Updated April 28, 2018
Affiliate marketing is a common way people make money online. For me, affiliate marketing is my largest income stream. It’s also my favorite income stream because it gives me the most freedom and flexibility. I have written repeatedly about affiliate marketing in the past. This post puts it all in one place.
This post contains affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, if you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a commission.
Topics we’ll cover in this guide:
Chapter 1: Affiliate marketing for beginners
Chapter 2: The pros & cons of affiliate marketing
Chapter 3: How do affiliate marketers make money?
Chapter 4: How do you become an affiliate marketer?
Chapter 5: How do you choose affiliate products to promote?
Chapter 6: How do you join affiliate programs?
Chapter 7: Tips for using affiliate links
Chapter 8: Affiliate marketing myths & mistakes
Chapter 9: How to maximize affiliate earnings
Chapter 1: Affiliate marketing for beginners
Whether you are brand new to affiliate marketing, find the name intimidating or can’t wrap your brain around the concept, this chapter is for you!
But first things first…
Affiliate marketing is about making money. Whenever you make money online (via ads, ecourses, ebooks, sponsored posts, etc.) or offline, there’s selling involved. You’re either:
- Selling your own stuff.
- Selling / promoting someone else’s stuff and getting paid for doing so.
Affiliate marketing falls under #2.
What is affiliate marketing?
Affiliate marketing is recommending a product or service to people you know, and earning a commission when they purchase it (or complete some other action associated with it).
How does affiliate marketing work?
There are 3 basic steps:
- You recommend a product or service to your followers or people you know.
- Some of those people purchase the product or service based on your recommendation.
- You get paid a commission for those sales.
An example of affiliate marketing
Let’s say I have a blog about home improvement projects. And let’s say I often talk about my favorite drill.
I can partner with the company who sells that drill as an affiliate. They’ll give me a special link to the drill tagged with my own, unique affiliate ID. Every time I use that link in a blog post and someone clicks it, my affiliate ID follows them for a time. If they buy the drill in that time, I will earn a commission.
Who is involved in affiliate marketing?
There are 3 main parties involved in affiliate marketing. Each one has multiple names:
- Advertiser / Merchant / Seller – A company or an individual selling a product or service.
- Publisher / Affiliate / Affiliate Marketer / Associate / Partner – They spread the word about and promote the product or service. (In this post, I will be talking about affiliate marketing from the perspective of the Publisher.)
- Customer / Consumer – They are buying the product or service.
Lets diagram it.
Each circle represents a main player. Affiliates are in the middle:
You (1) partner with the advertiser and (2) promote their products to their customer (which is the same as your target audience):
Ideally, (3) the customer buys the product based on your recommendation. As an affiliate, (4) the advertiser pays you a percentage of that sale (commission):
But wait, there’s more…
Sometimes there are technically 4 parties involved. The fourth party is an affiliate network which fits in like this:
What is an affiliate network?
Affiliate networks are a liaison between advertisers and publishers. They manage the affiliate programs for multiple advertisers at once.
If you partner with an advertiser who uses an affiliate network to run their affiliate program, your interactions will take place via the affiliate network, not with the advertiser directly. This includes applying for the program, finding your unique affiliate links, tracking your sales and getting paid.
Not all advertisers use an affiliate network. Some advertisers run their own affiliate programs.
There are many affiliate networks. Many are easy to join. Some require you to apply and wait for approval. Some are by invitation only. Different affiliate networks provide different products so you’ll want to hunt around to find the one(s) that are the best fit for you.
How do you know when an advertiser uses an affiliate network?
First, don’t let this question worry you. It’s really of little consequence in the big scheme of things. In fact, it’s a minor issue in the process below. Still, I realize it can be a bit confusing, so I’ll address it here.
Sometimes you find out an advertiser uses an affiliate network when you apply to an affiliate program directly. For example, if you want to become an affiliate for Genesis WordPress themes, you might go to the StudioPress website (StudioPress makes Genesis) and click the “Affiliates” link in the footer.
When you do, you’ll see they run their affiliate program via ShareASale (a popular affiliate network). So, in order to be able to recommend Genesis to your audience, you’ll sign up with ShareASale first. Then you can apply for the StudioPress affiliate program within your ShareASale dashboard.
Sometimes you find out an advertiser uses an affiliate network when you are browsing the list of advertisers in your affiliate network. For example, I might be logged into ShareASale and do a search for “Merchants” (their term for advertisers) in the Home & Garden category. When I do, I see that Wayfair runs its affiliate program via ShareASale._
What are the benefits of affiliate networks?
Affiliate networks are good for advertisers because the advertisers don’t have to run an affiliate program themselves.
Affiliate networks are good for publishers because publishers can find, sign up for and manage several affiliate programs under one umbrella (the affiliate network). Also, companies typically are monitored by the network which gives affiliates peace of mind.
Affiliate networks are good for the affiliate networks because as the middlemen, they get a piece of the profit pie.
Chapter 2: The pros & cons of affiliate marketing
For me, the pros of affiliate marketing far outweigh the cons. However, affiliate marketing still has cons. You have to decide whether it’s right for you.
Pros of affiliate marketing
You don’t have to create the product. Let someone else do the hard and time-consuming part!
Low hassle / responsibility. As an affiliate marketer, you don’t have to deal with inventory, customer service, infrastructure, shipping, returns, follow up, etc. These are all the responsibility of the advertiser.
Freedom & flexibility. Because the seller is doing the heavy lifting of creating, customer service, etc., affiliates have more time to focus on what they want to do, while still making money in the background.
Limited hard selling. If you partner with the right advertisers, your job is to simply refer potential customers to them. They do the hard selling. This is great for those who don’t like to sell or want to minimize dings on your reputation for being pushy or sales-y.
