Affiliate Marketing From A to Z

Your Definitive Guide to Becoming a Top Affiliate Marketer

Is affiliate marketing a good way to monetize your online business? It can be, when it’s done properly.

Although they can become a great source of passive income, affiliate marketing programs are not about making boatloads of money — they’re about promoting quality products that help your audience. And doing a poor job at the start will affect your long-term chances of success.

So, do you want to learn how to start affiliate marketing the right way? Great. We have the definitive guide, right here, step by step.

Let’s start at the beginning.

What Is Affiliate Marketing? Our Working Definition

There are two kinds of affiliate marketing:

1) You have a product of your own you want to sell.
You pay other people to promote and sell your product. If they make a sale, you pay them a commission. You decide the amount of commission you’re willing to pay.

2) You don’t have a product of your own.
You find a third party’s product that fits your niche, and recommend it to your potential customers. In return, the product owner pays you a commission. The commission is set by the product owner or affiliate network.

Any credible affiliate marketing program has two main aims:

  • To promote good quality products that enhance the life of potential customers
  • To increase sales for both the product owner and the affiliate — the person promoting the product.

Done properly, it can be a very powerful marketing technique. Done badly, it can spell disaster for your online business.

How Does Affiliate Marketing Work?

Both types of affiliate marketing start at the same point: your potential customer.

  • You identify a problem, need or desire with which she needs help
  • You use your knowledge, experience and expertise to assess which product would solve that problem, or meet that need / desire.

If you have your own product, you create an affiliate program by…

  • Spending time making sure your product idea is something your audience will want, by asking anyone and everyone what they think
  • Analyzing the competition
  • Refining your product accordingly, and creating it
  • Inviting influencers in your niche to review the product
  • Finding affiliate partners to promote and sell it.

You earn money by the sale of the product, less the percentage paid to the affiliate.

Sound a little scary? Perhaps you want an affiliate source that will give you a more passive role.

Then you need to look at becoming an affiliate yourself, by promoting other people’s products. Here’s how:

  • Join a genuine, high quality affiliate program selling products that relate to your niche.
  • Search for a high quality product that solves the problem or meets the needs of your potential customer.
  • If possible, use the product yourself; if not, review other people’s experience.
  • Write a comprehensive product review that includes your unique affiliate link, or…
  • Include the affiliate link where appropriate in an article about a related topic.

You earn a commission whenever someone clicks through on your link and buys a product.

Want to know more about this? Take a look at this article.

The Benefits of Affiliate Marketing

Have you heard of the term “passive income”?

It’s what most people trying to get off the hamster wheel of a 9 - 5 job want to achieve. It’s income that flows into your bank account while you sleep.

Affiliate marketing can certainly bring passive income, but if you think it frees you from the tedium of having to do much work yourself, you need to think again. It’s dependent on building trust, and that takes time and effort.

And if you’re using your own product to make affiliate sales, there’s all the work pre-sale, of course.

Does affiliate marketing using other people’s products — which is where most beginners start — have benefits? Absolutely! Here are just a few…

  • Low risk: No need to spend anything up front, unless you intend to buy the product (which can pay dividends)
  • Easy to do: No worries about creating a product, customer service, or shipping
  • Solopreneur-friendly: No need to employ additional staff
  • Scalable: Promote one product to start, and grow your earnings as you add more.

And the Drawbacks of Being an Affiliate Marketer?

  • You’re reliant on traffic. No traffic, no sales
  • Building trust enough to sell takes time and effort
  • You have no control over commission rates, which can be as low as 1%
  • You may come across poorly structured affiliate programs.

Think you can manage those pros and cons? Great! Let’s keep moving forward.

"People don't care about your business, they care about their problems. Be the solution that they are looking for." - Melanie Dodaro

Affiliate Marketing Definitions

Let's get a common understanding of some words and phrases you'll see used in the world of affiliate marketing.

