No product to sell? No problem! It's possible to make six and seven figures from affiliate marketing, which is the promotion and sale of other people's products. In this free guide, I'm going to teach you everything you need to know about affiliate marketing. Follow along step-by-step and you'll be generating revenue online in no time.
"You should start an online business. I'll help you!"
"But Kevin, I don't have a product to sell."
That's how so many of my conversations go. Here I am trying to help people escape the rat race and live life without limitations and this same objection keeps showing up over and over again.
That's why this guide needs to exist. I want to be able to direct people here as soon as they give me the "I don't have a product" excuse.
I hate that excuse more than anything because there's so much potential in affiliate marketing – it's just potential that's not obvious to most people.
I mean, think about it. Most people don't know how to make money online at all, much less how to make money without a product.
It blows people's mind when I tell them (1) that affiliate marketing exists and (2) that affiliate marketing could replace their entire income and then some.
But snap out of dream land for a minute, because you're not going to make anything with your head stuck in the clouds. Let's get dirty. Let's jump in the trenches. Let's make this a reality for you.
What is Affiliate Marketing?
Here's the raw definition and then I'll put it in layman's terms...
A marketing arrangement by which an online retailer pays a commission to an external website for traffic or sales generated from its referrals.
Let's get something out of the way before we go any further. Affiliate marketing is *not* MLM (multi-level marketing). While they might seem similar, affiliate marketing is in a completely different universe from MLMs.
MLMs are based on a specific business model that relies on the multi-level network to be successful. The product prices and profitability are structured around that model specifically. It's a closed system and often operates somewhat like a pyramid scheme.
Affiliate marketing is simply the act of taking real products with a real business model, promoting them, and getting rewarded (via commission) for sales that come from that promotion.
Most affiliate marketers don't just promote one brand the way MLM people do. They promote dozens or even hundreds of brands. And they don't have to pay the brands anything to be a promoter – there's no schemes or scams involved with these partnerships.
Affiliate marketing is based on basic economics and marketing. A brand recognizes that other people have access to an audience and that by rewarding those people to promote the brand's product to their audience, they can grow faster than if they tried to do all the marketing and selling on their own.
Affiliate marketing is also a great branding tool. Bluehost, for example, has exploded in popularity and brand awareness because major influencers like Pat Flynn and John Lee Dumas promote their web hosting packages.
When a brand pushes affiliate marketing hard, they don't have to do a ton of marketing of their own. They just sit back and let their promoters do the work. They pay great commissions, the same way companies pay sales teams, and everyone is happy.
How Does Affiliate Marketing Work: Merchants, Networks, Publishers, and Customers
This isn't that complicated – you'll understand it in two seconds.
In order for there to be an affiliate marketing relationship, there has to be a product. The company who owns the sale/distribution of the product is the "merchant" (business).
Merchant's want to get their product in the hands of as many customers (consumers) as possible, so they recruit publishers (affiliates) to help them. A publisher is a promoter – typically someone with an audience or someone planning on building an audience (like a blogger, podcaster, or social media influencer).
Often, publishers and merchant's connect directly with each other. More commonly, though, they'll connect through a third party affiliate network.
A network is a place where tons of merchants can register their business and their products. This makes it easier for them to find publishers to connect with and it makes it easy for publishers to find merchants to connect with.
So, the full affiliate marketing model looks like this...
Just keep in mind that a publisher doesn't have to be linked to one merchant or even one affiliate network. As a publisher/affiliate, you'll most likely have an account with multiple networks and multiple merchants.
While some merchants might use affiliate networks and publishers as their main marketing and sales channel, it's usually not the case. Most merchants are running their business in a very traditional sense. Their marketing strategy spans across many different channels – their affiliate network is just one of those channels.
How Does Affiliate Marketing Work as a Publisher (Hey, That's You!)
Okay, so now you know how affiliate marketing works from a top down perspective. Now you're probably wondering how it works from your end.
Let's start with the concept of attention. You can't sell anything if you don't have anyone's attention, right? So, your job as a publisher is to get people's attention.
As an affiliate, you need to start thinking about yourself as the marketing department of whatever company you're promoting. That's where most affiliates go wrong and it's why most affiliates are broke.
Here's how most affiliates do it...
Become an affiliate → casually talk about the company or product to random people → make peanuts
Here's a better way...
