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Affiliate Marketing Case Study: Jake Becker
Site Name: WatchCount.com (WCC)
Owner: Jake Becker
Launched: January, 2008
Traffic /month: Over 28,000 uniques (each unique spanning a 24 hour window)
Revenue /month: A good wage
Target Market: eBay users (preferably shoppers!)
Theme/Topic: “eBay Most Watched/Popular Items, as Voted by eBay Users” – and other, related eBay search topics/features
Top 3 Marketing Strategies: SEO; unique tools spread through word-of-mouth and bookmarked; small, private affiliate program
Hi, Jake and thanks for taking the time to share your experience with the members of AssociatePrograms.com.
There are a lot of readers who will enjoy the look inside your business.
First, can you give us some background on yourself? Tell us a bit about your career experience before you first got started online.
I came upon internet marketing from a scattered technical background. Like many, I’ve worked 8-to-5 full-time jobs over the years. However, I’ve always been disenchanted with that typical schedule and yearned for better options. While a daily daytime schedule is common and works for many people, I’ve always been a night person who preferred off-hours scheduling.
Moreover, I always seemed to fall into high stress work environments (that seems to be the norm for IT jobs, and many other industries) which took a toll on my mental health. For these reasons and more I was delighted to discover the “underground” world of online marketing in 2005, learning that real people were building real full-time or part-time incomes from the comfort of their home computers.
I felt this inner conviction that I just had to eventually figure something out online and break free from full-time employment if at all possible.
How long as your site been on the Web?
WatchCount.com has been live for over 2.5 years now, growing slowly and steadily in development (on-site and off-site features) and online reputation the whole time.
Is it your first website? If not, how many other sites have you had?
WatchCount.com is my first full-blown website, built by me 100% from the ground up. I did have another website before it – an eBay misspellings website that was a small cookie-cutter site built by someone else. That earlier site played the role of introducing me to the world of affiliate marketing where I had a small, free product and needed to spend my time learning to get the word out about it; it sort of got my feet wet in internet marketing. (Before that I didn’t have any usable website at all, and as a complete newbie, just tinkered around on the side with methods/platforms like Google Cash and CB Mall.)
Can you tell us where the idea for your current site came from?
It came about by accident really. I was roaming around the eBay Developer Program website, a place I’d barely ever been to before, looking for something else. I came to learn that with the information gleaned from their API platform, I could probably build a small “Most Watched on eBay” website, highlighting popular eBay items that fellow eBay users had “voted” to the top of the pile.
I knew that eBay had already offered some limited widgets to affiliates and others who wanted to showcase eBay items that had accumulated the most interested onlookers. It seemed to me that the tools offered by the API to retrieve and display this information seemed to go far beyond what these small widgets offered.
I had this conviction that there’d be eBayers out there who’d find this information valuable for a handful of different reasons. This seemed like a potential affiliate marketing opportunity. So, then I set about to teach myself the programming skills necessary to access this data from eBay’s API and make it available on my new website.
How did you go about developing the website? Who set it up for you?
I came at affiliate marketing from a technical angle. While I have no formal/professional programming experience, I do have some scattered coding experience deep in my past. That’s the skill set that I resurrected to create WCC, which I built myself.
I gravitated towards PHP as my web programming language of choice in connecting my site to eBay’s API. I taught myself PHP as I went along, using eBay’s tutorials and documentation to get me started, along with many tutorials found on the web (thanks, www.w3schools.com!). As I learned more about PHP, HTML and CSS, I could craft my site and the eBay search features it contained with better results.
I realize that these days there are many platforms available to help people build websites unlike in 1997. Now, a complete non-techie can now use such platforms (WordPress, Site Build It, etc.) to build a flourishing online business. However, in my case I wanted – and built – a very specialized website that was technical in nature, matching my mindset and needs.
What is your target market?
eBay users, specifically shoppers. I monetize my site mostly via eBay Partner Network, so I love it when eBay shoppers bookmark my site and use it whenever they shop on eBay. They are my bread and butter.
