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Starting a business from scratch is difficult. 20% of businesses fail in the first two years, and it’s not hard to see why. Building a business means handling everything. Brainstorming initial ideas. Creating a product. Finding your niche. Learning a sales strategy. Dealing with frustrated customers.

That can be discouraging for anyone who’s been told that it’s easy to make money in the digital age. How are some people getting started so quickly?

Some do it with affiliate marketing.

Affiliate marketing takes the complicated structure of running a business and removes it. This means you’re free to focus on one thing: making sales. And if you can nail down that one skill, you can do amazing things—like watching money drop into your bank account while you sit at home in your pajamas. 

But before you do that, you’ll have to understand what affiliate marketing means.

What Is Affiliate Marketing?

The simplest definition of affiliate marketing goes like this: Affiliate marketing is the process of earning sales commissions online. You don’t make the product. You don’t handle customer support. You don’t coordinate the refunds. You simply sell that product to the world in exchange for a commission.


Usually, the company you’re working with will track your affiliate marketing sales with user-specific links and codes. Any time the business detects someone coming in from one of your links and completing a purchase? Voilà—you’ve got commission money in your account.

If it sounds like multi-level marketing, it isn’t. It’s more like being a sales rep. And it’s common, too—one estimate suggests 80% of all brands have an affiliate marketing program set up. 

What is an affiliate program? It’s simply an arrangement a company creates to offer you commissions when you sell their product. We even have one at Skillshare! 

When you sign up for an affiliate program and do well with it, it can open all sorts of possibilities for you. Consider the benefits of affiliate marketing:

  • Avoiding customer support and refunds: When you drive sales to a company, you don’t have to deal with customers who have an issue with the product. You simply collect the commission or you don’t. The company will have to worry about any product issues.
  • Choosing how you work: Want to work from home? You can do that. Want to create a blog to capture organic traffic? You can do that. Have skills in online advertising and want to leverage them? Do that instead. With affiliate marketing, you can be your own boss. Within the limits set by your affiliate partner, you’re free to pick any strategy you want.
  • Minimizing start-up costs: When you enter a business from the sales side of things, there’s already an infrastructure in place. All you need are the skills to make sales for your affiliates. Although you can choose expensive versions of this—like working primarily through Google ads until you get your target audience figured out—you can just as easily focus on low-cost methods while you generate capital for later growth.

What Is an Affiliate?

It means that you—the affiliate—are only associated with the product from the marketing side. 

Think of yourself as the promoter standing outside the nightclub, trying to get people to come in. You don’t own the night club, and you don’t handle the charging of the entry fees. But you do earn money when you get people through the door.

What Is an Affiliate Marketing Program?

The program is the infrastructure a company puts in place to give you commissions when you drive sales their way. It typically looks like this:

  • The product/service creator: For every affiliate marketing program, there has to be something worth selling. It can be as simple as a product or as complicated as an ongoing subscription-based service.
  • The affiliate: If you’re an affiliate marketer, this is you. You’re essentially a third-party advertiser for the product in question.
  • The audience: Usually, an experienced affiliate marketer has a clear idea of the audience they want to target. But there are no hard and fast rules. Much of the time, an audience will be completely unaware they discovered a product through an affiliate link. However, some affiliate marketers (such as podcast hosts) will openly advertise their role in sending sales to other companies.

Affiliate Marketing Basics: How It All Works

An affiliate marketing program can be as passive or active as you like. When it’s active, you might consider yourself something of a salesperson-for-hire. Just as someone selling cars on a car lot earns commission when they close the sale, you can step in and take on an active role in sales yourself.

Or you can use a passive strategy, like creating content that attracts organic web traffic and then sending potential leads to your affiliate links. 

One common tactic is for affiliate marketers to create review sites. Their goal is to drive traffic from anyone who’s looking up specific products. If a blog can capture that traffic and then drive clicks to their affiliate links, they can then make sales without doing any more work.

Easier said than done? Sure. But if you can pick a strategy that suits your skills, you’ll have all the leverage you’ll ever need to make money online.

Try Your First Affiliate Promotion Today!

Affiliate Marketing for Beginners

How to Become an Affiliate Marketer

Before we break it down further, let’s look at the basic blueprint for getting started and earning your first affiliate commissions:

  • Choose your audience/niche: You won’t get very far in affiliate marketing if you don’t have a clear idea of what sells and how you’ll sell it. Before you do any of the steps below, you have to answer one basic question: What’s your plan for making sales?
  • Get yourself on an affiliate marketing platform: This can either mean signing up for a marketplace like ClickBank or signing up directly to a private company’s affiliate program.
  • Decide on a marketing strategy: Are you going to launch a passive review site? Are you going to launch a TikTok profile and get famous? Are you going to run Facebook or Google ads and hope for conversion rates that result in profit? A hybrid approach? Choose the strategy that suits your strengths as well as your passion.

But everything sounds easy when presented in just three steps. Let’s build the process out and find out how to get into affiliate marketing from a more practical point of view—call it Affiliate Marketing 101.

Step #1: Choose Your Affiliate Marketing Niche

Before you glaze over this part, keep in mind that the most experienced affiliate marketers will tell you that choosing your niche will be the most important decision you make. In fact, some affiliate marketers continue to build business after business because they’ve tried so many—they know what sells, what audiences are willing to buy, and what doesn’t work.

What is a “niche” exactly? Think of a niche as an industry-within-an-industry. 

Motorcycling is an industry. Selling warm biking jackets for motorcycle enthusiasts who live in cold-weather states is a niche.

