The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Affiliate Marketing
While these principles will apply to any industry and any business the specific examples given are relevant to the firearm industry.
Anyone who provides a service or product to a customer can benefit from affiliate marketing. You might be an online content creator leveraging blogging, YouTube, or Instagram. Perhaps you are a service provider who teaches classes, visits clients in their homes, or has some other direct connection with the customer.
Regardless, you know that the only way to increase revenue is to get more customers and to get more money from each customer. Affiliate marketing is primarily a tool to increase revenue per customer but doing so indirectly supports getting more customers as your ability to pay more to acquire a customer increases.
What is Affiliate Marketing
Affiliate Marketing is the effort of promoting offers, products, and services from other companies in exchange for a commission when you refer a sale or lead. Think of an affiliate program as a digital online equivalent of a traditional referral program.
A company that sells a product or service can choose to offer an affiliate program. Some do, but many do not.
Some businesses exclusively rely on affiliate revenue as their only source of revenue. For other companies, it becomes a supplement to other revenue.
For example, in the firearm industry, a lot of affiliates primarily earn their money as firearm instructors or as content creators on YouTube or a major blog or website.
Expectations & The Numbers
I think one of the biggest challenges in Affiliate Marketing is that a lot of people approach it with poor and incorrect expectations about how much revenue it can generate.
Let's begin by exploring some numbers. For the purpose of this example, let's assume that you the affiliate have an email list of 100,000 people. If you prefer you can think of it as a Facebook page followed by 100k people or the total number of students you see over the course of the year, etc.
If you email an affiliate offer to 100,000 people you obviously can't expect that all 100,000 will open the email right?
A good open rate for an email list of that size would be 20%. 20% of 100k is 20,000 people.
So 20,000 people open the email. You don't expect all 20,000 to click the link to take a closer look at the offer/product right?
A good click-through rate for email would be 5%. 5% of 20,000 is 1,000 clickers.
If 1000 people go to the product/offer page you don't expect all 1,000 to purchase the product do you?
A good “conversion rate” would be about 5%. 5% of 1000 is 50 buyers.
So in this example, you started with an email list of 100,000 people, and even with the best of open rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates ended up with only 50 customers. Averages would be much lower.
Most people getting started in affiliate marketing don't have an email list of 100,000 people. Most don't have a YouTube channel with 100,000 subscribers or a Facebook page with 100,000 likes, or a regular audience of 100,000 people anywhere.
Does that mean it isn't worth investing time and energy into affiliate marketing?
No, it doesn't mean that. Affiliate marketing is absolutely a good idea for anyone but understanding these expectations in terms of open/visibility rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates will serve to both keep your expectations in check while also incentivizing you to grow your audience.
At the core of affiliate marketing is consistent promotion balanced with audience growth activities.
The Concept of ROI and Scale
Imagine the following example:
Marketer A spends 30 minutes each week putting together an email to send to his email list of 3000 people.
Marketer B spends 30 minutes each week putting together an email to send to his email list of 300,000 people.
Which marketer invested more time? Which marketer will see a greater ROI from his time spent?
Both spent the same amount of time each week putting together and sending an email with an affiliate offer/link. The marketer with a larger audience just makes more money from the same effort.
There are a few lessons to learn from my example.
1: Consistency matters. If you never take any action until you have a large audience you will never have a large engaged audience. This is a chicken and egg game and the marketer who is willing to invest the time to engage the audience even when the audience is small is going to reap the rewards as the audience grows. So in the case of email that means start sending email to your email list even if the list is small. It may feel like a poor use of time but over time you will be glad you established that relationship with the audience as the audience grows and your ROI from the same amount of effort increases.
2: Affiliate marketing is a long-term strategy, not a quick way to make extra money. That doesn't mean you aren't going to make any money until your audience is huge. It just means you have to be invested in doing the right activities consistently over time so you can watch the ROI grow without changing your activity level.
The Best Audiences are Live and Then Subscriptions
As you have learned from above, your ROI in affiliate marketing is going to be greatly influenced by the size of your audience. If then you are wondering where best to build that audience (blog, email, SMS, events, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc) that is the next thing we are going to explore.
The best audience is a live audience. When you are looking at someone in the face and tell them you really like a product and that they really need it and you can potentially hold up said product and demonstrate it; that is going to be the highest conversion rate of any audience you can build. This is why Webinars are so heavily utilized in marketing.
The challenge with live audiences is they are limited in scale.
If for example, you are a firearm instructor, you aren't likely to see more than 2500 students a year. That would be a solid firearm instruction business but even after 10 years you have only seen 25,000 students. That is respectable but even with the increased engagement and conversion rates, you can't only drive so much volume doing that.
