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Seven Secrets of Successful Affiliates

The universe of affiliates divides cleanly into two camps: winners and losers. The winners receive checks for hundreds or thousands of dollars each quarter; the losers find their mailboxes empty. And the truth is, the losers outnumber the winners by a large margin.

By meeting with affiliate program managers, makers of affiliate-tracking software and owners of Web sites great and small, I have discovered what determines whether a given affiliate will be a winner or a loser. By applying these seven secrets, any content site can maximize its return from participating in affiliate commerce:

Secret No. 1 — Feature merchants you trust. It doesn’t matter whether a program offers sales commissions as high as 25 percent if no purchases are ever generated. Remember, online shoppers are very reluctant to give their credit card number to unfamiliar businesses. Affiliate schemes that claim to help content sites keep customers’ eyeballs, take the transaction and “be the merchant” suffer from a critical flaw — hardly anyone actually buys from them. Include only products from merchants that have earned your trust and made you a satisfied customer. After all, if a merchant is not good enough for you, how could it possibly be good enough for your audience?

Secret No. 2. — Focus on relevance. Ultimately, the only way sites create value from affiliate commerce is by truly helping their audience find relevant products. Your audience should be thinking about you as an expert on the topic that makes your site unique. They should not (and will not) think of you as a general-purpose shopping destination. If your site is for Camaro enthusiasts, the products you link to should be tightly related to Camaros, not about all things mechanical, automotive or sporting. Successful affiliates do not cut corners with canned store solutions. They invest their time with the storefront programs and merchants that let them select or reject specific products, based on how good a fit they are for the site’s content and audience. Note: Taking this a step further by writing a recommendation or review for a product you feature can boost click-through by an factor of 10.

Secret No. 3. — It’s all about the product. There are two kinds of affiliate links – those that recommend a product and those that boost a merchant’s brand. Merchants tend to like the brand buttons quite a bit, even though they generate very low click-through. Why? Because they provide free advertising for their brand. Successful affiliates never surrender their valuable real estate for such unpaid ads. Instead, they work with programs that allow them to make product-specific buttons and links. Contextualized product placements generate click-throughs as high as 10 percent — and drive the majority of affiliate commerce transactions.

Secret No. 4. — Presentation matters. Until recently, creating a compelling product placement required a great deal of effort and technical knowledge. In recent months, various programs have begun to offer automated link generation. Output from such systems varies greatly, from text-only links to well-crafted combinations of product image, description and link. Successful affiliates make sure that the products they promote are displayed on their site in the most compelling way possible.

Secret No. 5. — Keep your expectations in line with your traffic. No matter how good a job you do of picking merchants and products, your success as an affiliate will be correlated directly with the volume of traffic at your site. Don’t lose sight of the things you need to do to attract, inform and entertain your audience. Without the content, there is no commerce.

Secret No. 6. — Don’t worry about losing your traffic. For a content site, the key to making money — whether from advertising or affiliate commerce — is to be compensated fairly for giving access to your audience. All those ads on Yahoo, for example, work only because people do click on them and leave the portal. Successful affiliates embrace the “traffic economy” and actively use the inclusion of topical products to make their site stickier. A Nascar content site that promotes the Nascar Barbie Doll from eToys may not be the place a visitor will return for future toy shopping in general, but it should be the place to return for Nascar-related toys, books, videos, software and, yes, refrigerator magnets.

Secret No. 7. — Learn by trial and error. Although a site owner can easily identify the products relevant to its content, it is still hard to know which specific items will sell best. In the world of affiliate commerce, there is no substitute for experimentation. Try different merchants, products and methods of promotion. Successful affiliates learn from their mistakes, becoming more effective over time at driving transactions and earning commissions.

These seven secrets can help you realize the affiliate commerce potential of your site. In particular, I hope they enable you to focus on the things that will maximize your commissions and the stickiness of your site — and avoid the pitfalls encountered by the majority of affiliates today. I leave you with one thought in closing:

Clearly, being a successful affiliate requires creativity and hard work. I believe affiliates deserve better tools — for finding relevant products, for creating effective product links and for making frequent changes to their product and merchant mix. In return for your investment in affiliate commerce, you should demand the programs provide you the features that will put at your command these seven secrets of successful affiliates.

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