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Industry Greats - An Interview With Joe Connor

I thought I'd drop an affiliate elder-statesman (no offence) to see how the industry has changed over the past few years. Joe has been there, seen it and bought the t-shirt. He doesn't get caught up in all the hype and vitriol, he quietly plugs away, does what he needs to do and doesn't court controversy. There are few in this industry I respect more, he's not interested in polishing his ego and is a completely "centred" person - it must be something to do with his Tai Chi.

So, if you're interested in finding out about the story behind one of the "greats of the industry" then read on ...

1) Everyone knows you, Joe. What's your background though? What brought you in to the world of affiliate marketing?

It's a long story but I've never written it down before so now is as good a time as any. I left school at 16 way back in 1974 with Led Zep and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon ringing in my ears to serve an apprenticeship as a stepping stone towards my ambition to become a design draughtsman. 5 years later I'd achieved this but as the recession hit hard in the early 80's I was made redundant. I was gutted, there were no engineering jobs anywhere and I was left with a lot of time to kill - perfect for learning to program!

I held off buying a ZX80 and bagged on of the first Commodore Vic20s to arrive in the UK. I'd learnt a little bit of FORTRAN on punch cards at school so BASIC was a breeze before I turned my attention to 6502 assembler and before my missus had enough and signed me up for an interview at the local college!

For the next four years I rode out the recession studying OND Technology followed by HND 3D Product Design and got to hack around with a bunch of early computers including the college mainframe, Commodore Pets, a Tangerine and Apple Macs. Following a work placement I landed a dream job as a product designer at Sams Design in London where we won the BBC design award in 1990 for the Novopen II - a fountain pen style insulin delivery device, which is still widely used by diabetics today.

My interest in computers rumbled along but was re-ignited when Computer Aided Design (CAD) became a practical proposition on home computers. I bought an Atari Mega ST and shortly afterwards Sams Design had 4 Atari "CAD workstations" and an A1 plotter up and running - I remember a 20Mb Hard Disk cost £599!

Anyone who has commuted will know it saps your will to live and eventually turns you into a zombie so when we decided to have kids I was ready to get out of the rat race and retire aged 31! I was one of the first gen' house husbands and it's been an amazing life-experience but my brain had started to turn to mush.

I was rescued by an offer to teach design back at my local college where I got to grips teaching product design on some early Windows PCs and much nicer Macs. In the evenings I got involved with bulletin board services (BBS's) and the CIX online Atari community back when the Internet was still text only which led to writing articles for most of the Atari magazines and in 1998 Renegade Publishing Ltd was formed to publish (Atari Computing magazine http://www.ataricomputing.com) which I edited until the dominance of Windows PCs pretty much killed off interest in other computing platforms in 2000.

I'd learnt to hand code HTML to create the Atari Computing website so rather than close the company I started putting websites together for local businesses. I figured out I could make more money if I hosted the websites as well so I got to grips with Linux servers and dealing with customers the future looked bright. Having nursed quite a few businesses into the online world only to be shouted at when, inevitably, things went wrong I realised I didn't really like customers!

Around the same time I bought CantBarsed.com as a joke for my missus because she'd picked up the "Can't be arsed" phrase from TV and we thought it would be fun to offer free email addresses at CantBarsed.com and they proved very popular, we still offer free webmail accounts today.

The website naturally evolved into a magazine style portal site and, although we didn't realise it at the time, it was one of the first community based portals. There are still some early layouts on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine which always make me smile.

With thousands of regular visitors dropping by to pick up their webmail the site attracted the attention of Dan Mountain Buyagift.com who emailed me to ask if I would include a link to Buyagift.com on CantBarsed.com. I asked Dan why on earth I would I want to do that and he explained that if someone visited Buyagift from CantBarsed.com the click would be tracked and if the visitor ever bought anything I would get a commission. I didn't really believe him but I added the links anyway and when I made my first sale it switched me onto the concept of affiliate marketing and I started looking for other programs to promote. Back then there was Commission Junction, then Tradedoubler and UKAffiliates (now DGM) and CantBarsed.com started to make some pocket money - amazing considering I had no concept of search engine optimisation, there wasn't any PPC and only a few dozen affiliate programs to run.

