Affiliate marketing is a way for publishers like you and me to promote products and services that we like and use to the people we serve through our platform. It’s my favorite kind of marketing arrangement because when used appropriately, it’s the perfect match of a person (me) promoting a product they like (made by someone else) to the people that have chosen to give me their attention (you). I want to talk about what it takes to start affiliate marketing.
Start Affiliate Marketing
Let me state two details at the beginning: there will be affiliate links in this post as there are in lots of my posts. (I disclose that fact on my about page, which is good to do and also the law in the US – more on that later.) Second, these are my simple methods for affiliate marketing. There are far more intelligent and complex ways to do this executed by the really smart people I’ve met at events like Affiliate Summit. Start with me, but if you get really involved in this space, go to that conference.
The purpose of this article will be to walk you through what it takes to build a media site (or sites) and promote products and services that you use and like. There are other methods to make and deploy affiliate marketing. I’m sharing just mine. My intention isn’t to create some exhaustive tome. I want to get you started and get you on the path to making business happen. Oh, and if you want a handy checklist to go along with this, I’ll trade you. Sign up to my newsletter and get the Start Affiliate Marketing Checklist. Good?
Before You Begin: What’s Required
Like most any online business idea, people go a little crazy. They think, “This is super easy and I’ll just set up a website and someone will drop bags of money off at my house.” It never EVER happens that way. You will always have to work and people will only ever give you money if you’re delivering some kind of value to them.
The method I recommend for affiliate marketing is to build a content media “property” around a topic of interest (YOUR interest) after determining whether there’s some related affiliate marketing programs. That means you’re going to do some blogging, maybe some podcasts, some video. You’ll be in the media making and promoting business.
It’s a hard time for this. There is a GLUT of content out there. Author Mark Schaefer wrote about content shock as far back as 2014. There’s just gobs of people creating “content” for the world out there.
So why start? Why am I telling you about this in the first place?
Two reasons. 1.) If you’re just going to phone it in, stop reading this article. It’s obvious when you do this and no one will pay attention to you. 2.) If you feel strongly about some particular topic or topic area, it will require your effort to make something of value for people.
Requirements for Being a Successful Affiliate Marketer
To be successful in my method, you must do the following:
- Treat affiliate marketing like a business – Serve people something of value or they’ll go elsewhere. Put in the time. Work to make your product (good content) worth it.
- Create new content at least once a week – And again, “content” means a blog post or a podcast episode or a video. Some kind of media that serves your potential buyer.
- Make the content valuable – Anyone can make a few bucks delivering junk content, but that’s not serving anyone. People will quickly realize your goals and abandon you. And Google will punish your search ranking badly if they suspect you’re not working to help the people who show up on your site.
- Always know the product you’re promoting – This is important. Some affiliate marketing programs are lucrative but are in areas where you have no domain knowledge. Never promote something you can’t vouch for. Either be an active user of the product and service or be closely connected with the company who sells it. YOUR relationship with the community you serve is at stake. Affiliate marketing is a 100% trust-based game.
- Seek out ways to serve the people who give you their attention – Your relationship is never about selling the product. It’s about equipping the people you serve with tools they might find valuable. That requires you to go looking for products and services that might enhance the experiences of those people who give you their attention.
- Learn at least the basics of the technology you use to create this material – The very basic affiliate marketing that I do requires that you know how to copy and that you know how to paste. Beyond this, I’m going to recommend a few tools that might make the whole thing a little better. Learn how to post a blog post. Learn how to record and edit a podcast. Learn how to shoot and post a video on something like YouTube. You’ll need these skills.
All right. Let’s say you’re down for this still. Let’s dig in.
Step 1: Pick a Topic Area
This is likely the hardest part, but it doesn’t have to be. Here at [chrisbrogan.com], my tagline is “Use media and community to earn more customers.” That means I talk about business stuff around marketing and communications for the most part. Right? Pretty wide-stretching topic. The negative to this is that I don’t rank highly on Google for many useful things. The plus is that I can pick lots more things to promote, where it makes sense.
For you, I want you to consider Step 1 and Step 2 in the same time frame. As you start looking for a topic area, it has to match up with you well.
- Is this an area you know well?
- Can you list ten articles to write about?
- Is there something people buy to improve their experience in this space?
