Affiliate Sales: A Realistic Guide for Earning Revenue From Your Website

February 10, 2015 · 30 comments

Earning affiliate income is often touted as one of the best ways to make money online. In truth, however, it’s very difficult to accomplish and only lucrative for top bloggers.

My team is beginning to turn the corner with affiliate earnings for one of our sites, so I want to share how we’ve done that and what we’ve learned. (If you don’t know what affiliate marketing is, consider reading this first.)

Earn Money With Affiliate Sales

Why earning affiliate revenue is a long shot

I never advocate relying on affiliate income as your only form of revenue, or starting a blog with affiliate sales as your only monetizing strategy, because for most bloggers it amounts only to pennies, maybe dollars, and even that isn’t consistent. Sure, you might earn a few bucks here and there or a credit to put toward a service you use regularly. While every dollar’s welcome, of course, and this type of affiliate earnings can supplement other income, it’s not enough to support a family.

I believe a far more effective way to monetize your website is by offering consulting or other services, and/or selling digital products. In fact, that’s how I monetized AlexisGrant.com, where I only see between 13,000-16,000 unique visitors each month. (See my ebooks here.) Once you have a significant amount of traffic — I’d say at least 10,000 unique visitors a month — you can also add direct-buy advertising to the pile.

Knowing it would take us a while to get there, we optimized The Write Life from the beginning to earn affiliate income once our traffic increased. We launched this website for writers in mid-2013. In December of 2014, we hit a milestone, earning far more from affiliate sales than ever before, a total of nearly $5,000 that month.

Nearly $5,000 in affiliate sales is awesome, and I see this as a turning point for bringing in a respectable income from the site. (I’ve written more in this post about how we’re monetizing The Write Life.) But before we dive into how we accomplished this, I want to put that income in perspective for you. It’s still a drop in the bucket for our company, for three reasons:

1. I’m no longer a solopreneur. If I was a solopreneur who netted $5K from a website I ran on my own, that would be pretty darn good. But I don’t do everything myself. Instead, I run a company that has a lot of expenses. My team manages a number of blogs, and I pay six team members each month, as well as dozens of writers who contribute to our blogs, plus a tech-support team. That $5K goes into company revenue, not directly into my pocket.

2. We spend a decent amount of money on The Write Life. I only do a small portion of the day-to-day tasks for the site, mainly content development and working with freelance writers. That means I pay several members of my team to grow the website: a project manager, an editor and a social media strategist.

We also pay for the occasional epic blog post, plus digital tools like MailChimp ($150/month), hosting ($150/month), etc. Because the site has grown exponentially over the last 18 months — we now see about 115,000 unique visitors each month and have 23,000 newsletter subscribers — it costs more to run the site now than it did a year ago. We now spend about $3,000 a month to run The Write Life.

3. This was a one-time spike. We earned this much from affiliate sales largely because our readers shopped a lot on Amazon over the holidays (more on that below). So we likely won’t earn this much in the coming months. But we will continue to see an upward trend for our affiliate sales revenue, which is why this is worth writing about.

How we grew our affiliate income

So how did we make $5K from affiliates in December? Here’s how we did it:

Traffic. This is the biggest factor in earning affiliate revenue: you need traffic to your site. Not just a little bit of traffic, but tens of thousands of visitors each month.

This applies especially if you’re trying to make money off Amazon’s affiliate program, where you earn only a tiny percentage of what the buyer spends, so you need a whole lot of buyers for those earnings to add up to anything significant… But more on that in a moment.

It’s fitting that our affiliate income peaked in December, because The Write Life hit 100,000 unique visitors that month for the first time.

Consistency. To make affiliate revenue, you’ve got to be consistent. That applies both to publishing content, so you can attract readers and inch your way to the top of Google, and using affiliate links.

I’ll admit that even on my own blog, AlexisGrant.com, I’m sometimes lazy about taking an extra minute or two to pull an affiliate link when I see an opportunity to use one in a post. But if you want to benefit as your traffic grows, you have to be consistent about adding those affiliate links every time, even if you don’t expect the post to take off. This is something we’re religious about on The Write Life (thank you, editor @Heathervdh!), so when we get unexpected traffic to a post, we earn.

Focus on SEO. The posts that will likely bring the most affiliate revenue are those that catch on in search. Why? Because search traffic tends to last for days or months or years, unlike a quick hit you might get when a popular website links to your post or an influencer shares it on Twitter.

Every good blogger loves SEO.

Every good blogger loves SEO.

Whenever we see a blog post catch on in search for one of the blogs we manage, we celebrate, because it will probably send lots of traffic to the site over time. Unless you have a massive email list or rely entirely on Facebook shares like BuzzFeed-type sites, you should aim to get a good portion of your traffic from search. (Though a massive email list and lots of Facebook shares are pretty great too, and will help your site catch on in search… so all of these traffic-generating activities feed into one another.)

