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Affiliate marketing is one of the best ways you can make a passive stream of income.
You don’t need to have a website or even be a social media influencer – you only need to be a creative marketer.
One of my favorite examples from a conference about 12 or so years ago was someone who used affiliate links for dating programs by setting up road signs in heavy rush-hour traffic areas.
As people drove home from work and sat in traffic, they saw the signs and visited the URLs, which were landing pages or redirects through the affiliate links.
But that’s not a very sustainable strategy – just a unique way to make money as an affiliate marketer.
As you can see, there is no shortage of ways to make money with affiliate marketing, and this guide will help you devise a strategy and start your journey.
It is based on my 20+/- years of experience being an affiliate managing programs – and for a short time, managing an affiliate network.
Even if you’re already an expert, there are likely ideas you haven’t tried yet.
The strategies in this guide apply to individual people like bloggers and social media stars, businesses and non-profit organizations, and media outlets or publications looking to make money with affiliate marketing.
There’s a ton of information below, including statistics on what affiliates actually earn from some of the largest affiliate networks, so get ready to dive in.
We’ll start with defining what affiliate marketing is, go into the truth about what you should expect earnings-wise, and then ways you can become an affiliate, including unique ideas I’ve had but haven’t implemented or tried yet. That one is in the how to get started section.
Tip four in the “tips for beginners” section is more of an advanced affiliate marketing strategy as it is commonly overlooked and a missed opportunity for you to make money.
And there are other hidden gems mixed throughout.
Table of Contents:
Affiliate marketing is a performance marketing channel where a person or entity earns a commission by promoting a product or service.
In some instances, a mixed payment model like a flat fee with a commission or a commission and a lead CPA, a cost per click, a download, or other events could become options.
Leads could be app downloads, upsells in games, a form fill-out, newsletter sign-ups, and more.
There are three parties that interact to make the affiliate marketing channel work.
Affiliates (Also Known As Publishers And What You Are)
This is the person, company, or entity that is promoting a store, product, or service in exchange for a commission.
Merchants (Also Known As Offers)
A brand or service provider who is paying others to promote their offerings on a revenue-sharing basis.
Merchants may also create private bundles, packages, or funnels; these one-off deals normally have custom commissions. They are referred to as offers.
The tracking platform that holds money in escrow, provides compliance guidelines, pays the partners, and tracks the conversions is known as the affiliate network. There are three types:
- Traditional – You’ll find ecommerce brands with their products listed, as well as lead offers from insurance companies, subscriptions, service providers, and even non-profits looking to fundraise.
- CPA – The CPA network differs from a traditional affiliate network because it lists single offers or product bundles with a flat payout. The affiliates in CPA networks choose offers and negotiate commissions based on the offer vs. having a full suite of product tools where they can mix and match commission models.
The amount of money you can make from affiliate marketing is limited to your ability to bring high- and mid-level intent users to your tracking links and convert them.
However, it is important to know that most people do not make a living exclusively from affiliate marketing. It’s a combination of channels and monetization strategies.
But don’t get discouraged; it is easy to earn a few thousand a year and then grow your income from there.
Affiliate revenue can complement and sometimes beat cost per thousand impressions (CPM) and flat fee rates, not to mention tide you over when sponsorships and ambassadorships dry up.
And almost every affiliate platform offers multiple ways for you to get paid. As the affiliate, it is up to you to talk to the affiliate programs you join to get increased percentages, flat fees, and mixed models.
I talked to multiple affiliate platforms, including some of the largest and most trusted networks in the US (a special thank you to ShareASale, Impact.com, and AWIN) to share stats on what percentage of affiliates that make at least $1 per year earn by revenue group in a 12 month period.
The following is the average based on the combined data we got from the groups we talked to (which isn’t limited to the ones mentioned above.) I’ve been asked not to share specifics from the contributors, so I will not.
But we talked to associations, SaaS private labels, etc.
|% of Partners
Affiliate payment models and actions can include a traditional affiliate payment which is a percentage of sales, and be combined with the following:
- Flat fees for a sale or package.
- Cost-per-click payments.
- Cost per verified lead payments.
- Fee per download.
- Flat fee payments on upsells in a shopping cart.
- CPM (cost per thousand impressions).
- Newsletter sign-ups.
- Form completion fees (different from verified leads where payment is made or verification happens).
- Sponsorship and exclusivity fees.
- And more!
How Does Affiliate Marketing Work?
Affiliate marketing works using the following steps:
- You discover you can build an audience or reach an audience that has a need.
- Once a need is identified, you create a strategy to get your tracking link or code in front of the group.
- From there, you match the audience you’re reaching to the store, product, or service provider who has an affiliate program.
- Locate the best network or platform for the affiliate program and join.
