Affiliate marketing refers to a form of digital marketing whereby publishers can earn commissions from sales they make originating from their blogs or websites. The basic revenue-sharing model long predates the Internet, but modern affiliate marketing has, since the middle of the nineties, been one of the most popular and effective ways to make money online.
There are three key individuals involved in any affiliate marketing program: the seller, the advertiser and the purchaser.
The seller is the company or individual offering the products or services, while the advertiser promotes them on his or her website or blog. When a consumer makes a purchase having clicked on an advertisement on the advertiser’s website, the advertiser receives a commission.
Most advertisers go through an affiliate marketing program, which takes care of things like payments, advertising and most of the administration involved. Although the affiliate platform will also take a share of the sale, it does mean there’s a lot less work involved for advertisers and sellers. However, that is not to say that affiliate marketing is easy money.
A Brief History of Affiliate Marketing
While the revenue-sharing business model existed long before the Internet, affiliate marketing is a term that is typically used in a digital context. Amazon.com, one of the world’s largest online retailers, launched the first major affiliate advertising platform in 1996 by the name of Amazon Associates, and it remains one of the biggest networks, with the broadest selection of products imaginable. Nonetheless, there were smaller affiliate programs running in the years before this, such as PC Flowers and Gifts in 1994 and AutoWeb in 1995.
In the years that followed, affiliate marketing quickly exploded to such an extent that hundreds of thousands of hopeful entrepreneurs jumped on the bandwagon in the hope of making easy money online. The result was countless low-quality websites that served no purpose other than to sell a particular product. These affiliate websites were typically thin on content or even contained duplicate content that offered nothing of value to visitors. Despite the explosion of these spammy content-free websites, many marketers still started making a respectable income in the form of commissions.
In an effort to clean up the Internet and deliver more meaningful search results, Google has rolled out numerous algorithm updates over the last ten years, many of which specifically targeted thin affiliate websites that had little or no original or value-adding content. The most prolific algorithm update was launched in February, 2011. Codenamed Google Panda, which has seen many updates ever since its launch, targeted such websites, particularly those with excessive amounts of advertising. The update crushed numerous affiliate websites and even entire networks resulting in some marketers experiencing the horror of going from five-figure monthly incomes to nothing almost overnight. Another update, in the form of Google Penguin, launched in April, 2012, cracked down on websites making use of manipulative search engine marketing techniques that were clearly against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Google’s menagerie of algorithm updates has led to many former affiliate marketers giving up and claiming that the business model is completely dead. However, this defeatist attitude was a result of people expecting to make money in return for little or no effort. The kind of affiliate marketing that Google has long been at war with has never been a sustainable strategy, but those who adapted or, better still, started off with the correct approach in the first place, have continued to enjoy excellent results. In conclusion, affiliate marketing has evolved rather than died and, as you’ll learn from this guide, success is still very much possible.
Current Trends in Affiliate Marketing
To have any hope of succeeding in the increasingly competitive affiliate marketplace, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the current trends in the industry. Although Google’s algorithm updates dictate most online marketing trends to a degree, there are also changing consumer habits to take into account. While there is a far greater emphasis on quality and relevancy with regards to website content, one of the biggest trends of all involves the new opportunities afforded by the rise of mobile Internet and e-commerce. In other words, affiliate marketers have a far wider range of advertising opportunities and platforms than they ever did before.
In January 2015, British Internet marketing firm Affiliate Window saw over a third of all its sales occur on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, and this percentage continues to increase. The company also found that mobile traffic accounted for more than half of its total traffic, making it clear that, even if consumers don’t always make a purchase using a mobile device, they often find products and services in the first place while browsing on a smartphone or tablet. Of Internet traffic overall, more than half is now mobile. From statistics such as these, it is clear that affiliate platforms and publishers (advertisers) alike, need to target a mobile audience.