Peripherally on WCC I also have some free tools for eBay sellers, but most of them fall outside my current business model. I made them either just for fun or to complement my other services and broaden the scope of my site. And hey, eBay sellers are often eBay shoppers as well!
Why did you make the choice to run your business on the web?
I feel very comfortable behind a computer. Besides, I’m something of a loner and have always preferred to work odd hours (such as after midnight) whenever possible.
Like most people, I can’t afford not to work. So being that I need to work somewhere, I was very pleased to eventually find my way into the internet marketing space. Here, I can work at home or at a cafe, and work my own hours taking breaks and walks when needed. The internet is a big place, full of creative activity and traffic sources at your disposal, and a web-based affiliate business is a general business structure with many advantages that can couple well with the many opportunities online.
I eventually carved out a small corner for myself in the vast eBay ecosystem, finding a niche that worked well for me, meshing the worlds of affiliate marketing, software development, and the user base of, current or would-be, eBay shoppers and sellers.
What kind of revenues are you earning? Where/who from?
I monetize my site mostly via eBay Partner Network, eBay’s in-house affiliate program. Without releasing any specifics, I can say that I now earn a small half-time to full-time income from my site. This is the result of 2+ years of slow and steady growth, both traffic and revenue. It reflects my consistent and dedicated time n’ energy investment into WCC.
Being someone who is good at getting by on a modest income and spending frugally, I certainly wouldn’t say I’m living large by any stretch of the imagination. But, I’m happy that I can now pay most of my monthly personal expenses (rent, food, medical insurance, etc.) from the revenue and profits generated by my website.
Can you give us some insight into your favorite marketing strategies?
I’d have to say basic SEO techniques are an important foundation for marketing online. I’ve put a good amount of effort into trying to get WCC to be seen favorably by Google (and perhaps by implication, other search engines). This includes addressing both on-site and off-site factors.
A general strategy of mine is intrinsic to, and intertwined with, the basic concept of my site. I tried to create a unique way to search eBay, and a handy tool that can be bookmarked and shared with friends. Doing my best to make it useful and fun adds to the stickiness of the site and increases the likelihood of return visitors and sharing.
A favorite offline strategy is having business cards and refrigerator magnets printed up, advertising my website. A common question I ask people I meet (parties, bars, on the plane, conferences, other social events, etc.) is “Do you shop on eBay?” Believe it or not, much of the time the answer is “no”. But if I get a “yes” I give my 15-second elevator pitch and drop ‘em a card. Admittedly, I’m not tracking this marketing channel, so I can’t really comment on its effectiveness, but it definitely “feels” like a good thing to do.
What kind of traffic are you seeing to the site (visitors a month)?
These days, each month about 28,000 visitors come to WatchCount.com. However, many of them are repeat visitors who’ve bookmarked WCC (they put food on my table!) to help them find cool stuff on eBay.
Where are people finding you?
Thanks to SEO, I get regular traffic from the search engines. I also have a couple partners who send traffic to WCC. Moreover, as my site offers some unique and revealing eBay search services, I see traffic coming from various forums, both public and private, where people must be talking about the site.
I was also flattered to receive a Star Developer Award from eBay in 2009 for being a helpful resource to fellow developers on their forums.
This has raised awareness of WCC and brought some traffic from various sources.
There have been numerous other little things I’ve done to help spread the word: several eBay-related or ecommerce radio shows; some article marketing; uploading videos to YouTube; business card handouts; sponsoring radio shows (pay a fee to have WCC mentioned); forum signatures & blog comments; schmoozing with vendors at in-person antiques/collectibles expos (WCC is popular with collectors of many kinds); press releases; a contest/giveaway; baby gigs at Fiverr.com; and many more things…
Do you use SEO to build traffic?
Yes, definitely (see answer above).