I slowly picked up the skills needed to attract more visitors and skills to convert those visitors to sales and I latched onto the concept of "promotional codes" as a way to gain extra sales. Most merchants hadn't even heard of codes back then so I spent a lot of time chatting with merchants which often resulted in exclusive codes to promote. This gave visitors a reason to shop through cantBarsed and everything in the garden was lovely - for a while!

2) This is show and tell time. We all know your Cantbarsed.com site, but what else are you involved in? Have you branched out of the portal concept into other areas?

We've built dozens of sites and bought a bunch more so we now have live websites across pretty much all the market sectors in various states of decay. We're slowly sorting them out but as a one-man-and-his-mates-company keeping static websites up to date isn't really practical.

I do like portal style sites but they tend to be slow-burn long term projects and the ISPs and media organisations all have excellent portals we can't hope to compete so niche is undoubtedly the way to go. Unfortunately, unlike some top bloggers, I'm not able to stream my train of thought straight into blog posts so I find it hard work but we do have have some blogs, both WP and Blogger which are useful because they get spidered regularly so it's easy to drop links to our other sites.

We've also inherited a bunch of antiquated feed driven sites but keeping them up to date just isn't going to happen so we've taken one semi-successful site BuyAnExperience.co.uk and managed to get it to pull the product feeds for each merchant in overnight automatically then using the hard learnt black art of feed manipulation, filtering and categorisation, publish a half decent, mostly up to date website. It's a major step forward for us, the site still needs work but we can take everything we've learnt and apply this to our other sites. We've got websites running Affilistore and Price Tapestry and they're both great products but google is clever enough to spot these so it's hard to get them ranking well in our experience - we haven't given up but anyone who thinks working with feeds is an easy route to affiliate marketing success is dreaming.

3) About Voucher Codes, then. I think I did a post about voucher codes and your site got caught in the cross-fire. What's your stance on voucher codes and how do you try and add value - I know you're not a typical code jockey.

Used intelligently codes are undoubtedly a powerful marketing tool. Codes can be used to raise brand awareness, clear end of line stock, increase turnover and attract incremental sales when merchant sites are set up and managed correctly.

As dedicated code sites started to appear I noticed sales on CantBarsed.com were levelling off and I realised we needed our own dedicated code site to compete so in 2006 we bought DiscountCodes.tv (DCTV) which we have developed continuously ever since.

DCTV lets the visitor drill down through search results switching between merchants, brands and keywords and at each stage suggesting alternative merchants with codes and I still haven't seen this ability on any other code site so that's our unique selling point.

The news blog and codes both generate RSS feeds and we've recently been adding in-house generated YouTube video content alongside plug in content from the affiliate networks and our own comparison tables.

When we get lumped in together with code sites, which are often nothing more than a list of merchants and codes, it REALLY annoys me - DCTV offers more content than many content sites - which are also free to publish codes without fear of losing commission or being banned!

Before the IAB guidelines were published DCTV was already compliant and it's been good to see most of the rogue sites falling into line which, in the longer term, has to be good for affiliate marketing in general and DCTV in particular. So long as the IAB maintains a light touch and doesn't go overboard with rules which will stifle creativity I'm sure voucher codes will continue to be an essential marketing tool for many merchants.

In a weird time warp I've recently been chatting to merchants explaining how DCTV adds value to their marketing mix and how to make effective use of codes and we've just added the ability for merchants to login to DCTV and add, edit and delete their own codes and offers which demonstrates our total commitment to working in partnership with merchants.

The recent spate of merchants publicly leaving the voucher code scene is disappointing but we've seen major stores pull codes before and come back again months (or years) later and I'm in this sector for the long haul. Company management and policies change periodically so it's only a matter of time before they give codes another try - especially when they see their competitors releasing codes.

