A number of readers have written to ask:
"What should I consider when evaluating an associate program?"
Glad you asked. This is a very hot topic these days, and it seems like everyone and
their brother is hitting the streets with an "associate" program. We've
had just as many people ask how to set up an associates program, so we'll be covering
that in an upcoming issue.
Looking At Associate Programs
Associate programs are a new-world version of an age-old selling arrangement called
repping. A rep differs from a 'dealer' in that the rep doesn't handle any money or
merchandise, but simply pitches a product or service to prospective buyers. If they
are successful "selling" them on buying the product, they then turn the
buyer over to the mother company to close the sale, collect the money, ship the product.
After the sale, hopefully, the rep gets a commission. Back in the '70s when we had
a large, active screen printing department we had a whole list of reps who hawked
our services far and wide. Some were good, and others not so good.
These types of programs are supposed to benefit both the parent company and the webmaster.
The company benefits by having a greater reach to potential customers. The webmaster
benefits by adding content to the site along with a source of income. Usually, the
webmaster adds a banner or a review of a product with a specially coded link. These
coded links contain an ID code of some kind which links you to your account at the
mother company, thereby allowing them to compute your commission.
Associate programs are now contributing to one of the fastest growing segments of
internet commerce -- and have been responsible for some real success stories like
Amazon.com. After all, Jeff Bezos would never have become the second richest man
in the world without 100,000 associate sites all hawking books. Sometimes these
programs are called "Affiliate" programs. They're basically all the same.
- Important considerations:
- Does it fit with your mission?
- Is the product or service a good match for your editorial, and web content mix?
Obviously, the Amazon program was perfect for the Design Center because our readers
are also interested in new books in the field.
. . . If a product strays very far from your content
platform, it becomes SPAM. I was recently in one of those trendy new "Design
Portal" web sites, and here came a blinking ad for long distance services. Instantly
I knew they weren't interested in me as a reader. All these prostitutes care about
is converting me into money. I'll bet that advertiser does very poorly in that web
- Does it cost anything?
- The program should offer you a free way to join without actually purchasing something.
If the site requires you to buy something, that's not altogether bad. I've bought
selling kits, or sample kits to become a "rep" or "associate"
of a vendor in the past. You need to read their information very carefully however
to make sure it's not just a plan to sell another unit.
. . . Some of the real estate time share or cosmetics
programs sell you an "Associates" kit for $25, then you put up the links
and never hear from them again. It turns out they're really in the business of selling
- Does the associate program share references?
- or addresses of other associates?
. . . You should contact other associate already in
the program to see if they have had any problems, and if they are getting what the
program promises. If the company doesn't list references, then just do a search for
the link terminology.
- How difficult is it to fulfill the requirements?
- Play with their linkology, and see how long it will take to offer the product
in your site. If it's just a search function, or the likes, it might be okay. But
if you link product by product you may spend more time on it than it's worth. Remember,
if it's worth something, you're going to have to put forth some work. Putting the
link there won't necessarily bring riches.
. . . We tested Barns & Nobel, and found their method
of linking unacceptable. Not only were their links difficult to articulate, but they
require an actual trip to their website. They also utilize an actual graphic file
to be called from your link that pings their server to track your customer. Every
time we tried to get help, we were met with canned auto responses, or ruthless spam.
(Imagine that: spammed by your own associate provider!) B&N is not nearly as
well implemented as Amazon. You should steer away from programs like this.
- How often will you receive a commission check?
- Most associate programs have a minimum amount they'll cut a check for. If this
is a high amount beware -- you may never get paid. Network Solutions Associate programs
is one such program. They base their performance on your selling 100 domain names
. . . That's ridiculous, and only a handful of ISPs
will come up with a minimum of $7,000 a month. Your 10% would be $700. Yet, judging
that it takes about 15 minutes, minimum of your time to do the registration, you're
talking 20 hours of work, and getting paid $3.50 per hour. Not a pretty sight. Another
associate program cuts a check once you hit a $150 dollar amount in commissions.
At Barnes & Nobel you'll have to sell well over $1,000 worth of books to make
the threshold. That's a lot of books.
- Do you get credited for secondary sales?
- If people come back in a month and then make a purchase, do you get credit?
. . . This would be the ideal situation. However most
don't work this way. As with Barns & Nobel, Amazon and most of the others, the
customer enters transactional phase when clicking on a product link in your site.
The ID code is attached to that buyer, and you get a commission if and only if they
actually purchase during that session. If they leave the site, and come back later,
no commission. Even if they buy the book you introduced them to.
They all claim to "follow" your customer around the site, and apply commissions
to the sales, even if it's not the product which was the target of the link. Only
you can decide if you trust their claims because there's no way to really know if
they do or not.
- Will they give you a reciprocal link, or branding?
- Dream on. They won't. Very few associate programs will custom brand the interface.
They require you turn the customer over to them. You have to decide if the work is
worth the returns. If you find one that does, tell us about it.
- Can you get around-the-clock help online or offline?
- This is very important. We've never been able to reach a human at Amazon in a
reasonable wait time on the phone. Their email response takes about 3 days. Barnes
& Nobel support is non existent as far as we could tell. (This was in the beginning
of their program. They may have improved.)
- Do they license you to utilize their sales material?
- Are you allowed to utilize links, banners, classified ads, sales letters, etc.?
This is very important! This is what we like best about Amazon. No strings attached
to the use of the materials. Many of the others we investigated recently ranged from
a "hands off" position, to actually asking you to pay for the materials.
Heck with that! Many of the popular shopping and "mall" programs won't
let you utilize their products, and you can only put a search field or "specials"
banner on your site.
- Do they send you progress reports?
- . . . or do they require that you visit a stats page in the website?
This too is very important. You've got more important things to do than go searching
for your sales data in their website. If they won't send it to you, then they're
probably configured to add your visit to their hit meter, and NOT set up to servicing
your individual account. If there's lots of spam on their site (like most of your
typical mall sites) then you'll burn up a lot of time trying to see how you're doing.
Did you think those free email schemes were really free?
- Do they offer customers all the ordering options?
- Some sites only accept charge cards, and then omit some cards. Some corporate
and education buyers can't use a charge card. So their sales would be blocked. Check
to see if they offer alternative ways of paying for the merchandise.
- Do they help you network with others?
- Do they offer a newsletter, news group, list serv, or other vehicles for communicating
with other associates, and keep you up to date on new programs?
This not only serves to keep you in the know about new products or special promotions,
but also serves to indicate that they are aggressively supporting their associate
- Further Thoughts
- I think if you ask these questions, and read their fine print, then you'll do
okay. Be sure to read all contracts, terms, and agreements very carefully. If you
don't understand them, don't ask them. Ask your own counsel. Remember: they're looking
out for themselves. We recently did a survey of some sixty ecommerce services providers.
More than HALF of them didn't disclose their paperwork until you had registered with
SSNs, bank account numbers, and other sensitive data. Many have such detailed and
verbose legal contracts that you're really not sure what you're agreeing to. One
we ran across had clauses that prevented you from doing anything. Period. Tell them
to go take a leap.
. . . Always remember that in all of these programs
are aimed at a single goal: to make money. You may have links on your site, to theirs,
sending hundreds of readers a day and not make a single commissionable sale from
any of them.
. . . But don't let that discourage you. Forewarned
is fore-armed. There are plenty of programs available -- good programs, too -- so
if the first one doesn't float your boat, then move on to the next. Keep looking
and you'll find associate programs that are perfect for you, your content mix and
your readers. Then and only then will you enjoy being part of an associate program.
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