What is Affiliate Marketing: A Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started

Affiliate Marketing - Last Updated on February 1, 2024 by Jussi Hyvarinen

What is Affiliate Marketing

Jussi Hyvärinen

I'm Jussi, with over 25 years of expertise, I help entrepreneurs navigate the online business world. My services include tailored recommendations, step-by-step tutorials, and insightful reviews to help steer your business aspirations. Please reach out if you need assistance with your online business plans or have any questions.

Affiliate marketing is a revenue-sharing model where third-party affiliates, such as bloggers or social media influencers, promote a business's products or services to help the business generate sales, receiving a commission for each sale made through their unique referral link.

Affiliate marketing offers a great opportunity to monetize your online presence while recommending products you know and trust to your audience.

This guide will explain what affiliate marketing is, how it works, and how to start as a successful affiliate.

What is Affiliate Marketing?

Affiliate marketing is performance-based marketing where businesses reward affiliates for customers generated through their marketing. It's one of the most popular ways to monetize online content and make money with a website or social media following.

As an affiliate marketer, you partner with brands to promote their products or services using your platforms. You earn a commission when your marketing efforts result in a sale or lead.

The most common affiliate marketing programs are managed through affiliate networks. These are third-party companies that handle the payments between merchants and affiliates. They also provide tracking tools to credit affiliates for generating sales.

Some of the most well-known affiliate networks include:

  • CJ Affiliate - Offers advertisers in many verticals like retail, travel, and finance.
  • ShareASale - Popular network with brands across numerous verticals.
  • Amazon Associates - Amazon's affiliate program lets you earn commissions on Amazon purchases.
  • Rakuten - Leading cashback affiliate network with over 3,500 merchants.  

But merchants also offer their in-house affiliate programs. For example, online course creators and other digital marketers often have their own affiliate programs outside of networks.

As an affiliate, you can join and switch between programs at your discretion to promote the products that best fit your audience and maximize your earnings. Top affiliate marketers are frequently part of multiple programs.

The most successful affiliate marketers stack various income streams by utilizing different marketing methods across multiple channels, like:

  • Website content and SEO to generate organic traffic
  • Paid advertising campaigns like Google Ads and Facebook Ads
  • Email marketing sequences and newsletters 
  • Promotions on social media platforms
  • Podcast sponsorships and product placements
  • YouTube reviews and tutorials

This multi-channel approach allows professional affiliate marketers to scale their business to earn anywhere from a nice side income to over $100K/month. However, starting as a beginner only requires focusing on one traffic source and a few affiliate programs.

How Does Affiliate Marketing Work? 

Affiliate marketing follows a simple structure where three main parties work together:

  • The merchant who creates a product or service and wants to sell more. 
  • The affiliate who publishes content and generates an audience.
  • The potential customer who is interested in the product or service.

Here is the step-by-step process:

  1. The merchant recruits affiliates and provides promotional materials like banner ads, text links, product images, and discount codes.
  2. The affiliate publishes merchant content or links on their website, social media, videos, email newsletters, or other digital assets.
  3. When a potential customer clicks on an affiliate link, a cookie (small tracking file) gets stored on their browser for a set period - usually 30 to 90 days.
  4. If the customer purchases within that cookie timeframe, the affiliate earns a percentage of the sale price as a commission.
  5. The merchant handles paying affiliates their commissions based on data from click traffic, impressions, sales volumes, or other agreed metrics.
  6. Using a unique affiliate ID and tracking links, the merchant can adequately attribute each sale to the corresponding affiliate.

In essence, affiliate marketing creates a sales partnership between brands and publishers. The brand supplies everything needed to sell, while the affiliate generates traffic and sales using its unique audience and content.

This relationship allows both parties to benefit. The brand expands its reach and scales sales faster with an army of affiliates promoting their products in parallel.

The affiliate earns income on autopilot from the commission generated on each referred sale. The more people who click affiliate links and buy products, the more money the affiliate makes.

Why Do Affiliate Marketing? 

1. Benefits for Businesses

More and more companies are turning to affiliate marketing as a scalable, performance-based form of online customer acquisition.

