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Interviewing Software & IT Leaders
There really are only a few serious affiliation networks for software publishers out there, so the choice is quite easy.
Fabrice Meuwissen is the co-founder of VSO Software, a company which produces the popular ConvertXtoDVD video converter. He is a developer & marketing person who has been involved in software development and distribution since 1997 and started using an e-commerce platform back in 1998. Fabrice also set the bases of BrainFight , a webmarketing consultancy agency mainly addressed to software vendors.
Adriana Iordan: Can you please tell us a little about your background and how you got into software marketing & development?
Fabrice Meuwissen: My name is Fabrice Meuwissen, I'm 35 years old and am from France. I've been involved in the computer software market since 1993.
Since finishing my studies in software development (1997), I have been involved in software development and distribution for my personal projects and through the various companies I worked for. I have started to use an e-commerce platform since 1998 at a time when internet connection was only possible with a modem and not yet with a DSL line. I have always worked for companies with international software distribution, both B2B and B2C.
In 2003 I set up VSO Software together with Jacques Vignoles; we spent time developing a very popular CD copy product named BlindWrite, then CopyToDVD, and the most known product is ConvertXtoDVD, a video converter to build DVD from DivX, .avi and other video files. VSO reached 2 Million downloads per month without real expenses in ad campaigns, and I'm proud of this.
Adriana Iordan: So would you describe yourself as a developer or a marketing person? :)
Fabrice Meuwissen: I am both due to my technical, development and distribution background. I have a good estimation of the time and complexity required for software development, but at the same time, as an executive of a private-founded company, I deal with all the other daily tasks you may encounter in a small business.
Each task can be used to improve your activity: for example, making the technical and commercial user support will help you to define users' expectation , and it is a great source of inspiration to make your software easier to use and fit to the market trend.
My strongest asset is to have experienced plenty of jobs and responsibilities. Thus, to answer the question, I am both. I comprehend the importance of understanding the customer, needs, demographics and how to market a product in order to reach the target audience. :)
Adriana Iordan: In the software industry, some authors / vendors believe that affiliate marketing is not working or it's not worth the effort. At VSO, you used affiliate marketing to sell & promote products and in the same time you were active as an affiliate yourself. Can you share your views?
Fabrice Meuwissen: I can understand why some people could think affiliation isn't a profitable part of a vendor business model, and in some case, I agree it isn't necessary. It depends on the company, on the product type, the product status, that's why each software vendor needs to consider its uniqueness and cultivate his/her own view of the market. However, it is ABSOLUTELY necessary to stay open-minded, to discuss with customers, services providers, competitors, to choose your own path without rejecting the others. That includes affiliate marketing.
As a vendor, if you are already using a platform (such as Avangate) which handles all the admin tasks to list, enroll, track, manage and pay the affiliates, I don't see why you wouldn't set up the affiliate program. Some very few affiliates can generate a significant part of your sales, with minimum input on your side.
On the other hand, some people consider the affiliates are "stealing" sales the publishers could have generated themselves. That's a very interesting discussion, but it is also based on a simplistic assertion - you can't say that without checking the popularity of these affiliates. You should also think about the fact that your competitors may already be promoted by the same affiliates you are rejecting.
In my VSO-Software experience, the affiliation was a fair way to reward the first webmasters and web sites which were already doing reviews and promotion of our products. When the affiliation market started to be more organized (in 2006-2007), it was a way to stay visible compared to some new competitors arriving with very aggressive commission such 70%+ for affiliates. I always considered affiliation as another source of statistics for sales sources and customer motivation in buying my products.
VSO-software acting both as a vendor and an affiliate was a unique situation as far as I know; I didn't see anyone else doing it. Why did VSO choose to do that? Well, for several reasons: one of them is that due to the size of the VSO products catalog, the company doesn't cover all the aspect of video conversion. For example, ConvertXtoDVD is doing only conversions to DVD, and not DVD to AVI or DVD to Ipod/Iphone.
Moreover, VSO never developed a DVD copy solution for legal reasons. So, instead of letting customers think CopyToDVD could do the task they were looking for, we used affiliation to promote alternative software. Not only it was providing a fair source of information for users to get the software they were looking for when VSO didn't offer a solution for them, but also we were doing promotion for other vendors we were already working with. When VSO was listing 1Click DVD copy or DVDFab, we were actually still helping ourselves, as these companies are using VSO burning SDK.
Recommending alternative vendors and competitors is also a way to show to your own users you are not scared to be compared to others and I think customers can appreciate this. When a customer is finally choosing a competitor, we know it by the affiliation tracking and we can find out who are our toughest competitors.
A third reason to use affiliation to promote products which you don't have in your own catalog is that it helps you define what your next products will be like. If, for example, you promote in the same time a YouTube Downloader and a Blu-ray converter, you can see which one of these sells better and you can think about what market could be filled in by your own company or to give up a market when you think you can't provide a better solution.
