The Logical Rise of Affiliate Programs – It’s a Referral!

by | Dec 29, 2020 | Affiliate Marketing, Digital Marketing

I remember being told as a young salesperson to always ask for a referral from customers that speak highly of you. Ask for that referral because they will most likely give you a glowing review, and that will lead to more customers. I was also told to ask customers that you’re a little more unsure of for a referral because even if they don’t give you one, being open to their feedback will present an opportunity to win them over.

Some businesses grow purely based on their referrals and word of mouth.  Happy customers can be your best sales force, marketing team, and public relations department.  I’m sure there’s a least on product, service, company, or brand that you would stand up for… I know there are a few that I love and would happily give my referrals.  

These businesses that have earned my trust have done so with great service, awesome products and leave me wanting to come back for more.  If I were to give a referral I’m usually going to add in my story, why I like it and how it works for me.  The same is true online, but the context is a little different, and unfortunately, there’s can be a stigma around the word “affiliate.”  
Much like the hatred for clickbait, there’s a certain disdain for affiliate programs over the years, and its lead to more disclosure that links include an affiliate tracking code.

Spammy Websites Ruin Affiliate Programs: The websites that seem to have links everywhere for different products and advertise within your face tactics and trick you into clicking or signing up for something.  The war wages between advertising platforms to control the text, call-to-action, and look of ads, what categories they are allowed (or forbidden), and who they target.  Google continues to release updates that push down these sites in the rankings, however, there are many that still float to the top of search results with very specific search terms. 

Affiliate Disclosure Required: Be a good neighbor and follow the rules… On pages or blog posts that have affiliate links, it’s required to disclose that the link includes an affiliate code which will give compensation to the affiliate (usually the website owner/blogger) if a purchase is made on the website you arrive on.  The sale made doesn’t cost the consumer anything extra, the affiliate commission is usually roughly the same amount the product/service provider would have to spend in advertising dollars to make the same sale.  More on this later.

When we think about how you can get a vote of confidence the referral is certainly powerful, so are reviews.  Both build credibility and authority through social proof and 3rd party validation.  Over 80% of consumers consistently say they trust an online review or recommendation as much as one from a friend or family member.  That’s a lot.  And it also compares the root of our topic today, it’s why affiliate programs work, those thumbs up from friends and family are the starting point for affiliate programs-leveraging another brand or person’s respected opinion to make a sale easier by removing some doubt.

Who’s Reading this?

You can tell me below in the comments, I hope it makes sense and adds value to you.  As I’m writing this, my focus is giving online businesses, bloggers, entrepreneurs and influencers a thorough look at one revenue stream.  One that can be very lucrative, however, that depends on what your brand is about and what relevant opportunities there are for you to promote through affiliate programs.  If that’s you, welcome! I hope this journey is a fruitful one. 

A second audience that I’m hoping are reading this are manufacturer’s reps, outside salespeople (especially those on the road), and consultants who, in my mind, have already been doing affiliate marketing in the old school manner.  Face-to-face, one customer at a time… If that’s you, welcome! There’s a better way… oh, so much better.

Let’s get into it.

A Beginners Guide to Affiliate Marketing

The number one question that I frequently see posted in forums and Facebook groups, and get asked myself is about monetizing your brand. After taking the leap and starting your personal brand, social media or blog (congrats!), getting the hang of it (nice work!), and starting to see some growth (high five!), most bloggers consider ways to produce an income from their blog.  

First, where does your brand exist?

Building an audience anywhere is an amazing feat, however, if you aren’t building your website, you don’t have the same control.  We get to see instant validation with the follower count of Instagram or TikTok account, subscribers of a YouTube channel, and every other social platform.  However, there are always limitations.  The biggest being control.

The platform that I found the most success with to rapidly build an audience was Tumblr.  You can read the story of how I created and monetized niche micro-blogs, mainly in the sneaker space, that was over 90% user-generated content. Then, Yahoo came along.  Following the acquisition, the guidelines changed around monetization, content guidelines. Neither of those things affected our sites, however, there was a huge decline of users, and users were submitting the majority of our content.  There is still a strong baseline today of 40,000 followers on our biggest Tumblr site, but the audience isn’t activated. Most of them have migrated to Instagram… and we didn’t.

