Affiliate Marketing in 2021: What It Is and How You Can Get Started

If you’d like to make passive income with affiliate marketing, this post is going to become your go-to guide.

Not only am I going to teach you the basics of how to become an affiliate marketer, but we’ll also dive into some real examples from professional affiliate marketers who are making thousands or even millions of dollars per year without spending money on PPC or any of that nonsense.

We’ll cover promoting products on Amazon, creating SEO-optimized content that ranks well on Google, email list promotion strategies, and how to choose the best affiliate program for you.

We’ll also provide a step-by-step guide to the whole process, so you’ll be earning affiliate commissions in no time.

Let’s dive in.

We’ll start with a (somewhat long-winded) definition:

What is Affiliate Marketing?

Affiliate marketing is the practice of promoting the products or services of another person or company in exchange for a commission on the resulting sale. Affiliate marketers join affiliate programs, find reputable affiliate products to promote, and then share those products with their audiences.

Basically, it’s a modern interpretation of a very old idea — getting a commission on a sale.

If you’ve been listening to us for long, you’ve learned that bloggers make money by building an audience who trusts them, and then by offering products or services that will genuinely help that audience.

Affiliate marketing is really just a quick way to offer products and services without having to create your own products and services.

For bloggers, that means you find a product or service that you like, promote it to your readers, and earn part of the profit on each sale that you make.

How Does Affiliate Marketing Work?

Affiliate marketing can get pretty technical, even for those well-versed in digital marketing. Fortunately, you don’t need to know all the details to get started.Download our Affiliate Marketing Guide(a handy, free PDF packed with info)

The actual mechanics run in the background, thanks to the merchant’s affiliate software.

But here’s a quick look behind the scenes:

  1. When an affiliate joins the merchant’s program, he or she is given a unique ID and a specific URL to use when promoting the company’s product.
  2. The affiliate includes the link in their blog post and/or via their email marketing efforts and invites readers to click it to find out more.
  3. When a potential buyer clicks on the link to visit the affiliate partner’s site, a cookie identifying the affiliate is placed on the website visitor’s computer. The cookie ensures that the publisher is credited with the referral sale even if it occurs days or even weeks later.
  4. Whenever a buyer completes the sale process, the merchant checks the sales record for a cookie identifying the source of the referral.
  5. If the merchant finds a cookie with an affiliate ID, the affiliate is credited with the sale.
  6. The merchant makes reports available so that the affiliate can see their referrals (clicks) and sales.
  7. The merchant pays the affiliate commission at the end of each payment period (i.e. revenue sharing).

Here’s a graphical overview to help you visualize the process:

The flow is pretty straightforward once you understand it, and it works the same no matter what kind of product you’re promoting or how established you are as an affiliate marketer.

So let’s look at the typical progression for a blogger who’s serious about making affiliate marketing a major source of income.Back to Top

How to Start Affiliate Marketing in 4 Steps

Here’s the key point you need to understand if you want to become an affiliate marketer:You’re earning a commission in exchange for giving readers valuable insights on products or services they were already thinking about purchasing.

In other words, your readers are already buying things. They are already going to make a purchase whether or not you give them any advice.

The question is, could you help them make a smarter decision than they could alone?

Because that’s where you add value. You earn a commission in exchange for being an influencer and helping people make smarter decisions, and you use your blog and the Internet to systemize that process, providing valuable advice to thousands of people.

Here’s a step-by-step process for doing exactly that:

Step 1: Choose a Product to Promote as an Affiliate

As ethical content creators, we’re constrained in the products we choose to represent in one of two ways:

  • Either we’re limited by our experience to products that we’ve used and liked, that have affiliate programs and that are a good fit for our audience, or
  • We’re constrained by the products we can get access to in order to evaluate them, either by buying them outright or getting a free sample or trial.

No matter which approach you take, expect to have to invest time and money into researching the best products for your audience.

Here are your two main options (with your best option listed first).

OPTION #1: PROMOTE PRODUCTS YOU ALREADY KNOW AND LOVE

This is the most common way to get started with affiliate offers.

