‘Affiliate marketing’ seems to be an ever-increasingly used buzz-word. As a thriving and growing industry, being an affiliate is now accessible to everyone – from the full time internet marketing professional to the person wanting an additional part time income.
So what is this affiliate marketing malarkey all about? Well in the context of this article, I’m going to exclusively deal with online affiliates – that is, running a website to promote the products and services of another company so you can earn commission.
You’ve probably heard of, or used, some of the really big affiliates. Here are just a few of the most popular:
These are big players making an absolute fortune every month. However, they have huge advertising and marketing budgets to match. My point is though, that affiliate sites are, for many of us, natural and usual parts of our online purchase flow.
How does affiliate marketing work?
Let’s consider a customer going online to buy a camera. They want a Panasonic camera so they hop on Google and search for ‘Panasonic cameras’. The first hit is the Panasonic site – they click through, browse the range and make a purchase:
Outcome: Customer buys product, manufacturer/retailer makes money.
Now let’s think about an alternative scenario. A customer wants to buy a digital camera but doesn’t know which one. They go on to Google and search for ‘digital camera comparison’. The first hit is for Which.co.uk so they click through and have a browse.
Once they’ve found one they are interested in purchasing, they can select ‘compare prices’ which shows the prices various online retailers are offering. There is a button saying ‘go to store’ next to each. The customer then clicks through and buys the camera.
Outcome: Customer buys product, affiliate site (Which) makes commission, retailer makes money (albeit slightly less due to paying commission).
You might be wondering why a company would pay commission that cuts into their profits. The reason is that they didn’t have to pay anything to market/advertise the product – the affiliate did that. It gives the company more ways of getting to their audience whilst effectively ‘out-sourcing’ the marketing cheaply. Win-win for the company and the affiliate, plus the customer is still happy.
If you could build a time machine (using a Delorean of course), you could go back 5, 10 years and make a fortune from affiliate marketing, very easily. Back in the ‘old days’ you could throw together a site, whack on some banners, and buy some heavily optimised links and you’d coin it. Those days are pretty much over I’m afraid!
Being an effective affiliate today that makes money isn’t easy. It takes knowledge, skill, flexibility and a lot of determination. If you’re someone who gives up easily on things then affiliate marketing isn’t for you!
Affiliate marketing requires a mixture of skills – including sales, marketing, SEO, consumer psychology, content writing, Content Management System knowledge, data analysis, negotiation and accounting. You also need to be passionate about learning, willing to be self-critical and love all things web.
I don’t say the above to put you off being an affiliate – being an affiliate can be financially rewarding and very satisfying. You just need to be dedicated to it and not expect to make your first million in the first month!
Without further ado then, here are my top tips for new affiliates:
1) Find A Niche
The first step of starting out as an affiliate is the most important one – deciding on which product/service you’re going to market! You can be an affiliate for almost anything these days, from cosmetics to cars.
It’s vital not to just jump in and choose a niche without giving it a lot of thought. Many markets are absolutely saturated and will require a huge amount of time and money to rank well in (online gaming and payday loans to name just two). Other niches may be new products that haven’t been tapped into yet and may provide easier pickings.
Remember this though – whatever market you want to get into, there will be others doing the same! Think carefully about what you can bring to the table in terms of content and value to your visitors.
One of the mistakes I made in my main affiliate site was not doing enough research before I started building it. I assumed that because I knew loads about online poker, that I knew my target audience. I was wrong! Whilst I did a good job in terms of building content and SEO, I failed to do basic stuff like thorough keyword research.
The outcome was this – I ranked very highly for quite a few terms – however they had low search demand and were ones that don’t convert well. Fail!
Any new web project requires thorough research. I know some affiliates that will spend weeks, if not months, researching and planning before they’ve even installed a CMS. Think of it like redecorating a room; a decent paint-job will need decent preparation – sanding things down, washing walls, masking things up…boring stuff but essential for a good job.
So what should the research involve? For a start, keyword research is vital. This involves brainstorming what you think your most important terms are. You can then use tools such as the Google keyword tool to find out what people are actually searching for.
Don’t just think about the volume of searches though – you also need to think whether a given term will convert into a sale/click-through. Consider the following – ‘free poker’ has 301,000 (broad) matches on Google UK per month., whilst ‘high stakes poker’ has only 12,100. Whilst the latter has far, far less search demand, it shouldn’t take a genius to work out that it stands to make the affiliate more money in commission. The word ‘free’ is usually to be avoided as it indicates the searcher has no intention of spending money (it’s often used as a negative keyword in PPC campaigns).
Also, consider how many sites are competing for a given term – using the examples above, Google UK suggests about 65 million pages for ‘free poker’, whilst ‘only’ three million for ‘high stakes poker’. The more competing pages, the tougher your job is going to be to rank for them!
