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Affiliate Strategies: Old School Goes New Age

Posted on 8.06.2006

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The affiliate industry is ultra competitive, widely populated and choked with buzzwords, tactics and technologies. How is one to compete and take advantage of this white-hot marketplace? The answer is by thinking like a door-to-door salesperson while employing new tactics of online marketing. You may have an excellent affiliate program in place, but without practicing time-tested sales strategies and adapting to new technologies, you’re likely to get caught up in marketing hell — mediocrity.

My first sales job was during a summer break from college, selling knives. Back then, the word “affiliate” was only in my vocabulary because Major League Baseball would not allow me to rebroadcast their games, even from one of their “affiliates,” without the expressed, written consent of the commissioner. I never thought of myself as a salesman, nor did I think that my summer job would come back to be useful a decade later. But, I learned some very important lessons for today’s billion-dollar affiliate marketing industry — and I made a boatload of money.

Wayne Porter has trained many super affiliates — those who rely on affiliate marketing as their sole source of income. He is also Senior Editor of Revenews, an important online resource for anyone doing business on the Web. Porter sees the value in the basics but is also a strong advocate of new echnologies. “To be successful in marketing online today the basics must be mastered, however the barrier to entry has drastically increased, so it is absolutely essential that affiliates drum up new ideas, new angles of attack and not to be afraid to run with them. That is one clear advantage [small businesses] have — being small and nimble let’s them turn on a dime and provides a lucrative window in which to capitalize.” It’s this kind of advice that has enabled many to earn a very nice living selling other people’s products and services online.

But not everyone needs to be a super affiliate. Maybe you’re interested in just a supplementary income. Or maybe you feel that you simply don’t have the know-how to make millions of dollars in the affiliate industry. Maybe you want a good part-time project to fund your next vacation.

Whatever your motivation, every affiliate, super or newbie, can benefit from some best practices and by taking advantage of their resources.

My first day on the job, I was introduced to my new money-making best friend — a complete set of kitchen knives. They were sharp, durable, attractive and expensive. I took them home and helped my mom cook for the first time. Then I gave my entire family the opportunity to slice some tomatoes, a true sign of a good knife. It was a landslide victory. They were simply the best knives that any of us had ever used.

At that point, I was confident in my product. I felt ready to sell wool blankets in the Amazon. Who could possibly pass up the opportunity to own the best cutlery that money could buy?

Affiliate marketers need to decide which product they are going to endorse — and early in the process. Where do your interests lie? What are you passionate about? Would you recommend this product to your family and friends?

A good place to get started is to actually try the product. Use it and abuse it. Think like one of your potential customers. What kind of value does it hold for them? Will it live up to the high expectations of your target audience? Clearly, this is best answered with a product that you are knowledgeable about and that you would use as well. Selling a product that you have no prior knowledge of, haven’t tested or don’t have an ongoing interest in will make matters more difficult. And if for some reason your customer base discovers that you are selling a product you are uneducated about, you’ll lose their trust.

My second sales job was selling insurance. While there is certainly great value in insurance and I would recommend it to my friends and family, it didn’t greatly interest me. I never devoted myself to learning everything I could about insurance and I wasn’t passionate about it. I failed miserably.

Every good product solves a problem. It’s important that you target a weakness within your customer, make him aware of it and offer a valuable solution. This can be challenging but it is essential.

When I stepped up to a customer’s doorstep, I had to bring something valuable to their kitchen. I would often ask to see their current collection of knives. Many would have loose blades, rusted handles and dull edges. I explained that, in the end, it was more cost effective to buy my set of knives once than to continue spending money replacing an inferior product. Now they saw a problem where there wasn’t one before. In a matter of minutes, they needed a solution and I could get to the fun stuff — cutting pennies in half.

Affiliate marketing is no different. You must convince the consumer they have a problem that you can solve. For example, does your new software increase email deliverability? Make sure your customer knows the dangers of having fewer messages delivered.

Sometimes the problem is simply the opportunity to do better. Your software can ensure that their marketing messages get to more inboxes and generate more sales. Your best customers will be those that continuously try to better themselves or their business.

There is an added benefit — identifying the problem and providing a solution takes you from being a salesperson to a critical business associate that will help them succeed over the years. Once you’re “in” you have earned repeat customers. Tim Storm, super affiliate and founder and CEO of explains: “We are firm believers in building the permission asset — we want consumers to see us on ‘their side’, and not have an adversarial relationship with our customers. We don’t get paid unless we provide value for our consumers.”

When selling door-to-door, you have a much higher chance of success if you are properly groomed, your shoes are polished and you carry an affable demeanor. That’s pretty obvious, but shoppers online can’t see your shoes, can they? In a way, yes they can. It’s your site, your domain name, your sales copy and most importantly, your landing page. Online consumers typically have short attention spans when browsing the Web. If your site isn’t properly designed, potential customers will quickly dismiss it and look for your competitors.