You become an affiliate for something that you’ve used yourself, had a good experience with, thoroughly tested and feel good recommending. You should be fairly confident that others will get the same results you did (or better), as long as they do the work.

If you’ve found great success from a course, mastermind, or ebook that your readers could also benefit from, it only makes sense for you to spread the word and share your results.

Do an inventory of the products, services, and courses you already have experience with. You might have a list of a dozen or more.

Which of these would you be thrilled to promote? Cross out any that don’t fit the bill.

Now simply check to see if the merchant has an affiliate program (some won’t but you’ll probably be surprised at how many do).

Using a search engine like Google, search for “affiliate program” + [product name], or simply email the merchant and ask.

Then run your remaining options through this Good Affiliate Product checklist:

  • You’ve previewed the product so you know its quality (given, in this case).
  • They have a solid refund policy that you trust they’ll honor.
  • They provide good customer support (and you’ve tested it).
  • You have a good story to share about your experience with the product.
  • The offer fits your audience’s needs and won’t abuse the trust you’ve built with them.

The products that tick all the checkboxes are your best opportunities for affiliate revenue. As time goes on, add as many of these products to your mix as you like.

You’ve found your first product! Apply using the merchant’s process and start promoting.

If you’re just dipping your toe in the affiliate marketing industry, this first option may be enough to get you started.

However, most bloggers will want to try the next one, too.

(And you’ll have to explore the second option if you don’t have an existing product you love that is also a great match for your audience and offers an affiliate program.)

Option #2: Find Products Via an Affiliate Network

If you don’t have any direct experience with or knowledge of products in your niche that could help your readers, you can often find good affiliate products on affiliate networks (← our detailed guide).

But be careful — this approach requires that you invest time into research and money into purchasing products to try out, more so than the first option.

That’s because there’s less trust and prior knowledge involved from the outset. You have to do your due diligence to protect your reputation and the credibility you’ve built with your readers.

When you work through a network, you typically won’t know the merchant ahead of time and usually won’t build a relationship with them (your business relationship is with the network).

The list of popular and reliable affiliate networks includes ClickBankCJ Affiliate, the eBay Partner Network, ShareaSale, CJ Affiliate (aka Commission Junction), and the Amazon Associates program. Some networks will even assign you an affiliate manager to lend a hand and show you the ropes.

Amazon products, in particular, are an easy way to get started. Many newbies begin by becoming an Amazon affiliate and then scaling to other types of more profitable affiliate offers.

Step 2: Get Yourself Set Up as an Affiliate

Whether you work directly with affiliate merchants or through a network, you’ll have to apply, be approved, and provide certain information so that you can be paid.

At a minimum you’ll need to provide:

  • Your personal/business contact information for tax and reporting purposes.
  • Your bank account where commissions will be sent.

In turn, the merchant must provide you with:

  • An affiliate link. Whenever you post about the product, you’ll use this trackable link. It will have a long tag at the end of each link that includes your affiliate ID.

Here’s what some typical affiliate text links look like:EXAMPLE LINK THAT DIRECTS TO THE MERCHANT’S HOME PAGEhttps://merchantsite.com/dap/a/?a=1199EXAMPLE LINK TO ANOTHER PAGE ON THE MERCHANT’S SITEhttps://merchantsite.com/dap/a/?a=1199&p=merchantsite.com/page.html

You’ll also usually get some tips and useful assets for marketing the product (often found in a welcome guide or on the affiliate website).

These could include:

  • An affiliate guide as well as instructions on how to use the platform and a summary of policies such as payouts.
  • Online marketing tools like banners and sidebar graphics.
  • Sample email/webpage swipe copy.
  • Ongoing communications from the merchant about promotions, new products, etc.

If you use an affiliate platform like Amazon, you’ll get your own link for each of the specific products you promote.

Be sure to check your specific network’s help or support pages for more information.Tip: If your audience is global (which many bloggers’ are), you might want to check out geniuslink for tracking overseas sales through Amazon, iTunes, and Microsoft Store.

