Affiliate Marketing: Money-Making Guide for Beginners (2021)
Affiliate marketing deals are pervasive across the Internet.
They’re hidden in plain sight, but once you notice them, you’ll see that almost every online product recommendation and review has hidden money behind it.
When you’re reading a review, ask yourself: is it really the best product, or is an affiliate product reviewer simply trying to make the most money by making you buy something?
The better question is, how do I get involved in this process and start making money online?
Affiliate marketing has been around for years but is still growing at a fast pace. Everyone from major retailers to brick and mortar stores to local content creators are involved and reap the benefits.
The best part is, it’s not that difficult to get started. It doesn’t require any physical product inventory or other overly complicated digital marketing knowledge.
Whether you’re a publisher looking for the best affiliate programs to join, or you’re a brand looking to generate sales with affiliate marketing, this marketing channel can work wonders for your business (and income).
Trust me; I’ve seen both sides of the coin. In 2018, I was the affiliate manager for a fast-growing tech startup and now I blog full-time and make over $80k per month as an affiliate marketer.
I’ve learned a thing or two about affiliate marketing and how beginners can start, as I just launched this blog in 2019.
This ultimate guide covers everything you need to know about affiliate marketing, how it works, and how you can leverage this channel yourself to make a passive income this year.
Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
In the simplest form, affiliate marketing is a form of online marketing where a publisher recommends products or services to others and, in return, earns an affiliate commission after that visitor converts into a buyer.
It’s honestly a simple setup. Affiliates just need their unique tracking link, and that’s about it.
Then, whenever a visitor clicks that link, a cookie is stored on their computer, and commissions are counted based on the cookie duration window.
Most brands give credit for sales between 30 and 90 days after the click. So, a reader can click an affiliate link, not convert to a sale, but come back 89 days later and buy the product, and the affiliate still will get credit.
Cookie durations are created by the brand inside their affiliate program and will vary.
So what exactly is an affiliate or publisher, and how does one become one?
A publisher can be anything from a blogger, vlogger/YouTuber, content creator, social media influencer, or anyone with an email list.
To give a real-life example, you can see how I promote various affiliate partners in my software review posts:
Just to set the record straight, though, it is recommended to only promote products or services that you have personally used and would recommend to your closest friends or colleagues.
Don’t fall into the trap of promoting brands or products that you know nothing about just to make a quick buck.
As you can see on my blog, I have various guides such as this one on the best CRM software, which is a category that I have a lot of experience with from my previous digital marketing career.
If you’re a publisher, it only makes sense to promote affiliate products to your audience as there’s a high chance the companies you already love have their affiliate marketing programs.
So why not capitalize on that and add an additional revenue stream to your business? Not to mention, affiliate marketing is one of the easiest ways to make money online.
For brands looking to partner with publishers and influencers, affiliate marketing can be an excellent way to bring in additional revenue to your business by getting your brand in front of new eyeballs.
Contrary to popular belief, Amazon was not the first company to offer an affiliate program.
So, where did affiliate marketing originate?
For starters, affiliate marketing has been around longer than you might think and was invented and patented by a man named William J. Tobin, otherwise known as the world’s very first internet marketer.
Tobin developed the concept of affiliate marketing in 1989 when he launched his affiliate program on the Prodigy Network for his company PC Flowers & Gifts.
The result? By 1993, Tobin’s products were generating $6 million annually for Prodigy. Talk about success!
This success resulted in Tobin going on to patent the concept in 1996, which was later granted in 2000.
Following Tobin was a company called CDNOW who launched their BuyWeb affiliate program in 1994:
Basically, it was an affiliate offer where various music sites could review music albums and refer their site’s visitors to the CDNOW website to purchase albums in return for a commission of sales generated.
Considered by many as late to enter the market, Amazon launches their own affiliate marketing program in 1996, which attracted global interest.
The Amazon Associates program offered a way for affiliates to add affiliate links to their websites and receive an affiliate commission for each new customer they referred.
Amazon Associates was one of the first major corporations to jump on the affiliate marketing trend and remains one of the top affiliate programs for publishers today.
Founded by the University of California at Santa Barbara students, Commission Junction entered the scene in 1998, followed by Clickbank, founded by Tim and Eileen Barber.
