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Some lessons in online affiliate sales.

By creature in Internet
Thu Dec 10, 2009 at 03:31:00 PM EST
Tags: marketing, internet, business, lessons, experience (all tags)

I recently read a thing about someone who made $200 a month through an Amazon affiliate store. This struck me as an interesting way to make some folding money. Could I do the same thing? The short answer: no.

The idea is simple: Amazon run a referral scheme. If someone arrives at Amazon from your website and buys something, then you get a portion of the purchase price. It starts at 5% and moves up towards 15% if you can shift 40,000 items. The Reddit guy had built a religion-themed storefront but I had no idea what niche to target. I realised I had a parked domain I could use, bought on a whim years ago. I didn't want to pour a lot of effort into seeing whether this would work, so over 4 or 5 nights I whipped up a basic HTML page with some CSS and Javascript that made it feel like several separate pages. I started with 4 categories, each with 5 items, and wrote a couple of paragraphs about each item. To spread my link around I bought a 10 day Facebook ad campaign, capped at £1 a day. The campaign's now over and the results are in: at the end of the campaign I have spent £8 and earned £1.08.

The whole thing has taken only 2 weeks from the initial thought of "I should give this a shot," to getting some usable data. Here's what I've learnt.

I'm better at this web malarky than I thought.

It's nice to be reminded I can make things. Often at work it feels like I'm making little progress, and I've got a notebook full of never-implemented or 25% done personal projects. Real artists ship, and it feels good to kick something new out the door.

Amazon's catalogue is shit when you get away from media/electronics.

I wanted to link to clothes, shoes, jewellry, some accessories. Do they have them? Do they fuck. I will link out to other stores that don't pay any referral fees and hope that people also use the Amazon links.

eBay's business model is fundamentally retarded.

eBay's got an affiliate scheme but it's a confusing mess, not least because eBay is stuck on the auction format. A giant part of eBay's business is from small business sellers offering products for a "buy it now" price, with essentially infinite stock. But you can't generate a link to a specific product because the auction fetish listings expire and have stock limits on each lot. I am ignoring eBay because of this.

Omniture SiteCatalyst makes you take good analytics for granted.

At work we use Omniture SiteCatalyst to track user behaviour, and I'd taken that quality of insight for granted. There's two parts to this:
  1. Amazon's affiliate reporting is crap. When you generate an affiliate link back to Amazon you include a tracking code. When you click through, Amazon can tell exactly what was clicked. Do they show you this data? Do they fuck. This data would be super-useful because you know what products are tempting and what aren't, letting you rewrite the copy or replace the product with something else.
  2. Google Analytics is alright, but not superb. It doesn't do any click-tracking so I can't tell how users are leaving my site. Nor does it track AJAX requests, so it's not much good for anything other than a visitor counter. This is a drawback of taking the single-HTML-page approach.

Amazon's affiliates scheme is per-locale, which is ridiculous.

What? If I want to sell something to a user in the States I have to have another account with its own code? And I have to rewrite all my links? And do this all again for amazon.de, amazon.jp, and so on? Amazon could easily have handled this all for me. I should be able to include my referer ID in a link and let you deal with all that. I'll even let you give me a crap exchange rate, or just throw me a buck every time a US customer buys something.

Amazon's sign-your-REST-requests requirement is a steaming pile of turds.

To make a request to Amazon's web services (which you have to do if you want to display prices) you must sign your request. You do this by taking the parameters, running them through a hash function, and appending the hash to the request. It stops other people pretending to be you and it gives Amazon some more control over their web services. But they could at least have the decency to document the fucking thing. There's a bunch of getting-started examples in the manual that don't work because they don't include the signature, and their "Here's how to sign your requests" is outright wrong (it excludes the mandatory timestamp, for example). Nor do they provide example implementations for you to use and only the barest of worked examples. I tried writing my own implementation and it didn't work, so I googled for one and used that instead. The API is a bit shit too – it'll tell you the lowest price for an item but not the lowest price including postage, or the official Amazon price.

Selling stuff is better than advertising.

Whenever the question of "But how does it make money?" comes up online, everyone bellows "Advertising!". What bollocks. I've never trusted advertising to bring in anything – you're essentially selling the opportunity for someone else to sell something – and much prefer physical products. Both deal in small change but I'm much happier offering pysical products instead of trying to write linkbait articles and hoping someone's dumb enough to click a banner ad.

