Home Page Makeover Unleashed

In this first installment of Revenue Magazine’s “By Design Makeover,” I worked with my team at Sostre & Associates to choose one site and give that lucky winner a visual redesign of its home page. After reviewing more than 50 submissions from readers like you, we finally selected – drum roll, please – OriginalDogBiscuit.com.

We chose this site because it serves as a prime example of a challenge website owners commonly face – designing an effective home page. I am convinced that online retailers could drastically improve conversions by redesigning their home page, and I am out to prove it. So stick with me as we walk through this makeover geared toward increasing conversion rates for OriginalDogBiscuit.com.

Before you design a website it is critical to thoroughly understand the product or service that you are peddling. That’s why we started the makeover process with a conversation with Elyse Grau, owner of The Original Dog Biscuit Co., to learn as much as possible about her products.

Grau says her company’s value proposition is quality. In other words, the biggest benefit of buying her biscuits is the ingredients. The Original Dog Biscuit uses all natural, human-grade, mostly organic ingredients, no preservatives, sugars or salts. The results leave dogs barking for more of this healthier snack.

Grau’s customers are health-conscious dog lovers. So it comes as no surprise that her best-selling products are regular and special diet dog biscuits, with dog gifts and dog supplements taking a backseat to these staples. The Original Dog Biscuit Co. also touts great incentives for frequent buyers, including discounts and free products.

Armed with this information, we needed to understand how users interact with the website. This is User Interaction 101. A first-time visitor has three primary questions: What is this site selling; why should I buy from this site; and how do I buy from this site?

Your website’s home page is charged with providing quick answers (sometimes in less than 10 seconds) before you require anything of the user.

Now let’s check out how the original design responds to those questions.

What is the site selling? The Original Dog Biscuit Co. may have a clear domain name and logo, but the website sends mixed signals. A quick glance at the home page screams of salmon oils instead of the company’s best-selling biscuits.

The three product categories – Dog Biscuits, Dog Gifts and Supplements – are each given the same weight in the navigation. That makes it confusing for customers who came to the site looking for dog biscuits with the best ingredients and best taste.

What’s more, the home page doesn’t display any images of the actual products being offered. This imagery is commonly referred to in the industry as a “hero shot.” And according to MarketingSherpa’s Landing Page Handbook, a good hero shot can increase brand recognition and response rates. That’s our goal!

Why should I buy from this site? As we learned from our business owner interview, the unique value of the doggy treats is ingredients that are far superior to your average grocery store brand. The problem is that the site doesn’t communicate that value proposition.

Well, OK, technically it does in that hard-to-find text blurb in the middle. But people don’t always read text, especially text that stretches across the page with no distinguishing characteristics. And the Our Ingredients link is sandwiched between the Frequent Buyer Program and Privacy Policy links, neither of which will draw much attention. This is where a good tagline comes in.

Wait ” it already has a tagline. Yes, and if you squint really hard you can almost see it right there under the logo. Can you see it? It says, “Best Ingredients. Best Taste.” It’s not the best tagline in the dog-biscuit world, but if it was visible, it might help.

How do I buy from this site? Now let’s assume that a user gets past the first two questions. They understand that the site sells dog biscuits and that the high-quality ingredients make this a much better brand for their canine friends. There’s still one more problem: How do they make a purchase?

Although not immediately recognizable, the phone number isn’t too hard to find.

Since there are no product images on the home page, we have to dig a little deeper to find the dog biscuits we want. But once we get there, adding them to the cart is fairly straightforward.

Bottom line: OriginalDogBiscuit.com could use a few improvements. I’ve pinpointed a few specific areas that need some immediate help:

  • Too much navigation
    When there are too many navigation options, it’s hard for the eye to pick anything out, much less see what’s really important.
  • Corporate identity inconsistency
    The logo is attractive and has personality, but it doesn’t flow with the rest of the page.
  • Missing unique value proposition
    The unique benefit for dog owners who buy from this site is that their pets are getting treats that are healthier than their mass-market counterparts. This value is not communicated on the home page.
  • Ordering phone number not prominent
    Many users still want to pick up the phone and call. The placement of the number is not prominent enough.
  • Wrong focus
    The first thing a visitor sees on the site is “salmon oil.” This is not the primary business of the website and, although there should be a place for news and announcements, it is taking too much real estate in the current design.

Now comes the fun part. Sostre & Associates art director Jason Graham spearheaded the visual aspect of this redesign. He was excited about the project because, “Their logo and packaging looks terrific. They obviously invested a lot into their brand identity, and we can capitalize on that.”

First we took the most important elements and positioned them right in the center of the page. Now their top products are prominently featured, along with their value proposition, and Add to Cart links allow customers to begin shopping right away. Then we surrounded that imagery with supporting elements, like testimonials, articles and frequent-buyer discounts.

“Everything on the home page supports the user’s desire to buy or learn more about the product and the person selling it,” Graham says. “The new home page gives users lots of reasons to feel good about buying the product.”

In the competitive world of e-commerce, online shoppers are always looking for reasons to not buy from a website. Having a less-than-optimal home page can give them what they perceive as a good reason.

Remember the saying, “On the Web, your competition is only three clicks away”? Well, it may be old (in Internet time), but it is still true. This By Design Makeover is sure to keep the competition at bay and dog owners happy with a user-friendly store to buy nutritious doggy treats.

PEDRO SOSTRE is principal and creative director at Sostre & Associates, a Miami-based consulting and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs, including AudioBookDeals.com, BestCredit Solutions.com, EquestrianMag.com, iTravelMag.com and Look-Your-Best.com.

Pedro Sostre: Follow Your Passion

Pedro Sostre is all about art and good design. And he’s not afraid to voice his opinions on either subject.

“Most websites suck in terms of design,” he says, though he also admits there are many design-oriented sites that are extremely well-done and that he’d be hard-pressed to single out just a handful of them.

When it comes to art, he’s fond of the impressionist style of painting. He loves art with bold colors. He leans more toward more modern work and loves Piet Mondrian and his counterparts, but he’s not very fond of pop artists like Andy Warhol.

A passion for art and design seems to permeate everything he does – especially his work.

Sostre, principal and creative director of Sostre & Associates, is a Miami-based affiliate who also does Web development and consulting.

He’s one of Commission Junction’s top performers – with a network earnings ratio of five bars. He’s been a publisher with Commission Junction since 2003 and runs a number of sites, from book clubs to cosmetics to equestrian vacations, including AudioBookDeals.com, BestCreditSolutions.com, EquestrianMag.com, iTravelMag.com, Look-Your-Best.com and Tax-Stuff.com.

Sostre started his professional design career in 1998 doing identity and brand consulting along with designing logos and business cards. Around 1999, when the Internet was gaining in popularity, Sostre started to get more involved in designing websites. “I really just wanted to see what it was all about,” he says. “Then I realized there was money to be made.”

Like most who wanted to ride the Internet gravy train, Sostre had no formal training with computers or the Web. He came from a graphics design and visual communications background at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

“In school we didn’t have very many computers. I think I took one programming class, but there was nothing related to the Internet,” he laughs.