For merchants, affiliate programs yield several advantages compared to other marketing channels:

  • Access committed promoters - Affiliates proactively partner with brands they believe in. So, they tend to be more enthusiastic about promoting products compared to hired influencers or ads bought through a platform.
  • Pay only for performance - Affiliates are only rewarded for sales they generate. Merchants don't have to pay solely for impressions and clicks like traditional PPC and display advertising.
  • Scalable distribution - A merchant's promotion capacity is no longer limited to its website and networks. Affiliates provide thousands of additional platforms to increase a brand's visibility.
  • Hyper-targeted - Affiliates often operate in specific content niches. So they can re-market merchant products to their highly targeted audience vs a broad campaign.
  • Trusted recommendations - Consumers tend to trust affiliates as industry authorities vs generic ads on a website or social platform. So, affiliate content generates more conversions. 
  • Reporting insights - Merchants learn what affiliate channels convert best. This informs decisions to refine promotional campaigns and content.
  • Cost-effective - On average, affiliate marketing yields a 10-30% higher ROI compared to other online marketing methods. And it comes with little overhead to manage.

So whether you're a multi-billion dollar enterprise or small business, an affiliate program can be a secret sales and marketing weapon. According to BigCommerce, over 80% of brands already leverage affiliate marketing because it provides such a positive ROI.

2. Benefits for Affiliates

Affiliate marketing benefits

Affiliate marketing offers online publishers and content creators several alluring benefits as well: 

  • Be your own boss - Affiliate marketing is a flexible opportunity you can operate on your own schedule. No need to report to a boss or work set hours.
  • Low barrier to entry - Becoming an affiliate is free and easy. You don't even need a website to start. You can utilize your social media or email contacts to get started.
  • Passive income - Affiliates can earn commissions from a single blog post or video long after publishing it.
  • Unlimited potential - With the right strategy, affiliates can scale their business as large as they want. High-ticket programs pay over $1,000 in commissions.
  • Use existing resources - Monetize the audience and content you've already built vs. starting from scratch.
  • Cost per acquisition - Merchants handle all product fulfillment and support. Affiliates simply focus on driving the sale, not what comes after.
  • No inventory - Physical goods require managing inventory. Digital affiliates simply need to drive traffic online. No shipping or storage costs.
  • Low risk - You don't have to build or market your own products. Choose existing offers to promote that are known to convert.

So, if you want to monetize your website, YouTube, social media following, or email list, affiliate marketing presents a proven business model. Top affiliates regularly earn over $100K/month.

But like any business, results ultimately depend on your effort and skill level. Learning the ropes and putting in the hours takes commitment. But the payoff can be life-changing.

How to Start Affiliate Marketing for Beginners?

If you're a complete beginner wanting to learn affiliate marketing, follow these steps:

1. Choose a niche

Affiliate marketing commission & comversion rates per niche

First, pick a niche that has money-making potential. Broad niches like "tech" have lots of competition. Consider going deeper into a specialized topic you enjoy and have some expertise in.

For example, instead of broad "fitness", become an affiliate focusing on "at-home HIIT workout courses". This shows you have a specific audience and content angle in mind.

2. Find affiliate programs

Search for affiliate programs related to your niche by visiting:

  • Affiliate networks like ShareASale, CJ Affiliate, PartnerStack, Rakuten, etc.
  • Your favorite brands & merchants directly 

See what programs offer the best commissions, cookie duration, reporting, payment schedule, and other benefits. 

3. Build a website

Website portfolio

Build your affiliate marketing website, it will become the hub for your affiliate content, promotions, and links.

Use WordPress to launch your site quickly on a reliable hosting like Siteground. Focus first on publishing helpful reviews and recommendations for your niche audience.

4. Create lead magnets

Create a free lead magnet like a checklist, template, or guidebook. To build your subscriber list, offer it in exchange for a visitor's email address.

For example, a "Ketogenic Diet Starter Kit" report. Use your lead magnet as an incentive to attract followers.

5. Promote affiliate links

Start sprinkling affiliate links into your website content. Make sure to add an affiliate disclosure on your site. The FTC requires disclosure when earning commission from a recommendation.

Also, use links in your email newsletters, social posts, YouTube descriptions, and anywhere else you engage your audience.

6. Track performance  

Google Search Console SEO search engine optimization

Use software tools to track metrics like clicks, conversions, commission earned, and ROI for each marketing channel. Evaluate what's working and refine your approach over time.

7. Diversify traffic sources  

Relying purely on organic search can be risky. Explore paid ads, influencer partnerships, social media marketing, and other avenues to generate affiliate sales.

Traffic diversification helps maximize your income and minimize volatility.

This simple process allows complete beginners to get started with their first affiliate website. As you gain experience, you can scale up your authority site into a full-fledged affiliate business.

But you need the right mindset and realistic timeline to earn big money.

Affiliate Marketing Expectations vs. Reality  

Becoming a top affiliate earner doesn't happen overnight. It takes most people 1-2 years to gain momentum. Some spend 5+ years perfecting their strategy before seeing significant success.