Build a big audience in a profitable niche → find products that your audience wants or already uses → become an affiliate for those products → promote those products consistently to that audience → make a living
It's easier than it sounds in some ways. In other ways, it's more difficult. Once you start doing it you'll start to figure everything out, but I'll break the entire process down for you step-by-step so you can get moving in the right direction and skate past a lot of the pitfalls and beginner mistakes...
Step #1: Find a Niche
If you think you're just gonna sign up to promote a bunch of random products, slow your roll. That's not the ticket to successville.
In order to be successful with affiliate marketing, you need to build an audience that knows, likes, and trusts you. It's the same formula for promoting your own products, you just get to skip all the product creation and customer service steps.
How do you build an audience that knows, likes, and trusts you? You pick a niche and you show up consistently in that niche, either by being useful or entertaining. Or both.
Ideally, you pick a niche where passion, proficiency, and profitability intersect. If you need help with this, read How to Find Your Niche: Use This Profitable Niche Marketing Strategy.
Gaining know, like, and trust is critical to making sales. People typically don't buy from strangers. Without an audience, your efforts to promote other people's products will fall short because people don't put much weight into the opinions of people they don't know very well.
When I tell my audience to host their website with Flywheel, they take my suggestion. If I were to make the same suggestion to a person who has no idea who I am, they're unlikely to listen and follow through. Get it?
I'm not saying you won't get any sales promoting random stuff to random people, but you'll never hit any meaningful revenue numbers unless you firmly establish yourself in a specific niche.
Step #2: Build an Audience
Once you've found your niche, you need to build an audience.
What's that mean? It means capturing people's attention and then holding their attention.
That "holding their attention" part is key. Anyone can capture someone's attention for 30 seconds, but that's not gonna cut it. You need to capture people's attention for weeks and months if you want to sell them stuff.
The best way to build an audience is through list building – getting people onto an email list so you can continue interacting with them.
If you have a website, you can use lots of various digital marketing strategies to drive traffic and then focus on converting that traffic to your email list.
To be clear, you don't need a website to do affiliate marketing. It's very helpful, and I'd probably never do it without one, but it's possible to do well without one.
Chase Reeves is killing it on YouTube with product reviews. He reviews bags and backpacks and such. Does he have a website? Yeah, because he's smart, but he could theoretically be doing what he's doing without one.
There are thousands of Instagram influencers who don't have websites – or at least don't use them in the traditional sense – who are killing it with affiliate marketing just through the audience they've built on Instagram.
The big problem with that, of course, is that you're building something substantial on land you don't own. I always think people should have a website so your audience has somewhere to go should your profile get shut down on one of these other channels or an algorithm change kills your reach, or whatever the case may be.
The point is that you need to build an audience – which means capturing people as subscribers of some sort – so you can promote to that audience.
Step #3: Become an Affiliate
Once you have an audience in a specific niche, you'll start to uncover exactly what products and services your people want and need.
Not all products and services will have affiliate programs, though. And some products and services will have affiliate programs, but the commission structure won't be great.
Being successful with affiliate marketing requires finding the best affiliate opportunities within the niche you're serving.
Another thing to think about is the quality of the product or service you're promoting. If you work hard to get an audience to know, like, and trust you, you don't want to sabotage that by promoting scams and low quality stuff. So part of your merchant search needs to include a quality audit of some sort.
There's 3 basic ways to find the best affiliate deals...
3a: Target Individual Brands
If you know your niche, you'll know right away what brands you want to promote. For example, since I use Convertkit email marketing software I knew wanted to promote them as an affiliate.
I would be "talking them up" to my audience anyway, so I might as well get a commission on sales, right? That's often how the best affiliate relationships work and it doesn't cost the consumer anything extra to purchase through my affiliate link – the cut comes straight out of Convertkit's profits.
If there's a brand you want to promote, just do a simple Google search using the operator "brand name + affiliate program."
When I share my unique affiliate link, visits and sales are tracked through that link so that I get the proper credit when a purchase is made. This is how affiliate marketing works at the actual promotion level. Without a unique affiliate link, there's no way for the business to know it was you who referred someone.
Convertkit pays me 30% of all sales I generate on a recurring basis since it's a recurring software model. That's an example of a strong affiliate commission. If someone signs up at the lowest package level through my link, I get $8/mo for the life of their subscription.
3b: Join an Affiliate Network
Targeting individual brands that you already know about is a good starting point, but ultimately a limited approach. To branch out in your affiliate marketing, you'll want to join an affiliate network (yes, it's free).