Essentially, both of these affiliate networks became a platform for affiliates and merchants to promote themselves and their offers and to form affiliate partnerships.
Commission Junction and Clickbank became known for creating a platform that allows retailers that aren’t quite as massive as Amazon to get a piece of the affiliate marketing pie.
Today, these two platforms remain two of the biggest affiliate marketing networks of all time.
In 2000, the FTC released affiliate marketing guidelines that aim to regulate the online advertising industry.
Essentially, the regulations require publishers to disclose their relationships with the companies they are promoting.
You can see an example of this in any of my affiliate posts, as it is required to provide a disclosure statement if you are adding affiliate links within your content:
Now that we’ve briefly covered the history of affiliate marketing, let’s get into the different types of affiliate marketing, you can add to your affiliate marketing toolbox.
For anyone looking to get involved in affiliate marketing, you should know the three different affiliate marketing types.
When it comes down to it, there are a variety of ways you can generate traffic and earn an income via affiliate marketing — which is how we will define the different types of affiliate marketing.
Essentially, these different types represent how we are associated with said product, according to affiliate marketing expert Patt Flynn of Smart Passive Income.
Unattached affiliate marketing is pretty straight forward, as it is explained exactly how it sounds.
This form of affiliate marketing is where the publisher has no presence or authority in the niche of the products or services they are promoting.
Therefore, they are unattached.
Typically, unattached affiliate marketers will be the ones running basic pay-per-click (PPC) affiliate marketing campaigns to drive traffic and sales, as you can see in this search engine marketing (SEM) example below:
Rather than being at the face of their brand, this type of affiliate marketer has no connection between themselves and the end consumer.
Suppose you’re this type of affiliate marketer. In that case, you will generally rely on traffic sources such as Google Ads or social media ads or PPC campaigns to get more eyes on your affiliate offers.
While attractive at first glance as it doesn’t require building solid trust and a reputation with your target audience, it has many disadvantages as you rely solely on paid ads and just hope for the best.
If you try out this form of affiliate marketing and manage to get high conversion rates, you should probably consider yourself lucky as it is no easy feat.
Related affiliate marketing refers to those who have established an online presence (whether via blogging, podcasting, vlogging, or on social media) and link to affiliate products in their niche that they do not necessarily use themselves.
This form of affiliate marketing can occur as a banner sidebar on your website or via text links throughout your blog post.
For example, a food blogger may have ads and affiliate offers on their site for a particular type of cookware that they don’t personally use.
Maybe the brand offers a healthy commission rate, and it also happens to be relevant to the blogger’s niche and audience, so they choose to promote the offer.
While this can be an effective method of affiliate marketing, I don’t personally recommend it as you risk losing trust with your audiences by promoting products you haven’t fully vetted yourself.
Moving onto the final type of affiliate marketing, involved affiliate marketing reads just how it sounds.
You could think of it as the publisher being more involved, both with their audience and with the brands they choose to promote.
Essentially, this type of affiliate marketing is when the publisher has personally used the product or service they are promoting and fully believe in it when promoting it to their audience.
Typically, this happens in a much more natural context, such as within your content, rather than in an ad at the top or side of the page.
You will often see this type of involved affiliate marketing on my blog:
As a publisher, your involvement with the brand and product/service makes your recommendation believable and authentic and tends to lead to the highest conversions.
Now that we’ve covered the different affiliate marketing types let’s discuss the different kinds of affiliate marketers.
If you thought the only way to monetize affiliate marketing was via blogging, think again. Luckily for publishers, there are a plethora of options available to promote affiliate offers.
Let’s go ahead and dive into the most popular.
Blogging is one of the most popular forms of affiliate marketing today and only continues to grow. The number of bloggers in the United States is expected to grow to a staggering 31.7 million in 2020.
The best part is, it’s relatively easy to get started and doesn’t require any upfront investments, like other paid forms of marketing do. To get started, I recommend setting up a WordPress site and choosing web hosting such as Bluehost or Hostinger, and you will be well on your way.
Next, you need to identify a niche for your blog. For example, are you going to blog about food, fitness, software, or parenting?
Once you identify your niche, you can begin researching different affiliate programs and the products you will promote to your audience. Then, you can set up your affiliate links and use various plugins to customize them.
