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 mktg brainlog » Spring cleaning your affiliate (or any) business
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Spring cleaning your affiliate (or any) business

Spring cleaning may sound funky, considering that we barely passed the first half of January, but it is currently a sunny 15 C (59 F) in Budapest, so I am feeling all spring-cleaningish. I wrote the below article for the March 2006 issue of Affiliate Classroom magazine and I decided it’s high time I posted it here, because it covers an interesting topic that I myself have a lot to work on: goal-setting and evaluation.

The first quarter is the best time to do some housekeeping. In this article, I talk about how to go about evaluating where you are and set your goals for where you want to go with your affiliate (or other business) endeavours, and how to re-vitalize your affiliate business in the new year.

Maintain regular check-ups for a healthy affiliate business

by Katalin Török

Regular maintenance ensures a bug-free and up-to-date website, but are you attending to the core of your affiliate business with the same regularity? Periodic check-ups ensure that you are ahead of trends, show you what is working in order to prevent wasting valuable resources on dead ends, and ensure that your business is moving ahead in line with your plans and strategy.

Have a plan

The starting point for a periodic assessment of your affiliate business is a plan. Have a plan with measurable goals and benchmarks to help evaluate your progress and your performance. It is easy to get sidetracked with the day-to-day practicalities of maintaining an affiliate site (and come up with excuses for getting sidetracked), but the numbers show everything black and white: they serve as a reminder that you did things well, or that you didn’t do as well as you planned to. Every business starts with a business plan, keep it updated every quarter to see where you are going and how far you have come.

But the plan is only the starting point, you will need to compare your results with it regularly. Get into the habit of doing a quarterly, bi-annual, and annual review of your affiliate sites. The end of March is the end of the first quarter of 2006 - the perfect time to get into the habit of reassessment and reevaluation of core aspects of your business.

Measure and assess

Every business relies on numbers, statistics, and benchmarks, but the affiliate industry is in an envyable position regarding access to vital business information and data. Other industries need to invest thousands of dollars into CRM and reporting software to collect and report the sales stats and trends and measure the effects of marketing actions, while all this information is readily available to us affiliates from our business partners, the merchants and affiliate networks. You are given the tools to track your business down to the smallest step in your marketing. Take advantage of this by using these stats and building a business information system that helps you in your everyday work as well as in your strategic planning.

Chances are you log in to your network account every day to check your current earnings and also have some kind of a web statistics program running on your website to track visitors and referrers. Creating a chart to track your monthly, quarterly and annual progress in earnings, visitors and conversions is a start, but by slicing and dicing the data provided by your merchant partners and your own stats can provide a much clearer picture of where you are, what is working and what isn’t .

Every business is different and therefore needs different kinds of benchmarks to evaluate its progress. Looking at your own affiliate business, your goals and activities, work out your own indicators, that provide a view of how successful your business is overall, which areas drive your business, which are the problematic area you need to work on, etc. As your business matures you will need to adjust these indicators because your goals and approach will change at different stages of launching and running your affiliate site. At the beginning measuring traffic and analyzing where it is coming from will be a priority, while as your site matures monetizing the existing traffic will gain more importance.

By recording the statistics of the important aspects of your business and compiling them into usable (for you!) data sets, you can better evaluate which marketing tactics actually bring you results. In addition to analyzing your logs to compare different sources of traffic, consider keeping a marketing diary where you record all of your marketing steps in order to cross-reference them with the traffic data. Record every ad you run, every mailing you send out, every coupon you add or remove and annotate your traffic charts with this information.
This will help you to see the results of your marketing in more detail: for example instead of seeing 3000 new visitors and 200 new sales as a result of last month’s email marketing, you will be able to break down these numbers into each single newsletter you sent out. You can then evaluate these against each other, and against other traffic sources.

This approach will ensure that you get a complete and more realistic picture of what’s working and what’s not by measuring your marketing actions one by one as well as evaluating and assessing your marketing strategy as a whole.

Do your market research

In addition to data-mining, you can derive valuable insight from those who are the lifeblood of your business: your customers. It is important to continue doing your market research periodically, and not just before launching your affiliate business. Integrate market research into your bi-annual business check-up to stay ahead of changing consumer behavior or preferences.

