Cast A Wide Web

If you want to see how technology is changing the way we market, you don’t have to look much farther than your local, low-budget fan site.

At one point, movie or music fan homepages were usually little more than portfolios of copyright-violating, hastily-scanned pictures, film clips, or pirated music snippets. Usually constructed on the energy of one lone person’s obsession with stardom or fame, most probably served a community of 10 or 12 other fans (who usually happened to be members of the webmaster’s immediate family or close, sympathetic friends).

But no more. These days, most fan sites still wouldn’t win any design awards. But many have moved from being simple adoration sites to budding e-businesses of their own, selling everything from books about the object of attention to CDs of their music, to all the other merchandise that comes with the territory.

Many rabid fans who once sunk untold hours into creating sites with little hope of any financial gain now enjoy a trickle of money that might not make them rich, but does help grease the skids of further development.

How do they do it? Affiliate programs.

Affiliate programs allow any e-tailer to extend their reach to thousands of other sites by forging direct links between merchandise or services offered on other sites to their own sales technology. In most affiliate programs, a web site owner — any web site owner — signs up on the main merchant’s site, receives some simple instructions via email on how to hook in, inserts a few lines of code into his site, and in a flash, he’s become a budding ecommerce mogul. Once a user clicks on an affiliate link and purchases something, a percentage of that amount is credited to the affiliate’s account, and it receives a check in the mail.

Simple, painless, automated and changing the way we think about marketing and sales.

The brilliance of the affiliate concept is that it wraps both sales and marketing into one neat package that takes advantage of the unique capabilities of the web. First, by distributing its presence across the web via affiliate programs, a site lowers its new customer acquisition cost dramatically and at zero risk: If no sales are made, no commission is given.

Secondly, by allowing other sites to sell for it, it casts a wide web (pun intended) of new sales channels that it doesn’t have to pay anything to maintain (except for the commission).

Finally, it builds brand through exposure.

By linking commerce to community, affiliate sales programs are seen as services by fan site visitors, not as crass commercials (as banners are often seen). Of course you’d want to buy that Britney Spears CD if you were on a fan site, right? Having a list of obscure books (available on Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com) is seen as helping your like-minded visitors, not as selling to them.

Affiliate programs have also expanded to include traffic-expanding link programs that don’t sell merchandise but rather, provide content to other sites. These distributed content programs usually provide an affiliate with a link to the larger site’s database of content that might be of interest to visitors of the affiliate.

One great example of this is the Tunes.com “Steal our Site” program, which allows the affiliates to provide content searches, music news, or even games to their visitors, paying a commission for click-throughs to the larger Tunes.com site.

Any site or online merchant who’s providing unique goods, services, or information ought to be taking advantage of affiliate programs to expand sales channels, presence, and brand.

So how do you or your clients get into the affiliate game? All you need is the right software.

Right now, the two biggest vendors of affiliate program software are BeFree and LinkShare. Both offer the transaction software necessary to manage and administer your affiliate programs, and both provide affiliate outreach programs in order to help drive affiliates to your sites.

In addition, both vendors offer sites that allow affiliates to sign up for your program and view reports to show how the program is working for them. Oh, and both take a cut of your revenues.

One of the main differences between the two services is that LinkShare uses a branded network (the LinkShare Network) to match merchants with affiliates, and BeFree delivers a private label network. LinkShare now offers a private label network, but not as a basic service.

BeFree has also been moving forward on expanding channels through new software offerings. They recently released their B-INTOUCH service which allows merchants to offer affiliate program benefits via email links. This capability provides a real boon to permission email marketers who want to be able to sell as well as promote their products via email sales channels.

Which one should you use? It really depends on your needs and the breadth of offerings you’ll need to provide. Check ’em both out and see how affiliate marketing technology can change the way you do e-business.

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