For example, suppose you start a fitness blog. In that case, you could promote offers for supplement companies or fitness equipment to your audience. Food bloggers could promote everything from their favorite spices to their favorite rice cookers:
The options are limitless, from writing product reviews, creating accompanying YouTube videos, to even hosting a webinar to promote an upcoming launch.
The main secret ingredients to success as a blogger will be nailing your SEO (search engine optimization), link building, and content marketing strategy. Otherwise, you risk wasting your marketing efforts if your content never gets found in the first place.
When it comes to launching and monetizing a blog, I highly recommend checking out my in-depth guide here for the best step-by-step advice.
So what is YouTube affiliate marketing?
It is quite similar to blogging, except you’re creating videos instead of writing blog posts. And often, the two go hand in hand.
Essentially, YouTube affiliate marketers make money by creating videos and converting their watchers into buyers for the product they recommend. You will typically see affiliate links placed in the video or SEO below in the video description.
As with blogging, the first step to making money as a YouTuber is to select a niche. Your niche can be anything from beauty to fitness to even software reviews. Next, you need to research and identify which affiliate offers to promote that will be valuable to your audience.
Once you’ve identified your niche and the offers you will promote, all that’s next is to set up your YouTube channel, create some videos, insert affiliate links, and start collecting commissions.
Sounds easy enough, right?
Just remember that YouTube is still essentially a search engine, just like Google search, and seo and your content strategy will play a major role in whether or not your videos will rank.
For new affiliates, I recommend learning as much as you can about SEO and ranking your videos. Otherwise, you risk not earning as much in payouts if no one sees your videos in the first place.
If you’re ready to start making money on YouTube, you can check out my detailed guide here on how to make it happen.
The next type of affiliate marketer we have is affiliate websites set up by search affiliates.
Search affiliates are those who leverage landing pages and web pages along with search engines and other forms of paid advertising:
As you can see in the above image, the first two results are for a promoted ad by affiliate marketers.
Rather than focusing on content marketing, search affiliates will drive traffic to their landing page to promote an offer. Here is an example of that if we click on the first ad shown above:
This affiliate website, in particular, starts with a few question quiz to discover the user’s needs before sending the user to their lead magnet.
Here, the user must exchange their contact information in exchange for the quiz results, of which software will best meet their needs:
Search affiliates are using their funds to drive traffic with paid advertising, which could either be successful or not.
The problem with search affiliate marketing for brands is that they will need to analyze how its affiliates drive traffic to their promote offers and ensure they are not bidding on the same keywords as the merchant.
As a merchant, you will want to have well-defined guidelines and rules in place for any search affiliates to join your affiliate programs.
There are also many more compliance issues with this type of affiliate marketing, as it relies on paid ads and search engine marketing (SEM).
Overall, PPC affiliates need to negotiate much higher commission rates with the brands they promote to stay ROI-positive.
Review sites are another common form of affiliate marketing. These differ from full-on blogs, as review sites serve one purpose only — to provide product or service reviews.
For example, you can see how to review site GadgetReview.com reviews various gadgets and appliances on their website:
Typically, review sites focus on one niche, and they can be as specific as you want. For example, you could have a review site on gadgets and appliances, or you could have a review site only dedicated to kitchen appliances.
It will be easier, in the beginning, trying to rank a new affiliate website for more niche keywords. However, your reach will be exponentially higher with the more keywords you focus on (gadgets and appliances vs. kitchen appliances).
The first step to getting started with a review site will be to identify your niche again, and then your affiliate products you will promote.
Many review site affiliate marketers will build their affiliate website based around an Amazon affiliate business and begin their research there.
For example, which products on Amazon have decent keyword volume and aren’t ultra-competitive?
That could be an excellent place to start when it comes to building your review site. Just remember that producing quality content will be vital to having strong conversions as with any affiliate website.
But did you know that these coupon sites are just another form of affiliate website?
Coupon sites can be highly beneficial partners to brands as “couponing” has become a booming industry in recent years.
There are a couple of different ways in which coupon sites can help drive your brand’s traffic and sales.
The first is through the coupon’s site membership base. Their established member bases can help users find your brand who may not have otherwise.
On the flip side, coupon sites tend to dominate the search engine results pages (SERPs) for any keyword related to your brand + ‘coupon code,’ as shown below:
As you can see, coupon sites have their pros and cons for brands, but they make an excellent source to drive traffic and revenue to your site at the end of the day.