- Can you find products for the space? (See Step 2)
That’s how I evaluate NEW projects. If I were going to start a brand new website from scratch right now around a space, I would go through that checklist.
But listen. Very important. You MIGHT find ways to build affiliate programs into it indirectly. Let’s say you like geocaching. Remember that? It’s when you go out in the woods and cities with a GPS and find little treasure boxes that other people have left for you? Maybe that’s your thing. You use it to exercise a bit and unwind.
You might think: well, then I’ll sell GPS products. Okay, but you can also sell backpacks, hiking boots, toys to stick in the boxes, snacks, thermoses, raincoats, umbrellas, and sunglasses. Bingo. Sunglasses are a HUGE internet product. Just check your spam if you don’t believe me. See?
Some people also like to bounce topic ideas of the Google Keyword Planner tool. Sometimes that’s great, but if you are REALLY sure of your topic, don’t fret if that tool doesn’t back you up. I’ve made a career around creating my own keywords.
You’ve got a topic, but you MUST determine of there are some affiliate programs that make it worth your time to build this out. (Again, provided your goal is to be an affiliate marketer and earn money promoting products and services that you vouch for to the people you have the pleasure to serve.)
Step 2: Research Affiliate Programs
There are many affiliate platforms and programs out there. You want to seek out companies that have some level of longevity. You want to evaluate whether they have good reporting tools. You’ll probably want to Google any company you’re evaluating to make sure there aren’t too many scary stories about them, too.
I’ll tell you off the bat that I am a very big fan of Share-a-Sale, because I know and trust their founder, Brian Littleton, and because a lot of the companies I’ve worked with have chosen Share-a-Sale for their platform.
This isn’t a pure affiliate project, but IZEA is a company I appreciate and vouch for. I’m friends with founder Ted Murphy, and I’ve worked with this company since…2009, I think?
You can pick who you want to work with, but do your homework.
When you’ve decided on a company or companies to work with (many people have multiple affiliate accounts), it’s time to research your topic to see if there are some potential products and services in the area you’re hoping to develop.
You can search by product name. You can search by company name. You can even just start typing stuff in and see what you find. Again, my big point (I’ve made it three or four times so far) is that you should only promote products and services that you’ve used or you can vouch for. Let that guide your searches, too.
One little detail: sometimes, a company has a standalone affiliate program and for whatever reason, they opt to run the program themselves. That’s fine. It means you have to go to their site, apply for their program, and hope that they are as diligent and professional as the programs I’ve mentioned above. I’m not saying not to do it, but I tend to stick to platforms that I know will actually pay me for my efforts. At the TOP of that list for me is Share-A-Sale, so sign up there.
Then, it’s time to apply for some programs.
Step 3: Apply for Affiliate Programs
Every affiliate manager (the person working with the companies selling the products and services) does their job differently. There are various ways they evaluate their affiliates, different ways they handle their relationships, etc. Some programs are open to anyone. You sign up and you’re in. Other programs require an application and verification.
In those application-and-verification moments, the manager is looking for the following:
- What website will these links and banners be used?
- What else do you promote there?
- Are you legit or some evil spammer?
- Do you have any kind of an audience?
- Does your site even look nice?
I can tell you from my own experience that I’ve been denied from programs because the manager felt I wasn’t the right fit. Fine by me. I’ve also been denied from programs because I wanted to use the links and banners on a site that wasn’t yet developed and the affiliate manager probably wanted to see me launch before giving me an account with their company. Never take the denials personally. Realize that you can reapply and just move forward.
Focus on finding companies whose products and services you want to represent and work on getting approved for those.
Sometimes, I know a product, but the company vending the product is unknown to me. For instance, I am an affiliate marketer for a vitamin supplement company that I know very little about, but I use them because they sell products that I can vouch for. So before I put a single link up from this company, I ordered products from them myself like a customer. I evaluated the delivery. I contacted their customer service to ask a question or two. I made sure I could trust these people with someone if I sent someone there to get a vitamin. (I recommend you do the same.)
Okay, let’s say you’ve applied. You’ve been accepted. You’re ready to make a site.
Step 4: Build a Site
If you don’t already have a domain (URL) for your website, swing by Namecheap or whoever you prefer and buy one. With all the new domain options like .club and .media and so on, you’re likely going to be able to pick a decent name without much hassle.