3) Choosing an Affiliate Company
Once you’ve chosen your niche, you’ll next want some companies to promote/be an affiliate for. Here is another part of the process where it’s worthwhile investing some time into research. Some companies have bad reputations in terms of having predatory terms or late payouts. Do some searching on Google and relevant forums to find out what other people’s experiences are.
Before you sign up, make sure you have read the terms and conditions of the affiliate agreement. Yes this is a boring task but ensure you know what you can and can’t do. This avoids problems months down the line and losing income.
4) Domain Names – Choose Wisely!
Don’t skimp on the domain name; get yourself a nice ‘brandable’ one, either one that hasn’t been registered yet, or is being sold (try sites like www.sedo.com). Avoid ‘spammy’ ones like online-casino-bonus-codes.com. They look naff, they sound naff, and in any case, Google isn’t so keen on ‘exact match’ domains any more. As an example, look at our company – what looks more trustworthy and like a ‘real’ brand – koozai.com or digitalmarketinginsouthamptonandlondon.com?
Be very, very careful about buying a domain with a brand name/trademark in it. The vast majority of affiliate agreements will state this isn’t allowed – essentially to cover the danger of visitors mistakenly perceiving the affiliate site to be an actual part of the real brand.
Certainly within the poker affiliate niche, I’ve known people to get away with doing this for a while (I guess the companies gain income so weren’t too bothered). In contrast though I also know of a person who had a long-established site, making good money, and then out of nowhere had the company he was marketing shut down his site and demand the domain name be handed over.
I personally don’t feel the risk warrants it, and it’s not worth damaging your reputation as an affiliate. Ultimately, buying a keyword-heavy or trademarked domain smacks of being lazy. A skilled affiliate can take a ‘brandable’ name and turn it into a profiting site.
5) Kick-Ass Content
One thing pretty much anyone in the digital/online industry would agree with these days is this – your site needs awesome content. With both consumers and search engines more savvy than ever, now is the time to invest into content which really adds value to your site, is informative for visitors and drives sales.
This means – no generic/copied text; no meaningless drivel written just to appease the search engines. It means well-written, well-researched content that gives the visitor the information they want and need to decide whether to buy. It means striving to be better than your competitors and getting creative about what to have on your site.
6) Build A Brand
Don’t be another bland affiliate site with the same sort of content on it. Get creative, find out what your audience wants, keep up to date with your niche. Is there a new product in your niche? Be the first to review it.
Always ask yourself – what else can I cover in my site that would add more value than what my competitors offer?
A brand is something you build up over time, gaining more and more trust from the online community. It’s a long term investment that can reap huge rewards.
7) Write about something you love
If you’re starting from scratch as an affiliate, the best advice I can give you is, start with a product or service that you’re genuinely passionate about. For me, this was online poker. If you’re writing/blogging/building a site about something you love, it’s a lot easier and a lot more fun. The passion you can bring to the site will be picked up by your visitors and will provide authenticity, helping to boost conversions.
If you’re writing about something you don’t know anything about, it will show! It also makes coming up with content ideas much easier – the geekier you are in your niche, the better!
8) Embrace Social Media
If you’re serious about building and growing your site as a brand, I can’t stress how important it is to fully utilise the power of social media. If you’re not bothering with this, then you’re instantly giving your competitors an edge over you.
Social media should be seen as a natural extension of your site. At the very least, make good use of Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. Don’t expect overnight results from social, this is a ‘slow burner’ but will pay dividends. Invest time into making useful, regular updates that will engage with your visitors and potential visitors.
If you have video content (for example, product reviews are great), get yourself a YouTube channel and promote it. Presentations and PDFs can be promoted on Slideshare and other sites.There are hundreds of social media sites out there – don’t be afraid of using the more niche ones if you think there’s value to be had from them.
Your job can be streamlined to some extent by using tools such as TweetDeck and Hootsuite to schedule your posts in advance.
9) Get Analytical
You must, repeat must, get into the habit of analysing your traffic. Google Analytics is the obvious place to start, but other tools such as GetClicky are good too. Make sure you’ve got relevant goals set up so you can monitor the effectiveness of your site.
Traffic numbers are obviously important, but also check out metrics such as ‘bounce rates’ (how many people click away after one visit), demographics etc.
Don’t skimp on the time you spend using Analytics. You may find data and statistics boring but if you’re going to be lazy with this part of your business, you’re never going to maximise the effectiveness of your site and will continue to ‘leak’ opportunities.
10) Convert, Convert
Your goal isn’t to get traffic – it’s to get traffic and then convert them into sales/leads which you will get commission from. Ask yourself this – would you rather 10,000 visits and 10 sales, or 1000 visits and 20 sales? Don’t get trapped into ‘vanity’ figures of high traffic.
