Monday, January 11, 2010

2010 Affiliate Industry Preview Series: Interview with Shawn Collins of Affiliate Summit | ReveNews

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2010 Affiliate Industry Preview Series: Interview with Shawn Collins of Affiliate Summit

January 11th, 2010 by Angel Djambazov

As part of the ReveNews 2010 Affiliate Industry Preview Series, I interviewed industry leaders to get a sense of their plans and goals for 2010. Today’s interview is with Shawn Collins, Co-Founder of Affiliate Summit.

How do you feel about the affiliate industry’s current health overall?

It’s a little bit tricky to get a correct gauge on it because we normally don’t see the real numbers from the networks.  But as far as I can see from my own barometer, I think it’s doing very well. I guess my indication is really seeing what happens at Affiliate Summit, in terms of participation, seeing how many people are coming out. The fact is that the show is continually growing. To me that’s a clear sign that the industry is healthy.

In the past there used to be a sort of understanding that the West was the bigger show and that the East was sort of a smaller one. That’s changed. This past summer during the East show we had a big jump from the show in Boston in 2008. A little bit more than 2,300 people were at the Boston show and we got over 3,000 for New York this past summer.  We had some big growth despite all this economic downturn.  Last January, we had about 3,200 in Las Vegas so the New York show almost equaled that so we expect about 4,000 this month which will by far be our biggest Affiliate Summit yet.

How has the affiliate industry evolved?

If you look back maybe as far back as 10 years it used to be that there were lots of one dimensional content sites with a bunch of 468 x 60 banners and some text links. These days people are using every possible method of marketing in affiliate marketing.  Whether it be pay-per-call, a video podcast, micro blogs, social network links or games, just any kind of method affiliates are out there using it to reach the consumer.

Do you think that is indicative of the affiliate industry that there is a lot of early adoption to technology?

Yeah, I do think so.  I think that there are a lot of companies that are slow to move on things; which perhaps explains why video hasn’t come faster with the affiliate marketing.  I think that some affiliates have experimented with it and done some interesting things but a lot of the companies haven’t really picked up on video fast enough.

What about network adoption?  It seems like only just recently, as recently as 2008 that video was the goal for 2009.  I still don’t see a lot of video widgets out there at least with an easy format provided to the affiliates by the networks.

I think part of the issue is that the whole thing is ahead of the consumer.  I’ve seen some widgets out there have some sort of neat functionality like clickable video but I just think the average person doesn’t know that functionality even exists. So until they are aware of the functionality, by some other means like if all of the sudden interaction with video ads become common place with Facebook and YouTube maybe then you will see more adoption in the affiliate space. But I think now people just aren’t trained to even understand that experience, so we still have yet to figure out a way to monetize video.

Has the way advertisers perceive the affiliate industry changed over the years?

It seems like pretty much every big brand that has become involved with affiliate marketing, and several for quite a few years.  But I guess there are hills and valleys for that perception.  I think sometime around 2003 when the CAN-SPAM Act was passed, there was a negative stigma attached to affiliate marketing just because there was a small minority of people that were sending out spam that somehow reflected on the entire industry itself.  I have to wonder if now advertisers will be wary of affiliates that have blogs because  the FTC has new regulations around that.  I think legislation probably has a good deal tie-in to perceptions and it often reflects on what affiliates are doing.

What do you think the biggest lessons were from the affiliate industry learned in the last decade?

The most important thing is if someone wants to build a business out of affiliate marketing as an affiliate that it’s just vital to do something you really care about and you have some kind of vested interest in.  A lot of people try to be sort of mercenaries and go with whatever the trendy issue is or whatever the most lucrative offer is but it’s tough to really stick with. I think the people that succeed in the long term are those that really focus on the areas they care about.

I think it’s the ideal approach is for new affiliate marketers to focus on whatever niche they are passionate about in whatever vertical that maybe. It could be about a breed of dog or sports team or whatever.  It may not have the highest ROI compared to some hot offer but you’re more likely to keep building it two, three or five years later then if it’s something you don’t really care about.

