Questions for Beth Kirsch, Audible’s Senior Marketing Manager

Beth Kirsch is one of the few interactive marketing execs to move up from the ranks of affiliate marketing, and she’s learned some fascinating lessons along the way.

Audible hired her late in 2003 to turn around its withering affiliate program, which at the time brought in less than one percent of revenue. By Q4, executives said it’s share was 10 percent.

Based on that success, Audible promoted Kirsch to run all its online marketing channels, and she now divides her time between the affiliate program, paid media, and search. She recently took out a half-hour to speak with ClickZ about the best uses of affiliate marketing, why it irks her that the channel has such a bad rap, and the role blogs have played in Audible’s affiliate success.

Q.Now that you manage all digital channels for Audible, what stands out about affiliate?

A.It’s the most high risk, high reward, high maintenance channel out there. Search is spread sheets, really boring. Natural search is interesting; it’s a puzzle. Paid media is tricky. You have to [get] your message right.

…Now that I own search, affiliates and paid media, [I can say] affiliate is the hard one… You have to go out there and pitch people to run you. You have to manage relationships. You have to deal with the back end. There are eight or 10 different types of affiliate business models. You have to figure out which ones are working for you and optimize those relationships. It’s very different from a paid media environment, where you say, “I’m going to pay you money, now run me.”

It annoys me that this channel has been beat up. There’s excessive negative rhetoric around this channel. This whole debate is spinning, and there’s nobody on the other side saying, “Wait a minute, sure there are problems, because it’s high risk and high reward. But [there are] sweet spots.” Emerging brands are a sweet spot in this channel. Once you’re big, you have a brand to manage. But ask Netflix or Ancestry.com. How much are they making? It’s huge.

It works really well for some advertisers. It’s our most cost-effective channel. It’s a huge channel or us.

Q.What’s fueled the negative rhetoric?

A.It was the first one to get dirty…[Now] all of online marketing’s dirty. Search is dirty. E-mail is dirty…

[And] people worked their way up to be marketing directors and marketing VP’s through paid media. I know a lot of affiliate managers, and I’m one of the few who took the next step up. Most people don’t. I think that’s a reflection of the channel and how it’s perceived. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you perceive that your affiliate marketing person is only going to respond to emails, you’re not going to move that person up.

Q.How’d it get dirty before the others?

A.While affiliate marketing’s called marketing, it’s really a sales channel. People are paid on performance. You have people who are honest and you have people who are going to push the envelope on what’s acceptable.

Everybody’s making money and there’s no control on what is acceptable behavior. Merchants started to look at this and said, “Wait a minute, I need to understand where the payments are coming from, how my brand is being represented and whether these sales are something I really deserve.”

This was coupled with the fact that a lot of people had inexperienced affiliate managers running affiliate programs. The fact is those managers now know how to leverage and mitigate those risks. They understand what it is to provide a really strong, healthy affiliate program.

What’s exciting to see is that both LinkShare and Commission Junction have recently stepped up to the plate and worked on making sure they’re getting affiliates who are questionable out of their networks. Both of them have recently kicked 180solutions out of their programs. I think that’s a huge step forward. It’s exciting to see. When I got here, I understood how to manage the rewards and mitigate the risks, and we would never have accepted someone like that in our affiliate program. It can be done right; you need a seasoned person in the role.

Q.You have a blog at ReveNews. How strongly do you identify as a blogger, and how does it fit with your work at Audible?

A.It’s something I don’t do on behalf of my role at Audible. I do it with my free time. It’s been an amazingly fascinating experience to understand the power of the blogosphere and see the impact of that power.

I blogged about a campaign we did at Audible. It got picked up by PaidContent, and the Wall Street Journal Online linked to it.

I have been shocked to attend a bunch of conferences where people come up to me and say, “I read your blog all the time.” This is something somebody convinced me to do on a lark. It’s been very interesting.

Q.Several of your affiliates are bloggers, correct?

A.We actually ended up getting customers who were bloggers, and they became affiliates. [Since] I was a blogger and I wrote about them in this campaign, they were even more interested in who I was. I thought that was interesting. Audible is very excited about blogs and the blogosphere. Being part of the conversation is terrific for us.

Q.Can you share an example of ad creative you’ve used in blog placements?

A.You need to be part of the conversation, so if you’re advertising on political blogs, you have to have political tact. We had these pretty funny Bush/Kerry ones. My favorite was Ann Coulter and Al Franken in boxing gloves. That’s edgy right? That’s not two free audio books, which is what we advertise everywhere else.

Q.When does affiliate marketing work best?

A.Affiliate programs work really well when there [are] clearly defined objectives and you have your eye on the goal. As I sit here and own these three channels, I think that’s important no matter what you’re trying to do; but in affiliate it’s more important because of the world of options you have to choose from.

[And] affiliate marketing works well when merchants reach out to affiliates and build trust. One of the challenges we have in this community is to build trust. If someone just picks up your offer from a network like Commission Junction or LinkShare, that process doesn’t occur. What good affiliates and managers do is reach out to each other and they build trust.

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