How to Start Affiliate Marketing: A Step by Step Guide

So you’ve heard about affiliate marketing. You’ve heard about people making money. And now you want to know how to get started? You’ve come to the right place.

We’ve been affiliate marketing since 2006. In a recent 12 month period, we earned more than $213,000 in affiliate commissions from just two of our web properties. Below you can see a compilation of the screenshots from the various Amazon accounts that contributed to that total.

Earnings from our Amazon accounts in different locations, from this 12 month period.

In the article below, we’re going to walk you step by step through the different ways you can get started doing what we did.

Affiliate marketing isn’t a “one size fits all” business, and so our aim is that by the end of this, you’ll know the best first steps for you to take, to get up and running and earning affiliate commissions as quickly as possible.

First, let’s get clear on our definitions.

Table of Contents

What is Affiliate Marketing?

Affiliate marketing is helping sell other company’s products for a commission. Simple as that. It exists offline and online, and now that you’re thinking about it, you’ll see examples of affiliate marketing everywhere.

You know how you can be at a coffee shop, and at the counter, there are business cards for other businesses? Maybe a Yoga class or guitar lessons?

Sometimes, that’s affiliate marketing. The business card has a coupon code that lets the Yoga studio know that this customer came from the cards at that coffee shop. They then send the coffee shop a little kickback for the referral.

Online affiliate marketing has gotten a bad wrap over the years, mainly because of the techniques certain – let’s say shadier – affiliates have used to earn their commissions. They can sneak their referral code into places it’s not supposed to be and earn commissions falsely. They can create low-quality web properties that rank in search engines solely to send the traffic onto the seller’s website, providing the visitor no value and a bad searching experience… and there are more.

But today, affiliate marketing is mainstream. Even big businesses recognize it’s value in generating revenue in a way that’s more meaningful than just dropping generic ads.

The New York Times (through their property TheWireCutter), Business Insider, and Mashable – heck even Kim Kardashian! – are examples of highly successful enterprises that now successfully use affiliate marketing to generate revenue.

At it’s best – and what you’re going to read about today – affiliate marketing is helpful and value-laden. It finds people who are looking to solve a problem; improve at something; accomplish something, and provides them recommendations to information, products, and services they’re bound to find useful.

Most importantly, for people like us, affiliate marketing can be a way to generate a legitimate and sustainable income with an online business.

What does it take to start affiliate marketing?

Specifically, there are 3 things.

(NOTE: To tie the knowledge in this article together in a clear case study, download our free 5 Steps Report to see how we took an affiliate site from earning $68 a month… to $17,968 in a month.)

 

No Affiliate Marketing Strategy Can Be Without These 3 Things

As you’re going to see below, there are a number of ways you can get started affiliate marketing.

But none of them function without these 3 things:

  1. A target market
  2. An affiliate offer (ie a product to sell)
  3. Traffic

Getting started in affiliate marketing means having an answer to all of those 3.

Who’s your target market?

What are you going to sell them?

How are you going to get them to visit YOU?

Here’s an example from one kind of affiliate marketing we’ll be discussing below. This is a video from Youtube.

This is an example of clear, simple, and very successful affiliate marketing.

When you are on Youtube and you hit the Show More links below the video you see this:

Those are affiliate links. When someone clicks them and purchases the product she’s talking about, she earns a commission.

Coming back to our 3 questions:

Who’s the target market? People interested in skincare.

What’s the affiliate offer? The Foreo Luna (which she had to find an affiliate program for. That program happens to be Sephora.com)

How does it get traffic? People can find that video in a Youtube search. It might rank in Google for some of it’s target keywords. Or it might appear on other people’s websites or profiles. Each of those requires a strategy that the affiliate marketer needs to understand, in order to answer this question.

That is one simple example of how good affiliate marketing can work. You’ll see others below.

Just be clear before we move on, that…

Whatever the affiliate marketing method, you will always need a target market, a product to sell (that has an affiliate program), and a way to get traffic.

The 3 Main Forms of Affiliate Marketing

If you want to start earning affiliate commissions, you’ll pick a strategy that falls into one of these 3 categories. Each can be effective. Each has its pros and cons.

Here they are listed, along with examples of them being done successfully.

#1: Affiliate Marketing With a Profile

This is where you build a presence – usually a following – on a platform.

It could be a Facebook page.
It could be an Instagram account.
It could be a Youtube channel.
It could be a profile in a popular forum.

You start an account and you start providing value in the form of content; whatever kind of content that platform requires. People find your profile, they follow it. You drop affiliate links into your content every now and then. You earn commissions when people buy.

That’s the business.

You’ll serve one particular target market. You’ll provide as much valuable content as you can. You’ll promote as many products as you can (without annoying your followers).

Example of a Successful Profile for Affiliate Marketing

Since we already found her, Kathleen Lights (from the example video above) Youtube Channel provides the perfect example of a successful profile based affiliate marketing business.

She provides helpful information and high-quality content. She makes recommendations. She earns affiliate commissions. (I would guess a lot of them based on the number of views and subscribers!)

