What is affiliate marketing?
Affiliate Marketing is a performance-based marketing model that is powered by partnerships between brands and individuals or companies (affiliates). Influencers, podcasters, media personalities, or publishers may promote a product, service, or business within their content, providing either a promotional code or a special link so they can receive credit for any business they generate. It’s become a very popular way for content creators to earn money in recent years.
- Performance-based: Brands who engage in affiliate marketing are looking for measurable results. Affiliates are compensated with a commission based solely on the sales, clicks, or leads they generate.
- Dependent on partnerships: The collaboration between a brand and its affiliates, who could be individuals or other companies, is the basis of this marketing model. Often, higher-performing affiliates are given a higher compensation and more leeway to customize their promotions.
- Most successful online: Affiliates promote products or services to their followers or audience online, using a variety of platforms and media, from Instagram to YouTube, podcasts, and beyond.
On this page, we offer a deep dive into all aspects of affiliate marketing, from how it works to how to start your own affiliate marketing business.
A Closer Look at Unattached, Related, and Involved Affiliate Marketers
In affiliate marketing, there are a few paths that can be taken to promote products and earn commissions. These are often categorized into three broad types: Unattached, Related, and Involved. Each style comes with a unique approach, benefits, and challenges. Let’s take a look at each type, using examples to illustrate.
Unattached affiliate marketing
Imagine walking down the street and being handed a flier for a local nightclub. The person who gave you the flier doesn’t know much about the club, but they get paid for every flier they hand out. That’s a pretty accurate metaphor for unattached affiliate marketing.
These affiliates benefit from a quick and easy setup of their programs but may see less trust and therefore lower commissions from their brand partners due to their impersonal approach. Because of the lack of attachments to the brands they sell, these affiliates also tend to be more focused on quantity than quality and are more likely to be the entities behind “link farms” and other less desirable tactics.
- Minimal engagement: Unattached affiliates have no personal involvement or substantial connection with the products they are promoting.
- Anonymous presence: Often, they remain anonymous and have no direct interaction with the audience.
- Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising to drive traffic to their affiliate product pages or links.
- SEO techniques to attract organic traffic.
Related affiliate marketing
A popular beauty blogger writes about the latest trends in hair and makeup and decides to take advantage of an offer to be an affiliate for a popular mascara brand. They haven’t used the product, but they know it will be a big seller. This is an example of related affiliate marketing.
This influencer will achieve higher engagement than the unattached affiliate: they know they have an interested audience. However, since they’re not a devoted user of the product they’re selling, their promotion may not have as massive an impact as they hope.
- Relevance: Related affiliates promote products relevant to their niche, even if they don’t have personal experience with them.
- Some Audience Interaction: While they have a relationship with their audience, their recommendations lack the power of personal testimony.
- Writing blog posts or creating content around relevant products.
- Engaging with the audience on social media platforms to promote relevant products.
- May also engage in PPC ads to drive traffic to their sites.
Involved affiliate marketing
Let’s now say that our beauty blogger is promoting their favorite brand of skin care products. They swear by this brand and trust every product in the line. They can practically recite the list of ingredients. This defines involved affiliate marketing.
The obvious advantage is that personal testimonials build trust and will likely lead to higher conversion rates. However, the affiliate will have to dedicate more time and effort to their content in order to achieve those results.
- Personal Experience: These affiliates have personal experience and a genuine appreciation for the products they promote. They are true brand ambassadors.
- Engagement: They have a closer relationship with their audience, and often share personal insights, thoughts, and testimonials.
- Their own platforms: personal website, blog posts, social media accounts, podcasts, videos.
- May use PPC to drive traffic to their content.
These three types of affiliate marketing present a spectrum of involvement and engagement between the affiliate marketer, the products they’re promoting, and their audience. From the more distant, unattached affiliate to the intimately involved affiliate, each style offers a unique path to connecting with audiences and promoting products in the vast marketplace of affiliate marketing.
By understanding the dynamics of these, aspiring affiliate marketers can find a path that resonates most with their individual style and the value they wish to provide to their audience.