Chances are, if you own a blog or website, you are already doing email marketing.
And if not, you’re missing out on some serious revenue potential by neglecting to build an email list and to push your affiliate offers to said list.
However, some affiliate marketers focus on email marketing entirely and take this strategy to the next level.
By building an email list, you have a traffic source that you own and, therefore, significantly reduce the reliance on unowned traffic sources such as Google Adwords or social media ads.
When it comes to email marketing, just ensure you remain CAN-SPAM compliant to avoid issues.
To get started earning an income as an affiliate marketer via email marketing, all you need to do is choose an email marketing provider such as Moosend or ConvertKit.
One of the gold mines of affiliate marketing, big web properties can be an excellent marketing channel for brands.
Generally, these are corporations that publish major digital magazines and other online web properties and generate massive traffic. These sites typically generate upwards of one million or so visits per month in traffic.
These websites are major players of the affiliate game and typically follow a revenue share or CPA (cost per action) model for affiliate marketing.
One example of this type of affiliate marketer is the company Red Ventures, which owns an extensive portfolio of online brands such as CreditCards.com, Reviews.com, and many more:
You will find everything from in-content affiliate links to banner ads and other types of advertisements on these traffic generating websites.
Now that we’ve discussed the different types of affiliate marketers let’s cover four of the highest paying affiliate networkers that affiliate marketers can use to start building their online business.
Rather than working directly with the company of your choice, affiliates can become members of various affiliate marketing networks to connect with different companies within their niche that they may have never found otherwise.
Ready? Let’s take a look.
In a nutshell, ClickBank is an affiliate network that acts as a marketplace to connect both the people who create digital products and services (brands) with affiliates or publishers.
You could also consider Clickbank as a middleman between the two parties.
Minus the headache of complicated paperwork, talk about a win-win.
Not to mention, ClickBank is one of the top affiliate marketing networks with over $4.2 billion in affiliate commissions paid out to date.
For affiliate marketers ready to dive in, it’s free to sign up and start creating your customized affiliate links for various products and driving traffic to them.
Here is an example view of the affiliate marketplace once you sign into the platform:
Another plus for affiliates is that you can see your earnings in real-time, making it easy to track your progress towards hitting your online income goals:
This platform has something for everyone, whether you’re a brand or publisher, and its marketplace is full of affiliate offers in the following niches:
- Arts and entertainment
- As seen on TV
- Betting systems
- Business and investing
- Computers and internet
- Cooking, food, and wine
- E-business and e-marketing
- Employment and jobs
- Green products
- Health and fitness
- Home and garden
- Parenting and families
- Politics and current events
- Software and services
- Spirituality, new age, and alternative beliefs
Needless to say, whether you’re an affiliate looking for your next best affiliate offer to promote or a brand looking to connect with affiliates and influencers.
Clickbank makes an excellent starting point for meeting your affiliate marketing needs.
Yet another high paying affiliate network, Commission Junction (CJ), pays out around $1.8 billion annually in affiliate commissions to publishers.
Boasting over 3,000 merchants, CJ is home to some of the world’s largest brands hosting their affiliate programs such as Barnes and Noble, Lowe’s, Priceline, and more.
Commission Junction is free for publishers to sign up and connect with brands.
However, if you own a website that receives 10K+ monthly visitors, you can join the Content Certified program and match the crop brands’ cream.
The only downfall for new affiliates is that if you fail to get results within the first six months, your account may get deactivated as it is a performance-based platform, after all.
So it is typically best to wait until you have steady traffic before signing up for Commission Junction, just in case.
Most offers on Commission Junction are on the cost per acquisition (CPA) model — such as pay-per-sale or pay-per-lead.
Like ClickBank, this network also offers opportunities in a variety of niche, with every publisher finding the right fit offers for their audience.
Moving onto yet another popular and high paying affiliate network, Shareasale has built a solid reputation over the last twenty years and counting.
Best of all, it’s easy and free for affiliates to sign up and start earning their piece of the pie.
With over 4,800 merchants to choose from, affiliates and publishers will have no trouble finding the right offer to promote their audience.
As for earning affiliate payouts from Shareasale, they offer two different models to choose from:
- Pay Per Lead: Get paid every time a user follows your affiliate link to a merchant’s lead capture form and completes it in full.