Not every platform is going to have major changes, but there is always a chance that the right partner comes along, new features crush your niche, competitors come along or the right price is given to the founders and they sell.  However, the biggest threat is government regulatory changes that affect entire social networks (the big sites), while that most websites (the smallest of small sites) are unaffected by or have a very quick fix to be regulatory compliant.  

With those scary words out of the way, let’s look at the solution. To mitigate the risk of platform changes, I recommend getting a website, particularly a WordPress blog. It’s easy to set up, very customizable, and works with almost everything that you need to monetize.  The best part is that it can grow with you.  What you need right now, is probably getting set up (guide here), and when you start getting some traffic, you’ll want to scale and monetize further.  

Over 80% of consumers consistently say they trust an online review or recommendation as much as one from a friend or family member. It’s why affiliate programs work.

You might even need to bookmark this and come back to it once you’ve got a steady stream of traffic.  We have had a lot of influencer conversations, including a couple of news anchors, about RE-influencing their audience by being elsewhere, not stuck on one platform.  In the fashion space, on average a fashion blog will drastically outperform an Instagram profile from a profitability perspective. So, we need to build that different place to compliment your brand, leverage your activity and properly monetize for the long term.  

Yes, I’m talking about your future!

There are many ways to potentially make money from your blog. And I encourage you to look at possible revenue opportunities before going ahead. Any monetization you do will require work to make it worth your while. You don’t want to be spread too thin with your time, you’ve got lots of posting to do!

Here’s the short list of ways to monetize your blog:

  • Affiliate Programs, that earn you a commission for a referred sale.  This is good for websites with content that gives recommendations or reviews products/services.
  • Display Advertising, that earns you income for impressions of the ad.  This is good for websites that get a lot of visitors.
  • Adsense, that earns you a small fee every time that someone clicks on the ads on your website.  This is good for a website that has relevant products to sell, but might not have an affiliate program or direct sale online… like new car dealers.
  • Sponsored Content, where you get paid up front to write an article about a particular product.  Often this comes with getting the product for free to try and test.  This is best for a website with an influential voice and something that social media influencers are familiar with.  #sponsored is the number one way of monetizing social… and it works on blogs too.
  • Email Marketing, allows you to sell content or advertising only in your email newsletter. This is best for websites with a large database of subscribers who read more email than visit the site (like two of my daily reads, The Hustle & The Skimm) because its delivered directly to your inbox.

In this article, let’s cover the basics of affiliate marketing and some tips for getting started if you think it’ll work on your website.

What is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is how vendors (think: Amazon, eBay, etc) compensate website owners, bloggers, content creators, and influencers for referring sales to them online.  Traffic sent by the affiliate is tracked by cookies and if sales are made within a specific time frame, the affiliate is paid a commission.  Being paid by performance, there is only compensation when an action occurs. This action is usually a sale but could be a different action like signup or click.

Many of the programs offered are managed by a few big affiliate networks. These companies manage the entire affiliate process – links, creative, tracking and commission payouts. 

The Benefits of Affiliate Marketing

As someone who has worked on both sides, there is an obvious benefit here for both the affiliate and the vendor selling the product.  Here are my top 3 benefits for affiliates and vendors.


  1. Added Exposure & SEO: The golden rule of relevant linkbacks is the key to SEO. Including product, placement sweetens the opportunity. By having reviews of your store or products on many other websites, your reputation and page rank will improve. In the world we live in that is dominated by reviews, incentivizing honest reviews makes a lot of sense.
  2. Paying for Performance: It makes sense to only pay for what you need, right? Affiliate marketing means you are only paying for actual sales.  Other marketing has you paying for people to see your offering (display and traditional) or per click (PPC / SEM) that only gets someone to your product page. By only paying for completed sales, affiliate programs can free up a lot of working cash that is needed for things in the business like employees, inventory, or development. An Affiliate program is one of the best ways to add a new sales channel to your online store.
  3. Access to Audience & Feedback: Having access to an audience is the most valuable for me, personally. This is also why influencer marketing is growing and providing a very good return on investment. Being in touch directly with the influencer or affiliate, you get great feedback on how to communicate with your ideal customers, what questions they have, and changes that might be required for your product.  It’s hard to get this feedback in general, and usually, most bloggers have a good two-way, open line of communication with their audience.


