Beyond Search Engines

Paid search may be driving the rebound in online advertisers, but it’s also driving away the promoters with shallow pockets.

Demand for paid spots on Yahoo, Google and their ilk is pushing prices sky high. Within the most popular categories, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd of merchants without spending a fortune. In fact, some aggressive marketers play “keyword smackdown,” launching high-stakes bidding wars in the hopes of bankrupting their competitors.

Email marketing isn’t cheap either, and consumers seem to be fed up even with opt-in mailings. Add in the restrictions of the CAN-SPAM Act and you’re not left with much room to maneuver in this overused form of marketing.

So how can an aspiring affiliate attract more customers without having to spend a fortune in advertising? Fortunately, some of the neatest promotional opportunities are still free – or cheap, anyway – especially if you’re willing to use a little elbow grease.

The Trade Groups

Seek out trade associations that might be interested in your products. “Not enough people are utilizing this promotional tactic,” said Barbara Spagnola, owner of Concept Marketing, a consultancy that sells subscriptions to an online directory that includes 35,000 professional groups. “A lot of companies don’t even know what their niche market is, whether it’s a geographic focus or otherwise. Everyone is looking for cheap advertising, and this is one of the best ways to keep your costs down and be blasted out to hundreds of thousands of companies that might be interested in your product.”

Spagnola advises her clients, which include affiliate businesses, to call or send direct mail to a trade group whose membership overlaps with an entrepreneur’s desired customer base. The first contact should be treated like a job application, she said, but should by no means be a one-time event. Do it on a monthly basis, whether your means of communication is a postcard, newsletter or, better yet, an actual conversation.

The Holy Grail, of course, is to work your social charms upon the leadership of the group to convince them to sell you a copy of the membership list. Spagnola estimates that about 40 percent of associations are game, and it’s usually the medium to large ones who sell, depending on how badly they want to raise money. Some are very selective about giving out data, and ask for the right to preapprove anything you might send out to the members.

To make an easier job of convincing management that you have the association’s interests at heart, volunteer for the group – especially if you can score a speaking engagement at one of their meetings – and get to know the decision makers. Another way to sweeten the deal for the list gatekeepers is to offer special discounts for the membership on relevant products.

“Make it so the association sees a reason to get involved with your deal,” said Spagnola. “Associations are always looking for perks for their members, and if you can show them the value, a lot of the time that’s free advertising for you.”

But what if you can’t find a trade association that reflects your specific affiliate marketing niche? Spagnola said there are another 150,000 groups out there that are subchapters or committees of the groups on her list, and they can be found through the broader umbrella groups in her directory. There’s also a national Association of Associations, but Spagnola warns that it’s completely pointless to approach them for a referral if you don’t have a specific market in mind and a good argument for why the uber-umbrella group should refer you to an association.

But what if your product is so novel that it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the existing trade associations? Consider that a green light to start your own nonprofit that hopefully would rally interest in your product. In that case, the first thing you might want to do is consult with an accountant, or at the very least call the IRS, and ask for their official publications on how to start a nonprofit group.

Find A Good Cause

Speaking of nonprofit groups, getting involved with charitable causes is another great way to raise one’s profile without descending into debt. The trick here is finding something you truly care about and offering them help that gives you a chance to tastefully tout your business. If your choice of charities is arbitrary or your mercenary motives are too obvious, your promotional attempts could backfire.

One affiliate manager who has very successfully incorporated altruism into his product line is Greg Kerber, CEO and chairman of Wurld Media. His company started peddling a payment technology platform to merchants, and then extended the software to do fundraising for nonprofits. But his charitable intentions run deep: Kerber’s 12-year-old daughter Alexis Nicole has Down Syndrome, so he set his sights on the Down Syndrome Resource Center and the Special Olympics as the first beneficiaries of the fundraising applications of his payments platform.

“Truthfully speaking, I have never done this as a cheap promotion. I am a parent who has special needs and there’s a special place in my heart for this kind of work,” Kerber said. “I have a profitable business and I can help out nonprofits with a segment of my business.”

Kerber’s latest project addresses the homeless, via a partnership with the charity Help USA. The venture adds the charity to Wurld’s existing platform and enables shoppers to donate a portion of their e-commerce dollars when patronizing any of the 400 merchants who use BuyersPort Networks, Wurld’s platform for credit card payments, loyalty programs and charity.

“I hear from nonprofits all the time about how corporations have really changed. They’ll offer to donate money, but insist that there has to be a marketing component to it. And that’s really sad to me,” said Kerber. “There’s a fine line between political correctness and politically incorrect. But we’ve taken care of a lot of people in our world, and we do it because it’s the right thing, not because it’s marketing dollars. And there’s a greater benefit to doing it this way.”

Regardless of whether there’s a charitable angle to your market, you can always make a name for yourself by appearing at as many conferences as possible. Better yet, help out with the planning or even better, volunteer to speak at a show and things start to snowball. That’s how affiliate consultant Shawn Collins created a public image for his company.

He started out by joining the conference-producing team at Refer-It Affiliate Solutions in 1999, and offering to speak at the numerous events they planned. He also helped plan the AffiliateForce shows and became one of their speakers as well.

“I try to speak at as many shows as possible. Even though I get nervous about doing it, I still make myself get up there,” he said. “Lots of these shows are looking for affiliates to speak and no one stands up. So I volunteered and submitted proposals, and the more I did it the more I got invited to other shows. And if you can’t find a show to speak at, start your own.”

Even though he was already speaking at shows, Collins decided to start his own. He felt that the existing affiliate marketing shows were more focused on socializing – playing golf – than on business, and wanted to create a more business-oriented event, where productivity is just as important as networking.

The resulting AffiliateForce event is precisely that, in addition to being a way for him to tout his consulting company and scout for new business opportunities. “The first show I organized was in a small conference room in New York. Now I’m organizing a conference that will take place on the Carnival Victory cruise ship with several thousand people on it,” he boasted.

Among other items on the agenda is what Collins calls “speed networking,” a business version of speed dating. Here participants pair off in three-minute intervals to exchange cards and pleasantries, so that everyone ends up meeting 20 people over the course of one hour. These contacts are a mix of affiliate managers, publishers and vendors.

Collins’ next show will include a speed networking session, as well as a new variation on this theme that Collins calls roundtable rotation. Instead of a pre-planned lineup of speakers, all of the participants have a shot at impromptu speaking for 15 minutes, with question-and-answer sessions interspersed. The idea here is to “give the smaller guys a chance to meet people and speak about subjects of interest to them,” he explained.

Talking Radio

Once you get the hang of public speaking, you may want to look into other opportunities to talk about your business. A largely untapped resource is Web radio, which reaches a national audience without requiring a national-sized budget.