Unrealistic expectations kill many affiliate marketing efforts prematurely. Avoid these common misconceptions as a beginner:

Myth: Affiliate marketing is easy money

Reality: Becoming profitable takes consistent work

Many people are drawn to affiliate marketing for the promise of quick passive income. But the reality is you have to put in the time first to see results.

An affiliate site isn't a cash machine that runs itself. You need to actively build an audience and master promotional methods to earn commissions. This requires consistent effort over an extended time to gain traction.

Myth: Getting rich quick with no money down

Reality: Substantial investment required

Entry-level affiliates can start with just a website and email list for under $100. However, earning over $100K+ per year may require significant paid advertising budgets and outsourced help.

Top affiliates invest five to six figures into their website development, content, paid ads, email automation, analytics, and virtual assistants. Profitability takes time and money.

Myth: Become an expert "guru"

Reality: Stay humble and helpful

The most respected affiliate marketers create content focused solely on helping their audience. They don't pretend to be the ultimate guru or authority.

Avoid overly promotional or hype-based marketing. Establish yourself as a trusted advisor first. Share your honest experiences and transparency about affiliate relationships.

Myth: Fake it 'til you make it

Reality: Authenticity is required

Some assume they can recommend any product for a quick buck, with no expertise required. But savvy consumers see through disingenuous affiliate marketers' motives quickly.

Focus on choosing a few affiliate programs at a time you genuinely know, like, and can stand behind based on real experience.

Myth: Easy passive profits

Reality: Results require work

Passive income from affiliates is possible. But only after you've built a large audience, high-converting website, and email list that continues driving sales.

This takes years for most people. To accelerate your progress, you need to hustle hard upfront. Affiliate marketing rewards efforts.

Go in understanding that results take time and continuous testing. With realistic expectations, you can avoid disappointment and build a profitable business.

Choosing the Best Affiliate Programs

affiliate marketing commission

With thousands of affiliate programs available, how do you evaluate which ones to join?

Follow this decision checklist when assessing a new affiliate program:

  • Relevant to audience - Will the merchant's products organically appeal to your niche? For best conversions, ensure a natural fit.
  • Competitive commissions - Average programs pay 5-30% per sale or a flat rate of $10-$100. Seek higher than average rates.
  • Recurring over one-time - Try to select programs offering recurring/subscription commissions each month the customer remains active.
  • High ticket over low - If given the choice, choose programs that pay at least $100+ per commission vs lower tickets.
  • Cookies last 30-90 days - Affiliate cookies that credit you for more days mean more potential to earn.
  • Wide variety of creatives - Merchants should provide high-quality banners, text links, product images, logos, and other promotional assets.
  • Real-time reporting - Check if they offer a dashboard to monitor your account's metrics and earnings.
  • Monthly payments - Programs that pay monthly give you funds faster vs quarterly or annual.
  • Minimum payout threshold - Look for $50 or lower to cash out earnings. Higher thresholds tie up your money.
  • Well-known reputable brand - Partner with recognized companies supporting affiliates long-term.

Analyzing programs using these criteria helps identify the best offers worth your time to promote. Don't initially spread yourself too thin across too many programs in different niches while learning.

Master 1-3 verticals with potential for recurring, high-ticket commissions over the long haul.

Top Affiliate Marketing Networks

I've highlighted some major affiliate networks already. Here's more detail on five of the most popular networks to consider when getting started:

1. CJ Affiliate

  • 20+ years running
  • Thousands of merchant programs
  • Top verticals are retail, travel, finance
  • Cookie duration on average 45 days
  • Pay per sale, pay per lead
  • $50-$100 minimum payout  

CJ Affiliate is one of the oldest, most established affiliate networks. It's focused on traditional e-commerce categories like fashion, electronics, and home goods.

2. Rakuten 

  • Cashback model
  • Thousands of merchant programs
  • Deep retail selection
  • $50 minimum payout

Rakuten pioneered the cashback affiliate model. When shoppers buy through Rakuten affiliate links, they earn cashback on purchases. Affiliates earn a commission. It offers competitive rates across all major e-commerce categories and in-depth performance analytics.

3. ShareASale

ShareAsale
  • Wide range of consumer categories
  • Thousands of merchant programs
  • Cookie duration usually 30 days
  • Pay per sale
  • $50 minimum payout

If you are in the information publishing space, ShareASale has a wide range of digital merchant partners. You'll find affiliate programs for popular software, apps, online courses, guides, and more. ShareASale operates globally and has tools to customize your affiliate links.