Merchant:

Sometimes also called the vendor, creator, seller or retailer. Some of these will be very familiar to you. You've probably bought something from this one, for example:

amazon affiliate program

But it doesn’t have to be a large company -- it may be an individual or a very small company who has a great product to sell. You form a relationship and set up a private affiliate scheme. The creator is responsible for producing and shipping the product, just like Amazon.

For example, take a look at “Rent the Chicken”:

homesteading affiliate program

It began as a small concern, making an additional income for a homesteading family. It’s now grown as an affiliate product. Sign up as an affiliate and “rent” chicken incubators, fertile eggs or laying hens to schools, or hens to families. The original product creator couple do the rest.

Affiliate:

Also called affiliate marketer, associate, or publisher. An affiliate finds a product that fits her online business and promotes it, usually on her website or blog. She does such a good job that the site visitor clicks through and buys. The affiliate earns a commission.

find great affiliate products

Consumer:

The person who buys the product. Without consumers, there is no affiliate marketing.

The consumer is won over by the affiliate marketer building trust and promoting products that the consumer feels (yes, that’s right -- feels) is going to make her life easier, happier, safer.

Affiliate Network:

Also known as affiliate aggregators, affiliate networks are a kind of database for affiliate programs.

Affiliate networks act as intermediaries between you and the program. The network holds all your information — including programs joined, money earned, and statistics.

Now that you’ve learned what affiliate marketing is and how it works, here are the steps to get started.

Step1: Choose an Affiliate Marketing Program

Let’s recap. What’s the difference between an affiliate program and a network? And does it matter?

An affiliate program is a standalone platform — Amazon, for example -— that has products for sale that fit the needs of your online business customers.

An affiliate network, or aggregator, is a central place where companies offering affiliate partnerships gather. The downside is: there are a lot of companies. The bonus is: there are a lot of companies.

You have a wide variety of choice. Within that variety, though, will be affiliates who are lower quality than your potential customers deserve.

It’s your job to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Does it matter whether you choose a single platform or a network? No. The critical issue here is that you choose a platform and a product that fit your online visitor’s needs.

Which Are the Most Popular Programs?

They’re not difficult to find. A search for “affiliate programs” or “affiliate networks” in your niche will bring back dozens of results.

The Most Popular Affiliate Programs:

  • Amazon Associates: By far the largest affiliate platform. Huge number of products, easy to join program, known and trusted worldwide
  • eBay Partners: One billion listings to choose from. Not as trustworthy as Amazon, because the platform consists of individual sellers who may or may not be trustworthy. And if an auction takes more than ten days, you earn nothing
  • Leadpages, Convertkit: are you in a digital marketing niche? These platforms are well thought of, easy to join, and have products your customers may love.

Enter your niche keyword plus “affiliate” into a search engine. You may be surprised at the opportunities that arise.

Or be bold! Contact the owner of a product you know and love, and ask if they have an affiliate program. If not, ask if they’d be prepared to launch one in partnership with you.

Don’t be shy — small business owners are often happy to have a place to advertise and sell their products or services!

The Most Popular Affiliate Networks:

  • CJ by Conversant: Formerly Commission Junction, CJ promotes high end products, with an exacting application process. It’s a platform for more experienced affiliate marketers
  • ClickBank: A diverse marketplace hosting thousands of products and services. Downside? Many are poor quality — it can take more time and effort to find something you’d be proud to sell than it takes on other platforms
  • Rakuten Marketing Affiliates: An award-winning platform with excellent affiliate support and some large brands
  • ShareASale: Not the greatest looking platform, but full of individualistic merchants who may have slightly quirky products in your niche
  • Check out this article on the best affiliate marketing programs for beginners.

How to Know Which Affiliate Marketing Programs to Join

How do you decide which affiliate program is the best for your niche?

Here’s the wrong question to ask: “What are the highest paying affiliate programs?” High-paying does not necessarily mean high quality. Yes, it may be nice for you in the short term to earn a high commission.