Some people prefer a name that matches a Google search like, “how-to-buy-a-car.com” or something. (Don’t search that because I didn’t.)
My name choice is to create something memorable that you can own. When I dabbled with a nerdy site idea, I settled on NerdFront because I liked how bold it was. (Note: the project’s on hold AND it isn’t on StudioPress because I built it before that was an option.)
Quick Disclosure: I have a strong bias for Brian Clark, Rainmaker Digital, and the StudioPress and Rainmaker platforms. My business runs on it and has for years. I will always recommend them because they’ve served me well for years now.
That said, it’s important to build a site where you can do your affiliate stuff. You can build something simple, something mega complex, or you can build a media platform that handles blogging, podcasting,etc. I’ll give you three to choose from:
- Weebly – not a ton of features, but inexpensive and very fast/easy to throw together.
- Rainmaker – the exact opposite. This is a massive and amazing platform. It does many things, has its own merchant tools, membership tools, a podcast network system, a learning management system and much more. I run my flagship site, Owner.Media, on it.
- StudioPress – This is a newer offering from Rainmaker Digital and I put my Mom’s website on it right away. I’ve got a new site going there, too. This is what I would most recommend for a affiliate marketing project because it’s affordable (under $300 USD a year), built on a bulletproof hosting solution, has strong SEO (search engine optimization) added to it, and with its new approved plug-in partners, it’s pretty easy to configure and launch a decent site with minimal technological knowledge.
I mentioned podcasting and video. You have a lot of options. I’ll tell you what I picked for various projects and you can choose your own adventure.
For my last two podcast projects, I used and can highly recommend Libsyn (Liberated Syndication). They’ve been in business for years. I know the founders and many of the team there. A lot of the biggest podcasters in the world trust Libsyn.
I’ve also dabbled with the podcasting tools inside Rainmaker. It works really well and I’m going to run my next podcast on it. The team at Rainmaker Digital all use it and have launched hundreds (thousands?) of episodes on it.
For video? Oh boy. You could ask a million people. I have a few thoughts.
I use YouTube and intend to use it more. I’ve started using Facebook and Facebook live. I believe there’s some “there” there.
I also like those platforms like Vimeo and the rest. Don’t ask. Use what you want. But I think it’s a bit crazy if you don’t use the big mega platforms as well. You can argue with me. Pick for yourself.
Do you HAVE to do video? No. Should you? I say yes. Do it!
SUPER IMPORTANT STEP: On your About page on your website, create an area for disclosures. In the US, this is a legal requirement – see more HERE.
If you want to steal and edit mine, here’s what I wrote:
Chris promotes and sells various 3rd party products and services via affiliate marketing links. These change frequently. Presume that most links here have an affiliate relationship attached, but also understand that if Chris promotes it, he uses and believes in the product or service.
Now, let’s make some content!
Step 5: Create and Launch Useful Content
Let’s talk about making content. I mean blog posts. I mean newsletter articles (not just your blog posts sent in email). I mean podcast episodes. I mean videos. That’s the “stuff” of this job the way I do it.
What do you write about?
You can do lots of things:
- How-to (oh! Like THIS post!)
- And sometimes just off-the-cuff stories where you find yourself talking about a product that you recommend.
There are plenty of other ways to do affiliate marketing. These are content marketing plays, not the other stuff like coupon sites, etc.
Above all else, I want you to be organic. Create information that will serve the person you’re hoping to help. Browse through what I’ve written at [chrisbrogan.com] and you’ll see there’s quite a mix there. My reader is a business person. My reader is someone looking for new ideas and perspectives. Thus, I can mention whatever makes sense in that context.
But I also talk about products and services from my life where it makes sense. I love my Yeti mug. I love it. So when I talk about it, I link to where you can pick one up. Because if you get one, you’ll love it like I do.
That’s how I do affiliate marketing content. It’s organic because the absolute goal of my efforts is to connect you with something I think you’ll find useful and/or will benefit you in some way. That’s my biggest message to you in this whole piece.
The actual mechanics of how I post for affiliate marketing go exactly like this:
- I write my blog post.
- I identify links I want to place that point you to the product I want to reference.
- I find those links on ShareASale (or wherever you’ve chosen).
- I add those links to my post. *
- I publish the post.
