Disclaimer: This is not a promotion and this is not an endorsement of any particular associate program. My intent is not to explicitly market any particular good or service. Granted, I have signed up for the programs I mention, and I will get a kickback if you buy goods or services through my Web site. However, this is not what puts food on the table so please don't get the wrong impression. My primary goal is to give you a general usability evaluation of associate programs. So, let's move on with the the show.
An associate program can add significant value to your Web site. In fact, if you develop your site correctly, the usability of your site can be significantly enhanced by offering goods and services through your site as an associate. My analysis and (mostly informal) research of associate programs (also known as affiliate programs) reveals that the usability of the site can be significantly improved.
Before I go on, let me describe what 'associate program' means to you. The basic idea is that you set up a link or banner that leads a user to another site that offers something. Usually, you get paid when people buy something--you get a kickback. In most cases (but not all) the commerce site is selling things. Bookseller Amazon.com and software retailer Beyond.com are typical examples of companies that have affiliate programs. Again, if the user buys something from one of these commerce sites, you get a small commission (usually 5-20% of the purchase price). I am an affiliate with Amazon.com, as you might have noticed from my recommended books page.
There are other types of associate programs. For example, Web Cards is an associate program that pays affiliates $1 any time a user asks for a free sample of their product (yes, free). The product is actually rather interesting -- the Web Cards folks will take an image or a Web site and they will turn it into a postcard for you. So you see, as an associate, you earn $1 for offering something interesting to your users (particularly if they are interested in Internet promotions). The best part is that your users don't need to spend any money, yet you get a small fee. This still amazes me.
This leads me to an important point. Associate programs increase the usefulness of your site if they offer your users something that they want and need. Granted, you won't really increase the ease-of-use of your site, but you will aid your users. Perhaps they came to your site looking for a product you don't offer. Well, maybe an associate program would fill the hole. Also, you can increase users' satisfaction with your site if you are able to offer information (and goods) through your site. Similarly, I would claim that if your users can find what they want, your site will be more memorable. Since human memory is so bad, this is certainly good for your site in the long run.
Here is some very important usability advice: You must try very hard to make the associate program fit with the content of your Web site, or your users will not be happy. For example, if the focus of your site is 'Batman comic books', then you probably don't want to be an affiliate of 'Joe's exotic plant and flower company'.
Before I go on, let me explicitly point out a few reasons to join an associate program:
Before you consider joining, I want to point out that if you have a small site, you probably will not be able to earn a real living from one (or more) of these programs. In my experience, and based on several informal discussions, associate programs are really only going to give you some extra spending money (maybe a few hundred dollars per month). That is, unless you have a medium or large sized site (let's say for argument sake, 1000 hits per day). And, if you sell porn or if you promote violence, you won't be able to join these programs. So, if you are looking to make a killing but your site doesn't get a ton of traffic, please rethink your business strategy. Associate programs basically offer you a small, steady stream of income.
When you sign up with associate programs, they usually will ask you a few standard questions, such as your Web site's URL, your email address, and your postal address. They almost always ask for a corporate tax ID number or your social security number. Sometimes they ask you do describe your site. That is about it, they make it rather easy to sign up. They want you to sell their stuff as bad as you want to get that commission; everyone wants money.
The real difference comes after you sign up. Some programs are more flexible than others in certain respects. For example, Corey Rudl's Internet marketing associate program (found at marketingtips.com) is very liberal. He encourages you to set up your links and banners however you want.
Some programs are very good in helping you with the HTML. For example, eToys, like other good associate programs, sends you the necessary HTML tags in their emails. You don't have to change a thing -- it is a simple matter of cutting and pasting the code into your page(s). Thus, some programs are very usable on the 'back end'. This facet of associate program usability is critical. Trust me, you really want this support and this ease-of-use.
There are two basic ways to know how you are doing in terms of commissions: email or a Web page. Amazon.com uses a system whereby every week you get a listing of people that have visited them through your site. This is very simple and very usable. You only have to wait to get your statistics. Many programs offer a different (and perhaps better) means of tracking commissions. For example, both Web Cards and CarPrices.com give you Web access to your statistics. You simply plug the URL in and check out how you are doing (you usually need to use a user ID and password). Both of these reporting methods are effective. Let me offer up a heaping scoop of caution: If an affiliate program does not provide statistics, I would strongly recommend against partnering with them. You want to know how things are going. Also, this increases their integrity and their commitment to you as an affiliate.
In most cases, unless you are making big bucks, you will be waiting several months to get your first check. The cash will not roll in (at least not at first). The reason is that you usually need to make some minimum amount of money before they will cut a check to you. For example, technical bookseller Computer Literacy requires that you make $30 before they send you a check, whereas (officially) Amazon.com requires that you make $100 before the check is sent. For a small site this can take some time. Read the fine print when signing up or you run the risk of missing these things.
First, please, for the sake of everyone, go easy on the hype. No one likes big flashy banners. In fact, people really hate fat blinking things on pages. Most animated banners are annoying and distracting. If you must go with a banner, please try to make sure it looks professional and that it is small. Bandwidth is a major consideration. When in doubt, go with speed, not greed. A fast-loading, well-done banner is 1000 times better than a big ugly one.
Second, try to make sure that the program coheres with your users desires and needs. You don't always know what they want, so do some user testing. Send out a questionnaire to get the data. Run some tests. You will make more with 1 or 2 well thought out and well placed associate programs than you will with 5 or 6 that you just throw onto your site.
Third, when you can, embed your associate programs the right context; plan ahead to place links in appropriate content areas. That is, if you have a paragraph of information on some topic, put a link to the associate program in there. This approach gives your users the necessary context to make an informed decision. Also, this technique can save screen real estate since you won't have to dedicate space to an advertisement. If you had a promotion or marketing Web site, you might try something like this:
The example above--which actually will take you to Corey Rudl's site--can be many, many times more effective for you and your users than a banner or a generic link. However, in the case above, the hype is a bit over the top. (Although in my experience, Web marketing folks tend to really get excited.) Users really want content, so give it to them.
Fourth, be sure to visit the Web site of the associate program that you plan on joining. This might sound silly, but people tend to overlook these things. I recommend this for a simple reason. You need to evaluate the site in relation to what your users want and need. If there isn't a fit, I would recommend avoiding that associate program, there are many others.
Some programs are not as easy to set up as others. So, the usability on the back end, away from your users, can be very low. However, once running, these programs might be able to generate some decent cash. Indeed, what you offer might be of great interest to your users. For example, getting signed up as an associate for the online Utrade auction site was a bit tricky at first. You have to go through the "One-and-Only Network" parent site to signup. It can be overwhelming. However, most users love auctions so I signed up. So, poor usability of signup pages might not always deter you since you have an overall usability gain (i.e., they usefulness of the service outweighs the poor usability of signing up and maintaining of the program).
Some associate programs can be rather enticing for Webmasters. UTrade, which I mentioned just a moment ago, is a two-tier program. For example, if you were to join them as an associate, I would get a slice of your sales (but, this wouldn't cost you a dime). For you, the best part is that if new people joined through your site, you in turn would get kickbacks from their sales. It is a big pyramid that can be very useful and profitable for everyone, including your users.
As always, I strongly urge you to know your users. Know what kinds of things they want from your site. Then, you can build the content of your site around those things you want to sell or offer.
Remember, with all the programs available, you can offer almost anything -- free car quotes, free marketing postcards (Web Cards), access to an online auction. You can even send your users to the Internet News Bureau: For $225 they will announce your news or event to 1200 media outlets. If your users use the service, they should be happy...and so should you. This is win-win.
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