The most popular affiliate network is Clickbank and it's a great first step for your affiliate marketing career.
To get signed up, click the "create account" button in the top navigation.
Next, fill out the application...
Once you're approved, you'll be able to login to your dashboard.
I'll be honest, it's not the prettiest or easiest experience, but once you get the hang of it you'll be able to navigate around Clickbank pretty quickly.
Start by clicking the "Marketplace" link in the top nav.
Next, you can choose a product category from the left-side navigation...
Clickbank does a great job of showing you important stats about the products you might want to promote. For example, the average commission you'll earn per sale, how much you'll earn on rebills, the percentage of rebills, the average conversion rate of the sales page, and so on.
To promote a product, click the "promote" button...
When you click "promote" a window will pop up with your unique affiliate link. Highlight the link and copy it.
While you can use that link directly, I would recommend creating a "pretty link" that's branded with your domain name (assuming you have a website related to your affiliate marketing venture).
If you're using WordPress, download and install the free Shortlinks Pretty Link plugin. This plugin allows you to create redirects from custom URLs on your domain to your affiliate links.
For example, I don't want to keep track of my Elegant Themes Divi affiliate link, so I created a pretty link (https://digitalambition.co/divi) that redirects to my affiliate link. That pretty link is super easy to remember and share.
3c: Spy on the Bigger Players in Your Niche
To make sure you leave no stone unturned, the final strategy I recommend is to visit the websites of the bigger players in your niche to see what products they're promoting as an affiliate.
This is a strategy you won't want to skip because it has a unique advantage. It helps you identify the affiliate programs that are most likely to be working and doing well!
If a major player is keeping specific products around and promoting them as an affiliate it's probably because they're very successful with it.
How do you find out what they're promoting, though?
The first place I'd look is a site's "resources" page. Sites that are heavy into affiliate marketing will typically have a resources page with a ton of their affiliate offers on it (just like I do).
You can hover over any product you see listed on their resources page or in blog articles to confirm that it's an affiliate link...
As you can see, Pat is using the pretty link strategy I mentioned to redirect URLs on his site to his affiliate link.
Whenever you see a branded URL, it's almost certainly an affiliate link. There would be no other reason to create a branded URL and redirect.
If the URL said "https://bluehost.com" and nothing else, it's not an affiliate link. If it says something like "https://bluehost.com?ref=xxxxx" or any other type of parameters, then it's probably an affiliate link.
Aside from the resources page, you can also look in the sidebar of their blog. That's another popular area where bloggers will put product mentions that they're affiliated with.
Last, but not least, join their email list. If they're a top affiliate player, they're certainly going to be promoting their best affiliate offers through email. You get bonus points for doing this because you'll get to see how they're promoting the offers as well. Take note of the copy they use, the angles, the appeals to emotion, etc.
Once you've got a few solid affiliate products lined up, it's time to promote...
Step #4: Promote the Products & Rake in Commissions
If you think that all you have to do to earn commissions is mention your affiliate products to people and shoot them links then you're sorely mistaken.
If affiliate marketing were that easy, we'd all be raking in the dough.
Alas, it's not, so you're going to have to put in a legit effort. Not just to sell your affiliate products, but to build an audience in the first place.
Never do this...
What you can't do is start plastering your affiliate link everywhere.
I see this all the time. People will go to Reddit or join a Facebook group or something and just start dropping affiliate links on people's threads like an American WWII pilot passing over Hiroshima.
Or they'll create some bullshit trickery-style thread that says something like, "Have you guys ever tired XYZ? Is it better than ABC?" and they'll use their affiliate link to direct people to XYZ to siphon off the small percent of people who might buy.
Don't do this nonsense. It's spam. It'll get you banned from most places. It'll tarnish your brand and your ability to network. And if the companies you're an affiliate for find out you're doing it they're highly likely to shut down your affiliate account.
Instead, pretend you're the marketing department of the product you're promoting.
If you want to rake in six figures from your affiliate marketing efforts, you're going to need to establish what basically amounts to the infrastructure for a real online business.
At the minimum, these three basic things...
- A website (see: How to Build a Website From Scratch with WordPress).
- A digital marketing strategy (see: The Ultimate Digital Marketing Strategy Guide).
- An email list (see: 7 Features Your Email Marketing Software Must Have in 2018).