  1. Revenue: Any opportunity to make money is great for a blogger, and affiliate revenue can be one of the most lucrative, especially if you have evergreen content that can covert over time.  This does depend on the content and the product you are promoting, but I like the chances of people checking out articles over time, knowing that you’re affiliate links are there to make you money.
  2. Brand Association: When you’re new, it’s hard to make a name for yourself, get traffic and grow your audience.  One of the quickest ways is to piggy-back on other existing and popular keywords.  This is where the affiliate programs can be a guide to what to blog about to get more traffic.  How-to posts or reviews or smart hacks about the products you are promoting can bring a lot of traffic.  The other bonus, sometimes you’ll get your article shared by the brand themselves and you’ll have exposure to their entire audience.  
  3. Building Authority: Typically, the first products you’ll choose to work with are ones that you already use and/or know that your audience will use too.  Blogging about these things is an opportunity to let your expertise shine! Aligning yourself with the brands that you use puts you on a fast-track to paid promotions and influencer campaigns.  Keep sharing your reviews, feedback, or documenting how you do things and people will take notice.

Why does this matter for bloggers?

My old sales manager told me, “take care of all your customers and they might recommend you to their friends and family.  Those conversations can turn into referrals.  Referrals are gold for your business because you have a sales force working for you.”

I love this simple idea of taking care of others and I see how it relates to affiliate programs because you are already taking care of your audience and adding value for them.  Being able to monetize these recommendations is essential to becoming a profitable blogger.

As a blogger, you’re sharing your perspective and that’s incredibly valuable to brands. You are that customer giving the referral to a great experience you’ve had.  That’s the core of affiliate marketing.

Take care of your audience and they will take care of you.  That’s the difference between having readers and having a tribe. Your tribe will want to contribute to your success.

How do I get started?

If your still reading by now, you’re probably wanting to take action. Awesome! You’ve actually taken the first step already. Having a blog is essential. Regularly posting and actively building your tribe are two keys to having strong affiliate revenue. Here are some tips to get started and make it work.

Before we do, I must give you the honest stats. 

There is a large number of affiliates that are accepted into programs that never make a sale. It’s high, about 98% of affiliates never make a sale.  This is for a number of reasons, some of which you can avoid, like choosing programs and services that fit the needs of your audience. 

The following tips are designed to help you shortcut the process to getting your first sale.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way and these are some things I should have done first.

Research & Apply

Don’t apply to everything …Understand product fit: You have put a lot of effort into writing for your audience and understanding what they want to read.  Now it’s time for you to think about what they want to buy.  If you were to build your ideal reader on your blog…think about what’s around them.  What is sitting on their desk as they read your blog post?  What did they do that day? What do they do for work?  How could you help them?

Understanding product-market fit is really important for you to make sales, but it’s even more important for the application. Some of the best affiliate programs have very strict criteria to accept new affiliates and they want to know your details.  Website stats, number of followers, your activity, and this profile of your ideal customer. You are already increasing the likelihood of making a sale by knowing your audience.

Read into the terms and compensation: There are a lot of great programs out there, but there are also some really bad ones. So bad, it’s not worth your time.  Here are a few things I look at:

  • Cookie Duration – the time frame you are given for a sale to complete.  The lowest I’ve seen is 3.5 minutes (travel industry) and the longest are programs whose cookies don’t expire.  Here’s the thing, look at which cookie “wins.”  If someone clicks on your affiliate link and one from another blog, which one gets the commission?  Some are the “first cookie” others are the “most recent.”  This makes a big difference based on the type of product.  In some industries people buy immediately, others take time and decide to purchase later.
  • Commission Structure – this will always be a fixed dollar amount or a percentage.  Check the currency if its a fixed amount to make sure its worth it, and look at the product pricing if its a percentage.  (Selling a $5 item with a 5% commission is only $0.25 per sale).  
  • Commission Duration – this is VERY important for your cashflow on subscription products like software.  You can find some that will pay at the initial sale like a product sale and that’s great.  But, you can find some that pay recurring for the entire duration that the client is active.  For products like web hosting or email service providers you could be making a commission each month for years if your referral continues to use their product.
  • Affiliate Referrals – if you’re in the space of recommending tools, read to see if you get compensation for someone signing up for the affiliate program.  For example, if you are teaching people how to build websites, you might have someone in your audience that can benefit from the affiliate program too because she is a website designer and can refer all of her clients too.  Some programs will allow it, some do not and others will have a separate affiliate link for referring other affiliates.

