Sam Harrelson is a well-known figure in the affiliate marketing industry and an evangelist for a search marketing company called Clicks2Customers.
My friend Jim Kukral kept telling me that if I wanted to talk with someone about the future of affiliate marketing, Sam was the man.
So at the recent Affiliate Summit, Sam sat down with me to talk about trends in affiliate marketing and the Web.
Question: Has a lot changed on the Web in recent years?
Sam: Absolutely. One big change is all the new and inexpensive content production tools. They have empowered people. These tools have given rise to the citizen publisher — and the citizen businessperson — on the Web. Non-technical people — amateurs — using these new publishing tools can create their own sites to broaden their reach just like bigger companies.
Today’s tools are demolishing the monopoly that larger companies traditionally have had on audiences through expensive ads on TV and in other large venues.
Question: What are some of the key trends in online behavior?
Sam: The Web as we know it — with structured Web pages, where you go to one page and then move from that page to another –will not be the paradigm for the future. There are two major implications to this:
1) For instance, Adobe Air allows a developer to create an app where the user can have a software application on the desktop that accesses the Web and also works offline. So you can be offline and use the application, and when you log on to the Web it syncs up.
Another example of operating outside the browser is Google Desktop. You can have little widgets and updated boxes of information on your computer desktop without ever opening up a browser.
2) A second big implication is that content can be viewed in multiple places around the Web. Today content is much less restricted by the formats of the past. Website owners are able to create content in a much more dynamic and fluid way than in the past, distributing content in RSS feeds, widgets and other formats. So your audience may be viewing your content in multiple places, without actually ever visiting your Web page. That means your audience could be scattered be all over the Web.
You won’t necessarily need a browser to access the Web. Things like embedded desktop applications allow you to access the Web without using a browser such as Internet Explorer or FireFox and going to a specific page.
Question: So what does this suggest for the future of businesses using the Web to reach an audience?
Sam: For one thing, page views will cease being a leading metric for how well you reach your audience. Nielsen is dropping page impressions (as of this week) as a major metric.
A growth industry for the analytics crowd might be how to measure something like widget views or the attention placed on a widget.
They are turning to “attention” metrics instead: How long someone stays on the site. Even Google is getting into the act with its acquisition of FeedBurner, which eventually should bring together metrics for Websites and RSS feeds.
Question: What should Internet marketers do in light of these trends?
Sam: Develop your brand — focus on that. Really put a human face on whatever you do. Don’t just blindly slap up a site with some affiliate links or ads.
Also, pay attention to your niche and don’t try to blanket the world. Today’s Web 2.0 platforms are finally making it possible to reach micro-niches — communities with very narrow interests in common. Affiliate marketers have picked up on the micro-niche approach. For instance, affiliates pick niche keyphrases and long strings of keywords to reach those with very narrow interests instead of broad interests.
Question: What else do you recommend?
Sam: I suggest creating your own community in 3 steps.
1.) Start a blog. Put your human side forward. Write in the first person. Establish a personality and a brand.
2.) Actively do research to find where people in your specific niche are communicating with one another. Go introduce yourself and be part of it. Use the Web 2.0 community sites, but don’t worry about creating pages on lots of different social networking sites. It’s not a shotgun approach. Pick one or two where your community congregates. Maybe that’s Facebook and so you set up a Facebook page to create a community around your brand over there.
3. Then after you get started, look at what your competitors are doing to serve their communities and monetize them. I would not go the AdSense route – it does not allow you to customize your offerings enough. Affiliate links allow you a lot more flexibility in which offers you present and how you present them. Choose offers that are a resource for your community. Think of it as “selling with, not to” your community.
Do this in order (steps 1, 2 and 3). You can’t just through up ads and then try to find or build your community around ads. Develop the community first.
Question: Fast forward five years. How will the Web look for marketers?
Sam: The Web will continue to fragment. In five years the idea of using a browser to go on the Web may seem silly.
Attention spans will get smaller in size. People will want smaller bits of information … in micro-chunks they can quickly consume.
The integration of the desktop with the Web will increase. Mobile and video usage will increase.
Question: What does an “evangelist” like you do?
Sam: An evangelist is where you become the public face of a company. You go out and explain what the company can do. But of course, eventually you also have to do legwork such as keyword research, getting affiliate links, and so on.
Clicks2Customers is out of South Africa. Last year the company had good success providing a large discount retailer with qualified traffic through niche-specific paid search tactics. That’s the future for big merchants, too, as well as for affiliate marketers. Instead of forcing someone to click through 20 pages to get to the coffee maker they want, if the person can get directly to that coffee maker with one click from a targeted affiliate link, it increases conversions.
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Sam Harrelson blogs at Cost Per News.