Digital MarketingStrategiesWhat Sells?

What Sells?

You've heard this before: "Content is king." And there's a reason for this -- it's true. Looking for it is the No. 1 reason people go online. Smart merchants and affiliates can make use of quality content to boost sales.

Most of the advice dispensed from this column is squarely aimed at merchants. But when it comes to selling more, merchants and affiliates stand to benefit from the same learning. In watching recent events — from the Olympics to the USS Cole bombing — I’m reminded just how powerful events can be when it comes to driving traffic.

At the same time, recent analysis by The Industry Standard demonstrated just how different online shoppers are from offline shoppers, at least when it comes to one of the web’s killer categories. All in all, merchants can help themselves by arming their affiliates with better tools, while affiliates can use the insights to sharpen their web selling techniques.

Timely Content Sells

It’s clichid but more true than ever: “Content is king.” Forrester Research says that content is the No. 1 reason people log on to the web. Likewise, content is the top reason people return to a site.

The bad news is that not all content is created equal. Events drive demand perhaps better than anything else. Visitors have a real penchant for just-in-time information. The Summer Games took and from barely visible to near portal status, pulling in a combined 200 million page views, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Even within this overall uptrend, selected events and athletes created more pronounced spikes. An unexpected gold in the women’s 200-meter butterfly for the U.S.’s Misty Hyman on day 6 drove to over 10 million page views. Just four days later, the come-from-behind win of American diver Laura Wilkinson pushed the site over 10 million page views again.

Other major web draws have included everything from Victoria’s Secret’s Cannes lingerie webcast and the Starr Report (Hmm… Victoria’s Secret, the Starr Report. Perhaps it’s something else that sells?) to the Elian Gonzalez saga and the Kennedy-Bessette plane crash.

So how does all this fit in with affiliate marketing? The key for merchants and affiliates is to start integrating commerce with content related to needle-moving events. While certain events can’t be planned for, others can be predicted with near certainty.

Here’s a short list for the next few months of content people will want to read: the presidential and other national elections, reports of Thanksgiving travel woes, shortages of holiday must-haves, and college football bowl game results. Think of how you can deliver the content people want to the benefit of your program.

Use Content to Put Products in Context

In apparent contradiction to the spontaneity suggested by event-based consumption, online book shoppers are all about planning. New research from the NPD Group revealed that while impulse buying accounted for 46 percent of all books purchased, among online book buyers, impulse buying accounts for only 19 percent of purchases. This impulse aversion showed up in other areas, too. Of all books bought, cover art drove 18 percent of purchases and the display drove another 10 percent. When it came to online book buyers, cover art and display combined were responsible for only four percent of sales.

Instead, online book buyers place much greater emphasis on tangibles, such as reviews and recommendations. Reviews were cited as responsible for 38 percent of books bought online but only 17 percent of overall book purchases. Recommendations drove another 22 percent of online book purchases. What’s more interesting is the continuing growth of I’ve long been a fan of its combination of professional and community reviews — an area of the site that has recently undergone a massive overhaul, making the reviews even more useful.

Table: Distribution of Books Bought by Purchase Influence

Total Books
Books Bought
Cover Art

From an analysis of books bought by a panel of 12,000 households that reported purchases in a monthly diary. Sources: The NPD Group, June 2000 and The Industry Standard, October 30, 2000

Overall, if the lessons of book buyers apply to other categories, affiliates and merchants would do well to find ways to pair merchandise with some of the best supporting content available. For example,’s already massive affiliate program could be made even stronger by providing its affiliates with new interactive links that offer not only a link to a selected book but also an automatically updating feed of the latest related reviews. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the functionality at work for Tower Records,, and other similar merchants.

For merchants without their own reviews, perhaps partnering with providers like Epinions or ConsumerREVIEW would provide the impetus to higher sales. Imagine an affiliate web site promoting the best in lawn mowers, complete with links to the mowers and reviews from fellow consumers taken from one or more product review sites.

Now replicate that in just about any category imaginable. Unfortunately, too many merchants are too busy treating affiliates as advertising partners. Instead, merchants would do well to think about turning affiliates into editorial partners. Affiliates sell best when equipped with supporting material that positions them as objective and trusted third parties. After all, no one really wants to be marketed to.

The reality of context-based selling is that careful attention needs to be given to the timeliness of the offer. The power of reviews and recommendations in fostering online sales gives merchants and affiliates ample incentive to offer more robust supporting information to their visitors. It’s easy for affiliates to simply link to a handful of merchants. Likewise, it’s no great accomplishment for a merchant to generate a few thousand inbound links from affiliates. For affiliates and merchants to really profit, consumers need to benefit, too.

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