But in the long term? Sell your customer a dud and you’ve lost a loyal fan. She’ll never come back to your site — and she’ll warn all her friends.

And the right question? “Does this affiliate program give my site visitor the best possible product to help solve the problem she has, or the need or desire she wants to satisfy? Will it genuinely make her life better / safer / healthier?”

Have you ever seen a recommendation in a forum, or seen an ad for a bright, shiny new product and thought “Yay, the answer to all my woes!”? It’s easy to feel like that with affiliate programs.

So many programs, offering so many products! Like a kid in a candy shop, you’re champing at the bit to run after them all. This could be the program that changes your life — forever!

Or not.

It’s critical to assess the programs you’re considering joining. Don’t be seduced by every bright, shining product. Many will turn out to be coal, not diamonds.

So choose wisely. Don’t overload yourself. You don’t need dozens of affiliate programs to make a profit. Choose one. Concentrate on being the best you can be for your customers with whatever that one has to offer.

Then, and only then, move on to another.

But how do you know which are the best for your niche? Where do you start?

Do you go for a network like ShareASale, with a huge selection of affiliates? Or is a large program like Amazon better? Or a small affiliate like Rent the Chicken? Here’s the thing...

It doesn’t matter.

Because there’s something far more critical than the type of program to consider when making a decision about which to join. What is it?

Simple. Stand in the shoes of your customers. Carefully examine the programs you’re about to join, the products you’re about to sell.

Would you buy them for yourself? Would they help your potential customers? More importantly,would you be proud to sell them to your grandmother?

That’s the bottom line. You need to have pride in what you’re selling.

So take time. Visit the websites of the products or services you’re considering using. Do they have an affiliate program? Opt into it. What are the products like? How about customer service?

What would be the experience as a customer? Is that how you would want to be treated? Is it how you’d want your grandmother to be treated?

If not -- leave it alone. If your grandmother would be delighted -- go for it!

How to Know Which Affiliate Marketing Programs Not to Join

Wondering how to tell the difference between a scam and a bona fide program?

Simple. Here’s what to avoid.

avoid these types of programs

Before joining any affiliate marketing platform, take time to do your due diligence. It’s a red flag if you see…

  • “I made $1,000 overnight!” or other get rich quick statements
  • a high-end product that’s totally irrelevant to your audience
  • no “deep links” – you’re only able to link to the company, but not to individual products
  • poor customer service reports – check social media for an accurate representation of customer satisfaction
  • reports of credit card fraud.

Always, always avoid making those kinds of mistakes yourself!

"Stand in the shoes of your customers. Carefully examine the programs you’re about to join, the products you’re about to sell."

Step 2: Choose Affiliate Marketing Products to Promote

You’ve chosen your affiliate network and/or program. You’re happy they target your niche, and you’re safe in the knowledge that they treat their customers well.

Because if they don’t, it’s not the network or the program that will receive the complaints. It’s you. You’re the one who promised they’d be fine. You’re the one your site visitors will remember.

So be sure, before you move on, that you have the right platform. Only then move on to considering what is the right product.

Here’s that wrong question again: “How much money can I make as an affiliate marketer for this product?”

No, no, no!

It’s not about you! Yes, you’ve heard it here before. It’s about your potential customer!

What’s the right question? “How do the features of this product answer the problems my customer has?”

Here’s how to choose your product:

  • Ask the question of your audience on forums, in newsletters, on social media — wherever they are: “What’s the biggest problem you face as a cat owner / quilter / migraine sufferer / traveler to far-away places?”
  • Follow up with this question: “Have you tried to find a solution to this problem? If so, did it work? If not, why not?”
  • Now ask yourself this question: “Which product have I used / do I have knowledge of that would address this problem?”
  • And follow up with this question: “What features of this product address the difficulties involved in this problem?”

If the answers come back “I’m not sure,” forget the product. Move on. Find something else that does answer the questions.