And finally, with the crazy commission levels available for affiliates, you can sometimes make more money from a sale of a competitor than with your own product. You can benefit from this situation - to learn which new program or new version to develop.
Adriana Iordan: Can you give your advice to software vendors looking to choose an affiliate network for promoting their own products?
Fabrice Meuwissen: a) As a vendor, you will first look at the popularity / size of the network. You can't easily estimate how many affiliates you will have and how many sales they would generate for you, so you need to look at what your competitors are using. There really are only a few serious affiliation networks for software publishers out there, so the choice is quite easy.
b) Another criteria you have in mind concerns the technical specifications of the affiliate network, such as:
c) The last point to check is the statistics possibilities of the affiliate network. If you can only see sales reports, you can't really conclude about which affiliates deserve more attention, better commissions, special beta build for earlier review etc. You may have no sales completed by an affiliate despite that he is sending traffic and downloads for you - you need to know why. Stats will help you sort the most active affiliates from the others.
As a publisher, I would really recommend you to open a test affiliate account, at least to know what the affiliates will experience. It is not taking more than 1 day and it is worth having this experience, to understand the affiliates' expectations and how they could be tempted by promoting your competitors.
Adriana Iordan: Can you name 3 main criteria when choosing an affiliate network as an affiliate?
Fabrice Meuwissen: Product Popularity: Unfortunately I think a lot of affiliates generate more revenue from Adsense and other ads on their website. Considering this, a lot of them look for different criteria - the popularity of the software will be one of them. If they can get your Google natural traffic, they will greatly improve the number of their ads impressions, even if this means promoting a competitor of the same product.
Bonuses for affiliates already using an affiliation network: a lot of affiliates are lazy, so they won't subscribe to a lot of different affiliation networks. They will prefer to work with their existing one, and so, they will pick the software to promote from that list with priority. Changing anything could be scary, so affiliates will focus on the network which generates most sales for them.
Commission is the obvious last one, although they should look for conversion rate. Unfortunately, to get more information about the conversion rate and profit by impression, you need to have this data available, it requires time and energy, and affiliates sometimes prefer to do quantity and get their profit from traffic volume (such as Google AdSense).
Adriana Iordan: From your experience with VSO Software, what motivates affiliates to promote your brand more prominently?
Fabrice Meuwissen: At VSO we sent a survey to our affiliate database (around 2000 listed, but only 150 active on a 60 days period) to find their opinion on various questions, including why they promote VSO products. The conclusion is the most active affiliates believe the product is better than others and this helps them in promoting it confidently.
The "bad" affiliates will consider only the commission and nothing else. They will not try the product, not consider the percentage of the leak due to the tracking options available etc.
The "good" affiliates will consider a lot of parameters, such as the brand and popularity of your products, but they will consider your market too. As an example, it's not the same to promote the best product available in the category "screen capture to make video guide" and to promote the one of the top 10 security tools available online. The main reason for this is because the volume of searches can go from x2 to x100 depending on the software category.
In the case of VSO, we tried to get a very personal approach with the affiliates we wanted to recruit. We offered them a top tracking system, with additional tracking tags. They can dynamically change the payment provider which will be used on our website and we store the tracking in the registry and not through a cookie. It has been proven to be 20% more reliable, taking into account the conversion report available in a Google AdWords campaign. Also, we explained the result of a successful affiliation promotion as the result of a complex formula which could look like:
Result = Software Category x Vendor Brand x Tracking Method x Commission x Product Price x Currency.
Each parameter of this formula can really impact the final profitability of the campaign, for example:
Another action which goes against the logic: I never hesitated to suggest using the affiliate network to webmasters which were already promoting our products for free without any tracking option. For sure, the vendor loses money with commission on sales already made, but the special human touch of being fair is a long-time relationship ticket.
As VSO was very specialized with a limited software catalog, I know the affiliates promoting VSO products do it because they know the product is good and someone will be able to assist them (we always encourage our affiliates to have a live communication with VSO team members by MSN live, Skype or direct emails). It is a unique way to involve Affiliates in special promotions, anticipated reviews of a new major version, tips for the affiliation integration.
Adriana Iordan: Which affiliates sell software better: download portals or niche websites?
Fabrice Meuwissen: From my VSO experience and as a consultant, I can say that both sources will bring you about the same number of sales. The large download portals try to promote a lot of different products where you will have a lot of competition, while the niche websites are animated by expert and enthusiastic users. I never found it truly profitable to pay to be listed in Download.com, but I know it works for some new vendors, because they don't have a better choice and need to get traffic by starting somewhere.
I recently wrote an article on my blog, with good practices about selecting the right commission for new vendors, with a section about how important it is to reward motivated affiliates with extra bonuses: no matter if they are large download portals or niche websites, as soon as they contact you, you can just consider they will be motivated and involved to efficiently promote your products.
