What selling rubber willies taught me about conversion

The day I learned to ignore brands, and look for offers.

  • Stephen Pratley

I had one of the best initiations into learning about online conversion that there is; running a 7 figure business that relied entirely on affiliate commissions.

We had our own email list, with over 2 million names on it, and we only got paid if we made sales.

While we had a great list, full of online buyers, we also needed the client to keep up their end of the deal with a great offer…but the big winners were often nothing like what my marketing degree said they should be.

I ran deals in online retail, market research, gambling, travel, just about anything. We had a huge pool of data on each of the contacts on our lists and would be sending out multiple, targeted email campaigns each day across the list.

There’s no better way to learn what does and doesn’t turn traffic into sales than sending your own traffic.

But one of the biggest lessons I ever learned was from a side project I set up after a night out.

Much of the UK affiliate industry back then ran at “Get Togethers”. Basically an agency would put up a four figure bar tab, invite the advertisers and publishers along, and a lot of business would get done.

Near the end of one of these events, a slightly inebriated PR agent for Ann Summers let slip that they were releasing a new version of their famous Rampant Rabbit vibrator.

Now, I don’t drink any more, but when I did, I was good at it. I still had the presence of mind to make a few notes and start hatching a plan.

I managed to secure a suitable domain name, threw up a single page website with some images she gave me, and got it ranked #1 in Google for the product name, ahead of its launch. (don’t bother asking how I did that bit, this isn’t a lesson in SEO, and in any case it wouldn’t work today).

The product was released and I started making  consistent commissions from people who had visited my site and bought the product.

£5, £5, £5, the payments dropped in hour after hour and I was pretty pleased with my results.

Then, after about a week, I got a call from the head of marketing at one of Ann Summers competitors who told me they had the exact same product, from the same factory in China, price £5 less and with a free shipping offer. They couldn’t use the “Rampant Rabbit” brand but it was obvious this was the same product.

I tweaked my site and started sending half my traffic to them. What happened next was an eye opener.

The commissions were all over the place.

£1.12, £9, £23, £3.22. There was no consistency, but I was making way more money off the exact same traffic.

Compared to the steady drip of same-price sales I’d had before it looked weird, and I was even worried that something was wrong with the tracking. Maybe this was mixed up with another affiliate?

Maybe I wouldn’t get paid?!

I called my contact at Lovehoney, and he wasn’t surprised.

“Yeah, we’re a bit cheaper to start with but we’re way better at selling other products with each order, and getting people to come back again more often”.

That was it.

They’d just focussed on making each sale bigger and making the sales more frequent, and they were killing it.

All the fluff that Ann Summers had given me about “the strength of their brand” wasn’t enough to compete with these guys.

They had a better offer, and they were infinitely better at getting people to open their wallets and keep them open.

The exact same principles apply to any business:

  • Take the same product
  • Make the offer better.
  • Build up a portfolio of products that help with the same problem. Sell them along with the first sale.
  • Quickly follow-up afterwards using ad retargeting and email.

I’ve had the good fortune to be able to apply these principles to info products over the years and now shopping cart technology has caught up it’s easy to add “bump offers” (do you need batteries?), upsells, and to follow up by email.

Your only limitation is finding more ways to solve the same problem.


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