I like Jay Stockwell’s recent metaphor of how SEO methods are like “riding the bus” whereas PPC techniques are akin to the responsibilities and freedoms of owning and driving one’s own car. I’ve been content so far with the benefits (and shortcomings) of “taking the bus”.
Do you use pay-per-click advertising?
No, not really. I’ve only dabbled with PPC, and that was enough to teach me that one must go full-steam ahead with PPC to get anywhere with it. It’s a serious endeavor, requires regular oversight, and is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps one day I’ll sink my teeth into it.
Have you built a mailing list? How big is your list?
I do have a general mailing list attached to the site, but it was intended to just keep folks updated on site news and happenings – some people are interested in the latest site features and such. I’ve been able to boost subscriptions which are currently at about 600 with enticing PDF giveaways. But, I’ve also found that email marketing is a marketing strategy I don’t personally mesh well with.
I haven’t engaged with it or done what’s necessary to truly build a deep relationship with my readers. The list also isn’t narrow enough in my opinion, as it includes eBay shoppers, sellers, and other passersby. Besides, behind a successful mailing list I think there really needs to be an active, forward, engaging personality connecting with readers regularly. For various reasons, I just haven’t felt like playing that role or had the time to find someone who could.
What kinds of challenges exist for people in your market?
eBay is a pretty expansive marketplace with many millions of listings. The site itself (which has many sub-sites in different countries) offers a number of different ways to search the marketplace. Also, eBay entrepreneurs sometimes come up with additional, creative ways of extracting listings into a usable format. eBay shoppers can be overwhelmed – or underwhelmed – with the search options and results offered by the eBay website. Sometimes, it can be hard to wade through tons of listings, trying to find what you want.
That’s where I come in, providing search tools at WatchCount.com that identify items that have been voted, in a manner of speaking, as popular or interesting by other users. These items bubble up to the top of WCC search results, helping users find items that have bids or previous sales and high numbers of watchers. This can help shoppers steer away from the dregs of the marketplace – items that have “settled to the bottom” and received little interest from peers.
Collectors of various kinds are a tangible subset of the WCC audience, as WCC helps them identify products of interest. For example a coin collector on the prowl for certain kinds of coins might like to use WCC to see the ones that have secretly attracted more eyeballs than others. Maybe this helps them avoid bidding on certain items, or conversely maybe it helps draw them in more.
Would you say there are any mistakes you've made along the way?
No.. Seriously though, I’ve certainly goofed up like anyone else. One thing I was guilty of early on was spending too much time reading (ebooks, blogs, articles, etc.) and not enough time actually doing.
Eventually I began to learn to tune out the noise, start thinking more for myself, and take action – and to start tinkering with baby traffic experiments first-hand, learning things as I go. My mistake was blindly believing everything I read about Internet marketing, SEO, and the like.
“Conventional wisdom” and myths run rampant on the Internet. It’s important to maintain common sense and bounce ideas off your own intuition before get your hands dirty with live experiments.
Could you tell us 3 tips that you wished you had known or learned when you first started your site?
1) Server migrations are a pain. I should’ve just started with a VPS (virtual private server) and not bothered with $8/month shared hosting. At least I knew enough to avoid $4/month hosting!
2) I wish I’d learned to trust my instincts sooner rather than later. While I think I avoided most of the “scammy” types of internet gurus, before I eventually gravitated towards the solid, above-board ones, I did waste a bunch of time and money following in the footsteps of folks in some kind of gray-area – peddling ebooks, advice, and software of little long-term value.
3) Things always take longer than I anticipate. Plan accordingly.
What are 3 things that have made the most difference to the success of your site or improve the cash flow?
1) My overall perspective has been long-term and “slow and steady”. My approach was to create small-but-handy eBay search tools that were/are unique, figuring that utilities such as these had a good chance of enduring the test of time. Also, people who like them can hopefully spread the good word about them.
This long-term approach, combined with regular, usually daily, work on it, to build it and grow it, seems to have paid off. No, I haven’t amassed great fortunes, but that never was the goal anyway.
