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] Two people working on an affiliate marketing campaign collaborate at a desk with a tablet and a laptop computer.

Affiliate marketing is a marketing model in which third-party publishers promote a merchant’s goods or services and receive 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 enables them to meet their marketing goals at a low cost. It benefits affiliates by offering them the opportunity to make passive income. Generating affiliate revenue requires developing a platform and building an online audience. In addition, it's essential to stay current with industry trends. For example, according to Affiliate Insider, artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud software will play an increasing role in how affiliate marketers collect data to make decisions in 2023 [1].

In this article, learn more about this career path, how it works, and how to begin your affiliate marketing efforts. 

What is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a revenue-sharing marketing method in which a third-party affiliate, such as a blogger or YouTuber, advertises a business’s goods or services to help them meet sales or marketing goals. A business might work with an affiliate to increase sales, web traffic, and brand awareness at a low cost, as well as connect with a specific affiliate audience (e.g. a shoe company that partners with a fitness blogger to target fitness-minded readers). In turn, affiliates earn a percentage of the sales or customer traffic they generate as a result of their marketing efforts.

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. Statista estimated that affiliate marketing spending would reach approximately $8.2 billion in 2022 [2]. 

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 that the affiliate promotes 

  • The affiliate network: An intermediary between an affiliate and a merchant’s affiliate program. While affiliates and merchants can connect without an affiliate network, 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, an affiliate can connect with merchants through an affiliate network. Affiliates may be able to find other appropriate merchants. For example, a network might suggest a range of tech products to an affiliate who reviews cellphones. 

Occasionally, an affiliate and merchant 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. Although it can be tempting to promote a variety of 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 inspire audience members to make a purchase. In other words: quality and relevance 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 revenue is highly variable and can often fluctuate from year to year. Furthermore, it can take time for an affiliate marketer to build an online audience and make a profit. 

On the high end of the spectrum, ZipRecruiter lists the average salary for an affiliate marketer in the United States at $154,983 [3]. On the lower end, Payscale says the average annual income for an affiliate marketer is $54,175 [4]. Glassdoor, meanwhile, puts the average affiliate marketer's salary somewhere in the middle at $66,897 [5]. 

Is affiliate marketing right for you? 4 signs

Becoming an affiliate marketer and even building a thriving affiliate marketing business could be a rewarding career path for you. Here are four signs to look for as you consider taking the first steps:

1. You want to create an income stream based on your interests

2. You want to build an online audience and create unique content that engages them.

3. You want to create partnerships with brands you love and promote their products to your audience.

4. You are ready to take on an entrepreneur mindset to grow your affiliate marketing business.


Read more: A Guide to Startups

How to start affiliate marketing

Ready to begin your journey? Follow the steps below to streamline the process:

1. Pick your niche.

Affiliate marketers are valuable to merchants because they can reach specific audiences composed of potential customers. The more detailed your niche market, the easier it can be to build an affiliate platform and create original content that meets your audience's needs.  

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.  


Ideally, the niche you build your affiliate marketing efforts around should relate to your interests and the interests of a sizeable, underserved audience. As you brainstorm ideas, conduct research with Google Trends to discover increasing or correlating interest a niche topic. 

In this exploratory phase, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • 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 use my skill set? 

2. Pick a marketing channel that matches your niche.

Once you have decided on the topic, audience, and products that your affiliate marketing brand will cover, you will want to decide on a marketing channel

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. You may find that one channel is more appropriate for your affiliate marketing goals than others, or that a multi-channel or omnichannel marketing approach is best.

Some common approaches and channels 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, where you post content related to the products and brands you promote

Read more: How to Become an Influencer in 11 Steps: Your 2023 Guide

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 ultimately increase your potential to earn affiliate commissions. 

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, research 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 approaches, including: 

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. Be consistent and master your skills.

In addition to taking time and dedication, affiliate marketing also employs a wide range of skills, including:

  • Analyzing the competitive landscape to know where you stand among other affiliate marketers in your niche

  • Writing skills to convey ideas and information through a blog, social media caption, or email blast

  • Presentation skills to convey ideas and information through a slide deck, lecture, or live stream

  • Videography skills to create videos that delight, entertain, and educate your audience

  • Graphic design to generate attractive graphics related to the products you promote and message you convey

  • Data analysis and marketing analytics to understand how your affiliate marketing campaigns perform

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 features only written reviews of collectible toys, then you will likely need to focus on expanding your content 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. 

Begin your affiliate marketing journey with Coursera

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 become 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


Affiliate Insider. "Affiliate marketing trends to watch out for in 2023," Accessed January 10, 2023.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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