Affiliate Marketing 101: A Guide for Content Creators
Affiliate marketing has significantly changed over the last ten years, with the lines between public relations and affiliate marketing blurring. However, one thing remains the same: the affiliate marketing industry is still one of the most lucrative revenue generators for businesses and content creators. In this article, we will cover the basics of affiliate marketing with best practices to guide you in your affiliate marketing journey.
What is affiliate marketing?
Simply put, affiliate marketing is an agreement between a brand and an affiliate. Each may go by different names depending on who’s talking. Brands are advertisers or merchants. Affiliates are partners or publishers. Affiliates agree to share and promote a brand’s products or services in exchange for a commission on successful transactions. Those shares and promotions are tracked via specially-coded links (affiliate links) or exclusive coupon codes.
Affiliate marketing is just one avenue of a brand’s overall digital marketing strategy. It can be a very lucrative marketing channel for businesses—not to mention a significant income earner for content creators. Also known as partner marketing or performance marketing, affiliate marketing comprises various affiliate types, from new bloggers and social media influencers to big media publications, coupon, cashback, and loyalty sites. Billions of dollars flow through the industry annually.
As a content creator, your job as an affiliate is to enhance brand awareness for a company’s products and to inspire and encourage your audience to buy. You will be rewarded with affiliate commissions each time someone uses your link or code to make a purchase.
How does affiliate marketing work?
Affiliate marketing has four main players:
- The brands that offer an affiliate marketing program for their goods and services,
- The affiliates whose business plan involves sharing those goods and services,
- The consumers who are in the market for those goods and services,
- The networks* that track each transaction and process the commission payments.
Affiliates help bridge the gap between consumers and brands by creating great content highlighting the features and benefits of brand offerings. Whether you choose to do so on your own website or on social media platforms, you can generate large commissions by introducing brands and services to the potential consumers who find and engage with your content.
You do not have to have a lot of content or even a huge following to get started in affiliate marketing. In fact, you can begin by promoting just a few of your favorite products. Then, as your online presence grows, you will discover similar products to promote that may also resonate with your audience. You may not earn much commission in the beginning, but trust the process and keep sharing great content, and your earnings will grow alongside everything else in your business.
*True, some affiliate programs may be run in-house, by the brand itself. However, most successful affiliate programs reside on a network. We’ll talk more about networks soon.
Explanation of affiliate marketing terms
To thoroughly understand affiliate marketing, it is important to understand all the terms related to the industry. Apogee has an entire glossary of affiliate terms, but for the sake of this article, here are the most important ones you should understand.
- Affiliate network: A company that facilitates the tracking of clicks, sales, and commissions generated from affiliate partners, as well as payments to those partners. Affiliate network examples: Refersion, Impact, and ShareASale.
- Affiliate program: An individual company’s affiliate terms, processes, and offers.
- Advertiser/brand: This is the company offering products or services in the affiliate program.
- Affiliate agency: This third-party agency manages every aspect of the affiliate program, from recruiting to fraud monitoring. Apogee is an affiliate agency.
- Affiliates/publishers: This is anyone who joins the program and promotes the product or service via an affiliate link or code. This can include bloggers, influencers, ambassadors, corporate partners, and others.
- Cookie length/tracking gap: This is the time from when an affiliate tracking cookie is set to track to when it expires. Tracking can be as short as 24 hours (Amazon) or as long as “forever,” but the average is 30-90 days.
- Commission: This is the amount paid to an affiliate based on each sale. Commission can be a flat dollar amount or a percentage of the generated sale value.
- Two-tier bonus: An add-on to an affiliate program that offers a bonus (or bounty) for referring new affiliates into the program.
- Exclusive coupon code: This unique code assigned to one affiliate will attribute conversions without a click. Exclusive codes can be highly beneficial for content creators.
FTC and Disclosures
It is important to note that as an affiliate, the law requires disclosure of any monetary connection you have with a brand or service. The Federal Trade Commission requires that you “clearly and concisely” disclose your relationship with the brand. In long-form or video content, you can clearly state if you have received free product for a review and that certain links in the content are affiliate links. Inform the viewer or reader that those who click and make a purchase will generate a small commission for you from that sale. It often helps to mention that the arrangement comes at no cost to them. In shorter content, you can use hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored, which cannot be hidden or disguised.
It is also important to note that these requirements change from time to time, so it is always best to stay informed with current FTC regulations to ensure that you are always in compliance with the promotion of your products through your online content.
