It's not often we're able to have a candid conversation with someone who's been growing an affiliate site for over a decade.
Itai Danan is the founder of NeoCamera, a review site in the photography niche that is unlike any of our own.
It does not use WordPress.
It is custom coded.
And it is more sophisticated than our own style of content sites.
However, there are many lessons to learn from this interview. The premise between Itai's site and our own are virtually the same. We use SEO traffic to drive visitors that convert into buyers and we get a commission for helping them find the vendor.
If we step back 13 years, we can join Itai as he revisits what it was like to grow his site back then, how it grew to 1 million visitors per month and what it's like to compete in his niche today.
There's lots to discuss, so let's get right to it.
Itai, could you tell us about your site?
Neocamera is a digital camera buying guide and review publication based in Canada.
It offers buying guides for different types of digital cameras and lenses, publishes regular digital camera reviews, plus articles on photography and related topics.
Neocamera also hosts an extensive database with specialized search engines and comparison tools that index thousands of modern digital cameras and compatible lenses.The website was launched in 2005 when it started as a buying guide for digital cameras, with just 7 pages in hand-coded HTML.
Over the 13 years, it was rewritten and has grown to over 30,000 files with more recent web-technologies.
How much experience did you have with affiliate marketing prior to starting your site? How did you end up learn everything? Mentors, blogs, forums, etc.
This was a complete shot-in-the dark!
Even the term affiliate marketing was not familiar to me. I had never built a website either.
All I knew was that I needed to write HTML, style it get a domain name and put it on a web server somewhere.
A mentor would have been great but no one I knew was doing affiliate marketing at the time.
There was one web-designer that got me started by creating the boxes and icons that became the distinct visual identity of Neocamera.
Creating a website was a lot harder back in 2005. Now-a-days, we have WordPress and Thrive Architect, plus a whole host of other tools to use.
Although, Itai's skillset comes in very handy in the second version of NeoCamera…
So, although I didn’t know much, I was very excited to create something that could be seen and read by others.
This was – in a sense – my first public presence and I just looked up one thing at a time as needed.
There is a lot of information online but I found that it takes hard work to make sense of it and weed out the incorrect or outdated information.
In the end, most of the information came from a handful of blogs who got a solid reputation after they proved to be successful.
What attracted you to this niche in the first place? Were you an expert on the topic?
That is a really good question!
It’s actually the first one that needs answering if you intend to make money online, regardless if via affiliate marketing or not.
Digital cameras were relatively new in 2005 and most people were still holding on to their film cameras.
Of those, only DC Resource published concise digital camera reviews consisting of 1-3 pages. While this was a good model to follow, given that most people just didn’t have the patience to read 20+ page reviews published by other sites, I realized something crucial:
Even after reading any of these reviews, it was nearly impossible to make a decision on which camera to buy.
Neocamera was created to address this issue by publishing reviews that give context to the photographic capabilities of each camera.
This showed a unique perspective and resulted in loyal fan base.
The main attraction was that there was finally an objective view of how each digital camera handles and performs for different types of photography.
There were few experts at the time but I progressively became one by reading every single review published online and then by getting my hands on the cameras themselves.
First, by borrowing friend’s cameras and later by getting them from the manufacturers that started loaning me review units.
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Can you give a brief overview/timeline of how things progressed with your site? What did you do first? What happened after 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, etc.
It’s been 13 years since the launch of Neocamera, so the details are not so clear.
I wish to have kept notes!
What I do know is that things progress very slowly when it comes to building readership.
It took about 3 months to get a first click on an ad, which gave me 3 cents but this suddenly revealed to me that people do click on ads!
Over the two few years, world-of-mouth made the site grow in popularity. This got us to a 10,000s of visitors and then we got a few links from blogs and forums which pushed Neocamera into the first page of Google.
Once within the top 4 spots, the ball really started rolling.
More people read and more companies wanted to get Neocamera to review their gear.
By 2008, Neocamera was big.
It had been voted among the top unmissable digital camera sites and included in many sites covering the digital photography industry.
This led me to take a career break in 2009 and spent 6 months working sometimes up to 16 hour days on an all-new Neocamera.
It was my proud achievement, so I was excited to work on it.