However, after working on the design portion of several clients’ websites, Sostre would often see sales jump from $5,000 to $50,000 a month. Suddenly he wondered why he wasn’t doing this for himself. So in 1999 he started working on his first affiliate website and launched it in 2000. Not surprisingly, SiteDesignMagazine.com was aimed at site designers.

“I still have that site today, but now it’s like a stepchild that doesn’t get much attention,” he says.

Sostre concedes that at the time he launched his first site, he “had no idea what was going to work” and he just “put up a bunch of stuff.” The good news was that certain elements showed lots of promise.

“Affiliate marketing was not mature back then,” he notes. “I just kind of did it myself and kept trying new stuff.”

He didn’t have anyone to look to for advice or tips when he started. BeFree was the network Sostre signed up with when he first started out. “It’s not like Commission Junction is now, where they provide advice and help for publishers. It was like ‘Here are the merchants’ links, just grab them and go,’ ” he says.

And if he did come across someone willing to share online marketing war stories, they weren’t really making any money anyway.

“Most affiliates were in their own little sheltered environments,” he says. “The people that were doing well didn’t have the time to be out and talking. They were hard at work on their sites.”

Sostre took note of that. He kept his head down and mostly just figured things out for himself. He says he simply used basic principles of salesmanship and marketing. “I applied what I knew from traditional business.”

During college and high school he had a variety of sales jobs – Godiva and Structure (now Men’s Express) – that taught him a lot, and he says much of his early retail sales training came in handy. He’s also not afraid to take risks and make mistakes.

“I spent a lot of money that I didn’t need to spend, but every cent taught me something,” he says.

Currently Sostre has about 20 sites that are close to done and approximately seven that are completely up and running. He also owns another 100 domains and is trying to figure out how best to use them.

“I can be very fickle and get bored easily. That’s when I move on to different stuff,” he says. If I’m losing on one site and then realize that there’s another area where no one has done very well, then I might consider creating a site to fill that need.”

Typically, like with his equestrian site, EquestrianMag.com, Sostre identifies a market or industry, looks at the existing sites and evaluates them. If there are a lot of bad sites, but he still thinks there are enough people interested in the topic, he will buy a domain name and launch a new site.

The three sites Sostre considers to be his best-performing are FreeBookClubs.com, AudioBookDeals.com and iTravelMag.com.

He does pay per click on his own websites. He doesn’t do bulk email or PPC arbitrage. Because many of his sites are online magazines, he also has to refresh content frequently. He hires freelance writers and updates the site with new articles once a month and uses free press releases. However, he refuses to use keyword articles and search engine spam.

“I know there are people out there that capitalize on that to get the traffic,” he says. “I won’t do that.” But there are several things he has done that have helped him achieve success. “I’m doing something I love. I love designing websites and trying to find new ways to increase business using the Internet, and that’s what I get to do all day long. I’m constantly trying new things. You have to try everything and don’t be afraid to fail. And I’m always learning. Whether it’s a new programming language or a new sales principle, I try to be in a constant state of learning.”

And no matter how successful he becomes, he’s never afraid to seek help or learn from someone else. Recently he considered one of his sites nearly dead. It had only a couple of sales in the last year. But he resuscitated the site by working with an affiliate manager friend. Sostre takes extra care not to take any of the credit for his friend’s hard work and the improvement in performance.

“My affiliate manager friend took it over and improved the program. It was huge challenge, but she knew the program could be good,” he says. “She got the program to a good point where sales went from two per year to 100 sales per month. It showed me what a good affiliate manager can really do.”

In order for Sostre to consider one of his properties successful it has to meet specific criteria: it fills a specific need and he starts to get inquiries on how to advertise on it. “The money comes after that,” he adds.

Professional success has helped Sostre gain personal success as well, which he defines as being able to work from home and spend as much time as possible with his family. His wife is a stay-at-home mom, so she deals with the busy schedules of his four kids.

Sostre really likes to help out, but working from home means having strict boundaries. When he’s working, his office is off limits to the kids, “when they feel like listening,” he says. If Sostre is in the middle of big project or on a tight deadline, his wife is great about occupying the kids in the pool or taking them to visit grandma.

And like most affiliates that work from home, this self-described workaholic can set his own schedule. He says it changes every now and again. On rare occasions he wakes up at 6 a.m., but most of his workdays start around 9 or 10 a.m. – unless he gets “dragged out of bed earlier for a phone call.”

“I’m not an early person,” Sostre says. “I usually stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. or sometimes later. That’s when my brain is turned on.”

By working from home he also avoids a nasty commute to downtown Miami, which can take up to 90 minutes each way in heavy traffic, which is almost always, he claims.

The disadvantage of his job is that few people outside the affiliate community understand what Sostre does for a living.

“I don’t talk to enough people that even know what affiliate marketing is. My mom is convinced that I’m doing something illegal,” he jokes. “I’ve resorted to saying ‘Internet stuff’ when explaining what I do to friends and family.”

Commission Junction certainly knows what Sostre does. As one of CJ’s top performers, he’s often asked by the affiliate network to give tips to new publishers and advertisers on how to run strong programs. Although he’s eager to help others, he seems almost embarrassed to talk about his success. He seems hesitant to admit he’s got a big bag full of great tips and tricks.

It’s not that he’s concerned about someone borrowing his recipe for success. “I’ve talked very openly with a lot of people about how I did it, but everything is not easily duplicated, so it’s not like I’m worried that someone else is going to steal my business,” he says.

Mostly, it’s just that he’d rather not seem preachy or like a know-it-all. Instead, he prefers to talk about his personal experience and let people take what they want or need from his story.

Sostre says he likes to keep a low profile, but in the last year or so he’s been encouraged by a well-connected friend in the industry to be more visible in the affiliate community.

“My friend is remarkable. She’s trying to get me to talk to people. After asking me a couple hundred times, I gave in and let her introduce me to some people.”

That’s led to some interesting opportunities. Over the last several months, Sostre was on a panel at the Affiliate Summit 2005 in Las Vegas in June; he was a speaker at eComXpo, a virtual tradeshow for online marketers; and he’s done some writing for industry trade publications.

“I haven’t done a whole lot of publicly before now,” he says. “I’ve stayed out of the industry. I’m used to doing things on my own. I was not one that visited the newsletter sites and message boards – especially once the experts and gurus came out. I’m just not that keen on listening to them.”

Maybe that’s why he seems so reticent to give out advice. Ironically, about 25 percent of his business is consulting services related to advising others on website design.

One piece of advice he doesn’t hesitate to give out: “People who are innovators try new things. Now people are just trying to duplicate success. Free iPods are huge, and these are not from the original company that made it a success. I hate that. Experiment. Do something new.”

New technologies such as blogging and podcasting offer opportunities, says Sostre. While he’s long been interested in blogging but hasn’t had much time to spend on it, he notes that podcasting is likely not for him. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work well for others.

“People should be open to try new stuff. I thought online marketing was interesting. I tried it and it worked for me as well as a whole lot of other people, even though many marketing experts were sure that it was never going to go anywhere. The more you try the more you can succeed.”

He also can’t emphasize enough the importance of design.

