Once upon a time, my blog earned me 18 cents, and for weeks, I felt like the coolest, most successful blogger in the entire world.
This (mildly pathetic) boost in self-worth was all thanks to one thing: a magical unicorn we call affiliate marketing.
18 cents was all it took for me to feel like I had succeeded. I made money! Off my blog! I mean, just hand me a crown and call me Queen of the Internet, right?
It seems nowadays many bloggers are obsessed with this monetization stream, clamouring to find out how they, too, can make money off blogging through affiliate sales. This popularity has led to one very negative consequence: information overload, and not enough answers. After a few email exchanges, I realized some newbies were petrified of asking basic questions… in fear of sounding dumb.
So here it is: an absolute beginner’s guide on this whole affiliate marketing deal. Don’t know what it is? Drowning in program options?
Today, friends, we’re going back to the basics.
If you’re a blogger of any kind, you’re gonna want to read this. I’ve realized there’s not much substantial info out there telling beginners all they need to know… The truth is that affiliate marketing is awesome, but also very complicated, and not many guides touch on the weird, confusing details. This post will cover all that.
And in case you think it’s too soon for you to even think about affiliate marketing, let me quickly shake you. That’s. not. true! Affiliate marketing success requires a strategic mindset that is best learned at the very start, even if you don’t have loads of pageviews or anything else. Trust me – it’s much easier to optimize posts now rather than go back to tweak them, so read on and I promise, you’ll learn something of value.
This post is gonna be a doozy, so feel free to pre-crawl into fetal position. Got it? Here we go!
What is affiliate marketing?
In simple terms, affiliate marketing is when you earn commissions for recommending products/services to readers (or people you know). This is done by joining affiliate programs, where you get unique links (tagged with your personal ID) that tracks whenever your links convert to a sale. If someone out there buys something through your link, it rains money. Or, well, usually a smallll percentage of the sale, but it’s a start!
Affiliate marketing as a monetization stream is perfect for bloggers, because we recommend things on a daily basis. It’s also a largely passive way to make money, which frees up your time to do other cool things, like travel and eat your weight in pie. Long story short: affiliate marketing is one of the best ways to monetize your blog, so you should read on to learn all about it!
Basic affiliate marketing vocabulary that you should know
Here are some words that you’ll encounter a lot with affiliate marketing. To avoid confusion, I’ve defined them briefly here:
The merchant: AKA the retailer, the brand. This is the person who is selling the thing that you’re promoting. E.g. if I’m promoting an Amazon wafflemaker, Amazon would be the merchant.
In other circumstances, you may be the merchant if you’re offering a product of some sort to sell and are hoping to get other people on board as affiliates… but that’s a conversation we’ll have another time.
The publisher: You, AKA “the affiliate”. You’re the one doing the marketing by promoting merchant goods to your readers (the customers) in hopes that they’ll make a purchase from your link.
Deep linking: Deep links are links that point you towards a specific product or page (rather than the general brand website)… so let’s say I wanted to recommend a swanky hotel. A deep link would lead the reader to a specific hotel’s page, rather than the general Booking.com site.
URL masking: Often, you’ll find that affiliate links are a real, million character eyesore. It’s likely that your links will look like Merchant.com/dlfjlfjlfjdskljdfgimmeallyourmoneyalajdlkaf2131032klfjfdjldsjf. And let’s be honest, few people are going to want to click on that. URL masking is therefore when you create a prettier, cleaner “vanity URL” that makes your links more clickable. Some people use bit.ly, which has tracking purposes, or the WordPress Plugin Pretty Link.
How much can I make with affiliate marketing?
The answer to this question is… a scary (yet inspiring/impressive) amount. It’s not uncommon for some bloggers to make tens of thousands a MONTH just off of affiliate sales.
Let that sink in for a second. I’m not drunk. That wasn’t a typo. 5 figures a mooonth.
No joke – Michelle Schroeder-Gardner (who created the course I took to learn about affiliate marketing) is one of such wizards, and regularly makes over 50k a month of passive income from affiliate marketing on her blog, Making Sense of Cents). One blog post alone has earned her over $300,000 to date.
But what about us other, less superhuman-y bloggers?
Well, in my personal experience, affiliate marketing makes up the largest chunk of my blog income. Since getting started back in October, I’ve made a few thousand dollars from affiliate marketing (including $1500 in the first 30 days!). The road to get there wasn’t easy though… affiliate marketing isn’t just about dropping links and hoping people will buy things. There is, in fact, a lot more strategic thinking involved, which brings us to the next major question:
Do I need a course to learn affiliate marketing?
Full disclosure: I did take a course to jumpstart my success, and I wouldn’t be where I am without it, but…
The short answer is, no, you don’t need a course. Much of the information you need to start is readily available online, though quite scattered and vague. I started off in affiliate marketing by reading every free resource I could. When I had read until my eyes changed shape, and I still wasn’t filthy rich, I caved and bought my first course ever.