As I mentioned in How to Make Money Online: The Ultimate Guide for Entrepreneurs, & Side Hustlers, you have to find ways to get and keep people's attention.
Content marketing is one of the best ways to get attention and email marketing is one of the best ways to sell. Beyond that, though, here are some strategies that work really well for affiliate marketing specifically...
Do product reviews.
It doesn't matter whether you're doing written reviews on your blog, video reviews on YouTube, or audio reviews on a podcast – reviews are a really powerful way to drive affiliate sales.
I mentioned Chase Reeves earlier and how he's killing it with reviews on YouTube. Here's an example of one of his video reviews...
For starters, people who are interested in hearing about a review for a specific product are probably already on the fence about buying that product. If your review pushes them off the fence, they're likely to buy through whatever link you include in your review. You earn the commission for getting them off the fence (this is exactly why affiliate programs are valuable to the companies that provide them).
The only thing to keep in mind here is that your reviews need to be honest. This should be easy if you only promote products you actually use and believe in.
There are a lot of affiliate marketers who create fake reviews and promote products they've never used, but they don't tend to last very long. It's not a good long-term play and it's very likely to damage your reputation.
Do product comparisons.
Aside from reviews, you can do product comparisons as well. These are very helpful for people who are deciding between two similar products or services.
Here's an example of a comparison video, again from a YouTuber...
It's such a simple concept. And as is true with reviews, product comparisons help people get off the fence and commit to the sale (through your link since you were the one that helped them decide).
You don't have to use fancy videos to do comparisons like this either. I recently published a Stripe vs Square payment processor comparison – it's a perfect example of a product comparison that's not video-based.
Do product demonstrations.
One of the ways Russell Brunson grew Clickfunnels so quickly is through product demonstrations. He created this event called "funnel Fridays" where he built out real funnels in record time using his ClickFunnels software...
Follow how this works...
- Someone watches you use something.
- While watching you, they realize how awesome that thing is and how much they need it.
- You tell them where they can get it.
So simple, right?
Bonus points if you can be educational or entertaining during the demo. Funnel Friday's isn't just about ClickFunnels, it's about funnel building as well. You can literally learn from the master of funnels himself, completely free.
ClickFunnels isn't necessary to build funnels, but if you spend every Friday with Russell and watch him use that software over and over again, you're bound to want to use his software when you decide to build funnels of your own.
Now Russell isn't an affiliate of ClickFunnels, right? It's his actual business. But again, as an affiliate, what's stopping you from doing demonstrations just like that and converting people into buyers through your affiliate link?
Nothing! The answer is nothing! Snap to it.
Publish a case study.
I wrote a really in-depth article about the results I was getting from an email marketing opt-in strategy called "content upgrades."
Now, Convertkit wasn't *necessary* for me to get those results, but Convertkit's software certainly made the process a lot easier. So, I highlighted the role Convertkit played very heavily throughout the article, which teaches people how to use content upgrades to grow their list.
Yes, this is technically a demo of sorts, but it's also a case study because it's highlighting real-world results that I was able to get.
Case studies are very powerful conversion tools because they help people understand the value that something can provide, especially if you can help them imagine themselves getting the same results.
Demonstrate what happens when someone doesn't use the product or service.
I used a "here's what happens when you don't use a service like this" video to promote my own service, Keyword Cheetah – a service that does SEO research and content outlining for bloggers and small businesses...
But guess what? One of my affiliates could have made this exact kind of content and used it to promote Keyword Cheetah with their affiliate link.
This is such an important point for you to understand. Actually, it's two points...
- Sometimes companies are killing it with their marketing and doing all the right things. Well guess what? There's nothing stopping you from creating the same kinds of campaigns for them yourself as a third party and find the same kind of success!
- Sometimes companies aren't doing what they should be doing for marketing. If that's the case, pick up the slack and rake in the commissions!
Like I said, think like a marketing department!
Give bonuses or create companion offers.
This is one of the best ways to encourage people to take action on your affiliate offers.
Let's say you have something of value that you could theoretically sell. But let's say that thing is related to a product or service that you're an affiliate for. Following so far?
You can get tons of affiliate sales by taking that thing you could theoretically sell and offering it to people as a free bonus/upgrade to people who buy the related thing you're an affiliate for.
I'll give you a real-world example...
Let's say you have a photography education blog and you promote various cameras as an affiliate and get a 4% commission on camera sales.