“Most websites really need design improvement and help,” he says. “Mostly it’s someone just attempting to make a few bucks. You know, people want to make an extra $100 per month. Then they realize they can make $500 per month, then $1,000. These are not people that are going to spend time to learn design. I believe that’s why many fail.

“I would like to see the Internet mature in terms of design as other marketing media has. Why do you think Target and Apple do so well? Good design and marketing. Some marketers understand how design impacts them, so they’ll pay a professional,” he says.

According to Sostre, the next step for affiliates is to grow beyond affiliate marketing.

“I’d love to see the affiliate community do something good,” he says. “We need to seek to do something more than just making money.”

However, he explains that he means “do good” from a business standpoint.

“Well, I’m not Mother Teresa or a member of Greenpeace, so when I say do good I mean from a business sense. I would like to see more affiliate sites grow to become top resources in their respective industries. I see a lot of affiliate sites that are just directories or they have content that is not that useful. It’s just there to attract people to the site. I’d like to see affiliates creating real websites that serve as leading resources.”

As for Sostre’s future, he wants to continue to grow his business. Over the next two years he’d like to double his revenue and hire a couple more employees.

“I really love what I’m doing right now and I would hope to be doing the same thing in two years,” he says. “As the president of Sostre & Associates, I get to determine what industries we move into and what websites we develop. This keeps me from getting bored with a particular industry or website. As creative director I get to meet with our clients, learn about their businesses and discover ways to increase it, which is a challenge that I really enjoy.”

Analyze This

Affiliates are capitalizing on the predictable behavioral patterns of consumers by using Web analytics tools to decode customers’ habits and boost revenue.

So if you’re a publisher and want to know who exactly is visiting your site, how different types of visitors come back, what they are looking for when they arrive and what specifically makes them want to leave, you should be thinking about tools that help you sort, analyze and understand your customers.

Web analytics is an emerging category of software that purports to answer all those questions and many more that could help you identify the steps for your site to reach the top of its game.

“Affiliates have tremendous opportunity,” says Barbara Poole, a revenue improvement consultant at PoolResources.com, “because they already understand what it is to drill down to the specific customer relationships.”

And if you find the right software to help with that decoding you’ll already be ahead of the curve.

That’s what Miami-based affiliate Pedro Sostre did. Through a collection of analytics software that includes AWStats, ClickTracks Pro and WebSideStory’s HitBox, he has determined the success of ad campaigns, discovered new opportunities based on analyzing what keyword terms are being searched and routinely improved overall performance for his sites including FreeBookClub.com, iTravelMagazine.com, AudioBookDeals.com and Tax-Stuff.com.

“We use Web analytics every day,” Sostre says. “When we found that 88 percent of that search engine traffic wasn’t converting, we where able to save $2,000 per month at FreeBookClub on pay-perclick advertising alone.”

These tools don’t cost much: AWStats is free, HitBox is $30 per month and Click- Tracks’ basic level is a one-time license of a few hundred dollars.

“Eliminating pay-per-click listings at Aha and Kanoodle alone saved me the cost of the software,” Sostre says. “And then there is the value you get from seeing what people are looking for as far as clicks and what campaigns are working. I absolutely could not do what I do without being able to analyze the sets.”

New analytics tools actually create a snapshot of who your ideal customers are and what makes them tick. And it even can determine the different types of customers your site might draw. Once you can do that, “you get the ability to really use that information,” says Brent Hieggelke, vice president of software analytics company WebTrends.

Merchants and affiliates are catching on to this power. The Web analytics market grew 13 percent in 2004, marking what global market researcher International Data Corp. calls a “second coming.”

Analytics has officially grown up from its beginnings a decade ago, when eyeballs and unique page impressions were all that mattered, or at least all that were measured. “Who really cares if someone is sitting on a page for 20 minutes? People have realized how dirty those metrics are,” says SAS Web Analytics’ Richard Foley. “Basic metrics just aren’t cutting it.”

So what is? There are several Web analytics advances, some still in beta, that could be huge for affiliates. Segmentation, intuitive analysis and 360-degree views are among the latest advances that have affiliates applauding.

“We just started using [analytics], and we’re just blown away by the power of seeing day-to-day metrics,” says Joe Beruta, director of interactive marketing for Jenny Craig, which gets anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of its online registrations through affiliates. “We used to look at the month after the fact, with no real-time metrics. Now we’re looking at things like clients versus non-clients as they come to the site – and we haven’t even gotten into segmentation.”

Segmentation

Segmentation is the hottest way to analyze customers on the Web, and at as little as $35 per month it’s finally affordable for small publishers. The technology records and visually tracks a single visitor’s interactions at every touch point. Assigning each visitor a unique identifier, it compares its findings with its growing database of other users’ patterns. Similar users are grouped into one segment. The more a visitor interacts with your site, either by clicking links or making purchases or answering questions about interests, the more data the technology collects on what makes that segment tick.

“It’s a little bit like taking a helicopter and flying over a freeway to see where the bottlenecks are,” says Michael Chavez, vice president of analytics maker ClickFox. “It’s not about predicting a user’s behavior; you’re looking at what they actually did. And you now can link that to actual demographics.”

One of the first companies to make segmentation accessible is WebTrends, which rolled out version 7.0 of its program a year ago. The latest version includes actual breakdowns of how profitable each link is and all of its segmentation tools. There’s a free 14-day trial at WebTrends.com.

Today “this broad, comprehensive picture of the process is one of the absolute hot spots in the market,” says WebTrend’s Hieggelke.

This type of analytics can even help you find new merchants or improve the deal you have. “You get to know based on buying habits what someone wants from your company,” says Mark Bradley, vice president of product shopping at shopping comparison engine NexTag. “If you know people are heading off to buy another product from a third party, then you negotiate with that merchant to get a special deal to sell it yourself.”

Intuitive Analysis

With intuitive analytics, you also get recommendations specific to respective goals for sales, IT, marketing and Web design. Now, if a certain segment of customers are spending three times more time on your site, but buying half as often, the software automatically searches for commonalities like coupon codes, free shipping offers or site navigation and tells you what about your site or where the customer came from influences their buying behavior. It tells you what to keep doing to get more customers (including determining the best advertising avenues) and what to start doing to get them to shop more often.

“That’s what analytics is,” says Stephen Messer, CEO of LinkShare, which in May launched its Synergy Analytics application for its network of affiliates. “It says: ‘Let us do the analysis that you would otherwise do on your own.'”

With basic analytics, you may conclude you bought the wrong keywords if your search engine results are down – with nothing in your reporting to tell you exactly what you did wrong. Intuitive analytics will point out six, nine, maybe 10 different things that might be affecting why search engine returns were low. It may be that your landing pages were too slow or down, it might be the time of day, it might be that you actually do have some keywords that aren’t effective. Intuitive analytics does a report for each and more of these things, providing an immediate blueprint for what steps you could take to improve search engine conversions.