Facebook ads are useless, but really easy.

I've not found anywhere else that does ads this well. Most advertising networks don't let you buy £10 of ads and see what happens, but Facebook do. They've got a neat ad builder and control panel that shows statistics and reports about who's clicking your ads. They've got great targeting too. The trouble is that nobody clicks ads on Facebook and your fellow advertisers are scum, but it's a cheap way to get some traffic.

Writing is hard, especially when you don't believe something.

I find writing hard enough anyway, but trying to write something engaging about a mediocre product is hard. This whole project is soulless but I don't want to lie either, so I've put effort into squeezing out something truthful and exciting. Writing took way more time than building the site.

Pick your target audience carefully.

If the people you're targetting don't have any money, you're fucked. Mine are broke teenagers so I shot myself in the foot there. Similarly, if there's no online ecosystem around your niche you're out of luck. I can't believe there isn't for mine, but that's how it looks. There are no good blogs, no online celebrities and associate hangers-on, no real forums. Starting one would be effort I'm not willing to expend.

How am I going to rescue this trainwreck? I'm probably not, but that's OK. It was an experiment, I've exercised my web developer & writerly chops, learnt some things, and it's not cost me anything except £8 and some evenings I'd have pissed away anyway. I've picked up a few tips from this guy (who is putting way more effort into this whole thing than I am). I'm going to make the following changes and then leave it alone:

  • AJAX in prices from Amazon. Amazon won't let you hard-code prices into your page – you have to retrieve them at least once every 24 hours. I've written the code to retrieve prices and to display them in the page, and just have to cache the results. Buy links with prices displayed get something like 7 times more clickthroughs than those that don't, so this should make a real difference.
  • Link out to non-Amazon stores for certain categories. Even if I can't make money from people clicking through it's all content grist for the Google mill.
  • Create some new categories. I started with a small selection of categories. More content looks better and gives people more chances to buy, but releasing early and iterating is better than crafting the perfect emporium before publishing.
  • Guest-write some blog posts for people in exchange for links back. There are a few blogs out there – writing stuff for them in exchange for links helps 'spread the word' and helps people find you. So does participating in forums etc, but I haven't found the energy for that yet.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


How to make money online?
o Sell physical stuff. 12%
o Advertising. 18%
o Affiliate schemes. 0%
o Porn. 31%
o Nigerian 419 scams. 25%
o Camwhoring. 50%
o Spam. 18%
o Build the next Facebook. 12%
o Use monster.com to find a proper job. 43%
o Spend 5 years building a bipolar community then charge $5 for new accounts. 68%

Votes: 16
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Google
o read a thing
o Real artists ship
o from this guy
o Also by creature

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Some lessons in online affiliate sales. | 18 comments (11 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
+1, Informative (3.00 / 3) (#5)
by k31 on Wed Dec 09, 2009 at 12:12:52 PM EST

An article with some real information, saving us up to two week of time. Brilliant.

Your dollar is you only Word, the wrath of it your only fear. He who has an EAR to hear....
couple things (none / 1) (#9)
by nateo on Wed Dec 09, 2009 at 04:33:46 PM EST

the linked article was a guy making a couple hundred bucks a week, not a month.

i sell hundreds of units a quarter through amazon (the vast majority being product that my company has created) so i've screwed around with this a little bit.

i am screen-scraping both amazon and bn a few times an hour.  it was sort of a pain in the ass to set up but now it's more or less automatic.  agree with you that actual prices really help, and we're able to display them this way without dealing with any nazi russian apis.

i'm also grabbing sales rank and can use that to display a custom message ("we're #24", for example) if the current rank is noteworthy.  we'll also track that to see how our sales are doing over time, though if you aren't invested in the performance of a particular product on amazon in general, i don't know why you'd care to do that.

as an additional bonus i can also get % off (if any) and use some image abuse action to display the little discount balloon straight from the source.