What do you think the biggest changes will be for the affiliate industry in 2010?

One thing I’d love to see is more focus on ethics. I don’t like seeing people in different forums outright bragging about how they are trying to cheat different advertisers or consumers. That kind of behavior is nothing new but I feel somehow people are just more flagrant about these days. That certainly isn’t going to help the reputation of the industry when you have a certain segment of people that think it’s somehow cool thing to use black hat tactics. I would like to see the networks band together and having some sort of uniform blacklist or something for those who are outright disregarding the rules. It really bothers me to see people take pride in cheating.

Recently I’ve had some firsthand experience related to that because one of the speakers who was slated to appear this year had written an article that essentially came off like he was bragging about the ways he had cheated in the past. It was all very sketchy and so ultimately he ended up stepping down from the panel.  It did sort of lead to a tricky discussion because some people were saying we should be doing some kind of due diligence for all the speakers. When you have over 70 speakers it is not practical to be able to research them all thoroughly as if you’re looking at them for an interview for a job position.  Still Affiliate Summit certainly doesn’t want to give a forum to people who are there to brag about how they cheat the system.

In terms of that type of industry clean up, who do you feel the onus is on to lead that clean up?  Do you feel that that is a network issue?  Do you feel that is an advertiser issue?  Or do you feel that that needs to be on the affiliate side?

It’s tough to put it on the affiliate side because ethical affiliates don’t really have and enforcement ability to chase off the bad ones. In the days when I was a merchant I was always frustrated there wasn’t more policing by the networks. I felt it should come down to them if they are going to be this trusted third party in the industry. From the merchant perspective there really should be some sort of real filter of affiliates before I even can consider them for my affiliate program.  It really bothered me that I’d have to go through and catch them sometimes for committing actual fraud or doing different tricky things like bidding on a trademark when it was specifically forbidden in the terms and conditions before the network would do anything.

I always found that to be a little annoying, paying a network that wasn’t doing more in that respect. I want to see more vetting by them.  It would be helpful for the networks, although maybe not practical, to maintain some kind of list of affiliates that have infractions of different stripes across networks, a grading system if you will. If affiliates were somehow graded when they’re applying for an affiliate program it would be much easier for the affiliate manager to consider them.

What impacts did you see recession wise on the affiliate industry?

As far as I can see there wasn’t a considerable impact in our industry.  Like I was mentioning before, the indicator for me is the Affiliate Summit attendance. When things were looking really bad a year ago in the fall I was very concerned with how that might impact us but we ended up continuing to grow.  We had an increasing number of advertisers and exhibitors for Affiliate Summit so maybe by virtue of the fact that the whole industry is based on performance it just wasn’t as touched as some other spaces of online advertising.

I think a lot of people in the industry were worried just because they were assaulted  by the media for for the last eighteen months on how dire the situation was. But I think while people were justifiably concerned and maybe a little bit freaked out, it thankfully didn’t translate into a lack of spending in the industry.

One thing that obviously had a big impact in 2009 and the later part of 2008 was the so-called Amazon Tax or anti-affiliate taxes.  I remember a very memorable  session last Affiliate Summit East in 2008 in Boston with Melanie Seery during the Performance Marketing Alliance’s first coming meet that turned very heated because everyone was so passionate about defending the affiliate industry.  Now we’ve had kind of a year of fighting the proposed legislation in various states: some successful, some not.  How do you feel that the Amazon Tax will play out in 2010?

It’s hard to say.  To me I feel an annoyance with the industry because  it’s so significant an issue it is frustrating to see only a small group of people are really working on it, even bothering to talk about it and try to fight it.  I’m not sure how to make it more “sexy” or “relevant” to the rest of the industry. If we maintain this level of apathy more and more states are just going to roll over and do what New York did. Then we’ll just be stuck with it and you’ll have a lot of people in the industry asking what happened a year from now. It’s just so urgent for people to get with it and really pay attention in their states and be pro-active.

Why is it important in your view?