360-Degree View

The third big analysis development builds its reports not only on your site’s Web data, but also on all of your other campaigns. Email, direct mail, traditional advertising, search engine placements and keyword buys are all cataloged online using distinctive links, coupon codes, SKU numbers, even unique telephone extensions. It integrates offline and other marketing and sales data for a complete view of your business activities and a complete read on what works and what doesn’t. It is, however, the most expensive of the Web analytics tools: SAS, which released its 360-degree SAS Web Analytics product in mid-2004.

“A 360-degree view can really determine what people are doing on your site, by digging through and mining the Web data so you can see ‘these are my specific segments,'” says Evan Shelby, product manager for SPSS’s Web analytics products.

SPSS bought NetGenesis several years ago and has integrated it with another SPSS product – Web Mining for Clementine – to offer a 360-degree view. Its SPSS for Windows 13.0 is $1,499 for a business customer and $599 for a single academic user. SPSS server licenses start at $15,500.

“We look at things like affinities, segments, what activities might be associated for cross-selling and upselling – really digging into the data,” Shelby says.

In the end, most site publishers use a combination of tools like Urchin and ClickTracks, says Chris Winfield, president of 10e20, which concurrently manages hundreds of search engine marketing campaigns for clients like Virgin and Coldwell Banker. Other than high-end analytics like SAS, “there isn’t one package yet that we’ve found to truly meet the need to really be able to track all of these things at once,” Winfield says.

Analytics in Action

“It’s a very unusual combination of sophisticated technology and sophisticated math and analytics, when integrated together with merchandising and marketing communicating,” says Matt Moog, president and CEO of CoolSavings, an online direct marketing and media company.

Using analytics software from SAS, SPSS and Coremetrics, CoolSavings was one of the first to give online retailers a holistic view of customers that includes strategies for acquiring consumers, lowering churn and retaining consumers.

“It all starts in knowing what data to collect about the consumer, and storing that data – whether self-reported, behavioral or transactional data – in such a way that it can be used for those purposes,” Moog says.

It’s something Erick Barney, marketing manager for Medford, Ore.-based MotorcycleSuperstore.com, knows well. He added WebTrends 7.0 one year ago. “It’s amazing to see what kind of product you get from a company where that’s what they do,” Barney says. “It’s just leagues beyond what we had. We had all the basics. We knew where we stood, but we didn’t have the nitty-gritty. We didn’t know all the screws to tighten, all the design elements to tweak or all the things to do better – bidding on keywords or writing sales copy. Now, we dream up our metric and [our analytics provider] help[s] us put together the reports to analyze it.”

Using WebTrend’s overlay feature, which shows click-through and revenue numbers above the actual links on a screen capture of each page, Barney has been able to analyze everything from the placement of tables to clickthroughs on email communication links and automatically sees a red flag on those pages with frequent cart dropouts. Since adding WebTrends, MotorcyleSuperstore.com’s revenues have jumped nearly 50 percent.

“I’ve had access to most of the analytics from one source or another, but I had to log in to Overture, extract the numbers and build my own report to compare programs and make decisions,” Barney recalls. “This puts it all in front of you. I go ‘Campaign Drill Down’ and it’s all right there, and it’s really cool.”

On the other side of the coin are the affiliate sales that can be made on a product like this.

“Many of our partners use our technology to not only optimize their marketing efforts, but also complement their service offerings,” says Dan Shapero at NetApplications.com, which integrated Alexa Data Services into its Hitslink analytics tool in late-2003. Hitslink includes pay-per-click conversion tracking, click fraud analysis, referrers, search engine keywords and page navigation paths. It can track an Overture listing, for instance, all the way to orders and revenue, plus it sends out email traffic alerts when your traffic spikes. (There’s a free 30-day trial, good for up to 20,000 hits, at Hitslink.com/trial.)

Already taking statistics for a reported 40,000 publishers, most of Net Application’s customers come through its affiliate and private-label partner programs, Shapero says. “A big part of our vision is if we can enable these partners to use our technologies to market our products, they become our biggest evangelists.” Most of its 3,000 affiliates not only get 40 to 50 percent of every $9.95- to-start monthly hosting fee their users pay, but also get up to 50 percent off the price of using the software for themselves. (Hitslink now has $20 sign-up incentive.)

Meanwhile, Sostre is helping other sites master the analytics tactics he has learned as an in-the-trench affiliate. Using intuitive analytics reports, he helped one site change small things like the color of the button, where the sign-up is and what copy they put next to it. The results, reports a company spokesperson’s blog, were a 60 percent jump in EPC.

“These days,” reminds website strategy consultant Philippa Gamse, “you have to get into the behavior patterns – what you want to do better and what you want to stop doing – to be successful.” These new innovations in Web analytics, at a price range affordable to smaller sites, may be just what ROI ordered.

“The money there is real,” WebTrends’ Hieggelke says. “It’s the kind of thing that shows running your business by the numbers can absolutely have a fast payoff.”

JENNIFER D. MEACHAM‘s stories have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, AARP The Magazine and at CBSMarketWatch.com. She’s a former reporter for The Seattle Times.

The Myths of Affiliate Marketing

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

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

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

Converting Visitors to Buyers

While affiliate Web sites can measure how many visitors and clicks they receive and send on through to merchants, that’s only part of the story when making decisions on maximizing revenue potential. There is still that magical measurement of conversions; how many of the visitors that affiliates send to a merchant actually buy something?

“It’s really all about nuance now. Web sites work and are more or less efficient, but retailers [and affiliates] want to know exactly what their customers respond to online,” says Patti Freeman Evans, retail analyst at JupiterResearch.

And “customers,” plural, is the key. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that can work to attract the interests and buying decisions of a broad range of customers. Instead, affiliate marketers need a multi-pronged plan of attack. It’s not just trying to appeal to the types of products and services buyers want, but figuring out how they go about deciding to buy.

According to Freeman Evans, 60 percent of online buyers do research online before they buy, while the remaining 40 percent don’t like to do research and just want to buy what they like or need and immediately move on.

So how do you convert this wide range of visitors to your site into buyers? High search engine rankings coupled with a landing page can lead relevant buyers to your site, but companies often forget to do the rest of the work. “Once you get a customer to your site, you want to use all the assets merchants make available, like product photos and marketing material, that will help the buying decision,” notes Gary Stein, senior advertising analyst at Jupiter. “Conversion rates go up when companies develop their content and give visitors a reason to be there.”

Content-rich sites with an edgy passion for their subject matter have an advantage. Sites that reflect passionate, informed views, and articles with real value, win the respect of their visitors and often their purchase orders.

For some affiliates it’s almost a Zen-like strategy. Kathryn Finney, founder and owner of TheBudgetFashionista.com, says she’s never tried to design her site to make sales; it’s always been about serving her readers. Started as a blog, Finney’s site has become a smart and sassy provider of unvarnished information for budget-minded buyers of women’s clothing and accessories. Ads from major women’s clothing retailers adorn the site, courtesy of LinkShare.

“We are getting cash flow and solid partnerships with retailers, and also our leads translate into offline sales for them,” says Finney. “Our focus isn’t on selling, but by providing valuable, relevant information, we end up a great selling platform.” TheBudgetFashionista will accept only those ads that fit with the focus of the Web site Ð clothing-related items for the budget-minded.

