The following article was published in the premier issue of Revenue, The Internet Affiliate Marketing Standard.
If you thought AffiliateFORCE was a slick ruse in order to write off a cruise to the Bahamas – you may need to adjust your perceptions. This year’s conference included a diverse group of over 200 attendees, including 31 official speakers who presented an abundance of excellent content, along with a healthy dose of self-promotion. Though the weather was beautiful, the noticeable lack of sunburns attests to the fact that a lot of work got done over the conference’s four days. (And the word “recession” was never mentioned!)
Gaming Sites Make Presence Known
There were numerous highlights, but none of us will soon forget when ReferBack (casino program managers) rewarded its top affiliate from the first quarter with his choice of four high performance sports cars, a Ferrari among them. Though ReferBack attended last year, this year’s conference attendees included several more casino site representatives, attesting to the phenomenal growth of this segment.
Program Solution Providers in Attendance
Kowabunga (MyAffiliateProgram) stepped up their representation and sponsorship of this year’s event by bringing along several of their merchant clients and promoting their new program management services, Team Kowabunga. Fortunately, this year they were not the lone program solution provider…as Be Free made a strong presence, and representatives from LinkShare and Performics were also in attendance. Two representatives from WebClients, a CPA network, were also there.
Important Trends, Issues, and Concepts Raised by Speakers
One of the most important (and controversial) issues raised at this year’s conference is the long term viability of network program solutions like LinkShare, Commission Junction and Be Free. Several speakers demonstrated why they believe the trend is toward managing affiliate programs via in-house solutions.
The cases laid out by the Kowabunga group, Shawn Collins, and Brad Waller of EPage centered primarily on the issue of cost effectiveness. Unfortunately, for the majority of these presenters, their clear bias begged for a rebuttal. Had the network solution provider attendees known the program would include a virtual infomercial for in-house solutions, I’m sure they would have asked for equal time.
Scott McNulty and Wayne Porter of AffTrack generated a lively discussion about performance metrics. They explained CPM is not always the best metric for performance marketing and went on to explain how they utilize Earning per Click and Average Ticket as two possible guiding metrics. Recognizing the limitations of Commission Junction EPC metrics, Wayne commented, “CJ’s Aggregate EPC isn’t perfect, but I prefer walking into a dark room with, at the very least, a flashlight!”
Steve Vachani of Qool Media spoke passionately about the need for performance-based advertisers to begin adopting traditional direct marketing strategies. Listing a handful of Internet companies he believes have the most interesting/successful business concepts, Steve discussed how structured, step-wise testing can result in extremely successful media buys on a CPM basis.
Marty Fahncke of Thane International discussed his performance partnership strategies both openly and frankly, much to the delight of the attendees. Among the many interesting points he made was the fact that he does not allow his affiliate partners to buy their trademarked keywords – commenting that, “Competing with yourself can get expensive.”
Raleigh Pinskey of Promote Yourself! and Dan Janal of PR LEADS provided an informative and entertaining discussion of the value of PR. Too often overlooked by merchants and affiliates alike, the dynamic duo described how easily nearly anyone with a success story or an area of expertise can parley local coverage into high impact PR.
Craig Pali of Be Free enlightened the audience with his pitch-free presentation of how to create value from a large universe of affiliate partners. According to Craig, “Merchants must realize that they have different segments of partners and grow revenues by finding scalable ways to connect with the masses. Finding increasingly scalable means of having one-to-one relationships with top partners. Partners must grow revenues by finding merchants whom they continually perform for with the least investment.”
The number of affiliate partners was actually down from last year’s smaller conference. This was a disappointment to many in the merchant majority. Perhaps more program managers will reward their top partners next year with a trip to AF2003. Having significant partner representation is an important element of this event.
Networking wasn’t Perfect
The networking opportunities, though numerous and productive, were unstructured leaving many attendees with names not crossed off their dance cards. The cocktail receptions served as networking venues, without any time and place reserved in a more optimal setting (which did take place at last year’s event). The consensus seemed to be that the networking was excellent, but it could have been even better.
