trends

Cascade Billing Solutions

James Edwards
For the adult webmaster, volume is everything. Success is measured in hits and page views — and out of these large numbers only a small percentage of HTTP requests ever become customers. After all the effort the online adult businessperson goes through to advertise for traffic, the small fraction of visitors who actually want to purchase content become even more valuable.

At the point the web-surfer becomes a customer and decides to use his or her credit card to spend on entertainment, you have already paid a great deal to attract them. If you have a single credit card processor and the interface is down, or for some reason, your customer's credit card is declined, then you will probably lose that business forever. Using a credit card online to buy adult content is daunting enough for a patron, but when the processing fails it doesn't lend creditability to your site or even to the tech-level of your overall offering.

This is where cascade billing comes into play. When you are ready to turn a visitor into a paying customer, you only need to collect a small amount of information locally, then you can direct the potential customer to a series of credit card processors, cascading them, in the event their first card is denied.

With cascade billing you can cascade your card processing costs along with your visitors. Using a cascade billing model, a webmaster can set up primary card processors that charge less, directing only the most-problematic virtual card swipes to ACH clearing, or a higher-cost processor. Affiliate business can also be ranked and cascaded, based on the cost-benefits of each affiliate agreement.

The real beauty of cascade billing is that the adult webmaster is no longer hostage to one card processing service. With cascade billing you can use multiple merchants and rank them by preference. You can also point different affiliate traffic streams to multiple card processors. Today, there is great software out there that makes this paradigm possible for even the less than whiz-bang webmaster.

NATS
NATS, the Next-Generation Administration and Tracking System, is one of the adult industry's leading third party affiliate back-end software applications. It also has a great reputation for having a built-in cascade billing model. NATS software is owned by Too Much Media, at TooMuchMedia.com, with support offices in both New Jersey and Germany.

NATS prides itself on being easy to use. "No hardcoding here," brags their literature. NATS software is PHP-based. The application has the friendly colorful look-and-feel of a program like Cpanel. So if you like PHP scripts, this should be an easy solution to implement. For the advanced user, NATS comes with its own language called Smarty. With Smarty, simple tags can be added to your HTML or even Java Script.

The simplicity of the NATS setup is impressive. Their login page is called login.php, the statistics section is called members.php. With this easy naming convention, NATS is simple to install and maintain. NATS security is insured through software encoding done by the Zend Optimizer or Ioncube, so one of these packages must also be placed on the server you are configuring the NATS application for operation with.

Once you have NATS running on your web-servers, you can sign up affiliates and setup multiple cascades for each of their streams. These cascades are called steps in NATS. In terms of interfaces to billing, NATS automatically integrates processing with CCBill and other services, using native screens of the NATS front-end. NATS also comes with an impressive suite of graphical online reports to help you track revenue streams and view how much money each is yielding.

Currently NATS only runs on Linux/Unix, so if you manage Windows-based hosting, this might not be the tool for you.

MPA3 – The Mother of All Automation Programs (Version 2)
Mansion Productions offers MPA3, a sophisticated affiliate tracking application and Content Management System (CMS). With MPA3 cascade billing is made easy with more than 30 different payment processors integrated into the software. Demos and software can be obtained for MPA3 at MPA3.com.

"We make sure that if the primary processor doesn't take the transaction for some reason, it will cascade to a second or third processor. So if the customer has a valid credit card, they always can get the purchase through," said Mansion Production's CEO Oystein Wright about MPA3's built-in cascade billing features.

With MPA3's join links, webmasters can dynamically change HTML pages to cascade in a different order to credit card processors. The only drawback to this method is that card-processors are identified by a numeric in the HTML code, thus forcing the programmer to remember each merchant's code or do an automatic lookup using MySQL.

The MPA3 user interface has clearly marked and straightforward screens to mange the complexities of an online storefront:

Oystein designed MPA3 for webmasters who don't relish HTML, so any small changes to your code will be easy to implement. MPA3 is more of a CMS publishing system, allowing for the quick creation of multiple websites. Along with tools to build adult websites, MPA3 has front-end modules for affiliates who want to integrate their own galleries and videos with your content.

The new version 2 supports even finer grain integration with affiliates, allowing different payout levels based on sales. This version ships with multilanguage support, which should give it an edge for the international adult entertainer. Version 2 has also caught on to trends in blogging, automating that process and integrating RSS feeds into the software.

Like NATS, MPA3 is relatively easy to install and is based on PHP scripting and MySQL. MPA3 is a little more restrictive in terms of what operating systems are supported than NATS, currently only Debian and RedHat Linux are recommended, along with Apache 4.1 or above. MPA3 also defines its templates through XML, which require that you have XML installed on your web server.

Shaving and Cascade Billing
When an affiliate program either maliciously fails, or for technical reasons, does not record a sale that involves the payout of a commission — they are shaving their commissions and thus are not required to spend as much on their affiliates.

Internet message boards are rampant with warnings about adult entertainment companies that have been suspected of shaving. One would think this phenomenon has discouraged webmasters from setting up more complex affiliate relationships; yet actually, shaving necessitates the need for better metering and CMS software applications.

Today if you want to sign up affiliates that are willing to promote your website, you need to actually advertise that your software has the metering capability to detect and make shaving more difficult. By purchasing well-known software such as NATS or MPA3, the software itself becomes a selling point for your potential affiliates — who would rather sign up on a system like NATS or MPA3, rather than a homegrown system with shaving (possibly) built in.

Cascade billing, like any new software, opens a large opportunity for abuse. In the case of shaving, this abuse is tackled by simply better software to manage complex affiliate relationships. Just as we would expect good ATM software from our banks, affiliates now expect that content providers standardize on systems like NATS or MPA3 for signups and payouts.

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