I did a lot of research to find the right one, and so I chose Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing by Michelle Schroeder-Gardner (as I mentioned earlier). I figured it made sense to learn from the best, and with a 30 day satisfaction guarantee, I had nothing to lose. I chat WAY more in-depth about it in my review here, but this course was definitely a gamechanger for me.
How do I start with affiliate marketing?
The good news is: (at least on paper) starting is easy. You join different affiliate programs, generate your unique links and start placing them on your blog.
Effectively implementing it though?
*shows you my pillows soaked with tears*
It’s rough. It’s not as easy as it sounds… In fact, it takes boatloads of strategic thinking and hard work to make affiliate marketing work for your blog. It’s more than just dropping links into content, BUT we all have to start somewhere, right? If you’re a total beginner, here’s how you implement affiliate marketing into your blogeroo:
- Fill your blog with quality content
It’s pretty simple – you can’t start affiliate marketing with an empty blog. Not only is there the logistical problem that you’ll have no readers (and hence no reader trust), but also, you’ll have a significantly harder time getting accepted into affiliate programs.
2. Decide what affiliate programs you would like to join.
Don’t go insane and join a million at once… think first about what would make sense for you to endorse. If you’re a travel blogger for instance, becoming an affiliate for hotels, tours and travel gear may be appropriate. Most companies will have an affiliate program, or be part of an affiliate network. Your best bet would be a quick Google: “company + affiliate program”.
But hmmmm, if only there was a list of handy programs to join…
*throws glitter* Since I’m a freebie fanatic, I’d like to pass along a free chapter from my eBook, the No BS Guide to Affiliate Marketing, where I discuss my favourite affiliate programs and networks.
NOTE: Even after you become part of different affiliate networks, you’ll often still need to apply for individual merchants, so keep that in mind.
3. Generate affiliate links
Easier said than done!
Okay, I’ll be honest, when I first started out, I found it surprisingly difficult to understand how to even generate links (and deep links). For a while, I legitimately thought I was stupid. In hindsight, stupidity may have been a small part of the cause, but the truth is the process is actually pretty confusing. SO, I’ve written some pretty boring (though helpful) step-by-steps on how to generate links on a few common programs and affiliate networks… So, for my fellow life-dummies, here’s:
4. Get traffic to those posts that feature lots of affiliate links.
It’s a little silly how often people overlook this step. The simple math is, if you have more eyeballs on your affiliate links, the more likely you’ll make sales. Sure, that’s a bit of an oversimplification buuuut it still holds true that you should be trying to gain traffic on these posts anyway. So, remember the importance of promotion! It’s not enough to just write killer affiliate posts.
One great traffic driver for me has been my new Travel Resources page. I put it up less than a month ago, created some pretty pins for it and it has done superbly well on StumbleUpon and Pinterest (racking up over 1.5k repins). This boost in traffic has helped substantially increase my conversions for Amazon, which was not a huge earner for me before. So, traffic + affiliate links = happy money dance.
Traffic building is a whole other beast in itself but refer to my guide on traffic building tips to skyrocket views for an extra boost if you need it 🙂
Things Nobody Tells You About Affiliate Marketing
Ah, my favourite section. SO, by now, you guys should know that I hate crappy advice. Wellll, I feel like the Internet really let me down with affiliate marketing, because there’s so many small considerations and details that people rarely mention in the beginner guides. SO, here are some sad truths to be wary of (that I had to learn the hard way):
- There’s minimum payout thresholds, so you likely won’t be paid for a while.
Ohhh making that first affiliate sale might be the greatest feeling ever, even if it’s 18 cents. Here’s the sad thing though: most networks will have a minimum payout threshold that’s typically $50 or $100, so it may be a LONG time before you see the money. I used to be an affiliate for BlueHost, and after my first sale, I was stoked to see $65 in my affiliate report!! Legitimately, I felt like a millionaire. Unfortunately, BlueHost has a minimum payout of $100, so that money went untouched until I made another sale, but even then…
2. There’s usually quite a delay before you get paid, even after you meet the minimum.
If instant gratification is your thing, affiliate marketing will make you want to run into a wall. Even after you surpass the threshold needed to “cash out”, there’s usually a waiting period before your commission is confirmed/approved, simply because they allow time for people to return goods if needed. So yes, affiliate marketing is by no means a fast track to cash.
Even more frustrating for some is that…
3. You still need to apply for affiliate programs, and yes you will sometimes be rejected (for no reason).
A lot of people don’t realize this, but you can’t just become an affiliate – it’s a process that requires an application. Even once you’re part of an affiliate network, you’ll still need to apply for individual brands within those networks. There are times when you’ll be declined… usually there’s a reason why (lol like that time I applied to hundreds of clothing retailers in anticipation for all the packing lists that I still have not written). Other times, you’ll feel like a good fit and they’ll reject you anyway. That’s the way this cookie crumbles, so remember to put a little effort into your applications and really pick companies that fit your blog.