4. ClickBank

  • Digital-only merchant base
  • Default cookie duration 60 day
  • Pay per sale
  • $10 minimum payout 

ClickBank works exclusively with vendors selling digital downloads like ebooks, courses, and software - no physical products. It pioneered the shopping cart concept within affiliate links used widely today. 

ClickBank is popular for affiliates in internet marketing and business training, although many of their programs are low quality. Therefore, you might want to check some of the ClickBank alternatives.

5. Amazon Associates   

Amazon Associates
  • 1 million+ products
  • Up to 10% commission
  • Cookie duration 24 hours 
  • Pay per sale
  • $10 minimum payout

You can essentially promote anything imaginable as an Amazon Associates affiliate. While commissions are lower than other programs, the vast selection and ability to earn on bundled orders can make it worthwhile. Amazon operates globally, allowing for tremendous reach.

This list gives you a headstart on exploring programs related to your niche. Make sure to investigate lesser-known niche-specific programs too. Competition will be lower.

For example, as a fitness affiliate, avoid focusing on giant programs like Amazon. Research specialized sports nutrition and supplement vendors running their own affiliate programs.

Affiliate Marketing Techniques that Convert

Once you've joined affiliate programs, it's time to get creative with your promotions.

Let's explore proven affiliate marketing techniques you can use to drive conversions across the buyer journey:

Attract: Content Marketing 

Blogging in Local Lead Generation

Content marketing entails creating blog posts, videos, and other media about topics your target audience cares about. This "pull strategy" means you're pulling visitors in by publishing valuable, relevant content vs pushing sales messaging out.

Content marketing helps attract and engage potential buyers. Your role is to educate and add value for readers. This builds authority and establishes you as a subject matter expert.

The secondary goal is to reference affiliate products where relevant. For example, writing a "5 Best Vitamix Blenders for 2023" guide lets you naturally embed related Amazon affiliate links.

How to do it right:

  • Focus on helping the reader first vs promoting a product upfront.
  • Write about topics your niche audience searches for according to keyword research.
  • Include mixed media beyond just text - images, charts, videos, etc. 
  • Link to authority sources and references to build credibility.
  • Mention affiliate products tactfully where useful to the reader vs overly promotional.
  • Create practical, educational content like blog posts, how-to articles, and email courses.
  • An effective content marketing strategy can attract and convert visitors into subscribers and customers over time.

Engage: Email Marketing

email marketing

Email marketing means collecting website visitors' contact info and emailing them regularly. This helps you stay top of mind and continue the relationship beyond a single visit.

Email is a vital tool to engage your audience and promote affiliate offers. Segment your list to send targeted product recommendations to buyers most likely to convert.

Welcome email sequences and weekly or monthly broadcasts work well. Avoid blasting nothing but product promos. Share a mix of valuable content and occasional affiliate links.

How to do it right:

  • Offer a lead magnet like a free report to capture emails. 
  • Send a welcome email series introducing yourself and what you do.
  • Regularly send helpful content that establishes your expertise. 
  • Promote affiliate offers tactfully to recommend products that may help readers.
  • Segment your list based on preferences and purchase history.
  • Test emails at different times to see when they generate the most clicks.

When done correctly, you can earn from the same follower multiple times thanks to email's longevity and versatility.

Convert: Paid Advertising 

Google ads

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and social ads allow scaling your affiliate promotions. You can target buyers actively searching for products you promote and send them directly to the merchant's site to purchase.

Because you pay per click vs per impression, PPC costs are relatively low risk. Set a modest daily PPC budget and target niche keywords and interests highly relevant to your offers.

Social platforms like Facebook and Instagram also let you advertise affiliate products. Create custom audiences who have engaged with your content already. Retarget them with special offers.

How to do it right:

  • Promote high-ticket affiliate offers only to justify ad costs. Low commissions won't cover spending.
  • Set conversion tracking and make your landing page or website super-focused on the product.
  • Use landing page builders like Leadpages to optimize conversion rate optimization quickly.
  • Continually refine your ads and landing pages based on performance data.
  • Re-engage customers post-purchase with cross-selling offers via email sequences or retargeting ads.

Paid advertising works hand in hand with content marketing. Use ads to supplement organic referrals and boost overall sales and commissions.

Advanced Affiliate Marketing Strategies

So those are the fundamentals to become a successful affiliate. But how do the highest-earning affiliate marketers take things to the next level and generate over $100k monthly?

Here are some advanced strategies:  

Promote Recurring Memberships and Subscriptions

The goal is to earn commissions from customers repeatedly. This transforms affiliate marketing into predictable recurring revenue.

Promote companies that sell memberships, subscription boxes, SaaS platforms, meal delivery kits, etc. You earn monthly for as long as readers remain subscribed.