- Once approved, verify your promotional method is compliant with the manager.
- Begin putting your tracking links or codes in front of the audience (with compliant advertising disclosures) and check the affiliate network to ensure clicks, leads, and sales are tracking.
- Expand on what works and continue to grow your income.
There’s almost no limit to the types of affiliate marketing.
Some methods have short-term revenue boosts, like sharing a link on social media, and others can build sustainable revenue for the long haul, like building destination websites.
You can even do affiliate marketing in person via presentations at a conference or handing out contact cards at a nightclub or networking event.
I’ve done this personally by using custom URLs and QR codes (with advertising disclosures).
And don’t limit yourself. You can mix and match to create a stream of revenue that has seasonal highs, bursts of revenue during slow times, and builds an audience you can scale – and eventually sell the destination property if you’d like.
Here are some of the ways you can be an affiliate marketer:
- Websites and blogs – Whether your website is topically niche, a reviews site, or you create how-to guides (recipes, home improvement, etc.), affiliate links can be used as tools, solutions, and complementary banners in a sidebar.
- Social media influencers – Can share affiliate links as they feature products and solutions. Having a vanity code is a great way to track sales if no clickable link is available (as long as it doesn’t leak to coupon sites and cash-back browser extensions).
- Social media advertising – Brands can only gain so much coverage on their own. By having experienced social media marketers running ads, they can increase their reach. And if you have a fan base, boosting your own posts through the ad platform is another form of paid social media that can work. Ask your affiliate managers for a boost budget if they’re asking for shares and you have an engaged audience.
- Social and professional groups – Let’s say you belong to a photography club or a professional Slack channel, or maybe you are part of or own a Facebook group for like-minded people. If you have permission from the owner, share your affiliate links with them. Better yet, the group owner can do it to raise funds for get-togethers and a slush fund if a member is ever in need.
- PPC – If the affiliate program allows for it, try running PPC ads. If you do trademark or trademark + coupons/reviews/etc., you will likely get removed from the programs, so don’t do it unless you have permission. Adding value to the brand and using non-branded phrases is always the safest route. Make sure to read the TOS of the program and ask the manager if direct linking or landing pages are required – you don’t want all of your commissions reversed because you forgot to check first.
- Destination sites and apps – Destination sites and apps are places people go to be part of a community and find resources because they have full trust in the place; it is their go-to destination. By being the leading authority, you can set up comparison pricing, booking, and shopping engines, as well as creative ways to use data and deal feeds to monetize the audience while providing resources.
- Ebooks and courses – Have you written an ebook, or do you sell a course that mentions a product, software, or service? You can use affiliate links here too.
- Subscriptions – Do you sell sports bet predictions or horoscopes, do paid marketing or professional newsletters, or even manage a subscription box? You can incorporate affiliate links into these.
- For sports bets, why not promote the venues they can place bets from and sell fan merchandise to loyal fans?
- YouTube – This is one of the top ways affiliates earn. People come to YouTube to learn how to do something, from styling hair to fixing their boats. They also look for comparisons and reviews. Each of these is prime for making money with affiliate links in the description and vanity codes in the videos.
- Don’t forget social media platforms that use video, like Reels, TikToks, etc.
- Newsletters and email – Email is not dead, and if you have an active list, you know the audience breakdowns. Share relevant and timely communications with them, and even deals on products they would need at the moment. Your email and newsletter list are your money-makers as long as you don’t abuse them.
- SMS – Just like emails above, if you don’t abuse your list, you can get an audience that clicks and shops. They tend to be younger, so audience matching here from the products, venues, and time/season is vital.
- Perks portals – Have you ever landed on the “thank you” page of a website, and there are offers for other companies? These are likely affiliate links or a hybrid affiliate commission + fee (cost per click, CPM, or flat fee).
- Cashback – If you’re getting cash back from a vendor, browser extension, or website, you’re getting a part of the commission they’re earning. You can offer cash back too, but make sure to talk to a licensed attorney and a certified CPA to get the processes and protections in place before starting.
- Coupon and deal sites – Coupon websites and deal sites (deal sites share products on sales vs. a coupon for a brand) are normally powered by affiliate commissions. They pull in product and deal feeds and collect commissions as you click and checkout.
- Reviews – Reviewing products in writing, on videos, and on social media is a great way to earn affiliate commissions.
- Partnerships and co-branded campaigns – One of my favorite strategies is to partner with other companies to promote each other with direct links or affiliate links. It could be blog posts, email blasts, co-sponsoring a giveaway on a third-party site (with an influencer or blogger), etc. You can reach other audiences, track everything, and generate income. These stats can then be used to build larger partnerships, especially if you’re smaller. You can approach a big brand and say, “Here are our stats and what you can expect for a CAC and ROAS compared to your other efforts.”