How Affiliate Marketers Earn
Affiliate marketing promises a win-win scenario for both companies and marketers. As defined earlier, individuals (affiliates) promote products or services for a company (merchant) and earn a commission for every sale, click, or lead they generate.
Here are the three models through which affiliate marketers earn commissions:
- Pay Per Sale (PPS): Affiliates earn a commission every time a sale is completed through their unique referral link. The commission may be a fixed amount or a percentage of the sale price. Depending on the arrangement, the commission may be refunded to the brand if the product is returned.
- Pay Per Click (PPC): Affiliates are paid based on the number of clicks they generate towards the merchant’s website. The focus here is on driving traffic, rather than making a sale.
- Pay Per Lead (PPL): Affiliates are paid for every lead they generate, for example from form submissions, sign-ups, or trials.
Once affiliates have earned commissions, how do they receive their money? Most affiliate programs have a minimum payment threshold; that is, payments aren’t made until the minimum has been reached. Once this is achieved, affiliates can access their earnings, usually via bank transfers, PayPal, or checks. Payments are typically made monthly, but that can vary based on the affiliate program’s policies.
Affiliate Marketing Channels
Affiliate channels are the medium through which affiliate marketers promote products or services and engage with their audience. The effectiveness of each channel varies, largely depending on the marketer’s strategy and the audience they are targeting. Let’s delve into some popular affiliate marketing channels and gauge their effectiveness in the ever-evolving digital landscape.
- Websites and blogs: This is where it all began! Websites and blogs are the original platforms for affiliate marketing, offering a space to create in-depth content. They’re still effective, providing the space and flexibility to host a variety of content, including detailed product reviews, comparisons, and tutorials which can be highly engaging and persuasive. And of course, there’s an SEO benefit.
- Social media: Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are high-traffic spaces where affiliates can connect with a broad audience. With social savvy and strong content, affiliates can have a massive impact on social platforms. Popular influencers can make thousands of dollars on every post by promoting supplements, fashion, video games, or whatever it is their audience trusts them to review.
- YouTube: Video content is captivating and gives creators the opportunity to explain products in-depth. “YouTubers” sell everything from software packages to fitness programs through a variety of tactics. We’ve all seen “unboxing” videos, where the host showcases a long-awaited item, usually technology, from the moment it arrives in its package through its first use, feature-by-feature. These, along with tutorials – whether they’re for new tech applications or smoky eyes – can be very persuasive and yield a spike in sales.
- Email marketing: A tried-and-true channel, email marketing connects an affiliate’s message directly with interested individuals. If an affiliate has a solid opt-in base of subscribers, there are several options for emails that can lead to high conversion rates. Both newsletters with affiliate links and single-message emails that review or promote a particular product can be very effective ways to drive commissions.
- Pay-per-Click (PPC) advertising: PPC allows affiliates to place ads that drive traffic to their affiliate links. While buying ads on Google, Bing, or other high-traffic sites can drive immediate traffic, it comes at a cost and the effectiveness ends as soon as the funding stops. It’s also worth noting that some affiliate programs will have strict rules around search engine marketing ads in particular.
- Coupon and deal sites: Since everyone loves a deal, offering discounts through coupon and deal websites can be a magnet for bargain hunters. Brands frequently offer free trials and discounts that affiliates may offer their audiences, and affiliates may be able to post these on popular coupon sites. Since price-sensitive shoppers actively look for these codes, this is a tactic that may lead to quick conversions – especially during peak shopping periods like holidays or back-to-school.
- Podcasts: Podcast hosts are influencers in their own right, and can weave product recommendations naturally within their content. Engaged listeners often trust the host’s product suggestions, leading to higher conversion rates. If the podcast publishes regularly and grows steadily, audience trust will increase.
- Short-form video platforms (TikTok, Instagram): The trend of entertaining short videos on platforms like TikTok and Instagram is a relatively fresh avenue for affiliate marketing. The visual and engaging nature of this medium can lead to massive amounts of traffic and sales – especially if the video goes viral. The catch is that these platforms don’t allow links in videos or descriptions, so the buyer has to take an extra step, remembering both the name of the site or product and the affiliate’s code in order for them to get credit for the purchase.
