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Right before I started this site, I was the Director of Business Development for Socrates.com , managing among other things their affiliate program. Socrates sells business forms - the most unsexy, boring and ho-hum products on the planet (ok, maybe not that bad, but bad nonetheless).
But this was my first introduction to affiliate marketing - and learning it from the merchant side of things was a rare and fantastic opportunity. I was able to analyze each affiliate site knowing which ones were doing well, and which ones weren’t selling a thing.
What was interesting to me was that high volumes of traffic was absolutely NOT an absolute indicator of success - in fact, some of our partners with an Alexa rank in the top 1000 sites didn’t do as well as some of our partners with an Alexa in the 40K - 60K range.
Even targeting the right niche audience wasn’t enough - affiliate success depended on the context:
- Where the ad was placed on the site
- What was on the rest of the page
- What was on the rest of the site
- Who was promoting our products
- How the site was steering readers to the ad from the home page
- How the site was building traffic
- And most importantly, how the site was pre-selling our product to potential customers, which is really a combination of all of the above.
We had some great successes and some great flops. Here are the lessons we learned that will help you understand what contributes to success in affiliate marketing.
Pre-selling the Product
This isn’t just a testimonial or review. It comes down to why are your site visitors at your site in the first place. Socrates has an entire line of Do it Yourself Landlord products - and you might think that our ads on the About.com Real Estate Investing section would do well. In fact, I think we sold ONE product over the course of several months.
Why? Because our ads were placed in areas of the site in which site visitors were expecting FREE advice and resources. It didn’t matter that the About.com editor loved our stuff.
Lesson Learned: An affiliate marketer needs to present an offer to the right people, in the right place, at the right time. It is also up to the merchant to carefully screen where ads are placed and work with affiliates to ensure the right message is sent. A lead generation program would have been a better fit for About.com, but our business at the time wasn’t set up to market that way.
Choosing the Right Affiliate Offers and Partners
We had another partner who had the right audience - real estate investors who were looking to pay for advice and resources. We invested thousands of dollars and hours into building out a microsite for this partner. Although this site sold thousands of dollars worth of products, we thought it would sell HUNDREDS of thousands. It didn’t.
Why? The site author made $3-$10 off of one of our products. Other offers made him $50-$150. Guess which products got the most attention? Not ours. He refused to integrate our products into the product navigation system, and simply threw up a couple of links to our microsite. It was a hard lesson for us to learn.
Lesson Learned: Carefully analyze what products you are promoting, and build a relationship with that merchant. Affiliate Marketing works best when both parties are invested in a successful campaign.
Steering a Site Visitor to an Offer
Our best affiliate partner was ForSaleByOwner.com. These people converted visitors to customers from DAY ONE. They had the right audience - people who were willing to pay. They were a great partner - we worked hand in hand cross promoting to each other’s customers, which were extremely complimentary. Our products added value to their site, and vice versa - it was a perfect offer.
We hand selected relevant products and put them on a page that was ONE CLICK away from the home page. The page was set up with Buy Now buttons that landed our products into a shopping cart within FOUR clicks.
Lesson Learned: This combination of being in front of people who needed our products, at a time when they needed them the most while making it easy for people to buy, created a hugely profitable partnership that is still generating revenue today with very little maintenance.
This all may seem a little daunting for the person just getting started with affiliate marketing. There is a lot of competition out there. But I reviewed thousands of sites seeking to promote our products through Commission Junction and here’s the good news: There are MOSTLY REALLY CRAPPY affiliate sites out there, which means that if you even do a halfway decent job of putting together an affiliate offer, you will be head and shoulders above most of your competition.