High commissions. Some affiliate programs (not all) offer high commissions. Digital products, for example, often have commission rates near 50%. That’s crazy when you think about it!
Some of the digital products I promote cost the makers a lot of time & money to produce the content, house it, keep it updated, provide ongoing customer service, manage active Facebook Groups, deal with unhappy customers, etc. Meanwhile, I don’t have to deal with any of that, and yet I still get nearly 50% of all the sales that come through me.
Win-win-win. The advertiser wins because they only pay when a purchase is made (as opposed to the shotgun approach of paying to advertise to the masses and waiting for a small percentage to actually buy). The affiliate wins because they make money while providing helpful advice. The customer wins because they get a trusted recommendation for something they might not otherwise have known about.
Low barrier to entry. Many affiliate marketing programs are easy and fast to join.
Low risk. Done right, you stand to lose very little if affiliate marketing doesn’t work out for you.
Low maintenance. You can share an affiliate link once (in a post, in a video, etc.) and earn commission repeatedly, days, weeks, months and years later.
Little to no cost to start. It doesn’t cost anything to join affiliate marketing programs.
Excellent income potential. With the right strategy, income potential is huge.
Lots of choice. Affiliate programs abound. It’s rare to come across a product without an affiliate program attached. I would bet, right this minute, you are surrounded with several products you use and love. You could easily make money from them as an affiliate.
Cons of affiliate marketing
It takes time to build trust. Even though it’s easy to become an affiliate marketer, you won’t make money without an audience that trusts you first. Building trust takes time. In that way, it takes a lot of patience up front.
It takes time to gain traffic and subscribers. Affiliate marketing is much more profitable if you have a lot of traffic and/or a lot of email subscribers. Building these up takes time.
You don’t control the experience. Once you make a referral, you are ultimately not in control of your audience’s experience. If they have a bad experience with an advertiser, it can reflect poorly on you.
You don’t control the product or service. Just like you don’t control your audience’s experience with an advertiser, you don’t ultimately control the product or service itself. If they don’t like the product, it can reflect poorly on you as well.
Lost commissions. Depending on how an advertiser tracks a customer’s path from referral to purchase, it’s possible your promotion may not lead to your commission, but to someone else’s instead.
Chasing advertisers. Sometimes advertisers don’t keep up with payouts. In that case you have to follow up if you want to get paid. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s still a slight risk.
Hard to stand out. Some affiliate programs have LOTS of affiliates. If there’s a promotion going on, it can be hard to separate yourself from the other affiliates so people buy through you and not others.
Audience fatigue. If multiple affiliates share the same audience, and all those affiliates are promoting the same thing at the same time, that audience can be deluged with promotions. This can be annoying for your audience. Hopefully you are not the affiliate that “breaks the camel’s back” and makes a customer check out altogether.
You don’t get buyer’s info to use later. A buyer’s information is extremely valuable, but in this case, the advertiser gets to keep it and you never see it. The advertiser can then pitch products or services to that buyer for months or years down the road, potentially making a lot more money in the long run.
Restrictions & consequences. Many affiliate programs have notoriously vague terms and conditions (I’m looking at you Amazon) and yet publishers are always responsible for knowing & following them. If you don’t, you can get kicked out of a program without warning which can obviously hurt your bottom line.
Chapter 3: How do affiliate marketers make money?
Different affiliate programs reward their affiliates in different ways. Some of them are closely related or overlap:
Commission. A commission (i.e. percentage of the purchase price) is common.
Pay per action. Sometimes affiliates are paid when a customer completes a specific action. For example, maybe a company will pay you for every time someone signs up to their email list. Or maybe you get paid every time someone prints a coupon via your link.
Flat rate. This is similar to pay per action. For example, Rakuten (formerly Ebates) pays a flat rate per signup.
Bounties. A bounty is similar to a flat rate, meaning an affiliate is paid for every customer they send to an advertiser’s site.
Prizes. Sometimes affiliate programs add benefits and perks such as prizes (physical items or cash) to affiliates who perform the best in a particular promotion.
Credit. Some affiliate programs compensate affiliates in the form of store credit.
2nd tier. If you are an affiliate for a particular program and you refer others to sign up for that affiliate program, a 2nd tier program will pay you when the affiliates you referred make sales. For example, I am an affiliate for Ultimate Bundles. If you join their affiliate program via my 2nd tier affiliate link here. I will get a small percentage of any sales you make going forward.
Can you really make money with affiliate marketing?
Is affiliate marketing legitimate?
Having said that, different programs have different rules and requirements which must be followed.
How much money can you make from affiliate marketing?
Affiliate marketers make a wide range of income, from a couple of dollars a month to five & six figures a month (Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income is an example of the upper end).
Income depends on things like the quality of your content, the amount of trust you have with your audience, smart marketing strategies and the size of your audience.
What are typical affiliate marketing commission rates?
Commission rates vary widely depending on the affiliate program. Amazon Associates, for example, pays a tiny percentage of sales (just a few percent). Some affiliate programs (digital products especially) often pay close to 50%.
How are affiliate marketers paid?
It varies from program to program. When it’s time for you to get paid, common methods of payment are direct deposit, PayPal, a physical check in the mail, company credit and redeemable rewards.
How often do affiliate marketers get paid?
Again, it varies. Most affiliate programs pay monthly, but some pay weekly or quarterly.
Be aware there is usually a lead time before you see the money. This accounts for returns and processing.
For example, if someone uses my affiliate link to start a blog today, it will take 4-6 weeks before I see it.
If it’s not obvious how long you will wait before seeing your payout, contact the affiliate program manager.
What is a payment threshold?
Some affiliate programs require you to earn a minimum amount (threshold) in commission before they will send your payout.