There are several ways to optimize your landing pages and your site design and they should all be considered. As an affiliate, chances are thousands of other businesses out there are offering the exact same product(s) as you. What is going to make you stand out? Getting prospects to your website and keeping them there is critical to any affiliate’s success. It’s a necessary step before you can begin building brand loyalty.

It’s simply the lifeblood of the door-to door salesperson, and the affiliate. The product is great, a problem has been identified and solved, my suit looks sharp and my customer feels like they made a new friend. That can all lead to something like this:

“Mrs. Smith down the street is an excellent cook and always looking for new kitchen gear. She also belongs to a cooking club. I’ll tell her you’re coming by.”

The personal reference was my dream customer. Affiliate can marketers thrive on it. There is no better way to increase your conversion rate than being recommended by a personal friend, family member or colleague. Those kinds of recommendations have a way of growing into big dividends.

David Lewis is a seasoned affiliate and Vice President of ThisNext and founder of 77Blue. He is also a big advocate of strong affiliate relationships. “My companies have built strong relationships with our affiliate networks and our merchant partners,” says Lewis. “Part of our success is based on these relationships.”

Affiliate marketing is, by nature, a model of networking. And these days, technology makes it easier than ever. It begins by choosing your affiliate program, and it never ends. Or, if it does end, you’re likely out of business. Other affiliates, forums, trade shows, business blogs, newsletters … there are countless ways to network and the most successful affiliates make it a priority. New products can come to light, new marketplaces open up and new business partnerships are forged. In such a highly competitive industry maximum exposure should constantly be on the mind of an affiliate.

Lewis shared these tips for successful networking: “Pick up the phone and talk to your partners. Go to conferences. Sit with people you don’t know. Talk to everyone. Speak at conferences. Blog. Participate in comments on industry blogs. Just get out there. Make sure it’s fun or you’ll dread it.”

Most large companies with a fleet of door-to-door salespeople issue a selling script. It’s carefully worded and the instructions are clear. Don’t deviate from the script. It’s been proven effective over the years and it works, so stick to it. While many time-honored sales strategies apply to affiliate marketing, this one can be devastating to your business. The Web is a constantly evolving environment that can change in a matter of days, hours or minutes. If you are not willing to adapt, you will quickly be left behind.

“To excel in affiliate marketing or, for that matter, any Internet marketing in general, one has to innovate and blaze new paths,” says Porter. “What we see today are a number of webmasters practicing the basics, but failing to be innovative and creative — to do something new or disruptive. Disruptive technology can be risky to deploy, but it is where you reap the larger rewards.”

Stepping outside the box can set you apart — a must for a congested marketplace. There is no script here, nor should there be. As affiliates, we should constantly be searching for new ways to wake up our audience and set ourselves apart from one another. You want to be known as cutting-edge — a service that your consumers simply can’t get anywhere else.

Certainly there is risk involved with such ambitions. Step too far out and you could be seen as some fly-by-night operation and consumers will avoid you like a madman swinging a machete. But follow everyone else’s lead and you end up picking up the crumbs.

Porter sees savvy marketers embracing AJAX and Web services or new forms of interaction like non-hierarchical news sites such as Digg. Blending models like blogging with data feeds and supplying the consumer with comparison shopping are just some of the extensive capabilities that the latest technologies afford. Every day, new software and technologies make it easier to concoct a formula that works best for your site and your business. But, as Porter points out, your ideas must be cohesive with your business model. “All of this must be done in a scalable fashion because small marketers must compete with goliaths too,” says Porter.

One of the greatest advantages of the technology age is the ability to instantly go back to the drawing board. Whether designing a skyscraper or publishing a newsletter, radical changes can be made with a few clicks and then changed back again if you don’t like the results.

Measuring the efficiency of marketing campaigns on a case-by-case or day-by-day basis is a big advantage not readily available to marketers in the past. It’s also one of the most important aspects of running a successful affiliate campaign. A solid understanding of performance metrics can literally make the difference between boom and bust.

Site-wide metrics include stickiness, bounce rates and click paths. For the email marketer, metrics include open rates, deliverability and click-thru to conversion, earnings per click (EPC), average order size, return on advertising spend (ROAS) and conversion percentages.

“Without measurement you do not know your key metrics, and without those metrics you are basically playing a guessing game,” says Porter. “The best marketers test, measure and adapt and they understand the numbers game.”

Technology will always provide new opportunities and easier ways to manage affiliate programs. Real-time performance metrics can ensure that you are getting the most out of every opportunity.

It’s also important to remember what’s in the heart of every good sale — including the salesperson. Your product should reflect your interests. Your site should reflect your product and your sales strategy should reflect your style. And don’t forget to network, network, network.

Many will point out that it’s a crowded marketplace. But there’s always room for one more. So go ahead, start dreaming of new ideas and planning that next, great vacation. ■

Mike Phillips is the Managing Editor of Website Services Magazine

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