Of course, the effectiveness of an affiliate marketing channel hinges on how well it’s used. Each channel has its own unique set of benefits and challenges. Most affiliate marketers will know where their strengths – and their audiences – are, and choose appropriately.
Getting Started: A Beginner’s Guide to Affiliate Marketing
If you’re considering getting started with affiliate marketing, here’s a simplified guide to understanding how it operates – and how you can get started with popular programs and networks available today.
Understanding affiliate marketing
To reiterate: Affiliate Marketing is a performance-based marketing model that is powered by partnerships between brands and individuals or companies. Influencers, podcasters, media personalities, or publishers may promote a product, service, or business within their content, providing either a promotional code or a special link so they can receive credit for any business they generate.
But you should also know the players involved, and what they’re called:
- Merchant: The brand, business, or individual offering a product or service.
- Affiliate: The individual who promotes the product or service. (That’s you!)
- Customer: The individual who buys the product or service based on the affiliate’s ad, link, or recommendation.
- Affiliate Network (optional): A platform that connects merchants and affiliates.
The affiliate uses a unique link or code to promote the merchant’s offerings. When someone clicks through this link and makes a purchase, or makes a purchase using the code, the affiliate earns a commission.
Affiliate networks, also known as affiliate platforms, are a valuable resource for both brands and marketers. They provide a platform with structure and guidance for brands that don’t have in-house teams to build and support their own programs. For affiliates, they are a one-stop-shop for potential products and services to promote.
Affiliates can not only find everything they need in terms of product data, images, and ad creative, they’ll also find all the information they need regarding commission structures and guidelines for how they can promote products. Frequently, networks offer a single signup to access multiple merchants.
Here are a couple of notable networks:
Commission Junction (CJ) Affiliate: CJ Affiliate is an active affiliate marketplace that connects affiliates with nearly 3,000 merchants, providing an array of products and services to promote.
Rakuten Affiliate: Formerly LinkShare and currently known as Rakuten Advertising, this is one of the oldest affiliate networks in the industry. While its offering features fewer merchants than competitors like CJ, it does include top retailers.
ClickBank: ClickBank offers an enormous selection of primarily digital products, like online courses and ebooks, across various niches.
Note that there are many other affiliate networks to choose from.
Single merchant affiliate programs
Not every merchant participates in networks. Not every merchant needs to: some are lucrative enough to merit their own programs. Here are some examples:
- Amazon Associates: With an enormous range of products to promote, you can choose products that resonate with your interests or your audience’s preferences.
- Etsy Affiliate: Similar to Amazon, Etsy offers an affiliate program that pays commissions for sales of its unique products.
- Shopify Affiliate Program: If you’re a tech or retail content creator, promoting Shopify e-commerce products can be a good opportunity. You earn a commission for every new merchant you refer.
- Bluehost Affiliate Program: Another great offering for tech content creators, promoting Bluehost’s web hosting services earns commissions for every referral.
Launching Your Affiliate Marketing Program
Starting your affiliate marketing venture may seem daunting, but with the proper planning, you’ll be on your way to a (somewhat) passive income or lucrative side hustle!
Choose your niche: Pick a topic you’re passionate about. It’s easier to promote products that interest you. If you love to travel, that Sandals affiliate program may be a perfect fit.
Educate yourself: Take the time to learn the basics of SEO, content marketing, and social media marketing to promote your affiliate links effectively. There are lots of great free courses out there.
Build a platform: Establish a blog, YouTube channel, or social media presence where you can share your affiliate links. Remember, the key is great content, so choose a topic or niche that excites you.
Join affiliate programs: Choose programs or networks that align with your niche and interests. You can choose more than one! If you’re passionate about marketing, you can offer links for Photoshop, classes on Coursera, and eBooks through a ClickBank merchant. It’s up to you!
Stay honest, and promote ethically: Be transparent with your audience, promote products you believe in, and always disclose your affiliate relationships.
Once you’ve gotten started, try to remember that success often requires patience, learning, and a dash of creativity. It may be a long road, but stick with it. The more time and attention you put into your content, the more profitable you’re likely to be.
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