If you’ve researched ways to make money online, you’ve likely come across the term affiliate marketing. Affiliate marketing offers a simple and inexpensive way to start making money online.
What is Affiliate Marketing?
Affiliate marketing refers to a relationship where you are paid a commission based on sales you refer to another site. You attract the visitor via your website or on social media, promote a product, and include a link to another site. When the visitor purchases the product, you’ll receive a commission on the sale you referred to the site.
Businesses like affiliate marketing because it means others do their marketing on their behalf, but they only pay for results. Because the sale takes place on another site, you won’t have to worry about processing orders or holding inventory.
What about "performance marketing"?
Performance marketing is a term that is sometimes used in place of affiliate marketing. They are related because in both you will only get paid if the visitor purchases from another site. For many years, “affiliate marketing” had a bad reputation because many spammy sites without disclosures deceived consumers. Many see the term “performance marketing” as a way to move past that connotation.
No matter what you call it, it’s a relatively simple concept. But there’s a lot that goes into making money from affiliate marketing. If you are thinking about getting involved with affiliate marketing, this post is a complete guide to setting up your site and making money.
Pros of Affiliate Marketing
Cons of Affiliate Marketing
Steps to Make Money Through Affiliate Marketing
To make money from affiliate marketing you’ll need a way to get your content in front of people. This usually happens on a website, but with social media rapidly growing it’s possible to gain traffic there. No matter how you intend to publish your content, you’ll need a steady stream of visitors before you are in a position to start making money.
While it won’t hurt to join an affiliatte network in the beginning, so that you get an idea of what companies and products are available, loading your site up with tons of ads before you are getting traffic won’t do you much good.
Here’s a high-level overview of the roadmap for building a profitable affiliate website:
Find a niche
The first step of any business is to figure out their business plan, and affiliate marketing is no different. A niche refers to the limited subject your site will be about.
You can’t try to be everything to everyone. By focusing on a subject you’ll make it much easier to find an audience, get visitors, and refer them to merchants.
You need to nail down what your website will be about, what products or services you’ll promote, who your audience is, how you’ll get them to view your content and more. keep those questions in mind as you think about your niche.
To get the best results from affiliate marketing, your niche should satisfy three requirements.
If you plan to create a sustainable, long-term affiliate business, you owe it to yourself to do as much of the up-front work as you can. Market research is essential to understanding the opportunities and difficulties associated with your niche. To succeed long-term with affiliate marketing you’ll need to become an expert, and market research is the best way to do that.
Use Google to find the big players in the space. Understand how people search around the niche. What are people interested in the niche doing on social media?
Popular niches for affiliate marketing
The sky is the limit when choosing your niche, but some subjects are particularly popular for affiliate marketing:
Types of Affiliate Sites
There are some types of sites that are better suited to affiliate marketing than others, primarily because they are focused on shopping. It will be easier to get a visitor to purchase something if they are already browsing for it compared to if they came across your site by accident. Sites that traditionally perform particularly well with affiliate marketing include:
The online space can be quite saturated and competition in many industries is tough. These strategies are well-suited to affiliate marketing because they are focused on shopping. But be warned that there are already hundreds if not thousands of sites pursuing these strategies. You might be better off being creative with your business model instead of trying to emulate what’s already worked.
The space you ideally want to be in is the space where there’s not a lot of competition. But one of the big challenges with affiliate marketing is that everyone has access to the same products and ads as you. Be creative when you are planning your affiliate site. You’ll need to find a way to differentiate yourself and promote ads in new ways.
It comes down to your content
The success of your affiliate business will be determined by your content. If you have useful articles that readers find valuable, you’ll stand a good chance of parlaying that trust toward a purchase. Find a niche where you can consistently create quality, engaging content that will resonate with an audience.
Building Your Affiliate Site
This section is about getting a website up and running.
You don’t NEED a website
Making money from affiliate marketing doesn’t necessarily require a website, but it’s a good idea to have one. In theory, you could do all your affiliate marketing on a social media site, sending users right to the merchant. But you’ll likely want to have a website to help you apply to the networks and programs. Many of the networks require a web address when applying (although you could include your social media URL).
