Where To Start If You Want To Be An Affilate Marketer In The Retail Sphere
Affiliate websites are often categorized by merchants (advertisers) and affiliate networks. There are currently no industry-wide standards for the categorization. The following types of websites, portals and search engines are generic, yet are commonly understood and used by retailers when they want to be an affiliate marketer. The key in creating and managing an effective affiliate marketing program is to evaluate, choose, test and optimize the general area and affiliate choices in those areas. Here are a few of the key sources of websites that can enable a merchant to be an affiliate marketer.
Individual Websites That Wish To Be An Affiliate
Asking website owners to resell your product is in effect the cornerstone of any affiliate marketing program.
However, this concept is fading fast in light of all of the variations in reaching those site owners and managing the relationship with approaches like affiliate networks, comparison shopping sites and marketplaces (see below). Yet, there is still likely room in any eCommerce affiliate management program to recruit relevant and hopefully high production individual sites. As in all programs, making sure the site's visitors fit the target profile of your valued customers is a key element. There are various ways to evaluate this. (The starting point is typically entering your product category search terms into a search engine and looking for non-competitive sites. Using services like Compete.com, Quantcast, SEM Rush and Alexa can provide insight into traffic levels for the site.) Those sites who accept some form of third party advertising (such as Google Adwords) are often open to running direct ads from other marketers. Further evaluation of the reputation of the site and its dealings with its users is an important step by:
- Discounting often negative content areas (i.e. pornography)
- Potentially contentious positions held by the website (such as political viewpoints)
- Poor business practices (as reported on review sites, marketplaces and sometimes with the Better Business Bureau)
- Poor support or merchandising or dishonest practices like click fraud (sometimes can be gained by contacting other advertisers on the site)
At times, sites that haven't considered whether to be an affiliate or not (i.e. non-profits, or even educational outlets) can turn into valued partners. But be prepared for a lot of education along the way in exchange for lower competition and potentially lower costs. A key advantage of this type of site is their acceptance of a pay-per-action or commission arrangement which lowers costs and risk on the affiliate manager/retailer's part.
Affiliate Networks Made Up Of Many Individual Sites Wanting To Be An Affiliate
This is the increasingly common choice for merchants who wish to engage in "scalable" affiliate activity. While at their core, they are "aggregators" of individual websites, many of these networks increasingly offer value added services such as product feed management, promotions, email marketing, analytics and tools. While the main advantage of many of these networks over other affiliate types is the high level of commission-based payment models, there are other value they add including:
1. Collecting individual website owner interest by profiling various merchant offers including the commission levels, popularity and performance
2. Providing a single point of registration and administration for the "downstream" affiliates they host
3. Creating analytical and management tools for the entire network from a single location
4. Preventing and resolving disputes through their rules, policies and transaction management
Some of the more popular networks include:
Comparison shopping websites
Most eCommerce marketers have looked into product/price comparison sites like NexTag, Pronto, Shopzilla, Shopping.com, PriceGrabber, Shop.com, etc. These high traffic destination sites act like mini-search engines and directories for those wishing to quickly compare prices and terms of a particular product. But the generally higher traffic than a stand alone site comes at a cost: While some of these "comparison engines" will offer a commission-based system, most are pay-per-click or pay per impression schemes which in effect compete with the more general search engines like Google and Bing. If the pay-per-click fees versus the sales conversions gained work, then these approaches can be good returns on investment for you (not just the website that wants to be an affiliate). But as with pay-per-click management, many require continuous testing and optimizing. Since the key optimization points on these sites are based on price and shipping terms (since the advertiser has very little control over presentation, search terms, and sometimes product descriptions), as their main job is to allow quick comparisons.
Still, it isn't that the lowest price always wins here. Many consumers will evaluate store reputation as well as price. This is where a good customer relations and review program can make the difference between profit and loss. (There are a few companies who offer tools for managing reviews across many platforms.) Some of these sites are merely referrals (i.e. shop.com), while others complete the entire sale on their site (i.e. Nextag.com).