For example, some programs have a $50 threshold, meaning, any commissions you make won’t be paid to you until you’ve earned enough to bump you over the $50 mark.
In other words, if you’re earning only a few dollars per sale, you might have to wait a while before getting paid.
How do you keep track of everything you’re owed?
If it sounds like affiliate marketing consists of receiving a lot of little payments at various times and in various ways, it’s true.
The more affiliate programs you join, the longer the list of things to track. Affiliates handle this differently. Some keep very close tabs on everything they earn in every affiliate program. Others simply trust the payouts to arrive as they should.
In my case, I keep close tabs on the programs that bring in big chunks of income. I don’t worry as much about the others.
Chapter 4: How do you become an affiliate marketer?
It’s quite simple to become an affiliate marketer. There are no certifications, degrees or trainings required. You don’t have to pay any fees.
Basically, you decide you want to do it and then do it.
Join affiliate programs, get your affiliate links and share them with others. It’s really as simple as that, although there’s definitely a right way to do it and a wrong way.
The best way to do affiliate marketing
Create excellent content where others can read it. A blog or an email newsletter are best. Provide really valuable information aimed at helping your readers.
Publish regularly. Consistency keeps people interested and engaged.
At first, don’t promote affiliate products. Concentrate on proving your trustworthiness, usefulness and expertise.
Once you’ve gained trust, slowly start promoting things you use and love.
This strategy is called content marketing and it’s the best way to be a successful affiliate marketer.
Things you need to start affiliate marketing
A way to communicate with people (like a blog, not social media). Sometimes this is called a platform. It might be a blog, a website, an email list or some other online presence where people listen to what you have to say.
I do not recommend using social media for your main platform. Why not social media? It’s risky because you don’t control YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other social media sites — they do. And they can change the rules at any time.
Of course you can use social media (and you should!), but supplement with it don’t concentrate on it.
Related: How to Decide What to Blog About
High quality content. People don’t like to be constantly promoted to. Badgering your audience with nonstop affiliate promotions will not get you anywhere.
Successful affiliate marketers produce useful content aimed at helping their audience solve real problems. Eventually you can start recommending products naturally.
An audience. Who is your audience? “Everyone” is a bad answer. You’ve got to niche down, meaning, target a small subgroup of people. Maybe they are parents to toddlers. Maybe they are café owners. Maybe they are fly fisherman. Maybe they are nursing students.
Your ideal audience is one you know well, either because you fit into it yourself, or because you have answers to problems they commonly face.
For example, my audience is made up of people who want to start a blog and make money online but have limited time, budget and technical know-how. I can speak to this audience because that was me when I started 14 years ago!
Your audience’s trust. This cannot be overstated. Affiliate marketing is all about trust. When someone you trust recommends a product, you listen. Not so much when a stranger does. (In fact, if you’re like me, it often makes you skeptical.)
Be trustworthy and sincere in all you do online. This will lay the foundation for effective affiliate marketing. You will not make sustainable income if you do not have the trust of your audience.
Affiliate links to share. Once you have proven yourself to be a trustworthy source of information on topics important to your audience, you can begin to recommend affiliate products or services to them. This entails applying to affiliate programs and sharing your unique affiliate links for products you promote (more below).
Do you need a blog for affiliate marketing?
Technically no, although in my opinion, it’s the most convenient vehicle for affiliate marketing. Why? Because it’s a perfect spot to keep all your content and it’s not subject to the whims of social media algorithms. Plus, it’s available 24/7 so anyone can find it at any time.
Do you need an email list for affiliate marketing?
Again, technically no, but I highly recommend it.
You will vastly improve your chances of making a good income as an affiliate marketer if you use as many available communication vehicles as possible. Email is one of the most effective communication vehicles there is. Even more so than your blog or website.
Here’s my advice…
Start with a blog, where your content is always available. By itself, an email list can be hard to start if there’s not a place (like your blog or website) where potential subscribers can get to know you first.
Next, add an email list which gives you a fantastic opportunity to communicate with people on your own terms. That is, you don’t have to wait for them to come to your blog or website, you can go straight to their inboxes. Related: Email Marketing 101.
Lastly, use social media in your affiliate marketing efforts to supplement what you’re already doing on your blog and in email.
Do you need a lot of traffic for affiliate marketing?
No not always, but it helps tremendously. More traffic means more eyeballs and therefore more people who will potentially buy the product(s) you promote.
However, you can still make money as an affiliate even if you don’t have tons of traffic. I have a fraction of the traffic many fellow affiliate marketers have and yet my income rivals and in some cases exceeds theirs.
Caveat: some affiliate programs prefer a certain amount of traffic before they will accept you into their affiliate program. Obviously in those cases, your traffic numbers are key.
The bottom line is, don’t let low traffic numbers keep you from exploring affiliate marketing!
Chapter 5: How do you choose affiliate products to promote?
Recommend affiliate products that are relevant and fit naturally into your content.
For example, if you routinely talk about grilling meat, recommending your favorite butcher knife is probably a natural fit. If, however, you talk about landscape design, your favorite butcher knife is probably not a natural fit.
Once you think of a product to promote, ask yourself the following questions to determine if it’s a good fit:
- Do I have legitimate experience with this product? If you don’t, pass. Being unfamiliar with a product you promote is risky for two reasons. First, if it turns out to be a dud, the trust you’ve built with your audience is damaged. Second, if your audience has questions about it, you won’t know how to answer.
- Would I recommend this product to my mother or best friend? It’s tempting to recommend something when there’s a commission attached. But would you encourage your mom or best friend to spend their time and money on this thing? Be honest.
- Will my target audience realistically buy this product? Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. What are they most likely to buy? If your blog is mainly about frugal living, your readers probably aren’t going to buy luxury products, so promoting high-end clothing might not work so well.
