A Guide to Expert-Curated Affiliate Marketing
While everybody has been rushing to create and sell online courses over the past several years many experts and edupreneurs have not considered the fact that their knowledge and experience puts them in a perfect position to showcase products that are valuable in the fields or industries they serve.
Think about it. You know your subject matter and you almost certainly know how people tend to put it use. What tools do they use? What services do they need to support them? What other training and education besides what you offer could be valuable?
As an expert, you probably already know the answers to these questions (or can with just a little research). Share the answers with your audience in the form of product recommendations and you may earn a commission whenever someone you refer from your audience makes a purchase.
How big an opportunity that represents will depend on factors like the size of your audience, your brand, the affiliate opportunities in the market you serve. But, as we’ll discuss, affiliate programs are usually very easy to join and implement. With some focused effort they can provide you with a steady amount of passive income.
Of course, affiliate marketing is not all unicorns and rainbows. Like any legitimate business model, it requires discipline and work. Moreover, participating in affiliate programs in conjunction with an expertise-based business requires a delicate touch if you’re going to be successful at making money without devaluing your brand or taking too much time away from other activities.
In this article, we’ll dive into how to strike the balance and successfully add expert-curated affiliate marketing to the ways you make money online.
What is Affiliate Marketing?
Okay, let’s back up a bit and make sure we’re clear about how the term “affiliate marketing” is being used here.
Affiliate marketing is the marketing of products and services created by others in return for a commission whenever someone you refer – usually through a trackable link – actually makes a purchase. Depending on the terms of the program, you can earn referral commissions for sales of specific items or, in some cases, for anything purchased through the same store.
Probably the best known example of an affiliate program is Amazon Associates. If you sign-up as an affiliate for the massive retailer, then you can generate a trackable link to pretty much any item in its entire catalog. Again, if someone clicks that link and then purchases the product, you’ll get a commission. In fact, on Amazon, if they click your link and then end up buying something else with 24 hours, you’ll still get a commission on whatever they ultimately buy.
Of courses, commission rates at Amazon tend to be quite low – below 5 percent in most cases – so unless you either drive a high volume of purchases or purchases of high-priced items, you are unlikely to make much money. Still, it’s an easy place to get started with affiliate marketing, and it makes for a good example.
Is Affiliate Marketing Ethical?
An issue that may prevent many expertise-based businesses from exploring affiliate marketing is that it can be perceived as somehow shady or sleazy. This is a case of “a few bad apples” spoiling the bunch.
Yes, there are certainly unethical affiliate marketers out there. The kind of people who will do just about anything they can to get you to click a link regardless of whether they know anything about the product they are promoting or whether it will be of real value to you. That is definitely not the kind of affiliate marketing I am recommending here.
My view is that an ethical affiliate marketer is a curator. I’ve defined curator on my Mission to Learn blog as some who does
the hard work of sifting through the content within a particular topic area, pulling out the items that seem to be most valuable for people interested in that topic area, and eliminating less valuable items
Replace “item” with “products and services” in the definition above and you have my view of what ethical affiliate marketing is. When you engage in this type of marketing as an expert who knows the needs of the field or industry you serve, then you are practicing what I call expert-curated affiliate marketing – ECAM, if you prefer.
Make no mistake: this is a service your audience members need. You can probably think of instances when your own life was made significantly easier by someone suggesting a product or service provider to you. A suggestion from a trusted source can reduce the amount of time you have to commit to doing research and significantly lower your stress around making a decision.
That’s the role you play – the service you provide – as an affiliate marketer, and in return, you earn a commission in cases where someone actually acts on your suggestion and makes a purchase.
Keep in mind, too, that being a curator does not mean that you have to personally use every product you highlight or suggest as an affiliate. In my view, that would be ridiculous. For example, I have decades of experience and expertise with online learning platforms. I know which ones are the best fit for particular purposes, which companies have a solid track record, etc. Of course, realistically, I’m only able to use one or two platforms personally at any given time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make useful suggestions covering a range of platforms for a range of needs. That’s simply the nature of my expertise and the value I bring to my audience. You can provide similar value to your audience.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should promote just any product. Even if you don’t personally use a product, as an ethical marketer you need to take the time to vet it and ensure that the quality seems good and that it truly fits the needs of your audience. Obviously, you want the people you refer to have a good experience and you want to be cautious about protecting your own brand.