I think it’s important just because we can essentially see a lot of affiliates terminated from affiliate programs in different states.  If it were to pass in New Jersey for me, for example, I’ve been an Amazon affiliate for 12 years now and to me it would really have an impact on my income if I was to get booted out of their program. State governments seem to think it’s this great way to grab more money and they are not really looking at the big picture. The fact that all of a  sudden they are going to see all these small business hurt. More people will have to go to the state for unemployment, and the states will collect less tax revenue from those business. I think a lot of these state government officials need to be educated on the implications of such a tax.

We will keep providing educational sessions and avail ourselves to anybody if they want to propose a panel or a session to get the word out. We also have our magazine FeedFront that comes out four times a year where we are able to get the word out to tens of thousands of people so in that respect we’re able to disseminate the information.  We did an event this past summer with that Buy.at in Baltimore where we had a bunch of people get together to speak about the tax issues.  But I’m not sure with the apathy I see in the industry that events alone are enough. We’ll, however, do whatever we can with the strength we have to get the word out there about it.

What are Affiliate Summit’s goals for 2010?

As always we’re going to focus on delivering value and giving people some beneficial tools so they can build their business.  For instance, we are introducing a couple new things this year including the Affiliate Showcase. It is similar to we’ve done in the with the Meet Market were we have tables for different vendors, networks, and merchants but in this case we are going to have a room with 15 tables and they are going to be staffed by well-known affiliates so merchants and networks can come in and have a chance to meet with these select affiliates for a couple minutes. It’s a chance to hit all these really big players in one quick spot. We are also doing a thing where we are providing a session based around different verticals, for example apparel or sports, we will have two dozen of the biggest verticals identified so merchants and affiliates can get together within their respective verticals and try work out some deals. Both of those sessions were born out of feedback we got from past conferences.  Ultimately we are always trying to improve the experience and make it a more worthwhile for attendees.

We are also expanding our brand into print publishing.  We are planning on giving away a copy of a new book we’re putting out as a publishing house basically and as long as everything works out well and it’s published on time we’re going to be giving it away to every attendee at the conference. This book is going to be the first one in our imprint which is called Velocity NYC.  It’ll be a compilation of the first seven or so issues of Feed Front Magazine where we’ll have a 100 or so different articles in there combined and set up in different topical sections so people can have them as sort of this reference book to look at in the future.

More and more I’ve seen Affiliate Summit focus on supporting various charities and non-profits, what drives that?

We started up a few years ago.  Missy Ward and I expressed how we’d love to somehow give back and figured that since we had the attention of thousands of people in the industry we could try and harness that power to do some positive things. So we just started doing it on a small level at first. Just trying to get people to contribute and raise funds for various charities. This year we’re going to be focusing on the National Breast Cancer Foundation, which we’ve done a couple times, but we worked with a lot of other charities like Big Brother, Big Sister for example.  This year we’re doing a charity poker tournament in Las Vegas among other things and our goal is to raise 20 to 30 thousand dollars for the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Last year several new directly competing conferences sort of sprouted up and I know there have been ones in the past.  How do you feel they will impact Affiliate Summit?

There are so many different conferences out there and they to a degree serve different segments.  For us, even with competition, we just keep growing. When we started there was already CJU, LinkShare and ShareASale all had their events going and were well attended. They all seem to be going strong today, so I think there’s a lot of space for them.  Because our industry seems to be ever-growing I think there’s plenty of space for all of these other events.  It just depends on what people are looking for.

How do you differentiate yourself?

Well part of it is that we have the biggest crowds of any affiliate marketing conference which gives people the biggest opportunity to find others they can do business with.  We have a perspective, well, actually I’m not sure how much Missy shares this, but I felt like some conference bored me to tears. I’ve never been a very good student in that respect. So one of my guiding principles for Affiliate Summit was to create a conference for people who can’t stand conferences. To make it more interactive, more interesting, and more fun instead of just the plain old thing as if you’re in a dry college lecture the whole time.

I want to thank Shawn Collins for taking time out during his busy schedule to take part in our 2010 Affiliate Industry Preview Series. Stay tuned for our next conversation with Kerri Pollard, General Manager of Commission Junction.

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