- Will my target audience realistically spend this amount for the product? Again, your reputation is on the line here. Is the product you are thinking of promoting priced reasonably for your audience? When I was writing my ebook, I was stuck on pricing. I asked around for opinions. A number of people suggested I price my ebook at $47! Their idea was to price according to value, not size. In my mind that was crazy. My network was composed of a lot of stay-at-home bloggers, and my collective audience was comprised mostly of people without a whole lot of disposable income. There was no way anyone was going to pay $47 for my 30-page ebook.
- Will my target audience realistically buy this now, or at a different time? Be sensitive to sales cycles and seasons. Maybe you should avoid holidays (when people are away from their computers, like July 4 in the U.S.) or maybe you should target holidays (like the day after Thanksgiving), but know the difference. Again, know your audience. Plan your content accordingly.
You don’t want to promote things unrelated to the content your audience is used to getting from you. It’s jarring and can decrease their trust in you. And without trust, your affiliate income will dry up.
Where do you get ideas for affiliate products to promote?
A lot of people overthink this. Start with what’s right in front of you and branch out from there.
There are 3 places to get ideas:
- Your readers
- Others in your niche
Let’s cover each one in depth…
How to get affiliate marketing product ideas from yourself
Promote products you already use. What things do you use and love? Keep a list. Find the affiliate program for them. Of course, never write about a product or service you love without becoming an affiliate for it first!
For example, when I began teaching others how to start their own blogs in 2010, it was a no-brainer to recommend the hosting company I was already using. I became an affiliate and have made thousands of dollars since.
Are you a food blogger? What’s your favorite cookware? Create content about it. Craft blogger? What’s your favorite crafting tool? Create content about it. Photography blogger? What camera and lenses do you use? Create content about them.
Sometimes this is as simple as grabbing a paper and pen and walking around your house, looking for things you use and love. Or, look in your purchase / order history for Amazon and other retailers.
Every product or service you use and love is likely to have an affiliate program attached to it.
Review existing content. Have you ever mentioned a product in the past that you use? Maybe you didn’t even think about it at the time, but is there an affiliate program for it? Find out (just google “product/company affiliate program” like “Target affiliate program”) and update that content with your affiliate link.
If you’re a blogger, start by going through your analytics and finding your most popular posts. In Google Analytics (GA) you can find these pages by going to your GA Dashboard > Behavior > Site Content > All Pages. Examine the ones at the top of the list that bring in the most traffic. Are there any affiliate products or services you can naturally include in them?
Promote products relevant to your niche. Be a student of your niche. Listen to what others talk about. Note problems people have or holes that need filling. Find products that will help. Buy them. Use them. Recommend the best.
If your site is about children’s books and you promote car insurance, at best you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing. At worst, you’ll be branded a spammer. Once you develop a bad reputation as a spammer or an “out to make a quick buck” type of affiliate marketer, it’s incredibly difficult to go back.
Start out with high standards and you’ll be fine. Simply put, promoting bad stuff makes you look bad and will hurt you in the long run.
How to get affiliate marketing product ideas from your readers
Choose products that help your audience solve a problem or address a fear. These are excellent products to promote as readers are often open to spending money on them.
Ask them. What does your audience want? Stay aware by interacting with them on social media, in blog / video comments, in Facebook Groups or by taking a survey.
Check your stats. Check your Google Analytics for audience demographics, affinities, etc.
How to get affiliate marketing product ideas from others in your niche
Watch them. How are other content creators in your niche utilizing advertising? What types of ads do they use? What are they promoting? What do they talk about repeatedly (if you keep seeing the same affiliate product show up again and again, there’s a good chance they’re making good money from it)? If you see a product or service they talk about that jogs your memory and you can ethically promote it too, find affiliate information by the methods described above.
Ask around. In my experience, if you establish a good relationship with other content creators (and especially if you are giving more than you are taking in that relationship), over time, most are more than willing to share tips and hints about what has and has not worked for them. A mastermind group is also a great place to get ideas.
Follow affiliate hashtags. Hashtags like #affiliate and #ad are commonly used on social media when someone is promoting an affiliate product. Follow or search those hashtags on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest (and sometimes Facebook) to see what others are promoting.
Chapter 6: How do you join affiliate programs?
First, understand the difference between individual affiliate programs and affiliate networks.
You can join an affiliate network once and have access to many affiliate programs of many companies at once.
You can join an individual affiliate program which is for a single company.
You are not limited to one or the other. You can be part of multiple affiliate networks and individual affiliate programs at the same time.
How do you find the applications for affiliate networks / programs?
There are several ways to find affiliate program signup pages.
A company’s website. Think of a product or service you want to promote. Go to the website of said product. Look for a link (often in the footer) that says “Affiliates,” “Affiliate Program,” “Referral Program” or something similar. Follow the links to sign up.
Google it. Search for terms like “(company) affiliate program.” For example, “Target affiliate program” or “Amazon affiliate program.” If your first search doesn’t turn up anything, try again. Don’t give up too easily. Sometimes there are slight variances in word usage or terms.
Ask a friend. Do you know someone who is already an affiliate? Ask if they can connect you with a contact at the company.
Contact the company directly. If you use a product or service and want to recommend it but you can’t find evidence of an affiliate program, consider approaching them and asking if they are willing to set one up (maybe with your help). Highlight your audience and the value of your recommendation. Explain that an affiliate program is simply rewarding happy customers (you!) for promoting, and they don’t have to pay until a sale is made.
An affiliate network. If you join an affiliate network like ShareASale or CJ, you can search or browse their list of Advertisers / Merchants.
How do you join an affiliate network?