Gimmicks That Work

It’s virtually impossible to appeal to the broad needs of all your visitors even if you have a very targeted site. “The amount of attention a browser receives is staggeringly small,” says Matthew Roche, co-founder of Offermatica.com, a hosted service that runs multiple variations of landing pages and measures which aspects of each are most effective at converting browsers to buyers.

Roche believes a little experimentation can get you a much higher conversion rate. “If someone says they have the perfect landing page, they are just guessing,” Roche says. In general, buyers react negatively to tax and shipping charges and having to register. Free shipping has proven to win sales at many sites, while discount pricing is better for others.

One Offermatica client tried free shipping versus 10 percent off. Offermatica was sure free shipping would win, but 10 percent off proved far more popular for this client. There are additional factors to consider, such as how much to charge for shipping if it’s not free and how much the item costs. Ten percent off on a $1,000 purchase will surely be more enticing than free shipping if you can afford to market that way.

While Offermatica has a range of sophisticated tests and measurements, there are some simple, small-scale alternatives. Offer $10 off to the first 50 search engine respondents and free shipping to the next 50. This can be done in an hour or two if you’re getting enough traffic. But be careful going forward. Ten dollars off may work initially, but what if a competitor offers $11 off? You don’t want to get into a war of competing offers if you can’t win.

Here’s another angle on shipping charges Ð don’t hide them. “Consumers don’t want to wait until the shopping cart to find out there are shipping charges; it’s an unpleasant surprise,” says Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group, an e-commerce consultancy. Also, present recommendations to catch your customers’ attention: “Our experts suggest É” or “Others who have purchased have also bought É .”

Freedman, whose company has done extensive research in cross-selling and upselling, recommends gift cards and gift-giving offers at the shopping cart. After all, if you have a shopper ready to buy, he or she probably has a friend or relative who might like the same item. Gift cards are currently a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

Affiliates have to work harder than ever to get customers, notes Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder and chief persuasion officer at Internet marketing consultant Future Now. Eisenberg says the key to sales conversions is to give your customers a comfort and confidence level with the site the way an effective salesclerk connects on a personal basis with shoppers. He sites five central issues to making Web visitors feel comfortable:

  • Relevance The site has to be relevant or you won’t get to the first click in the sales process.
  • Trust The site should be well designed and convey trust with a voice or focus that speaks to the potential customers.
  • Security You don’t need to use valuable, high-profile space to detail what encryption technology you use, but place a brief two- or three-word reminder near the shopping cart or other relevant area that your site is “hacker safe” or “secure shopping guaranteed” (assuming this is true).
  • Value This is completely relative to different shoppers, but know your audience and communicate appropriately. For example, a site for bicycle enthusiasts might be more concerned with safety and warranty issues than rock-bottom prices.
  • Privacy Eisenberg says to put “we value your privacy” or a similar promise right next to the Subscribe or Submit button to emphasize your commitment in this area and to reassure customers.

Also, don’t count on a copycat strategy of blindly following what other sites do. Eisenberg sites the example of Amazon. com. The online retailer had a button that let shoppers later remove items placed in the shopping cart. Amazon replaced the feature and used the space to promote its used books. Eisenberg says “remove it later” is a useful feature that helps with conversions because it helps shoppers feel comfortable that they aren’t committing too soon to a purchase. However, many sites dropped it when Amazon did; yet Amazon had specific reasons for doing so that didn’t apply to the other sites.

Of course, there are also features well worth copying. Staples, for example, makes its shopping cart a component of every page instead of whisking the customer away to a separate shopping cart page every time they add an item. Analysts and Web veterans say building your site’s unique appeal is a key to conversions.

“Affiliate marketing is the ultimate contextual selling,” says Stephen Messer, CEO of LinkShare. He gives the example of high-end retail clothier Nordstrom, known to lavish attention on customers. An effective affiliate is like an online version of Nordstrom in that online visitors are much more ready to buy in an environment simpatico with their interests and needs.

“I believe the main reason for shopping-cart abandonment is that the customer hasn’t been sold,” Messer says. “When you go to a kite-boarding site, the banner ad for kite boards on sale is a call to action that speaks to that audience. The site provides an environment and content relevant to what’s being sold, and the reader is, in a sense, pre-sold.”

By comparison, having a one-paragraph description of a blender at a consumer goods site isn’t much of a call to action. “Affiliates convert better because they add value,” Messer says.

World Choice Travel, a division of Travelocity, runs an aggressive affiliate network through travel-related sites (some 4,000 Web sites in 40 countries). The company pampers its affiliates with site evaluations, search engine templates, free consulting, marketing newsletters and other helpful tools. Rick Schneider, VP of global business development at WCT, says it has the most sophisticated back office in the online travel space to help track conversions.

Schneider says there’s been a leveling off in the number of affiliates WCT supports as the company looks toward quality over quantity. “The affiliates that are and will be successful work to develop their business and work at keeping it unique,” he says.

For merchant Sierra Trading Post, the big attraction is discount pricing. The clothing vendor has thousands of affiliates ranging from specialty mom-and-pop Web sites to large shopping-comparison engines. “Our most effective affiliates get our value proposition across best, which is that we sell the broadest range of famous name brands for less,” says Andy Newlin, affiliate manager at Sierra Trading Post. The average conversion rate for its affiliates is consistently over 14 percent, according to Newlin, far above the rest of the industry, and the average order size is over $100.

A program called Sling Shot has been successful in helping affiliates with online tracking and marketing tools. Sierra hopes to tap the expertise of its affiliates with cash prizes to the affiliates for creativity, bringing in the most new customers and best presentation of Sierra’s value proposition.

From Offline To Online And Back

All in all, the secret to converting customers into buyers in the online world isn’t that different than in offline retailing. In fact, there are some indications that online sellers may someday get more credit for sales help they give their offline counterparts. “Everyone acknowledges advertising on the Internet has an impact beyond online,” says Tom Miller, Internet analyst with the Dieringer Research Group. “But how do you prove the impact or effectiveness?”

Some companies offer online coupons with bar codes that can be printed and redeemed at retailers who can track and credit which sites the coupons came from.

A recent DRG study showed that in the past year, US consumers spent $1 online for every $1.70 they spent offline after conducting online research. Clearly sites can do more to capture the purchases of the shoppers they’re attracting.

The bottom line is that offline or on, customers want a good selection of products, to feel they are getting a good value for their money and that they can trust the seller. Relevant content, and a relationship with your customers (encourage feedback), will help you raise your conversion rates.

DAVID NEEDLE has been covering the high tech industry since the 1980s as both an editor and writer for such publications as Infoworld, InformationWeek and Forbes ASAP. Based in Silicon Valley, he can be reached at davidneedle@yahoo.com.

Know Your Audience

When designing a Web site, you must take the intended audience into careful consideration. Whether the Web site is business-to-business or business-to-consumer, the design will require a format that caters to the desired type of visitor, and it must also guide them through the intended process as comfortably and efficiently as possible.

First, take into account whether the target demographic is business- or consumer-oriented. In the B2B arena, and particularly in the business service industry, the primary goal is to establish trust in the prospective client.

