Affiliate marketing can seem like a bit of a minefield, especially when you’re starting out and don’t know which programmes you should be turning to.
An industry notorious with spam, independent affiliate schemes that collapse like a dying star and some with commission so low you might as well not bother. But, that’s not to say that this industry is dead. Far from it. Affiliate marketing, when done correctly, is an incredibly profitable and viable form of income both for the marketer and for the seller.
This guide is here to provide you with ten of my favourite programmes that have given (and continue to give) me consistent returns over the years. They’re also the most legitimate in the sense of dedicated account managers and a setup that means the owners won’t go running when it comes time to pay your commission.
So, before we get into it, why is choosing the right programme important? And, is affiliate marketing a way to make legitimate money in 2021? Oh and also, if you want to learn about setting your own strategy together, get in touch regarding bespoke SEO training. Shameless plug aside, on with the guide…
Choosing the right programme
For me, it’s all about the scope of the programme and the diversity it offers, as well as the fact there is a team behind it to ensure that you’re not being ripped-off for the traffic and sales you refer.
This isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t work with private programmes. Personally, I’ve gone to private stores and sellers when the commissions were just too low on something like Amazon. But, more often than not, you can run into issues, so as a beginner it’s just much easier to stick to an established platform that has both multiple stores for whatever niche(s) you choose, and dedicated account managers and assistance if you do run into any issues.
Can you still make money with a website & affiliate marketing?
As the term ‘affiliate marketing’ could refer to you simply sharing a link through social media, I’ve chosen these programmes based on the ones I’ve used when marketing a website, and growing an audience through organic SEO.
But yes, of course you can. My issue is that anything to do with affiliates is classed as either get rich quick or passive, and it’s certainly neither of these two things.
Yes, you can use things like expired domains to speed-up the process of getting traffic, but there’s never truly any form of digital asset that is 100% passive. If you haven’t yet got a website and don’t know where to start, I would impart the following advice that I wish I had taken on board when starting out:
- Choose a niche you are interested in if you’re going to be writing the content yourself. Otherwise, this is going to become very tedious. If you have someone ready to write content for you who knows the niche or sector, then this isn’t as much of an issue.
- Research the sellers on platforms such as the below prior to writing content or choosing a niche. You’re going to need at least 2 or 3 options of different sites you can promote in the sector, so choose wisely.
- Don’t forget you can also make money through things like sponsored posts, banner ads and link insertions. Your battle is putting together a content and link building strategy to get traffic to the site. Once the traffic is there, there are tons of monetisation options, of which affiliate marketing is one.
Okay, let’s get down to the programmes you should get signed up to if you’re just starting out.
My top ten affiliate programmes and networks for beginners
With a network of more than 15,000 brands for you to choose from, ranging across all sectors from fashion to finance, Awin offers huge potential for any serious content creator.
As well as having household names such as ASOS, Aviva, Tripadvisor and MyProtein on the merchant roster, there are plenty of challenger brands and more niche businesses signed up too.
Awin has plenty of integrated tools to make your life easier as a content publisher. For instance, activating the Convert-a-Link tool means that your links will automatically be converted to affiliate tracking links, without the need for you to fiddle around and set them yourself.
Then there’s the Opportunity Marketplace, where you can advertise yourself to potential advertisers, who will be able to see exactly what your niches and sectors are, the kinds of user numbers and demographics your site is pulling in, and so on.
Although you won’t get a dedicated account manager, you will have Awin’s Expert Support team behind you, who will proactively help you maximise your commercial advantage, as well as answering any queries you have. As Awin is worldwide, the support staff is diverse and focuses on local expertise – which is vital.
And of course, you’ll have a full reporting suite to give you the data and insights to keep optimising your affiliate activity.
The ShareASale website might look familiar, and that will be because it’s part of the Awin Group (Awin acquired ShareASale in 2017).
That said, the two platforms’ offerings and advantages are not one and the same: they are still distinct from one another, particularly in the markets they serve and the merchants they partner with. Whereas Awin is European in origin, ShareASale was founded in Chicago and is still based there, and is very much aimed at the North American market where brands and merchants are concerned.
Once signed up to ShareASale, you have to apply to each merchant that you would like to work with, but this is fairly standard practice for affiliate networks. For the same reason, your rate of commission will vary depending on the merchant in question.