4. Amazon is the most popular affiliate program, but it’s also mega confusing.
Yes, Amazon is getting its own section. I learned the hard way that there are a LOT of small details, nuances and small print stuff that I missed when I first applied to Amazon Associates, and I feel like nobody talks about them until it’s too late… SO, be sure to give this a read (otherwise you might get your account shut down):
Amazon Affiliates can shut you down anytime they want.
I’ve read a lot of horror stories where Amazon has randomly closed people’s accounts for different reasons. Fair enough – many of these are due to breaches of their terms and conditions (e.g. failing to properly disclose links, not using the appropriate images and links provided in the affiliate dashboard, buying from one’s own affiliate links, etc.) but yes, if you fail to comply by their rules, you’re at risk of being shut down (and losing all the commission you’ve racked up). SO, don’t be a dummy, read the terms and conditions thoroughly and make sure you’re not breaching them.
You need to make a sale within the first 90 days or your account will be shut down.
This is a HUGE one! A lot of people register for Amazon Associates at the beginning of their blogging career because they assume it’s just good to “get it out of the way”. Don’t!! *foams at the mouth* I repeat: don’t register until your blog is reasonably established and you’re quite certain someone out there will buy something off of your link. If you don’t net any sales within your first 90 days, your account will get shut down. You’re welcome to apply again, but by then, your fragile ego will be in ruins.
Amazon is kinda all-knowing.
It’s a bit like Google, but Amazon knows a freakish amount about us. This means that if you try to get friends and family to buy things off your links, often Amazon will know and you won’t earn any commission. Don’t ask me how. Just hum the Twilight Zone music with me and remember to not ‘cheat’ the system.
With Amazon Affiliates, every country has a different affiliate program.
Fun fact: the “Amazon Associates” program actually has a different program for a variety of different countries, meaning yes, Amazon.COM has a different program than Amazon.CA, and Amazon.CO.UK, and Amazon.FR, etc. etc. If you want to, you can sign up for all of them without being residents of these countries. What’s important is where your readers are from.
Now here’s the tricky bit: let’s say you’re part of the Amazon.com program (for the US) and you generate an affiliate link for Amazon.com. If I, a polite little Canadian, skates over to your site and decides to buy a giant jug of maple syrup from your link, you won’t get any commission if I end up buying from Amazon.ca. You will only earn commissions from Amazon.COM.
This is especially problematic for travel bloggers because we tend to have rather global audiences. You’re then placed in the sticky position of choosing which links for which countries to use.
NOTE: There ARE link “globalizer” plugins where you sign up for all the different Amazon programs, and then the plugin helps redirect your reader to the proper Amazon site based on location detection. Two big names in this are EasyAzon and Genius Links. I’ve tried both to lackluster results.
1. EasyAzon flat-out didn’t work, and their customer service was the absolute worst. 2. Genius Links worked, but often the same products wouldn’t be available on other Amazon sites, and the link would redirect to another product or a search page full of irrelevant products… not ideal. Plus, I was getting more clicks, but not enough international conversions to justify the $9 a month [seriously guys, Amazon does not pay well haha]. Long story short: this is a complication to be wary of!
So what now?
Alright, I know that was a lot to digest, but if making passive income was easy, don’t you think we’d all be walking around, draped in velvet like the fancy people we truly are? Making money off blogging, passive income no less, is super difficult… and it takes hard work and dedication. With these basics out of the way, it is my genuine hope that you now feel (somewhat) less confused and more motivated than ever to tackle this beast. If you haven’t run away to the woods yet, you might be wondering, “ugh crap what do I do now?”
If you want to jumpstart your success: I really do recommend enrolling in Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing. It has helped me SO much in terms of starting out and getting in the right mindset for affiliate marketing. The Facebook group is amazingly helpful, and I have heard great feedback from blogger friends who have taken it based on my recommendation. If you are a beginner, this course will definitely help you. To sweeten the deal, I’ll throw in a copy of my Affiliate Marketing for Travel Bloggers eBook for free if you buy the course from my affiliate link. Remember, there’s a 30 day satisfaction guarantee, so there’s no harm in giving it a try.
If you think you’ve got the gist of it, but want travel blog-specific advice: My eBook, The No BS Guide to Affiliate Marketing for Travel Bloggers might be a better fit. This book is intended for intermediate to advanced travel bloggers who have a firm grasp of affiliate marketing, but are still struggling to see results. Click here to learn more.
Give it all a try yourself: As a hopelessly stubborn person, I understand that sometimes you just want to try things out for yourself. No stress, friend! All these resources will still be around later, so if your gut tells you that it’s not time to buy a course or eBook, don’t force it. Test the waters for yourself and then see later whether or not you need the extra boost.
SO, with that massive post, I hope you feel a smidge more knowledgable in the crazy world of affiliate marketing. If you have any questions about it, feel free to ask away in the comments! Your blogging sugar mama is here for you 🙂
PS: The Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing link is (naturally) an affiliate link, but I wouldn’t promote it unless I genuinely believed it would help you! Any commission I earn from it helps keep the site running. Thanks for your support, and you can read a full review here.