Types of affiliate marketers
There are two main types of affiliate marketers. The first is a forward-facing approach where the content creator personally connects with their audience to share life from their perspective. This “involved” style of affiliate marketing includes bloggers, influencers, YouTubers, Instagrammers, Twitchers, and others of a similar type. With this strategy, you build a loyal audience who will come to know, like, and trust you and therefore be receptive to purchasing directly from your affiliate links or codes based on your recommendations.
Involved marketers build a brand around themselves and will often share affiliate products on their social media accounts in addition to their website (if they have one at all), which may give more opportunities for conversions. They may even create their own products and even an affiliate program to promote those products.
The second type is a behind-the-scenes approach where content is created solely for search engines to educate audiences and drive new customers to specific brands or services. This approach often does not include a social media presence as it is unclear who is doing the writing. This “unattached” style of affiliate marketing is more of an information-only business plan which does not include much opinion or experience to succeed. Instead of creating content for social media platforms where you build an audience, this strategy is geared towards high intent shoppers from search engines.
The unattached marketing style focuses solely on SEO (search engine optimization) and may rely on paid ads for affiliate sales. Since there is no community or audience-building aspect involved, it is not uncommon to have very few returning visitors.
Both types of affiliate marketing require a marketing strategy and hard work to be successful. The big difference is whether you want to be part of the narrative. There are successful affiliate marketers in both categories, so the choice is truly up to you and your goals to decide which business plan works best for you.
How do affiliate marketers get paid?
There are three main commission structures for affiliate marketing today. Each one has a bit of a different advertising model, so it is crucial to understand how each one works to know which programs will be the best fit for your promotional plans.
- Pay-per-sale: This is the most common structure for affiliate programs and will pay either a flat dollar amount or a percentage of the generated sale value.
- Pay-per-lead: This model is a bit more complex, but instead of paying out for a sale, a pay-per-lead program pays out for an action such as filling out a form or signing up for a free trial.
- Pay-per-click: This model works as simply as it sounds—paying per click—but it usually pays pennies for each click, meaning it takes a LOT of clicks to affect your income.
You should know when each affiliate program issues payments, so you know how much money to expect each month. For instance, some affiliate programs pay out immediately as sales occur, while others payout once a month on all sales that occurred the month before. In addition, affiliate networks like ShareASale will send one monthly payment for all of the ShareASale-based programs you are enrolled in. When choosing affiliate programs to join, ensure you are clear on their commission fee structure and payout methods.
Speaking of networks…
Best affiliate marketing networks to join
Deciding the best affiliate marketing networks to join is a bit of a personal preference, but here at Apogee, we recommend three as the best options for both content creators and the brands wanting to use them. Each has benefits and drawbacks but brings fail-proof tracking and attribution to the affiliate channel.
Refersion is a “lightweight” affiliate network heavily focused on working with influencers. Created as more of an affiliate tracking software than a true network, Refersion allows new affiliates to sign up and, upon approval, create a unique, exclusive coupon code that is immediately set up in the brand’s shopping cart. However, with the recent release of the Refersion Marketplace and Refersion Pay, Refersion is quickly becoming more of a network than just stand-alone software.
Refersion is mobile-friendly, which is beneficial for affiliates. Though a managing agency might vet applicants, Refersion does not itself approve or deny affiliates from specific affiliate programs.
ShareASale is more of a “middleweight” affiliate network. Affiliate managers are responsible for creating exclusive coupon codes, so affiliates are encouraged to ask the program’s manager to get that ball rolling. Reporting and communication on ShareASale are top-notch. Unlike Refersion, ShareASale gives content creators one login to access all the affiliate programs they’ve joined on the network and pays out all the commissions earned through every program once per month.
The downside to ShareASale is that the network manually approves content creators before they can join affiliate programs, which can sometimes take several days. Occasionally, a creator has lost interest or excitement about promoting the products by then. However, applying to multiple affiliate programs in any niche is easy once the network approves the new account.
Impact (formerly Impact Radius) is a “heavyweight” affiliate network with incredibly robust options for creating different contract terms, commission rates, and reporting. Like ShareASale, content creators must first be approved onto the Impact network, which can sometimes take even longer than ShareASale. However, once approved, affiliates will find the affiliate programs of some of the largest, most well-known brands on the market today.
All three affiliate networks provide a unique link for each affiliate who joins the program to share. Good affiliate programs also offer easy access to brand assets (or creative): banner ads, video ads, text links, and product knowledge.