Due in part to Google’s algorithm changes and the increasing demands of consumers, there is not only a greater emphasis on quality content for affiliate websites, but also a need for more sophisticated customer attribution methods and higher quality affiliate products and services. Long gone are the days when affiliate marketing was dominated by low-quality informational products such as e-books. As such, many of the well-established affiliate platforms, such as Commission Junction, have rebranded themselves and created tougher quality controls on the products and services they advertise. Some have even gone so far as to ban informational products and downloadable software entirely due to the fact that most of it was junk.
In-line with the increasing demand for quality affiliate products and services is the demand for quality content. The field of content marketing continues to grow across all markets, since it is important for both search engine visibility and building up an engaged audience from which publishers are able to generate leads and sales. In other words, affiliate marketers need to give consumers a reason to visit their websites by way of offering value-adding content that is genuinely useful for them.
Establishing Your Online Presence
Establishing an online presence and building up your audience is where the vast majority of the work lies, and this must be approached as a constantly evolving and ongoing process. You may have heard of affiliate marketing kits that provide all of the content you need to get started, but all you’ll end up with is a low-quality single-page website featuring unoriginal and uninspiring content. You will need to treat your website as any other business, and as is the case with a bricks-and-mortar-based venture, you’ll need to have a plan in place.
The first things to consider are your passions and hobbies. Forget what some people might tell you about capitalizing on a popular niche, regardless of your own interest and expertise (or lack thereof) in it. No one likes the pushy salesperson, and in order to make a meaningful connection with your target audience and build up a positive reputation, you will need to work in an industry with which you feel confident and comfortable. In other words, if you are not passionate about what you are trying to sell, people certainly won’t be enthusiastic about your website and its products.
When it comes to choosing a niche, you don’t need to be an expert, but you will need to have a genuine interest in it. At the same time, you should be wary of choosing an over-marketed and highly competitive niche. Instead, make a list of your hobbies and passions before digging a little deeper and narrowing down your focus to such an extent that you can fill a hole in the market. Feel free to carry out a little competitive research, but don’t forget the importance of an individualized approach. Your website needs to be able to show the passion behind it. To summarize, consider the key considerations when selecting a niche:
- Is it a profitable niche?
- Is it too competitive?
- Do you have a genuine interest in the topic?
- Do you have enough knowledge on the topic to sell it?
- Do you have an idea of who your target audience is?
- Is there a continuing need for information on the topic?
Armed with a few carefully selected ideas surrounding the broader niche you have chosen, you’ll be able to get started establishing your online presence. You will now be ready to launch a website, complete with the content it needs in preparation for monetizing it. Before continuing, consider some of the following website formats that successful affiliate marketers use:
- Price comparison directories
- Review websites
- Personal hobby websites
- Blogs featuring regular content updates
- File-sharing websites
Given that the search engines and consumers alike tend to prefer dynamic websites featuring frequent updates, the blog tends to be among the most popular format. Blogs are highly versatile as well, since they can provide buyers’ guides, product comparisons, product lists, general tips and advice, newsworthy content and much more. Static websites, typically containing no more than half a dozen pages of content, tend to offer little of value to their target audiences. Additionally, static websites rarely perform well in the search engines. To summarize the most important characteristics of a sustainable affiliate website, consider the following:
- Mobile-friendly with a responsive design
- Dynamic and frequently updated with unique and relevant content
- Integrated social media and comments for building up an engaged audience
It will take some time to build such a valuable website, but you’ll find no shortage of useful tips and other information on the subject. Next up is how to actually monetize your website to start earning commissions.
How to Find Affiliate Partnerships
Affiliate marketing itself is quite straightforward, provided you have an excellent website that meets the demands of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and, even more importantly, your target audience. With your website up and running, you’ll be ready to join an affiliate advertising platform and choose the products you want to advertise. The affiliate platform or the merchant themselves will provide the code required to integrate the advertisements into your website, so there’s no need to worry about any complicated technical procedures.
There are three primary forms of affiliate marketing:
- Pay per click (PPC) is the most basic form, whereby you get paid every time someone clicks on one of the advertising links on your website. By far the most popular PPC platform is Google AdSense, the publisher’s component of Google AdWords.
- Pay per lead allows you to receive a small payment whenever someone generates a lead having started from your website. This process might involve a potential customer signing up to an email newsletter having clicked on a link on your website.