How to Choose the Best Affiliate Programs
So, now that we are clear about what expert curated affiliate marketing is, how do you actually go about doing it?
Finding High-Paying Affiliate Programs
Deciding how to focus your affiliate efforts is often just a matter of simple math. The only way to generate significant income off of lower commission products is by driving a high volume of traffic to them. Unless you already have a very large e-mail list of good prospects for those products or very high traffic on relevant web pages that could be used for promoting them, this probably isn’t the best path for making significant affiliate income.
This doesn’t mean you should completely ignore products with low commission rates if they are truly valuable to your audience. After all, you should aim to be a curator, and those efforts will naturally include lower-commission offerings. But the core of your affiliate marketing strategy should be to find some flagship high-paying affiliate programs.
To do this, begin by thinking about products and services you are already familiar with and are happy to recommend to others. Ensure these match your field as an expert and the ways in which you engage with your audience.
Next, make a list of a dozen or so products and services that might be useful to your audience. This might include equipment you use, software that makes your work easier, or a related subscription site you really value. Out of the products and services you have listed, narrow your list down to ones that meet any or all of the following characteristics:
- High Purchase Price: This applies primarily to products that represent a one-time purchase (as opposed to a subscription or other recurring purchase model, as addressed below). “High” is relative, depending on the types of products and services that tend to get purchased in your area of expertise. If you consider that higher commission products pay somewhere between 15 and 25 percent, though, then it’s easy to see that you will usually want a purchase price north of $100 – usually way north – for a product to be worth the effort as an affiliate.
- Low Incremental Costs: This may be hard to gauge, but theless it costs a producer to create one additional unit of a product, the higher the profit margin – and, by extension, the higher your potential commission. Incremental costs tend to be much lower – even approaching zero – for most digital products. As a result, these products tend to pay the highest commissions. Physical products and services that require human labor, on the other hand, tend to pay much less.
- Recurring Purchase Model: This includes subscriptions, memberships, software licenses, and other purchases that get renewed on a month-to-month or year-to year basis. While the affiliate payout for a specific unit of time – e.g., a month – may be small, commissions can really add up over time.
Narrow your list down to products that seem to have one or more of the above characteristics and visit the websites of the companies that make them and/or do some searching to determine if there are affiliate programs for the products and services you have identified. Keep in mind that sometimes a business has an affiliate program available, but doesn’t make it easy to find. Businesses want to attract dedicated marketers, after all, and often weed out those who fall at this first hurdle.
In addition to company websites, be sure to check out major affiliate networks – basically, companies that put a bunch of affiliate programs under one roof and provide a platform for business to manage their programs. These include:
You may find a company you are looking for listed in a network and you may also find other product and service opportunities you had not thought of.
Commission Levels and Terms
Affiliate commission percentages vary considerably. As already noted, big retailers like Amazon often pay less than 5 percent for the majority of sales – particularly for physical products for which the profit margins are low. Retailers like this use affiliate programs as a very cheap form of marketing. For just pennies on the dollar, they can spread thousands of backlinks across the web and pay nothing until one of those links generates a sale. And because word of mouth advertising consistently outperforms other marketing methods, affiliate marketing usually raises overall sales revenue.
On the other hand, sellers of digital products – like software or online courses – may pay commissions of 20, 30, 40 percent, or more because their profit margins are high and affiliates represent a very low cost way to add incremental sales. In general, you can maximize your affiliate earning potential by looking for programs that cover digital products, including software as a service (SaaS) products.
It also pays to looks for products that are purchased through a subscription or license model. Very often the affiliate commissions on these will be paid on a recurring basis as the purchasers renews the product month-over-month or year-over-year. In these cases, be sure to pay attention to how long the company will continue to pay you a commission – e.g., just for the initial sale, for the first year the purchaser is a customer, or for as long as the purchaser remains a customer. The big upside of these types of recurring affiliate commission is that they help to create a steady, even stream of cashflow that can really boost your overall business.
Affiliate Cookie Terms
Another factor to consider when deciding on an affiliate program is cookie life, especially if you’re promoting a high-value product. The cookie life is basically how long the buyer has to make a purchase and still count toward your affiliate income. Some programs only count sales made directly from the link, meaning if the learner navigates away from an hour, or day, or week to think about the purchase, you lose out. The longer the cookie life, the more opportunity you have to earn money from the referral.