Step 3: Start Promoting Your Chosen Affiliate Offers

Ultimately, all your hard work finding and evaluating products only pays off if somebody takes your advice and makes the purchase, right?

For that to happen, you need to put your recommendation in front of your audience. Even more importantly, you need to make your recommendation trustworthy.

This is where a lot of affiliate marketers slip up. They think slapping a banner ad up on their blog that links to affiliate products is all they need to do.

But take a look at this:

Does that look trustworthy to you? Nowhere close, right?

Well, here’s a little secret:

The most successful affiliate marketing offers look nothing like that. No PPC or veiled recommendations on social media.

Here’s what to do instead (and what marketing channels to use):

Option #1: Create a Resource Page on Your Blog

Our own resource page is a good example:

It promotes lots of different products, but it also organizes them according to different types of readers and what they might need at the time. It also explains why those products would be helpful to them.

In other words, it’s not just a sales pitch. It’s educational. Because it contains a lot of quality content, plus it’s well optimized for SEO, it also ranks well in Google search results and gets organic traffic. It gets good conversion rates too.

Chances are, you can put together a landing page like this within a few hours. Your readers will also appreciate you putting all of your recommendations in one place for easy reference.

Option #2: Create and Promote Custom Content

This content marketing strategy will be the backbone of your affiliate promotional efforts.

Use as many of the following different techniques as make sense for your blog and audience.Note: All of these strategies assume that you are already sending traffic to the latest content you’re creating by emailing your list on a regular basis (at least two to four times per month) to let them know what’s new.

A) Write Reviews

You can write detailed reviews of products, courses, books, or software products you promote as an affiliate. For example, here’s our review of Siteground:

And here’s our ConvertKit review:

And our Elementor review:

Your reviews can focus on a single product or compare competing products side-by-side.

The second approach arguably builds more trust, but it also distracts people by giving them a lot of different recommendations.

If you would like to review multiple products, one option is to create a review site where all the content is simply reviews and affiliate offers. It becomes a “one-stop-shop” for your niche.

B) Write Definitive Content on a Related Topic

You can write a definitive, comprehensive post on your site to educate your readers and “soft sell” your products and then work to get it ranking in the search engines.

For instance, you could write an ultimate guide to setting up a WordPress blog and include your affiliate links to your favorite hosting providers.

One example here at Smart Blogger is our post on freelance writing jobs. It’s a detailed, definitive guide for freelancers looking to find online jobs, but it also allows us to feature one of our courses for writers.

Whatever the topic, make sure that it’s evergreen content — information that’s likely to be useful and valuable for years to come.

You can create blog posts, videos, infographics or anything similar — but whatever you do, it should not be a sales page. Focus on building trust and authority.

Finally, you should pay a lot of attention to SEO — make sure to optimize for the right keywords, keep WordPress running fast, and build links to your content to get a constant flow of traffic from Google.

C) Create Valuable Bonus Content

Assuming it’s allowed by your affiliate agreement (sometimes it’s not), you can create bonus content, exclusive to your readers, that helps people get even more value from the affiliate product.

People love bonuses! You can create many types of bonuses fairly quickly and easily while still giving your readers excellent value.

By the way, this is a fantastic way to differentiate yourself from other bloggers representing the same products.

Here are some example bonuses you could offer:

  • Step-by-step checklists
  • Quick-start guides
  • Video overviews or demos
  • Complimentary or discounted services (e.g., coaching calls)

Step 4: Comply with Legal Requirements (and Best Practices)

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that you let people know you’ll earn a commission.

But even if it isn’t required by law where you’re located, we recommend it. It’s just good business.

Don’t be afraid to be transparent. People will appreciate your honesty and want to support you to repay you for making their lives better.

So wherever you share an affiliate link, whether it’s in blog posts, web pages, or emails, let your readers know that you stand to earn a small commission if they buy through you — and if they choose not to use your link, no worries.

Assure them that you wouldn’t recommend any products if you hadn’t used them yourself or were confident they could help them.

It’s also a good idea to create an Affiliate Disclaimer page on your website.