“Why not have a radio station promoting your product 24/7?” asked Dennis Humphrey, owner of Internet Marketing Radio, which currently earns its keep as an affiliate of programs touting online marketing and broadcasting software. Humphrey is launching a radio consulting service aimed at Internet marketers, and has approximately a half dozen prospective clients who would give Humphrey a cut of their revenues in exchange for his helping them put together an online radio show.

“This is ultimately going to be like a QVC radio. You’ll be able to call in and buy during the live program, or simply call in and ask a question,” he said. “We want to get people to put our audio on their Web sites. I will want other entrepreneurs to pick this up and syndicate it. There’s all kinds of products we can sell online, not just marketing and mp3 applications,” like he does now, said Humphrey. “It’s easy to create audio for your Web site. Then there’s audio postcards, online infomercials and even e-books” to promote your business.

So far Humphrey is only doing his own radio show, which he uses to tout all of the products he sells as well as his consulting service. He runs his shows on multiple webcast services, preferring to cast his online net as wide as possible. These include ShoutCast, Abacast and Pirate Radio, each of which asks broadcasters to purchase proprietary software to create the audio files that are distributed online.

Many of the Web radio stations that are open to new shows are ones with fewer listeners. To reach millions of ears, you need to consider the advertising route – having professional deejays read your announcements for a fraction of the cost of conventional radio. “A mid-sized company can spend $2,000 for a national campaign that would have cost $20,000 or more on conventional radio,” said Rick A. Pace, managing partner at MakRadio.com, which boasts 5.3 million listeners worldwide.

A much cheaper option is to hop on the blog bandwagon – and go right ahead and post your blog on as many of the blog sites as possible, to leverage the traffic already held by the blogs, and have one of the blogs post onto your own Web site. The trick here is to update the Web log as regularly as possible, and show off your expertise in your pet subjects.

“When you have a good blog being updated regularly, you know what you’re talking about and have a strong opinion; then other bloggers start linking to you,” said Mihail S. Lari, CEO of BlogIt, which recently changed its name from BloggingNetwork.com. “There are a number of blog directories that have just started, so it also helps to get yourself listed up there, too.”

JACKIE COHEN has been covering affiliate marketing since 1998. She previously edited the Net Returns section at The Industry Standard.

The Secret to Being Super

They’re called superaffiliates, but there are no secret powers behind their amazing sales. They follow the same path every other affiliate does: They publish a Web site, sign up for affiliate programs, download the affiliate codes and troll on the search engines.

But they work a little smarter, make a few more calls, send a few more emails and do a lot more testing. And what they do better than anyone else is integrate all of the standard affiliate marketing pieces – email lists, merchant relationships and showcased products – to get more people to their site and more people to buy. Their efforts net results only dreamed of by other affiliates: transactions by the thousands, and monthly commissions often measured in six figures.

To illustrate the point, Revenue decided to introduce our readers to Bob DiCerbo, a Chicago resident who never dreamed he would be working just 20 hours a week to make a very comfortable living. He started ClearSave.com with his wife in October 2002, affiliating with merchants such as Overstock.com, Nordstrom.com, QVC.com, Land’s End, FoodSmart.com and Pet Food Direct. Now he does little more than chat up affiliate managers, tweak keywords and cash checks.

ClearSave is a “check here first” site, where visitors come just to see if any of the merchants they regularly patronize are offering discounts, sales, coupons or bargains. The 2-year-old site gets a whopping 300,000 hits per day. Merchants drool over that kind of traffic. And DiCerbo and his wife pull in enough commissions to pay themselves salaries and hire a part-time assistant. Eventually, they expect their “super” efforts to send their kids to college.

What exactly is a superaffiliate? Well, it’s not one particular thing. It could be one person or 100. It could be an individual or it could be a company. It could be a site offering discounts, rebates, rewards, funding for charities, dating services, apparel, travel arrangements, downloadable music or any of the Internet’s hot products. One thing they all have in common is that they’re treated well – even heavily recruited.

Being a big dog has its benefits. “Merchants reach out and help us put together creatives just for us because we’re doing so well,” said DiCerbo. Many affiliates also get higher commissions, special offers and other assistance from merchant partners.

Here are some ideas from DiCerbo and others on how you can get similar treatment.

Find the best programs.

DiCerbo believes one reason he does better is simply by keeping the lines of communication open with the right merchants. “Only a handful of merchants – Overstock, Avon, Sierra Trading Post, Blair and Eddie Bauer – will actually reach out and call and talk to you to see what it is you actually need,” he said.

Glenn Sobel, founder of AffiliateAdvisor.com and webmaster for DatingTek.com, said some of the best programs offer lifetime commissions. “The key is to look for programs that pay residual income – I’m just kicking back right now and enjoying my Internet income,” he said from his Vegas retirement home. Dating sites are a prime example. When an affiliate refers someone, many programs give a commission for the new member and each time that person renews the membership.

To help choose great merchants, would-be superaffiliates should read contracts carefully before signing up. Contracts should spell out exactly what earns a commission, when commissions are paid, how long affiliate referrals are tracked and what happens if buyers come from more than one affiliate site. If the contract doesn’t spell it out, then add it in writing. “There are a lot of issues like that that really matter,” said Sobel. “They greatly impact your income.”

Provide only those products your visitors want.

This may seem elementary, but many new affiliates spend months discovering it. A site posting sports scores, for instance, should have links to sports magazines and sports betting, not printer ink.

“We wouldn’t promote Overstock as hard as we do if our audience didn’t think it … met their needs for discounted products,” said DiCerbo. “The proof is in the pudding.” That pudding consists of $40,000 to $50,000 in monthly sales, resulting in commissions of $2,800 to $3,500 for ClearSave.

Loyalty site FreeRide.com, which gets 30,000 hits per day and affiliates with hundreds of merchants, asks visitors for demographic information when they register. “But a lot of the way we figure out our demographic is by watching their activity – What are they buying?” said FreeRide.com director Corey Newhouse. FreeRide then beefs up selection for that audience.

“Once you’ve found the ideal types of products, choose one or a handful of really good quality products and promote those well,” said Internet Marketing Center founder Corey Rudl, who built his one-man affiliate operation into a $6.6 million-per-year company. Top affiliates in his program use this strategy to earn $4,000 to $8,000-plus each month.

Email your site visitors.

Superaffiliates always collect email addresses when visitors come to their sites. They have visitors sign up for free offers, newsletters or access to more information already on the site. More than 200,000 of ClearSave’s visitors have filled in their email addresses when prompted to “sign up for exclusive deals, bargains and coupons.” DiCerbo blasts them carefully honed emails once or twice a month. Jermaine Griggs, the superaffiliate featured in our story on religion sites (see page 68), credits his email list for the success of his piano lesson sites. Visitors enter their first name and email address anytime they want to pick a free lesson, see a full music score or add a comment to the lesson forum. The options are free anyway, so Griggs turns them into selections that require visitor input: “I could automatically direct them to all 60 lessons, but ‘Choose a free lesson’ is better than saying ’60 free lessons,'” Griggs said. “This way they enter their information. We have a 60 percent conversion rate with that list, and we’re building it by 6,000 people each month.”