Your goal is to find a product or service that will unlock a door for your potential customers. At present, the door is locked and bolted. They cannot see any way through.

Your job is to unlock that door and guide them through to the other side.

It doesn’t matter that your chicken-keeper audience has rats and needs to stop them from bringing disease into the coop. Or that your traveling audience wants to know the best places to visit in Phuket, where they’ve always longed to visit but have never quite dared -- until now.

The process is always the same:

  • Analyze the problem or need.
  • Find a high quality product that you genuinely know will help solve that problem or meet that need. If possible, choose a product you have used yourself, or are able to provide evidence from others that they have used.
  • Describe it in such a way as to make your audience sure that this product is exactly what they’ve been looking for, but not been able to find.
  • Be sure to talk about the drawbacks, as well as the benefits.

That is the way to get the affiliate click.

Never, ever try to fool your audience. Never choose a product simply because it earns a high affiliate commission. Your credibility will be shot.

Be sure that you’ll be able to speak to your visitors with confidence, as an unbiased reviewer who has their best interests at heart. You’re not a high-pressure salesperson who wants to make a quick buck.

And always be sure that the product you’re selling is genuinely what they need.

Get personal. Be open. Be authentic. Build trust.

Because without trust, your life as an affiliate marketer is over before it has a chance to get started.

Step 3: Create an Affiliate Marketing Website

So far, we’ve learned:

  • What affiliate marketing is, how it works, and what its benefits and drawbacks are
  • How to assess the best affiliate marketing programs, and find those that best fit our niche
  • Which products are most likely to appeal to our audience in answering a problem, or satisfying a need or desire.

Now, we need to promote it. The first step?

Without a website, you don’t have a credible platform. Can you do affiliate marketing without a website?

Some would say it’s possible using only social platforms. But it’s a matter of trust. And that trust is best built on a website, where your audience benefits from your free, high quality content, and your established authority.

You’re more likely to succeed with a platform that offers all the tools, guidance and support to help you develop a successful online business from scratch.

Using those assets, create a website focused on a niche for which you have passion and understanding, written using your own knowledge and experience, and always having your site visitor in mind.

Spend time building content that resonates with your site visitors, and turns them into fans who not only return to your website, but encourage others to visit.

Watch the snowball grow into an avalanche of traffic. That’s what you need to be a successful affiliate marketer.

Traffic. People who trust you. Only when you have that traffic can you think about how you’re going to promote the affiliate product you’ve carefully chosen. Because without traffic, you don’t have anyone to buy.

So let’s assume you have that traffic. Now what?

Step 4: Promote Your Affiliate Products

There are many ways to promote your affiliate products and start earning commissions. Here are the 10 most effective strategies.

1. Write Affiliate Product Reviews.

Sometimes called “involved affiliate marketing,” we’ve touched on this already. How’s it done?

  • Choose a product as outlined above — preferably one you’ve used, or one that someone you know and trust can give you information about.
  • Identify the language your audience uses to describe their pain, or need.
  • Reflect that pain in the same or similar language in a product review.
  • Empathize — “I had that problem, too” — and explain how this product helped.
  • Detail the features of the product, and explain how each is a benefit in terms of solving the problem, or meeting the need.
  • Remember a call to action: “Buy this product!”

Writing product reviews for even small items can be time-consuming. But remember: it’s passive income. Write it once, and leave it to convert potential customers to purchasers. Update product reviews at least annually for best results.

2. Blogging: Writing Content for Affiliate Marketing.

This is much the same as writing product reviews, except the article content may have a wider focus. So where a product review is a standalone article about a single product, the blog content for affiliate marketing is more likely to be contained in a “story-telling” blog post.

It may (or may not) contain links to several affiliate products within the same post, in which case each product description will be more concise.

This blog post, for example, by SBIer Carl Trent, aka “Disney Dad,” contains an affiliate reference in the text of a discussion post.

links to affiliate products

3. Affiliate Product Comparisons

Instead of one review of one product, compare two or more products of the same type.

