As every good bounty hunter knows, capturing your target requires exacting execution of a well-designed plan. But unlike intrepid fugitive hunters such as reality television star “Dog” Chapman, earning sizable rewards by corralling customers online doesn’t require risking life or limb.
Instead of offering commissions paid in nickels and dimes, bounty programs attract a growing number of publishers by handing out dollar rewards of tens and twenties. Programs offering substantial bounties for acquiring customers and qualified leads are now among the most lucrative opportunities for publishers. However, the increasing competition among bounty programs requires publishers to rigorously scrutinize leads and to be more aggressive in pursuing consumers.
“The biggest money in affiliate marketing is bounty programs,” says Beth Kirsch, group manager of affiliate programs at LowerMyBills.com. Kirsch, who says publishers can earn up to $75 for delivering a credit card customer, says bounties provide the greatest opportunity for rapidly increasing revenue “without going for porn or gambling.”
Companies on the hunt for consumers will pay hefty premiums “because advertisers are willing to pay up front for the lifetime value of the customer,” Kirsch says. Unlike retail sites that focus on capturing a single transaction, the companies paying bounties are looking to build an ongoing relationship with a customer. The most popular industries utilizing bounty programs include real estate, personal finance (such as credit cards and loans) and subscription services, according to Kirsch.
Kirsch says that while most bounty programs pay commissions after a transaction is completed, companies such as Netflix and Audible.com will pay out merely for getting people to sign up for free trials. “The amount of money flowing through [bounty programs] is amazing,” she says.
Leading to Search
The prospect of earning lucrative commissions is prompting companies to increase their online advertising as well as the incentives offered to attract consumers. Sites such as FreeiPods.com that are relying on search marketing to acquire new customers now make up 6 percent of total online advertising revenue, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. During the first half of 2005, online advertising revenues for lead generation and customer acquisition rose by more than 200 percent over the prior year to $347 million.
“Paid search is a focus for customer acquisition,” says Shar VanBoskirk, a consulting analyst with Forrester Research. VanBoskirk says that search marketing is an effective tool for bounty sites in industries such as travel because it “captures a person at their point of interest.” The increased spending is raising the cost of keywords and encouraging companies to become smarter at search marketing, she says.
To earn these bounties, publishers are aggressively pursuing consumers by promising cash incentives and free popular electronic devices such as iPod music players and Xbox 360 game consoles to those who will fill out a credit application or subscribe to a publication or service. These sites have found that consumers are willing to provide personal information as well as refer several friends in order to receive a device worth up to $400.
However, VanBoskirk says that while some marketers do not seem to be concerned with how their publishing partners attract an audience for their subscription or financial service, they may be putting their customer relationships at risk. “You could turn away a loyal customer if you were associated with a bad brand or screwed-up message,” says VanBoskirk, who recommends that marketers retain some control over the incentive process.
Service and subscription companies looking to acquire customers are among the top individual Internet advertisers. According to Nielsen//NetRatings AdRelevance advertising data for November 2005, telephony company Vonage spent more than any other company in online advertising, while LowerMyBills.com, BellSouth Corp., Netflix, Verizon and QuinStreet were also in the top 10.
Interest in bounty programs has spurred the development of specialty performance networks, such as QuinStreet, Adteractive, AzoogleAds and MetaReward, that are focused on customer acquisition and lead generation. These networks are bypassing the largest networks and offer generous bounties to publishers who can funnel traffic to their clients.
“To the extent that you can deliver more quality leads, advertisers are willing to pay for them,” says J.B. Orecchia, president of MetaReward.
Detailing the Demographics
Orecchia says the increasing competition among bounty programs is prompting marketers to collect more extensive demographic and lifestyle information so that they can match consumers with advertisers. MetaReward collects date of birth, gender and address information as part of their registration process. The company, which along with Lower MyBills.com and PriceGrabber.com are subsidiaries of Experian Interactive, analyzes the information and delivers targeted advertisements for its advertising clients.
“Deriving positive return on investment from cost-per-lead/account programs relies on the marketer’s ability to match the consumer profile with the type of customer the advertiser is looking for,” according to Orecchia. “It all comes down to yield management,” he says. “Marketers must identify the characteristics of the programs that maximize the quality of the leads.”
Orecchia says his clients do not want to filter out bad data themselves, so publishers must scrub the lead data at the same time it is being collected. MetaReward relies on technology developed by parent company Experian to verify the authenticity of address information as well as remove duplicate leads in real time so that the consumer experience is not disrupted.
Publishers need to be diligent in filtering consumer data because consumers are being more creative in trying to scam companies out of free goods, according to Greg Morey, executive vice president at marketing consulting firm GR Wyse. “The free iPod generation prompted people to [find new ways] to beat the system.”