Finally, if you really want to win big, produce a newsletter and promote the heck out of it. Have site visitors subscribe through an opt-in section of the site’s home page, and load the newsletter with advice, news or updates on your industry. Affiliates can work great deals with merchants just by the breadth of their newsletter subscription base.

Hire help when needed.

DiCerbo has part-time help finding new coupons and codes to post on the site. He also has an IT person on retainer. Superaffiliates must either be webmasters or have one on hand. These days, even knowing HTML may not be enough. “We found that XML is much more search engine friendly,” said Rick Schneider, VP of business development for World Choice Travel, an all-affiliate travel merchant. “XML lets you more deeply integrate an affiliate product with the merchant’s brand.”

There are even small companies that are really superaffiliates. They run virtual online stores with lots of customer support, information, great design and other labor-intensive elements. That’s what FreeRide.com – which uses “tokens” redeemed for merchant gift cards to reward visitors for purchases, surveys or Web surfing – does. It’s a four-employee loyalty site run by New York-based Endai Worldwide, an online marketing and technology company with 20 employees of its own. From his loft office overlooking downtown Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, Newhouse knows this isn’t an ordinary affiliate company. But it could be a glimpse at what in just a few years might be the norm. Major affiliates are already being acquired by their merchants – Hotels.com owns hundreds of affiliate sites.

Help searchers find your site.

Keywords, search engine placement, refer-a-friend programs, viral marketing – these are a few of the steps to bringing new viewers to your site. Pay-per-click search engines let affiliates quickly test search words. Through Google AdWords, DiCerbo creates his own ads, chooses keywords to match the ad to his target Google audience and pays only when someone clicks on the ad. He said his site has the most success with high commission products like perfume and footwear. He tries words often provided by his merchants and then tinkers with different landing pages – those pages that actually advertise the product, rather than directing people to the home page – to find out which word and page combinations would help to make the most sales.

Griggs gets even more distance from his hosting service, which gives him unlimited email accounts with his domain name. “If you have an attractive domain name, you can easily offer free theirname@your site.com email addresses to site visitors,” Griggs said. “I’m getting at least 1,000 [viral] impressions a day with that strategy, because my site names appear at the bottom of every email they send out.” Griggs also suggests that affiliates search out the forums or online chat rooms where their ideal customers congregate.

Meanwhile, FreeRide.com is trying its hand at co-registration campaigns, where visitors to other sites can check a box and be added to FreeRide’s list. “So far so good,” Newhouse said.

Once visitors get to your site, keep them there through easy navigation, great design and an established sense of community. “The bottom line is, you’re selling ideas and you’re selling community,” said Web site designer Dean Peters. One way to establish community is through personal endorsements and testimonials. Place them well and make them convincing pieces of friendly advice rather than an obvious cash grab. Testimonials “could increase the response you receive by 400 percent or more,” said Rudl, who has trained 75,000 affiliates in his strategies.

Roll up your sleeves.

This is a day-and-night business. Click-through problems aren’t reserved for 9 to 5; if not cared for immediately, these problems can harm sales. Affiliates must be able to respond as soon as problems occur. That doesn’t mean you actually have to work 24 hours a day. Many successful affiliates grow with just 40 hours per week of combined staff time. But they’re regularly checking their stats, regularly checking their site operations, regularly testing new promotional methods and regularly working with merchants to improve their affiliate offerings. “It’s definitely roll up your sleeves and a lot of grunt work to see what works and what doesn’t,” DiCerbo said.

Test response rates for different affiliate banner ads and text links. Put them in different spots on your site. Try different articles and newsletters. Use different autoresponders. Test promotions on the small scale before taking them to your mass list. “While this might seem like a lot of work, it will ultimately increase their traffic and their affiliate commissions,” said Rudl.

Newhouse at FreeRide.com seconds that: “Giving people a variety of ways to take an action helps a lot.”

Be ready to respond to changes.

“I never look too far out into the future,” DiCerbo said. “The e-commerce landscape changes so quickly that I’m not going to say that the way we’re doing business now is the same way we’ll be doing it next year. Paid search is a new thing that has just taken off. The spam area is closing down. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

In the end, the superaffiliate must be committed to working regularly on its site, must talk frequently with its merchants, must constantly be in touch with its customers and must be able to wait for its efforts to pan out. The buyers often don’t come running. But with the right products and the right customer capture mechanisms in place, at least they’ll be following the right tracks.

JENNIFER MEACHAM has worked for Revenue, The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine.

Been There Done That: Q & A with Shawn Collins

It’s very difficult to find anyone in affiliate marketing better known than Shawn Collins, who earned his first commissions more than seven years ago.

Wearing his newest hat, as president/CEO of Shawn Collins Consulting, he provides outsourced affiliate program management. But he is, perhaps, better known as a co-founder of Affiliate Summit, as the author of the top-selling book Successful Affiliate Marketing for Merchants and for launching the highly successful affiliate program for ClubMom, a membership shopping site.

As a result of his numerous roles, Collins has not only become ubiquitous, but has helped to shape the industry through its childhood. He’s emerged as an expert for spotting new trends. Indeed, Revenue Editor-in-Chief Tom Murphy discovered some surprises when he interviewed Collins about where affiliate marketing is headed.

TOM MURPHY: You’re very well known in the industry as a superaffiliate, a guru, an association leader, a leader of an industry summit and, most recently, as a program consultant. How do you really define yourself these days?

SHAWN COLLINS: I guess I’ve been on every angle of the industry, working as an affiliate and affiliate manager. I worked with First Directory Preferred years ago. I guess, overall, I’d probably characterize myself as a cheerleader of the industry as well as a shepherd trying to push it in a direction that I think will be helpful for the industry.

TM: Do you think there’s a chance of spreading yourself too thin?

SC: I don’t think so, but my wife thinks I spread myself too thin a long time ago.

TM: You recently published your AffStat survey, which had some very interesting statistics in it. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know what’s going on in affiliate marketing. I had heard, for example, from a number of sources, that only about 5 percent of affiliates make any real money and only about 2 percent fall into the superaffiliate category. But your AffStat report shows 20 percent of affiliates making more than $2,000 a month. Do you think that’s an accurate figure?

SC: Yes. I had a pretty good cross-section here who were participating in the survey, from the very small mom-and-pops to some of the really big players. And I know who contributed the answers, so I think it’s a very accurate depiction.

One of the things that skews the numbers when they talk about 5 percent or 2 percent is that, in the past, there was a very big emphasis on quantity over quality of affiliates. And people are very proud to claim they had 75,000 or 100,000 affiliates. But naturally, you’re not going to have 15 percent of those being too powerful. These days, you see a lot more of a boutique approach to it, where people have 1,000 or 5,000 affiliates, so it’s much more realistic to have a good 20 percent or more be superaffiliates.