And don't just suggest a single vendor. Promote multiple so that even if a referral cancels the first membership, you still earn from other subscriptions. 

Create Your Own Products to Promote as an Affiliate

This removes the ceiling on your potential commissions. With a 50% commission selling your own course, you can earn $500 per referral vs $50 promoting someone else's at 10%.

By creating online courses, ebooks, membership sites, or coaching services, you earn income as both the merchant and the affiliate.

You can still recruit external affiliates to tap their marketing resources. But you also sell directly and pocket the majority of the revenue.

Promote High-Ticket Offers

Targeting high paying affiliate programs in self-improvement, luxury, travel, and financial services can mean over $1,000+ commissions. 

But these also require established expertise and proof that you're a legitimate authority worth that price tag.

Using high-end video production and pro web design establishes your credibility as an industry expert, so site visitors are willing to pay big money to work with you.

Build an Affiliate Army

Top affiliates recruit their own affiliates, also known as sub-affiliates.

When an influencer signs up through your custom affiliate link, you earn on all their referred sales. This compounds your income.

Offer higher than standard commissions, prizes, contests, and other incentives to recruit other marketers.

Collaborating with A-players lifts your whole business. Their audience becomes available to you, too.

Promote Trending Affiliate Offers Across Multiple Sites 

Launching multiple websites in different niches allows you to leverage your skillset at scale.

Think "Lego blocks". Each additional blog or content site you build compounds your overall affiliate revenue.

This diversification means you always have new offers to promote across your properties when something trends hot. Sync efforts for maximum impact.

The more streams flowing in, the higher your monthly income goes. Multiple sites also protect you in case one underperforms or gets penalized.

Invest Heavily in high-quality Content Production

Regularly producing new blog posts, videos, tool reviews, and other content is how top affiliates keep visitors returning. 

But it's expensive to churn out so much new original writing and pro video work constantly. This requires hiring freelancers, agencies, and expert contributors.

Budget to invest $10,000+ per month on content development alone. This fuels your traffic and referral engine.

Unique, valuable insights establish you as an authoritative niche site people rely on. Don't cut corners on content.

Double Down on What's Working

Common advice is to "test and iterate" different affiliate marketing tactics continuously. But that's slow.

The most profitable approach is to double down on what already converts once you have a recipe that works. 

Keep scaling up your proven money-maker vs trying new unproven methods that waste time.

For example, if a specific offer referred through Facebook converts at 8%, then allocate more paid advertising dollars solely to Facebook vs experimenting with unknowns like Quora ads.

But continuously work to beat your control and optimize funnel performance. Avoid complacency.

Mistakes to Avoid as a Beginner Affiliate

Common mistakes

Finally, let's cover common affiliate marketing mistakes to avoid as a beginner so you can accelerate your learning curve:

  • Choosing overly broad niches - Pick specific niches like Mexican cooking for beginners vs generic ones like cooking. This allows you to become a big fish in a small pond and dominate for your specialty.
  • Promoting too many different products - Don't spread yourself thin as a new affiliate. Master 1-3 complementary products for the best conversion vs promoting every offer.
  • Not disclosing affiliate links - Always disclose affiliate relationships so visitors don't feel deceived. Transparency establishes trust.
  • Using spammy promotional tactics - Avoid pushy sales language, fake reviews, misleading claims, and other overly promotional tactics that can backfire.
  • Giving up too fast - Affiliate earnings compound over time as your content volume and authority grows. Commit to powering through the first slow months.
  • Neglecting website speed - Optimizing site speed with faster hosting, image compression, caching, and a lighter theme positively impacts conversions.
  • Failure to capture emails - Collecting visitors' emails and sending campaigns is key for referrals in the long term. Don't solely rely on one-off website clicks.

Your affiliate marketing efforts will gain traction as long as you start with the right expectations and education and avoid these main mistakes. Don't get discouraged when you're just starting out. The results will come.

Wrapping Up

Affiliate marketing is a proven approach if you've been looking for a flexible way to monetize your website or start earning commission through content. 

Companies rely on affiliates as a key sales channel, so there are limitless partnership opportunities.

This guide provided a comprehensive overview of what affiliate marketing is, how it works, tips for getting started, actionable strategies, and common mistakes to avoid.

While becoming a highly profitable affiliate takes significant work upfront, the long-term passive income potential is worth it.

Choose a niche and programs suited to your audience. Commit to regularly publishing quality content. And don't quit too soon before your efforts gain momentum.

You can build an affiliate marketing business that earns you extra income or even a full-time living from anywhere in the world.

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