This strategy is used by some of the largest brands — because it’s effective. It’s effective because potential customers on the edge of purchasing will often have two or more products in mind. Helping them decide between products is likely to result in a sale.

This type of review can work well as a quick summary of a product’s pros and cons, helping the reader decide between similar items across the same, or different, brands.

You may have seen examples of this on Amazon. Starting with a review of each product, it summarizes with a recap of key features.

reviews and comparisons of affiliate products

Use categories that you know will help your audience view the product as a potential answer to their problems, and list them in a table for quick reference.

4. “How-To” Tutorials of Affiliate Products

Do you have a product that could benefit from an explanation? If a site visitor is searching for an item that she thinks may be a little complex, an explanation of how to use it can help move her to purchase.

After all, it proves you have the item, and it shows you know how to use it. Now she has somewhere to come if she can’t work it out when the goods are delivered!

Here's an example: tutorials are used as an imaginative way of encouraging the audience to purchase a particular brand of chicken egg candling equipment.

What better way to demonstrate the product than by promoting a sense of excitement as the audience watches the chick embryo grow, day by day?

promote excitement for affiliate products

Solving the problem of “how do I candle eggs safely,” at the same time it demonstrates both the affiliate's authority and the benefit of the product.

Win-win.

What product could you promote with a “how-to” tutorial?

5. Email Marketing of Affiliate Products

Do you have a mailing list? Use it to promote your affiliate products.

With one important caveat.

Do not put affiliate links directly into the email. Doing so may (and with Amazon Associates, definitely will) put you in violation of the merchant’s terms and conditions.

Don’t risk it. Instead, link your readers back to a product review page on your website. For example, this link leads to a product review about rat traps:

affiliate mailing lists

You don’t need a huge number of subscribers to make email marketing of your affiliate products worthwhile.

Are you confident about segmenting your subscriber list? Great! Target specific groups around topics you know they’re interested in.

And if you don’t have a list — create one, now. It’s an important asset over which you have control.

6. Automated Courses as an Affiliate Marketing Tool

Linked to, but different from, email marketing, here’s how automated courses work:

  • Starting where we always start — with our site visitor — identify a problem or a need.
  • Examples might be a course about how to toilet train a puppy, or how to become a successful online business owner. Or, in the example below, how to successfully hatch chicks.
  • Create a written course in (for example) six steps that solves the problem or meets the need. Host the course on your website or blog, and create emails that link to and add content to the six website articles.
  • Use an automated email system to send out the emails at whatever interval you consider appropriate.
  • During the course, refer to affiliate products you might use: puppy training pads, or an email provider, for example. Link to the product reviews on your website.

affiliate marketing courses
  • At the end of the course, offer access to a more detailed course about the same subject. Make clear that you will also consider affiliates to promote and sell your course, for a commission.

What about promotion away from your website or blog?

7. The Role of Podcasts in Affiliate Marketing Promotion

Why not talk about your affiliate product? If you already have a podcast, it’s an ideal marketing platform. If you don’t, consider creating one.

And if you don’t have time for a podcast series, consider creating audio to host on your website.

What should it contain? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Interview someone who uses the product or service.
  • Have a discussion with someone who uses the product, if you also use it.
  • Interview the person who created or sells the product.

Or appear on someone else’s podcast to promote your own affiliate product!

Jeff Sieh, of Manly Pinterest Tips, uses podcasts to promote other people’s affiliate products -- in this case Cara Chace’s membership site.

podcasts and interviews for affiliate marketing

8. How to Promote Affiliate Products on Social Media

Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter — where are your audience? Social platforms can provide a great launching-pad for affiliate product sales.

Facebook: Most useful for promoting affiliate links within your own Facebook group (not a business page where your reach will be lower) where you have built up a community of fans not just interested in, but committed to, your niche.