TM: I’d like to hear your thoughts on a few of the issues facing affiliates, including PPC, predatory advertising, Froogle and things like that. But, first, do you think these things taken together are really just symptoms of an evolving industry?

SC: Yeah, I really think they’re inevitable. It’s a more sophisticated industry than it was back in the ’90s. I think they’re good things. They’re hurting some of the smaller affiliates, but they’re making things easier for the affiliate managers because they’re shrinking the number of affiliates they have to deal with.

TM: It sounds almost like a natural, evolutionary process where there’s a survival of the fittest. Do you think that’s what is taking place?

SC: Absolutely. Back in 2000, and earlier than that, you really didn’t see any superaffiliates out there. You had SchoolPop and some others, but there’s been a big emergence of these sites over the past couple of years – various sites that have a tremendous amount of traffic, with membership sites and things. They’ve really taken a big bite out of the industry. They account for a big portion of the activity that goes on.

TM: Predatory advertising seems to be perceived as public enemy No. 1 in the community. Do you see that as a problem that’s getting better or worse going forward?

SC: I think it’s been limited to a degree over the last year or so, but it’s still a very relevant issue and I think it will be around for a while. Certainly, some of the affiliate managers have taken a cue from the networks. I think the affiliate managers have to be more proactive in their approach to stopping it instead of just sort of waiting for something to happen.

It is sort of a double-edged sword because a lot of the affiliate managers on a moralistic level would like to get rid of predatory advertisers. But when they have pressure from their bosses on the bottom line, they end up having to take those (predatory) affiliates because they’re seeing higher numbers with them. It puts them between a rock and a hard place. They want to do the right thing, but they want to keep their job[s].

TM: There’s a similar thing with spam. Nobody likes it. It hurts the image of the community. It hurts the consumers. And, arguably, it hurts the merchants and manufacturers, who spend a lot of time building up brand names. Do you think that’s also a double-edged sword for the merchants?

SC: With the parasites, there are some good adware products. But I think with spam, there’s never a good spammer. I think that has really hurt the industry tremendously because it’s resulted in the CAN-SPAM Act and that changed the face of affiliate marketing in one fell swoop this year.

TM: You wrote about the CAN-SPAM Act recently in a brief and in your blog. Could you reiterate your key points?

SC: Basically, a lot of the CAN-SPAM [requirements] are logical things, like you have to have an unsubscribe option and take care of things that any permission mailer always takes care of. But one of the things that makes it very difficult for affiliate marketing is the need to have a suppression list. If I’m an affiliate and I usually feature four different merchants in my newsletters, I’m now going to have to crush my entire subscriber list against their list of unsubscribes who never want to hear from them again. That makes it awfully challenging, not only to get that technology and make it work, but it throws some hurdles in front of affiliates who run email promotions.

TM: Some affiliates are feeling deeply threatened by Froogle, Google’s spider-driven shopping service. What kind of impact do you see from that in the affiliate area?

SC: Just from the power of Google, I think it’s certainly going to have a greater and greater impact on the smaller affiliates. A lot of the merchants like it because it gives them more exposure, the same as Shopping.com or Yahoo’s comparison-shopping engine. I think it’s a very positive thing in terms of affiliate programs getting more exposure and more penetration, but it’s definitely one of the things leading to a smaller world of affiliates out there.

TM: From what you said, it sounds like the number of people making some real money is on the rise, but the overall number of affiliates is declining. Is that right?

SC: Yes. Through a sort of natural selection, I guess. Since people used to take all comers, you’d get tons of sites from Geocities, and the free sites on AOL, and different free hosting services. So a lot of affiliates would be made up of free services where they never even bothered to put a link up. I wouldn’t even characterize them as affiliates because they didn’t know how to put a link up.

TM: I saw you referred to a lot of affiliates as “dead affiliates” in your report, people who haven’t provided a click in the last month or so. What sort of proportion do you think that is of the total number of affiliates out there?

SC: For the larger programs that haven’t done any sort of maintenance to clean out people who’ve been inactive for a while, they probably fall into that 95-5 rule (where only 5 percent of affiliates are making money). But (for) people who’ve tried to communicate often with the inactive affiliates, and sweep them out if they haven’t been active, it’s a much different percentage. But I think 80 percent of the programs probably have the 95-5 rule going on.

TM: That’s a pretty high proportion. And it’s contrary to a lot of other things we’re seeing going on with big business today. Most businesses in the last two years or so since the recession have been trying hard to maximize their efficiencies. And it seems like the affiliate program may be one of those areas that’s been overlooked. At the same time, I see affiliate programs contributing a bigger proportion of top-line growth to corporations these days. What’s your advice to corporations in general?

SC: It makes all the sense in the world to shrink the number of affiliates to just those affiliates who are going to be performing and who show some promise. But affiliates who have emails that bounce back and haven’t shown an impression in six months, I don’t think it’s worth carrying them on the affiliate roles. One of the reasons you see this perpetuating is that it’s all performance-driven. So even though they may be taking up some bandwidth, they’re really not costing anything for the companies that are keeping them on. But it makes more sense to me to shrink the size of the affiliate program so you know who’s promoting you and how they’re doing it, and you have a relationship with them.

TM: How do you think pay per click is changing the world for affiliates?

SC: In the last couple of years, there were a whole lot of affiliates basically using PPC – not even having their own Web sites. It was quite a successful tactic. I did it myself for quite a while, just driving activity right to the merchant. But in the last six months, a lot of merchants have been clamping down and adding a lot of restrictions because they found they’ve been bidding against their own affiliates and paying more than they have to. They’ve been concerned that a lot of searches normally would have ended at their site anyway. When an affiliate buys the keywords for a trademarked name, it’s a waste of money for the merchants because it would have been organic traffic for them.

TM: Do you think that’s an issue that will go away on its own because merchants will put a stop to it?

SC: I think what a lot of them are doing is damming the ability to bid on trademark names. Then they’re selecting certain generic keywords and saying, if you want to be in our program you can only bid a certain amount for these terms. And if you don’t like it, you just can’t do any pay-per-click promotions with us. Eventually, it will just sort of fade out and the affiliates will still do it successfully because there are a ton of words you can use without having to infringe on their trademarks. So I think that will be a strong channel for affiliates for a long time to come.

TM: Another interesting statistic in the AffStat report – I’m combining a couple of categories here – says 40 percent of affiliates have negotiated higher payments from programs. Does that fit with your anecdotal experience? And does that present a headache for affiliate managers?

