are looking more and more at how many websites link to yours. But a bunch of links from high-traffic sites are worthless unless those links drive sales. Link campaigns are too time-consuming to do them just for the sake of getting higher search engine ranking. You need customer evangelists driving more sales, and links can provide that.

Not all traffic is created equal. Just as in the offline direct response world, the 80/20 rule applies. In that world we know that 80 percent of your profits come from 20 percent of your sales. The same thing applies in SEM: 20 percent of your keywords will drive 80 percent of your sales. Obviously those are the keywords you will focus 80 percent of your attention on but you can’t discover those drivers unless you test constantly. Some keywords will bring you more traffic, but fewer conversions on the back end. Other keywords may bring you no sales, but be effective in driving branding or eliminating a stumbling block in the buying cycle.

Direct response marketing skills and experience are some of the key drivers in SEM campaigns. There are some nuances of SEM that you can only learn by experience, but if you go into it with the mindset that these rules apply you will demystify the whole experience. Regardless of the source or channel this mindset is what makes the difference between success and failure.

MARY O’BRIEN is a partner at Telic Media. She was formerly senior director of sales at Yahoo Search Marketing and is currently presenting their advertiser workshops around the country.