More than a decade ago while he was in college and later law school, Steven Rothberg picked up extra cash by publishing ad-sponsored campus maps.
Then he finally began working as a lawyer and realized it was far less enjoyable life than publishing had been. Rothberg rapidly changed plans, and by 1995 launched a profitable employment magazine for college seniors in the Minnesota area.
A few months later, a career services officer at the University of Minnesota who was distributing Rothberg's magazine across the state, called him up. She said, "There's this thing called the Internet."
Rothberg says, "She didn't know what it was. She had never been on it. She didn't even have email. But she knew her students were using it to find information about potential employers. So, she suggested we get a Web site."
After research, Rothberg discovered it was not worth launching a local jobs board. "It was too narrow of a niche even until 1998, traffic just wouldn't be substantial. We would have niched ourselves out of business."
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Rothberg did not want to spend any money on sales efforts that might not pull in new accounts. He decided to try selling employment ads through an affiliate program.
(Selling ads through affiliates?! Yes, we never heard of that idea either before now.)
Rothberg used four tactics to recruit affiliates:
1. He set up an account with full-service management system Commission Junction (CJ) just as though he were any other online merchant.
2. He began to troll email discussion groups HR people hang out on, starting friendly relationships that might turn into marketing partnerships down the road.
3. He proactively approached a hit list of HR sites on a regular basis.
4. He added notes about the affiliate program on his own site to catch surfers who might be good affiliates.
The most important bait to catch affiliates is an enticing commission structure. Rothberg decided against offering a percent commission because, "if they see, for example 33% commission on CJ, they don't see any kind of translation as to what that averages out to per sale. By giving an absolute dollar figure, it's much more concrete."
His "concrete" figure: $100.00.
"It's a nice round number that was guaranteed to make potential affiliates sit up and take notice. We only pay when the other site refers a customer to us. Our least expensive item sells for $125, so every ad dollar we spend has a positive commission for us."
Employment ads are not impulse buys, so CollegeRecruiter.com pops a 365-day persistent cookie on all incoming traffic sent by affiliates, so whenever in the next year the buying decision gets made, that affiliate gets fair credit for it.
Rothberg explains, "Employers will typically come to our site, look it over and then discuss it at their next committee meeting. Then when the hiring cycle comes around again, they'll come to the site directly and buy."
He offers affiliates a healthy selection of about 80 different banners and text links, but pushes two types of marketing campaigns for best results:
1. Job search boxes: "If a resume-writing site or job coaching site has our search box on it, employers will often run a search on it to see what's in the database. 'Are there jobs like ours?' If so they think, 'This is probably a place we should look at.'"
2. Editorial links: "Banners are ok, but sites that promote us by recommending our site within their copy in an article of a list of recommended resources are the sites that do much better."
He even offers sites syndicated columns that include links back to his site. Affiliates put a simple MasterSyndicator code on their site and a new column automatically appears whenever Rothberg posts to it. (Link to sample below.)
Almost all of CollegeRecruiter.com's non-job listing content is written by a group of regular columnists who Rothberg recruited to write for free.
"We get several authors to send us articles every other week. They send out the article for PR purposes, but there's very well written quality content in the article, enough to convince the reader that this person is an authority. The byline usually contains a link to the author's Web site."
Most authors hope these links will help them sell self-published books on employment-related topics at their own sites.
Rothberg continues, "We're not terribly concerned with word count or style. It's not like a magazine where you have to have the same style in all articles - that would greatly increase the cost. It has to be easy to read, and they cannot push their book in the body of the article."
The articles provide content for the site newsletter and help drive traffic because each is posted as a static HTML page, which is the format search engines, prefer. (Job listings are dynamically driven by a database.) With more than 700 articles posted as pages, Rothberg's site gets substantial search engine traffic.
Plus, seeing how well the authors sold books inspired Rothberg to test making money from outgoing affiliate links.
His site currently promotes more than two-dozen other related sites on an affiliate basis. His rules when researching a potential partnership:
1. A fair commission. "If people have to buy something I expect to receive more money than if they just have to enter their email to sign up for a newsletter."
2. A solid reputation. "I like to see it's been around for a while and it's one of the industry leaders, although not necessarily 'the' industry leader. I want to feel comfortable
that my traffic will be treated properly."
3. The opportunity to build a co-branded or private label site. "If, when our user goes over to the other site, it has our look and feel then conversion rates are far higher. It's not as confusing for the user."
CollegeRecruiters.com's look and feel is very low-tech, basic, and text-heavy. That is entirely on purpose.
Rothberg's found that the faster a site can load the better (which means few graphics), "Most students don't live in dorms. A lot of times they're connecting from off campus at 2am dialing up on a 28.8 AOL connection."
He was also jettisoned simplicity in favor of a zillion links on every page. "We put a ton of links on every page that lead deeper into our site. Having a lot of links on every page greatly improves search engine rankings. Every page on the site is within three clicks of every other page." In a world where the average Web surfer only sticks around the average site for 2-3 clicks, that means a lot.
Rothberg adds, "We make it next to impossible for people to not be able to get into the site. If they want to search for a job there's a place right on the home page. They can also click on a link for the desired state, they can click on a link for the desired occupational field, they can click on a link that says 'Start Your Job Search Here.' There are countless ways for them to do the same thing because different users like to search in different ways."
The CollegeRecruiter.com site was profitable withinits first quarter in 1996 and has never strayed from the black since then. However, Rothberg did fold all his print products, because although initially profitable, ultimately they were not worth doing in addition to the site.
He runs the company lean and mean with just five employees, "We outsource almost everything." The site gets more than a quarter of a million unique visitors per month, and 65,000 people subscribe to its semi-weekly email newsletter.
A solid 20% of his recruitment ad sales come from affiliates. Interestingly this appears to be a plateau. Various efforts have not made much of a difference. (Note: We have heard other online merchants with successful affiliate programs talk about similar plateaus.)
About 1/3 of CollegeRecruiters.com's total income now comes from its outbound affiliate deals with other sites. Why so much? Rothberg laughs, "I'm smarter than most affiliates are. I spend more time and effort analyzing which programs to join and how to best promote them."
However, he notes that not all outbound programs have been instant successes. Rothberg tested affiliating with almost a dozen different resume writing sites over the past six years, and until just two months ago was not able to find one that drove any income.
"It was always a thorn in my side. It felt like leaving money on the table. We were obviously not referring users to a site they liked. Every time I found new partners I would be all excited and the results were always the same, nothing."
Undaunted he plugged away at the search, finally testing a deal with ResumeEdge.com. "We agreed to terms in maybe 30 seconds. Within days we were live. Within about two weeks we had as many sales through their service as we had had in six years with everybody else. They know how to convert their customers."
Lesson learned. Just because an affiliate deal does not work out it does not mean the concept is bad. It means you have the wrong partner.
The same has proven true on the inbound side. Although CJ drives the vast bulk of CollegeRecruiter.com's 14,000 affiliates, these are only responsible for 7% of sales. The remaining 93% of sales come from those hand-developed relationships with HR and college sites that Rothberg personally went after.
Can a small recruitment site hold out against the Monster's of the world?
Rothberg says, "Monster is a great site, but like all goliaths it leaves lots of crumbs. We can survive very nicely on the crumbs that are left because those crumbs are so huge. We're not millionaires, but everything has been cash-flow funded, and we'll never have to worry about paying our mortgage ever again."
Which is quite a success in our book.
Sample of a syndicated CollegeRecruiter.com page on another site that drives sales: