Archive for February, 2010

Teenagers, Ethics and Affiliate Marketing

February 2, 2010

Call me a grumpy old man but I’ve long been disturbed by some of the trends I see in affiliate marketing. Two in particular: the use of teenagers as affiliate ‘mules’ and the dismissing if not dehumanising view taken of customers.

Like many of you, I am a member of a lot of forums relating to affiliate marketing, many of which have excellent content and good attitudes towards the business we are in. However two in particular stand out where I am struck by the apparent proponderance of what seem to be teenage kids doing affiliate marketing as a way to make a quick buck. In fact you only need to take a glance at sites like Wicked Fire (with its frequent ‘boobs’ posts) and GoDadday (with its ‘GoDaddy’ girls) to realise that soft porn is being used to attract members and given the traditional target market for this kind of material it seems fair to assume that a large slice of the membership is made up of teenage boys.

These kids very much take a ‘screw you’ attitude towards their own customers (and indeed other forum posters) and it seems to me this is pretty common. On these ‘kids’ forums I often come across discussions where some action is being taken against unscrupulous practices (using Oprah for endorsements, knowingly hawking uncancellable rebills, selling illegal if not harmful pills) and the kids on there either get in a flap or try to out ‘cool’ each other about whether they are going to get caught up in these sweeps. Obviously I can’t be sure of the age of the anonymous posters but believe me, “dude” you can tell a lot from the “wicked” attitudes and “lame” use of language. These attitudes and also displayed in other typical posts on these forums, such as the often appearing complaint that some other webmaster has had their site taken down for copyright theft, along with a request for advice on how best to take revenge. Now I can imagine this sort of thing is irritating but surely if you are going to engage in copyright theft then the correct response is that you are occasionally going to get caught out and to accept this – rather than the immature reaction of believing you are entitled to do whatever you want and wanting to ‘get’ someone back when all they’ve done is take some modest and reasonable action to stand up for their rights.

These kids do understand the internet and they effectively have a lot of power as well. In the last year I’ve seen two campaigns in which forum members have successfully been encouraged to join in with cyber bullying campaigns, where someone’s real-world name is linked with defamatory posts intended to permanently ruin their reputation. In at least one case, this was because the telesalesman concerned had apparently been rude to someone on the phone. Now I am not really in a position to judge whether these people actually did anything awful enough to deserve the ruination that has been heaped upon them but given the narcissitic attitudes displayed by many of these teenagers I suspect not.

From a grumpy old man perspective I could leave it there and simply have a moan about the youth of today. However what really strikes me about this is that there are probably adults behind this making a s**t load of money out of these kids. It’s clear to me that if I want to sell some product that’s going to need some heavily dodgy advertising such as false claims and faked endorsements, one way I can distance myself from these activites is by setting up a boob-laden affiliate programme and getting a load of teenage kids who don’t give a monkeys about legal implications to set up the dodgy websites on my behalf. That way, when the excrement hits the fan, the damaged party or parties only have kids to take action against (which they probably won’t) leaving me to walk away with all the profits I’ve made – especially as I can be ‘shocked’ by the tactics used by these adolescent publishers and do the right thing by refusing to honour (i.e. keeping for myself) any outstanding payments to them.

Of course this is just one example of the kind of behaviour that I see reflected all over the internet. Overall I am in favour (how could I not be since I make my living on it) but I do think that the anonymity of the internet often brings out the worst in us and encourages behaviour that within a smaller and less anonymous social environment would not be tolerated or engaged in for fear of getting caught and effectively shunned.

The answer? I don’t have one. But to take my small step towards bucking the trend I’d just like to publicly state that while I realise I could probably make more money by engaging in what I view as unethical practices I actually don’t want to. As a result I don’t do rebills, I don’t do porn and I don’t do pills. I sell products that I think people genuinely want and that I would be happy to buy myself. Obviously I want to make money but I’m not in the business of lying to honest but occasionally gullible or naive prospective customers then sniggering with my forum buddies afterwards about how stupid they are (and implicitely how clever and superior we are).

Voucher Code Rants

February 1, 2010

Aaarrgghhh! I hate voucher code sites. Whenever I set up a new site or add a new merchant, I am acutely aware of a creepy feeling in the back of my neck that is a bit like someone walking over my grave. Actually it’s someone walking over my customers and stealing commissions. I recently responded to a comment via personal message and I will reproduce this roughly word-for-word below. In response to a post from an affiliate complaining about voucher codes, the merchant had replied that they also ran a lot of other special offers and discounts and that any affiliate was welcome to apply for their own voucher codes so they could compete. This prompted me to email the merchant with a mild rant that I now realise just might have contained a worthwhile idea …

Dear (person will remain nameless)

While I must admit you do provide some great special offers, even so us traditional affiliates will lose sales to any customers that have installed one of the many toolbar based commission hijacking extensions or is smart enough to do a pre-purchase search for “(brand name) voucher codes”. Both of these will let the voucher code site steal the commission even though it was our sites that sold the customer on your product.

