Affiliate Marketing: What It Is and How to Get Started

Written by Coursera Staff • 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 where third-party publishers promote a merchant’s goods or services and receive a percentage of the sales or web traffic 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 allowing them to earn income simply by promoting products they use and enjoy themselves.

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 affiliate marketing and how it works and find concrete steps to becoming 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 its 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. Influencer Marketing Hub's 2022 Affiliate Marketing Benchmark Report estimates that the industry will grow to US$15.7 million by 2024 [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 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.

An affiliate can connect with merchants through affiliate marketing programs. After making some initial connections through a program, the affiliate may be able to find other appropriate merchants and gradually build a wide network of brand partners in a particular industry. For example, a network might suggest a range of tech products to an affiliate who reviews cell phones. 

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 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 

  • 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 online audience and begin to make a profit. Here are Canadian salary averages, as of May 2024, according to different career sites:

  • Indeed: $73,159 [3]

  • Payscale: $53,000 [4]

  • Glassdoor: $59,624 [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 entrepreneurial mindset to grow your affiliate marketing business.


How to start affiliate marketing

Becoming an affiliate marketer could be a good option for those looking to make passive income and willing to take the time to build an online audience. If this sounds like an appealing opportunity, then the following steps could help you become an affiliate marketer. 

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, the more likely you can build an affiliate platform that meets the demands of an underserved audience with original content. At the same time, you will also want to pick a niche with a sizeable audience share. 

Affiliate marketing in action

OutdoorGearLab reviews outdoor equipment used for sports, camping, hiking, climbing, and travel. The site offers its 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 pick for your affiliate marketing efforts should interest you and offer value to a sizeable, underserved audience. As you brainstorm ideas, it can be helpful to conduct research with Google Trends to see if interest in the topic is increasing or correlating. 

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 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 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 make it easier to build relationships 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, 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 approaches, including: 

  • Content marketing 

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

  • Social media marketing 

  • Email lists 

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:

  • Conducting market research to understand your audience

  • 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 livestream

  • 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 the message you convey

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

  • Using software, like customer relationship management (CRM) tools, to keep track of your marketing, sales, and customer experience data

The exact mix of skills you employ in your marketing pursuit will likely depend on the platform, audience, and approach you choose. 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. 

Watch this video for ideas on how you can design a marketing funnel that helps you reach your audience.

Get started.

Affiliate marketing can 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.

Article sources


Affiliate Insider. “Affiliate marketing trends to watch out for in 2023,” Accessed May 21, 2024.

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