What is affiliate marketing is a question I am often asked by those who seem both fascinated and intrigued by this sector.

Many are interested in giving it a go themselves but find it difficult to figure out where to start, or even how it works.

So I figured I would provide a simple overview here for those of you looking to take your first tentative steps into the world of affiliate marketing.


In basic terms affiliate marketing is a very simple model whereby publishers or website owners (such as myself) earn money by promoting a particular site, product or service.

This is usually via a link (text or banner) that is unique to the publisher.

Each time a user clicks on this link a small file or “cookie” is left on their machine to tell the site exactly where they came from (i.e. the publishers website)

If that user then makes a purchase or completes an action (such as signing up to a service) within a set period the publisher is rewarded accordingly (usually taking a fixed percentage of the total cost of that sale).

There are many ways in which sales can be tracked and attributed and many different ways affiliates can earn commission (per sale, per sign up, per click etc.) but the basic principle of affiliate marketing remains the same.

Get traffic. Refer a customer. Get paid a commission if they then make a purchase. Simple.


Affiliate marketing works predominantly because of the “long tail”.

Woah Wait. The what?

So why is the long tail interesting to affiliate marketers?

Because very targeted specific search terms are usually performed when a user knows exactly what it is they want to achieve.

For example a user could land on a site via Google by using the search term “trainers”. Great.

But that term is very generic meaning the user may not be sure of exactly what type of trainers they are looking for or even if they are ready to make a purchase.

They are still browsing. They are not yet in [what I like to call] the buying mode.

But take the following search terms instead for example:

“White tennis trainers by Reebok” or “Ladies running shoes sale”

These are far more specific indicating that the user knows exactly what they want and is actively seeking that particular product [or service].

And there is our answer.

Affiliate marketing works because it provides end users the answers, products or services that they seek when they are in the buying mode.

By ranking for specific long tail keywords (organically or via paid advertising) within a particular niche affiliate marketers can position themselves in order to “mop up” long tail searches and refer targeted users to the relevant products and services of their partners.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you DON’T want to rank for more generic terms (especially if you are concerned with building an online brand).

It is just a lot harder (and usually more expensive) and doesn’t necessarily guarantee a conversion or sale (for the reasons outlined above).

It is much easier for the average affiliate (many of whom do not have access to large marketing budgets or paid advertising) to rank for more obscure long tail keywords and increase their organic traffic allowing the merchant they are promoting to actively focus on those more generic brandable terms instead.

Everyone is a winner.


Practically any site can work well in the affiliate marketing space (although obviously some will work better than others depending on the subject matter, niche etc.).

The most popular (and arguably successful) type of affiliate site however is still the good old fashioned blog.

Blogs work well because they are usually written by people with expertise or knowledge of a particular subject or area. And these people are ideally placed to then offer services or products to their users who will (over time) learn to trust and value their opinion.

Bloggers can position themselves as an authority in a particular niche and by writing and sharing knowledge can quickly build a profitable online (dare I say passive) income.

A blog really demonstrates exactly how effective the long tail outlined above can be.

For example one of the most successful bloggers is Darren Rowse of Problogger.

He runs a few extremely popular blogs covering everything from digital photography tutorials to tips on using twitter.

He has taken his passion, experience and knowledge of a particular subject and turned it into a profitable (or at least I presume profitable hehe) online business.

And there are tons of other people just just like him doing exactly the same.

It doesn’t just stop with blogs though; another type of site has recently appeared that also works extremely well at fulfilling the “need” of the user when they are in seeking a solution to a particular problem……

Voucher code sites.

Love them or hate them voucher codes sites have been springing up everywhere of late because they are perfect at targeting users who are in the process of making a purchase.

A user usually arrives at the checkout of a website, sees a promo box asking if they have a code in order to save money and what do they do? They immediately open Google (or Bing of course) to search for “[merchant name] promo codes”.

They are actively seeking a solution to the problem they have.

In fact all sites operating as affiliates are looking to solve this most basic problem.

Price comparison sites help users save money, review sites help users make an informed purchase decision and niche sites that collate very specific products and services can all do very well.

Basically any website that can fulfill a users needs; be it for specific information, a service they are seeking or a product they are looking to buy has the potential to make a decent income via the affiliate marketing channel.


Firstly you need to identify a niche. What is it you intend to promote? And to whom?

Think carefully when choosing your niche. it should be something that isn’t TOO competitive but also something that isn’t so vague as to not attract any potential customers.

It also helps if you have a genuine interest in the subject matter. For example I write about affiliate marketing and web development as that is what I spend most of my time actually doing.

I would find it extremely difficult to write about knitting or kayaking as I have no experience or interest in either of those subjects (although I am sure both are lovely ha).

So make sure your niche is something you can really get your teeth into.

Once you have identified your niche or subject you need a platform on which to talk about it.

Now there is no “set in stone” rule of thumb when it comes to affiliate marketing but the easiest way for new comers to get started is by having their own website.

And the simplest way of doing that is by using WordPress.

WordPress is the most popular blogging software online and currently powers (I believe) around 14% of all the websites online (including this one).

Pretty impressive.

It has a HUGE active online community, loads of documentation, is extremely customisable (via plugins, and widgets etc), is an absolute doddle to use and best of all; It’s FREE.

Many hosts (such as heart internet) have a “one click to setup” wizard to install WordPress too so getting up and running should be fairly straight forward.

If however you are not technical in any way and struggling then there are tons of free tutorials and tips online to get you on your way (I may do a further post soon on how to set up your first WordPress website).

So you now have your chosen niche and you have your lovely new shiny website. Now all you need is some nice products and services to promote.

You need to become an affiliate.

There are loads of ways of doing this. You can do it by joining one (or all) of the many affiliate networks out there.

This list is by no means exhaustive though and there are tons more affiliate networks out there.

These networks act as a bridge between the merchant and the affiliate and by signing up (don’t worry its completely free) affiliates have access to resources such as banners, links and datafeeds to enable them to start promoting merchants and services.

Once registered you simply select the merchants you would like to promote (obviously relevant to the topic of your website) and begin using your unique links to promote their products and / or services.

All the tracking involved is handled by the networks themselves – so all you need to do is send people to the merchants you work with via your links and then log in to check how much commission you have earned.

Another way to become an affiliate is by signing up to become an affiliate of a merchant directly.

One of the biggest (and most popular) or these is the Amazon Associates affiliate scheme.

Once signed up you can create links, widgets and banners to any of the products that Amazon sells. The links will all automatically include your unique affiliate ID ensuring any purchases made via them are correctly attributed to yourself.

In fact once you start looking you will discover almost every merchant online offers some kind of affiliate scheme to help boost their online earnings.

So there you have it.

A very brief overview of affiliate marketing and how it works in very basic terms. There is of course tons more that goes into it but hopefully the above will have whet your palette and maybe inspired you to take the plunge and explore this interesting, dynamic sector in more detail.

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