Affiliate marketing, the low-budget cousin of the retail industry, has had a long and somewhat checkered past, often associated with black-hat SEO and get-rich-quick courses that promise untold wealth from selling other companies’ goods and services. At its most basic definition, affiliate marketing takes retail, strips out all of the fulfillment and product development aspects of it, and leaves us with marketing only, delegating the operational side to other people.
For those with superior marketing skills, it would seem a perfect business. For retailers with actual products to sell, it’s an easy way to quickly gain a very large commission-based sales force. So is affiliate marketing the match made in heaven that it purports to be?
The get-rich-quick dilemma
Becoming an affiliate is fairly simple, or at least, it sounds like it should be – create a website, sign up with one or more of several affiliate marketplaces, place links on your new site and wait for commissions. The apparent simplicity of the initial mechanics however, gives rise to a get-rich-quick mentality among those who don’t realize that there is actual work involved – and that an affiliate marketing business requires just as much time and attention, if not more, than operating any other sales channel.
Yes, one can create a passable website in a few hours. Signing up with an affiliate network is as easy as filling out a simple online form, and the system will automatically generate the HTML for you to place on your website. But the ease with which one can accomplish these tasks is deceiving, and just because you have a website with affiliate links, doesn’t mean you will ever make a dime, no matter how wonderful the product or how clever your chosen domain name. The real work comes after you’ve set up that basic infrastructure, and there is a lot more to do after you’ve set up the initial framework.
Every new entrepreneur wants a “set it and forget it” business in a box, which makes money while you sleep. It doesn’t exist.
Rather than thin sites packed with money links, affiliate marketers are putting much more effort into their creations, sometimes creating very rich, interactive sites with journalistic-quality articles and vibrant user-generated content and forums which appeal to a very specific and loyal niche audience. The actual affiliate links are secondary to the social and journalistic aspects of the site, which is what builds meaningful traffic.
New rule for affiliate marketing #1: No more thin sites
Affiliate marketers create SEO tailored towards “best” keyword phrases, like “best ballpoint pens,” “best multivitamins” and best everything else, thinking – incorrectly – that the inbound and mechanical SEO alone is enough to make a business. That sort of keyword trickery may drive some clicks to the website, and marketers will incorrectly believe that if they drive traffic to the affiliate site, then they win.
Driving traffic to the site is less than half the battle – and what fewer marketers realize is that traffic does no good if people come to a website and there’s nothing there but a page full of links and some thin content. You can for example, easily create a “top ten ball point pens” website with ten affiliate links to ten different ballpoint pen vendors, come up with a clever domain name, and do some SEO probably in a day’s time, and website gurus are still teaching that method to unsuspecting students who try and almost always fail. The days when SEO alone results in actual sales are long gone.
Consumers have gotten accustomed to getting rich information – information that actually means something besides a random person on the internet saying, “here are the best of.” Consumers have easy access to information, and lots of it, and are very likely to spend some time doing their own research before making a purchase. They’re not going to trust you when you say, “these are the best.” They might trust you though, if you present actual unbiased studies, articles written by industry experts instead of SEO content writers sourced from a content mill, and links to high-value external sources. No, you’re not going to create a website with that sort of information in a single day – but you will make real sales.
New rule for affiliate marketing #2: Encourage visitors to participate
The best affiliate marketing websites don’t even look like affiliate marketing websites. Rather than a plain billboard site with links – which seldom generates much revenue – savvy marketers create a more interactive site with user participation and user-generated content.
“Consumers pay much more attention to their peers than they do marketers,” said Michael Pierce, founder of EquipBoard, the world’s largest database of artists and the equipment they use. “Sites with an SEO-heavy traffic model may generate a lot of one-time traffic, but those sites which have a high user participation factor will get return traffic – and return customers.”
According to Pierce, the affiliate end of the business should never come first. “We built EquipBoard to fill a real need, which was to establish a forum where musicians could find information about the equipment other artists use. Musicians, probably more than any other target audience, appreciate going somewhere with a real connection. I envisioned a big music store, where the salespeople are musicians themselves and are well-versed in the most arcane points of the industry and its history, where you can walk in and not just buy a guitar, but you can buy the exact same guitar used by your favorite musician for a specific piece of music, and have a great conversation with someone in the process. It’s highly participatory, and that’s the value. The affiliate marketing comes second, once you have delivered that value.”
New rule for affiliate marketing #3: Creating a real voice
Another major mistake is to believe that an affiliate marketing site can be boilerplate, and would-be entrepreneurs sometimes simply follow a template which contains no information as to who created the site, what their company is all about, and what their goals are, often leaving out any type of contact information. If a contact box is included, it is often anonymized.
Nobody in today’s new era of e-commerce wants to buy something from an anonymous website. If you’re afraid to put your name on your new company’s website, then you’re doing something wrong.
Does your website’s voice come from a template and some boilerplate text written by an anonymous SEO content writer you found online who you know only by their provider handle of “GoodSEO7258”? You may be able to get traffic to the site, but nobody will want to read it once they get there. “Successful affiliate sites have an honest and real voice,” said Pierce. “That holds true not just for content on the site, but for quotes and brand mentions on external sites as well.