Still, before you ever pick a niche, you’re going to have to know which industries sell. Here are a few examples: 

  • Wellness: People want to both feel and look great, and that fact isn’t changing anytime soon. The question is: Which niche will you choose? 
    • Potential niches: weightlifting, yoga, mental health, sleep, skincare, massages, weight loss, muscle growth, exercising at home.
  • Outdoors: If there’s one thing people love, it’s getting outside. In fact, it’s such a large industry that you’d be surprised how many niches it can serve. 
    • Potential niches: hiking, bicycling, running, fishing, kayaking—you get the idea.
  • Relationships: Scroll through any advice column online and you’ll find some social element there. Money advice? People want to know how to handle a question with their spouse. We’re always invested in our relationships—and willing to make investments into them, as well.
    • Potential niches: Home lifestyle, dating, online dating, marriage and separation, psychology. 
  • Travel: One of all humankind’s favorite hobbies. It’s so powerful that our traveling itch hasn’t even changed under COVID.
    • Potential niches: digital nomad, van living, honeymoons.
  • Hobbies. This is a sort of “umbrella” industry, so you can keep zooming in over and over again to find more specific niches. For example, “gaming” is one hobby—and a market worth over 60 billion dollars in the US alone. If you want to find niches in this category, don’t just look for this list. Look for niches within niches. 
    • Potential niches: Gaming (of course), musical instruments, photography, painting/art, sculpture, gardening, writing, drawing, poker, drawing, VR, PC building, cars and engines.

You get the point. This isn’t a comprehensive list of the only niches in which you can make money from affiliate marketing; it’s designed to get you thinking about which niches might work for you.

The key here is that you want to find an overlap of unique characteristics that an affiliate marketing niche satisfies. There should be:

  • Sufficient market demand (i.e., people are willing to buy the product)
  • Low competition (i.e., you’re not trying to sell cola at the international headquarters of Pepsi)
  • Seller understanding (i.e., you understand the audience enough to sell to them)

If you don’t have sufficient market demand, you may want to move up a level when you choose your affiliate marketing niche. 

If you chose “drawing” as your niche, don’t sell only left-handed pencils when 90% of your market is right-handed. If you chose “travel” as your niche and can’t understand why 70-year-old retirees looking for European river cruises aren’t buying your ebook on van living, you may want to work on that until you find the right match of product and audience. 

But don’t get paralysis-by-analysis, either. Find the best niche you can with the above in mind, then move on to the next step.

Step #2: Choose a Strategy

Once you have your audience in mind, your next step is to choose your marketing strategy. Hosting an affiliate blog is one of the most popular types. If you’re strong with search engine optimization and content creation, you can start building organic traffic today.

But affiliate marketing blogs or other types of affiliate marketing websites are only two options. What are some of the other ways you can draw leads to your affiliate partner?

  • Pay-per-click (PPC) or sponsored social media advertising
  • Social media posting
  • Product review websites
  • YouTube videos
  • Email newsletters

You can also use a combination of any of the above. Long story short: If you can find ways to generate traffic for an affiliate link, you can probably make sales. The key is to learn a marketing skill that will get results.

Step #3: Choose a Program or Platform

If you have a company in mind, you can simply enter “Brand name” + “affiliate program” into Google and see what’s available. Many affiliate marketers work directly with brands on an exclusive basis. This is a great way to leverage your knowledge with a product or a specific niche.

But you don’t have to do it this way. You can also leverage affiliate marketing platforms with all sorts of campaigns to choose from, including:

Step #4: Use the Specific Affiliate Code to Get Started

The central point of sale for any affiliate marketer is the hyperlink. You’ll use a link with your unique affiliate “code” so a customer buys the product.

In most cases, this is as simple as accepting your custom code from the platform you’re using and pasting it in your unique affiliate link. 

One key here: To stay in Google’s good graces, use a “nofollow” code within your robots.txt file so Google knows what it is you’re doing. 

Step #5: Make Money With Commissions

Whether you work privately with an affiliate company or use a platform like ClickBank, you’ll be provided a dashboard that lets you see how many commissions you’ve earned. Before you even earn a commission, make sure that the account is linked to a legitimate checking account. Preferably, you’ll use a business checking account for accounting purposes. 

Keep records of your commissions so you can double-check them against your regular payouts. One word of warning: Many affiliate companies may not pay you the instant you earn a commission but rather with bi-weekly or monthly transfers.

Affiliate Marketing Statistics You Should Know

Does it work?

Yes, it works! Remember, affiliate marketing is just a fancy term for earning sales commissions online. It’s not multi-level marketing. It’s not a pyramid scheme.

Consider:

Passive Income—But Passive Income That Takes Work

Is affiliate marketing passive income, or does it take work?

Yes.

It’s a frustrating answer, but both apply. You will have to learn this before you get a passive system up and running. But the good news is you can create mostly passive income with affiliate marketing if you have a strategy in place.

Other people might choose to take a more active approach to their marketing. They may host webinars, write their own affiliate blog posts, and otherwise treat it like full-time work. The beauty of working on commission is that you get to pick your hours.

Making Affiliate Marketing Work

Affiliate marketing isn’t an Internet scam, though many people might try to scam you by using the legitimacy of affiliate marketing to justify making sales for them. 

As long as you stick to good sales practices, choose legitimate products from legitimate companies, and use well-reputed platforms, there’s no limit to what you can do—even in your pajamas.

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How to Start Affiliate Marketing with Amazon