It pays to do your homework and find the programs that will reward you the most.

Don’t be discouraged by program rejections: Similar to what I mentioned about knowing your audience, don’t be discouraged by a rejection.  If you have the opportunity to respond to the email (if it’s an actual person) do so and ask what criteria you missed.  Typically, they will reject applications that don’t have enough traffic on their blog or are in a different niche.  It helps to know if you should circle back when you hit a specific traffic goal or if they just aren’t interested in your blog topic.  Either way, it’s ok – there are lots of other opportunities!

Follow the rules

  1. Full Disclosure: Disclosure of affiliate links and programs is required by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and is constantly changing. Keeping up with their legal terms is a good idea. They are trying to find ways to regulate these programs and protect consumers. As a blogger, you will need to follow the rules so you don’t jeopardize your earnings. You may have seen on blog posts a statement like this, “some of the links below are affiliate links. If you click on these links and choose to purchase, I will receive a commission with no additional cost to you.” It’s important to explain this and it can actually be beneficial for you. Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income mentioned that he often gets emails from people asking for his affiliate link because they want him to get the bonus for introducing them to a product or service. Your audience is on your side here, they take your advice seriously. Don’t be afraid (like I was) to fully disclose the affiliate program because it would scare people away.
  2. Follow the Content Guidelines: Each of the affiliate programs will have different guidelines for the type of content they allow.  This isn’t to discourage you from creating, but sometimes they are discouraging comparisons.  In very competitive industries, like web hosting, they frown upon comparisons side-by-side where you have affiliate links to other competing products.  Sometimes they will also be particular about the specific type of content.  I have received more emails lately encouraging video reviews and reminders to include affiliate links.
  3. Know where your links can go: When you sign up for affiliate programs, you are asked to provide your website, and usually your social media profiles.  Most are fine with your links going anywhere, but some will reject sales that come from particular social platforms. It’s getting better than before, but know if you can directly post to social, or have your audience click to your blog, then click through to the promo.

Promote your Affiliates!

After all of that, I feel like we’re getting back to you blogging again!  Here’s some tips for creating content, or as the affiliate programs say, promoting their links 🙂

Create more than blog posts to promote the products.  Have videos, webinars, freebies, podcasts… Get your message to your audience where they are paying attention

Stick to your style and don’t over promote: Don’t change.  No matter how valuable a sale and commission is, its never worth it to lose your tribe.  They have bought into you, let them know that its still you that is talking.  Recommend products and services that you have used, companies that you trust and explain why.  This is your referral that you’re giving out.  You and the product or service you are recommending are seen as the same to most people.  Your reputation is what your tribe is counting on, don’t jeopardize that by being commission greedy.  While some templates will be provided by vendors, I avoid them specifically and just use them for inspiration.

Use different types of content: Create more than blog posts to promote the products.  Have videos, webinars, freebies, anything that is allowed in the program.  All of the ways you would normally go about building your blog, don’t make exceptions.  On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to try something new.  If it works you will be financially rewarded. This is why I did my first webinar 🙂

Mix pages with posts: There are some essential pages that can help your promotional efforts.  Many affiliates have a resources page that is a collection of the tools they use, and its a mix of affiliate and non-affiliate links.  Resources pages are a top converting asset for many affiliates and your blog needs one, regardless if you have affiliates to promote or not.  
Another great idea is an FAQ page where you answer questions about what you use and how you use certain products.  In your answers use your affiliate links as appropriate. 

Easily Manage your Affiliate Links: If there is one thing that I have learned, its to have access to all of the programs that you know you’ll be promoting and it can be a lot.  There’s three types of management needed, first, is keeping track of all the links that you have on your site, the second is making them look super clean, the third is making sure you’re compliant with all regulations.  If you can make them look super nice as well, that’s a bonus.  We have chosen to use Lasso to help with this.  Its a simple affiliate management tool that we use for WordPress and everything from promoting products on Amazon to recommending different software.  It was build by a niche site expert wanting something that would make his life easy and he created a tool that makes everyone’s life easier.  (Here’s our affiliate link – I recommend it)

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Get started!

I hope this was valuable to you.  I want to hear that you’ve successfully monetized your blog.  Get started now and work on building traffic.  

This post was written by Chris Milton, our CEO who loves giving recommendations to the tools that we love to use and have found to be the most helpful. We keep telling him to keep some of those secrets to ourselves…