Affiliate Marketing: What It Is and How to Get Started

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn the ins and outs of affiliate marketing and how you can start doing it yourself.

[Featured image] An older man wearing a vest does affiliate marketing on his laptop as he reclines on a couch at home.

Affiliate marketing is a marketing model in which an affiliate, also called a publisher, promotes a merchant’s goods or services and receives a percentage of the sales or web traffic made as a result. It is typically considered a key part of modern digital marketing. 

Affiliate marketing appeals to businesses because it allows them to meet their marketing goals, and it appeals to affiliates because it offers the opportunity to make passive income. 

To make money as an affiliate marketer, though, takes time devoted to developing a platform and building an online audience.

In this article,  learn more about what affiliate marketing is, how it works, and find concrete steps on how you can become an affiliate marketer. 

What is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a revenue-sharing marketing method in which an affiliate, such as a blogger or YouTuber, advertises a business’ goods or services to help them meet their sales or marketing goals. In turn, affiliates earn a percentage of the sales or customer traffic made as a result of their marketing efforts.

A business might work with an affiliate for a couple of  reasons: 

  • Increasing sales, web traffic, and brand awareness

  • Connecting with a specific affiliate audience (e.g. a shoe company that partners with a fitness blog to target fitness-minded readers) 

While revenue-sharing is not a new marketing concept, modern affiliate marketing typically refers to online digital marketing in which affiliates link to a business's product or service online and receive a percentage of sales or web traffic. Some researchers estimate that approximately $8.2 billion will be spent on affiliate marketing in 2022 [1]. 

How does affiliate marketing work?

Affiliate marketing involves four main actors, who each play a unique part in the marketing process:

  • The affiliate (or “publisher”): The individual or entity that promotes the merchant’s product or service 

  • The merchant: The individual or entity selling the product or service promoted by the affiliate 

  • The affiliate network: An intermediary between an affiliate and a merchant’s affiliate program. While an affiliate network is not strictly necessary for an affiliate and merchant to connect, it is a common channel for such relationships. 

  • The customer: The individual who purchases a product through an affiliate. Merchants and affiliates collaborate to connect them with the affiliate’s audience in order to convert them into customers.

Typically, the affiliate and the merchant join forces through an affiliate network, which might also suggest other merchants that fit the affiliate's profile. For example, a network might suggest a range of tech products to an affiliate who reviews cellphones. 

Occasionally, an affiliate and merchant might also connect organically through direct outreach. For instance, a merchant who manufactures cake pans might connect with an affiliate who writes about baking in order to get their product in front of the affiliate’s audience. 

Affiliate marketing examples

You likely have seen examples of affiliate marketing before, even if you didn’t realize it. 

The reason for this is simple: the most effective affiliate marketing tends to be paired with quality content that readers actually enjoy and find useful. Though it can be tempting to simply promote products to make sales and drive traffic for merchants, affiliates who have developed trust with their audience by highlighting quality products they believe in are more likely to convert readers. In other words: quality sells. 

Some common examples of affiliate marketing include: 

  • Websites covering general topics that occasionally include affiliate links in blog posts or articles, such as in this list of Kitchen Essentials compiled by the cooking-focused website Kitchn. 

  • YouTube videos that include affiliate links in the description, such as the one attached to MKBHD’s “My Every Day Tech 2022” video.

  • Dedicated review websites that cover products that appeal to a targeted readership, such as Gear Patrol and Wirecutter.

Affiliate marketing salary 

Affiliate income is highly variable and can often fluctuate from year to year. Furthermore, it can take time for an affiliate marketer to build up an audience online and begin to turn a sizable profit. 

On the high end of the spectrum, Zip Recruiter lists the average salary for an affiliate marketer in the United States at $154,700 [2]. On the lower end, Payscale asserts that the average annual income for an affiliate marketer is $52,130 [3]. Glassdoor, meanwhile, pinpoints the average affiliate marketer's salary somewhere in the middle at $66,415 [4]. 

How to start affiliate marketing

Becoming an affiliate marketer could be a good option for those looking to make passive income and who are willing to take the time to build up their online audience. If this sounds like an appealing opportunity to you, then the following steps could help you on your journey toward becoming an affiliate marketer. 