4) How much time does it actually take to run a voucher code site? After you get the site developed does it really take a lot of time to update?
A LOT and too much time is the short answer! It's a daily commitment, I wrote a (blog post about running a code site here so for anyone who wants the long answer can I suggest they give that a read? At least since the IAB guidelines have kicked in I don't feel obliged to join in the endless tedious code debates on the a4u forum - it's great to have that monkey off my back.

5) It seems that every method affiliates try gets clamped down on by either Google, agencies, networks on merchants, we've seen issues related to brand bidding, direct to merchants PPC, brand terms in SEO, voucher codes, duplicate content in product feeds etc etc. But what do you feel are the biggest threats to your affiliate income stream in 2009?

Tell me about it! We're definitely working harder to make every sale and new affiliates cannot hope to compete head on with corporate-level affiliates with much deeper PPC pockets so SEO is where it's at and google is squeezing as much as they can out of the organic listing space. We need a new search engine to play with!

Ignorance and/or bad advice have been the recurring threats to affiliate income generally. I'd urge all merchants, agencies and network staff to pro-actively get to know their affiliates so we can work together for our mutual benefit. After all these years it's still almost impossible to establish personal contacts with some affiliate networks which is crazy.

I've also had a couple of merchants this year "asking" us to cripple our codes pages in the organic search results for merchant+code search terms. One merchant even reduced our commission so we steered traffic we could have sent them to their competitors who paid more commission. Any merchant that releases codes has got to expect code sites to rank well for merchant+code terms, that's what we do - if we didn't rank for those terms we wouldn't make any money and have no reason to exist would we? If we were stupid enough to cripple our page our slot would be back-filled by another code affiliate so I would urge merchants who release codes to work with their top performers through their networks, agency or directly with affiliates and while many do, many more still don't.

6) Since you've been in the industry what's the biggest mistake you've ever made? And how did you learn from it?

Undoubtedly the biggest mistake was not reacting quickly enough to the meteoric rise of Mark Pearson's MyVoucherCodes site. Together with his PR Agency Mark took the codes sector by the scruff of the neck and shoved us right in the spotlight - or cross-hairs as it turned out! [Ed: you're not wrong!]

It started well for everyone, the increased media coverage of codes meant a bigger pie for us all to munch into but having been a spectator when the cashback bandwagon rolled into Dodge it was easy to see the storm clouds gathering. The dubious practices most code sites used to burn cookies meant less sales for other affiliates and it wasn't long before the bullets starting flying!

Mark's affiliate marketing "Blitzkrieg" isn't something I would undertake, for many reasons, but from a business perspective it certainly worked: Build up your reserves then rush into a sector with all guns blazing, make as much money as you can as quickly as possible and occupy the territory before the opposition rallies. That was over 2 years ago and, along with everyone else, I'm still learning from the experience. I might even be better off - it's hard to tell.

7) The recent affiliate census said that 55% of affiliates view the current economic situation as an opportunity. What's your take on what's going on and has it affected what you're doing?

Having lived through several recessions I'm sorry to report my gut feeling is it's going to be really bad. CantBarsed.com and DiscountCodes.tv have always focused on bargains so we're well placed to pick up visitors but as traffic shrinks and merchants close we're all going to have to work harder chasing fewer sales.

Since Christmas my stats are holdingup well but they are patchy and more volatile/less predictable than other years. We will continue to adjust our coverage to match what people are searching for and take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves.

8) I Recently blogged about my top 10 tools to improve productivity. Do you have any tools or tips for new affiliates that you don't feel any other bloggers have covered?

There's a big overlap between improving productivity and working smarter which is one of my ongoing missions. My goal is to be able to work from anywhere in the world on any machine which means almost everything needs to be browser and/or iPhone based.