"I'm so gonna travel the world, photographing my dick at every location."
  - Vampire Zombie Abu Musab al Zarqawi

huh, and I thought the amazon API was pretty easy (none / 0) (#10)
by Morally Inflexible on Thu Dec 10, 2009 at 06:30:35 AM EST

but then, I was doing a price comparison engine, and thus a whole lot of screen scraping, which is harder than using amazon's kinda okay API.

[ Parent ]
it is easy... (none / 0) (#11)
by nateo on Thu Dec 10, 2009 at 01:12:39 PM EST

...but they limit the info available and sometimes dick with the data.  for example from tfm

Sometimes, instead of a price, the string is returned, "Too Low to Display." This sometimes happens even though the price might be available on Amazon's retail web site. In these cases, the only way to see the actual price is to add the item to a remote shopping cart.

two things to whoever wrote that: 1) fuck you, and 2) you might as well save your breath and just tell me to screen scrape instead.

"I'm so gonna travel the world, photographing my dick at every location."
  - Vampire Zombie Abu Musab al Zarqawi
[ Parent ]

what crap! (none / 0) (#12)
by Morally Inflexible on Thu Dec 10, 2009 at 06:34:05 PM EST

I haven't seen that, but then, it's not like anyone actually uses my price search tools.

[ Parent ]
do prices really increase clickthroughs that much? (none / 0) (#13)
by danny on Fri Dec 11, 2009 at 05:13:41 AM EST

I make quite a bit from Amazon's affiliate program, through my book review site (a pretty obvious fit for it).  But I've never displayed prices, and if they really do have a significant effect on sales maybe I should.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

Totally. (none / 0) (#14)
by creature on Sat Dec 12, 2009 at 08:39:42 AM EST

There's two factors at work: temptation, and removal of risk. Temptation's easy – if someone already likes something, and you show the price, you've got a chance that the price will be cheap. If you like the sound of a CD from a review, if it's £4 you're more likely to buy it. And if it's £20 – well, you weren't going to buy it anyway, so you've not lost a sale.

The removal of risk is just letting people know what they're in for. People are irrational, and the internet makes people afraid of scams. Show them an unlabeled buy link and a small part of their brain says "What if clicking this results in a page that says 'Congratulations, you just bought this item for £200!'?" Showing the price salves people's fears – they know the worst that can happen is they spend £4. It removes uncertainty.

I don't know the exact amount showing prices increases clicks, and it's not a stat from a directly comparable situation, but it is dramatic. More than quadruples clickthroughs. When I've got it up and running I'll report back.

[ Parent ]

here's the other thing we do (none / 0) (#15)
by nateo on Sat Dec 12, 2009 at 02:00:42 PM EST

and this is something i've never seen anyone else do--we display current amazon and bn pricing, and let the user decide who to buy from.  that way they can comparison shop.  i can't say for sure that our users say 'hey, these guys are doing us a solid and not selling our business down the river to the highest commission giver' but that's the conclusion i would reach.

"I'm so gonna travel the world, photographing my dick at every location."
  - Vampire Zombie Abu Musab al Zarqawi
[ Parent ]
I used to do B&N as well (none / 0) (#17)
by danny on Sun Dec 13, 2009 at 12:06:21 AM EST

But I'm keen to avoid clutter - my site is pretty minimalist (no images at all, for example) - and keep page load times fast.  And it's enough work keeping up with changes to AWS!  (It's not terrible, but it took me a while getting the "signed requests" working when Amazon started insisting on that.)

Anyway, I now have prices working (in some contexts) and will see how that goes.  I've dropped my cache time to 24 hours, and made sure the UK results have pounds.

Not sure how to display new/used prices, though - I'm using "$67.00/$45.23" for the moment.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]
[ Parent ]

that makes sense (none / 0) (#16)
by danny on Sat Dec 12, 2009 at 11:12:35 PM EST

The Amazon links immediately following each book review are a bit hard to add prices to (given Amazon's 24 hour rule and my fondness for keeping as much static as possible), but the dynamically generated "related" ones in the iframe at the bottom of each page should be easy to add prices to.

I'll give it a go and let you know how it works out.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]
[ Parent ]

JESUS (none / 0) (#18)
by The Hanged Man on Thu Jan 28, 2010 at 05:15:38 PM EST


Dificile est saturam non scribere - Juvenal
Some lessons in online affiliate sales. | 18 comments (11 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
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