Remember when the promise of the Internet, and affiliate programs in particular, was finding niche Web sites with extremely targeted traffic?
While that promise still holds, the means for reaching those users are tenuous. Many affiliate programs based on cost-per-click (CPC) programs try, but fail, to penetrate niche markets and, instead, generate volumes of worthless, possibly fraudulent, traffic.
Case in Point
I recently interviewed Jessica Linker, an affiliate marketing coordinator who shared her challenging CPC experience with RollingStone.com’s affiliate program.
Back in 2000, RollingStone.com’s affiliate traffic came primarily from incentive-based sites and reward sites giving unqualified clicks. That obviously wasn’t the goal, but the affiliates that really generated traffic were motivated by, and interested in, revenue for clicks — not sending over qualified traffic.
The program ran into the typical CPC affiliate program problem: lots of traffic sent, but not quality traffic. Paying for traffic like that was not making sense. At the end of 2000, RollingStone.com started a new approach to its affiliate program. Instead of paying affiliates for clicks, it shared content through its new affiliate program.
The content became the incentive — the payment, so to speak — creating an affiliate program for true music fans. Instead of focusing on professional affiliates sending volumes of clicks, RollingStone.com focused on niche music sites with passionate fans.
This became an affiliate program powered by content instead of payment per click. The traffic continues to come at a high pace, but now it is qualified traffic, and it is literally an exchange of content for clicks.
All the content is dynamically updated; with a “My Favorite Artist” element, a user can type in “U2,” for example, and get the newest U2 photos, articles, reviews, and more updated automatically on his or her site. You can check out some of the top affiliates here.
Q&A With Jessica Linker
What is, briefly, the history of your affiliate program?
Our original affiliate program, called Steal Our Sites, was launched in early 1999. Back then, our company ran a network of music content sites, and the goal behind our affiliate program was to drive traffic to each of our respective properties by offering pay-per-click incentives to affiliates.
While each of the affiliate elements was branded separately and reflected the personality of each of our sites, they all shared the same platform and functionality. Several employees collaborated to develop the program, and we partnered with Be Free to manage the back-end tracking/reporting and administration of payment to affiliates.
How did you initially promote your affiliate program?
Steal Our Sites was initially promoted internally to our existing user base through banner ads across our various sites. We primarily recruited affiliates on our own, through each of our respective sites, but we also had some affiliates learn about us through Be Free.
How successful were the results compared with your initial estimates of how well it would perform?
I think we were pleased with the aggregate level of traffic the affiliate program brought us, although it came at a large price. Eventually, when the Internet bubble burst and spending came down to more rational levels, we were forced to evaluate all of our marketing channels. What we discovered is [that] while a small number of affiliates were sending us a majority of clicks, these users were not “quality” users.
We call them “one-click wonders,” a user who clicks to earn his payment, then leaves. In general, these affiliates were not viewing multiple pages, spending time on our site, or returning for multiple sessions. So, near the end of 2000, we pulled the plug on Steal Our Sites.
What made you decide to use content as a traffic generator through the affiliate program? What was the reaction of your affiliates to this change?
At the end of the day, content is always what’s going to generate the most amount of traffic for us, whether it’s through the affiliate program or through other channels. Because of the incredible brand equity of “Rolling Stone,” and because we’re sharing content with affiliates and updating it dynamically, it’s been a fairly easy sell. Of course, we’ve had the most success with those sites with an affinity for music and pop culture and the least amount of success with affiliates only interested in monetary compensation.
How would you rank this program compared with what you have tried in the past?
Compared with what we tried in the past, this new affiliate program is bringing us higher-quality visitors who are spending more time on our site, viewing more pages, and coming back for repeat sessions. We’ve also seen over 100 percent monthly growth in traffic since launching in April. We’re very encouraged by these numbers, as well as the feedback we’ve received from our affiliates, and look forward to much greater success in the future.
RollingStone.com took a costly CPC affiliate program and inserted valuable content in exchange for targeted traffic. By removing the cost of a per-click program, and the endless fraud enforcement, it got better traffic with qualified clicks from motivated affiliates using good content as the “payment” for space on their Web sites.
It also improved its return on investment (ROI) by reducing the cost of clicks and the upkeep costs of an affiliate program. The results show the value of an affiliate strategy based on niche, passionate audiences, such as music, instead of CPC-driven affiliates who know how to manipulate the traffic.
In my next article I’ll share how a similar affiliate approach is being used by a nonprofit educational site to fund its mission.