How affiliate marketing works and how to make money

13 min read
Will Stevens

Affiliate marketing is one of the most established ways of making money on the web, but if you’re new to doing business online, it may be a field you’re not familiar with. Affiliate marketing works by rewarding people who generate sales for established businesses, and that reward usually takes the form of a monetary reward.

In this guide, we’ll look at the basics of affiliate marketing, how it works and how you can use it to make money.

Affiliate marketing: How it works

Affiliate marketing is the process of generating income by sending traffic (or referrals) to an online retailer.

Typically, the income generated is a percentage of the retailer’s sale price. So, for example, if an affiliate marketer sends a customer (often called a lead) to a retailer who buys a product worth £100, and the commission is 3%, then the affiliate marketer will earn £3.

(The method used to calculate commission can vary, but each retailer will explain the method it uses on the affiliate section of its site.)

How will the retailer know that you’ve helped them generate the sale?

Well, everyone who becomes part of an affiliate programme is given a unique tracking code.

Affiliate marketers include this code in links to the retailer’s products/services (such links are often called affiliate links) and so the retailer can then correctly pay commission.

How to make money affiliate marketing

  1. Find an affiliate niche that you’re passionate about
  2. Find affiliate marketing schemes to join
  3. Create a website and start creating content based on your affiliate niche
  4. Work on your site’s search engine optimization so you show up in search engine results for relevant search terms
  5. Set up social media profiles and consider paid promotion
  6. Sign up for relevant affiliate programmes and include their links in your content
  7. Build your own email list
  8. Be patient

Let’s look at each of these points in more detail:

1. Find an affiliate niche that you’re passionate about

If you set out in a field you’re not interested in, you’re probably going to get bored and give up. Finding a niche that interests you will help you get stay engaged and increase your chances of success.

Choosing an affiliate niche can feel like a major challenge, especially if you’re not sure what affiliate programmes are available.

However, as large ecommerce sites like Amazon offer affiliate schemes, if you can think of a topic, it’s probably likely you can create your own profitable affiliate website for it.

Here’s a quick list of yes/no questions you can use to decide if an affiliate niche is right for you.

  1. Are you interested enough in the topic to create content about it?
  2. Does the topic attract a sizeable audience?
  3. Will you be able to attract a portion of that audience?
  4. Is there an affiliate scheme that will let your make money from that audience?

If you can answer yes to all these questions, you’re on to a winner. If you’re not sure that a topic has a large enough audience, brainstorm closely related topics which you can add into the mix.

2. Find affiliate marketing schemes to join

If you’re new to affiliate marketing, it can feel hard to identify the right affiliate schemes. But it’s easier than you think.

A quick way to discover if a company has an affiliate marketing scheme is by Googling “[business name] affiliate marketing programme”. This should help you find the affiliate marketing scheme of the business in question.

You can also try “[niche] affiliate marketing programme” and related variations. This may bring up some business’s affiliate marketing schemes and it will also probably bring up some blog posts listing affiliate schemes.

Many major companies run their own affiliate programmes, although you’ll find some have outsourced things to specialist companies.

Here are some great places to find products and services to promote as an affiliate marketer:

  • Amazon Associates: The online shopping giant offers an affiliate programme, so you’re bound to find a product that fits your niche.
  • CJ Affiliate: An affiliate network which manages affiliate services for a large number of big brands.
  • Clickbank: Another network which offers access to affiliate programmes across a wide range of niches.
  • Rakuten Marketing: Another large affiliate network.
  • GoDaddy Programme: We offer an affiliate programme covering our products.

These sites, combined with Google, should allow you to find an affiliate scheme in almost any niche.

When you do find a scheme and want to join, make sure you fully understand its rules and stick to them when attracting leads.

You may also find that some schemes only want established sites. If that’s the case, you may have to try elsewhere.

3. Sign up for the affiliate programmes you’re interested in and learn how they work

Sign up for any affiliate schemes you’re interested in. You may find that there are qualification criteria. If you don’t meet these, you’ll have to delay your application until you do.

You’ll also need to get to grips with the way the affiliate scheme you’ve signed up for works.

Aside from any rules governing how you can attract leads, you’ll also need to understand how to create the affiliate links you’ll include in your content and how the programme calculates pay-outs.

4. Create a website and start planning content based on your niche

Technically, it is possible to make money affiliate marketing without a website, but having a website will probably make things easier. So, get a website up and running (something like a simple WordPress blog is a good place to start).

The exact kind of content you create will depend on the kind of niche you’re operating in. Usually though, you’ll be creating something like in-depth guides that include affiliate links.

For example, if you’re in the outdoor activities niche, you might create in depth reviews of things like backpacks, walking shoes and more. You can then include affiliate links which people interested in buying the products you’ve reviewed can click on.

You’ll also need to work out how you’ll get people to read your content and for this reason it makes sense to work with search engine optimization (SEO) in mind (see below.)

You’ll also need to plan and create the basic content of your website, including a homepage, an “about us” page, navigational content and more.

If you haven’t created a website before, check out this guide to getting your first website online.

