One day I hope to write a book about the performance marketing industry in the UK. It will be called Matt’s Mates. The reason is because the rise and rise of affiliate marketing in Blightey is inextricably linked with the ingenuity of one man, Matthew Wood.
In many ways Matt is not exceptional in British performance marketing: it is not difficult to find folk who are decent, honest, entrepreneurial, hard working and have a partiality for the odd Peroni. But what sets Matt apart is he is pivotal to the industry in a way that no one else is.
If the Soviets or Americans could have blown up the planet by pressing one red button, then, were he to incarnate into a malevolent being, Matt could seriously impair the growth of the affiliate marketing channel in the UK for a good while. The reason is because he owns the one and only forum in the country devoted to the multi-billion pound industry.
Whereas the Yanks have a choice of hanging out on DigitaPoint, ABestWeb eWealth (the latter two now closed down) and countless other forums, Brits only have one. I can’t remember the number of times newbies have asked me to provide them with a list of all the forums devoted to affiliate marketing in the UK and I say “Affiliates4u… and…. errr…. that’s it” to see a look of amazement on their faces.
The monopoly position means that Matt’s baby boasts nearly 13,000 members and nearly 250,000 posts. And that’s just the new vBulletin forum. The previous Ezboard incarnation, which ran from 1999 to 2003, had thousands more posts.
My speciality as a writer - alongside a disturbingly large number of poems about unrequited love which it’s best not to go into - has been in depth profiles and interviews with intelligent people with something interesting to say. The interviews with academics, writers, entrepreneurs and politicians may not have had the exposure of a fluffy love-in with Britney or Lindsay, but my Editors have often received mail from readers saying they have been inspired and educated by the output. I set off on my journey from London to Matt Wood’s office in Bristol hoping an interview with him would not only satisfy the hunger that some affiliates have expressed to know more about the Man behind the A4U forums, but also lift the lid on the oft-intimidating world of affiliate marketing and encourage others to dip their toes into the water.
The sharp wintry wind bit into my cheeks when I got off the train at Bristol. Despite my lifelong fascination with Miss Austen, I had never had the chance to go to the West Country. The first building I set my eyes upon as I left Temple Meads station was a sight to behold. I discovered it was the original station terminus designed by none other than the magician himself, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The offices of Existem Limited, Matt’s company that owns and runs PerformanceIN as well as other web properties, looks like it is only a stones throw away from the station on the map, but is in fact a good 20 minute walk. In many big cities the walk would be a chore, but Bristol exudes a majestic charm which similar size cities seem to have lost since the death of Empire. The decades-old direction signs are something special: on top of huge white metal pillars, the routes to Bath and surrounding places are emphasised with white hands pointing in the relevant directions.
Walking into Existem’s office was like moving from the 19th century into the 21st. In the first three seconds of entering Matt’s HQs my eyes darted between Matt, a colossal red SMEG fridge, Chris, a goldfish bowl and the biggest bottle of champagne I ever seen.
After catching up with Tom and Chris in the office, I retreated to a nearby café with Matt. We sipped into some teas as the interview was carried out.
Are you from Bristol?
Yes, I have lived in Bristol all my life Nadeem. I studied at Bristol University where I completed a degree in Business Studies. I have traveled for a year around the world, but that’s the only time I’ve been away from these parts.
How did you get into affiliate marketing Matt?
It all started at university in the 1990s. I built a student website and thought ‘how can I monetise this?’ I come across myoffers.co.uk who were paying commission for new members to enter free competitions, a perfect fit for students.
I soon accumulated enough for some beer money. It started off with me being able to afford a couple of pints a week, then several pints a week and, quite soon, enough to be able to buy rounds of beer!
How did you progress from that?
After a while I was in the final year of university when everybody starts planning what they’re going to do after their student days. I applied for a graduate position at tesco.com for when I left uni and got it. But I decided to decline that and take a year out to travel.
Setting off for my year out, I was confident that I would be able to keep track of things via internet cafes. Thailand was a beautiful country whose culture is grossly misunderstood; living with a Thai family was an honourable experience.
After meeting a great bunch of guys whilst diving in Koh Tao, I moved onto Sydney where we rented an apartment by Bondi Beach. The guys headed off to do the usual building work and door to door selling, whilst I popped into the local department store, picked up a laptop and did a month solid updating and tweaking sites.
Next step on my world tour was Canada, where I stayed for a month. After that I returned to Bristol where I started doing affiliate marketing in a serious way. I began doing it from home, then serviced offices and now, years later, there’s eight of us and we’re expanding rapidly.
What made you set up a forum on affiliate marketing? Exactly when did you launch the PerformanceIN (formerly a4u) forums and how did people get to find out about it?
It was impossible to talk to friends about affiliate marketing without boring their socks off, so I tried to find resources online, and there was nothing in the UK.
My technical knowledge at that time was nominal so I set up a free forum. I emailed a few sites and we started to grow by word of mouth. Many of the original members are still around and are some of my closest friends.
A number of people have expressed dissatisfaction about Existem starting to charge for events a few years ago, when they were previously free. Can you explain the thinking behind that?
That’s understandable as they have always been free! However, we have to cover our costs for putting these events on.
With the get2gether on the boat a few months back we accepted applications from 520 people. But incredibly 80 of them didn’t turn up, despite paying for it. So imagine what it’d have been like if there was no charge. We’ve had huge numbers of people not turning up at previous events. Payment ensures a bit more commitment.
You have some big sponsors of the events. Doesn’t that cover the expenses?
Yes, we try to get agencies, merchants and networks to sponsor the events, but the income from that is not sufficient to a cover staff salary and associated costs. It takes a lot of work to organise events. A lot goes on behind the scenes, and any money that is made is ploughed straight back into events.
We ran a free event in early 2006 in the Pitcher and Piano, Bishopsgate, London in which we had sponsors and, despite that, made a loss.
We should compare things here to how they are with other industries and events and I still think they are remarkable value. You could drag someone off the street and they would not resent paying £10 for an evening networking, a buffet and a free bar. I don’t know, perhaps the latter is something we should move away from?
I’m not so sure how affiliates would react! Can you give us an insight into what kind of events you have in the pipeline?
Claire Hoyland, our new Events Manager, will be arranging vertical get2gethers around the country in finance, travel, general retail, and casino and gambling. Our next event is on the 31st of January in London [see news item below].
An exciting new thing for 2007 will be ‘A4uExpo 2007 - Affiliate Marketing Unleashed’. This will be a two day conference and exhibition based at the ExCel centre in Lodon exclusively for affiliate marketing. It will have educational seminars, Q&A panels, topical speakers, group workshops, and a last day get2gether.
I would urge anyone interested in being involved to contact us as soon as possible.
How would you feel about Affiliate Summit launching an event in the UK? Would you see it as a rival to A4uExpo?
I have been in contact with Shawn about this [Shawn Collins, organiser of Affiliate Summit]. Affiliate Summit is a great event and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I went over in January. I think there is a huge potential for us to work together to complement each event rather than run two different events.
Interview with Matt Wood: Part 2 Continues Here