SC: I was actually surprised by that figure myself. I’ve found, in personal experience, even for some smaller sites of mine, if I approach affiliate managers and tell them what I think I can do for them, a lot of them are willing to negotiate and make a special deal for you. So I think it’s really possible for just about any affiliate to do that. A lot of them never ask because they don’t realize it’s a possibility. But I don’t think the average affiliate manager would mind being asked, because then they know it’s an engaged affiliate and they can get more activity out of them.

TM: As a consultant, would you recommend to affiliate managers that they keep the door open to negotiations with affiliates? Or is there a time constraint that may limit their activities and put a lot of pressure on them?

SC: It’s something you’d have to model for. You just can’t put out projections for a year expecting to pay the rate you advertise on your site – say, a 7 percent commission. If you do that, you’re going to end up blowing out your budget. Because if you say you’re going to pay a 7 percent commission for everybody and you give 10 percent to superaffiliates, you might spend twice as much as you expected on commissions. If you don’t model for that, you’re going to be in trouble.

TM: How do you see the future for networks versus in-house programs? Do you see a bigger share for networks, or a bigger share for in-house programs?

SC: The networks still have the bulk of the activity in the space. When I did the AffStat report at the end of 2002, I think the networks had about 80 percent of the market share. But I think we’ll see an expanding role for in-house programs such as My Affiliate Program and DirectTrak. They’re getting more and more of the network programs to switch over, and they’re very aggressively recruiting new clients. I think in the next couple of years, we’ll see more prevalence of that kind of program.

TM: What do you think that means to the affiliates out there?

SC: It makes things a little more challenging to them in some ways if they have to go to a lot of different places to log onto their stats. But, otherwise, it’s a good thing for affiliates because it’s a little cheaper to run in-house programs so, theoretically, the affiliate programs can pay more to the affiliates in commission.

TM: The merger between Commission Junction and ValueClick is now a done deal. Nobody is sure what will happen to CJ in the future. What do you think is the future for big networks? And do you think this merger and other trends in networking open more opportunities for niche networks?

SC: It’s exciting to see this happen. It sort of validates the way the industry is moving, that it definitely has a future. It’s sort of surprising to some people that it took this long for there to be some consolidation because there have been rumors about various companies getting together for years and years. But it definitely sets the stage for some niche players out there who can take care of certain types of clients, with certain levels of start-up fees, because right now the bigger networks are not really an available resource for some of the mom-and-pops who are out there. It leaves an open door for ShareASale and MyAffiliate programs to capitalize on anyone who’s not in the Fortune 500.

TM: There are always new technologies coming down the pike, and I think we can all agree that’s a good thing. There wouldn’t be affiliate programs now if there hadn’t been technologies in the past few years that make it possible. Some technologies, such as the Norton firewall product introduced recently, block banners and can make links unclickable. Are there ways the affiliate community can change things when a company introduces a product that creates obstacles to what they do to make their living?

SC: I think the individual affiliates are powerless. We really have to rely on the networks banding together and going to Norton or whoever might make a similar product. One of the prime targets of these products are the domains that are serving all the banners and the clickable URLs for affiliate programs. The products are going after the URLs for LinkShare and Commission Junction and other companies, so it’s certainly in their best interest to get their hands dirty and try to take care of this as soon as possible. (See ReveNews.)

TM: Do you know if they’re doing that?

SC: I don’t know. I know in the past that was going on. Then, the end-user was asked if they wanted to block ads, and now it’s a default that I’ve just heard about. I don’t know how active the networks are. I would imagine they’re out there trying to find some sort of resolution for it.

TM: What will be coming up at your summit this year?

SC: The plan for the whole agenda is to be very focused on networking. We’ll certainly have our share of speakers and panels. But for every conference I’ve gone to during the last decade, it seems like the feedback from the people is always that they wished there was more networking, and nobody seems to be catching on to that. Every time you go to a conference you see the same cast of characters up there on a panel and running some PowerPoint, and it seems like it’s boring everybody. But the organizers aren’t seeing that. So my partners, Missy Ward and Ryan Phelan, and I figured we’d create a conference for people who hate conferences. We’ll have an emphasis on the things people love: the formal and informal networking as well as the educational sessions. And so we’re sort of expanding beyond what the past affiliate marketing conferences have been to make it more of a performance-marketing conference for affiliates.We’re also bringing in the experts on email and search to all get together for a four-day event. I don’t know if you ever heard of speed-dating, where people date for 30 seconds and then move on. We’ve sort of adapted that goofy concept to speed-networking, where you sit opposite another person for 30 seconds and give them your card and have these mini-meetings. You get a lot more comfortable and have a lot more interaction on a level that you can’t really see. (Note: For more information about the upcoming summit, please visit AffiliateSummit.com.)

TOM MURPHY, editor in chief of Revenue, has been writing about business and technology for more than 25 years. He is also the author of Web Rules: How the Internet is Changing the Way Consumers Make Choices.

The Spam Jam

What a mess. Jim Gordon is hell-bent on collecting some of the $600,000 or so he thinks Commonwealth Marketing Group owes him for sending more than 1,500 emails advertising credit cards. He says the emails had inadequate subject lines and the transmission paths – the list of computers that passed along the email – had been doctored.

Gordon, who runs an online health and nutrition business in Richland, Wash., said his email address was harvested, and now the spewing of spam is unstoppable. “I get roughly 1,500 emails every single day of my life,” he said. “Last summer, I got fed up and sent out a bunch of demand letters. Commonwealth was one.” This tactic, attempting to collect a charge from spammers for each email they send, then suing if they don’t pay up, is advocated by anti-spam activists. Activists encourage pissed-off consumers to strike back and try to hit the spammers where it hurts – in the pocketbook.

On Dec. 15, Gordon sued Robert Kane, the CEO of Commonwealth, in his home state. At that time, Washington had tough anti-spam laws that let individuals bring private suits against alleged spammers. We can relate, right? Who among us doesn’t have to wade through lines and lines of email subject headers cleverly disguised to look like they’re from a friend, or, perhaps worse, that stridently proclaim their icky content?

But wait. Robert Kane had a different story to tell. He said Commonwealth works with one Internet marketing company that maintains a network of affiliates. Some of those affiliates may have email marketing lists that they use to market Commonwealth’s credit cards. “We rely on the affiliate to provide opt-in information, and in other cases when [someone has complained], they’ve been able to provide the exact time and date when the person opted-in.”

Kane said Gordon is out to get him, that he’s making a business out of threatening to sue legitimate marketers, hoping to get a payoff. Indeed, Gordon does have suits against two other companies in the works. “I’m seeing an increase over the course of the last year where individuals will go out and sign up for a barrage of offers,” Kane said. “Then they file these actions saying, ‘You’ve been spamming me, and I’m entitled to X number of dollars, but I’ll settle for this.'” According to Kane, Gordon’s demand letter said he’d settle for $10,000. Kane refused, because he verified that Gordon had opted-in.