Instagram: if you have a young audience, Instagram may be the place for your affiliate marketing, particularly in the fashion niche. “Shoppable Posts” on Instagram make promoting affiliate products simple. In addition, Hootsuite’s statistics show that…

  • 60% of Instagrammers say they discover products on the platform.
  • 75% of users take action such as visiting a website after viewing a post.

Pinterest: according to their own statistics

  • 72% of pinners are inspired to shop even when they were not looking for anything.
  • 70% discover new products on Pinterest.
  • 90% say Pinterest helps them decide what to purchase.

Twitter: engaging with others is the way forward with Twitter affiliate sales promotions. And then use hashtags to Tweet out your affiliate and your promotional post or, as in this case, video.

affiliate engagement using pinterest

Speaking of which…

9. YouTube’s Role in Affiliate Marketing

Back to tutorials again, but this time as a video on your YouTube channel with links to your website-based affiliate product review in the description. Adding a direct affiliate link on YouTube is a grey area — and never be tempted by advice on the web to cloak affiliate links. It could result in your account being closed.

What works well on YouTube?

  • “Walk through” videos: you don’t appear on the video but demonstrate the features of a product
  • “Unboxing” videos: video yourself taking the product from its wrapping and show what comes bundled with it.
  • “How to” videos: recording yourself using a product demonstrates that you do own and use it.

10. How to Use Webinars in Affiliate Marketing Promotion

What better way to engage your audience than by hosting a live webinar to demonstrate a product or explain a service. Use free platforms such as Google Hangouts, YouTube Live or Facebook Live. Here’s how:

  • Prepare what you want to say. Know the main features of the product or service and list them.
  • Practice what you’re going to say. Recording yourself on your mobile device is a good way to spot what you need to clean up.
  • Advertise your webinar in your newsletter, on social media, and to friends and family (at least you’ll know you have some participants!).
affiliate marketing using live webinars
  • Be prepared for a question and answer session.
  • Record the webinar and place the recording on your website.
  • If you use slides, re-purpose them after the webinar — use them as a lead magnet for your newsletter, for example.

And there you have it. Ten ways to promote your affiliate products. We’re not quite finished yet, though.

Affiliate Marketing Tips

Here are some final tips to follow as you build your online business and become a successful affiliate marketer.

Legal and Ethical Best Practices

Always remember to disclose to your audience that your post contains affiliate links. It’s irrelevant where your product is being promoted — the law is the same.

Look on it positively: full disclosure will likely increase trust. Your followers know you’re being transparent in your marketing.

Learn About Search Engine Optimization

Affiliate marketing depends on attracting traffic. In order to do that, you need some basic understanding of SEO -- or the right coaching to help you learn.

Paid Ad Strategies

When your affiliate marketing begins to make money, you will be able to invest some of your profit in pay per click advertising.

Facebook ads, Google ads, Pinterest promoted pins -- the possibilities are out there. But they’re only relevant once you’re making money.

Testing and Tracking

Tracking how your affiliate products are doing is critical to growth. What’s working? Do more of it. What’s not? Stop doing that.

Start Your Own Affiliate Program

Creating your own affiliate product is an advanced strategy, but certainly worth bearing in mind once you increase your confidence in and knowledge of affiliate marketing.

Wrapping Up

So there we have it — everything you need to know to get started with affiliate marketing, including:

  • The meaning of “affiliate programs” and their pros and cons
  • How to choose an affiliate marketing program
  • How to choose affiliate products
  • 10 ways to promote those products
  • Extra tips to help you succeed long-term.

Moving forward

You have brief information about 7 potential affiliate programs or networks here. But it would be a massive mistake to try to use all of them at once.

To help you start on the right foot, we’ve put together our four top picks with research and information on choosing the best one for your online business. Each of the programs featured in our free download has been in business for 20 years or more, with a consistent track record and solid reputation.

Don’t hold back. You have an affiliate marketer in you. Your customers are waiting.