Affiliate Marketing in the Dark, Part II

I received an interesting response to last week's column about brands that are oblivious to the fact that much of their Web traffic is being driven by affiliate e-mail drops. Some of the comments were along the lines of "Do you mean people still need to be told the obvious: that e-mail drives Web site traffic?"

The point of that column for me was clear: know it or not, e-mail is the major driver of traffic to your site, so you'd better get wise on how to do it properly. But another side of the coin came from an agency specializing in the affiliate space. They drew the opposite conclusion. Their response was summarized as follows: "That is why brands must insist that their affiliates not use e-mail."


I have seen this prejudice against e-mail touted by many pundits in the affiliate marketing space, and I'm baffled, quite honestly. Why would anyone whose business is recommending programs to drive traffic via affiliates advocate cutting off the most successful marketing channel? I have some theories: The first is that these commentators don't believe that e-mail drives traffic. These are the people who have bought into the "search drives the majority of traffic" theory. This theory flies in the face of every piece of research we've looked at. Besides my own product, E-mail Analyst, which consistently aligns e-mail drops to spikes in site traffic that are recorded by other third-party sources, we have done case studies using tools such as Hitwise and have seen anecdotal evidence from numerous sources showing that e-mail is the top traffic-driver. The Direct Marketing Association itself reports that e-mail has the second highest ROI of any direct marketing channel besides telemarketing. For me the strongest evidence is the affiliates themselves, whose business is dependent on pure numbers: they wouldn't use it if it didn't work.



The problem with search is that it never allows you to build your internal list -- it never gives you the opportunity to develop a relationship to drive additional sales. Once people stopped using e-mail for acquisition, a vicious cycle began. Internal lists began to shrink, thus more money needed to be spent on search to make up the difference, while retention lists shrank even further, and so on.

Another theory is that some pundits believe e-mail hurts brand equity. The argument here, I believe, is that even if e-mail does drive traffic, it has such a negative connotation in people's minds that overall sales would go down if their brand was associated with e-mail marketing. This falls into a common mantra that I have found affects many people in the advertising industry: they hate advertising, so they assume everyone else does, too. A topic for another day is the self-loathing that people in marketing have for their own industry.

Here is what people hate: they hate scams in their inbox. They hate phishing in their inbox. They hate pornography and Viagra ads in their inbox. But outside of the radical fringe, there is no data that I've seen that says people hate legitimate offers from respected companies in their inbox. Again we go to the obvious: if people didn't like marketing in their e-mail, they wouldn't click through! And they do, in vast numbers. I only remember seeing one article in The New York Times about people who actually like to receive e-mail offers. There are actually a lot of stories like that. But these stories don't make for good copy in newspapers.

That fact is that a well crafted e-mail with proper creative on a good list can be a great acquisition tool now, just as it has been in the past. We sometimes forget that e-mail has been a great tool historically. There is no reason to believe that just because something went through a rough period it can't rise again: look at Tylenol, which very successfully rebounded from its 1980s tampering scare. You can certainly make your case better with e-mail than with an anonymous text link on a search engine somewhere.

Another reason why some advocate against using e-mail is that it can be used by unscrupulous affiliates, and the brand could be held liable. This concern is legitimate. But this is only an argument to invest in a proper e-mail program and the tools to monitor your affiliate network. Ignoring the problem won't stop the illegitimate affiliates from mailing your offer. The only way to do that is to keep on top of them and shut them down if they screw up.

The fact is there is no reason to believe that e-mail can't be used to boost brand equity, to increase your sales, to boost your site traffic. It does take some skill, work, research, time, planning... you know, the kinds of things you ask your agency to do for you.

And the other fact is: e-mail IS being used to drive traffic. It IS being used in affiliate networks to drive traffic in CPA deals. If you stop e-mail from being sent in an affiliate network, it WILL decrease your Web site traffic dramatically.

Driving traffic, making sales, managing those sales channels to maximize ROI: I thought that was what it was all about.

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