Also, it’s good to know which affiliate click “counts” when multiple affiliates refer the same customer to the same product. In most cases – but definitely not all – the affiliate who gets the click nearest to the time of purchase will get the credit. While you don’t have a lot of control over this, it will give you some idea of how focused you should be on facilitating a quick decision through the content you provide to showcase the affiliate product.
Defining Your Affiliate Marketing Income Goals
It’s easy to get swept away by websites promising you can make a six-figure passive income from affiliate marketing. Yes, it’s possible, but it’s rare, and rarely truly passive.
Dedicated affiliate marketers research product niches, build dedicated websites, and employ an aggressive SEO and advertising strategy in order to attract enough visitors to drive their revenue. It’s a full time job of its own and can easily distract you from your work as an edupreneur or expertise-based business while offering a far lower chance of success.
So how much can you make? A lot will depend on your niche, the affiliate programs you join, and the work you put into promoting your referral links. A banner on your website might buy a cup of coffee or two per month. An ad in a blog post could cover your hosting costs. Or you can weave your affiliate marketing strategy into your overall business plan and earn hundreds, or even thousands.
The more income you want to make, the more work you have to put into generating it. That’s time researching the right affiliate products, setting up your referral links, and creating content to deliver those links to your learners. You can reduce this workload by selecting the highest paying affiliate programs and earning more revenue from each sale you generate.
Keep in mind, too, that if you have already been doing the work to build your audience, develop your brand, and elevate your expertise through blogging and other forms of content marketing, you will already be in a position to attract traffic that can convert into affiliate revenue. This is a key reason that affiliate marketing – particularly in the form of curation – is such a good fit for edupreneurs and expertise-based businesses. In many cases, simply updating and enhancing some of your current content to include relevant affiliate links and producing a handful of related, high-quality reviews may be all it takes to start generating new, relatively low-effort revenue.
Of course, your niche is also going to play an important role in defining both your affiliate strategy and the revenue you can earn. Some niches with high-value programs are already oversaturated and the chances of you earning much from them are very low. Some retailers are already the go-to place for particular products and buyers prefer to navigate there themselves. High-competition niches are also harder to rank well enough on search engines to get your post noticed.
Generally speaking, the most opportunity for affiliate marketing success is found by niching down as far as possible. If you’re a photographer, the “best DSLR camera” marketplace is already pretty well saturated. However, the best DSLR camera for underwater use / astrophotography / cooking videos may be an untapped field. Prospective buyers are more receptive to a product they feel meets their specific needs, so those long-tail niches outperform general content and recommendations when it comes to sales.
How to Make Money from Affiliate Programs
Once you’ve found your niche, joined an affiliate program or two, and defined your income goals, it’s time to get to work. How do you actually make money from affiliate links?
My philosophy is to actively engage with the product or service you’re promoting. Passive ads won’t get you very far (although they’re fine if you just want to make a few dollars extra each month). To turn your affiliate links into an income stream, not just a tip jar, you need to do a little work.
As already hinted at above, a key way to attract attention to your affiliate links is by reviewing the products you suggest. This gives you the best opportunity to explain why you think the product is valuable to your audience and worth buying. It’s also the method most likely to attract prospects who are interested in making a purchase. That’s because checking out reviews is usually one of the final stages of the buyers’ journey. This is the path that people take from identifying a problem to making a purchase.
At the Awareness stage, the buyer identifies a need. They then engage with a brand, product, or service that can resolve that need. Next comes consideration, where they decide what to purchase. Then a sale is made (conversion) and, if the product is good enough, they remain loyal to that brand in the future.
Reviews meet the buyers’ needs in the middle of their journey, right before they make a purchase. That means they’re already sold on the need for a solution to their problem, and to earn your commission all you need do is convince them to take that next logical step.
As well as writing reviews for the products and services you recommend, you should also consider other kinds of content marketing. This is a promotional method that provides value to readers while encouraging them to use your affiliate link to make a purchase. Product reviews are one kind of content marketing strategy, but you can also conduct case studies, tutorials, resource pages, product comparisons, and more.
- General post — Best DSLR camera
- Niche post — Best DSLR camera for underwater photography
- Product review — Is the Canon 5D Mark III the best DSLR camera on the market?