Another example from a different platform is

Pros of Affiliate Marketing with a Profile

The best thing about affiliate marketing with a profile is that you start for free.

All of the main platforms – whether social media, or forum – let you sign up and start posting content without cost. If you’re trying to get started on a budget, that’s a big help.

The other pro is that with platforms, you get some built-in potential for traffic.

Say you’re starting with Youtube. If you do your research right and publish a video on the right topic, it’s possible you will start magically getting some visitors to your videos, just by being found through Youtube search. It won’t be a lot unless you do further promotional work, but it will be something. And it will be free.

The same is true with Facebook. If you start a Facebook page and make a great post, there’s a small chance that it will pick up some shares and traffic. It won’t be a lot unless you do further promotional work, but it will be something. And it will be free.

The other two forms of affiliate marketing don’t have quite as much of this one form of potential.

Cons of Affiliate Marketing with a Profile

The cons of a profile can be summarized as:

a) You don’t own the asset you build.
b) You have limited options for how to get traffic.
c) It (probably) has to be based on YOU.

Let me run through them quickly.

You Don’t Own the Asset

To me, the worst part about affiliate marketing with a profile is that you don’t own the asset that you build. Youtube owns your profile. Instagram owns your account. Facebook owns your fan page.

And they can delete it any time they like.

This is a real risk, especially when you’re using your profile for commercial purposes. It only takes one accidental violation of their constantly updating policies, for an account to be removed without warning. It has happened to a lot of successful social profiles.

Even if it’s not a termination because you accidentally broke a rule, the platforms can also demote you.

Instagram and Facebook can reduce the number of your followers that it will show your posts to. Youtube can demote you in its search rankings.

You Have Limited Options For Traffic

With Instagram and Facebook, it’s particularly bad because if it happens, and all of your content and value is within their ecosystem, how else can you get traffic?

You can’t make your Facebook posts rank in Google search (at least, it’s really hard). You can’t advertise your Instagram post with paid advertising (at least I’ve never seen it!).

Youtube has more options, since you can have other people embed your videos on their websites, and Google likes ranking Youtube videos in search results.

But there’s still this uncomfortable lack of control with a platform that, if you’re putting a huge amount of effort into building a business, I personally would rather avoid.

It has to be Based On YOU

For Youtube, there’s little avoiding this. You have to be on the videos. Even if not your face, then your voice.

At this point, Youtube affiliates will say “No, you can use software to make videos!”, “You can use someone else’s voice!”, “You can hire a real person to present your videos!”

And they’re right. All of those things are possible. They can work. They can generate affiliate commissions.

But let’s face it: videos made with software are crap. Ask yourself: How many influencers or profiles, or accounts do you like and follow, who use automated, software-generated content? Probably none.

Even if they work in the short term they’re not going to keep working in the long term because some competitor will make a personal video which is totally authentic, the market will like it more, and yours will lose.

Yes you can use a voice over or you can hire a real person, but if you really want to build your profile, you need someone that your followers can get to know. You’re not going to do that with an outsource person from Fiverr.com.

Yes, you can make money just by creating low-quality videos with software, without your face or voice, that rank in Google for targeted keywords, and contain your affiliate links. But any time you’re making money by providing low-quality content, the question has to be asked: “How long will it last?”. The internet’s algorithms for detecting quality are getting better every day, and if you’re trying to build a business that will set you up for the future, do you really want to be betting on your continued ability to “get away with it”?

Bottom line: If you don’t like the idea of sharing your own name, face, ideas, and experiences as part of this new business, the other forms of affiliate marketing offer more earning potential and more privacy.

(If you want to see how we build successful web properties without needing a personal profile, download our free 5 Steps Report and see how we took an affiliate site from earning $68 a month… to $17,968 in a month)

#2: Affiliate Marketing With Advertising

This is a form of affiliate marketing where you have no profile and no website. Instead, you pay to run advertising that sends traffic directly to some company’s products. That traffic goes through an affiliate link and when someone buys, you get paid.

A lot of people get drawn to this form of affiliate marketing because of how easy it seems.

You don’t need a website! You don’t need a profile! And because you’re paying for the traffic, it can be instant! You can put an ad up, you can go to sleep, you can wake up the next morning and you can see affiliate commissions (minus your advertising cost). What could be easier?!

Unfortunately, there’s a little more to it.

Examples of Successful Affiliate Marketing With Advertising

Take a look at this screenshot below. I was on MSN.com and if you scroll down to the ads below the articles, you see things like this:

If I click that ad, go to the website, and look at the URL of the page I’m on, I see this:

That “affiliate_id” part? That tells me this is an affiliate link.

So an affiliate – someone like you or me – paid for that ad to be on that website.

They took a banner creative that was supplied to them by the affiliate program, and they said they want to send traffic to their affiliate URL, so they would earn affiliate commissions.

Then they waited.