Pros and Cons of affiliate marketing
Like everything else in life, affiliate marketing has pros and cons. Whether you are just getting started as a content creator or looking to add affiliate marketing as another income stream, it is important to know and understand each of these aspects so you can make the best choices.
- Pro: It’s easy to start. Getting started in affiliate marketing is relatively simple. You must have a basic understanding of technology and sales, and you need a website, blog, or social media presence. Still, if you genuinely desire to help or entertain others and can commit to the process, this is an excellent opportunity for creative people wanting to make income on (mostly) their own terms.
- Pro: It’s low risk. The risk is vastly lower when you compare affiliate marketing to owning your own business. When you promote someone else’s products, all the overhead—product creation, licensing, stocking, shipping—falls on the advertisers.
- Pro: There’s a low start-up cost. While the adage “you must spend money to make money” is still true for content creators, start-up costs are still much lower than many other income-earning opportunities. Your main expenses may include website domain and hosting fees, purchasing affiliate products you want to review, software such as Canva and Later, and plugins such as LinkWhisper and PrettyLinksPro.
- Pro: It’s easy to scale. Since the best way to scale your income in affiliate marketing is to create more content, you control how fast or slow you will make money. Need a “raise?” Make more intent-targeted content promoting more affiliate products. Be sure to target high intent search terms for the best results.
- Pro: You can work from anywhere. As long as you have the internet, you can do affiliate marketing. It does not get much better than that.
- Pro: You can set your hours. While this is true, it is essential to remember that, like any business or job, you will get what you put in from it. While you can work “part-time,” that does not mean “some time” unless you only want to make money “sometimes.” Other part-time jobs might include someone else making your work schedule. With affiliate marketing, you can create content on a timeline that works for you—even if that means the middle of the night.
- Pro: It’s passive income. Affiliate marketing is passive income because once you publish your great content for search intent, it has the potential to bring you conversions month after month. However, it is essential to point out that it is not quite as “set it and forget it” as some would like you to believe. Algorithms for search engines and social media platforms require certain maintenance levels to continue serving your great content to the right audience over time. You will need to consistently create new content and update old content to stay top ranking on any platform.
- Con: It requires patience. This is probably the most important aspect of affiliate marketing to understand. Sure, you may have some overnight success when you first begin to share content. But long-term, sustainable income takes time, patience, and constant content creation. For instance, when you publish a post to a blog, it can sometimes take 60–90 days before search engines index it. Pair that with the fact that consumers need to see a product 7–11 times before making a purchase, and you can see how patience and commitment to the long-term game are critical to your success.
- Con: It requires discipline. Growing your affiliate income to a sustainable level requires discipline. Writing tailored content that converts versus dashing off “fun” material always requires discipline. Remembering to share content several times each month requires discipline. Finally, being present on social media to keep your current audience engaged while attracting a new audience requires discipline.
- Con (but also sort of a pro?): It requires a strategy. Some experts estimate that 40% of time spent on content creation should be in the research phase alone. Research can include keyword research for search intent and volume, trends to get ahead of the curve, products & services to promote to your audience, and more. Having a strategy or business plan is critical to success. The upside of this requirement is that it almost eliminates the luck factor. If anyone could do it without skill or strategy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. Might as well go play the slots.
- Con: You have no control over the program or product. The other side of the coin to the pro of having minimal risk as an affiliate is not having any control over the program or products that you have chosen to promote. Unfortunately, products go out of stock, formulas change, and businesses go out of business. All of these—and more—can impact your earning potential.
5 Steps to getting started
Ready to get started but not sure exactly how to begin? Here are the five most important things to get you going in the right direction.
- Pick the type of affiliate marketing you want to do—involved or unattached. The first step is to decide how “forward-facing” you want to be. If you are ready to build a brand around you and your personality, you will want to create an involved business plan. On the other hand, if you are not interested in stepping in front of the metaphorical camera and want to just write content without worrying about growing a true audience, then an unattached business plan is for you.
- Pick your niche and content pillars. The next step is to choose the subject of the content you want to create. There is a saying in digital marketing that “the riches are in the niches.” While there are benefits to having a specific niche, this does not mean you cannot be successful as a “lifestyle” content creator. Still, we suggest you have an overall theme or concept that intertwines into the areas you intend to cover. The theme will help you to know what content to create and to find the target audience who will want more of that content. An example of a theme may be “living green,” which could include topics from beauty to travel but have an overall message of living in environmentally friendly ways.