2) Simplicity. I’ve tried hard to make the site and its services to not be overcomplicated. KISS – a term many of us are familiar with. For example, my decision to locate advanced search options on a separate page and not bundled onto the homepage, has probably made the site more user-friendly and approachable.
3) I injected a lot of heartfelt passion into the design of the site from day 1. It’s been a ton of work but what substantially helped me through it all was my vision. I wanted to create a simple but fun and helpful eBay search tool that would have some unique utility for eBay shoppers.
I think my dedication has been apparent to many of my visitors in a myriad of subtle ways because of the bookmarking and sharing I see.
If you had a complete newbie sitting down in front of you right now, what advice would you give them as they're just getting started on the Web?
The advice I’d have is pretty unconventional, as I’d be sounding more like a life coach than an affiliate marketing advisor. But here it goes…
I believe that most people have an internal throttle at some sub- or semi-conscious layer where we decide how much suffering and hardship we are “required” to endure before we’re “allowed” to experience any consequential success, pleasure, or happiness. This kind of limiting belief system we learn from those we’ve spent our time with, our parents, our families, our religions, and absorbed probably countless other ways. This often unconscious expectation of how hard we have to work for the gains and achievement we seek plays out in many areas of life, especially in the realm of employment, business, and entrepreneurship. Many people honestly and deeply feel that we must suffer greatly before we can achieve (money, success, happiness, joy, the acquisition of things we want, etc.). I think that in the realm of building one’s online business, it’ll play out such that we’ll unknowingly steer away from better opportunities, tacitly or overtly self-sabotaging steps to success.
We’ll find ourselves gravitating towards working harder not smarter. We’ll shy away from ingenious systems that we can integrate into our grander business plan and instead find ourselves doing more repetitive work that maybe we should outsource to others. We’ll tend to find ourselves engaged in work that’s more of unpleasant variety – as opposed to tasks that are more aligned with our innate passions and skills, and may actually be quite fun.
So my advice to anyone starting out exploring the possibility of building their own business, whether online or off, is to first sit down and take some time to look within. See if you can be honest with yourself and get a finger on these kinds of limiting beliefs that may be floating around inside your head that tell you how hard (or easy) life should be and if it truly is “OK/right/permissible/acceptable” for you to be successful at things, especially your business, with only a moderate/reasonable amount of hard work.
If you find that you’re like many of us, taught to feel that being happy or achieving our desires is beyond us and that life is just inherently painful, period, then I think there’s a strong chance that you may be internally fighting yourself as you struggle to build your business.
Another piece of advice... Don’t be lured into thinking that you need to be a techie to succeed online. You don’t. In fact, I think the opposite is truer, actually. Here let me explain…
Unlike in the early days of the web, these days there exist reputable platforms that allow non-technically oriented people to build vast websites. Such platforms, like Site Build It! or WordPress, often take care of most/all of the techie tasks of the business, allowing the webmaster/blogger/owner to focus on providing content to their audience.
I’m of the opinion that the people on the web making the most amount of money are non-techie marketing types, folks who have experience with and understand marketing principles, people, and human psychology. You can often outsource your technical needs or use a site building platform, but the content and allure of your site(s) – and the marketing for it – is what makes it or breaks it, in my opinion.
That said, it’s also important to focus on what you’re good at and what interests you. Given that and my techie bent, that’s the angle I approached my own foray into internet marketing - creating a very specialized and unique web application. In a way, from a time-management perspective, I may be handicapping myself by insisting on being my own webmaster and being so hands-on with my htaccess files, canonical links, nofollow attributes, Linux file permissions and such, but that’s the primary role in my business that suits me well.
How would you say running a website based business has affected the way you live your life now?
The big plus for me is the flexible schedule that my business affords me. Yes, I still have to work, but having the freedom (most of the time) to start and stop, take breaks, and arrange my hours is immensely valuable to me.