The other challenge with Live audiences is your tendency to only see that customer once or on an infrequent frequency. So even if you build scale and saw 10,000 students a year you probably only see most of them once for 4-8 hours and you can only effectively drive so many offers in that limited amount of time.
The next best place to build an audience is anywhere that the potential customer can be subscribed to your messaging.
An email list for example is a subscription because when you send the email the customer gets notified. It shows up in their inbox.
SMS (text messaging) is also a subscription since when you send the message the customer is notified.
Some tools can be subscribed but aren't by default. For example, a follower/liker of your Facebook page or a subscriber to your YouTube channel will not automatically be notified when you publish new content but they can opt to be notified if they want. Then, those subscribers who turn on notifications become part of that true subscription-based audience that is most valuable.
Email marketing tends to be the major focus for most marketers because email is very inexpensive to send (compared to SMS for example) and the user is notified when the message is delivered. Everyone knows how to use email and the technology is readily available.
In addition to the audiences described above, there is also an opportunity to leverage the traffic to your website by utilizing banner ads that link to affiliate offers or including links in your blog posts and editorial that link to affiliate offers.
Banners have a notoriously low click-through rate but you have little to lose by adding one to existing white space that otherwise serves no function.
Headlines & Ad Copy Drive The Rates
One key to success in affiliate marketing is writing good ad copy. The quality of the copy used in the email, Facebook post, YouTube video, blog post, etc has a direct impact on the number of people who engage with the message, click-through to the sales page, and purchase.
Similarly, the headline has the same kind of impact. In an email the headline is the subject line, on YouTube, it is the title of the video, and on your blog, it is the title of the blog post. This single factor is the greatest leverage point you have in driving higher ROI.
In the case of an email, if you can increase the open rate then by extension you have a very strong impact on the number of people who click and the number of people who end up buying.
Many companies may provide their affiliate with pre-tested headlines and ad copy that you can copy/paste and use. These are often referred to as “swipe.” Most smaller companies do not provide tested and proven email/ad copy and they leave it up to their affiliates to develop those assets on their own.
Promote What You Believe In
The headline here says it all right? Do not promote products that you yourself wouldn't use just because you can make a few bucks.
Your lack of enthusiasm about the product or service itself will lead to either lame ad copy or disingenuous copy.
And remember there is something unethical about telling other people to buy a product you don't feel is good enough for you to use.
Affiliate marketing is in many ways an endorsement of a product or service. Be careful what you endorse.
Following Up From Transaction or Service Performed
One of the best ways to automate a stream of affiliate revenue is to build an automated sequence of emails to follow up with customers.
A customer is most primed to buy something new from you or someone that you recommend immediately after they consume or receive your product or service.
Firearm instructors for example leave a lot of revenue on the table when they fail to send automated emails to their students immediately following the class.
Map out a series of emails that would be ideal to send to your new customers and use those emails both to drive a stronger relationship, provide more valuable content, make suggestions about their next steps, and recommend products they can benefit from.
Affiliate Programs and How to Find Them
Now as you decide to move forward and increase your affiliate marketing efforts you need to find good affiliate programs that will compensate you for referring customers. Here are some places to find those programs and opportunities:
1: Your favorite products and vendors. You are already going to tell your customers about your favorite products right? Might as well make some money doing it. Contact those vendors and express an interest in joining their affiliate program if they have one.
If they don't have one they may be incentivized to create one if they receive a lot of requests.
2: Affiliate Networks. There are a number of 3rd party companies that work with thousands of vendors to manage their affiliate programs. By joining one of those networks you may quickly get access to a large number of vendors in one place. For example in the firearms industry, AvantLink.com has done a good job of forging relationships with many firearm-related retailers. As of this writing, AvantLink manages the affiliate programs for Brownells, Guns.com, Palmetto State Armory, Safariland, Sportsman's Warehouse, and many others.
Other affiliate networks include CJ.com and ShareASale.com.
3: Large eCommerce players in your industry. In the firearm industry for example this would be companies like Sportsman's Warehouse, Brownells, and in my humble opinion, ConcealedCarry.com.
These companies may offer a large number of products that you otherwise would not be able to promote as an affiliate but all in one place.
4: Amazon. Amazon as the largest online retailer in the country is a great fallback affiliate option. Their affiliate program is horrible in terms of the commission levels but if you want to promote a product and there is no affiliate program anywhere else that will pay you for promoting it Amazon is a good last resort.
Understanding Cookies and Affiliate Tracking Technology
Not all affiliate programs are equal and knowing which ones are best and that you would most like to work with starts with understanding, at least at a basic level, how the technology behind affiliate programs works.
As an affiliate, you will be provided with an affiliate link. This link includes some sort of parameter (string of letters and/or numbers) that identifies you as the referring affiliate. When someone clicks on that link they are directed to the vendor's website and a web cookie is installed on their browser.