Morey says despite improvements in screening submissions, there is “still a high amount of bad data” being submitted to lead-generation sites. He says the additional techniques for weeding out spurious information, including email verification, double opt-in steps and survey questionnaires, are increasing the cost of processing leads. In recent years the cost to publishers of verifying a lead has risen from approximately 50 cents to more than $2.
Data verification companies such as TARGUS info use multiple databases to check the authenticity of information in real time. These databases not only verify that the phone numbers and addresses are valid, but also that they match the names of the person filling out the form, Morey says. After a form is submitted, TARGUS info checks the data and, if it is valid, consumers are sent to a landing page from the advertiser.
Morey says competitive verticals such as travel companies, vitamin supplements and mortgage lenders are willing to pay the additional cost to reduce the number of bogus leads.
Media Get Their Share
Publishers and broadcasters are also receiving bounties by converting audience members into leads. Technology from LiveDeal enables newspapers and radio stations to host classifieds on their websites and receive commissions for leads, according to Steve Harmon, vice president of corporate development at LiveDeal.
Harmon says publishers that are losing revenue from classifieds to companies such as Monster.com and Craigslist can earn between $10 and $30 for a lead on a vehicle, and between $30 and $300 for a real estate lead. LiveDeal partnered with radio and advertising giant Clear Channel Communications to create classified site SFBayAuto.com. ClearChannel promotes the classifieds on its six San Francisco Bay area radio stations, and the media companies receive a bounty when someone clicks on a vehicle listing and then fills out a form with her contact information.
LiveDeal provides all of the technology, including the classified listings, e-commerce and images of the items for sale, according to Harmon. The lead-generation service, which went online in 2005, enables media companies, which already collect extensive demographic information about their audience, to connect their fans with products that are likely to be of interest.
Turning Leads to Clicks
Performance network Kanoodle has developed a program for niche publishers who can earn small bounties by sharing information about their site’s visitors with larger publishers. BrightAds, which became available in December 2005, is a third-party cookie program that uses information collected on a website to generate relevant ads on another, according to Doug Perlson, Kanoodle’s chief operating officer.
For example, a golf blog or enthusiast site will install BrightAds software, which places cookies on consumers’ computers to record their activities while on the site. Should that consumer then go to a Kanoodle partner site such as MSNBC.com to check the weather, the cookie information would be retrieved, and they would be shown a golf-related advertisement.
“Third-party cookies are going to be the lifeblood of publications that offer free content,” Perlson says.
When a consumer clicks on an ad, Kanoodle gives 5 percent of the revenue from the publisher to the referring web- site, according to Perlson. Because BrightAds has no exclusivity requirements and does not conflict with existing advertising programs, publishers can earn additional revenue without having to modify their current relationships, he says. And while getting a sliver of the PPC commission (Perlson says the money comes from Kanoodle’s share, not the publisher’s) may not sound like much, third-party cookies can be delivered to all consumers who don’t actively block them.
This “stealth” referral program leverages the information collected by niche sites with dedicated audiences to deliver ads to general interest sites, according to Perlson, who expects consumers to become more comfortable with third- party cookies as they realize the benefits of being exposed to more targeted ads. To address privacy concerns, Kanoodle deletes the cookie information after a maximum of 30 days, and sometimes in less than a week.
Forrester’s VanBoskirk says that while BrightAds helps larger publishers to optimize the yields from the ad programs by targeting customers, some consumers may be concerned when they realize that behavioral information is being shared among sites. Consumers are gradually learning that visiting sites utilizing cookies can provide a better experience, but the cookie placement has to be made known to consumers. “Responsible publishers will want to explain that they are collecting cookies,” VanBoskirk says.
She also notes that some small publishers may have reservations that participating in third-party cookie programs could help competitors. “The biggest concern is that a third party will be selling data to another advertiser,” she says.
Publishers in industries that are completed by offline transactions have been limited to pay-per-lead programs, but new technology allows bounties also to be paid on a pending-sale basis. Because advertisers control the offline sales process, fraud is a concern for publishers, according to Jackie Bates, Web marketing director for affiliate network LinkConnector.
LinkConnector’s pending-sale technology enables publishers to follow a campaign’s performance by tracking the progress of the consumer-seller activity until it is completed, Bates says. LinkConnector monitors the progress when leads become pending sales, such as vacation packages or jewelry where sales representatives are often needed to close the deal, she adds.
LinkConnector passes a completed call form from the publisher to the seller, which initiates the monitoring process. The network provides publishers with status reports and processes the payments to guarantee that publishers are compensated, according to Bates.
Bates says the technology gives merchants that do not have online shopping carts more flexibility in setting commission structures. LinkConnector “enables more merchants to come into the affiliate marketing game,” Bates says.
Bounty programs are popular with publishers because of the substantially higher commissions offered for capturing new customers. New tools that clean up lead data and collect more extensive demographic information will make them more useful both to advertisers and consumers.
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 MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.