So your aim is to strive to continually improve your conversion rate, getting more and more value from your visitors. Consider doing ‘A/B’ testing where you assess which parts of a webpage can be improved.
It goes without saying but without traffic, your site’s a dead duck. Gaining traffic comes gradually as a result of building up content and back-links. However, what good is traffic if it’s not converting into sales/click-through? Pretty much none!
Here is where another skill an affiliate needs comes into play – Conversion Rate Optimisation. Remember, your goal is to attract visitors, give them the information they want, then get them to click through to the site of the actual company.
A key to this is having effective ‘call to actions’. Essentially you need to make it very clear to the visitor what they should do next. Don’t just have a page of text describing a product. Have a button or link that says ‘buy now’, or similar. Make it stand out. Experiment with button colours, sizes and placements.
11) Embrace Change
Online marketing is changing all the time – consumers are more savvy, SEO is more difficult, and the market as a whole is more and more competitive. You need to be prepared to change not only your site, but your approach, skills and attitude. If you don’t then you’re not going to succeed in the long-term, it’s as simple as that.
Affiliate marketing is not an industry where you can ‘bury your head in the sand’ when things go wrong or when Google changes their algorithm overnight. You must take the emotion out of your business decisions and be ready to embrace change as and when it’s needed (and also anticipating it).
12) Learn From Your Peers
Interact with other people in your niche. Ask and answer questions; be inquisitive and curious and don’t be afraid to take criticism.
Attend events – there are loads of affiliate expos and conferences – these are an excellent way of meeting fellow affiliates, the companies you’re promoting and hear updates on the industry.
If you can get a ‘mentor’ this can be a great way of learning from someone who knows their stuff and has already made a ton of mistakes you can learn from. Some affiliates will effectively offer mentoring in exchange for you using their affiliate-affiliate links (i.e. they get a cut of what you get a cut of!)
Forums are great as they allow you to ask questions – a popular use is to ask for a ‘site review’, where other people can critique your site, from an SEO or user experience point of view. I’ve done this before and it’s hugely beneficial. Getting someone’s objective input on your site can be a real eye-opener!
13) Be Patient – Very Patient
Unless you’ve magically found some massively under-exploited niche, you absolutely must be prepared to work damn hard and wait for results. The money isn’t just going to start rolling in because you have a live website with an affiliate link. I remember the day after I’ve put my first affiliate site live, logging into the PokerStars affiliate site and being surprised to see no commission!
See this as a long-term game – keep working on your site, adding content, building social, building links, and blogging; eventually the results will come. Aim to be the very best and most informative site in your niche and you will succeed because you will attract visitors. You’ll also start building a reputation as an authority in that area which will have the knock-on effect of people mentioning and recommending you online.
There may well come a time where either you can’t physically do all the work yourself, or you don’t have the knowledge. In this case you will need to consider out-sourcing work – be it content, development, SEO or other.
The good news is that within the affiliate industry, there are plenty of people providing freelance work, from small one-off tasks to on-going work. Finding a good person needn’t be difficult, or expensive. A lot of freelancers are recommended using word-of-mouth. If you’re a member of a forum relating to your niche, you can often come across people there. Failing that, there’s plenty of websites where you can request/offer work (such as Elance). I’ve even had some success for small jobs on Fiverr.com.
Once you’ve got someone good that you’ve used, hold on to them! Good content writers are an invaluable asset. Build relationships with the people you buy services from, treat them well and they’ll be more likely to cut you favours (such as completing work at short notice) in the future.
15) Make Loads Of Mistakes
Make mistakes and learn from them! The beauty of this industry is that you can never know everything (anyone that says they do is lying). You will make mistakes – this doesn’t make you a failure as an affiliate marketer – far from it. Learn from them, try something different and move on. If you mess something up don’t beat yourself up about it or give up – persevere, work consistently on your site and you will succeed.
Rather than thinking ‘I really screwed up there’, view everything as results – made a mistake? You still got a result – just not the one you wanted! You must keep a positive attitude and move on. If you’re going to just give up when you get something wrong you’re in the wrong industry.
Summary – Just Do It!
I’m conscious that some of what I’ve written in this post will put some people off – however my intention is to make you have a realistic approach to being an affiliate. I personally love affiliate marketing, for all its faults.
It’s challenging, it’s rewarding and you can learn loads from it! The beauty of it is that anyone can start doing it with minimal investment (a domain name and web hosting is all you need to get going) making it easily accessible. With easy to use, simple Content Management Services like WordPress available free (along with thousands of templates), you can be up and running in hours.
Learn loads, make mistakes, have fun along the way and hopefully make money!
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