Panda Changed Affiliate Marketing, What eCommerce Websites Can Learn from Retail Stores to Recover

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

By: Weston Bonnelle

Affiliate marketing has boomed as more and more work at home gurus tout the possibly of earning thousands of dollars online. Unfortunately affiliate marketing merchants & niche eCommerce websites have earned a poor reputation due to their aggressive SEO tactics and scammy (or even criminal) behavior.  Instead of attempting to become scalable, most affiliate marketers set up questionable eCommerce sites to earn as much money as possible in the short term. The Google Panda updates specifically targeted affiliate marketing online stores  and has pushed up branded online retail stores in the SERPs since customers are learning to only shop online at trusted websites. Since the Panda updates, it is important understand that the affiliate marketing game has changed and has grown more complex.

Since the relationship that affiliate marketers have with brands and customers are more detached, many forget that eCommerce websites and online stores somewhat resemble retail stores. A retail store’s main purpose is to present the brands they sell in a favorable manner so that customers will make a purchase. They are in fact another component to strategic marketing and they play the role as a distributor. If a retail store has poor customer service, unappealing displays, old products, etc. customers are less likely to part with their precious funds, as a result the brands and the retail store lose in the long run.  Affiliate marketers need to realize that just because they are online, this doesn’t mean they should neglect clever business strategies.

Tips for Building a Scalable and Sustainable Affiliate Marketing eCommerce Website

Brandable Name - Most people can name several retails stores, spout off their function, primary products and the demographics they cater to. Even retail stores that aren’t national brands have local significance and distinctiveness. Branding makes this possible. Most affiliate marketing eCommerce and online stores purchase long tail domain names and then give the website name a similarly forgettable, keyword drivel – and suspicious – name all for the sake of SEO. Before Panda this was acceptable and profitable, however in the end branded websites are dominating the SERPs. Amazon, which resembles the Wal-Mart of online stores, and Folica, considered a premier beauty supply online for hair products and appliances, have strong brand names. Developing a brand name is the first step towards building trust which leads to your site becoming the destination for more online purchases. For example, Folica is extremely popular on hair forums, could you imagine these customers attempting to recommend a site called the Cheapest Hair Supplies Online.

Study the names of retail stores in your area with strong branding such as Wal-Mart, JCPenney and Best Buy. These names capture the hearts of America on an emotional level first (also called peripheral for those psychologists out there) then on a cognitive basis.  Retail stores also can succeed on a local level even if the names are more generic however the familiarity can generate trust. Perhaps you can grow your site at a reasonable level by giving your eCommerce site a name with local significance. Then focus on building relationships and branding yourself as a locally trusted affiliate marketer that sells products your neighbors have limited access to.  Also, let the customers know the story behind the brand. Your story could possibility inspire a well-constructed brand name and fuel an advertising campaign. The story behind the name Amazon is that the founder Jeff Bezos wanted a website that started with the letter A and embodied the mission of his site. Then he discovered the river in Brazil named Amazon in the dictionary, " a place that was exotic and different, just as his store would be. The river was the biggest in the world and his business would be the biggest store in the world."

Visible Customer Service – The less well known your brand is, the stronger your customer service needs to be. Customers don’t necessarily trust that your product or service is quality and are essentially taking a gamble on your brand. Therefore customers need be assured that a representative is readily accessible just in case the purchase malfunctions or another unexpected issue arises. Customer service is also proof that the business is legitimate, the affiliate not a scammer and that the store cares enough about the customer to invest in their satisfaction. Many affiliate eCommerce websites look forward to unlimited streams of passive income and prefer to set up shop and abandon ship to build other stale online stores. However this approach is unsustainable and is less likely to result in repeat customers if complaints continue to get ignored. You’ll just confirm their suspicions and even cause them to unfairly avoid other affiliate online stores.

Your site needs to have some form of active and visible customer service. It's advisable to display multiple forms of contact to alleviate the distance and online barrier. The advent of social media and networking are tools that simplify customer service. Active forums give the impression of instant assistance and it helps to build a community around your site. I also recommend setting up a Facebook page perhaps even post your live Twitter stream. Ford Motor Co is using social media as a component to their customer service approach, according to Forbes, “The Ford brand’s eight, dedicated customer service agents use a customized search engine tool based on key words to monitor concerns, questions or comments on Twitter, Facebook, auto forums and message boards. Each issue is assigned to one agent until resolved…Ford is now responding to an average of 2, 000 people weekly via social media.”