- Pay Per Sale: As obvious as it sounds, pays per sale is when you earn a commission for visitors following your affiliate link to a product or webpage and making a purchase.
Like the other affiliate networks, Shareasale has merchants and offers to promote in a variety of niches.
While dropshipping may be the buzzword of the century, Amazon Associates may as well be the next best thing.
No product inventory is required, and affiliates can still make a healthy online income as an Amazon affiliate.
After all, there is a reason it is one of the largest affiliate marketing networks in the world.
With over 150 million Amazon Prime members globally, it makes promoting products on Amazon a no brainer.
As an affiliate marketer, ease of purchase is something to be considered, and as far as that goes, Amazon takes the cake.
It’s also easy to sign up as an Amazon affiliate, although you need to have already an active blog, YouTube channel, social media accounts, or similar to be approved.
While the Amazon Associates program’s commission rates may not be the highest, but there is undoubtedly room to earn.
The standard commission runs between 6-10% depending on the items. However, this can quickly add up, especially if promoting higher ticket items such as electronics or appliances.
One of the best parts about becoming an Amazon affiliate is that the user doesn’t even have to buy the product you referred them to.
If they buy anything during that visit, you earn a commission.
And who knows, maybe by the time they check out, they will have added many items in their cart, earning you a hefty payout.
The platform also has a decent reporting system to track what is getting clicks and which products are selling, leaving guesswork out of the equation.
Overall, I can recommend Amazon Associates as a great entryway to affiliate marketing, as it’s likely your audience is already shopping there in the first place.
If I have you convinced it’s time to start your own online business as an affiliate marketer, let’s discuss some ways in which you can be successful as a publisher.
In truth, as an affiliate, you are in the driver’s seat in the partnership between yourself and the brands you work with, which means you ultimately hold the power.
It’s important to remember this as you work with affiliate and marketing managers, as they all will have specific revenue goals, which can be majorly impacted by their affiliates.
All that is required for you to do, at least initially, is to focus on building an audience. Once your users are making purchases through your affiliate links, you earn credit for the sales you generate while sharing the profits with major brands.
Plus, once you are consistently generating sales for brands, you can easily negotiate higher commissions leaving you uncapped earning potential. It truly is one of the best ways to earn an income online today.
To start, one of the single most important keys to your success will be in choosing a niche.
And not just any niche, but a profitable niche. Many publishers and bloggers often make the mistake of following their passions rather than treating it as a business.
But if you want to succeed as an affiliate marketer, you must treat it as the business it is from day one.
Choosing a profitable niche will require a bit of upfront market and competitive research and following current trends to see what consumers are actively buying and what products also show future potential.
You may love fitness, for example, but you have to analyze how the market looks and overall competitiveness and your unique advantage when doing research.
Ask yourself whether your chosen niche will be easy enough for you to break into and if it looks promising as far as monetization potential goes.
It goes without saying that if you’re publishing any type of content, it needs to always be of the highest quality.
If you create content just for the sake of creating more content, it is unlikely that it will rank in the search engines or even resonate with your target audience.
To discover the types of content you should create, I recommend doing a mix of keyword research and using tools such as BuzzSumo to discover content ideas and identify trending topics that users are actively engaging with.
Ultimately, each piece of content should aim to accomplish one of at least two things:
- Inform or educate your audience while building trust and establishing your authority on the subject matter. Things like tutorials and in-depth guides like my guide on how to make money blogging are great for this.
- Convert your audience, whether into an email subscriber, by offering a free lead magnet in exchange for their email address or a direct sales conversion by that user following through to your affiliate link and making a purchase. Content such as my post on online course platforms would be an example of this, as I review multiple platforms and share insights with my readers.
There isn’t much room for anything in between.
If you aren’t educating your audience, providing value, or leading them through the buyer’s journey to connect them to the products and services they need, then you’re wasting your time.
Remember, this is a business, not a hobby, so you must remain strategic with your approach.
Again, as an affiliate, you should only be promoting products or services that you have tried or tested, or at least believe in.
Remember that authenticity is the name of the game, and users will see right through it if you’re just trying to make a quick buck or two.
Not only that, but it also helps with your content creation if you are already familiar with the products and services.