Go to the main page of any affiliate network (see a list below) and follow the links to join. Usually the process is quite clear.
What do you need to join an affiliate program?
Your platform information. Most programs require you to describe your blog, website, email list, etc.
Tax information. Here in the US, you will often need to fill out a W-9 form before you are paid. Pro tip: Keep one of these filled out and handy so you can use it over and over again.
What should you look for in an affiliate program?
Here are some things to consider when joining affiliate programs. What’s important to one person might not be important to another, but these are good questions to ask nonetheless:
What is the income potential? In general, the higher the commission rate, the better. However, a program like Amazon Associates is so common and so easy to use, it’s usually worth joining.
What is the cookie length? A cookie is triggered when an audience member clicks through one of your affiliate links. It tracks their browsing activity and gives you credit for actions they take, like making a purchase or taking an action. The longer the cookie length the better.
What are the terms of the program? Is there anything I need to be aware of that would make a program not worth it for me. For example, Amazon Associates does not allow you to put your affiliate links in emails. If your main method of communication with your audience is via email, Amazon might not be a good fit for you. Wayfair, for example, does not allow their affiliates to post affiliate links on Pinterest or any other social media site. If that’s a strategy you rely on, Wayfair might not be a good fit for you.
Do they have a lot of products I could promote? Note that you can become an affiliate for large companies once, and then promote any of their products. For example, you can become an affiliate with Amazon (“Amazon Associate”) once and promote any of their products.
Do they have a lot of advertisers in my niche? This is for affiliate networks. If they manage the affiliate programs of a lot of advertisers or merchants you use, it’s a plus.
What kind of commission do they offer? One-time commissions or recurring commissions? For example, many programs pay you one time for sending a customer. On the other hand, some programs like membership sites or SaaS (software as a service) programs will pay you a commission as long as the person you referred is a paying customer. Recurring commissions are great when you can find them!
Do they work hard on their sales strategies? Look for companies with strong sales pages, funnels, incentives (like free, accompanying webinars) and launches. Elite Blog Academy does these things well.
Do they value and help their affiliates? Some affiliate programs do an exceptional job of communicating with their affiliates, notifying them of upcoming sales, offering marketing advice or tools, offering contents and prizes during promotions and more. These types of affiliate programs are a pleasure to be a part of. Ultimate Bundles is an excellent example.
Is the affiliate program user friendly? If a program has a poor interface or it’s hard to find affiliate links, maybe that program is not worth the hassle.
Do they have a good reputation among other affiliates? This is one reason why being involved with other affiliate marketers is valuable. If you haven’t heard of an affiliate program before, ask around.
Do they treat their customers well? If they have horrible customer service or if their products are not reliable, your target audience will find out the hard way. And if you are the one who recommended them, it’s a poor reflection on you. Search for company reviews.
What are the best affiliate programs to join?
There are a lot of options. What’s best for you depends on your niche and the products you hope to promote. To know that, you’ll need to do a bit of research and ask among those in your niche.
The list below is by no means exhaustive, only a tiny sampling!
Still, here are some larger programs, as well as some programs I personally use and recommend. Some are individual programs and others are affiliate networks.
ShareASale. A large network offering things like Genesis (here’s why I use Genesis for my WordPress theme), Namecheap (where I register all my domain names), Tasty Pins (the Pinterest plugin for bloggers), Minted (invitations, calendars, gifts), eShakti (reasonably priced custom made clothes).
The Amazon Influencer Program. Allows you to have your own landing page on the Amazon website. Here’s what mine looks like. Hand pick items you want to showcase and your affiliate links will be automatically attached. Share the URL for your landing page with others (the only Amazon Associates link allowed in emails).
Amazon Associates. Who doesn’t love Amazon and the fact you can get almost anything there? This is an easy one to join.
Rakuten (formerly Ebates). A cash rebate site. Another easy one to promote, especially if your readers shop online.
Ultimate Bundles. Every year a huge bundle of products are released at a significantly reduced rate. These sales can be quite lucrative for affiliates. Click the link to see if any of the upcoming bundles are in your niche.
Creative Market. All kinds of digital creative products like fonts, graphics, icons, photos and logos are sold here.
iTunes. If you recommend apps, music or other iTunes products, check this one out.
Shopify. As people are selling more and more of their own products, Shopify is a great place for them to set up shop.
SendOwl. This is the platform I’ve used to sell my digital products. It’s more lightweight than Shopify.
CJ (formerly Commission Junction). This is another large affiliate network similar to ShareASale.
In addition to the programs above, find the affiliate programs for these as they apply to you:
- Courses you’ve taken & liked. Some of mine are Affiliate Acceleration: Impactful Strategies To Increase Your Passive Income, Self Publishing 101 and Page Strategies (for building your Facebook Page).
- Your email service provider (ESP). I use Mad Mimi but would recommend ConvertKit and MailerLite to those starting a mailing list today.
- Your blog host. I used Bluehost for a decade and recommend it to those just starting or on a budget. Now I use WP Engine.
- Your domain registrar. I use Namecheap.
How can you increase your chances of getting accepted to an affiliate program?
Know when to wait. Some affiliate programs require a certain level of traffic, subscribers, etc. If that’s the case, I say it’s better to wait to apply for that program instead of applying and hoping for the best. You risk being labelled the person who can’t follow guidelines and you might also risk not be allowed into the program when you do meet the qualifications.
Reach out to the affiliate manager. Most programs have at least one person tasked with managing affiliates. Don’t spam, don’t whine and don’t badger them, but make a personal connection with them if you can.