Comments from the Attendees
“At Affiliate Force 2002, I noticed an undertone that seemed to encourage merchants to take programs in-house. The argument was that an in-house program provides a more cost-effective approach. And on the surface, it may seem to be true, but there are a lot of hidden costs that can make it very expensive to take your program in-house. In-house programs must rely on extensive management of the program internally, if they are to have any hope of success. There must be someone dedicated to the program for recruiting and nurturing partners. You must overcome objections of affiliates, who don’t get the benefits of unified log ons or central stats that third-party solutions like Be Free can offer. You also miss out on the knowledge, experience and strategy that solution providers can provide, because of their affiliation with a number of programs. And there is the cost of scaling the infrastructure and the constant worry that you may out-grow your in-house technology. For folks who are serious about developing a successful program, you should really consider all the costs and effort that need to go into a productive program.” Craig Palli, Be Free
“Personally, I thought it was a great opportunity to meet certain people face to face. The presentations could have been more structured and organized. I’m interested to see how this event will evolve over time, as I foresee some significant changes in the affiliate industry this next year, and I can tell you that LinkShare is poised to be right there leading the way.” Cheryl Ho, LinkShare
“The location made it difficult to sell to my boss, but for the price, compared with the cost of attending a different conference last year in New York, it was a steal. A couple of the things that I thought were great were hearing from Affiliates about what they want or don’t want, and some tips from the providers on how to give those things to them. Even though we’re not using Kowabunga, I learned a great deal from them. Some suggestions include having workshops or a time to “Meet the speakers”. It’s nice to see the conference as something that grows each year and improves based on input. All in all, it was the best conference I’ve attended and definitely one that I recommend to others.” Tamra Hamblin, Iomega Corporation
“AffiliateForce provided a nice mix of activities and we were able to close some important deals and meet with some of our clients. I would have liked to have seen less speakers, more focus on quality and targeting of presentations, and to utilize that time on controlled networking environments. There were some great presentations. I was specifically impressed by Marty Fahncke’s presentation from Thane, where I walked way with enough data and knowledge to satisfy my curiosity for a year! I think round table debates and forums would make a good addition too. Overall the summit was a success and growing; proving that performance marketing is gaining traction as a reliable and viable channel.” Wayne Porter, AffTrack.com
“The workshops and presentations on the printed agenda we received at the beginning of the conference only listed company names if a company was sponsoring an event such as the Be Free banquet, Net-roamer Gincana, ReferBack Casino evening and KowaBunga Cocktail Party and Dinner. Many speakers tried to get their company names out there with self-promotion during the presentations. Maybe the sales pitches could have been edited by the chairman by reviewing the presentations prior to the conference. Overall, the pros of attending the conference far outweighed the cons and I think it was well worth the expense. I plan on attending again.” Nicki Hayes, GiftCertificates.com
“I attended last year and this year’s was much better. We had more opportunities to network during the cocktails and other events. I had the chance to close more deals. For me, as an affiliate, it was great, because there were more merchants than affiliates. It was hard to find some people that I needed to talk to, but I met them on the last day, when we were back in Miami. The presentations were shorter, but more targeted. What I didn’t like about the presentations, was some people just talked about their products/companies more than shared experience and solutions for common problems.” Valeria Bueno, Qool.com
“Definitely some of the most productive days an affiliate or merchant could spend. Is it without fault? No – but it is indeed the best opportunity the affiliate industry has right now to get things done in a short amount of time. Don’t bring your spouse/significant other unless you really want to bore them to death watching real business get done.” Tim Storm, FatWallet.Com
“I was really impressed with the quality of the information that was presented. As I said in my “speech” I also was just SO thrilled that the Cruise was totally booked, and that I met Affiliates/Partners and Merchants from all over the world! I had a chance to speak with people from South Africa, Denmark, the UK and MORE! Working for an online travel company, it JUST proved to me that the travel industry is making a full recovery.” Sara Drey, OneTravel.com
“I feel that AF2002 was a great gathering for the top leaders in the space. It seemed like many merchants came away with plans for improving their own program and I think that this, along with the networking, is what makes this a powerful gathering. One thing that concerned me is that there were not more power players in attendance. In the future, I hope that they see this as a valid revenue stream and a valuable conference. While there are some things that will need improving, I believe that this was a HUGE success.” Ryan Phelan, PromoCode.com
“I think AffiliateFORCE has really evolved since the first event in March 2000. The first event was similar to the other affiliate marketing conferences that are no longer with us, but AffiliateFORCE has found its own niche – steering away from the panel discussions, and putting more of an emphasis on networking and communication.” Shawn Collins, ClubMom
“The weekend was a great success, allowing for both structured learning and free-flowing networking and conversation. There’s nothing like discussing a potential business relationship under the warmth of a clear blue sky by the edge of the pool! In addition, because the entire conference is in an enclosed area (the ship), it’s much easier to find and talk to people because they are essentially always around. The only thing I would recommend is not to start the sessions so early and to plan the excursions off the boat a bit better with the timing of the sessions so there is time to relax off the boat without missing any of the valuable information. All in all, a great experience!” Corey Newhouse, GreatBuyUSA.com
“AffiliateForce provided a good mix of learning, business, networking, and FUN that you don’t normally find at a business conference. Many relationships were established or strengthened that I’m sure will enable everyone attending (and their companies) to profit. One suggestion…next time hold it somewhere with a phone line! The first day of peace and quiet was nice, but by the third day, I needed to do some business!” Marty Fahncke, Thane Internet Group