One slight downside to ShareASale in comparison to Awin is the higher minimum payout figure. (FYI, if you don’t know already, the ‘minimum payout’ figure in affiliate marketing terms is the minimum amount of commission that you need to have generated before you can withdraw the funds. For example, if the minimum payout is $30, you will get paid when you’ve hit $30, then again at $60, then again at $90, but not in between.) ShareASale’s is currently $50, whereas Awin’s is just $20 – meaning that you would theoretically receive more regular payouts through Awin.
You may already be familiar with the general premise of Amazon Associates. If not, it’s probably what you are imagining now: getting paid to promote items on through your website.
Given Amazon’s colossal size and the many retail subsectors it caters for, this gives you plenty of choice on what to promote within your blog. It also extends beyond items sold directly by Amazon: the third-party sellers are included too.
As for commission, Amazon Affiliates is pretty clear-cut. You get a set percentage of the revenue you generate – but that does vary per product category. For example, you get a much higher percentage for furniture and homeware items than you do for games consoles, video games, CDs and other physical media items.
Crucially, you get commission on any sale that your affiliate link helps to generate: not just the item you have promoted directly. As an example, let’s say you promote a new bestseller book through an Amazon affiliate link on your blog. If the user goes through to Amazon and then ends up buying something else – let’s say a video game – you will receive the commission for that video game sale. If they buy both the book and the video game, you’ll get both. There are some caveats to that, of course: the purchase has to be made within the cookie duration (currently 24 hours), and the user can’t have already had the item(s) in their shopping basket.
As for minimum payout rate, it’s only $10, so it’s unsurprising that Amazon Associates is one of the world’s most popular affiliate programmes – and definitely worth considering if you sit within a lifestyle niche. If you want to avoid them completely, check out my guide to starting and marketing a website with only Amazon affiliate alternatives.
An affiliate marketing pioneer, CJ Affiliate was founded in 1998 in California. As such, it has spanned the entire history of ecommerce to date, and is still one of the biggest affiliate networks going.
In terms of sectors and niches, it’s pretty wide-ranging, with thousands of merchants signed up. As with many other popular affiliate programmes, you have to apply to each merchant that you want to collaborate with, which you can do via the CJ Affiliate dashboard once signed up. The commission rate does vary too, depending on the merchant, and the minimum payout figure is $50.
As well as having localised support staff to help you unlock opportunities in your territory, CJ Affiliate also has a dedicated content team that will give you guidance on general influencer marketing and content monetisation tactics. The dashboard itself has plenty of functionality to help you find relevant new partnerships and even automate some of your activity.
One USP to CJ is that it has a cookieless tracking system, which is definitely a bonus in the increasingly GDPR-conscious, privacy-focused world of today. This is thanks to the sophisticated tech that drives the CJ platform, which also offers all the analytics and insights that you’d expect from any affiliate dashboard.
Focused on meaningful relationship-building between brands and content creators, Webgains is an affiliate programme that you can grow with. They have a dedicated team that gives you ongoing coaching to help you strengthen your proposition as a publisher, all while earning some nice commission!
In terms of niches, Webgains covers pretty much every retail sector, with a focus on the following:
- Travel & Leisure
- Sports Performance
- Gadgets & Fintech
And there are currently more than 1,800 brands signed up, so there’s plenty of scope there for bloggers of all stripes.
You can monitor your content’s performance with Webgains’ Network Reporting tool, and as mentioned earlier, the team themselves will provide pointers on how to optimise going forward.
As for actually getting paid, the payment threshold is $25, and they have a good reputation for payment frequency, often delivered within a week.
Another affiliate veteran, ClickBank has more than 20 years of experience in working with publishers big and small – from large magazines to niche blogs.
The big distinction is that ClickBank tends to work with lesser-known brands and smaller merchants, and focuses more on digital products (such as software and ebooks) than a lot of its competitors.
Given this focus on digital products, ClickBank offers mouthwatering commission rates to its publishers – as high as 90% in some instances. And with a super-low minimum payout threshold of $10, it’s a difficult proposition to turn down if your niche is aligned with the kinds of merchants working with ClickBank. Plus, ClickBank has a solid, literally decades-old reputation for paying its marketers in full and on time.
However, bear in mind that these are challenger brands and outright startup brands that you’ll be promoting, a lot of them with unproven products. Although ClickBank insists that all new products are rigorously tested during the onboarding process, you’ll want to make sure that any product you do promote really is of satisfactory quality. If any sales that you assist in are refunded, you’ll have to pay back the commission you earned on those sales – so be sure that you’re backing the right products in the first place.
To put it in simple terms, eBay’s Partner Network is very much like Amazon Associates but, obviously, on eBay. It applies to both Buy-It-Now listings and auctions, and to both new and used products.