Where does that leave Gordon’s suit? Like we said, it’s a mess. The hearings go on. Gordon is trying a variety of legal maneuvers, such as complaining of harassment or unfair business practices instead of spamming, while Kane parries by dishing dirt on Gordon’s family. The only sure thing is that both are expending oodles of resources that could be better used trying to end world hunger. Let’s be glad we don’t have to decide who’s right.

But everyone has to be concerned about spam. It could kill the affiliate marketing industry. Incessant emails touting reputable products can tarnish the merchant’s reputation and turn consumers off to the brand in every channel. Merchants also run the risk of being legally liable for their affiliates’ illegal emailing practices. Irate consumers like Jim Gordon and trigger-happy state attorneys general show a tendency to press charges and let the courts sort it out. In February, the nations’ first criminal spam trial began, with a North Carolina man facing four felony counts of sending unsolicited bulk email.

Legal issues aside, spam is bad for business. The gush of stupid and offensive emails creates delete-happy customers. A recent study from the Nielsen Norman Group, a company that consults on making technology more usable, showed that, while the public is getting better at differentiating between opt-in newsletters and unsolicited messages, they’re feeling increasingly stressed dealing with their inboxes, and now have even less tolerance for newsletters they feel waste their time.

While few email marketers would admit to spamming, it’s clear that affiliates are a huge part of the problem. According to Brightmail, a provider of anti-spam services for corporations, products pushed by spammers are closely related to holidays. For example, last Valentine’s Day, 15 million messages hyped flowers, chocolate, dating services and sex toys – all categories that rely on affiliate marketers.

If you dare, open the next 10 pieces of spam you get and click on the links. Except for the ones advising you to “use this patch immediately” and infect your computer with a virus, they’ll be either affiliates linking back to a retailer, or affiliates linking to other affiliates in the Internet’s big Ponzi scheme.

When affiliate marketing consultant Shawn Collins polled affiliate managers in January 2004, 23 percent said they planned to forbid affiliates from sending email. At the same time, 60 percent of them hadn’t taken any steps to educate their affiliates about the issue, and 35 percent of them hadn’t even read the entire law.

That’s scary. Any marketer who uses email needs a crash course in spam.

Living Under the Law

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 whisked through the US Congress at the end of ’03, focusing the nation’s attention on legal retribution for spammers. Die-hard privacy advocates say it’s not enough. Marketers say they still can’t be sure they’re inside the law.

“Some of the spam problem is classic spammers, but the majority of it is not from people who are actually attempting to do anything fraudulent,” said Margaret Olson, chief technology officer for Constant Contact, a company that provides email-marketing services for small and mid-sized businesses. Unwitting spammers are merely naïve, she said. While the best practices for email marketing and rules to follow may seem clear to large corporations, affiliates are often new to the game, and many are part-time marketers. “If you have another whole job to do,” Olson said, “you probably haven’t been following the law that carefully.”

Olsen said legitimate affiliate marketers can shoot themselves in the foot with simple mistakes, such as failing to drop names from the list if they haven’t been contacted in the past year, or buying someone else’s list and assuming it’s okay to email everyone on that list.

This federal law supersedes state anti-spam laws where they’re contradictory -but states still have the right to sue spammers in federal court. And, although individuals will no longer have the right to sue spammers under state anti-spam laws, there’s a backlash movement teaching them how to bring suit under a variety of other laws, including harassment.

Ben Livingston, president of ISP Innovative Access, actually wrote a primer on using the courts to get back at spammers; it’s posted online. He’s won cases against spammers, junk faxers and telemarketers -although, he said, collecting is another story. “I know that people will fight back,” he said. “I don’t know how many, or if it will make a difference, but with all these litigious individuals, it could.”

Guys like Livingston are bad news for bad guys. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the good guys. But it can be all too easy to stray.

CAN-SPAM and You

Compared to some very stringent and punitive state laws, the CAN-SPAM Act is relatively marketer-friendly. In fact, it doesn’t prohibit unsolicited email ads at all, as long as marketers follow some guidelines.

The law focuses on three things: ensuring that consumers can recognize commercial email, see who it’s coming from and make it stop. To that end, affiliate marketers should use their business names in the FROM header and create a SUBJECT line that gives the recipient a solid clue as to the content. Within the email itself, the affiliate must provide a working email address where the consumer can ask to be removed from the list and a physical address for the sender.

These measures are no more than good marketing, said Anne Mitchell, president of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy, a consultancy that advises marketers and public institutions. “Ethical marketers are already doing more than CAN-SPAM requires anyway. The reality is, no legitimate marketer who’s trying to do the right thing needs to worry,” said Mitchell, who is also author of “CAN-SPAM and You: Emailing Within the Law“.

One other aspect of the law may become worrisome in 2005, when the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency responsible for administering CAN-SPAM, is required to report to Congress on a plan to require subject-line labeling of all commercial email in the subject header. Some email advertisers already have begun starting their subject lines with ADV, one of the labels under consideration. (The FTC will devise a separate label for sexually oriented ads; that’s expected to kick in some time during 2004.)

Such prefixes make it easier for consumers to keep commercial email from ever appearing in the inbox. However, they would eliminate the ability of marketers to use email to prospect for new customers. Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether real spammers, who usually hide their identities, would comply with the rule.

The law does hold merchants responsible for affiliates’ spam, if it can be proved that they knew or should have known about it and did nothing to stop it, said Mitchell. Merchants who haven’t controlled their affiliates are responsible for polluting the affiliate model, she said.

“People were littering spam under affiliate programs with complete immunity because, while the company had a statement on the Web site that they wouldn’t tolerate it, nudge nudge, [sending spam was] just what they wanted people to do.” In those cases, the way the law gets at the affiliate spammers is through the principle company. Now, companies can’t just shift the blame to their affiliates. “If you have any control over the channel, you should exercise it,” Mitchell said.

One more worry: While the federal law supersedes state laws against spam where they conflict, said Mitchell, “it’s also absolutely true there are all kinds of other laws people can use. Marketers shouldn’t get complacent.”

It isn’t hard to imagine other prefixes that might follow. But how US authorities would stop offshore spammers is unfathomable.

SUSAN KUCHINSKAS has covered online marketing and e-commerce since their beginnings for Revenue, Business 2.0, and other media. She says she has already received her lifetime dose of spam.

Wooing the Lonely Hearts

With thousands of dating sites on the Web, it can be as hard for surfers to find the right site as it is to find the right mate.

Affiliates are the matchmakers of the online dating world, bringing lonely hearts to dating service merchants who can light the path to true love, or at least some warm companionship. In a space Jupiter Research projects will more than double to $642 million annually by 2008, it’s no surprise that affiliate marketers are falling in love with the sector.

“Over the past one or two years, the stigma [about Internet dating] has fallen away,” said Graham Mudd, analyst for comScore, a Virginia market research company. “It’s a cycle that builds upon itself. The more people that use it, and have positive experiences with it, the more it’s talked about and used.” And, said Mudd, that usage is “at least partially driven by the fact that it tends to work.”