Three components of a website
To get your site up and running, you’ll need three things:
WordPress builders are designed to make it easy to create a professional site through a simple drag ad drop interface. Most website builders also provide hosting and domain purchasing. Popular website builders include Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly.
Creating Good Content
With a website up and running, the next step is to populate it with content. On the web, content is anything visitors see, not only text but images, video, sound, etc.
The most important element to building an audience is to provide value. Your content needs to help visitors by educating or entertaining them. You can’t just create a page full of ads without adding any value and expect people to click on the ad and buy the product.
Do the research to understand what people in your niche want to know. What problems anh challenges do they have? How will the affiliate products help them? Why should they buy it? Your posts can be targeted to pushing one specific product, or you can create a broad, comprehensive post with links to several affiliate products (or related pages on your site).
Search Engine Optimization
When creating your site content its a good idea to keep in mind some basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best-practices. SEO refers to creating your site in a way that helps search engines like Google understand what your site pages are about, and show your pages as high as possible. A few of the most important SEO elements are:
Become An Expert
The most effective way to get people to trust you and listen to your product recommendations is to be seen as an expert in your niche. You can do that by creating authoritative content that answers all the questions a reader might have. Your social media presence, which we’ll cover shortly, will also help you be seen as an expert.
Disclaimers and transparency
As an affiliate marketer, you need to be transparent about any compensation you could receive form advertisers. In Canada, Ad Standards is the advertising industry’s self-regulating group. Their Disclosure Guidelines were released in 2019. They apply to blogs, social media, or video content involved in “influencer marketing,” which means they have the potential to influence others regardless of the number of followers. As an affiliate marketer that means you.
They call for conspicuous disclosure (meaning that it is clearly visible, not hidden) near the endorsement.
Not only is clear and conspicuous disclosure required by Canada’s Competition Bureau, but most affiliate network terms and conditions require you to comply with disclosure requirements as well.
Getting Traffic and Building an Audience
Once you’ve created strong content that serves users, the next step is to get it in front of people. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and social media are the most effective way to gain site visitors.
Paying for advertising
Many successful websites rely on paying for advertisements (again primarily on Google or Facebook) for their traffic. As an affiliate marketer, it is going to be very difficult for you to profitably pay for traffic. The competition is too tough in most industries, and the fact that you are pushing the products of another business makes it hard for you to differentiate yourself.
Not to say you should never use advertising, but at first you should use it sparingly and strategically. If you have a post that you are confident is great, spending a few dollars to promote it could be a good idea. Likewise, spending a few dollars on a Facebook post to grow your subscribers could be a good use of money. One benefit of paying for ads is that they let you see results much more quickly, so that you can see what's working and what's not.
At least until you’ve honed your site for maximum profitability, you likely want to limit how much you spend on advertising. As you make money and hone your site, you can start to dip your toe into paying for traffic – just make sure you are ready.
Getting traffic for “free”
Luckily, it’s possible to build an audience getting free traffic. It won't happen overnight, but if you put in the work your site should start to gain traction.
Finding your audience online - online communities, sites, and comments
How you get your traffic comes down to where your audience is online. You should have identified places where people interested in your niche hang out online. You’ll need to find a way to leverage those existing communities to promote your site.
If you want to get free traffic you’ll need to become a trusted part of an online community related to your niche. By community, I mean the spaces where they hang out online. This can include Facebook Groups, forums, chatrooms, etc. You can even use the comment section of industry websites or YouTube channels to connect with other commenters.
Remember your goal should be to become an expert in your niche. Being involved and respected in the community should be one of your primary goals if you expect people to visit your site and listen to your recommendations. Being a part of a community will also help as you try to improve the amount of organic search engine traffic you get.