Analyze the email that you receive from visitors commenting on your site. If you have a forum or guestbook, keep an eye out for insights into what people like and dislike on the site. If you don’t have any interactive features on your site, you can always turn to industry message boards, blogs or other online communities, where thousands of net users are discussing every single product and service on earth. Run a survey with simple questions about what users are looking for in your site. There are inexpensive, even free scripts and services out there providing online survey tools that are easy to set up and use.

Weeding out what’s not working

By carefully analyzing your stats and sales data you will have an overview of what parts of your business (be them merchant relationships, networks, product categories, pages on the site or marketing efforts) are most successful, and which ones aren’t working. Obviously you want to concentrate on those things that bring the visitors and the sales, but it is too easy to just leave the unsuccessful pages or merchant relationships on the site, just in case something magical happens and they start performing like you hoped they would by now. In most cases, there is a good reason why something is not working, and unless you can remedy the problem, it’s best to move on. Remove the non-performing products, product categories and pages and don’t waste any more of your valuable time on them. Unsuccessful efforts require maintenance as well, and will only suck away your time without gving you any benefits or motivating successes.
If a merchant or product category has not produced a single sale in the past couple of months and you didn’t find the time to make any efforts to find out why or change things around, there is a good chance you won’t touch them in the next 3 months either. You’d better move on to your next idea or dedicate more resources to the successful parts of your business.

In addition to the products that do not work sales-wise, there are those that do not work, literally. We are talking broken links here. In the affiliate industry you are earning your living through links, so it is absolutely vital to check your links periodically to find dead or outdated product links. In addition to ensuring that links from your site are functioning, it is a good idea to regularly do a check whether they still point to the things you think they are pointing to. Merchants change their product selection, offers expire, advertisers expire from the networks (in which case you lead your visitor to an error message on the network’s site, not very user-friendly, is it?), etc.

Refresh your site

We have discussed a couple of approaches to analyzing your business periodically, now here are a couple of ideas on how to refresh, even renew your site periodically to maintain momentum of your business.

Design

Chances are you arrived at the current design of your site by carefully evaluating screen real estate to find the most profitable layout and content distribution. If the design is working, you can still freshen it up periodically to keep the site up-to-date and modern. Use new techniques like AJAX to make the site more responsive and interactive (for example there are free code snippets out there for live search, a search box that provides instant search results as your users type their query on your site). Make your design CSS-based if you have not done so yet, and by separating design from content you will be able to reduce page load times, and cut down on HTML code significantly.
Add a seasonal touch to your logo or your color scheme, or even change your design completely. Sites that follow web design trends (we are not talking about copying popular designs but adapting trends to your site and layout), give the impression of familiarity -making customers feel more comfortable by providing a familiar environment - and modernity. By using a modern, up-to-date design you are branding yourself as a modern, up-to-date, trendy site!

Besides aesthetics, don’t neglect usability! Ask a friend or relative, or even better, a visitor or newsletter subscriber to browse the site and tell you what they feel comfortable with, what is causing them frustration, what is easily findable, and so on.
For a good overall introduction to usability read this book: „Don’t make me think! A common sense guide to web usability” by Steven Krug http://www.sensible.com/

Content

If you publish articles, reviews or reports to draw visitors, periodically (bi-annually) check if your content is still valid and up-to-date. Update, or remove outdated content, or archive it to reap the benefits of it being valuable spider food for search engines. If you leave it up on the site, make sure to let the visitor know it’s archived content and lead them to the more up-to-date parts of your site.

Analyze your website stats to see which sections and pages attract the most visitors, draw the conclusions and re-evaluate your content strategy to match actual customer demand.

Experiment

Make it your quarterly task to consciously seek out and try new things in your business. Try new technologies, new merchants, a new network, a new niche or even that up-and-coming service provider that can ease your marketing efforts but you never bothered to sign up for the 30-day demo (see the article „Top 6 resolutions for affiliates in 2006″ in our January 2006 issue for ideas and inspiration). By taking care to refresh your site, your business quarterly, you will not only have a greater chance at finding more and more things that are working for you, but you will also stay more motivated and maintaining your site will not turn into a boring chore, but continuously feel like an exciting new experiment.

Originally appeared in Affiliate Classroom magazine

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