There are a few FREE product comparison platforms, most notably Google Product Search, Bing Shopping and TheFind. These, as with the paid engines, must be "fed" product updates including prices on a regular basis. Using a shopping cart like UltraCart, which enables an interface to automatically update your products and control pricing, shipping, and other terms will likely be important if your product base changes or even if there is significant price competition in your segment. Many of these engines will offer premium position or advertising emphasis for added cost. This allows you to gage, on the optimization side, whether various changes in position, pricing and other parameters have any effect on conversion rates and overall return on investment.
A more involved version of a product comparison site would be a true "marketplace" as famously represented by Amazon.com and perhaps eBay (the current trend toward "buy it now" and "make an offer" represent a departure from a pure auction site into the realm of marketplace for many retailers). Clearly working in these environments, which in effect substitute your site and shopping cart for their "marketplace" can be both a boon and a bust proposition - depending on the amount of control a merchant requires to thrive versus the price they are willing to pay. Most notably, listing/display fees, commissions, fulfillment costs and other fees may add up to quite a bite in the merchants normal profit structure. Conversely, many of these marketplaces (to which we should add Sears.com and NewEgg.com) are playing an increasing role as mediators between buyer and seller. To be absent may make a retailer's volume potential shrink. For those wishing to manage these networks along with their "direct" business, many shopping carts (like UltraCart) offer tools to interface orders between the sites and your fulfillment house and/or warehouse and can update pricing, inventory and other items without handling each integration separately.
Loyalty, Coupon, Rebate And Other Incentive Websites
While there are an increasing number of formats for these types of sites that are candidates to be an affiliate marketing source, they may fall into one of these categories:
Cash Back Websites
A variation of a reward website, cashback sites usually pay a rebate back to the consumer after the purchase is made. It may also be coupled with other required actions to earn the cash back as noted in the general rewards above. Sometimes a minimum purchase amount is set before the cash back is triggered in order to spur repeat sales. Cashback rewards can also be used for other activities such as referrals, review creation, etc. Vouchers can often be substituted for cash, in effect increasing loyalty.
The cashback or rewards website that wants to act as or be an affilliate typically will get a commission or override provided by the merchant once the incentive is performed by the user (purchase, trial, referral, etc.) Users can also be presented with other incentives such as coupons, in lieu of cash. (ebates.com is an example of a site that offers monetary rewards based on purchases. An example of a site that rewards users with cash for submitting content is epinions.com which also fits in the following category of "Product Review sites".)
Product Review Sites
While this category of affiliate marketing website is blurring a bit since just about every web retailer offers on site reviews (most notably Amazon.com), there are a few sites whose main mission is reviews "first". Perhaps the most famous of these is epinions.com. However, there are others in both the general and product specific arenas like:
These sites work off of the the phenomenon known as "social proof" where we are likely to do something that someone else does. (Ever see a group of pedestrians wait dutifully at a red light to change to green before crossing even when there's no traffic, then quickly follow after one of them decides to cross?) In practice, no one wants to have a bad product experience, so products and the merchants who sell them either benefit or suffer from good or bad reviews respectively.
Sites can either contain staff reviews (i.e. Consumer Reports) or user submitted reviews or both. As noted above, there are tools for managing reviews (although obvious tainted reviews are not considered to be an ethical component), but beyond that, most sites do offer some type of product linkage to an advertiser/merchant offering that product for a fee. Payment types can include pay per click or commission based models. Backend review of cost (and time) versus return on investment is a key element to these programs as well.
One concept that can be tried is to link to a particular review from a merchant website, although in practice this moves the potential buyer away, not a rewarding approach. (We have not yet seen merchants copy and credit reviews from these sites, but this would seem to be an option.) Results of various studies have shown great influence by consumers from these sites, so they promise to be an affiliate lead source of increasing importance. As a companion to this, expected growth is also in "fake" product review sites that are in effect merely advertiser published or non-user, non-tester reviewed sites. Consumers may fall prey to these intially, but are likely not to trust in the long run so dealing with them as affiliates may not be wise.