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Spread the word, Web-wide

Getting paid to share information at your Web site. Business Advisor hed: Spread the word, Web-wide dek: getting paid to share information at your Web site. by Matt Lake

The trouble with the modern business world is that it relies on secrecy. Nondisclosure agreements, paranoid management, and predatory competition all melt together into a conspiracy of silence. I prefer telling clients everything–where they can get the best deals and the best service, even if the recommendation benefits my competition instead of me directly. Perhaps I’ve watched “Miracle on 34th Street” one too many times.

But that’s why I’m in favor of Web affiliate programs–in theory, at least. Affiliate marketing works a little like a cab driver who takes tourists to particular hot spots in return for a kickback from the bartender. Online, it means that you get a small referral fee or a percentage of the sales generated from your Web site. Does that sound in poor taste? It can be if you push Web sites on your customers indiscriminately-a phenomenon that results in ghastly Web pages full of blinking ads that make the Las Vegas strip look tastefully restrained.

But when used judiciously–to promote companies that complement your business–affiliate banner advertising (or text links) are a great way of keeping your customers better educated about what’s available to them online. And the small income you can accrue from referral fees won’t pay all your company’s bills, but it can add up to a pleasant surprise at the end of the month.

For the past 12 months I’ve been exploring a few programs administered by individual sites, but I’ve found that affiliate networks are a more efficient way to go. The big four affiliate networks are Commission Junction, Microsoft’s Revenue Avenue,, and ClickTrade, all of which have healthy rosters of clients looking for referrals. That’s the good news. The bad new is that there’s absolutely no overlap, so to ensure that you line up the best roster of affiliate deals, you need to explore all four.

Signing up 101

Affiliate referral networks are businesses that expect your Web site to be a business, too. They don’t have to be big commercial ventures, but all four big affiliate networks require a degree of professionalism. You don’t need to have your own Web domain, but a developed Web site is a must, and some networks impose other requirements, too. They won’t allow you to join if your site contains content they don’t like (standards vary, but adult material and copyright-breaking content are generally grounds for dismissal). And you may be restricted in where you post affiliate links-many forbid posting affiliate links on message boards or in chat rooms, for example.

When you sign up, you will be asked to submit your site’s Web address for review, and to estimate your daily or weekly traffic. And at some point, you will be required to enter tax information-your tax classification (individual or business) and taxpayer ID (or social security number for individuals). And naturally, your real name and address are necessary for the checks you’re hoping to earn.

What’s your function?

Commission Junction is the easiest of the four sites to navigate and use, and it has a huge roster of merchants with which to affiliate. Over the months, though, it has also proved one of the slowest sites I’ve evaluated. While it’s never failed to track sales, the reporting site (where you go to check on your account) is often closed for maintenance, and it tends to be sluggish when it is working (sometimes because of its overuse of graphics and a complex page design).

On the plus side, it’s a breeze to navigate–you pick merchants by clicking through directory categories or searching for key words. Some of the more prominent merchants are [email protected], NextCard Visa, and CapitalOne, but there’s something here for all interests (more or less). If you find a merchant you like, you can find similar sites by clicking a link at the bottom of the merchant’s profile. There’s a convenient message center that handles e-mail broadcasts from merchants to their clients, and which includes new merchant announcements, too. While some of these degenerate into tacky self-promotion, many are quite restrained. To sign up, you follow a link in the merchant’s message or profile and apply. Many merchants accept your application immediately; some want to review your site beforehand. I’ve fielded some rejections from picky merchants, but in general the process goes smoothly from application to acceptance.

Once accepted, you check out the banner advertising and text links on offer until you find one you can live with. Unfortunately, too many ads involve blinking or scrolling or some kind of animation-which make for very ugly Web pages-but almost every site also has text links, too. Once you’ve picked a link, you paste the HTML code (which contains your site’s unique ID) into your Web pages, publish them, and wait.

Every time you log in to Commission Junction’s site, you see the balance of your account on display, along with a breakdown of impressions (the number of times your links have been seen), click-throughs, and the leads and sales generated. The site uses cookies that expire after 45 days to track whether your site leads to a sale after the first couple of visits–and payments are made around the 20th of every month when you’ve earned $25 or more.

Some of the nicer touches include CJ University (a series of tutorials about making the most of affiliate marketing), and Smart Zones that let you create ad link rotations. Analysis tools for figuring out which ads and sites generate the best revenue include a pretty sophisticated query tool, tabular results, and the ability to create CSV files of any query–which you can download and manipulate in Excel or a database program.

Thanks for sharing

LinkShare is a more select version of Commission Junction–it has a smaller but generally more upscale list of merchants (think Dell, Disney, and L.L. Bean), but works in similar ways. You can select merchants by searching or browsing lists, then copy custom HTML code to embed in your own Web site to create banner ads or text links. You can also copy code into e-mail messages to your customers.

When people start following these links, LinkShare begins tracking, and whenever you log in to its site, you can see which merchant links (or product links) are appealing to your customers. Of the reporting options, a sales and activity report and link-analysis report provide some great insights into your customers’ behavior-and the product success report shows you what your demographic group considers hot stuff. You can even get a report on the days or even hours when your site’s visitors are flocking away from your site. All told, though LinkShare is a little harder to use, it’s a generally more responsive site, and its built-in reporting system is much better than Commission Junction’s.

Easy street it’s not

For a company that puts such stock in its usability testing, Microsoft hit a bum note with the affiliate network attached to BCentral. Revenue Avenue is a bear to log in to and navigate. Its pages are poorly designed, too-the weekly activity list is embedded in its own scrolling pane in the middle of the home page.

That said, Revenue Avenue does provide access to some good merchants, eBay and among them. And BCentral’s services are much more varied than those of other networks; it includes the ability to build a site if you don’t have one, to build traffic with the Banner Exchange and ClickTrade networks, and to build an e-mail list with ListBot.

If it wasn’t for the merchants at the site, I’d drop it in an instant, though. Sites this confusing don’t deserve to have good clients.

Report this is an international site–available in Spanish, German, French, Italian, Dutch, and Swedish-and with a smattering of really high-profile merchants including IBM, Sprint, and Kinko’s. It provides a special URL to each of its clients, which makes it easy to check on the performance of select merchants. And its design and content are much more restrained than most. More than any, this site makes affiliate marketing seem respectable-not like a hustling cabbie tricking his clients into visiting a dive.

But in the long run, it’s not the features or the design of an affiliate network site that count. Your profits depend on how well matched your site’s visitors are to the merchants with whom you affiliate. You won’t make a bean if your site isn’t a good match for what the merchant’s selling. And you may lose the good faith of your customers if the merchant’s site is poorly designed.

In the end, the content is what counts–not the network that handles the tracking and payments. But it’s certainly nice when that network works like Commission Junction.

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