Now, I can’t tell you whether that’s a “successful” example of affiliate marketing with advertising because I don’t know their stats. I don’t know if they’re earning more in commissions there than the amount spent on ads. There’s no way to know either.**

** (There are software tools that let you check on how regularly an ad is running on a website, on the assumption that if an advertiser is leaving a particular banner running, it’s probably working for them… but putting that aside for a moment.)

That’s how it works.

Here are the pros and cons.

Pros of Affiliate Marketing With Advertising

The pros are that you really don’t need to create a website or a profile to get started with this method. And you never need a profile or a website.

But that’s a limited pro. Learning the ropes of the advertising platforms (like Adwords, Facebook, Bing, and others) is just as complicated – and much more expensive – than learning how to set up a website.

The bigger pro is not having to do the work of building up a profile or website, ie never having to create content.

This allows you to be agile, jumping from one affiliate offer to the next, in any market you choose, following only whatever turns out to be profitable.

You don’t need to put your face on anything, record any video, or write any article, ever. (Though affiliates who do well with this method often expand out into method #3 below when they find a market that’s really profitable).

The biggest pro of this method is the instant results (be they positive or negative).

Building up a profile or website and getting traffic to it means that in the first couple of months, you’re not going to see a lot of action. There you’re playing the long game, laying a foundation so as to be more profitable in the future.

With advertising, you will have traffic almost immediately and you’ll find out within days whether an offer/niche market you tried is going to be profitable. You’ll actually have the profit that quickly too. Real money that will be yours.

But what’s the cost?

Cons of Affiliate Marketing With Advertising

That is the first con. The cost.

This is a pay to play model of affiliate marketing. You only get traffic by purchasing ads, and if you don’t have a budget, you’re not getting off the ground.

You don’t just pay to get started, but you pay to get profitable.

You have to work out which combination of:

a) Places you can advertise
b) and offers you can advertise

are actually going to result in a profit.

For example, you might bet that if you advertise this dog training program to people who are searching on Google for “dog training” , that the amount you’ll spend on clicks will be less than what you make on a sale.

You’ll bet that you can spend $20 on clicks to generate a $25 sale.

And if you can do that, or better, you’ll be happy. You’ll keep that ad running, you’ll expand it, and you’ll slowly grow an income from it.

But you don’t know whether you’ll need $20 worth of clicks to generate a sale, or $40, until you actually spend it.

So what people in this business model do is run lots of ads, for lots of different products, kill the losers and expand on the winners.

It’s a high risk-high reward kind of model.

Higher Competition

It attracts a high caliber of competition. That’s my second con.

Because you don’t create content or do any promotion in this version of affiliate marketing, the business is driven by research. Research, and investment.

If you can find more offers and ad placement opportunities, you’ll make more money. If you can test more campaigns more quickly, you’ll make more money. In that way, this form of affiliate marketing selects for people with deep pockets, and people with technical skills.

(In affiliate marketing folklore, the story always goes that a retired intelligence official, or a professional gamer, or a computer nerd drinking Mountain Dew and living in his parents’ basement is the one having most success with this business model.)

This guy probably does paid advertising with affiliate links…

So when you start off as a newbie, that’s who you’re competing against.

Lack of Sustainability

Like building a profile, this method doesn’t let you build up an asset that has long term value.

The only “asset” you have is an ad campaign. Even when you get one that’s profitable, it doesn’t stay profitable forever. Costs change, clickthrough rates change, and when they change, all you’re left with is the money you made while it was profitable. When it stops being profitable you start a new one from scratch. No previous investment you made in the business helps you with this new campaign. You start from zero every time.

This kind of business is also not sellable. Because you aren’t building up any inherent value, and everything is hinging on the hidden metrics of some ad platform, it’s hard to convince an investor that it will keep being profitable if they purchase it.

If you’re going to all the effort of starting a new business, learning the ropes, building it up, investing in it, I think you might as well build something that has long term potential; something where your efforts build on each other and if eventually someday you slow things down, the accumulated effort and investment of the past will keep pushing the business forward.

Not to mention, I prefer a business with a built-in exit strategy. I prefer to be building something that I can cash out of if I want to.

#3: Affiliate Marketing With a Website

This is where I declare a bias.

This has been our primary form of affiliate marketing for the past 12 years. It’s what earned us that $213,000 in 12 months that I told you about at the start of this post.

(Important: If you want to see how we build successful web properties without needing a personal profile, download our free 5 Steps Report and see how we took an affiliate site from earning $68 a month… to $17,968 in a month)

I also think I can make a clear argument for why it’s the superior form, for the average person, as long as what you’re looking for is something that will still be earning you money in 5 years or 10 years’ time.

This form of affiliate marketing is where you build a simple website, and publish content on it. Some of the content contains affiliate links, so when people find your content, click those affiliate links and make purchases, you earn a commission.

Examples of Successful Affiliate Marketing With a Website

Take a look at this website BestofMachinery.com

They write product reviews and comparisons of tools and machinery. They get (at time of writing) around 460,000 visitors a month just from Google, and they earn (by my educated guess) around $30,000 a month.