Here’s an example of our own disclaimer page at Smart Blogger:

We’re also clear on how those affiliate links might look within blog posts:

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Affiliate Marketing Examples: 4 Types of Affiliate Products to Promote

So, we’ve walked through the process of becoming a successful affiliate marketer. Now let’s step through some real-world affiliate marketing program examples, walking through four different types of products you can promote and make a tidy profit.

Usually, most of your affiliate income will come from one or two “ringers” — core products that just about everyone in your audience needs and which also pay a good commission.

As you progress, you can add complementary products to round out your offerings and help your audience in new ways, but identifying your core earners is an essential first step.

Option #1: Digital Downloads

Digital downloads are online resources that your readers can access instantly, without having to wait for a package to come in the mail (as is true for physical products).

They could be audio or video files, PDFs, ebooks, or even links to webpages where the content lives online.

Examples:

  • Books or ebooks — Books that are either self-hosted on your merchant’s website or downloaded from AmazoniBooks, or other online sellers.
  • Music, movies, TV shows, and more — Media offered through Amazon as well as the iTunes Affiliate Program and others.

Advantages

  • Digital downloads are an easy way to get started and help your audience with pressing problems.
  • There are no overhead costs of production, shipping or storage.
  • Your buyer can access and begin benefiting from their digital product immediately.

Disadvantages

  • Many ebook, software, or other download products are relatively inexpensive. You’d have to sell a lot of them to make any significant money.

Our Recommendation?Do it! But expect higher earnings from other options on this list.

Option #2: Online, Hosted, and Professional Services

When it comes to selling services as an affiliate, it’s important to concentrate on those which will be accessible to your entire audience no matter where they’re located (as opposed to service providers who serve local customers only).

In other words, don’t limit your earning potential by geography.

Your best bet is to represent online, hosted, or professional service providers/influencers you’ve worked with in the past and have full confidence in.

Examples of professional services:

Examples of online/hosted services:

Advantages

  • It’s easy to become a service affiliate, and it helps your audience manage important tasks that require specific expertise.
  • There’s likely a higher earning potential than from digital downloads because services are usually offered at a higher price point.
  • Many hosted services will offer a recurring commission – meaning you’ll get paid for as long as the customers you refer continue to use the service.

Disadvantages

  • Some of your favorite professional service providers (ones you have experience with) might not have affiliate programs in place.

Our Recommendation?Do it! Especially if you can find an excellent service provider who can potentially help nearly everyone in your audience at one time or another and who can be a strong, steady income generator.

Option #3: Online Courses

Online courses are an important subset of digital products, especially for bloggers, and the market is huge. They’re so popular that they deserve their own category on this list.

Online courses exist on just about any topic you can think of. They range in price from free to thousands of dollars, with higher-priced programs promising big results for students.

Examples:

Advantages

  • Courses are one of the best ways to help your audience achieve a goal that’s important to them or move past a roadblock that’s been keeping them stuck. You can deliver incredible value with little effort on your part.
  • Courses are often offered at a higher price point than other digital products, so your earning potential from each affiliate sale is higher.
  • Courses are popular. It should be easy to find other influencers in your niche whose courses can help your readers.

Disadvantages

  • You’ll have to spend time working through and reviewing courses to make sure that they deliver on their promises (to protect your reputation).

Our Recommendation?Do it! Help your readers in a big way, and earn big at the same time.

Option #4: Ecommerce Stores

If you decide to promote physical products on your blog, your best bet is to choose high-quality, distinctive products that that will appeal strongly to your specific audience.

Avoid commodity products that your readers can buy anywhere — the commissions are so small you won’t make worthwhile money unless you can drive tremendous traffic to your site.

Commissions on e-commerce products are usually fairly low because of the overhead of production costs, storage costs, shipping, etc. So unless you are planning to build a large review or shopping site, physical products will probably be a very small portion of your blogging affiliate income.

However, if you have a favorite tool of your trade, a must-have gadget that will make your readers’ lives easier, or a high-quality recommendation that you’re sure people will be thrilled with, go ahead and offer it.