While there are lots of ways to boost your ranking in search, we get the best ROI from optimizing content for popular keywords, especially headlines. We spend a lot of time perfecting headlines both for The Write Life and for our client blogs, researching keywords using Google Adword’s keyword planner and Google Trends. (If you want to learn more about our SEO strategy for The Write Life, this post explains it in more detail. I also offer a free webinar called Easy SEO Tips for Bloggers.)

SEO played a huge role in our affiliate earnings for December. The reason this one post brought in so much cash was because it caught on in search… and I’ll explain how in a moment.

Time. Even when you do all of these things right, publishing consistently high-quality content that’s optimized for search, it still takes time to reach the traffic levels required to earn affiliate revenue. It took us a year-and-a-half to reach 100,000 monthly uniques.

You need time for your content to catch on in search, and you need time for your audience to share and grow.

Relevance. We all know content has to be high quality and valuable for readers to click and share. But relevance and timing also comes into play here. To explain this well, let’s get into the details of the specific post that helped us earn in December.

The magic of the Holiday Gifts post

So how did all of these factors converge into $5K in December?

The bulk of our earnings came from this post: 22 Gifts for Writers That Are Way Better Than a Boring Old Notebook.

The post is valuable for our readers, and relevant — particularly around the holidays. In fact, the holidays are precisely why we did so well with this post.

Have a look at how many people searched for “gifts for writers” this holiday season (courtesy of Google Adword’s keyword planner):

"Gifts for writers" in Google's Keyword Planner

“Gifts for writers” in Google’s Keyword Planner

The term hovers around 1,000-1,600 searches monthly for most of the year, then surges to 5,400 in November and 12,100 in December.

Because we published this particular post in 2013 and it had plenty of time to gain strength in search, it was the No. 1 search result in Google when people searched for “gifts for writers” over the holidays in 2014.

That’s right folks: we ranked as the No. 1 result for “gifts for writers.” SEMrush tells me we’ve since dropped to No. 2, outranked only by this Pinterest board called Good Gifts for Writers.

If you’re wondering why we care about ranking for seemingly random phrases like “gifts for writers,” it’s because those random phrases, also known as long-tail keywords, all add up. While we want to rank for more obvious keywords like “freelance writing,” those are super competitive, so it’s best to aim to rank for a combination of keywords, including longer phrases that are less popular but still have a search presence.

It’s also interesting to note that we published another post on gifts for writers in December 2014, but that one didn’t have the SEO juice of the 2013 post and hasn’t performed as well (yet).

How Amazon Associates works

I know what you’re thinking. Readers bought so many waterproof notebooks and nerdy tote bags via that blog post that we earned $5,000?

Not quite.

Here’s how Amazon Associates works. People Googled “gifts for writers,” then clicked on the ideas we shared in our post, which took them over to Amazon.com. Regardless of whether they bought that item we recommended, they then continued to do their holiday shopping, stocking up on all sorts of random gifts, from electronics to clothing to books. And because they clicked on our link initially, we earned somewhere between four to 10 percent of whatever they spent on Amazon during the next 24 hours.

You can see why these earnings aren’t sustainable… because as soon as search levels for “gifts for writers” returned to normal levels in January, we saw less traffic to that post and fewer clicks through to Amazon. Plus, people tend to buy less after the holidays anyhow, so not as many purchases were made in January after clicking our link.

But here’s the lesson: This can be replicated. We already took one stab at recreating this success with our recent post on Valentine’s Day gifts for writers. Not every post that’s stuffed with affiliate links has to be about gifts, of course, but this was a logical post given the season.

Despite this success, I want to close with one more piece of advice: If you want to earn affiliate revenue, don’t focus on Amazon Associates. Instead, look for ebooks and courses created by digital entrepreneurs.

Let’s dig into that idea a bit more.

Why Amazon Associates isn’t your best bet

While we made good money from Amazon this December because of the strategies I described above, this approach only works if you have a ton of traffic, and even then, earnings aren’t always impressive.

A far more lucrative way to earn as an affiliate is to recommend high-quality digital products created by online entrepreneurs. The reason is simple: digital entrepreneurs offer as much as 50 percent commission — in fact, in many affiliate circles, 50 percent is expected. Many products created by individuals also sell at higher price points, anywhere from $19 to hundreds of dollars. That means you earn far more per sale.

When one of our readers at The Write Life buys Chris Guillebeau’s $58 Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing through our link, for example, we earn $29. When James Chartrand’s Damn Fine Words course sells for $1,599 through our site, we earn $200. Lots of creators offer affiliate programs for their products; the key is finding products that appeal to your audience, so you readers want to purchase them.

This approach is why we saw affiliate revenue come in via The Write Life even before our site began to see significant traffic. Referring your readers to products that offer high commission is far more effective from the beginning than Amazon Associates, because just a few buys makes it worth your effort.