SEO and links
We already covered SEO best practices for content, but that is the base level required for SEO success. In most cases, the ranking of your site and pages comes down to who links to your site. While Google reportedly has more than 200 factors it weighs when ranking sites, the quality of the content itself as well as the sites that link to that content have the biggest impact. The good news is that good content will attract links.
But creating good content and hoping people link to it is usually not enough. To get the best links you’ll need to go out and get them. Posting the content in your communities is a good place to start, but it’s a little bit like using a shotgun. You’re promoting it to a large group of people and hoping someone reads it and shares it.
To attract the best links you’ll need to be more targeted, namely by finding influencers and sites that would be well served by linking or sharing your content and getting them to promote you via a link to your site. A big part of SEO is researching to find places you want your content to be featured in and making it happen. The best way to do that is through outreach, which primarily takes place via email or social media. You need to find other places online that would benefit from a link to your site, reach out to them and ask for a link.
Another tactic to attract visitors is by guest posting on other sites, particularly sites related to your niche. Go to the big websites in your niche and find the ones that accept posts. Sites that focus on news are particularly in need of good content. Reach out to them and figure out how you can get your article posted on their site. Sites that accept submissions should have a bio section for the writer at the end of the post where you can feature your site. Some readers will click over to your site, but another benefit is that you’ll get a link to your site to help with your SEO.
Unfortunately, guest posting means taking time and effort to write an article, only to have it go on another site instead of yours. But they have the traffic and can send some your way.
When dealing with social media sites, you won't be able to do all of them well, so its best to concentrate on one or two. Or experiment with each to test how they compare. Do one or two for a week and see if you gain any traction. Social media success doesn’t come overnight, but you should be able to see a difference with engagement on the different platforms.
As one of the most popular sites on the web, YouTube presents a great opportunity to grow your audience. Creating informative or entertaining videos can help you grow your reach much quicker than other sites. As a bonus, you can sign up to get paid a share of the money Google makes from showing ads on your YouTube video.
Medium is a platform where anyone can publish blog posts. The site aims to set itself apart from traditional media sites by focusing on good content without ads. Many brands use Medium to grow their reach. Medium is made up of publications, which you can think of as sites within the site. By getting your posts featured in a popular publication, you can gain big exposure without any cost. The good news is that, unlike guest posting, you can publish the same content you do on your site on Medium, you’ll just need to set what’s called the canonical link.
Reach out to influencers
While you might not always get a response, when you are starting you can reach out to established people in your niche and pick their brain. Many of these influencers are trying to build their audience just like you and will be happy to talk to a fan. Ask them about how they got started, ask for feedback on a post, or to share something you’ve written. But make sure you are bringing something to the table. You can’t expect someone to promote your site if there isn’t anything worth sharing.
With a growing audience, you can start promoting affiliate offers and start making money
Merchants, Publishers, and Affiliate Networks
There are three parties associated with traditional affiliate marketing. Affiliate relationships are comprised of:
You might find them referred to differently in each affiliate network, but the concept is the same.
Working with affiliate networks
To get started in affiliate marketing you’ll have to work with at least one affiliate network by signing up for an account. The signup form will ask you some preliminary personal and business information and payment and information required for tax reporting. It is free to join the biggest affiliate networks.
Biggest affiliate networks
There are a lot of affiliate networks out there. While they share many similarities, some are stronger in some industries than others. Some of the biggest companies have exclusive relationships with only one network. If there’s a specific brand you want to work with, visit their main site to find how to join their program.
Additionally, some networks are stronger with traditional retailers while others are better suited for promoting digital content.
Amazon doesn’t work with an affiliate network and instead manages its program. Because of the huge worldwide reach on Amazon and it’s Prime subscription, the conversion rate for the traffic you send to them could be higher than a similar product on another site. One caveat is that you will only get paid if your referral purchases within 24 hours.
Some of the factors to think about when choosing a network are the quality and number of merchants, payout minimums, their product catalog, payment method (direct deposit, Paypal, etc.), and support.
Finding Merchants and Products
Once you are in the network, the next step is to find products to promote. You can browse by category or search for specific products or brands.