- Pick your platform (blog, IG, TikTok, YouTube). Another saying to remember when choosing your business plan is “you cannot be all things to all people,” and it’s especially true when selecting the platform you want to build on. Each platform has a different personality and requires a different strategy for growth. Trying to be fully present on all of them is a recipe for disaster and burnout. If you choose to be more of an unattached content creator, having a website or blog will be your main focus, with maybe a YouTube channel for additional SEO. If you want to be more involved and forward-facing, you may want to choose between Instagram and TikTok for your focus rather than tackling both.
- Join relevant affiliate programs. One of the benefits of niching down is that it narrows your choices of which affiliate programs to join. For instance, if you niche down to beauty tips for women over 40, an affiliate program about soundproofing your car isn’t relevant. Be selective in the programs you want to join. You want to consider what products you think will convert the best, what products you can consistently promote, and whether your audience consists of potential customers for the brand. If you have trouble with any of those questions, it may be best to find another program.
- Create great content. Step five is the most important! Whether you are writing blog posts, creating TikToks, or designing long-form videos, everything about the success of affiliate marketing boils down to great content.
Affiliate marketing tips for bloggers & influencers
If you have chosen the “involved” route with affiliate marketing, there are some important things to remember. Here are eight tips to help you grow your overall online presence and aid in the efficiency of affiliate marketing as a part of your comprehensive business plan.
- Connect with your audience. To grow a loyal and engaged audience, you must do the work to form a “know, like, and trust” bond. Such a bond requires a creator to consistently show up for the audience on whatever platform is the focus. Treat your audience like you would a group of friends. Strive to be helpful, supportive, and open to growing connections and learning more about what you can offer. The more you share your life, ideas, goals, and inspirations, the more people will find and connect with you.
- Start sharing things you love (reviews, tutorials, round-ups, etc.). You do not have to be an affiliate for every single product you think your audience needs. In fact, you shouldn’t be. Sharing things you love organically without it being about earning money is important to growing a community that will feel like you have their best interests at heart. You do not want them to think you are one big constant advertisement. Affiliate marketing ads should only be a portion of your content strategy.
- Mindfully select affiliate programs. As stated earlier, you should be selective with the affiliate programs you want to join. As you grow as a content creator, you may be bombarded with invitations to every new partner program launch, but for the best results, you should only choose to join the ones you feel your audience truly needs.
- Keep up with trends. A great way to keep your audience engaged and grow your audience quickly is to stay on top of trends in your niche and create content around those trends with your own unique twist. You can monitor trends with tools such as Google trends, Pinterest trends, TikTok trending sounds, and Twitter trending hashtags.
- Be your best self. One of the main reasons people will follow you is YOU—not the products you promote or the content you create. There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of affiliates in some programs, but the one thing that none of the other affiliates have is you. They all have access to the same products, the same services, and the same promotions. How you present those offers to your audience and how you connect with them will make you stand out.
- Share, share… and then share again. One of the biggest mistakes bloggers and influencers make is sharing about a product one or two times, and when there are no affiliate sales, they figure that affiliate marketing doesn’t work. The truth is they were only beginning the sales process, and far too often, we see them quit before payday. Research has shown that consumers need to see a product or service in action up to a dozen times before deciding to make a purchase. Have you ever been watching television, and the same commercial came up over and over again? Research tells advertisers that repetition works. Ideally, you should be an affiliate for the top products you love so that frequently sharing them becomes natural and organic. For instance, if you are a beauty creator, share the products you use daily or weekly to keep looking your best. If you are a food creator, share every time you use your favorite kitchen tool or ingredient. If you are a fitness creator, share any supplements or equipment you use to help maximize your results. The more you expose your audience to the affiliate products you love, the higher your commissions will be.
- Don’t overlook the power of an email list. An email list can be an enormous source of revenue for all content creators. It is never too soon to start building your list and sharing great content with your list. Even if you do not have a blog and are only building a social media presence, most email marketing services will allow you to create online registration forms for your audience to sign up to receive your emails. With an email list, you are not up against algorithms or search competition like other platforms, meaning you can reach your audience virtually any time. So remember to talk about your mailing list often and encourage your followers to sign up.
- Make friends with your affiliate managers. Your affiliate manager is your best resource for making the most of each affiliate program. Good affiliate managers are up to date on current brand happenings and upcoming opportunities you might be a great fit for.
What are you waiting for?
Affiliate marketing is alive and well in today’s market, with more opportunities daily. So, whether you build a simple affiliate site full of great content or want to really stand out as someone people want to connect with, success with affiliate marketing is possible for anyone. Ask Apogee about our fantastic client roster. We’re always looking for great content creators in the niches we cover.