While we earned $4,400 from Amazon Associates in December, the other $600 was from products by individual creators.

When you consider earnings both from digital entrepreneurs and Amazon Associates, here’s what our affiliate revenue has looked like since we launched the site in mid-2013:

Affiliate Revenue: The Write Life

Affiliate Revenue: The Write Life

It started with $32 in July 2013, and increased to $1,056 in November 2014, before hitting an all-time record of $4,943 in December.

Like website traffic, affiliate earnings fluctuate each month, but if you see an upward trend over time, you’re likely on the right track. We’ll probably experience a substantial drop in January, but if the upward trend continues in the coming months, our earnings will eventually outpace our expenses to run the site.

Have you tried earning affiliate revenue from your blog? Can I answer any questions about best practices?

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Financial Samurai February 10, 2015 at 8:09 pm

Congrats on $5k! That’s a nice nut.

You write you have a lot of expenses. What are your other income totals to pay for the six other people?

Consulting is a non scaleable business and I do recommend focusing on affiliate advertising the most.

Best,

Sam
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Alexis Grant February 11, 2015 at 2:18 pm

Hi Sam — While I’m pretty open about some types of revenue, I don’t typically share revenue figures for the client side of our business (or what we pay our team). But consulting is scaleable if you have a team behind you!

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ishu mishra March 15, 2016 at 11:11 am

We get revenue on clicks also? or just only when someone buys items via my blog then only? just elaborate.

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Stephen Campbell February 11, 2015 at 9:06 am

Great post Alexis! Quick question on Amazon affiliate links. I use them, but as you said, not as often as I should. The reason I don’t is the multi-step process I use to create the link. My process is to a.) grab the the ASIN, b.) copy it to a site that generates the links, c.) add my associates ID, d.) then grab the link. Is there an easier way?

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Dana February 11, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Yes, add the Amazon Associates tool bar to your browser.
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Alexis Grant February 11, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Love when readers chime in with more efficient solutions! Thanks, Dana!
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Stephen Campbell February 11, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Awesome – Thanks Dana!

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Jacqui Lofthouse February 11, 2015 at 1:26 pm

A really useful post Alexis, thank-you. As one just starting out in this area, I wonder what you advise about affiliate disclaimers? I’ve heard so many different things about this.
Jacqui Lofthouse recently posted…On taking yourself seriously as a writerMy Profile

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Alexis Grant February 11, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Hi Jacqui — I honestly don’t know all the rules around affiliate advertising, but I think disclaimers are good practice. You want your audience to trust you, and they won’t do that if you’re not upfront about when you’re making money.

On AlexisGrant.com, I often — but not always — write (affiliate link) after using a link, or flat-out tell readers I’ll earn a cut if they buy through me. Often, readers *want* to help bloggers make a living, so they might even be more inclined to use that link if they know you’ll benefit. I know when I sign up for a new service I often take a few minutes to go back to the blogger I first heard about it from, and click through their link so they’ll earn.

On The Write Life, we do this a bit differently, because it’s not a one-author blog. We mention our affiliations on our Privacy Page: http://thewritelife.com/privacy-policy-and-disclosures/, but we don’t point it out every time we use an affiliate link — I think that would interrupt the reader experience.

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Jack February 11, 2015 at 2:01 pm

I agree complete that selling a digital product is better. However, for many niches this may not be possible.

Some niches (e.g. product-based) are perfect for Amazon. Also, if you know a specific product you are having success selling, I would search if that company is using any other affiliate companies. They most likely will provide much more commissions there than on Amazon because it is not under their control.
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Alexis Grant February 11, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Great suggestions, Jack! Thanks!

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Chris Ronzio February 11, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Awesome post! I didn’t know the associates program worked beyond the item that you initially recommend. Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚
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Gaines February 15, 2015 at 10:42 pm

Thank you Alexis for the post.

I am launching a website soon and I want to make sure to hit the ground running and keep the energy up. To do this I am trying to make sure I have learned enough and can present myself well enough to make it successful. Affiliate marketing is one of the revenue streams I had considered and this makes it sound more accessible.

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Alta February 17, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Hello

This is an informative and useful post as I just started my site. I have my own services and products in this niche. I am using the services from site build it. It will be helpful if you share some tips on SEO.
Alta recently posted…Feb 10, Career Choices: Now And For The FutureMy Profile

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Alexis Grant February 17, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Hi Alta,
Here’s a post I’ve written on SEO: http://alexisgrant.com/2011/02/22/seo-tips/
And a free webinar: http://alexisgrant.com/webinar-seo/
Cheers!

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Alta February 17, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Thanks. Much appreciated.

Alta
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Enstine Muki August 27, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Hi Alexis,
Gina mentioned this post on her blog. That’s how I came here and I’m glad I did.