- Gift guides and portals – Gift websites that create lists, registries, or gift ideas listicles can all make money through affiliate links. It’s literally product and shopping-based content, so conversions and user intent are high.
- Planning apps – Apps that help people plan events (weddings, baptisms, birthdays, etc.) or even decorate a room are perfect for making money with affiliate marketing. You provide ideas and guidance, and the users provide preferences. You’re already making recommendations, and they’re going to be shopping. Have them shop through your affiliate links for extra revenue in your pocket. It’s money on the table.
- Offline ads – Buy ad space in a bathroom, a movie theatre screen, billboards, bus stops, or even a shopping cart space inside a store and have a QR code to get the person to take action. You could even offer a comparison price if you know the website is cheaper than in person, and offer a discount. If there’s a downloadable app, you have a captive audience and a message about saving right there on the spot.
- Listicles – These are the “best” and aspirational lists you’ll see ranking for shopping queries. Some could be the best XYZ product or service, others could be vacations and places to visit.
Many successful affiliates already have a platform, but there’s no reason you cannot start from scratch.
By going in with a plan, you can start your affiliate marketing journey with a more controlled approach, measurable steps, and the potential for better results.
Step 1: Pick A Niche You Are Excited By
The first step in affiliate marketing is to figure out what you can write about, talk about, be interviewed about, and not get tired of for at least three or four years.
If it bores you, or you pick a niche purely for performance, you’re less likely to see genuine success.
I know this from experience. You have to have passion to keep it interesting. Create an experience people will want to keep coming back to, that they will trust, and that they will share with others who are interested in the topic.
You must also be knowledgeable on the subject, or you will lack authenticity. It’s similar to E-E-A-T.
Here’s a way to see if the niche is a good one for you to try:
Create a list of at least 50 topics under that niche with 2 or 3 unique talking points about each.
If you cannot find at least 50 that are unique from each other, you may not have the expertise yet. You also won’t have enough content to publish or do something new for a full year. This will limit you.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop; instead, think of a complementary niche and see if it is topically relevant to the one you have. That includes audience demographics, stores, or service providers that cater to both topics, and you feel equally enthusiastic towards it.
If there is, this complementary theme will help you get to 50.
Step 2: Find Affiliate Programs To Join
Before you build a website, YouTube channel, podcast, or buy media, make sure there are programs that have an audience match and will accept your promotional methods.
Some affiliate programs don’t want review, deal, or coupon sites, for example. So if that was your plan, you may not have options right now.
Others don’t want podcasts, newsletter features, YouTube content creators, or PPC marketers because they don’t see the value.
And the same goes for audience matching.
Suppose none of the programs cater to a female demographic, but you have women as an audience. In that case, chances are you won’t make as much as you would with other niches because the shopping and conversion experience doesn’t meet their needs.
And if your promotional methods aren’t accepted in the program, your commissions will get reversed because you broke the program’s terms of service. But you can still make money in other ways.
Pro tip: Always read the program terms of service before joining and get permission for your promotional methods from the company before starting. This is how you can help to protect yourself. Don’t ever join, and just hope for the best.
Step 3: Launch Your Plan
Now it’s time to launch your plan. It could include a website, landing pages for paid media, a podcast, a YouTube channel, social media accounts, or any other way you plan to get your links to the right audience.
Here’s the idea I mentioned in the opening.
If you’ve been to a nightclub, bar, or even a hotel lobby bar, you’ve likely seen bathroom advertisements. They could be in the stalls or on the walls by the sinks. This is prime real estate with a captive audience.
If it is a late-night establishment vs. a daytime restaurant or the go-to pub by a large hotel that hosts conferences, this is what I’d be looking for.
As people have been drinking and the night is coming to a close, they will use the restroom before getting in a cab or Uber. They will also have some immediate needs, thoughts, or wants. This is where you can run your affiliate links.
- Buy ad space in the restroom.
- Have a QR code that redirects through your affiliate links on the ad.
- Find affiliate programs that would resonate with the specific types of patrons in that restroom. Nightclubs have different needs than high-end hotel bars, for example.
Here are niches that I’d potentially try for nightclubs:
- Late-night food delivery apps as people need to soak up the booze.
- Dating apps that cater to specific age ranges or demographics based on the type of nightclub (music, age demographic, LGBTQ+, etc.).
- Hydration therapy (IV drips) where you can book or do a quick and easy lead form, especially if you can book for the next morning, and they’ll come to you.
- Pregnancy tests or STD tests and clinic appointments.
And don’t count yourself out – this could be applied to ads on shopping carts at grocery stores or convenience stores. Shoppers see them, and you can gauge the audience based on Census Bureau data and store customer data.