Let's say that you also have a portrait photography e-book you could sell for $27 (or maybe you even *do* sell it for $27 – that's fine too).
Look at how you can come out ahead by telling people, "If you purchase your new DSLR camera through my affiliate link, I'll give you my portrait photography e-book absolutely free."
The average DSLR costs between $850 and $3500. If someone buys a lower end DSLR, you make a $34 commission (more than your guide would have sold for). If they buy an upper end DSLR, you make $140 (way more than your guide sells for).
This can work on a larger scale, too. I've sold other people's $3000 courses for a 50% commission by offering one of my own $500 courses as an included bonus. In effect, I made an extra $1000 on every one of those sales than I would have made selling my own program alone.
Don't underestimate the power of bonuses and companion offers.
Combine your content efforts with sound SEO research.
Content marketing + affiliate marketing is a powerful combination.
Content marketing + affiliate marketing + SEO is an unstoppable combination.
Remember the "product comparison" strategy I mentioned earlier? Let's use that as an example.
I told you that I published a comparison article on payment processors (Stripe vs Square). Why did I do a comparison between those two when there are so many others I could have chosen?
Because I did the proper research and discovered that the keyword "stripe vs square" won't be difficult to rank for and has the potential to send 500+ visitors to my article every single month. That means – assuming I can get my article to rank – that hundreds of people will see my article every single month and potentially sign up for Square, which I'm an affiliate for.
Now, I could have written other comparisons that people aren't really searching for and tried to promote those comparisons via social media and stuff, but that would require constant promotion. Or it would require me promoting that comparison article with paid ads (something many affiliate marketers do if the numbers make sense).
If I rank organically for a comparison term that sends hundreds of visitors a month from organic search, I'll make sales off that comparison article for years to come. As long as that term is popular and as long as I rank for it, it's like free ongoing revenue – truly passive income.
Not only that, but the people that don't buy still might end up joining my email list. They'll continue to follow me and there's a good chance they'll buy something from me down the line. Targeted organic traffic is valuable in a number of ways!
Now, how did I do the research? There's two paths you can take...
- I teach my SEO process in Six-Figure SEO – you can learn to do it yourself.
- You can just let Keyword Cheetah do the time-consuming research for you every month so you can focus on what you do best – creating quality content.
The bottom line is that if you're not combining your content marketing and affiliate marketing efforts with SEO and sound keyword research, you're leaving tons of money on the table.
Step #5: Re-invest
If you really want to grow your affiliate marketing efforts into something serious and sustainable, it's important to re-invest the revenue you're bringing in. Again, it's no different from running a real business.
If you look at the top affiliate players like Pat Flynn and Rae Hoffman you'll see that they invest a ton of money in their businesses. They pay for premium apps, premium hosting, and even a team of people to help run their online empires.
One of the best ways to get consistent with re-investing is through the Profit First accounting method. All the money you place into your "operating expenses" account (twice a month if you're following the system) gets re-invested in marketing, advertising, tools, platform, team, etc.
The more you can afford to re-invest, especially in the early stages, the faster you'll grow.
Notice I mentioned advertising. While that starts to get into advanced affiliate marketing territory, it's something you should at least experiment with.
You can re-invest into paid advertising to see if you can either:
- Grow your email list.
- Get direct sales.
Sometimes you can run ads to affiliate offers and make out like a bandit straight away. It depends on how good you are at advertising and how good the product is.
That's not the only option, though. You can use various advertising strategies to grow your email list and your audience in general and then earn affiliate commissions somewhere on the back end from your email marketing efforts and such.
The point is that you're "investing in testing." That's what successful entrepreneurs do. You can't just pocket all the money and expect your efforts to continue to scale on their own.
Is it possible to make 6 and even 7 figures from affiliate marketing? Absolutely.
Is it easy? Well...let's just say it's easy to get started. It's easy to make a few sales. And that should be your initial focus.
Get your feet wet. Play with the game a little bit. Push some buttons. The best way to figure this stuff out is by doing it. You can sit around brainstorming all you want, but all your fun little theories are going to go out the window once you actually start interacting with the market.
My biggest takeaway for you is this: treat your affiliate marketing efforts like a real business. You have the advantage of not having to create products and service customers, but that doesn't mean you're not running a business or building a brand.
The more you treat it like a business, the more passionate you are about building an audience, and the more you build a brand around your efforts, the more successful you'll be.
Good luck! If you have questions about affiliate marketing, drop them in the comments below.