Here An Affiliate, There An Affiliate, Everywhere An Affiliate, An Affiliate…

November 4, 2009

Here An Affiliate, There An Affiliate, Everywhere An Affiliate, An Affiliate…  Can you say that 10 times fast?

Every time I talk with a company about strategies to grow their business, the idea of developing an affiliate program is a major element of the discussion.  Why not?  It should be a no brainer, right?  They can make money “off of us” simply by sending customers our way.  And with Twitter and social media, this should be easy, right?  Well…maybe.

In these days of Twitter, Facebook and social networks, it’s easy to get your name out.  You’ll even get some good references and mentions, and there is clearly value in building a cadre of Twitter followers and Facebook fans.  But when it comes to driving business, these social media relationships are pretty informal, almost like flirting. Flirting is ok for branding. To develop a productive partner or affiliate program requires the development of intimate working relationships that go beyond the casual.  When you give them the attention they need, affiliate partners can truly share in a win-win relationship.

handshake 1

Everyone wants to be an affiliate, and we all want them.  It’s relatively easy to set up a program with Commission Junction or Linkshare, where sites can simply sign up to be your partner. However, once you launch a program you quickly learn the challenge.  Unless you pay careful attention, you’ll generally find that 80% of these “partners”  will end up costing you more than they return in value.  Some of them will start bidding up the price of your brand name for paid placement (despite your contract terms to the contrary).  Others may create a scam which results in a lot of purchases, followed by a lot of returns.  Others will simply be needy and require too much of your time.  But alas, there will be a few who can truly help increase your sales.

So how should you move forward?  Although it’s tempting, don’t just accept anyone to be an affiliate. Having a lot of affiliates may create links to help with SEO rankings, but they will cost you in terms of time, energy, and risk of control of your brand.  If links are your goal, you’re better off creating your own feeder sites.  Only accept affiliates whose sites make sense to you, meaning that they are a portal of products like yours, or they sell complementary products, and they can bring unique value to your sales process.

Once you identify them, it is important to stay in touch with your key affiliates. They are, in fact, another sales channel.  Thus, they need to have insights into your business, new products, and special deals.  Before the internet, annual partner/affiliate sales meetings were important. (My wife even knows this, as she’ll always remember how we had to cut our honeymoon short so I could make it back for one of these events!).  Today, you don’t need big events,  but you still need to be available and communicative.  For major (meaning they sell a lot) partnerships, face to face meetings are still important.

I also believe that to make an affiliate program work well, you need a dedicated internal affiliate sales manager.  This has to be someone who is creative and resourceful.  The manager needs to provide feedback and let your partners know how they’re doing, and hopefully how big a check they are going to get each month.  Affiliates often have unique ideas of ways to sell your product.  Your manager has to have the knowledge and judgement to be able to either go with the vision, or explain why it is not acceptable.  Ideally, you are as key to the affiliate’s income stream as they are to yours, so they need to know you are available when they need you.

At the end of the day, the success of an affiliate program has more to do with quality than quantity.  A properly managed affiliate program can drive tremendous new business opportunities your way.  A poorly managed program will just eat up your energy and time, with little or no sales results.

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The Ecommerce Expertise Blog

October 24, 2009

Ecommerce Expertise Blog

Welcome to the Ecommerce Expertise Blog.

My professional focus is on helping companies improve their eCommerce presence and sales results.  I have expertise in the technical aspects of eCommerce implementation, site optimization to improve conversion, and the application of 20+ years of marketing experience to new social media tools and processes.  That said there are plenty of blogs and articles that talk about how to do this.  From time to time, I’ll post links to articles or write about tips to improve your site.  But I’d rather use this blog to discuss the more esoteric applications of life and business experience to improving web presence and results.  So here we go!

Steps to an Ecology of Ecommerce (with apologies to Gregory Bateson)

Throughout my career, I have been struck by the challenge how to embody proven experience to innovate into the future.   One of the most enlightening books I ever read during my teen-twenty self discovery years was Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of the Mind.  It was there that I first internalized the concept of embracing entropy, or evolving disorder and change,  as the way of the world.  Bateson argues that probability favors disorder.  To me, success in business (and life for that matter) is the ability to find patterns to build on the growing disorder and complexity, view every change as an opportunity, and thrive on the edge of innovation.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t survive if you ignore the entropy and the exploding connections that surround you.  Here’s a simple analogy. Think about operating a car (and I am careful to use the word “operating” rather than “driving”).  At its most basic, operating a car today is the same as it was driving a  Model T Ford.  You push the gas to go, the brake to stop, and use the steering wheel to direct where you want to go.   I drive a Mini Cooper S.  The Mini is a retro design based on the original British Car first developed in 1959.  In its original incarnation, the Cooper was a British response to the Volkswagen, a basic box with minimal features, and one simple gauge in the middle of the dash to tell you how fast you are going.  Today’s Mini looks similar, and someone who drove a 1959 Cooper would have no problems acclimating to the new car.  BUT…think about what’s in this new car:

The Old and The New

The Old and The New

That one gauge in the middle now has a speedometer, gas gauge, indicators for the traction control, maintenance indicators, a thermometer, a readout of my fuel economy, and little lights to warn me that I haven’t paid attention to the gauge that tells me I’m out of gas.  It’s surrounded by buttons for the electric doors, electric windows, automatic air conditioning, 3 airbags (which we never want to use), even an “openometer” to tell me how long the convertible has been open.  So what’s the point?  I can drive without any of these features, but to fully operate the car and maximize the experience, I need to manage all of these instruments and features.  Only then can I gain full utilization of the machine.  Someone who drove a Cooper in 1959 would absolutely feel at home in the new car, with its familiar features.  But in many ways, that familiarity would blind him to the marvels of the new technology, and prevent him from recognizing the capabilities of the newer tools.  They would only realize half of the experience.

So how does this relate to eCommerce business?  As the operator of a store, all you really need are the basics that merchants have had forever:  merchandise to sell, a way to take money, and a way to deliver the goods.  Eventually, with the assistance of big brother Google, you will be found, and you will probably sell something.  But how do you truly optimize your efforts?  You need to become aware of all the instruments and tools which surround you, and how to use them.  You need to learn both the internal widgits, such as comparison features, add-ons etc., but also all of the tools that can extend your reach into the internet.  You need to grow beyond the familiar, and embrace the entropy of all the new tools that your competitors are using to be found!  But you also need to take a holistic approach, and build on your own skills.  The ultimate winner is the merchant who can leverage  the “best practices” of the new social media tools and eCommerce techniques to build on what their years of experience has taught them in their gut.  To do this successfully often requires some coaching, passionate debates on what might work, but ultimately taking calculated risks based on the expertise that you surround yourself with.  Often, you need a guide or coach to help you see what’s new around you.  Don’t be afraid of what they can show you.  Only by embracing these new capabilities, but still keeping your hand on the wheel, can you hope to explore new ways to grow your business, and become the best in your field.