*There’s an extra step because I’ve chosen it. I use Bit.ly Pro as a link shortener. That means I take a link from somewhere like shareasale that looks like this: http://www.shareasale.com/r.cfm?b=518798&u=287419&m=46483&urllink=&afftrack= and turn it into this: http://cbrogan.me/namecheap. I recommend link shortening technology but it’s not VITAL.
I do it for three reasons. 1.) Prettier links. 2.) More stats. 3.) I can replace a vendor with another vendor without upsetting the links I built on my blog and elsewhere.
Like I said early on, you must also treat this like a business. And to do that, we move to our next step.
Step 6: Adjust Based on Stats
If you’re not measuring your efforts, there’s no real reason to do affiliate marketing. The goal is to help others and to earn something for your efforts. To do this, you need stats.
At the bare minimum, install Google Analytics.
Look also for other tools to help with your efforts, too. For instance, I use Bit.ly pro for my link shortener. It tells me that my links have been clicked by people in 67 countries. It tells me that more people click my link for Rainmaker than they do my link for the Yeti mug this month.
Your goal is to help others. You might find more information from your stat-gathering. For instance, let’s say Google Analytics says 100 people clicked a link on your page to a great set of art pens you like and promote. Your Bit.ly pro account confirms those 100 clicks, too. But your affiliate program says made zero sales.
- First, know that it could happen. People click but don’t buy all the time. 1% is a good number to aim for. 100 clicks, 1 sale. But if there’s no sale?
- The people who click might not like the product. – Should you find a new product?
- The people who click might not like the seller’s website. – Should you find a new vendor?
- There might be a disconnect in the content and the promoted link. Maybe lose the link and try something in a new post.
But there’s other things that can happen. Software fails all the time. You might see 100 clicks in Google Analytics and only 10 clicks in the link shortener. Is there something wrong there? Or maybe 100/100 and the vendor isn’t seeing the traffic? You might have to reach out to an affiliate manager for some help.
See? Stats. They’re important. Use them.
Okay, last in my list.
Step 7: Look for Expansion
If your goal is helping someone, it’s great to realize that people have more than one need in the universe. The best salespeople I’ve EVER met are those who are looking out for the larger story around me instead of just selling me one single product or service.
A long time ago, I used to pester Brian Clark for a copy of his WordPress theme. When he started selling a premium theme based on his old one, I was one of his first customers. Then, he sold a premium theme framework. Then, another. Then, hosting. Then a powerful website platform. And now a simpler one too. I’m in line every time he comes up with something new. I love about 85% of the things he’s created. Pretty good number, right?
As an affiliate marketer, your job is to help people in a certain space. Maybe you’re helping aspiring nursing students. You help them get scrubs and school supplies and links to books and whatever else. Maybe you find an affiliate program for study guides or something. Why wouldn’t you look to expand what you offer to help students get what they need to do their job better?
Let’s say this goes another way. Maybe you’ve done so great with nursing students that you think, “Hey, I’m into vintage 1950s memorabilia- maybe there’s an affiliate project THERE!” That’s awesome.
What comes next? All the same seven steps above. Starting at Step 1.
Because there are two ways to expand:
- Grow the product lines to the marketplace you serve.
- Create a new marketplace.
What wouldn’t be a great plan is mixing the two. Don’t try to sell nursing students 1950s surfboards or whatever. Make sense?
That’s how to expand.
The trust you develop with the people you reach with your media is your first and foremost priority. Never trade your relationship for a few bucks. It’ll never ever EVER be worth it.
Serve the people you write and create content for and deliver them products and services you’ve used and/or can vouch for. Be diligent in this.
Keep it light. You’re here so you’re not likely going into this business in any hardcore kind of way. But do this stuff lightly. Look for it to buy you a dinner every month. Then a few dinners. Then get yourself to where it can pay your mortgage. And so on. It’s more fun this way. You’ll enjoy the experience more.
And remember that selling isn’t evil. Selling without the intention of helping the other party is evil. Most every link I’ve shared above is an affiliate link. Did you feel like I was some kind of jerk? No. Because I’m pointing you towards resources you might want to use to build your own money-making affiliate marketing business.
THAT is your goal. Help others. Make money. Simple as that.
Now, do you want the checklist I promised?