We listed another couple of examples of successful affiliate websites in this article.

Here are the pros and cons of this form.

Pros of Affiliate Marketing with a Website

There are a lot, so I’ll try to be brief.

  1. No limit on how you can drive traffic: Your website can rank in Google. You can advertise your website. You can get mentioned on other websites or social profiles. You can build a social profile alongside your website. There’s no method of generating visitors that is off-limits to you. That is simply not true for the other forms of affiliate marketing. By comparison, they are highly limited in this sense.
  2. No limit on how you can make money: Yes you can make money with affiliate links, but you can also run advertising, you can also build an email list, you can do lead generation for another business, you can expand into selling your own products. With method #2 you have one way to make money. With method #1 you have some of these but not all of them. This means your potential is highest with this method.
  3. You have full control of your asset: No one can delete your website from the internet. You own the whole thing. You can do whatever you want with it. You can’t violate some social network’s rules or regulations. You don’t have to worry about seeing all your hard work disappear someday because of a mistake you didn’t know you made.
  4. You can sell your affiliate website for more than 30x monthly profit: It’s hard to sell a social profile (because it’s usually based on a person) and it’s nearly impossible to sell an ad-based affiliate business. But affiliate sites like the one I showed you above regularly sell for as much as 30 times their monthly profit. If your site is earning $1,000 a month, you could sell it for $30,000. Our students have done this.
  5. You can start up for less than $100: You can’t start literally for free, like with method #1, but you can get pretty close. You need a domain name ($10) and a hosting account ($10 a month) and if you want to do it well, another couple of analysis tools we’ll discuss later.
  6. You can leverage your existing skills or interests or experiences but without using your name or face if you don’t want to: This is because the content will usually be mostly in written form. You can be the writer, but you can use a pseudonym if you want to, without hurting the potential of your site (except in markets like Health and Finance, where author credibility is considered extremely important)

How about the cons?

The Cons of Affiliate Marketing with a Website

The primary “con” of this method is that there is no overnight success.

Like with a profile, it takes time to build up content on your website. It also takes time for that content to attract visitors (unless you have the budget to invest in advertising).

(Let me be the spoiler for a second: Those ads promising that you’ll be able to make thousands of dollars online in the next 30 days: They’re wrong. In fact, they’re garbage.)

It also takes work. You can either put the work in yourself or – if you have the budget and you know how – outsource it to someone else. Either way, effort is going into this thing, and lots of it.

But other than this, there are no cons that are unique to this form of affiliate marketing.

You’ll have the same work to do, picking a market, products, and working out how to get traffic, just with less risk, more long term potential, the option to sell, and the option to expand into any other form of monetization that makes sense.

Now you know the 3 main forms of affiliate marketing, let’s move on to some action steps.

Just one more thing first.

Affiliate Marketing Is Not A Business Model, It’s a Monetization Model

Now you understand the 3 main ways affiliate marketing can be done, it’s time to consider a crucial fact: Affiliate marketing isn’t a business, it’s a monetization method.

With the exception of form #2 above, affiliate marketing is just one of the ways you can make money from this other thing that’s your actual business; A blog, a website, a profile, a store.

Like the lady with the Youtube profile above, when that business is set up, you can make money with the affiliate links yes, but also with advertising, also by expanding into your own products, also with endorsements, also with sponsorships, also with an email list, and so on.

I know you started today typing in “how to start affiliate marketing” but I want you to, from now on, be thinking “how can I start a business online”.

To that end, let’s start to answer the 3 big questions from the top of this article.

  • What’s your target market going to be?
  • What are you going to sell first?
  • How are you going to get traffic?

NOTE: You don’t have to pick an affiliate marketing method yet. You’ll have to do the following steps regardless of which form you pick.

Step 1: Decide on a Target Market

To decide on a target market, you need to know what a good target market looks like.

Here are some of the criteria to consider:

  1. How competitive is it? This is tied to your intended method for getting traffic. The question is actually “How strong are the other businesses competing for the forms of traffic I’ll be going after.”
  2. How many products would there be to sell, and what prices would they be? (the more expensive, in general, the higher your affiliate commissions will be)
  3. What else will the site talk about? While you can make great money being a site that just talks about products, you can be greater by having a variety of content on your site.
  4. Do you have personal experience or knowledge in this market? While not crucial, this can be an enormous advantage.

A Process for Brainstorming Target Markets

One way to brainstorm target market ideas is to start with your areas of interest. It’s such a big help to start a site in an area of interest or expertise that you’re best off considering these options first, even if none of them turn out to be good ideas.

First: List your interests and passions: Write them down in a document. Even list things that you’re curious about but don’t have much knowledge in.

Second: Strike out the ones where people who have that interest don’t spend much money on it: Let’s say you like literature. People who like literature might spend what? $30 or $40 a week on books, if that? Compare that to something like Golf, where avid hobbyists can spend thousands of dollars a month on clubs, clothes, course memberships, and lessons.