- Pay per purchase is usually the defining form of affiliate marketing that sets it apart from other areas of digital marketing. In these cases, you receive a percentage of the retail price for any sale made originating from your website. For example, Amazon Associates can pay commissions of up to 10%.
Finding a good affiliate program shouldn’t be too hard, provided you already have a website up and running with a reasonable amount of regular traffic and a good knowledge of your target audience. Once you know your target audience and what they want, you will be much better equipped to choose the products you want to advertise. However, in order to find the best affiliate merchants and products, you might want to consider narrowing your focus. For example, if you’re blogging about gardening, you might want to limit your focus to eco-friendly gardening and selling eco-friendly gardening tools and accessories. Again, filling an underrepresented area of the marketplace is particularly important given the competition you’ll likely be facing.
The best way to start is to write a list of the types of products your target audience are most likely to be interested in. Conduct some research by scouring public forums and social networks, as well as analyzing any feedback you’ve received on your own website in the form of emails or blog comments. Learn what they are talking about so you can tap into their desires and needs. Better still, put yourself in their shoes and try out some of the products that you plan to sell for yourself. After all, there’s no substitute for genuine, first-hand experience, and if your affiliate website focusses on reviews, then this is a must-have.
The next step is to start exploring the affiliate networks in search of the products or services you want to advertise. An affiliate network acts as a middleman between you and the merchant, and while it is sometimes possible to work directly for the merchant, beginners in particular will typically have a much easier time by joining a fully-fledged affiliate program.
Growing Your Business
Since affiliate marketing is an ongoing process, you can’t simply expect to launch your website, sign up to your chosen affiliate programs and hope that the money will start rolling in. In fact, you can reasonably expect it to take a few months before you start seeing results. To give your business plenty of space to grow, you’re going to need to create a plan that includes a strict content publication schedule, regular social media engagement and tracking of results. This chapter discusses the ongoing process to help give you a better idea of how to make your affiliate marketing efforts sustainable for the long term.
Being the enormously competitive industry that it is, standing out among the countless affiliates in the marketplace requires building up a powerful online presence through the creation and publication of excellent, relevant content. Content marketing comes in many different forms, including blogs posts, social media content, infographics, image slideshows, videos and much more. By publishing content on your website and on other platforms, you’ll improve your visibility in the search engines and have the chance to nurture your target audience, build up credibility and become a respected authority in your affiliate industry.
Social media presents the potential to drive more traffic to your website, raise awareness in your affiliate products and become a known authority by way of social engagement. Since the modern Web is very much a collaborative and social environment, a strong and consistent presence on the world’s leading social networks is essential for success. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide places for you to communicate with your target audience, gather insights into their needs and desires, inspire your content marketing strategy with fresh ideas and build up a reputation.
Email is another effective platform for delivering content, and executed correctly, an email newsletter campaign can present an excellent return on investment. However, many affiliate marketers use email for aggressively selling their products and services, but all you’ll achieve by doing this is to annoy your target audience and have your content end up in the spam folder. Instead of using email to directly drive affiliate sales, you should use it as a medium for distributing value-adding content pertaining to your affiliate industries. In other words, much the same rules apply to email as they do to social media.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO refers to the various technical disciplines involved in improving your website’s visibility in the search engines. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most abused digital marketing strategies of all, particularly among impatient and inexperienced affiliate marketers. Understanding how the search engines work and the fact that they are getting better every year at delivering quality, relevant results will help get you started on the right track. Instead of focussing your energies on aggressively trying to target specific key words and phrases, you should be prioritizing user experience using a carefully designed website featuring outstanding content.
Affiliate marketing might not be the easy money that people often talk about, but it does still present a world of opportunity to those who want to make the best out of their skills and share their passions with the rest of the world. Your efforts will take some time to come to fruition, but it will be a highly educational road to success. By taking your time to find the best affiliate products and platforms and working hard to promote them requires believing in both yourself and what you are trying to market. Becoming a successful and respected affiliate won’t happen overnight, but with a carefully planned strategy come great rewards in the longer term.