That’s right. People are actually finding real love on the Internet. Seventy percent of couples that meet online – and survive the first face-to-face meeting – are still in love and together two years later, reports scholar Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, who conducted the first full-length study of cyber-mating, Love Online. Additionally, dating sites tap into the very real, emotional needs of their members: to discreetly find like-minded individuals with similar interests willing to share a date, a sexual encounter or a life together. Jewish sites are a great example of this, as are sites for those with STDs, gays, religious groups and even couples seeking a third.

A few dating service affiliates claim they make as much as $500,000 per month. Our research found superaffiliates in the dating service arena make anywhere from $1,500 to $50,000 per month. Take LovingYou.com, an affiliate with three staff members and a reported 40 million page views in peak months. The site earns $10,000 per month from dating service commissions alone. Its secret, said LovingYou.com Vice President Bob Narindra, is “to not only have good content, but [get the visitor to] perform some kind of action – submit a poem, read an idea and do it, send a postcard – actually do something. Once you get them to actually do something in your site, you’ve created a connection.” Narindra said that connection is what leads people to buy.

The potential buyers are out there: Dating sites drew 20 million unique visitors in December 2003, reports Nielsen//NetRatings (55 percent men and 45 percent women). Some went for curiosity’s sake, others went for the free trials, and roughly 1.2 million plunked down $8.95 to $19.95 per month for paid memberships. Commissions vary widely. Merchants pay referring affiliates anywhere from a nickel to $3 for every click-through, and 15 percent to 110 percent of member fees if the site can convert those visitors from free registrants to paid subscribers.

Online dating is among the biggest paid-content categories on the Internet. “For the foreseeable future, it will be at or near the top in the paid ad category,” said Nate Elliott, an analyst who monitors online dating for Jupiter Research. The trick for affiliates is to get those looking for love to their sites first. That’s a task particularly hard for new entrants, who don’t have the advantage of the flush of media publicity that followed 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” nor the virtue of being a top-ranked link in search engines. “The top-10 [dating] sites normally get between 32 and 50 percent of the search traffic when combined,” said Drew Jackman of 10x Marketing, a Utah Internet consulting firm (see chart).

Niche Monogamy

So how do affiliates of dating service sites survive and succeed?

“When you talk about online dating, you really need to talk about niche markets,” said Michael Jones, CEO of Userplane, which makes software for the dating industry. “Does it operate like a small bar that caters to regional interests? We’re finding so many of our clients, and so many small dating sites, exist very happily with less than 20,000 users.”

Even the big dating services, like Match.com, which is listed by Hitwise as the second-highest dating-traffic generator, see value in aligning with carefully niched sites. “We can only serve a certain number of markets ourselves, so having an affiliate network that’s willing to go out and present unique niche opportunities that are relevant to a certain number of members in a category [is a big plus],” said Gerard Sample, Match.com’s affiliate program senior manager. “Our best affiliates always find that niche and present personals relevant to that niche.”

Niche categories are definitely a growth area, said Elliott at Jupiter Research. He’s seeing dating services targeting alumni groups, ethnic groups, sexual preference, religion, language and geographical locations. Those affiliates are creating high-traffic sites just by affiliating with 10 dating services in their category. “They don’t need that many users,” Jones said, “before they become comfortable and are making money.”

Fresh Content

With so many different services out there, affiliates must do something to set themselves apart. “The most commonplace strategies are affiliates that take the time to describe, in editorial fashion, the nature of their site,” said R. J. Lynch, senior product marketing manager for Matchmaker .com. Though many dating services offer free content that affiliates can post, the most profitable affiliates come up with their own, posting free content two or three times per week. “When people find content on your site that they can’t get anywhere else, they build an affinity for your site,” said Narindra.

Here are some value-added features that can be used in various combinations to help differentiate sites:

Newsletters LovingYou.com has 16 double-opt-in newsletters, one for each demographic it targets, ranging from its 180,000-opt-in Daily Expression of Love (a romantic quote, idea or gift of the day) to its 450,000-opt-in LoveWire. Its founder and president, Jennifer Good, writes the copy.

Reviews Rosalind Gardner at Sage- Heart.com, a superaffiliate making up to $50,000 per month who was profiled in the last issue of Revenue, writes reviews of the various dating services she promotes. Other affiliates write movie or book reviews for those sappy romantic titles.

Articles Article ideas come from emailed questions, chat room topics or frequent site search requests. Rather than hire costly magazine freelance writers, insiders recommend recruiting a talented writer who can be more proactive to users’ needs by producing regular articles in-house.

Visitor contributions Many sites post poems and love stories submitted by visitors. Others offer online forums, which provide ready reading material for visitors interested in a particular thread.

Companion affiliates Successful affiliates don’t just stop at dating service sites. They branch out by affiliating the site with related retailers offering romantic gifts, lingerie or flowers. People in every income bracket and lifestyle, ranging from very conservative to the swinger set, are actively looking to buy on the Internet. This means a ready supply of residual income for both affiliates and dating services themselves. Gay.com, a dating service for gays and lesbians, reports that its members are twice as likely to have household income of more than $60,000, twice as likely to have graduated from college, and more than twice as likely as the national index to be professionals or managers. It uses those figures to sell premium-advertising packages to companies targeting the gay and lesbian market.

Multimedia Many offer downloadable love songs, video welcome emails or e-cards. “We extensively use viral marketing in our site,” Narindra said. “Visitors to our site can send online postcards, and the person they sent it to comes to us to look at the postcard.”

Cutting-Edge Marketing

An active marketing campaign is what gets date seekers into an affiliate’s site. “If we know one particular site is hot at the moment, that’s our focus – to promote that one,” Rauschenbach said. “And it changes a lot.” Banners are readjusted on pages, keywords are updated to reflect the most popular search terms, and easy bookmark and active-channel options are added to a site to make it easy for first-time surfers to return.

Meanwhile, high search engine rankings still can be achieved. “It boils down to collecting as many reciprocal links as you can [and] getting as much original content as you can,” said David Hayden, owner of Rabbit Rabbit Ltd., which runs DrDating.com. These strategies, plus a few more Hayden guards closely, seem to be working. He’s grown the site to No. 9 in the search rankings without pay-per-click search engine tactics.

Another way affiliates boost profits is by working with merchants to improve pay-per-click or pay-per-membership commissions. When LoveSites.com signs up to be an affiliate, “we do it in the traditional way, and send out an email afterwards letting the [dating service] know we’re a superaffiliate and we’re looking to promote your program at a higher-than-normal level,” said marketing manager Brian Rauschenbach. “We tell them we’re going to be taking a couple of different approaches to marketing their program, but we want to have a custom program set up first.”