Business-to-business Web sites usually avoid the kind of hype and pizazz that a consumer Web site may have. A highly sales-oriented site promoting an immediate purchase is simply not appropriate for establishing trust to promote a sale that may require a large risk on the part of the purchaser. The prospective purchaser will perceive this risk as being higher when little information is given to back up any claims that have been made.

It is best in this case to provide easily accessible information to the visitor to make them feel more comfortable with the offer before presenting any extensive hype about the product or service. It is also advisable to make testimonials or case studies available to the visitor, as well as comparisons of the competition.

Instant Visual Clues

In addition, a more visual tactic for establishing trust would be to present the logos and names of well-known clients. These provide instant visual references for the visitor and can help keep their interest long enough to make the sale or establish contact. If the product or service is complex or the value is not immediately obvious, it may be advisable to lead the customer to call and talk to someone one on one. Highly specialized services and products are likely to raise a lot of questions in the customer’s mind. Most of these questions would be best answered over the phone rather than having the visitor perform a tedious search through FAQ pages.

In contrast to business-oriented sites, consumer-targeted sites offering low-risk purchases should make the process of buying as easy and straightforward as possible. Clear presentation of a good offer on the home page will help establish a different kind of trust in the visitor than that of a B2B site. This type of trust tells visitors that they are receiving a fair price and quality service. A simple two- or three-step sales process will encourage the customer to return to make more purchases. In consumer-based Web sites, ease of use and good value mean everything for customer retention, and customer retention means everything for robust profit margins.

Knowing how much information to present about the product or service is critical in working with the attention span of the consumer. First, take into consideration the financial risk that the product presents to the consumer. Obviously, a customer looking to purchase asset protection online, for example, would not jump into the purchase without knowing that he or she can trust the service. This scenario presents a huge financial risk on the part of the visitor. In this case, you would want to provide complete information about the service and comparative information regarding the competition. Presenting a low price point immediately in this case can actually break down any trust that has been established as it cheapens the offer and its reputability. The consumer may have many questions as well. For this reason, the entire emphasis would be to establish enough trust so that the visitor calls or acquires some form of consultation.

By contrast, a low-priced item such as a magazine subscription can be sold with very little information because it does not require a large financial risk on the part of the visitor. Also, if a product is well known due to extensive branding, the visitor may not need as much information before being pushed toward the purchase. In these cases, the emphasis should be put on the value of the offer and the price point.

Visual cues such as starbursts, arrows or bright red writing can capture the visitors’ attention just long enough to present the offer to them. Save these tactics for impulse buys, and use the information you acquire from the visitor to promote other offers on your site through auto responders or newsletters.

Purchase Price Is Key

You must also take into consideration the wealth of your average visitor. Most sites are aimed at a middle-income family. However, there are products and services that cater toward very high-end customers. If this is the case, price point is not nearly as important. In fact, wealthier visitors tend to directly correlate price with quality. Because of this, a low price may actually deter a wealthy visitor from the purchase. For wealthy visitors, don’t present the price immediately, but make it available, and pay much more attention to the style and artistic aspects of the site.

Designing for the proper demographic is one of the more difficult aspects of creating a site that converts well to sales. There is so much to take into account, including the audience, the industry, the financial risk of the visitor and more. These suggestions are just the beginning as far as special considerations that must be made to ensure high conversion rates. Be as aware as possible of the state of mind of your visitors. Jumping into the visitors’ shoes, so to speak, is the best way to really know what will work. In fact, a great way to do this is to simply research your competition from a visitor’s perspective.

GREG SHEPARD is CEO of NetTraction.com, an online marketing company found at GotRevenue.com. He has eight years of experience in online marketing and 16 in business development.

Keeping Design Simple

When building a Web site to convert sales, one must make the visitor very comfortable and try to avoid the frustrating pitfalls that commonly plague online merchants.

It’s important to remember that keeping visitors on a Web site and guiding them through the sales process is just as important as getting them there in the first place. Here are several simple tips for attracting visitors, retaining them and getting your site to make money and reach profitability.

Design

Aesthetically, a site should be clean, clear and attractive to the eye, saving bright colors only for important sales process features such as the headlines, offers, important details and purchase links. Avoid offending visitors with vibrant animated GIFs or flash advertisements. They are not only disruptive of the sales process and may lead visitors away from your site, but they also distract and annoy the visitor causing many to abandon your site before buying. That is not what you intended.

Dimensions

Different screen resolutions require that you test your site to make sure that all relevant information is available at as low as 800 x 600 pixels. Make your site no wider than 750 pixels to ensure that no side scrolling will be necessary. A visitor that has to scroll for every line of text will likely leave. Use your space wisely. It’s probably better to have a small amount of empty space than to cram every detail into a small area. On the other hand, you don’t want to leave out any valuable information.

Load Time And Compatibility

Be sure your site loads efficiently and correctly on all the major browsers over a dial-up connection. Many novice site designers are reviewing their work over broadband connections. Just because an image is small does not mean the file size is also small. It is recommended that you compress your images so that your site loads in less than five seconds on dial-up when it is not cached on your drive. Try using JPEG format for images containing gradients or many colors such as photographs. Use GIF-formatted images for buttons and text art containing only a few colors. Also, try to use HTML color whenever possible instead of images.

Sales Process

Clearly present an attractive offer such as a discount or free sample and establish a sense of urgency. Your offer is your hook. Make certain it is attractive or you have nothing to help you stand out against your competition. Accompany your offer with a testimonial or guarantee to establish trust and summarize the features and benefits of the product. You can provide more details about the product on a different page for those who want to know more, but it is advisable to keep the front page of your site simple and sales oriented. Purchase links should always be visible.

Purchase Process

Be sure your purchase process is simple. Remember, at this point you have the sale. You should be doing everything in your power not to lose it. A visitor should be able to get from your home page to an order confirmation in no more than three clicks. This may sound difficult, but it can greatly increase your conversion. A huge mistake that is being made in online marketing is the long and involved registering process and subsequent requirement of customers to log in. The so-called benefits of this feature are to save customer information and acquire opt-in information. However, this process can greatly affect conversion. If you must have customers register, gather their information after they have entered their credit card number and avoid having them enter the same information twice.

Billing information should always be gathered first. Make the customer commit to the purchase prior to entering shipping information or upselling to other products.

Monetization

Monetization means squeezing additional revenue from sources on your site other than your primary offer. Unfortunately, many have misconstrued this concept to mean that one should place affiliate banners throughout the site through which commissions can be earned. This is a huge mistake. Try placing related offers on the order confirmation page or exit pop-under window. This way you can sell your product and make affiliate commissions without disrupting the sales process. Additionally the purchase can be followed by auto-response emails with special offers or reminders on a periodic basis to retain customers.

You can also earn additional revenue or gather valuable information from a non-buyer. For example, if customers do not have a cookie in their browser indicating they purchased from your site, a pop-up could be displayed which offers them an entry to win a product if they sign up for a newsletter. This is an offer many can’t refuse. Choose something you can afford for your sweepstakes, and don’t give it away until you know that the information you’ve gathered is worth the wholesale price of the product. You can then promote your product in your newsletter and retain the ability to promote your offer in the future.