I work anywhere between 25 and 60 hours per week, and it’s probably been in that range for most of the past couple years. Usually the lower end of that range is when I’m in a mode of not doing much to WCC, whether marketing-wise or development-wise. My time is then spent mostly just doing the day-to-day things to keep the business humming along smoothly.
When I’m pushing towards the higher end of that range it means that I’m actively engaged in building out the site/business. On top of all the usual maintenance, upkeep, and “paperwork” kinds of tasks, I’m coding new features or managing some kind of marketing project.
Believe it or not, most of the time, wherever in that range I might be, I usually work 7 days per week! This is by choice – one of the benefits of the affiliate marketing business I’ve chosen is the option to drape my schedule across my days and weeks as I see fit.
Yes, site emergencies, conference calls, trade shows, and other constraints appear on the scene every so often, pulling me away from my routine, but most of the time I can work the hours I choose. For personal reasons, I prefer to have my weekly work hours spread across 7 days instead of 4 or 5, offering me more free time and flexibility from day to day. It often just works out better for me that way.
Is there any popular trend or strategy within the affiliate marketing industry that you’ve shifted away from – or outright ignored?
There’s certainly a lot to be said about diversifying one’s revenue streams and not sticking with just 1 merchant. While I can definitely see the wisdom in that strategy, I’ve found myself doing the complete opposite and focusing on eBay – just 1 merchant – for a number of reasons. One is their diverse and vast marketplace; the other big reason is that I love their powerful API platform. The eBay Developer Program and the options it offers, combined with their affiliate program, eBay Partner Network.
To try to hedge against the risks of focusing so tightly with 1 merchant, I’ve done a number of things. For one, I’ve made sure to learn their Terms of Service and API license requirements very well, and to be very conservative in interpreting and following them.
I’ve also learned that it’s important to try to appreciate the objectives of any merchant’s affiliate program – their goals, their challenges, etc. – and to align myself with that. Sometimes a program’s Terms of Service can be slippery and it may be difficult to clearly interpret certain clauses properly. So, learning the de facto “lay of the land” in the world of that affiliate merchant can be important. Learn what they value and what ticks them off, and adjust your strategies accordingly. Seeing eye to eye is important especially if you’re invested in the long-term as I am.
Another thing I’ve done is to make it out to conferences to meet ePN reps in person. Even though such travel is rarely in my budget, I usually make it happen one way or another. (Tip: don’t get fooled into thinking a conference’s hotel “group rate” is all that wonderful. You can often cut that rate in half, if not more, by finding a lesser-known hotel just a few blocks away.)
Meeting the folks behind the forum and blog posts contributes to reinforcing the valuable relationship I have with my merchant, helping me learn more about them and them about me.
Finally, what marketing sites and teachers do you regularly follow?
In addition to the great articles and advice found on AssociatePrograms.com all these years, I’ve also continued to follow folks like Rosalind Gardner, Perry Marshall, Jim Cockrum, and Ralph Wilson.
In the realm of peer support, some creative ideas always surface over at the Warrior Forum and ABestWeb, and of course, I regularly participate in eBay’s own affiliate and developer forums.
A while back I had visited more sites and followed more marketing gurus on a regular basis, but in an effort to balance my time and get more done, I’ve learned to be frugal in how much daily reading I do.
Thanks Jake! You took quite a bit of time to answer our questions and get them back to us. I know that your honesty is not only helping your own readers but also your friends online like the readers of AssociatePrograms.com.
I always find that reading of other people’s success and their experiences pushes me forward on my journey and I wish you the best of luck as you keep growing your business.
Are you earning over $500 /month from your online marketing? Would you like to submit your story to help and encourage other AssociatePrograms.com readers? Please go to http://www.AssociatePrograms.com/pages/Contact-Us and ask for the “Case Study Questionnaire”. Fill out your answers and you could be the next story we publish. Remember that you can remain anonymous if you wish.
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