5. Work on your site’s search engine optimization so you show up in search engine results for relevant search terms

SEO is vital if you want to attract people to your website over the long term. It’s a complicated subject, but one area that is particularly important is keyword research as this will help ensure you’re writing about the right topics.

Essentially, you’ll need to work out what keywords people in your target niche use when they use search engines and then create content which matches up with those keywords.

You’ll also need to make sure search engines can access and understand your website.

You can learn about website keywords in this guide. You can also find a general beginner’s guide to SEO here.

6. Set up social media profiles and consider paid promotion

Social media is likely to be another important way of attracting people to your affiliate website, so it pays to set up profiles early on. You should also examine the possibilities for paid social media promotion, although you probably won’t want to start a campaign until you have your affiliate links in place.

7. Build your own email list

Building your own email list gives you a chance to stay in touch with people who’ve visited your website, giving you extra chances to make affiliate sales.

If you can send relevant news and offers to people who have signed up for your emails, then there’s the potential for a steady stream of income. Getting people to sign up to your list can be tricky (you’ll have to get them to your website first), but this advice on creating your first email marketing list will help. You’ll also need to sign up to a tool like GoDaddy Email Marketing.

Consider giving something away, such as an ebook guide, to encourage people to sign up for your mailing list. The more people you can get to sign up, the more chances you’ll have to make affiliate sales.

Remember though, you’ll need to be clear about what people are signing up for when they join your mailing list, as otherwise you could be in breach of data protection rules.

8. Be patient

It takes time to build up a good affiliate marketing website, and it takes time for search engines to rank content. Don’t expect to make a fortune overnight. Keep going, and after a few months you should start to see results.

That’s the basics covered, now for a deeper dive on getting started with affiliate marketing.

How do I get started in affiliate marketing – a checklist

Have I worked out what I’m interested in? – It’s easier to run a successful affiliate marketing campaign if you’re promoting products/services you’re passionate about.

Have I considered what affiliate programmes are available? – Making sure there’s a suitable affiliate partner for your chosen niche is key.

Are enough people interested? – If you decide on a nice that hardly anyone is interested in, you could struggle to make money.

Have I checked out the competition? – A competitive niche indicates that there’s money to be made, but you may struggle to make your mark as a new affiliate. However, no competition likely indicates that people aren’t interested in that particular niche. You’ll probably have to try and strike a balance between the two extremes.

Have I set up my own website? – Having your own website is crucial if you’re planning on attracting leads via search engines. If you can create content that ranks well in search engines for terms relating to your chosen affiliate niche, then people will click those results, read your content and click on your affiliate links. You can learn how to make a website in this guide, or jump right in and start using GoDaddy’s Website Builder.

Am I ready to start building my email marketing list? – Email marketing can help boost your affiliate marketing returns in the long run. 

Have I set up my social media profiles? – Social media is a great source of potential leads and you can use it to promote either your affiliate links directly, or your website. (Or both.) The advantage of promoting your affiliate links is that it reduces the number of steps required for someone to complete that crucial sale, but if you promote your website you have the chance to build a long-term relationship with people (through your email marketing list).

Have I started planning and creating content? – Your content, whether it’s on your website, your social media profiles or in your emails, is what will encourage people to click your affiliate links. You can’t make money through affiliate marketing without it.

Have I checked and understood the rules and laws I need to comply with? - Be sure that any technique you use as part of your affiliate marketing efforts complies with GDPR, and with the rules of the affiliate scheme(s) you’ve signed up for.

Once you can answer yes to all of the above, you’re ready to start attracting traffic to your affiliate website and content

Traffic is crucial to affiliate marketers, without it you won’t make any money. But you need to attract the right kind of traffic in the right kind of way.

Here’s how to do it.

Develop customer personas

If you just try and attract as many people as possible to click on your affiliate links, then the chances are that very few of them will generate commission for you. Instead, you should focus your efforts on attracting the people most likely to be interested in the products/services you’re promoting. The best way to do that is by understanding what kind of person is interested in the products/services you’re promoting and then tailoring your content to appeal to them. You can learn how to do this in this guide to developing customer personas.

Get to grips with SEO

You probably did some keyword research when deciding on your niche, but a solid understanding of SEO will help you develop a steady stream of traffic to your website. (Just don’t expect instant results.) This guide will help you get started with SEO and improving your rankings.

Use paid advertising

Paid advertising is a great way to attract traffic to your affiliate website in its early days. And with powerful targeting options available, you can attract the right kind of person with relative ease. However, it’s easy to get paid advertising wrong, and to spend more than you make. You can learn about getting started with paid advertising in this guide.

Create engaging content

Content will be a hugely important part of your affiliate marketing efforts. It might be blog posts, reviews, in depth guides, ebooks, infographics or something else, but the content you create for your website will be one of the main ways you attract people’s attention. You can learn about creating website content in this guide. Then there’s the content you’ll need to create for social media, and the emails you send. You can get started with social content in this guide, and learn about writing email content in this guide. Finally, this guide to content marketing will help you create content that gets attention.

Summing up

Start by identifying the affiliate niche you’re interested in. Once you’ve done that, you can find relevant affiliate schemes to join. Then, you can create your website and content. Finally, you need to work on promoting your website to attract traffic.