The web cookie is just a piece of code that the vendor's website will reference to identify that this user was referred by you the affiliate. Purchases made by the user while the cookie is present will be attributed back to you the affiliate.
How about an example?
You are an affiliate of MountainManMedical.com. You share your affiliate link on your Facebook page to the Yellowstone Trauma Kit.
Someone clicks on your link and is redirected to MountainManMedical.com's Yellowstone kit product page. When the potential customer lands on the site, MountainManMedical places a snippet of code called a cookie into the browser that the user is using.
Now if that customer makes any purchase on MountainManMedical (of any product) the cookie will cause MountainManMedical to identify that the customer was referred by you and track and give you a referral commission for that purchase.
Cookies generally have an expiration date. Different affiliate programs have different lengths of time that the cookie stays in place and the longer it stays the better for the affiliate. In our above example imagine that the user doesn't purchase anything on their first visit. Instead, a few weeks go by and they decide they are ready to buy a Trauma kit. They go directly to MountainManMedical.com and buy the kit.
Even though on this particular visit to the website they did NOT come via your affiliate link you will still get credit because the cookie is still in their browser identifying you as the referring affiliate.
So the first thing I'm interested in knowing is how long do cookies last for any given affiliate program. 14 days is fairly standard. 30 days is on the longer end of what I generally see. 3 days is horrible and makes me think the vendor doesn't like their affiliates very much.
Affiliate reporting could be its own very long article so I'll just add that the more reporting the affiliate software provides you the better. You want to be able to track clicks and referrals but also ideally different campaigns. For example, if you get a referral did it come from the email you sent, the link you put on your Facebook page, or that banner ad you run on your blog? That level of detail isn't a make/break thing but it is nice for a more sophisticated affiliate marketer.
Shortening and Branding Links
Most affiliate links are really ugly. They are long and have sometimes random combinations of numbers and letters.
Of course, that generally doesn't matter in online contexts. In an email for example it doesn't matter how long or how ugly the link is when you hyperlink a set of words in the email.
However, when you share an affiliate link on a piece of printed marketing material, in a lesson or class, or in a podcast or video you need a link that people can understand and write down quickly without pain.
Option 1: Traditional link shortening tools like Bit.ly or tiny.url exists to help with this. You can take your affiliate link and use bit.ly to create a new shortened version of that link. Something like, bit.ly/jacobfavholster, etc. This is certainly better than long ugly links.
Option 2: A branded link. A branded link is a link from your own website that redirects to whatever other link you want. For example, I can create jacobspaulsen.com/amazon and have that redirect to my Amazon affiliate link. This gives me something that is clean, professional, and easy to give to my audience.
Created these branded links is going to vary in the process depending on your website builder and tools. I use WordPress and the Pretty Links plugin makes this really easy.
The Good Ole' Coupon Code
Beware the vendor who, when you ask if they have an affiliate program, they tell you they do and they just set you up a coupon code and that is how they track your referrals. Affiliate software doesn't work that way. That vendor is too lazy or too clueless to figure out how to setup real affiliate software to track your referrals.
Instead, they are committing to manually performing a search on a regular basis to find orders that include your coupon code and then pay you for them.
There are a few major concerns I have with this model:
1: No transparency. I don't have any reporting. Whatever they tell me I earned I guess I just have to believe them.
2: No performance tracking. Without having access to any data I have no idea what I did when that drove the sale. Hard to grow and scale what is working if I don't know what is working.
3: Human error. Even with the best intentions, they could just fail to check for my coupon code or fail to search properly or any number of other potential failures.
4: Customer error. The customer might buy based on your recommendation but fail to input the coupon code. It happens WAY MORE OFTEN than you think.
Now, if you so desperately want to provide the value of a discount to your customers that can be done without all those downsides mentioned above. First, the vendor needs to have a real affiliate platform. Software that generates an affiliate link that when used will be tracked and reported.
Then the coupon code just becomes another incentive you can give your customers but it isn't alone the means by which the sales are going to be tracked.
Here is how I recommend you manage this situation in which I have an affiliate link I want my audience to click on to ensure I get credit but I also have a coupon code I encourage them to use in order to claim a discount.
Step 1: Build a landing page on your website (or on the vendor's website if they are willing). On that landing page but a big button that says “SHOP NOW” (or similar) and links to your affiliate link. On that landing page also provide the coupon code with instructions that “to claim your discount click on the above button to go to the vendor's website and then add code “couponcode” to checkout.
Step 2: Don't give out the coupon code ever. The only way someone should ever get that code is by going to your landing page.
Step 3: When sharing this offer give users the link to your landing page ONLY.
Affiliate marketing is a great way to augment your revenue. Manage your expectations and focus on building your audience. Be consistent about promoting quality offers you believe in.
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