Third: Think of a product that people in this market might buy, and Google it, with the word “reviews” on the end: If you see a site reviewing these products and linking to the product with an affiliate link, keep it on the list. If you don’t find sites like these, and you don’t see people really reviewing the product, scratch it off the list.

Fourth: See what’s left on your list, and decide on the next step: If you have something still on the list, take that market to the next stage of analysis. If you have nothing on the list, repeat these steps but thinking up any interest, passion or hobby you can imagine yourself having a site on.

(If you’re stuck for ideas, we recently published 3 great niche ideas for affiliate marketers that might get you thinking.)

However you got there, if you can think of a target market that passes these tests, you’re close to finding the starting point for your affiliate marketing business.

The final step in target market analysis is to assess the strength of the competitors for the form of traffic you’re hoping to attain. So here we need to move on and answer “Big Questions” number 2 and 3, then circle back to this target market question at the end.

Step 2: Decide Which Products You’re Going to Sell (First)

In the same way as step 1, to complete this you need to understand what makes a great product for an affiliate to promote.

Here are some of the criteria that matter:

  1. Are there affiliate programs available: The only non-negotiable criteria on this list. If there’s no affiliate program for a product, you can’t make any money writing about it. If the product is available on Amazon, you’re all set. You’ll have the Amazon Associates program to use. If it’s not (or even if it is, this is worth doing) you can Google search: product name “affiliate program” – to see if there are any other stores with affiliate programs that sell the product. Note that other stores might offer higher commissions than Amazon. You can check the Amazon Associates commission rate for the product you’re thinking of here.
  2. How expensive are they? In general, the more expensive the products, the higher the commissions you’ll earn. There’s a caveat to this where, with exceptions, the higher price points get, the lower conversion rates get, since people need to deliberate more before making expensive purchases. We covered this distinction more in our post on high ticket affiliate programs.
  3. How compelling are the product pages, on the websites where these products are sold: If it’s on Amazon, what are the reviews for the product like? Are they 1 star or 5 star? Is there a comprehensive negative review at the top of the list? What are the product images like? How detailed is the company’s description of the product and it’s benefits? Is there a discount available on Amazon currently? All of these factors can affect the conversion rates of the product, and should influence your choice of which products to promote.

To illustrate my point about product pages, take a look at two examples.

First, this example from a Golf site:

Looks pretty clean, right? Got the little “sale” tab there… good quality product images, nice clear buy button.

It goes on to have a panel for the sales copy:

All laid out nicely. Very readable. Plenty of reasons to buy there on the right sidebar.

But take a look at this example from supplement company Onnit.com.

It starts out looking kind of similar…

But then expands when you scroll down, into this compelling sales copy…

And these epic testimonials…

And this amazing savings calculator thing…

And much more.

Point is, there are levels to the quality of product/offer pages and one of the skills of affiliate marketing is comparatively analyzing product pages to make bets on which will give the highest conversions and hence the highest commissions for you.

A Process for Brainstorming Products to Sell

Just like we did for thinking about markets, you can make a similar brainstorming list here.

First: Think up 10 products that people in this market would buy. Rank them in order of how much they cost, with #1 being the most expensive. If there aren’t at least 10 products people in this market would buy, it’s probably not a good market to pick.

Second: Confirm these products have affiliate programs. Check if the product is for sale on Amazon, or do the Google: product name “affiliate programs” search to make sure you’ll have somewhere to earn commissions by selling the product. It won’t hurt to also record the commission percentages at this point, so you can rank the products by how much you’ll earn per sale if you sell one.

Third: Record and assess the product pages for these products: Go to the site that sells the product and record the URL of the product page. Check the product page out, and strike off any products where you can see the product pages might be a conversion problem: A preponderance of negative reviews, a terrible, cheap-looking product page. A confusing page. The product being “currently unavailable” are all examples of things you don’t want to see.

2.5 stars out of 5 could present a conversion challenge.

When you’ve done this, take a look at what’s left on your list. These will be strong contenders for the first products you’ll promote as an affiliate.

The last step in picking products to promote is the same last step as with picking target markets: You’ll assess the strength of competition of other affiliates that are promoting that product, with the traffic source you think you’ll choose.

So we must continue on to traffic, and circle back to this step at the end.

Step 3: Decide How You’ll Get Traffic

Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can decide on a traffic generation strategy for your new affiliate marketing business.

You can either assess the strength of competition across multiple traffic channels and choose to focus on getting traffic from a channel you can see is low in competition.

Or you can pick a traffic channel to specialize in, and focus on repeatedly picking a target market and affiliate product combinations that present low competition opportunities with that channel.

Before you pick a method for generating traffic, it pays to understand the options you have.

The Main Ways Affiliates Get Traffic

Let’s start with an overview of the main ways affiliates can generate traffic in the first place.

Organic Search

This is where you’ll focus on creating content and getting it to rank in search engines, primarily Google. The best part about organic search traffic is that at the point you receive it, the traffic is free. You have to invest to get it ranking (in research tools, in content, in partnerships, in promotions) but once it’s ranking, you’re not paying for every visitor. If you do it well, the returns on organic search marketing can be enormous.