- Case studies — I went underwater filming with these two cameras, here are the shots
- How tos and Tutorials — How to get started using the Canon 5D Mark III camera
- Resource pages — The beginner’s toolkit of underwater photography equipment
- Product comparisons — Canon 5D Mark III vs. Sony A7 III, which is better?
You can find content marketing ideas by doing search engine research on your affiliate products. What features are people looking for? What questions or concerns do they have? What problems does your product or service solve?
As an edupreneur or expertise-based business, you should already be doing this research to help you develop and promote your own offereings. Tying your expertise into resolving the common queries people search can boost the revenue you generate from affiliate programs.
Always speak directly to your audience, rather than trying to appeal to everybody. Highly specific content attracts fewer visitors, but those that read your content will be more moved by your message and are usually further along the buyers’ journey and more likely to make a purchase.
How and Where Can You Share Affiliate Links?
I’m a fan of weaving in affiliate links wherever they seem relevant in the flow of your interactions with your audience. That may mean on blog posts, in social media, in e-mails, or a range of other possibilities.
But the sky is not the limit.
First of all, you should – and legally, you must – disclose that content you publish may make use of affiliate links. This is a complicated area in which I definitely won’t claim deep expertise, but basically, affiliate marketing is considered a form of advertising by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – specifically one that makes use of “endorsement” – and the FTC has extensive rules to govern it. The most basic ways to conform with these rules are to:
- Publish an easily findable affiliate disclosure page on your website. At Learning Revolution, this is included in the top navigation as well as in the side navigation. (And here’s a direct link to it.)
- Include in all posts, e-mails, and other communications that include affiliate links to make your readers and visitors aware of them. Here’s language we use at the bottom of post and pages on Learning Revolution:
Note: This page contains affiliate links. If you click on these links and end up making a purchase, Learning Revolution will receive a small commission. This does not add to the cost of the products for you and it provides a small amount of income to help keep Learning Revolution going. You can view our affiliate disclosure here.
Aside from staying in line with FTC rules, also check the terms of your specific affiliate agreement. Some require you to submit your website for consideration and limit links to that platform. Others (including Amazon) allow link sharing on social media, but not through e-mail newsletters. (Amazon also does not allow “cloaking” of its links – i.e., you aren’t allowed to redirect an Amazon link with something like “www.learningrevolution.net/goto/productname.) Most programs don’t allow you to bid on certain keywords – like, for example the product or company name – for paid advertising.
While plenty of affiliate programs don’t stipulate where you can share links, it’s always worth checking to be sure you comply with the terms of service and don’t lose out on commissions because you shared a link in the wrong place.
That aside, where is the best place to put an affiliate link? Website banners in headers and sidebars are easy to install, but when was the last time you clicked on a product link next to a blog post? While you might earn a little money this way, unless your website is getting tens of thousands of hits each month, they aren’t going to produce much income. Instead, you should create dynamic content that engages with the product you’re referring and include the link in that content.
As a subject matter expert, you are at an advantage because you can add your experience to your referral — providing you are recommending products and services within your niche. A photography edupreneur’s opinion on the best DSLR camera will hold more weight than the opinion of Joe from Facebook, but their opinion of the best silver necklaces for women will be pretty meaningless.
Because your expertise will support your affiliate referrals, you should be discerning about the products and services you choose. Recommending an inferior product because it has a better affiliate commission could harm your reputation in the long term. Always keep your primary business model in mind and select the best affiliate program to complement your existing brand.
Expert-Curated Affiliate Marketing: Final thoughts
As an edupreneur or expertise-based business, making money from affiliate programs is not only possible, it’s a natural fit, and can be very lucrative. Your reputation as a subject matter expert can elevate your opinion above others and convince readers to make purchases based on your recommendations and advice.
That said, selecting the wrong products or affiliate programs can risk damaging your reputation, so it’s important to always carefully curate any affiliate product you intend to suggest to your followers. You’re ultimately better off settling for a lower value commission on a product you really believe in than staking your name on a subpar product with high commission rates.
Be selective about the programs you join and how you incorporate affiliate marketing into your site. Done right, the content that will attract the most traffic and the highest rate of affiliate clicks will also be the content that is interesting and relevant to your existing audience of learners. This curated approach offsets the need to devote time to your affiliate marketing efforts in order to realize results, because you’ll be working on two complementary arms of your overall business and brand.
Think of expert curated affiliate marketing as another way of monetizing your expertise, and focus on the quality and relevance of the products you select, rather than the quantity.
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