Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What is an Affiliate Marketer and Why Are Affiliates the Bad Guys?

There's a certain embarrassment about being an affiliate.  When I talk openly about being an affiliate marketer, it's usually to someone who's never heard of the role, or someone who is herself an affiliate marketer.  The rest of the world looks on and disapproves.

In particular, affiliate sites have an increasingly bad reputation with search engines.  They also have a bad reputation in other online communities, for a lot of reasons.  The major ones are that they're seen as spammers and they're a new kind of professional animal that nobody fully understands.

Are Affiliates All Spammers?
Some of the more visible affiliate marketers offer negligible content and try to squeeze themselves between the customer and the retailer, pushing the customer back until the retailer pays up.  They "spam" up the web in the eyes of those who notice them.

Of course, the less spammy affiliates don't stand out as affiliates...but they are there, offering content of real value.  However, I believe that even some of those who do little more than virtually park outside the retailer's front door add some value.  Because they holler out to customers in the street who would have passed right by - or they make the establishment seem the "place to be."

These are subtle intangibles that can make a sale that otherwise never gets made.  If only there were stats on "what might have been."

What is Affiliate Marketing, Again?

Affiliate marketers are people who sell products from links on their websites and get paid a commission.  Seems simple, but it's not, really.  Affiliates comprise a new type of profession, and people don't know what to think.  So they disapprove.   As far as I can tell, the newness of their field is the biggest strike against affiliate marketers.

For example:

Affiliates are not exactly hired salespeople.  They sell, but sometimes pretend they're not selling.  They're a weird hybrid of real individual and business entity and many aren't entirely sure, themselves, whether they're helping their customers or tricking them.   In the US, the FTC's new guidelines on endorsements are aimin' to clarify things for everybody.

They're not visionary entrepreneurs.  When most affiliates are starting out, it's not with the visionary genius of an entrepreneur, but with a kind of helpless "what do I do now?" attitude. They look for guidance as to how to make it big, and when they figure it out, evangelize to bring everyone collectively on board.  And many rely on keyword tools to tease out the winners.  But there are a visionary few who see potential in new areas.

They're not celebrities offering traditional style testimonials.  They're just lil' old bloggers or pied pipers, with their own following.

They're not independent reviewers.  They sometimes review products, but they sure have a stake in that review, since they get paid (usually) by commission.  However, they sure aren't paid by anyone else for flipping thumbs up or down - so how else should they be paid for their reviews, exactly...?

They're not, for the most part, widely acknowledged experts.  They just spend days and weeks researching a niche, or promote products they have an interest in as consumers, themselves.  How, then, are they lesser experts than the family, friends and neighbors consulted before purchase?  And how precisely would you certify an expert in a marketing niche today?

They're not retail buyers or retail stores. They just make sure they offer products relevant to their markets and provide a convenient one-stop location for those products .  Hmm.  Maybe it's time to redefine what a "store" is...?

Affiliates are neither the customer nor the manufacturer nor the retail store.  They're the "middleman" wedging themselves between the store and the customer to gain his or her trust. Hmm, the store.  And what is a store, again?

Oh, yes.  A middleman wedging himself between the manufacturer and the customer to gain the customer's trust, select out products,  store the physical objects, and sell them conveniently.  But people are shopping online.  Who needs objects stored in stores anymore?  For products not needed immediately, isn't the bricks and mortar store becoming the middleman, and the affiliate middleman becoming the essential bridge between the manufacturer and the customer?

As far as I can tell,  good affiliate marketers are all those things - store, salesperson, expert, personality, visionary, etc.  They're a hodgepodge of roles and something else:  they're individual people - moms, dads, young people, people who can't find an upwardly mobile job in the worldwide down economy...who don't have much to invest except time and their skillset.  The last time a group of people were seen like this, it was the early twentieth century - the depression era people who laid out the infrastructure of a new kind of commerce to prepare the way for the mid-century boom.

One of author Chris Anderson's points about the long tail is that the Internet is noise, noise, and nothing but noise without a filter.  Search engines provide one type of filter.  But middlemen provide another.  The "middleman" - the blogger, the reviewer, the affiliate marketer - is something to be cultivated, not pushed aside, as we progress to an online commerce system of unprecedented scope.

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom

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