The worst part about organic traffic is that it takes time to achieve. It can take months for a new article you write to end up getting any organic traffic at all.

Organic search is getting traffic by appearing here, without having to pay.

This is where you pay to advertise on keyword searches in search engines. You pay to access the people searching for a keyword, rather than waiting for your article to organically rank in Google (below the ads that people paid for). The best part about paid search marketing is that your site is getting visitors instantly.

The worst part about paid search marketing is that you’re paying for every visitor you get, forever. No matter how well you do it, you still pay for every visitor.

NOTE: The best marketers use organic search and paid search strategies in combination. You can publish a piece of content, and send paid traffic to it immediately, as a way to test how the people searching for that keyword will respond to it. If they respond by buying the product you’re promoting (or opting into your email list), you know this is a valuable keyword, and that it will be worth spending the time to attain the organic traffic for it.

Paid search is appearing here, but paying for it (with the label “Ad” next to your site)

Organic Social

You need a social profile somewhere to access organic social traffic, so this is limited to affiliate marketing forms #1 or #3.

This is where you set up a page, profile, or channel, publish content and get traffic from the people who find you from within that platform. It’s people who searched for a keyword and found your Youtube Video. It’s people who clicked on your article after one of your Facebook fans shared it with their friends. It’s your Instagram followers clicking the link in your bio to go to your website.

The best part about organic social traffic is that it’s free. But as far as making money goes, it’s worst part is much worse than it’s best part is good: Organic social traffic doesn’t convert into buyers the same way organic search traffic does.

Think about what people share on social media: News articles, memes, incredible photography. Social media is primarily for entertainment. Search is primarily for problem-solving.

With search traffic, people are seeking you out. They want to find what you’re offering. With social traffic, any commercial message is an interruption from the entertainment.

This doesn’t mean you can’t sell stuff on social media, or that social traffic has no value. It just means that by comparison, and for affiliate marketers specifically, search traffic is superior.

This is where you pay to advertise your content (or your products and services) to people using a social platform. You can advertise on Instagram and Facebook through Facebook Advertising. You can advertise on Youtube through Google Adwords. Pinterest has it’s own advertising platform, as does Twitter.

The best part about paid social traffic is that it’s instant.

Note that paid social traffic strategies usually work in conjunction with organic social traffic strategies. If you’re building up your account on Instagram for example, you can run paid ads to help extend your reach. If you have a post on your Facebook page that your audience really liked, you can advertise it to similar audiences with Facebook, to get it more attention.

Display Advertising

This is where you pay to advertise on other people’s websites, usually via an advertising platform. If you use affiliate marketing form #2 from above, this is all you do for traffic.

You can advertise on a huge number of websites with Google Adwords. Another popular display advertising platform is called Taboola. Another one is BuySellAds.com but there are many more.

This ad block in the header is someone doing display advertising.

The cool thing is you can run display ads to almost anything: To a Youtube video you made on your channel; To an article you wrote on your website; To a post you made on Facebook.

The only requirement is that it’s profitable. With display advertising, you most often pay either per visitor (Cost per Click) or per thousand impressions that your ad gets shown (called CPM).

Getting traffic with display advertising requires that you find the combination of a piece of content (either yours or your merchant’s) that converts, and an ad source that gets you visitors at a low enough cost to make the sales you convert profitable.

Other Organic

There are some other ways to generate traffic that’s organic, without search engines or social media sites.

One example is Quora.com. You can spend time (or you can pay someone to spend time) each day answering questions relevant to your target audience on Quora. Once you’ve answered a question, your answer stays there, and when new people search Quora for that question in the future, they can find your answer, which can contain a link to your website.

You can do the same thing with forums. If your market has large active forums, you can participate in them, answering questions and adding value, and leaving links to your site in your signature or bio. If you do this consistently, you can build up a consistent stream of traffic.

The great thing about this traffic strategy is that it ends up pulling in organic search traffic to. These questions from Quora or forum threads can end up ranking in Google so that when someone asks the same question in Google, they can end up finding your answer on Quora.

I don’t know of an affiliate who has used ONLY “other organic” to build an affiliate business, but it’s certainly a traffic strategy that pairs well with organic search and organic social. The reason is that it runs on the same fuel: Content. If you have good processes for creating and publishing content, it’s easy to extend them onto another platform like Quora.

Key Takeaway on Traffic Strategy

The best traffic strategy is the one that finds your visitors where they’re already hanging out. If they’re looking for solutions to problems in search, then you better be search marketing. If they’re active on Facebook, you better have a presence there. If you pick the same traffic strategy regardless of the market, you’re missing an important piece of the marketing puzzle, and your returns will suffer because of it.

In most markets, prospects are in different places at different times, so it’s smart to have a strategy that engages them across multiple platforms and channels: For example, providing answers to their questions when they search, and entertainment for them when they want to relax on social media.

How Do You Actually Pick a Traffic Strategy?