Always fill out the comment box to “sell” your platform. If you are given the opportunity to explain why you are interested in a program, do it! Use the space to highlight why you would be an asset to the program. Talk about how your audience is their audience. Talk about the size of your mailing list (if it’s significant). Talk about your success with similar programs. Talk about where and how you will promote (hopefully you’ve done a bit of research so you know what they’re hoping for). Don’t sound desperate and certainly don’t lie about anything, but be upfront and honest about how this will be a win for them.
Don’t be afraid to appeal or apply again. If you apply to a program but you don’t get accepted, see if there is an indication of when you can reapply. If you don’t see anything, email the affiliate manager and ask if you can apply again and if so, when would be the right time. Be respectful and kind in your email, not defensive.
Chapter 7: Tips for using affiliate links
When recommending an affiliate product, everything hinges on your affiliate link. If you don’t use your affiliate link, or you use the wrong one, you won’t be properly credited for any resulting sales and therefore won’t get paid.
How does an affiliate link work?
- You are given a unique link for the product or service you’re promoting. The link is tagged with your affiliate ID.
- You share the link with your audience or with people you know.
- Someone clicks the link to arrive at the site of the product or service.
- When they do, your affiliate ID is noted and tracked via a cookie.
- If they complete an action before that cookie expires (purchase, signup, etc.), you are credited.
- You are compensated accordingly.
How do you find your unique affiliate links?
The exact step-by-step process varies from program to program.
Most individual affiliate programs (as opposed to affiliate networks) have an affiliate dashboard or an affiliate portal where you can find information you need along with all your affiliate links.
For affiliate networks, once you are signed up, you can log into your account and see the available “Campaigns,” “Offers,” “Merchants,” or search the “Marketplace” for individual programs.
Sometimes you must go through a short application process and sometimes you are accepted immediately; it depends on the affiliate network and advertiser.
Once you are cleared to promote a particular product and you understand the terms for that campaign, look through the list of available graphic and text links for that product. Copy the HTML code provided. This code has your unique ID in it. Use this link whenever you link to the product.
How does a company know I sent someone to them?
Your affiliate link has a unique ID attached which tracks the clicks of your audience via cookies.
Where can you share affiliate links?
There are many places to share affiliate links, but before you do, always check the terms and conditions for affiliate programs. Some prohibit sharing your affiliate links in certain places (the obvious example is Amazon which does not allow affiliate links in emails).
And remember, always disclose before your affiliate link! (More below.)
Here are ideas:
- Blog posts
- Link your images
- Supply lists in DIY posts, for the reader’s quick reference
- Thank you pages on your site
- Spoken in video
- Video descriptions
- Live video (spoken or pasted into comments)
- Spoken in podcasts
- Show notes
- Side-by-side comparisons
- Gift guides
- Tutorials or how-to guides – Walk through the steps yourself and use images. Show your audience how you use the product / service or how they can get great results. Example.
- Social media – Make sure it’s allowed first. Then don’t forget to disclose before your link.
- Webinars (in the chat)
- Interview or Q&A of the creator / company
- “Tools I Use” or “Things I Love” page – Many readers enjoy seeing a handy list of your favorites, plus it’s an easy and excellent way to highlight some affiliate links. Here’s mine. Refer to any posts you have written about that tool / resource or include a description of how it has helped you.
- In your book or ebook (not allowed if you are selling on Kindle and some other programs)
Best practices for sharing affiliate links
Always disclose. You must let your readers know when you are using affiliate links. Read my post, Are You Disclosing Properly? for more. An image disclosure or general disclosure at the bottom of your site is not sufficient.
If you are an Amazon Associate, you must use Amazon’s pre-written disclosure, verbatim, found in #5 here.
The wording of your disclosure matters. On Facebook, for example, people avoid using the word “affiliate” because it doesn’t get things seen. However, Amazon will kick you out if you use wording that isn’t clear.
Pair affiliate links with pillar content when you can. Pillar posts, and the most trafficked posts on your site, should have as many affiliate posts as fit naturally.
Content with affiliate links trump those without. Share them often. Link them together whenever possible (related posts).
Don’t exhaust all the information about the product with your link. Offer enough information to your readers so they know what the link is, but I don’t recommend giving too much detail on your own site for a two reasons. First, product information, like price, often changes. If you mention the price on your site and someone clicks over and finds a different price, it’s confusing. Second, many times, the product details and features are better explained by the makers of the product. It’s best to stick to your own experience on your site.
Avoid resource heavy widgets and plugins. There are a lot of tools you can use to share affiliate links on your site, such as carousel widgets or dynamic images. I don’t recommend using these as they slow your site down. Stick to your basic HTML and use your own images when you can. Speaking of images…
Attach your affiliate link to images. In the age of sites like Instagram and Pinterest, users are accustomed to clicking images. Make sure any post images highlighting the product have your affiliate link attached. Here’s how to make an image clickable.
Keep track of affiliate links. Use a simple spreadsheet. I use Airtable. Some people use the PrettyLink plugin to keep track of their affiliate links. (I don’t use the PrettyLink plugin because I use as few plugins as possible and some affiliate programs prohibit it since it cloaks your affiliate links.)
Always make affiliate links nofollow. Google’s goal is to provide its users with the best possible search results to their search queries. One of the main ways they figure out which webpages are the best is through links. The Google bots crawl the web, reading text. When they come to a link, it’s like an open door. They follow the link (walk through the door) and explore the site you linked to.
When you link to another site in a blog post, Google generally assumes you’re giving that site a thumbs up if you link to it (why would you link to something you don’t like, right?). If enough people give a site a “thumb’s up” by linking to it, that webpage might rank higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
However, Google doesn’t want compensated relationships and ads to influence search results. That’s why they want those pages to be tagged nofollow. A nofollow tag tells the bots to not follow that link.
Make sure you make all your affiliate links (text or images) have the nofollow tag. Here’s how to add the nofollow tag to your links. (There are plugins that do this, but given my general aversion to plugins, I prefer to add the tag manually. It’s easy.)
