Affiliate Online Marketing

Affiliate Online MarketingDespite all the hype about the Web's potential for customer acquisition, some marketers have struggled with affiliate marketing, or link referral, programs. In fact, online marketers rated affiliate marketing only a "somewhat effective" method of attracting new customers, according to the Direct Marketing Association's "State of the Interactive eCommerce Marketing Industry Report 2000: Emerging Trends and Business Practices," released in September.

But as with any business partnership, the level of effectiveness depends on what types of affiliate marketing programs catalogers are implementing and how efficiently they are executing them. What's more, while an affiliate program may not lead to an immediate boost in sales, it could increase brand awareness that may pay off down the road.

Basically, if another Website features a link to your online catalog, you are participating in an affiliate marketing program. With one type of affiliate program, an Internet cataloger works directly with the other Websites--typically portals such as Yahoo!, America Online, and Excite or noncompeting, complementary sites--that are posting the links. The second type requires Web marketers to go through a third party, such as Linkshare or, which acts as a liaison between Websites looking to host links and sites eager for affiliate partners.

Programs in action

Medford, OR-based food, gifts, and plants multititle cataloger Bear Creek Corp., whose books include Harry and David, has participated in affiliate marketing programs for two years. "We have relationships with all the major portals and online shopping venues, such as CatalogCity, Amazon,, and Yahoo!," says Ken Wells, senior vice president of e-commerce for Bear Creek. Wells won't disclose what percentage of Bear Creek's online sales are generated by affiliate marketing, but, he says, "By linking up with high-traffic portals, we're able to expand our brand online."

Bear Creek compensates portal affiliates on a pay-per-performance basis--in other words, it pays the link host a commission on all sales generated by customers who came to the site via that link. Other methods of payment might include cost per click, in which linked sites pay their affiliates for each click generated by the link. "We'd prefer to do revenue shares on actual [sales] performance as opposed to cost per click," Wells says, since the latter method could be unprofitable if most of those click-throughs don't generate sales.

The average commission of a pay-per-performance arrangement is 5% of gross sales, says Lisa Wolff, vice president of business development for Seattle-based, a company that pairs up potential affiliates. And it doesn't pay to skimp on commissions or underreport the sales generated by the link, Wolff warns. "Affiliates might think they're not getting such a good deal, so they might not work very hard at promoting the site," she says. For instance, they may post the link in an out-of-the-way location on the site.

Choosing the right partner

The key to successful affiliate marketing is finding Websites that understand consumer direct marketing, says Bear Creek's Wells. "We're very concerned about protecting our brand, so it's important for us to make sure our affiliate partners are credible, noncompeting sites," he adds

Bear Creek has received inquiries from about 2,000 sites interested in offering a link to its Websites; the company went with about half of the sites. While Wells won't disclose the criteria for choosing affiliates, he does say, "We wanted to make sure our brand wasn't associated with something weird" or linked to a site that was offensive or irrelevant to Bear Creek customers.

In fact, finding an affiliate partner whose site complements--or at least appeals to--one's own has proved to be a challenge for some catalogers. That's one reason gifts cataloger The Black Dog doesn't participate in affiliate marketing with other merchants.

"We haven't talked to any prospective affiliate marketers that we felt really fit our site," says Black Dog founder Elaine Sullivan. "And since there are no affiliates that we are really excited about, we haven't posted any links on our site yet. We're a small company that likes to have control over everything that we do. We've talked to Catalog City and others about launching an affiliate program, but for now we prefer to do our thing our way."

But that hasn't stopped The Black Dog from joining forces with noncataloging affiliates. Sullivan says her Vineyard Haven, MA-based company plans to post a link to the Website of the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), a nonprofit group that trains guide dogs. NEADS posted a link to The Black Dog's site when it launched this past May.