Physical vs digital products
When choosing products to promote, you’ll be able to choose from physical products like clothes or toys or digital products like e-books. Because the cost of getting a digital product into the hands of the customer is negligible compared to physical goods (in large part because of shipping), you’ll often enjoy a higher commission with digital products. But often, digital goods will be a much lower price-point than physical goods.
Expensive vs low-cost products
As you are finding products to promote, keep in mind the trade-offs of expensive and cheaper products. While more expensive items mean a higher payout per purchase for you, conversion rate tends to go down as the price point goes up. You might be able to make as much money pushing more sales of lesser value as you will one big sale. In really depends on your niche and audience.
Another important element to keep in mind when choosing what merchants to work with is the cookie duration. A cookie is a piece of code that the network or merchant places on the computer of the visitor for tracking purposes. They have different durations, meaning that if a person you referred completes the purchase after the cookie expiration, you won’t get paid. Many cookies will last for 30 days, however, some will expire in as little as 24 hours. Check for the merchant's cookie duration before you promote the products.
Apply to the program and talk to the merchants
When you’ve found a merchant you want to work with, in most networks you’ll need to apply to the program and be approved. Some merchants approve everyone automatically, while others will have the program manager vet your site before you are approved.
Merchants will have someone that manages their affiliate program. They approve new publishes into the program, will help you work through what products to promote as well as their selling points. The involvement of the program managers will vary by the company as well as your needs.
Getting accepted into merchant programs
Some merchants are more selective than others when accepting new publishers to work with. Many companies are protective of their online presence and don’t want just anyone to be working with them. When you apply to the program, especially as a newbie, it’s a good idea to briefly explain why you think you’d be a good fit and how you can help them sell more.
If you’ve been denied for a program, you can usually appeal the decision. Explain why you’re a good fit, how you’re going to drive sales etc. Keep in mind many program managers will visit your site before approving, so having a presentable site is important.
Once approved to a program you’ll have access to ads and the tracking code you need to place on your site. Merchants will usually provide display and banner ads you can put on your site. You can also use plain old text links.
Tracking your referrals and sales
You must set up your links correctly so that you and the merchant can see the traffic and sales you are driving. The affiliate network will provide you with a tracking code you need to put on your links. You can’t just link to the site page and expect that you will be paid. Without the tracking code, there's no way to tie a purchase to your referral. The tracking code is a string of code you place at the end of a traditional URL that passes your unique information to the network and program. Make sure to you always use your specific tracking code.
Promote Products/Refer Users
Now it’s time to place the affiliate links on your site. You can use text links or ads, or both, when you are promoting the affiliate offer.
Promoting products is heavily tied to your content. You could place affiliate banner ads on your site header or sidebar, but in reality, users will often ignore these. You’ll usually see a much higher number of clicks (referred to as the click-through rate – CTR) and subsequent conversions if you put the link in the proper context. Explain what the product is and why the visitor should buy it.
With the ad up and visitors clicking through and making purchases, its time for you to get paid. The affiliate networks will provide you with a dashboard to see not only sales info, but traffic statistics as well. Most networks have an earnings threshold you’ll need to cross before you get paid, which varies by network. Different networks have different payment methods, but generally, you can get paid via a bank deposit, a paper check, or Paypal. You’ll set your preferred payment method through the affiliate network. Make sure you check payment options specifically for Canada.
As you can see there is a lot that goes into building a profitable affiliate website. It's a long-term proposition. What's important is to get started. As you learn and try new things, your site will get more and mare traffic. You'll be able to see what's working and whats not. Over time, you'll be able to grow your audience and increase sales. Undoubtedly it involves a lot of work. But if you get started and put in the work there’s, no reason why you can’t create a viable business through affiliate marketing.
Maurice (Moe) Muise learned the ins-and-outs of government while an employee of the Government of Canada in Ottawa for 10 years. His current focus is helping small businesses in Ontario to identify and maximize government grants to grow their business.
Click here to learn more about Moe’s background and how he can help your business.