As a publisher, you’ll receive a flat percentage of the final selling price for every referral you generate. Slightly lower than Amazon’s rates, the fee is currently between 2% and 6%, depending on the product category.
The cookie duration is also the same as Amazon’s: 24 hours. As such, this means that promoting auction listings probably isn’t going to be viable for you. But as you’ll probably have noticed as an eBay user yourself, eBay is now much more than just an auction site for secondhand items: it’s a serious retail platform on which all kinds of big-name brands and retailers sell their products, as well as smaller brands and businesses that want to reach wider audiences.
On top of the diverse range of sellers and product categories, there’s the fact that eBay is a trusted platform. Shoppers know that they’ll get their money back no problem if they have any issues.
All of this means that, as a content creator, you will find plenty of relevant affiliate opportunities on eBay, and you’ll benefit from market-leading data and insights to help you maximise your activity.
Rakuten is one of the best-known names in affiliate marketing, and is a veteran of the game now, having been around since 2005. The company has won its share of industry awards in that time, as voted by publishers and merchants alike, such as mThink’s “Best Cost-Per-Sale Affiliate Networks” award, which it has now claimed for the last nine years and counting.
With an ever-increasing focus on partnership relevancy, Rakuten’s affiliate programme is one of the most forward-thinking and future-proof around. As they put it themselves, they’ve built their programme to help publishers and brands “make real connections that drive actual results”.
With several different commissioning models to choose from, Rakuten gives you more choice – and visibility – over how you monetise your content and what exactly you get paid for. From straightforward coupon commission, to multi-touch commissioning based on which part(s) of the customer journey you’ve influenced, you can find what works best for you.
Your Publisher Dashboard contains everything you need day-to-day, from prospecting and relationship management, through to data and reporting – but there’s also local support available too, helping you to further identify new opportunities and ensure that you adhere to local compliance regulations.
The merchant network has just over 1,000 retailers in it at present, so it’s not as large as most of the other programmes we’ve already covered, but this still gives you plenty of scope when it comes to sectors and retail niches. Plus, the brands do tend to be more big-time on Rakuten: the likes of Net-a-Porter, Molton Brown, Clarins and so on.
An advertising platform built for publishers big and small, Ezoic can help you make that first step in monetising your website’s content.
Powered by big data and machine learning, but with simple, user-friendly functionality, you can use Ezoic to automatically tailor your site’s advertising to each and every visitor – meaning greater ad relevance for your readers, at a scale that will always be impossible manually. In other words, it does all of the heavy lifting for you, while ensuring that your website remains as user-friendly as possible, without the intrusive, catch-all ads that ruin so many website experiences.
You have a choice of your top goals, such as “Maximize Revenue” or “Balance UX”, based on what your advertising objectives are, and the platform gets to work, making automatic adjustments as it goes.
At a reporting level, you’ll see clearly which pages of your site are driving the most revenue, as well as much more insights such as the best content topics, and the optimal word-counts for future content pieces.
Your first month on the platform is free; thereafter, for the ongoing Subscription option, you pay 10% of your monthly ad revenue to Ezoic. Included in that, though, is all the core features, global support, plus a dedicated account manager.
Take a look at my full Ezoic review for further insights.
Monetise is a UK-based, UK-centric affiliate network that works with many blue-chip advertisers and thousands of publishers across different sectors. The advertisers include Wowcher, Experian Paddy Power, Ladbrokes and more.
Providing convenient publisher tools through a user-friendly platform, Monetise makes it easy for you to generate and customise your affiliate links for accurate and reliable performance tracking, as well as creative resources such as banner ads and landing pages.
All of the traffic your content generates is accurately tracked in real time, to ensure that you receive credit for each and every customer conversion you trigger or assist with (this may be a purchase but it might also be another ‘action’, such as a newsletter sign-up).
As for data and reporting, this is all automated and accessible in real time, keeping you fully informed on your referral performance every step of the way. You can view the data by specified time periods, individual campaigns and other dimensions, so that you can uncover the insights you need to optimise your current activity and inform future campaigns.
Monetise is renowned for its fast payouts, its commitment to anti-fraud measures and its attentive customer support (both technical and commercial). Signing up as a publisher is free, and Monetise promises competitive commission rates.
Other programmes which I may revisit and expand upon, and also get an honourable mention:
- Etsy Affiliate
- Google Adsense
So, there you have it! If you have any questions please drop me a message below, or if you want to ask about my SEO consultancy services then by all means, enquire within!