Monetization can also be achieved through the use of an upsell. Upselling items allows you to offer the visitor a complementary item during the purchase process. These items should require a minimal commitment on the part of the customer and minimal explanation on the part of the merchant. For example, if a customer were purchasing a snowboard online, a snowboarding magazine could be offered at the point of purchase. This should only require the customer to click on a single button indicating that they want the additional product. The information can then be fed securely from the form on the merchant’s site to the purchase form for the product on the partner’s site through an affiliate link so that the merchant can earn commissions and thus monetize the site.

GREG SHEPARD is CEO of NetTraction, an online marketing company found at GotRevenue.com. He has eight years of experience in online marketing and 16 in business development.

First Impressions and Beyond

What’s worse than a poor shopping experience? Rank it down there next to a really bad haircut, or waiting in line at the bank on Saturday morning. It’s not fun.

Affiliates and merchants should take note. Just because you have a Web site instead of a retail storefront, doesn’t mean that you have it easy. In fact, some would argue it’s more difficult to sell online than offline. Unlike a physical store at your local mall, your Web site is one among millions. An offline merchant knows his customers might have to drive across town to find a competitor. Your myriad competitors are just a click away.

In the online world, the first impression that you communicate through your design means everything. It’s how your customer decides if you’re what they want, or if you’re just another speck of sand in the great cyber desert. Once they’re convinced you have what they need, you can concentrate on fulfilling your promise to deliver it. It’s getting past that first hurdle that stops most sites from experiencing great sales.

Here are some ways to help your site stand out from others in the increasingly crowded online community:

Gone In 8 Seconds

As soon as your Web site begins to download onto your potential customer’s screen, the “shopping clock” begins to tick. Typically, you have about 7 to 8 seconds to convince them you have what they need. If you can’t convince them in that short time span, they will most likely be off to the next site on the list, which could be your competitor. So what are they looking for?

Unique Value Proposition

You must always assume that no visitor knows your brand. This is especially true for affiliates who focus on building niche sites that have little or no brand preparation or recognition. Therefore, you need to successfully introduce your unique value proposition (UVP). A clear UVP is essential. It should answer the one question that all online shoppers want to know: “Does this site have what I want? Because if it doesn’t, I’m outta here.”

Here’s a poor UVP for a fake company called ABC Co., and a preferred proposition that offers a bit more:

Poor UVP Statement: The ABC Co., a New York-based business established in 1908 and traded on the NASDAQ stock market, builds, distributes and ships widgets and widget-related products in the US and around the globe.

Preferred UVP Statement: ABCCo.com offers secure online shopping for widgets and accessories with international shipping.

Did you notice the differences? The biggest is that the poor statement is too long and focuses on too many topics, such as the company’s history and its stock. Customers want to know how the site is going to help them right at that instant. The other information can be provided later in the sales process.

The poor statement also incorrectly focuses on what the overall company does rather than what the Web site does. The preferred statement removes all mentions of anything except what the Web site can do.

Having a powerful UVP isn’t only for affiliates and small niche Web sites. Merchants must also be attentive to this, even if they have a well-established brand. Even large companies frequently review their UVP to make sure it is easily understood.

Logo

How you present your logo and tagline is also important to a customer’s first impression. Don’t get caught assuming that your logo or tagline effectively mimics your UVP. Logos are window dressing, and only truly effective in branding of your Web site over the long term. They are not a viable method of displaying your UVP. Lastly, to be truly thorough, try to keep your UVP message on every page of your site for visitors who may have followed a deep link into your site, or for visitors who are referred via an email link.

Home Page Makeover

What your site says isn’t the only thing to worry about when making a good first impression. What it looks like is equally if not more important. Don’t worry though; you can make huge adjustments with some tiny fixes. Let’s get started.

Speed It Up

Sure, more people now have high-speed Internet connections, but at the same time, those people now expect super-fast performance because of it. To give them anything less creates a poor first impression. Action: Optimize all home page images.

Focus and Display

You need a focal point upon which your customers’ eyes will naturally settle. Typically, online readers focus on the middle of a page first, and then move to the left side, then to the top and on to the right. Remember, it’s your job to guide them to your information, not their job to have to find it. Action: Learn from the successes of others. Look at sites like Amazon.com and notice how they focus their customers’ eyes into strategic points on each page.

Call To Action

Effective call-to-action statements should prompt your customer into taking an action. Whether it’s clicking through to your hottest specials of the day or signing up for your newsletter, it’s the best way to get your customer to see that you are trying to get their attention. Action: Use the main middle area of your page to create your most powerful call to action statement. Make sure that it provides some sort of value to the customer, or why would they bother to pay attention to it?

Heading Home

So now your customer believes you have what they need and have extended their “shopping clock” by another minute or so. Congratulations, you’ve gotten to second base. You’ve won the first impression battle that most Web sites strike out at. Now you need to concentrate on rounding the bases and getting back home with a sale. But do it quickly, because the clock is still ticking.

JIM F. KUKRAL serves as brand manager and director of e-marketing for KowaBunga Technologies, which makes My Affiliate Program tracking software.

A Nose For Data

As a canny entrepreneur, you’ll want to monitor all aspects of your business. On the Internet, that comes down to tracking data, all kinds of it.

Remember, an affiliate is really an Internet marketer and successful marketers of all persuasions love data. Marketers burn to know who their customers are, where they heard about the company, what makes them come back, what makes them buy. One of the key differences between Internet marketing and the bricks-and-mortar kind is the amount of actionable data the Net can provide.

Keeping track of all that information can seem overwhelming. When she launched bargain shopping site DealHunting.com in 2000, Maggie Boone spent 16 hours a day trying to keep up with stores, products and coupons Ð for a grand total of $2,000 a month. “It’s really hard and very time-consuming,” Boone said. “If anyone thinks it’s easy, well, it’s the opposite.” That careful tracking paid off. Three years later, although she still puts in the hours, Boone has four full-time employees and an income that lets the family live comfortably without her having to work outside the home. She has enough profits salted away that her husband can retire whenever he wants to.

Get ready to become a data hound. If you want to be as successful as Maggie Boone, you’ll need to keep track of four different areas: sales; merchants and their offerings; traffic to, from and within your site; and your advertising and marketing.

How deeply you have to get into tracking data depends on what kind of site you have and how many programs you run. To offer one example, Rotten Tomatoes is a site for film buffs, packed with movie reviews, news and gossip. Visitors can buy DVDs, posters and games. Because the site is so targeted, Rotten Tomatoes works directly with just a handful of merchants. “A lot of these groups have their own ways of tracking,” Rotten Tomatoes CEO Patrick Lee said. “We can either log in to see them, or they send us reports.” Lee trusts the reports, although he might check how many clicks the site is sending over to a merchant, to make sure the numbers make sense.

Compare that simple approach with CouponMountain, a site that strives to help people “live a little above their means” by getting discounts on all sorts of stuff. Founded in 2001 as an after-work hobby by Talmadge O’Neill and Harry Tsao, it now draws 1 million unique visitors every month and reports that it sends more than $100 million in sales each year to approximately 500 merchant partners. CouponMountain, which now has a staff of 11, employs a mix of third-party services and homegrown software applications to keep close track of merchants, referrals, coupon expirations and advertising. The company has one person dedicated to checking merchant reports each day, using AffTrack, an Internet-based service that aggregates reports from networks and individual merchants.

