To the surprise (and delight) of many, 2004 has put the spotlight back onto e-commerce for the first time since the dot-bomb exploded in the spring of 2000. Web stocks rose over the first three quarters, while mainstream stocks were weighed down by geopolitics.
Google went public with the kind of swagger that conjured up memories of the late ’90s. Online spending continued its rapid rise. And big advertising companies went shopping for smaller Web properties.
ValueClick bought Commission Junction. And Internet ad giant DoubleClick bought Performics.
Few have more insight into the recent past or the long-term future than Performics President and CEO Jamie Crouthamel, who shares his views in this one-on-one chat with Editor in Chief Tom Murphy.
TM: How and when did you get into the affiliate marketing business?
JC: I started Performics, which at the time was called Dynamic Trade, in 1998 and we started as an affiliate marketing service provider addressing the needs of the catalog industry, now really the multichannel marketing industry. The needs they had at the time were affiliate marketing and performance-based technology as well as services and execution help as they were executing these programs.
TM: Why and when did you change the name from Dynamic Trade to Performics? What was the strategy on that?
JC: Early on in affiliate marketing, the term performance marketing wasn’t really being used. As we grew the business and saw other performance marketing opportunities start to evolve out of affiliate marketing, Performics was a better descriptor of what we were trying to accomplish. Today, we view ourselves as a performance-based marketing services and technology company. The fact that we’re leaders both in affiliate marketing and search engine marketing points to our focus in those areas. The two needs that companies have to be able to execute on are technology to facilitate these programs and marketing expertise to execute on them as well.
TM: The acquisition by DoubleClick is complete, and now the real work begins. What changes do you foresee at Performics in the coming months?
JC: DoubleClick acquired Performics because we have a proven track record for success. So many things will remain the same. But we immediately began to work together to build DartSearch, which is a DoubleClick solution, powered by Performics’ technology. Performics also uses DartMail for merchant email campaigns and affiliate communication, and our clients think the product is terrific. Already, we see the benefit of being part of a larger company and ultimately clients and affiliates will enjoy that benefit too. We now have global reach with 19 offices around the world, so as our clients look to expand into new markets, we have the right resources in place. In addition, DoubleClick has great research and a lot of talent. Affiliate marketing is a very good fit within the DoubleClick suite of products. The biggest changes at Performics are always driven by growth. For example, we already have more than 130 employees and will add at least another 30 or more before the end of this year.
TM: The acquisition is another sign the interactive media business is converging. Is the day of the independent affiliate network coming to an end? Do you think a new network could start up independently at this point?
JC: The online marketing industry is consolidating, and affiliate marketing is part of that. Last year, there were four major networks, and now there are three, with two of us owned by larger online advertising companies. So clearly the industry has consolidated. A new network would have many barriers to entry, because established affiliate networks have already built successful companies and achieved some level of efficiency with their businesses. That still does not mean it would be impossible to launch a new network, but a new affiliate network alone wouldn’t be enough today. Marketers want access to multiple performance- based marketing channels, and they expect more from fewer vendors. They want to participate in several performance- based marketing opportunities. Affiliate networks that provide only affiliate marketing services while ignoring other performance-based marketing services lessen the value they can provide clients and hurt their own chances for success in today’s environment.
TM: Are there ways that you would say Performics is different from the other major affiliate networks?
JC: We’re very different in that we look at the performance-based marketing sector as a whole versus components of it being affiliate marketing or search marketing or other forms of it. We started out in affiliate marketing. If you look at affiliate marketing today, and back then, it really set the benchmark for performance- based marketing. Today, everything is really compared to it. It’s interesting to note that affiliate marketing, often the most cost-effective channel in an online marketing mix, provides a platform for pricing. And any media today is really based off of an effective affiliate marketing or rev-share measurement that people use. We started off with that and we started seeing other concentrations of performance-based marketing around affiliate marketing. The first one, which really is pretty obvious, is search marketing. So we broke that out as its own practice per se. We’re the only major affiliate marketing leader who is also a leader in search marketing. We looked at what our clients needed and branched out from there.
TM: A lot of affiliates do search engine marketing as well as affiliate marketing. How does your company avoid competing with your own affiliates on that level?
JC: One way is we know very much about every affiliate in our network. We take great pride in that. Every affiliate who enters our network is screened and it’s understood what their business model is, versus an open network where they come in unfiltered and just start performing their activities. Many clients prefer that Performics run their affiliate marketing program and their search marketing program in parallel because of the inter-workings of the two programs you just described. There are a lot of affiliate programs and a lot of affiliates within those programs who help to complement the marketer’s search program. There are many terms and many categories in which the affiliates are better off participating. That’s advantageous to the affiliate and to the merchant.
TM: There are other areas emerging in the performance marketing field that seem to be fairly lucrative. I wonder if Performics might start competing in such areas as search engine arbitrage or creating blogs to increase revenue flows.
