October 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Hooking Partners

E-retailer Altrec showers affiliates with new web tools while seeking tighter bonds.

Search engine marketing, e-mail marketing and banner advertising are the older siblings. Social network marketing and mobile marketing and advertising are the babies. Lost in the middle of the family-the Jan Brady, if you will-is affiliate marketing, which some experts believe should get much more attention than it is getting today.

Outdoors apparel and equipment e-retailer Altrec Inc. believes so. So much so that it now says everything it does will be highly affiliate-centric.

Altrec in September showered its affiliates with new tactics and tools that include commission increases, cross-selling and upselling links, color swatches, customer reviews, new promotions, an apparel fit tips guide, and an online forum not for consumers but affiliates.

This major upgrade to the affiliate program can benefit Altrec and its affiliates in numerous ways. Cross-selling and upselling links can lead to increased sales. Color swatches and customer reviews can improve the shopping experience and boost conversion. And the fit tips guide can reduce returns.

Greater communication

To Altrec, though, the most important component of the upgrade is boosting the amount and nature of communication between it and its affiliates, which are viewed by the retailer as central to success.

“Communication with affiliates is essential, and one of the biggest complaints you see in affiliate marketing is lack of communication,” says Sharon Page, affiliate manager at Altrec. “There are tools and technology, but at the end of the day it really comes down to one organization building a relationship with another organization. We’re thinking about the future, and continuing to build relationships with our affiliate partners is key.”

With a full complement of affiliate enticements, Altrec is traveling down a path that many retailers have yet to follow. “80% or more of retailers don’t even provide a contact name to their affiliates-they send out a message and just sign it with the company name,” says Shawn Collins, CEO of Shawn Collins Consulting Inc. Collins is an affiliate marketing consultant and co-founder of the annual Affiliate Summit conference. “This move by Altrec indicates to its affiliates the company is running a responsive affiliate marketing program.”

Beefing up its affiliate marketing program will benefit Altrec by creating much greater market penetration because its affiliates now have many options to promote the retailer and enhance their own sites, Collins says. But tighter bonds will be the big benefit Altrec will derive from its newly enhanced affiliate strategy, Collins says. “The move serves as an indication to affiliates that the retailer has a lot of interest in them,” he says.

Altrec employs affiliate marketing services providers Avantlink, Commission Junction and Market Partners, and counts thousands of affiliates in its stable. It keeps in touch with affiliates in a variety of ways, including e-mail and telephone. A new way, added as part of its recent shot in the arm, is a forum dedicated to Altrec affiliates hosted on the mammoth ABestWeb, a third-party affiliate marketing online forum. Altrec also has worked closely with affiliates to introduce and help implement new technology.

The online retailer boosted communication and added selling tools because it concluded it needed to do more for its affiliates, which generate about 20% of sales, the company says. Sales at Altrec, which launched in 1999, totaled $13.3 million in 2006, according to the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

“We felt good about our program, but we wanted to find more ways to help our partners,” says Kevin Bauer, development director. “It was a realization that there is so much more you can do. Anybody in any company can find themselves caught in tradition, the way things have been done. Every now and then it’s good to step back and look from a different perspective.”

More green

The retailer launched a new commission structure on Oct. 1. It raised the base level commission percentage for all affiliates by 2%. It also created a seasonal commission bump, giving an additional 1% commission from Oct. 1 until the end of February. Higher rewards will inspire affiliate partners more than ever before, Page says.

Altrec executives also believe providing more technological tools will inspire creativity in affiliates to enhance their sites in ways that would benefit them and Altrec. One such tool is links that enable affiliates to cross-sell and upsell related products.

“We see through web analytics when customers are buying certain products like a North Face jacket and identify patterns showing they also bought products like gloves,” Bauer says. “With that data, we create links in HTML so an affiliate can simply copy blocks of HTML for their sites, links that go to other products on Altrec. Additionally, we placed product ID codes in a new data field, so if an affiliate wants, it can easily create links to other product pages on its own site to keep customers there to build its brand.”

Affiliates send queries on related products for cross-selling and upselling to Altrec, which queries its inventory system to pull up ID codes for products most likely to be purchased with other products.

“As customers are making more clicks with these links they are becoming more educated, so when they do make the decision to click to our shop they have done the research and know what they want. And the links help affiliates with conversion because they help surface more relevant content,” Bauer says. “Plus, the easier it is for a consumer to have a pleasant shopping experience, the higher the level of trust in the company-it shows the company knows what it’s doing. And that shows up in higher conversion and more sales.”

The apparel and equipment retailer also added color swatch technology to the toolbox it gives affiliates.

“The color swatches simply involved giving affiliates a block of HTML code,” Bauer explains. “On the Altrec side, a program goes through our inventory system to make sure colors are still available, and will pull colors off the site if necessary. By handing this same process over to an affiliate, it makes its site more dynamic. Then, not only can a customer get a better feel for the products, they don’t have to worry about stock issues.”

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