Adriana Iordan: You are also the founder of Brainfight, a webmarketing consultancy agency mainly addressed to software vendors. Can you share some of your most valuable tips for software websites owners out there that want to increase their sales online?
Fabrice Meuwissen: Interface & Usability!! to reach Harmony and Profitability!
Let's take an example: a user reaches your website, then downloads a file named "asc.zip" ... First of all, why is it zipped? It is an additional step for the user to complete - you can stupidly lose him/her there. Then, what about the file name - asc? It is maybe obvious for you as it is your company and your product, but do you think users will remember this 5 minutes later if they were downloading several products in the same time? How will they guess if it is a product or a document? They need to install it first or not? And what that product is doing. Are you looking at all these details? Could they really jeopardize your business? It is certainly possible. It is not a massive problem, but it is just another small step easy to fix. Just like a typo in a website or a bad link you could have left untested or a minor browser compatibility issue.
My role at Brainfight is to report the problems of a product as they are experienced by users: the website with keywords selection, website content, product installation, product usage, shopping experience and technical and commercial support. It is impossible for the vendors themselves to be objective on what they produce. Being involved into their project, they can't really see all the problems experienced by users. Each $ or € invested in the global interface and process of usability will be returned in years of profit. That's my suggestion - be reviewed by a pro and be humble to accept that others might not feel or understand your way of thinking.
Adriana Iordan: You have worked with different ecommerce providers. Can you tell us, from your point of view, what are the most important aspects software vendors need to take into account when looking at an electronic software distribution service?
Fabrice Meuwissen: That's another question which could make several chapters of a book, but it's true, I worked with a lot of different ecommerce providers in the last few years. I have the feeling we grew up all together. You can choose an electronic software distribution service based on your customers database: some of them are more turned to USA than Europe, even if the major ones will support the 2 big markets without a visible difference.
Some vendors are more technical than others and will judge providers based on available features. Some will look at the reputation of the platform. I would suggest to actually try it and learn from the real experience and not from the promises made by the ESD company. Human factor will be important - some services (low cost category) won't assign a dedicated account manager for sure.
You need to check if the support / assistance to shoppers is efficient. I saw too much wrong answers to very simple question about a transaction details. Put yourself in the shoes of a customer and try the service, to check how fast it will be and if the reply will answer your question.
Adriana Iordan: I know you have been highly involved in the optimization process for the VSO store. What is your advice regarding usability issues for software selling websites?
Fabrice Meuwissen: I haven't been involved as much as I would have wanted, because of the technical limitation of the different payment platforms we used. Also, VSO has a lot of customers from different countries, so we needed to tune up the language correctly to be standard and international. For example, "magasiner" is a Canadian word, but doesn't exist in France. At the same time, the platform which used that word was from North America and it could suit their original audience.
If you have the opportunity to do it, try A/B testing - even with little experience you may be surprised by some scenario results. Optimization of the shopping cart is a key part for you. That's where you could lose 80% of the users which visit the shopping cart; if they think there is a trick, if they are not confident, they will just give up and look for a better solution. If they have any issue, they won't hesitate to spread out the word and will ruin your efforts to build a good reputation.
Adriana Iordan: Your company is based in France. For software authors wanting to increase the visibility in Europe what are some of the basic issues that should be taken into consideration to overcome entry barriers (language, culture, legislation etc)?
Fabrice Meuwissen: Translating your website and software in different European languages (French, Spanish, German, Italian) will be your main challenge as I strongly believe that neither automatic translation services nor paid services can help you do it right. Leaving aside the high risk of getting incorrect translations, there is a background work that needs to be done as well, like correctly naming the buttons, menu and dialogs in the software interface and just the slightest error in translation can just ruin the confidence of the user trying out your product.
The best solution in my opinion is to look for volunteers on your customer forums to help you with localization. They could feel honored for this and in exchange you could involve them even more in the future version of the products. It really works and it can be free!! Don't try to be greedy though, be fair and offer them at least some gift once a year - you may have some specialty (foods or goods) in your country they will appreciate.
About the local customs, there is something about the shopping experience some American and Asian vendors often forget: the European VAT. Americans will always have different prices on the shelf and at the register, as VAT and taxes are added only in the last step, at the register. So they are tolerant to a final price change.
A new law in Europe about VAT rule has just been introduced on the 1st of January 2010. In theory the e-commerce platform is supposed to do the tax job for you, but in some cases it's another source of annoyance to take care of. Each country has its laws you should be aware of when extending your sales to Europe. But it is still a wonderful market, and it is easy to get customers in France or Spain - these markets are well organized and a few strategic partners or affiliates can quickly help you to boost your existing sales by 10% to 30%.
I have the feeling I spoke too much and it might have been boring for some, so allow me to congratulate you for reaching the end of the entire interview. :) For more specific questions, contact me directly at http://www.brainfight.com. The first online meeting and review are free and the second too, if you mention you came due to this article. :)
For more on affiliate marketing you can also follow Fabrice on Twitter (@supermimai).
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