Fun fact: Years ago, I did something similar to the above. There was a way to pay the app to send a message to everyone within a multiple-mile radius of a city center, and you could include a custom message with a URL (the link wasn’t clickable, though). I used it to target people in major cities at roughly 1:50 and 2:00 a.m. with two push notifications.
In the notification, I had a message like: “Going home alone? Have a snack meet you there! Click here to order.” Then, I would include a food delivery solution or relevant match to the message with late-night service.
The app caught on that I wasn’t sending “I’m available to date” messaging since that was the purpose of the push, so my account got closed. Oddly enough, I think it started selling push notification ad spaces afterward, so the company benefited too.
Affiliate Marketing Tips For Beginners
The very first thing to do is check out my checklist of things to look for before joining an affiliate program.
This way, you’re ready to pick the affiliate programs with the best chance of making money.
Then it’s time to get into the right mindset – and this starts with rejection.
Tip 1: Take Rejection Well
You find the perfect affiliate program and are excited because they have the perfect product, amazing commissions, and your audience is asking for it.
You apply, get rejected, and the affiliate manager either doesn’t respond or gives you a generic email. It happens to all of us.
Don’t get upset, and definitely do not respond with a rude email to the manager. Instead, email why you’re a good match and share an example of how you’ll be adding value. It may not get you into the program, but that’s life.
If they still don’t respond, see if the PR team has an alternate program on a non-affiliate but still commissionable platform. That could be your way in.
If you cannot work with the company you wanted, look for their competitors and see if Amazon sells the product, too.
There’s almost always an alternative to your first and second choice.
And at some point in time, once your platform is large enough, they’ll come to you. When they do, require a custom commission and share that you were initially rejected, and it will take work to replace your current vendors.
But again, be professional and don’t place blame or focus on the past. You don’t want to ruin the opportunity.
A final option is to look for sub-affiliate networks. There are massive players out there, like Skimlinks, and niche ones that dominate in spaces like fashion. They have access to the brands and can get you in until the brand is ready to work with you.
Tip 2: Don’t Focus On High Commissions And EPCs
Higher commissions and high earnings per click (EPCs) do not mean more money.
The amount you make depends on multiple factors.
Average order value (AOV), proper attribution commissioning, allowing software affiliates in the checkout process, conversion rates, etc., all impact the amount you earn outside of the payout.
Look at the entire sales flow and your demographic matches, then account for leaks and other affiliate touchpoints.
The higher commission may only be there because you are going to make less due to other factors that can replace your tracking.
Tip 3: Be Open To Testing
Always test merchants, messaging, and links.
In one of our B2B affiliate programs, we pay different amounts on different packages.
We regularly test affiliate promotional wording, and when we change a single word or a selling point, the higher packages sell more frequently, and the partners earn more.
Then the same learnings can be applied to partners with similar traffic and audiences.
In another program, we discovered (because our top partners shared conversion data) that most of the competitors have roughly equal conversions on desktop – but we are the highest by a couple of percentage points in mobile traffic.
When we approach new partners and they say they’re happy with the competitor, we ask what percentage of their traffic is mobile.
When they give a higher number, we share what they could be making based on the data we have from similar traffic sources if they work with us instead.
If they don’t test, they’ll continue to think they’re maxing out profits, which is not always the case.
Tip 4: Monetize Everything Relevant
One of the most common mistakes I see when people monetize their channels is that they forget there are places where actions take place and no affiliate links.
This includes emails and newsletters, social media shares, and blog posts.
When people post to Facebook, and there are multiple images, don’t forget to edit the description on each so it is unique, add relevant hashtags, and upload the specific affiliate link to purchase on each image.
Here’s an example I did on my feed with a few products, then deleted. Please note I used an advertising disclosure – this is important for both you and the programs you’re promoting.
In this screenshot, you’ll see I used one affiliate link (I may bring someone to a blog post from this one vs. a direct link to shop since I have three different stores).
In full transparency, I manage the affiliate program for the music boxes, but I am not mentioning which program it is. This guide is to help you, not promote my clients.
In this next screenshot, I clicked on the music box, and if you look to the right, I describe why it is a gift for the theme (I didn’t use hashtags on this one) and share the affiliate link that would take you to the product.
Getting started in affiliate marketing is easy, and there is no shortage of ways or opportunities.
You probably won’t get rich, but you can make extra income while having a lot of fun doing it.
As a bonus, once you become an affiliate marketer, you will learn analytics, tracking, and multiple forms of marketing, including SEO, email, content writing, media buying, etc. This will set you up to scale as a marketer in a company if you want a full-time marketing job.
And best of all, affiliate marketing is a low-cost way to start your own business and become your own boss.
I hope you take the plunge and give it a try – I owe most of my career to this industry, and I look forward to seeing you succeed in it, too.
Featured Image: Overearth/Shutterstock