The bottom line

Sales are, of course, top-of-mind for affiliates, because they’re the main influence on the bottom line. Each merchant program may have a different basis for commissions: One might pay for clicks through to its site, another for site registration, and another for sales of products.

Affiliate networks and individual merchants offer other Web-based reports where their partners can check sales and revenue. Reports may be real-time or updated daily or weekly. While many affiliates like to check their reports once a day, most wait at least a month or two to drop under-performing programs. Tracking of sales and commissions happens automatically and reliably, according to Chris Henger, vice president of sales and marketing for affiliate marketing company Performics, because each affiliate’s traffic comes to the merchant via a unique link. “Affiliates don’t have to monitor whether tracking is working,” Henger said. “[There are typically more issues] around, ‘What sales volume am I getting from this merchant, and how do I improve that?'”

Successful affiliates focus not on gross revenues, but on earnings-per-click, or EPC. (See the sidebar “ABCs of EPCs.”) “The most important metric you can get from any network or software is the EPC,” said Shawn Collins, director of affiliate marketing for resource site ClubMom. For example, someone might send a thousand clicks to a bookseller and only 120 clicks to a clothing store, each of which pay the same commission. If you looked only at the commission, you might assume the two programs were equally lucrative. You’d be wrong.

“They don’t pay attention to the fact that it took a lot less traffic to make that same amount of money from one of the merchants,” Collins said. “They don’t take the time to crunch the numbers to see what they actually earn. They’re just stupefied by the [gross] numbers.”

Tracking EPC can help you put your efforts into programs that return the most profit for the least amount of effort. Some network reporting tools and third-party software can automatically calculate and compare EPCs from a variety of programs. Some can also let affiliates create custom reports that compare merchants and programs in different ways so they can identify trends or compare conversion ratios. DealHunting and ClubMom use tracking and analysis tools from AffTrack. There are a lot of reporting options that people don’t take advantage of, according to Collins. Those who don’t, he said, “don’t see the real story.”

Merchant-dizing

When it comes to keeping an eye on all the different merchants, offers and promotions, top-producing affiliates can expect personal service from affiliate managers with the networks and merchants. For a smaller fry, it’s more self-serve. Boone said most of her time is spent on this aspect of her business. “We get a lot of our sales info from the customer channel,” she said. “A handful of merchants keeps us really informed; the rest we deal with as a customer to know what’s going on. We subscribe to the email newsletters that go to their customers, and we literally get hundreds of emails a day from different merchants with sales and bargains.”

Boone turned to a programmer friend to create a database of stores that automatically tracks coupon codes and deletes them as they expire. She can query the database to find out, for example, which stores don’t have any current offers. CouponMountain also built its own tool to track coupon expirations. And it has a content team that spends its days checking to make sure that offers are still good.

Aside from keeping an eye on expiring offers, affiliates have no control over their visitors’ experiences when they arrive on merchant sites. The more you make clear your role as a referrer, the less likely your visitors will blame you if things go wrong with a merchant. Working with trusted partners can ease your mind. Networks protect you by vetting merchants, and they’ll pull the plug on deadbeats. When dealing with established retailers, you can rely on their reputations to some extent. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore less established brands. “There are always different new companies,” said Collins of ClubMom. “I’ll go to different message boards and ask around, ask who’s considered to be the most trustworthy vendor of a product.” Collins warned that you should take such advice with some caution, however. “There’s always a risk that a competitor might try to send you to a bad company. People are helpful and friendly, but they have their competitive interests.”

Still, it’s wise not to take remove yourself too far from consumer-merchant relations. Daniel Washburn, director of merchant development at CouponMountain, says consumer feedback is an important part of his business. “I’m in contact with merchants on a daily basis,” Washburn said. “But in an online business, customers aren’t walking in your front door. So having some sort of communication with them is very important in building a successful site.”

Every time a visitor requests a coupon from CouponMountain, a popup box asks, “Did this coupon work?” There are many places on the site that request feedback, and the company gets as many as 50 customer emails a day. These are not just complaints but also requests for particular coupons or items. But don’t ask for feedback unless you’re willing to respond within two days, the industry standard for good customer service. Wait any longer, and your customers will get impatient and either contact you again with more irritation or go elsewhere to find out what they want.

Positive attributes

Tracking offers and merchants is just the beginning. You can go deeper. Consumers on the Internet are often searching for product information to help them make choices. You need to understand why they make the choices they do on your site, so that you can encourage them to make choices that lead to sales. At the same time, as in the real world, not all shopping choices are based on objective considerations. Merchandising and presentation play a big part in decisions. Therefore, you should carefully track what Lisa Riolo, vice president of client development for affiliate network Commission Junction, calls “attributes.”

Offer attributes may be actual features of the product. To use credit card offers as an example, the product attributes include the introductory APR and annual fee. If you ran a financial information site, analyzing the attributes of your best-performing credit card offers might show you that your audience preferred cards with no annual fee, Riolo said.

How products are described and displayed are also attributes. A retailer might offer several different photos of the same product, in different sizes, with and without backgrounds, from different angles. If you keep track of which photos or descriptions you use, you can understand what works best with your unique site.

Traffic jamming

Another element to come to grips with is internal traffic: how do visitors move through your site? Large corporate Web publishers use complex applications to track visitors’ movements. Many affiliate networks let you put extra information into your links so that you can see which pages do the best job of getting visitors to click. This information lets you move ads and links to the pages visitors like and delete pages of no interest.

Tracking the comings and goings of Web visitors is as important as monitoring revenue. After all, it’s the traffic that makes you money. Check your ads, including banners, link exchanges and paid search results, to see what it is that drew people to your site.

Playing the search keyword game is an art and science unto itself, and many affiliates devote the majority of their time to scrutinizing and massaging their word lists. Search engines Google and Overture have tools that let advertisers observe how their paid search advertising performs. Some networks have management tools that let you incorporate paid search advertisements into your analysis of your overall activity within the network. Some site-building or management applications will let you compare results across search engines and networks.

When you’re ready to become more sophisticated, look for software tools that let you map everything we’ve discussed. “You may want to track all the events that led up to a sale, not just what ads got the most response,” said Commission Junction’s Riolo. Look at where the visitor landed on the merchant’s site, where and when people converted from shoppers to customers. Compare that to which product image you used, the product description and any keywords you bought to advertise on search engines and the text of your ad. “The combination of all this drives the consumer,” Riolo said.

This may sound like a lot of work, but it is worth your time. By tracking all these nitty-gritty details, you’ll get the big picture. Like a well-trained hunting dog, you’ll be able to anticipate the movements of your customers and sniff out the most profitable deals before they get away. n

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

Profits By Design

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

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

Build a solid foundation

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

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

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

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

Find the right style

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

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

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

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

Let content rule

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

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

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

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

Maintain consistency

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help visitors find their way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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