Think before posting a mostly negative review. There have been many discussions among bloggers about whether you should post a negative review or not.
I’m all for honesty and strongly believe you should share both the positives and negatives of any product you promote.
If my review was going to be mostly negative, I would first contact the company and let them know. Maybe they can fix it or maybe you can skip the review altogether. No use burning bridges.
Include your affiliate link naturally but clear. Using the same anchor text over and over again is not only unnatural, it can come off as spammy.
Chapter 8: Affiliate marketing myths & mistakes
Once you understand the concept, affiliate marketing is not difficult to implement. However, there are common myths that get passed around and mistakes that get made.
Myths people believe about affiliate marketing
Myth #1: Amazon Associates is open to only certain US states. This used to be true, but as of 2017, you can be an Amazon Associate regardless of the state you live in.
Myth #2: You can’t use affiliate links in Mad Mimi or MailChimp. This is not true. I’ve used Mad Mimi since 2013 and have included affiliate links in my emails almost every single week since. Note how MailChimp explains it here. You can’t be spammy, but if you’re just using affiliate links, you should be fine.
Myth #3: Affiliate marketing is passive income. Affiliate marketing approaches passive income, but only once you’ve put in a great deal of work on the front end. If you take the time to build trust among your audience, there does come a point when affiliate marketing becomes almost passive.
Myth #4: You can make money quick with affiliate marketing. It’s true, you can get set up as an affiliate marketer in little time, but if you want to make good money as an affiliate marketer it’s going to take a while to build the relationships necessary to sustain it. Trust is a huge factor in successful affiliate marketing and trust takes time to earn.
Mistakes affiliate marketers make
Mistake #1: Not being aware of the terms and conditions for each campaign. They vary and you are responsible for knowing and following them. For example, your Amazon affiliate links cannot be in emails, closed Facebook Groups or anywhere not publicly online. Ever. Also, you can’t use the Pretty Links plugin with Amazon affiliate links.
Mistake #2: Using the “They must not be my people” excuse to be spammy. I’m not a fan of this common tactic. Here’s how it works: people send a huge number of sales/promotional emails to their list with no warning and with no easy way to opt out. When people complain or unsubscribe, they put it on their subscribers (“Oh well, they aren’t my type of subscriber anyway…”), instead of taking responsibility for the spam (let’s call it what it is). What ever happened to “treat others the way you want to be treated”?
Mistake #3: Giving your friend’s product a glowing review without actually being familiar with your friend’s product. This happens a lot in the affiliate marketing (and book marketing) world unfortunately. It’s a “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type of situation. By all means, give your friend a glowing review, but if you haven’t actually read their book or taken their course or tried their product, don’t talk about it as though you have. Readers deserve honest recommendations! (Here’s an example of me helping to announce the launch of my friend’s book while being clear I hadn’t read it.)
Mistake #4: Promoting products that are irrelevant, low quality or unhelpful. If you lose trust by promoting bad products, you lose readers. If you lose readers, income across all income streams decreases. Only promote things that truly benefit your audience.
Mistake #5: Promoting a lot of affiliate products instead of just a few. Once you start affiliate marketing, you realize how easy it is to share affiliate links. Instead of becoming an affiliate for a lot of different products and sharing them liberally, I recommend concentrating on just a few and sharing them intentionally. It doesn’t seem as spammy, plus you can be sure the products you do promote are closely aligned with your brand and message. Deep is better than wide.
Chapter 9: How to maximize affiliate marketing earnings
Once you’ve got the basics down, here are suggestions to bump up your earnings.
Think about affiliate link placement in your posts. I can often tell a blogger’s intention is to monetize a post with an affiliate link. However, there will be either a gigantic introduction (lots of words!) or other links (that take the reader away from the post) before the affiliate link shows up once. Eliminate distractions. Put your affiliate link as close to the beginning of a post as works naturally. And of course disclose first.
Take advantage of affiliate program freebies when available. Many affiliate programs provide free printables, guides, webinars or other lead magnets designed to get potential customers in their sales funnel. As an affiliate, you can share these freebies with your audience using your affiliate link so if they eventually make a purchase, you’ll earn a commission, but if they don’t they still get value upfront.
These are great because they are an easy stepping stone into a sales funnel without jumping immediately to a sale. A lot of people are willing to grab a freebie. If the advertiser is skilled a nurturing them in the sales funnel, they are more likely to purchase in the end.
An example of this can be seen in my review of Elite Blog Academy. Near the end of the post I include a list of freebies Ruth offers. Of course, all of those freebies have my affiliate link attached.
Take advantage of marketing tools whenever possible. Many affiliate programs offer useful resources to their affiliates aimed at helping affiliates make more sales. These range from monthly newsletters highlighting upcoming sales, tips or affiliate case studies, Facebook Groups just for affiliates, private webinars explaining marketing strategies in depth and more. Ultimate Bundles does this exceptionally well.
Offer your own bonus to affiliate deals. This sweetens the deal for someone considering a purchase but isn’t sure, plus it encourages them to use your affiliate link, not someone else’s.
For example, if you are promoting an online training as an affiliate, as a bonus, offer your own ebook. The key here is to make sure the bonus you offer is complementary to the product you’re promoting, makes the product easier to digest or offers help with the product itself.
For example, when I have promoted the Genius Blogger’s Toolkit in the past, my bonus, Shorten the Toolkit, is my list of the best resources in the Toolkit (after going through every resource personally).
Note: make sure your affiliate program’s terms of service allows you to offer a bonus.
Diversify. Don’t put all your eggs in one affiliate product basket. Promote multiple affiliate products. Better yet, diversify across all income streams.