You can start by using the filter of budget.

Do you have at least $1,000 to spend on getting traffic? If so, you can consider the paid options above. If not, your decision is made. You’re going to focus on the organic options. Remember you can always start with organic and move into paid if you’re doing affiliate marketing with a website.

For now, that can be your decision: Paid or Organic.

For the last step, we can analyze the competition in these traffic channels for your actual target market, and use that knowledge to inform our final decision.

Introduction to Analyzing Competition for Paid and Organic Traffic

A bit of bad news to start: There’s not a reliable way to analyze the competition for organic and paid traffic that’s free. For this, you need research tools, and they cost money.

Our preferred tool is called Ahrefs. Fortunately, they do let you have 7 days’ use of the tool for free and that’s plenty of time to analyze your first target market’s ideas.

Let’s talk about the different measures of competition for paid search traffic and organic search traffic.

I’m starting with the search traffic options (including Youtube, which I consider more of a search engine than a social network) because, as I mentioned above, they are the highest converting for affiliates.

Competition for Paid Search

Remember, what we’re talking about here is the competition among other businesses who are advertising for the same kinds of keywords you think your market will be searching for.

Let’s go back to the Golf example.

How competitive is the keyword Callaway Rogue Irons review? How much traffic could you actually get for it, how much would it cost, and how likely is it that traffic would be profitable?

With your Ahrefs free trial, login, go to the Keyword Explorer and enter the name of one of the products you brainstormed in the steps above.

Remember we thought up Callaway Rogue Irons?

Hit search and on the next page, you’ll see a world of informative data…

It’s not telling us about the paid traffic competition yet, but there are some important data points to understand here.

Search Volume: That’s the number of people who search that keyword each month.

#1 result for parent topic: That’s the site currently ranking organically in position 1 for the keyword. The total traffic below it is how much traffic that listing gets from that keyword.

Next, we’re going to click on “Phrase Match” from the left sidebar menu, and we’ll end up here…

Now we can see even more helpful data.

We can see a list of all the keywords people search, to do with Callaway Rogue irons, as well as how many times each one gets searched.

The column I pointed to with the green arrow is Cost Per Click, and tells us an average value for how much advertisers are paying per click, to “bid” on this keyword.

This example turned out an ambiguous one.

A CPC of N/A can either mean that no one’s advertising – which would be great for us! – or that no one can advertise on that keyword in the United States, possibly because of restrictions on bidding on trademarked terms (like the brand name Callaway).

What you’re more likely to see when you search a keyword is the following:

See how all the keywords have different CPC numbers?

To get traffic for “used golf iron set” you’re going to pay about 60c per visitor. To get traffic for “women golf iron set” you’re going to pay about 70c per visitor.

How do you decide what’s high competition and what’s low competition? By comparing the cost of the traffic to the value of your affiliate commission.

Example Competition Calculation

Say you’re wanting to sell golf iron sets for women.

  • You know that to get paid traffic for that keyword “women golf iron set” you’re going to pay 70c a visitor.
  • You can find a Golf affiliate program like this one that pays 10% commission per sale (higher than you’d get at Amazon).
  • The page on ladies’ golf sets tells me they sell for $69, to $240. Let’s assume our average sale would be in the middle, at $150.
  • At 10% commission, we’re going to earn $15 per sale.
  • And at 70c per click, we would need to earn a sale every 20 visitors to turn any profit at all. Really we’d need a sale every 15 visitors to earn even a few dollars per sale on traffic from that keyword.

Will you make an affiliate sale every 15 visitors? No. At least, very unlikely.

You’ll be sending the traffic from your ad directly to your website where you write about Golf sets for women and help people decide which is the right set for them.

An average click-through rate (that is, people who will click on your affiliate links to check out the golf set you mentioned) is about 30%. That means if you pay for 15 clicks, only 5 of them will click your affiliate link IF you’ve done everything right in your article.

Are you going to make a sale every 5 affiliate clicks you send? Probably not. An average conversion rate from Amazon affiliate marketing is 10%, so a sale every 10 clicks you send to Amazon.

Therefore, we can say the paid search competition for “Women golf iron set” is too high.

If you want to drive paid traffic in this market, you have to either find lower CPC keywords, or higher commission items for the maths to work.

Key Takeaway on Paid Traffic For Affiliates

Paid traffic works best for affiliates when commissions are high (or recurring monthly), CPCs are low, and there’s the ability to make ongoing affiliate commissions from the same customers.

For example, one affiliate marketing strategy is using paid traffic to entice subscribers onto an email list. Once on an email list, the affiliate can promote multiple products to that subscriber over time, increasing the amount of revenue per visitor to their site, and offsetting the initial outlay on advertising.

Competition For Organic Search

Here we run the same search with Ahrefs, but look at a different metric.

Here we look at keyword difficulty:

Keyword Difficulty is a measure of how difficult it would be to make your site appear in the top 10 search results for this keyword, based on a combination of metrics this article is already too long to go into 🙂

Keyword Difficulty of 0 is the best you can do. It goes to 100. It means the other sites currently ranking for that keyword aren’t that big, old, strong, and haven’t done that much promotion of this particular page on their site.