You’ll build goodwill even if you don’t make a lot of money.

Examples:

Advantages

  • Once you have an established blog, companies may approach you and offer you free products in exchange for a review. (You should always disclose this, as it could be seen as a conflict of interest.)
  • If you can afford to purchase products on your own in order to test them, you’ll be seen as a truly objective reviewer.

Disadvantages

  • Commissions from e-commerce stores are usually a lot lower because of the overhead, so you’ll have to sell a whole lot more products to make a decent income.
  • Buying products so you can review them before promoting them can be expensive.

Our Recommendation?Offer physical products only under certain circumstances:

  • They’re directly related to your blog topic and something your audience absolutely needs.
  • They’re not commodities. Specialized and distinctive products from e-commerce stores reflect better on you, boosting your reputation and credibility.

You should now have plenty of ideas for types of products you can represent.Back to Top

The Bottom Line on Affiliate Marketing

That dream you’ve had of making passive income isn’t just a silly fantasy.

It’s a completely achievable reality.

Sure, it’s not as easy as pushing a magic button or throwing Google Adsense all over your site, but with a little knowledge and persistence, you can definitely do it and even turn it into an online business.

Once you’ve gained a respectable following, affiliate marketing is one of the best business models for making money (and from the comfort of your own home too).

And the best news is that it’s so easy to get started. All the steps for starting an affiliate marketing business are spelled out in this post.

Simply identify the one big thing everyone in your audience needs to reach their goals and start there.

Choose a great digital product from an online business you believe in. Share it. Tell the story of your successes.

Provide lots of valuable content that helps and educates your readers, and take care not to be too salesy.

Be upfront, honest, and transparent. Nurture the trust that readers place in you.

And finally, be patient.

All your efforts will pay you back with that sweet “cha-ching” of affiliate commissions being deposited into your bank account.

Take a look at the 15 most common FAQs below.

1. What is affiliate marketing?

Of course, this question typically comes from a completely fresh potential client who hasn’t yet run a program. Often times we work with new clients who at least are familiar, but for those of you who are not, have no fear. 

The simplest explanation is that affiliate marketing is when you offer your product or service to publishers (aka affiliates) to promote on your behalf. In return, you’ll be expected to pay a commission every time a sale is made that can be directly attributed to that publisher (or affiliate). 

Since affiliate marketing is inherently performance-based, you only pay for results in the form of increased revenue.

2. What is an affiliate program?

An affiliate program is the all-encompassing package you create for your product or service that is then presented to potential publishers. It should include details about the product, the retail value of the product, commission levels and promotional materials.

An agency such as Advertise Purple can manage your program on your behalf, and we work with all of the affiliate networks to make sure you have access to all of the best – and only the most productive – affiliates who can help your business grow.

Which leads me to my next question…

3. What is an affiliate network?

Affiliate networks exist to act as a platform to connect publishers to advertisers. We work with all the major ones. A few examples you may have heard of include ShareASale, CJ Affiliate (formerly Commission Junction), Awin, Rakuten Marketing, and Pepperjam to name a few.

The networks make money through fees charged to the merchants they work with. These fees are agreed to with each individual advertiser and are usually paid as a percentage of each sale made. At Advertise Purple, we negotiate the best deals with the networks because they know we are bringing them lots of business.

4. How big is the industry of affiliate marketing?

Global investment in the industry is at or above $13 billion and in the U.S. it is around $6.8 billion.

5. How can affiliate marketing help my business?

Affiliate marketing can help you grow your business in the following ways:

  • It allows you to save time and money on marketing, which is time you can dedicate to focusing and spending on other aspects of your business
  • It gives you access to professional marketers (affiliates/publishers)
  • It exposes your products to new audiences through promotional efforts by your team of publishers (affiliates)
  • It’s cost effective and has unmatched ROI

6. How do I find quality publishers?

The best way to work with qualified affiliate publishers is to hire an affiliate marketing agency that works with all the networks. The networks provide access to affiliates who’ve been rigorously vetted and had to go through a long application process to be included in the network.