As you suggest, we could get our own unique voucher codes and compete in this way but the cost of these discounts comes out of our commissions. Personally speaking, I make many pages that promote your products to casual or early stage searchers. Publishing this kind of broad product-based promotion with its numerous product pages, hand-written texts and creatives is much more labour intensive than having a single brand-name related page/popup offering “10% off all purchases” and is simply not economically viable under the narrower margins that I would get if I instituted voucher codes as well. I really don’t think the product-based site + voucher code model that you invite us to follow is a viable business model, particularly for the smaller and medium-sized publishers that provide you with such a diverse array of opportunities for product exposure and brand reinforcement.

I wonder if you might consider making special product offers available only to non-voucher code/cashback sites – in fact bringing in an internet version of ‘no other offers can be used with this promotion’. I appreciate this is not a simple as it sounds as you have no clear way (at the moment) of telling whether the sales commission you pay is going to a product-promoting affiliate or is being passed back to a customer as cashback via a site that only markets your brand name to people who already know it. But there must be some way of doing this – requiring affiliates to declare themselves as one or the other maybe. At least then us traditional affiliates would be able to promote the idea that the price we are offering is genuinely the best that is going to be available anywhere on the web and that no other offers/vouchers/discounts can be used with this promotion.

In summary, voucher code sites have something unique that us traditional affiliates cannot afford to offer – cashback or cheaper deals that arise from them working to a high volume of end-stage customers who are often nabbed as they are just about to click the ‘confirm purchase’ button. If you are genuinely interested in your products (and not just your brand name) being promoted to a wider audience than the ‘already committed’ you could balance this by giving those of us who do this for you something unique to offer in order to keep us doing what we do, and that something could be these occasional special deals.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? It was a relatively casual and reactive message but why shouldn’t a merchant provide different deals to traditional affiliates: deals that are exclusive to non-cashback/voucher code sites? I am not asking the merchant to do us a favour, just to consider that it is in their best interests to encourage broad product and brand exposure rather than just have voucher code sites. Anyone see any objections?

About me …

February 1, 2010

As an introductory post I thought I’d set out a balance sheet to give you an idea of who I am and where I am coming from.

Assets Liabilites
45 years of life experience
10 year old car
12 string guitar (battered)
Two computers
Affiliate Publishing Business
20 years to retirement
Divorced ex-wife with house etc.
Two grown up kids
Partner who likes to shop in Waitrose
Affiliate Publishing Business

I am in a long term relationship with ‘ma bitch’ although at the moment I am more her bitch as she owns the house and has a full-time income while I am at home desperately trying to make a go of affiliate marketing and expected to do the laundry, cooking etc. since I have foolishly chosen to work next door to the kitchen!

I started affiliate marketing in a light and very part-time way about 8 years ago when I became an Amazon Associate and added AdSense to an academic site of mine (I used to be lecturer).  This earnt me a couple of free books a year (and still does in fact). About 3 years ago I set up a couple of other sites that bought in a few pennies so I moved up to making an average of about 2 pounds a day. I started reading all those ‘make millions in 5 minutes’ eBooks.  As of a year ago, having graduated from eBooks to affiliate marketing and black hat forums and with savings in the bank to support me for about a year, I gave up full-time making money as a programmer and started full-time losing money as an independent affiliate publisher.

At time of writing I have about 50 sites of which only a couple do more than cover costs of hosting, domain registration etc. To give a perspective, in the 4 weeks to christmas I turned over about enough to be able to pay myself minimum wage for that month (ignoring all the overtime I do). To give a further perspective, I’d need to do about four times this a month, every month, to be back at my expected level of earnings.

So that’s me and this is the blog I’ve set up where I plan to make comment, offer advice and perspective, and generally vent my impotent anger and frustration with life, other affiliates, programs and merchants.

So why am I still doing affiliate marketing?  Lets just call it a triumph of optimism over good sense – and a need to make more money in the next 20 years than I could otherwise dream of.

P.S. In case any of you think you used to work with me then:

I was fired from a company in Aylesbury that did not make ‘tellyboxes’ and was staffed by a motley collection of real-ale and traditional music fanatics.

I used to pump gas syringes with Dave and Steve (“No, I’m Brian and so’s my wife”) for a manager who we affectionately knew as “Beaker.”

I worked with Kyoko and Zhou and Mark for a manager who used to come back to the office in the evening to order in chinese takeaways whenever we had a pre-deadline all-nighter on the go. Mark had a company branded sound system that made his smallish front room sound better than the inside of Westminster cathedral.

I worked with Colin and Alan – whose corner of the office included a camp bed,  sleeping bag, microwave, stereo and TV alongside his desk and the pile of pint jugs used to administer his hourly dose of coffee with six sugars (that’s tablespoons, not teaspoons).