JC: We keep looking at performance-based marketing opportunities as they would be beneficial to advertisers. We always represent the advertiser in ways that would be beneficial to them. We probably wouldn’t get into the blog creation market because that would basically be creating content, which we don’t necessarily do. We just help our advertisers take advantage of it. So as blog advertising may or may not unfold, we would participate in that. With search arbitrage, we tend not to work in that market. But we would convince our clients that it’s better for them to run their own programs so they can reap the benefits of those programs.
TM: You guys are well known for your proprietary tracking technology. How is that system run? Is that a cookie-based system?
TM: In our last issue, Steve Messer from LinkShare raised some eyebrows by suggesting cookie system
s weren’t accurate enough for this business. Would you care to comment on that?
JC: Well, in our technology, one element of it is a cookie technology. And DoubleClick, which now owns us, also leverages cookie technology. And everybody in the industry uses cookie technology, including LinkShare because they track some type of return-day. So I would think that’s a standard.
TM: Is there something beyond that you use to back up the accuracy of the cookies?
JC: Yes, we have other means that are a little technical to describe in an interview that also do backups to it. But if you’re trying to track any sort of return to a site once you leave, cookies are about the most accurate way to do that. There’s no tracking that is 100 percent. For every pro, there’s a con to it as well.
TM: There’ve been some complaints on the forums that links from Performics don’t go live right away, and that of course makes it harder for affiliates to check their links as they upgrade their sites. Why does that happen and can it be changed?
JC: I don’t know the technical answer to that. But once our links are created, they’re basically live in the system within seconds of being created. So it might be getting approval of those links instead of technically being ready.
TM: Like some other networks, Performics is said to block its affiliates from speaking directly to merchants, which could prevent affiliates from seeking higher commissions.
JC: That’s not true. We encourage meetings between our merchants and our affiliate partners. There’s contact information where a merchant can contact an affiliate. In most cases, an affiliate can contact a merchant. In a lot of cases, a merchant prefers that Performics handle the potential thousands of conversations on their behalf. So it’s really an efficiency request by the merchant, but it’s not a restriction.
TM: People seem to be a lot more aware of predatory advertising now. Do you think that problem is lessening, growing or staying about the same?
JC: I think it has picked up over the last few years. I think it has leveled off. It has become more heightened in the marketplace, and I think that’s why people hear more about it now. At Performics, we’re strong opponents of it. We’ve taken steps with our code of conduct, with our partnering with Commission Junction on that. Again, we screen every affiliate in our network, so it’s difficult for the spyware or the wrong side of the equation, predatory advertising, to take advantage of our merchants.
TM: Blogging, of course, is exploding with affiliates right now because they’ve figured out they can get high search engine rankings. What do you think is going to happen with that trend?
JC: We’re watching blogging very carefully. I don’t have any predictions at the moment. It’s a very efficient form of moving creative content back and forth, but there’s still a kind of non-standards going on right now with blogs being created and with blog writers. So I think there are still a lot of things that will unfold in that area.
TM: As merchant revenue grows in the affiliate marketing arena, do you think some of the smaller affiliates will be forced out by bigger players in their field?
JC: No, I do not. I think the beauty of affiliate marketing is that it’s a way for small publishers or affiliates to participate in the marketing mix of a merchant. I think that’s the beauty of affiliate marketing, that publishers of all shapes or sizes can participate because of the leverage you can get out of an affiliate program.
TM: Do you think, as the industry grows, more merchants will bring their programs in house instead of going through a network?
JC: Again, from the past question, I’d say not, because affiliate marketing allows publishers of all shapes and sizes to participate efficiently in it. It allows for the next evolution. Affiliate marketing seems to create new performance-based marketing vehicles. That’s the catalyst of it. So participating in a network that gives you broader reach in new opportunities allows you to see those emerging trends.
TM: What do you see as the biggest challenges for affiliate marketing in the coming months? It’s an area that changes all the time. Is there anything on the horizon now that seems like a threat to affiliate marketing?
JC: I don’t think there’s a threat per se to it, but I think what you’ve seen over the years is a trend toward more tightly controlled networks. You’ve seen folks who’ve run massive affiliate programs with tens or hundreds of thousands of affiliates starting to scale those back in an effort to get better understanding and control of their affiliate marketing program, as merchants are performing their other performance marketing-based activities.
TM: You said you screen affiliates closely. Do you also remove unproductive affiliates from your ranks? Do you keep them active in hopes they’ll start producing?
JC: Performics reviews each affiliate applicant as a service to all clients. Many Performics clients provide criteria for their program, and the evaluation matches the affiliate against the provided criteria. If a new affiliate applies to our network, we don’t necessarily make a judgment upon application about how productive that applicant will be, but we do make sure they have an active Web site and check for any content or practices that violate Performics’ policies, including our Code of Conduct for Fair Practices. Performics may remove affiliates that do not generate transactions over a period of time, usually one year. Many clients ask that we clean up non-productive affiliates more regularly, but before we remove an affiliate, we attempt to contact them to inquire about the status of their account. We do our best to encourage productive referrals from and commissions for all affiliates.
TOM MURPHY is Editor in Chief of Revenue and the author of Web Rules.