Design & Publishing . / . WEB . / . Tips & Tricks . / . Shopping for Associate Programs

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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 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 site.
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 the kits.
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 a month.
. . . 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 network.
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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