The key to negotiating with merchants, Rauschenbach said, is to not just send them an email. He follows up by phone, and asks to speak directly to the affiliate manager. The net result: “We have a couple of companies that we actually have contracts with,” he said. “In case we get sold to another entity, we still have those contracts.”

Conversion Rates

Since most affiliate profits are made through membership fee commissions, it’s key to partner with dating services that have high ratios of registrants who convert to paid members after a free trial. Matchmaker.com, for instance, reports conversions of roughly 7 percent of visitors from general sites and 15 percent of visitors from dating-specific sites. That’s higher than industry standard, which pencils out to 8 percent conversion rates for males and 2 percent conversion rates for females, according to a December 2003 Nielsen//NetRatings study.

Dating service sites typically pay affiliates if that visitor returns to make a purchase within 30 to 60 days. Some services are sweetening the pot even more. Matchmaker.com, for instance, now offers unlimited return days. Its software records where visitors come from, even if those visitors don’t sign up for a service, and gives credit to the original affiliate if that visitor comes back at anytime during the course of their life. “Giving the affiliate the ability to earn commissions during the length of a subscriber’s time with us mirrors what we’re trying to achieve with our subscribers,” said Lynch. And that’s creating long-term relationships.

Looking Forward

While some product categories are tightening or dropping affiliate partner programs, experts say that won’t happen any time soon in the dating realm. Match.com, a Forbes 2002 and 2003 “Favorite for Dating,” soon will roll out affiliate features now offered only to big-name partners, including advanced searching capabilities, customized channel designs, personality tests and seven-day free trials directly from affiliate sites. “We’re continuing to find new ways to connect affiliates with our users,” said Gerard Sample, senior manager of Match.com’s affiliate program.

Meanwhile, Matchmaker.com will become one of the first dating service sites to offer automatically updated banners: “Traditionally, affiliates would grab new creatives from BeFree and implement them on their site,” Lynch said. “Now the change can be made automatically. This not only simplifies the day-to-day execution of their site, but it also allows them to take advantage of things we do promotionally.”

There are also buyouts afoot. Companies such as Match.net are purchasing smaller services with 50,000 to 100,000 member profiles, said Jones at Userplane. “They either buy you directly or set you up as a portal into their site.”

Increasing competition is causing consumers to act more fickle. “About a year ago, the average lifetime of a subscriber used to be three months,” Narinda said. “Now, with all the competition, the timeframe has dropped to two months.” That means affiliate sites either have to refer more potential members by bringing more people to their site, or come up with additional revenue streams such as books, gifts or even background checks. MatchPatrol.com, for instance, has signed up 25 affiliates for its new fee-based program that gives online daters an identification number that proves they are who they say they are.

Even with all the changes, insiders see online dating revenues getting bigger and better. “There are so many single people out there,” said Gardner, “and everyone is looking for love.”

JENNIFER MEACHAM, managing editor of Revenue, has been writing about business and technology for more than a decade. She was named the Region X Journalist of the Year by the US Small Business Administration in 2002.

Affiliates, Start Your Engines

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year or so, you probably realize by now that in order to get customers to your affiliate site you have to market it on search engines. Even if you haven’t realized this, your competitors certainly have, and if you don’t take advantage of what the search engines have to offer, your Web site is likely to go the way of many other dot-com dodos.

Over the last few years search engines have emerged as the most viable option for reaching many users on the Web. As an Internet marketer, your success online may be determined by how well you learn how to play the search engine marketing game.

In recent studies, search engines emerged as the number one way people find products or services on the Web, with about half of all Internet users utilizing search engines to find you.

Searching for what you need using search engines has become so ingrained in the Internet psyche that people even go to a particular engine like Overture, and type searches like www.Yahoo.com in the search box, instead of typing that URL into the address bar. Some of the top searches on many of the search engines come from people using the search engine to find other search engines.

As you may also have noticed, search engines are in the news lately. Google is always grabbing headlines, and the industry has consolidated, with many of the larger companies gobbling up the smaller folks in a race for Internet dominance. First, Overture bought Alta Vista, Fast and AlltheWeb; FindWhat merged with Espotting; and now Overture is hand-in-hand with Yahoo, which already purchased Inktomi.

MSN is beefing up its own search services in order to compete, and is rumored to be eyeing Looksmart and Ask Jeeves as potential purchases. So a realistic scenario in the next few years will be that three major engines will control over 80 percent of all U.S. searches on the Web, and the balance of searches will be performed between hundreds of smaller engines.

How can affiliates take advantage of that information?

Think of some keywords that represent your business. There are hundreds of Web sites competing with you for placement in millions of searches per month. Competition will only get worse as more businesses start to get their Internet act together. You can’t ignore search engines in your marketing efforts if you want to succeed. And, after all, search engines do have many advantages:

Affordability: The cost of a lead gained from a search engine marketing campaign is currently averaging about 29 cents. That’s a significant savings from the next least expensive Internet marketing vehicle, which is email at 50 cents per lead, according to a study conducted by Jack Myers LLC and presented at a Direct Marketing Association conference last March.

Equality: The Internet is still the great equalizer when it comes to marketing. Any affiliate marketer or small business with a Web site can utilize smart search engine marketing practices and to compete with their larger and better-known competitors. Even though you may not have the money to launch a large search engine marketing campaign, with a little knowledge, you can do most of the work yourself and still compete with the big boys. Many small businesses have built a decent living just using the power of search.

Flexibility: There are very few other venues where you can control so many aspects of the marketing campaign and stick a toe in the water for very little money. Search engine marketing allows you to test copy, placement, budget, messages and offers, on the fly, in real time. You don’t have to commit to a long-term contract or a minimum buy. You control the amount you spend, the cost per lead and the duration of the campaign.

Accountability: If you set up your tracking correctly, you can easily and quickly establish the return on investment (ROI) for your campaign. This will allow you to correct as you go, redesign your Web site, change your product offering and make adjustments based on your profit margin. Never start a search engine marketing campaign without the proper tracking in place. You can learn so much from the insight you receive that you may have to rethink your whole business model.

Accessibility: You can reach more targeted users utilizing search engine marketing than with any other marketing vehicle. You can target your campaign locally if your business is constricted by geography, or internationally if the world is your marketplace. Either way, Internet use is only going to grow in the next few years, so don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

In light of all this, it seems obvious that the more you can learn about search engine marketing, the more successful your Internet business will be. You don’t have to do it all yourself, but you should certainly know how it’s done. That way you can decide whether to keep search engine marketing in-house or hire someone else to do it. Either approach will yield good results.

In future columns I’ll discuss the different forms of search engine marketing and provide you with plenty of tips and tricks to ensure that you get your fair share of Internet customers. We’ll delve into all those acronyms you may have heard bandied about but never knew the definition of. Yes – the joys of SEO, WSO, PPC, CPC, SEM, PI and others, lie ahead. (Somebody stop me!)

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