As a Mac and PC user I could use Explorer, Safari or FireFox on both platforms but Firefox offers the most consistent user experience and there are so many useful plug-ins it's a no-brainer.

My affiliate needs are simple, a text editor, a spreadsheet and email access. I've weened myself off MS Office onto Google Apps and now I can create, edit and selectively share my data from any machine online anywhere in the world - and it's FREE. The email handling is also excellent, there are no viruses to worry about and not being tied to a single machine is very liberating. [Ed: I'm starting to do this too - my work notes are of Google Docs so I can pick up anywhere]

To complement Google Apps I use two "Cloud services"; Apple's MobileMe and Evernote. Both offer nifty features, MobileMe can synchronise contact data, email and calendar data between machines, including the iPhone and it offers a usable file storage area which can be accessed as a remote hard drive. Evernote is perfect for cutting and pasting parts of web pages and making notes which you can access and search from anywhere, including the iPhone. [Ed: Why didn't I find out about Evernote before? Looks fantastic!]

To network/keep in touch with other affiliates and friends I use Twitter and Facebook, which again can be accessed from any browser or my iPhone, and with Spotify I can access my favourite music anywhere (in the UK).

Once you have everything set up you should be able to work from an Internet cafe anywhere and you don't really need a computer anymore - it just requires a shift in mind-set and a little practice. I do still carry a USB drive with my password managers Roboform (PC) and 1Password (Mac) along with a few apps and backup files but the iPhone will eventually absorb this role.

As I said in my recent blog post there's more than one way to skin a cat so my tip for new affiliates would be to learn the basics then, instead of trying to do what everyone else is doing only better if you want a slice of the pie, come up with a new angle and push it firmly but quietly - make too much noise and everyone else will steam in - and if/when that happens learn to adapt quickly, let go and move on. Ideally start lots of projects and switch between them so you gradually build up multiple income streams and you're not dependent on a single website.

9) It seems that over the last couple of years some of the networks have really pulled out all the stops to make it easier for affiliates to promote their merchants. So what would you say has been the network tool or facility that has made being an affiliate easier for you? Mine's Shop Window.

Plug in content is both tempting and frustrating in equal measure! They hold out the prospect of hassle-free content but in my experience it rarely turns out that way. The limiting factors seem to be feeds with missing images and loads of near-identical products compounded by REALLY dumb search and auto-updating capabilities so you either end up with empty content units as the products are removed from the feeds or content units filled with near-identical products and/or missing image logos - Argh!

Summary stats are my favourite and most useful network feature. I want to know on a daily, weekly and monthly basis what I sold, how much commission I made and ideally (few networks make this easy) the referring link and/or custom tracking ID so I can work out how I made the sale - and make some more.

10) During 2008 we had a great time in Barbados, it’s certainly the highlight of the year, as well as dominating one particular niche, but what's your highlight of 2008 and what are you most looking forward to in 2009?

In 2008 I was lucky enough to spend a week in Whistler skiing with the IWantOneOfThose.com gang AND a week in Barbados so I doubt 2009 is going to top that. I'm looking forward to the a4u Expo at the Excel centre because it's the perfect blend of business with pleasure - or was that question a hint to plug your forthcoming wedding plans? ;-)

And a bonus one - if you could drop a link to any site what would it be?

I've plugged most of my sites already but I'm always interested in forming revenue-sharing partnerships with other affiliates and I recently bought a revshare in BillyBargain.co.uk partly to get as far away from the code sector as I could and partly because it's a great site for finding the best prices on DVDs, CDs, Console games and books.

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As you can see, Joe has been very frank and honest with his views and shared some insights into how he views the future of the industry and how recent changes have affected him. I fully understand why he's trying to "cloud" his affiliate operations and am in the process of doing the same myself. To me work is very important, but I do make sure it doesn't dominate my life as it has in the past. I'm looking forward to having a few more beers with Joe, whether it’s at the Expo or sat on the beach in sunny Barbados. It's a hard life!

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