Holistic Advertising – SEO gurus encourage affiliate marketers to engage in article & content marketing to sell individual products. Panda is slowly wiping out the avenues that affiliate marketers used to market articles to discourage poor content from cluttering Google’s search engine. Now it’s more effective in the long term to showcase your brand and online store as a whole along with the product. Usually retail stores draw in customer with their image and what they offer. Then once they get the customers inside the store, retail stores market individual products.  For example, Macys may state in advertisements that they are having a 50%  storewide or in certain categories, then once the customer enters the store they may see a section of specific brands and products that are on clearance. Also the advertisement clearly showcases Macys’ brand, so that the customer understands that their products and retail store brand co-exists.

Don’t become so focused on using article and content marketing on specific items that you forget the brand. You want the customer to know that the affiliate online store named Tech Enthusiast (made up name) = trendiest electronics + tech savvy website owner.  Don’t just bait them to the product, mental connections need to be created. 

Attractive Displays – If you want customers to part with their hard earned cash, you need to offer a visually compelling reason why. First the overall store needs to look attractive and have its own personality. These factors help the customers feel as if they belong to a part of larger community. People who love Apple love the feeling of belonging in the electronics/tech community as they enter the tech geared location. Heck some even feel a bit too comfortable and use the Apple store as a means of expression…through randomly dancing. Ron Johnson, the former senior VP at Apple for retail confirms this consumer desire, “A store has got to be much more than a place to acquire merchandise. It’s got to help people enrich their lives. If the store just fulfills a specific product need, it’s not creating new types of value for the consumer.”

I recommend walking into national and local retail stores offline that are in your niche. Get a feel for the aura and in the same way, try to translate your brand’s personality and aura in your website design. You also want to know your demographics so that you can craft your affiliate online store to appeal to your target audience. Secondly the individual displays should compensate for the customer not being able to see the product in person. Imagine your site as a retail store and customers are actively strolling from display to display instead of having the mental image of them passively browsing through your site. How would you organize the store in order the grab the customer’s attention and attractively display the items? Try to replicate these attention grabbing techniques online. Honest and appealing product displays also contributes to the trust factor. If the site appears to be a scam, keyword ridden, spammy, difficult to navigate, has unconvincing displays and is poor in quality then it will scare off potential online shoppers customers.

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Offer an Experience – Retail stores offer a memorable experience. Many people love to spend a day shopping at the mall with their friends because the retail/department stores within the mall cater to their interests and create a positive feeling. Don’t forget that we live in a consumerist society; therefore people consider the very act of purchasing products or services in a comfortable & interesting environment an experience. Once again appeal to the emotions, then the cognitive. What experience can you provide online that physical retail stores can’t? Consider fun quizzes, interactive videos involving the products, a blog discussing the latest products in your niche, games, contests and/or product memes - especially try to provide sharable experiences. I think that a “Siri” geared towards assisting customers with product purchases would be a fun tool for a developer to design in the future.

Unique Offline Relevance – Due to Google’s Panda updates, the age of solely depending on search engines for traffic has abruptly ended. Although eCommerce is primarily online, you need offline relevance for your site to become viral through word of mouth so that traffic will visit your site directly. In fact social media marketing is based on fans sharing content to friends they have mostly connected with offline. Give people a reason to get curious about your site and use it for offline activities.

Amazon and Folica are well known for their in-depth reviews that are so informative that people even read these reviews before shopping offline. Video reviews are also quite helpful and popular, once again provide a visually compelling case for your products. Perhaps you could create or curate video product reviews or write guides on how to utilize the more complicated products. Forums and blogs also meet the criteria for being helpful and sharable.

eCommerce affiliate marketers need to get back to the basics and understand the core reasons why customers purchase products so that they can develop solid strategies for selling products. After Google's Panda updates, you are no longer just selling to search engines but to people.

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