If you’re a genuine fan of whatever you’re trying to convince others to buy, it will go a long way, and users will be able to sense your enthusiasm before they too get behind a product.
While I respect the hustle and eagerness to get to 500K or even 1M monthly viewers as quickly as possible, one must also realize that this business is a marathon, not a sprint.
To avoid burnout or disappointment, it’s crucial that you set reasonable goals and expectations from the get-go and work in baby steps towards accomplishing them.
For instance, maybe you could strive to hit 500 users for your first month and then try to double and triple that every month or quarter, working your way up the ladder.
It helps to set SMART goals, rather than trying to hit 10K in your very first month, unless you’re running paid traffic or already have a large following on social media that will make it likelier to hit those goals.
To stay on a constant progression path, you will need to refine, test, and optimize continuously.
What types of content resonates the best with your audience? What are they responding the most to?
Which posts or videos are leading to the highest number of click-throughs or purchases?
These will be just a few of the things you should continuously analyze as an affiliate marketer.
Review your best performing pieces of content and the worst. Spot the differences. See how you could tweak the messaging and run an A/B split test with different variations of copy or other elements to see how it performs.
Without testing and optimizing, you will fail to identify improvement areas and continue trekking upwards in performance.
Now that we’ve covered success tips for publishers let’s look at how brands can also generate sales with affiliate marketing.
In a nutshell, affiliate marketing for brands is identical to having an indirect sales team.
Let’s face it, brands can’t be everywhere all the time and rank for every keyword, so they need affiliates to amplify and scale their message.
Brands should aim to rank for their non-brand keywords and be positioned in the best possible light by high-ranking affiliates.
For example, when searching for “e-commerce platforms,” you will see that BigCommerce ranks in the top 10 for this keyword:
For example, when I was managing digital at BigCommerce, it was my goal to rank for that term ourselves and be the #1 recommendation in as many affiliate articles ranking on page one.
Overall, brands need to win searchers’ hearts and minds, and affiliate marketing gives your brand SERP influence.
This influence is mainly created not by the quality of the product itself but by the quality of your affiliate program and relationship building skills.
Let’s be honest; if you’re responsible for managing an entire digital team, it’s likely that your affiliate marketing program isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
To stay competitive, I highly recommend hiring an affiliate manager or outsourcing your affiliate program to an agency that can help your brand stay on top.
It can be a big step, but it will pay dividends as you have someone or a team of people to actively manage your affiliate program while your company continues to reap the rewards.
If you’re not quite ready to hire another full-time employee, consider using a platform such as PartnerStack that is increasingly popular with brands as of late.
Don’t just expect new affiliates and publishers to find your affiliate program out of thin air magically.
It takes work to get the word out, promote your program, and convince new affiliates to join.
It’s essential to be continuously recruiting new affiliates, either through inbound sign-up pages, email outreach to major sites, relationship building, social media, and so on.
Don’t be afraid to reach out if you see someone who seems like they could be an excellent fit for your affiliate program and form a mutually beneficial partnership.
Chances are you have affiliates, but maybe all of them are no longer active.
Sometimes, it can be easier to activate dormant affiliates than to recruit new ones. After all, they joined for a reason, and maybe they just need a little reminder or kick in the right direction.
Activating dormant affiliates will help you kickstart sales by providing commission bonuses, incentives, and pre-written content that your affiliates can leverage.
If you have affiliates who are performing exceedingly well, don’t leave them hanging.
I highly recommend meeting regularly, providing updates, content, and negotiating commissions to your top affiliates to keep the partnership ongoing and mutually beneficial.
Remember, if this affiliate is doing well, there is a high chance other brands are reaching out to them as well, and the last thing you want is someone to provide them a better offer.
The key to building a long-lasting relationship so that affiliates will come to you when this happens and give you the chance to negotiate, rather than leaving you out to dry.
In this post, we’ve covered what affiliate marketing is and how beginners can start, different types of affiliate networks one can join, and tips for both publishers and brands to generate sales with affiliate marketing.
I hope that this post has given you the information and resources you need to start cashing in on the monetary benefits of affiliate marketing, whether as a publisher or a brand.
And now it’s your turn! Let me know down in the comments what you learned or what questions you have about affiliate marketing, and I’ll do my best to lead you in the right direction.