In other words, utilize affiliate marketing, but also utilize other forms of income generating potential like selling your own product, offering a service, or selling ad space on your blog.
Experiment. Experiment with different promotional tactics, networks, types of content, ad sizes, text links vs. images, placement on your page, etc. Sometimes there are vast differences in revenue when small tweaks are made. Try different things constantly. Just because something works for someone you know doesn’t mean it will work for you.
Be honest. Talk about what you like and don’t like. Be fair and build trust. It will serve you well later. For examples, check out my review posts about Elite Blog Academy and Self Publishing 101. I get emails frequently from people who tell me they decided to purchase one of those courses through my affiliate link because it was the most balanced review they found.
Use your personal words & experience with the product. Your own content, or photos & videos of yourself using the product are always the most effective. For example, many affiliate programs provide swipe copy to their affiliates which is pre-written emails, post material or social media posts. These can be helpful as a guide, but they often scream swipe copy, aren’t written in your voice (the one your readers know!) and if a lot of affiliates are using it, are overdone.
Buy the product. I am convinced this is one of the reasons I am able to generate significant income even though my audience is smaller than many others.
I routinely turn down offers for free product or free trials by advertisers. I buy products with my own money and try them out as a paying customer. After all, if I’m part of my target audience and the advertiser can’t convince me to buy, it’s unlikely my audience will be convinced to buy either.
Focus on benefits not features. Don’t simply list the features of a product (“You’ll get this and this and this…”). Instead, how will this product change their life? How has the product changed your life? What will their life look like if they use this product?
Be an affiliate marketer for offline merchants as well. We’ve all seen brick & mortar businesses offer a discount to those who provide a referral. If you have a local blog and promote the products or services of a local business, ask them how you can be included in their referral program.
Use effective calls to action & hone your copywriting skills. Learn how to do them well. Read How to Create a Great Call to Action: 6 Tips for tips. Make sure you create catchy titles to draw people in. Make it personal, not sales-y. What would you be more likely to read? “Here’s What I Use to Build My Sites” or “Bluehost Hosting“?
Understand where people are at in the buying cycle and promote accordingly. Spend the most time sharing affiliate links where people are ready to buy. For example, you can share affiliate links on Pinterest, but most people are not on Pinterest to buy but to look. As such, focusing your affiliate marketing strategy on Pinterest might not be the best use of your time. Review posts, for example, might be better at tipping people over the line into buying.
Look around for the best affiliate deal. Many affiliate programs are offered in more than one place. For example, a while back, I realized one of my affiliates paid almost 30% more if I went through a different affiliate network. This doesn’t happen often, so I wouldn’t spend lots of time hunting, but keep your eyes peeled.
Ask for VIP (sometimes called “tiered”) commissions. Many affiliate programs have different commission levels. Usually the standard commission level is made public, but higher commissions are offered to higher performing affiliates. Sometimes you may be bumped up to “VIP affiliate” status by the advertiser, but most times you have to ask if there’s a higher tier and how you can get there.
You don’t necessarily have to have a huge site or lots of traffic. Consider emailing an affiliate program’s contact person (look for contact info on the site or in affiliate newsletters) if you send a lot of leads their way, rank well in the search engines for a related keyword or have a high conversion rate. Make your email compelling. Read my tips here. You just have to be a good fit and provide excellent value to the merchant. Another good resource for this is here.
Don’t be afraid to offer suggestions to affiliate program managers. Be proactive in offering advice or expertise to companies you work with if you know of ways to improve their sales page etc. After all, it’s a win for you and them.
Ask for special discounts or coupons. Many times affiliate managers are happy to create special coupons just for your readers. Not only is a unique coupon another way to track the effectiveness of your affiliate sales, it’s also another reason to share your affiliate link with your audience. Plus, who doesn’t love a discount?
Know when (and when not) to use Viglinks and Skimlinks. If you applied to an affiliate program but were denied, you might be able to still be an affiliate for that advertiser through a secondary affiliate program like VigLink or Skimlinks. Basically, they themselves are affiliates and will split their affiliate commission with you if you put their affiliate link in your content for an advertiser. Obviously, the commission rate is lower for you in this case, so if you ever are accepted into the advertiser’s affiliate program directly, immediately switch from using VigLink / Skimlinks affiliate links to your own.
Promote products at various price points. Even the little products (like Amazon ebooks) add up. If there is a truly useful product on the pricier side, it can still be worth the promotion even if only a few people buy it. If you’ve used a product of exceptional quality and it’s a good investment, or if it’s a product that’s unique, specialized or one-of-a-kind, go for it.
Be intentional about finding new products to promote. Keep a list of affiliate products to review, much like you would keep a running list of content ideas. Block out regular time in your calendar a way to hunt for new products to promote.
Keep a promotional calendar. You probably have an editorial (or content) calendar to help keep track of the content you will create. Likewise, use a promotional calendar to keep track of affiliate offers you will promote. I prefer to use my promotional calendar first and then align my editorial calendar to it.
Promote products that are stepping stones to products you will create in the future. This is a bit more advanced, but is a great way to think ahead. Amy Porterfield suggests thinking about the first thing your followers will need in order to get started with what you provide. For example, I teach people how to blog, so the first thing they need to start a blog is hosting. That’s why I am an affiliate for hosting.
One last note. I’ve been asked what I think of other affiliate marketing resources, both free and paid. I’m familiar with some of them, not all. I’ve read ebooks, watch videos, bought courses and more. So far, the only paid-for course that has impressed me enough to recommend is Kayla Aimee’s Affiliate Acceleration: Impactful Strategies To Increase Your Passive Income.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this post consolidates all my past posts about affiliate marketing into one. I hope it is helpful! If you are inclined to share it, I would be grateful.