This means that while you won’t be bidding for paid traffic on the keyword “Callaway rogue irons”, the door to capture some organic traffic is wide open! Literally it means you wouldn’t find an easier opportunity for organic traffic if you tried.

What’s more, there are no trademark restrictions for organic traffic. You could write a review of Callaway Rogue irons and have a good chance of having it rank for that keyword, get traffic, and make affiliate sales.

And with the organic traffic, you don’t need to run the same “cost per visitor” calculation. You’ll have to spend time and possibly money to get your review ranking there for that keyword, but that could be paid off in the first month of affiliate commissions (these irons cost more than $600) and after that, your traffic keeps coming, for free. Profit margin = 100% (well, minus a domain name, monthly hosting fees and some other little things we’re yet to talk about).

How Will You Get Traffic? By Finding Low Competition Traffic Opportunities Among Your Target Market & Target Products

Now we can complete the loop we started in Step 1 and 2 above.

If you can find that one of the products you brainstormed, in the market you brainstormed, has a keyword with low competition on either the paid or organic search channel, you have an answer to the 3rd key affiliate marketing question: You have a legitimate way you could get profitable traffic.

And with it, you have the basis for a new affiliate marketing business.

Of course, to actually build the business you’ll need lots of traffic opportunities on lots of keywords. But the process of finding them is always the same. If you can find one to start with, you can always find more.

Example Market, Product & Traffic Selection Following The 3 Steps

Here’s an example of how it might look if you ran these 3 steps from start to finish.

Target Market

You used the criteria listed to come up with a topic you could see yourself having an affiliate marketing business on: Cleaning.

Are there lots of products that go along with this interest? Yes.

Is there plenty you could write about other than products? Yes. Techniques, tips and inspiration.

Do you have a personal interest or experience? (Let’s assume yes for the example).

You’re good to go. Proceed to step 2.

Products to Sell

You used the criteria listed to come up with some products you might be able to sell: Pressure washers. Garment steamers.

Do these products have affiliate programs? Yes, both sell on Amazon, and other e-commerce stores.

Are they expensive? Yes. As high as $300 on both.

Are the product pages good? Yes, at least as far as Amazon goes. Here’s one that’s $200, with 4 out of 5 stars, a 14% discount currently on, and a detailed, compelling description from the manufacturer.

Ways To Get Traffic

You looked around and found some specific names of pressure washer or garment steamer brands and you looked up some of their keywords with Ahrefs Keyword Explorer.

Do these products have search volume (people actually looking for them)? Yes. The $200 Singer steam press has 350 people per month!

What’s their level of competition? For paid traffic (CPC) probably too high, but for organic, plenty of low keyword difficulty options.

There you have it.

The Cleaning site, and the steam press as our first product to sell is officially a go!

That’s it. That’s the basis for a successful new affiliate site. That’s a better start to affiliate marketing than most hopefuls will ever make.

You can repeat this process as many times as you want, and the more of these you find in the same market, the higher your earning potential is.

Now all you have to do… is start!

How to Take all This… And Actually Start

Once you complete that process, it’s time to start your web property.

It can be a social profile or a website, but I’m hoping if you read this far, you’ll be with us in wanting to create a website (and maybe a social profile to go alongside it… just don’t skip the website part) for your new affiliate marketing business.

You’re going to buy a domain name, get a hosting account, install free WordPress software, and start writing about this first product you found.

From there, your new source of income is officially within view!

I think you’ll agree with me that, at nearly 9000 words, this article is better left here for now.

Take it all in. Give your brain a rest. Then actually do the steps I described here. We’ll cover the specific details of setting up your site, creating your content and getting it traffic elsewhere. Be aware however that those steps are LESS important; less crucial to your success; than the steps you’ve taken today.

You started this off by asking how you can start affiliate marketing, and I hope you feel like you got a good, comprehensive answer.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Want to take the next step?

(See how it looks when put into practice by downloading our FREE 5 Steps Report on how we took an affiliate site from earning $68 a month… to $17,968 in a month.)

Andrew Hansen

Hey, I'm Andrew. I'm the proud co-creator of Digital Worth Academy. I've been doing SEO and affiliate marketing for the past 14 years and I'm excited to be sharing the best of what I know here.

Leave a Comment

1 thought on “How to Start Affiliate Marketing: A Step by Step Guide”

  1. Great working ethics you’ve got Andrew. I’m trying to replace my freelance revenue with something that has cumulative growth like a website monetized with Affiliate Marketing. And I don’t like Hopes and Guessing games.

    So while brainstorming how can I do this, I came to your sites and here you’re turning my missing pieces into numbers. I totally love your process and more excited with the Analysis part of this process.

    That effectively strips out the Hope with something Realistic, and that makes me want to go do this, after all the waiting!

    Thanks for all the articles and tips you’re giving 🙂

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