1. Pick your niche.

Affiliate marketers are valuable to merchants because they have the ability to reach specific audiences composed of potential customers. The more specific your niche, the more likely you can build an affiliate platform that meets the demands of an underserved audience with original content. At the same time, though, you will also want to pick a niche that has a sizeable audience share. 

Affiliate marketing in action

OutdoorGearLab reviews outdoor equipment used for sports, camping, hiking, climbing, and travel. The site offers their readers value by testing, reviewing, and promoting equipment that outdoor enthusiasts like them would find useful. As a result of serving this niche audience,  OutdoorGearLab has become one of the most successful outdoor product review sites.  

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Ideally, the niche that you pick for your own affiliate marketing efforts should be something that not only interests you, but also offers value to a sizeable, underserved audience. As you are brainstorming ideas, it can be helpful to conduct research with Google Trends to see if their is increasing or correlating interest in the topic. 

In this exploratory phase, some questions you might ask yourself include: 

  • What is a topic, hobby, or field that is of particular interest to me that’s not currently being served? 

  • How can I add a new angle or perspective to a topic with a lot of competition? 

  • What kind of content would I like to make to best serve this niche and my skill set? 

2. Pick a platform that matches your niche.

Once you have decided on the topic, audience, and products that your affiliate marketing platform will cover, you will now want to decide on what that platform actually will be. 

While creating a dedicated review website, such as OutdoorGearLab, is a popular approach, you can also do affiliate marketing on social media platforms like Instagram.  The exact platform you decide to use will ultimately depend on the exact nature of your undertaking. In some cases, you might find that using a mix of platforms will best help your affiliate marketing endeavors.

Some common approaches and platforms include: 

  • A dedicated product review website specifically oriented around offering readers products 

  • A website or blog covering a specific topic that includes affiliate marketing in articles or posts about that topic     

  • Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube.

3. Join an affiliate marketing network.

Affiliate networks connect affiliates and merchants. While it’s not always necessary to join an affiliate network, you will likely find that doing so will streamline the relationship-building process with merchants and improve income opportunities. 

The type of affiliate network or marketing program you join will depend on the type of products your audience is interested in. In fact, there are many different types of affiliate marketing networks and programs offering a range of products and services from industry to industry. To optimize your chances of success, make sure to do research on the networks and programs that best fit your target product and audience.

Some examples of popular affiliate networks and programs include: 

4. Expand your network 

Creating a successful affiliate marketing platform takes time and dedication. To increase your overall audience size, though, it is helpful to use a mix of digital marketing tactics. 

Examples of popular digital marketing strategies include: 

While it would be beneficial to use any one of these approaches to increase your audience size, it would likely be most impactful to use a strategic mix of them. For instance, you might find that a combination of timely email blasts and SEO content will improve your marketing efforts more than either one on its own. 

5. Keep at it and master your skills.

In addition to taking time and dedication, affiliate marketing also employs a wide range of skills, including marketing, writing, communication, presentation, videography, and editing. The exact mix of skills that you employ in your marketing pursuit will likely depend on the platform, audience, and approach that you decide to take. 

For example, if you are running a YouTube channel that reviews collectible toys, then you will likely need a combination of video production, presentation, and social media marketing skills. However, if you are instead running a website that only features written reviews of collectible toys, then you will likely need to focus on expanding your writing, communication, and digital marketing skills. 

In many cases, you might find that you even use all of these skills—and maybe even some more—as you work to drive traffic, produce eye-catching content, and increase affiliate sales. 

Get started

Affiliate marketing has the possibility to provide a passive income stream for those who create compelling content and put in the time and effort to grow their audience. Start building your marketing skill set with Digital Marketing from the University of Illinois, or get job ready by completing the Meta Social Media Marketing Professional Certificate or the Google Digital Marketing and E-commerce Professional Certificate

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Article sources 

1. Statista. “Affiliate marketing spending in the United States from 2010 to 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/693438/affiliate-marketing-spending/.” Accessed. January 4th, 2022. 

2. Zip Recruiter. “Affiliate Marketing Annual Salary, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/Affiliate-Marketing-Salary.” Accessed January 11, 2022. 

3. Payscale. “Average Affiliate Marketer Salary, https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Affiliate_Marketer/Salary.” Accessed January 12, 2022.

4. Glassdoor. “Affiliate Marketer Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/us-affiliate-marketer-salary-SRCH_IL.0,2_IN1_KO3,21.htm?clickSource=searchBtn.” Accessed January 11, 2022. 

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