Everything was rewritten from HTML and into PHP, this time with a full database backend that let us become the first digital camera site with a search engine.
Also, we were the first with a camera bag and dynamic comparison of cameras and lenses.
In summer of 2013, Neocamera exceeded one million monthly page views for the first time.
Actually, it managed 1.2 million! This translates to about 400,000 unique visitors.
Things were really good but did not stay that way for long, as explained in answers below.
At first, what did you struggle with the most? How did you get over this roadblock?
The toughest online is getting traffic.
Social media did not exist when we launched, so websites relied on links from other online publications.
Traffic follows content but there is a catch-22 for this niche.
In order to have something to write about, I needed more cameras.
To get more cameras, I needed more traffic in order for manufacturers to include Neocamera in the outlets, to loan to.
To bootstrap myself out of this cycle, I made an investment in cameras, buying new units as soon as they become available and selling them used at a loss on eBay.
Most times the loss was easily recovered by a month of traffic but this is not something I could do often.
It only needed to be done until more review units arrived.
It looks like your organic traffic is slowly declining, how do you plan to revive these numbers?
Let’s answer these two questions at once.
Neocamera hit just under half a million visitors during the summer of 2013 but this has declined to about half of that.
This is not what a publication usually wants to see but the entire digital camera market has shrunk.
Cellphones have taken the place of nearly all ultra-compact and compact cameras and manufacturers have pretty much stopped making them.
Case in point, 2013 saw 127 new cameras, while only 34 were launched in 2017.
Neocamera revenue is split almost evenly between display ads and affiliate marketing.
November to January show peak revenue of about $1000 per month, since those are when people shop for christmas and January sees commission for December sales.
The decline in traffic only had a minor impact on revenue since manufacturers have had to significantly increase the average selling price of new cameras to compensate for the much smaller market.
In other words, big companies are in the same boat and we now sell fewer cameras and lenses to fewer people but at a higher price which translates into higher commissions.
There is no sure way to reverse the traffic decline but producing more content is certainly key.
Given there are fewer cameras to write about, I will have to expand to other topics related to digital cameras.
How do you promote your site? Are you on social media, niche forums, etc?
Promotion is still a mystery to me.
There are plenty of people doing blogs and websites with a marketing background, but I am a technical person, so I’ve been very passive on this front.
I do frequent niche forums from time-to-time in order to get to know what people need to know and what has not been written about yet.
This is the most important aspect of Neocamera’s success, is that I write reviews and articles to answer real questions people have.
Coming up, what are your future goals, milestones, and potential roadblocks with the site?
One thing that is not easily apparent is that only a small percentage of traffic is monetized.
We have excellent coverage of affiliates in the US, a little in Canada but almost no coverage anywhere else, but hundreds of thousands of visitors come in every month from outside of North America.
So the next goal would be to expand affiliation around the world and it’s a tough one because, in many countries, people shop mostly in-store which cannot be captured by affiliate marketing.
There are also legal restrictions that prevent foreign sites from participating in local affiliate marketing without costly paperwork or even a local presence.
For those who'd like to expand their affiliate income across multiple countries, we can't recommend our friends over at GeniusLink enough.
What’s the number one thing that you think most people will struggle with when following in your footsteps?
Growing a website and getting traction is a very slow process.
Most importantly, it takes time for people to start trusting your content, considering reliable and eventually recommending it to friends.
What you have to do is be very consistent and very thorough.
On the internet everyone is doubtful and every mistake or inaccuracy gets caught.
I distinctly remember a time when an article had a spelling mistake and I got an email from the Apostrophe protection society (yes, there is such a thing) telling me that I wrote its instead of it’s.
Even data we publish that comes from camera manufacturers sometimes contains errors and us posting it replicates them, so everything needs to be as accurate as possible to keep reader’s trust.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience so far?
The whole process from launching to monetizing requires a lot of learning.
There are technical and logistic challenges that make building something all your own a truly rewarding experience.
It is a lot of hard work but this opened many doors and gave me a much better understanding of how the Internet works.
The most important lesson is that everyone has a voice on the Internet but being heard and trusted is much more work than simply putting yourself out there.
Anyone who wants to succeed online needs to be fully committed and prepared to do the work required to become an expert.