Rather than working with only one of the networks, leave the recruiting of affiliates to us. We have years of data and expertise on our side which will make it much easier to match you with the right affiliates, instead of having to play the guessing game.

7. How does affiliate marketing work alongside other marketing channels?

The great thing about affiliate marketing is that it adds incremental value in the form of revenue without disrupting your other advertising strategies. Because affiliates are so unique and different, you can find partners who will amplify your brand without overlapping in benefits with other tactics you may have in place.

Through transaction detail reports, we have access to the IP address of the purchase, which browser it showed up on, time it took place, and other key details that can let you know what triggered the end result: the purchase.

At Advertise Purple, we have a team that can track all of this information for you easily on your behalf. Our team of data analysts will make sure you’re not double charged when a sale could possibly be attributed by, say social for example, if there also was an affiliate link.

8. Are affiliate sales incremental?

Incremental sales refer to units sold through a specific marketing campaign. These campaigns can be in the form of affiliate marketing, but also influencer, social, media ads and other channels.

For it to be an incremental sale, someone outside the company (not the company itself) has to drive the lead that results in that purchase. That sale could not have been made without the push from that partner, affiliate, or social media channel.

Affiliate sales are indeed incremental.

9. How do you know which affiliates would perform well for my (brand) program?

Most merchants we work with are anxious to understand why and how we develop the strategies we end up recommending. Because we work with a wide array of clients, we have a lot of data on almost every vertical you could think of.

We know which affiliates perform, we know how to tap them and how to project their output, and we have the ability to see strong performance in 90 days or less. We don’t work with a client unless we are pretty close to certain they will see success.

To answer the questions more succinctly, though, we do our due diligence. We look at your brand, truly soak in as much information as possible about your business model, look at comparable brands we’ve worked with, optimize and perform split-tests on different campaigns and get to that 90 day point with confidence that if we did our job right, we should see results in the form of incremental revenue.

10. Are affiliate marketing and performance marketing the same thing?

Performance marketing is a marketing method that integrates different price structures, dependent on the performance of the ad. Examples include how many times a product was viewed or clicked or how often a sale is made. It includes methods like PPC (pay-per-click) or display advertising.

Affiliate marketing actually falls under the umbrella of performance marketing, as commissions are paid on performance, which is typically the moment that a sale is made. 

So, they are not the same, but when speaking about one’s affiliate strategy the term “performance marketing” is certainly liable to come up.

11. What is a super affiliate?

A super affiliate is someone who has built a thriving and influential affiliate business and consistently drives a large majority of the sales from any program they promote, compared to other affiliate partners involved in the program. They make a large income from affiliate marketing, which is usually in the range of five or six figures.

12. What is an affiliate disclosure statement?

When a reader visits a website for a brand that’s running an affiliate program, an affiliate disclosure statement is necessary to reveal to the reader legally that a commission may be paid to the publisher if the reader clicks affiliate links or a sale is made. 

Think about on social media, how when an influencer is selling a product Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter, etc have to include a tagline mentioning that it’s sponsored content. The goal for this statement is to be as transparent as possible with the reader and potential purchaser.

13. How do we track publisher sales activity?

Every publisher has a unique publisher ID, which is used in tracking cookies to record which publisher generates what sales. This activity can then be viewed within the affiliate network dashboard.

14. Can we have an affiliate program in multiple countries?

The beauty of the internet and our globally connected world is that affiliate programs can be promoted in any country. If you are working with affiliates in multiple different countries, it’s important to tailor the content to those differing sub-groups.

So, language is an important thing to consider for affiliate strategies that you plan to set internationally.

15. What are the advantages of this type of marketing versus others?

Because affiliate marketing only pays out commissions on sales, there is minimal risk that promotions will not generate ROI. It also exposes your product to new audiences, while tapping into the different skills of your publishers. 

Budgets are easy to manage and maintain due to the visibility and transparency the channel offers. If you use an affiliate network, managing your program is straightforward, including dealing with returns and customer service.