This is good stuff on Affiliate Marketing. I hope to raise my earnings to that level tool some day soon ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a wonderful weekend ahead
Enstine Muki recently posted…Affiliates: Get paid $25 to post an affiliate banner on your site!My Profile

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Les Lieurance December 23, 2015 at 6:37 pm

Alexis:

I’m always studying to how improve my affiliate sites. I checked your article and looked at your affiliate links.

I would highly recommend that you at least “nofollow” any affiliate links. You are passing link juice from your site to amazon and it’s best practice to nofollow any external links that you may be earning money from.

I would also recommend cloaking your links. Yoast has a good article on this subject.

This article is a good read. Thanks.

Les Lieurance

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Tony January 10, 2016 at 8:05 am

@Les
I agree with adding “nofollow” attribute to affiliate links but when it comes to cloaking, we need to be VERY careful with which affiliate links we cloak.

Based on my personal experience, after cloaking Amazon affiliate links on one of my sites, my Amazon Associate account was shut down.

They told me that cloaking Amazon affiliate links is against their policy.

It took me months to get back in the game.

I would recommend reading the affiliate program policy before cloaking it.

Another thing to be aware of is the number of affiliate links are place on a post. We did some experiments and saw increase in organic search traffic after removing the affiliate links from low double digits (20-30) to low single/double digit (6-12).
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vinodh December 31, 2015 at 4:42 pm

I visit this website after longtime because I wanted to learn about affiliate marketing using amazon. I see that you use thesis theme. but could not recognize it readily.
regards
vinodh
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Liam January 14, 2016 at 9:14 pm

I’ve primarily been earning money through amazon but recently started to include Adsense. It’s definitely good to diversify your income streams

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Devesh Binwal March 29, 2016 at 1:41 am

First of all, Thanks @Alexis Grant to share this post with us… Well it’s true, if you have enough visitors to start in Affiliate program, you should go for it, You need to monetizing your blog according to your visitors interests.I am using amazon to promote affiliate links in some of my blogs and it’s a clear winner I must say, I am getting more than 5000 unique visitors daily and averagely earns upto 3,00,000(around 4500 $) per month… I would say go for it ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

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Dweepayan Das May 19, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Alexis:

I’m always finding out to however to improve my affiliate sites. I checked your article and looked at your affiliate links.

I would highly suggest that you just a minimum of “no follow”ย any affiliate links. You are passing link juice from your website to amazon and it’s best to apply to no follow any external links that you just is also earning cash from.

I would also suggest cloaking your links. Yoast has a good article on this subject.

This article could be a good scan. Thanks.
Dweepayan Das recently posted…6 Effective Tips on Blog WritingMy Profile

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Alexis Grant May 22, 2016 at 10:25 am

Great ideas, thanks! I’m practicing low-effort for high-ROI at the moment, but for anyone reading this post, these ideas are both best practices. Thanks for sharing!
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Debbie Gartner July 17, 2016 at 9:23 pm

Thank you so much for these tips. I have been doing Amazon associates (as that fits in better w/ my content.) I created an ebook but it hasn’t gotten that many sales, so I’m going to experiment w/ title and price. And, I’m about to start a new blog that should allow me to get a bit more into some of the digital products.
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Ann August 28, 2016 at 9:42 am

I have to agree, when starting an affiliate site, you are putting up a huge investment, effort, money, and time, then if it is not bad enough, on top of that pit, earn less then 8% commission from you know who, and to insult you even more, give you a 24hr window, then you know who get a free sale from all your hard work when that person did not buy within 24hr, and to be honest, getting any site off the ground really blows, as you normally have to fight google all the way up the hill, which can take weeks, or even months just to find out if what you have done was a complete waste of effort, time, and money. As long as you got the money, and put up a quality site with quality content, then it may pay off in a few years, but how much money did one invest before getting into the black, all while the ceos are laughing at you for promoting them just to give you almost nothing in return for you hard work, and with a 24hr cookie.

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TJ August 30, 2016 at 1:03 pm

Well written article. I wish I read the article before I recently bought into wealthyaffiliates.com (WA). They offer “complete newbies” the opportunity to get into SEO. However, the site owners are great computer and marketing guys, not people with teaching backgrounds. I have a teaching background.

There is a big difference between “information” and “instruction.” They did a good job providing information but terrible on instructions. Therefore it really isn’t for newbies as promoted. As a certified tutor I learned and practiced strategies like “peer to peer” mentoring, intellectual scaffolding and tackled the Zone of Proximal Development” for foreign or special needs students on a college level.

I have shared these facts with the owners of WA and they concur. However, as of yet more friendly learning videos haven’t been posted.

I like honest and straight talk and that is why I like your article. I am that way as well, sometimes too honest and straightforward.

Also, just because people are making good money at any given business or job doesn’t mean that the same outcome awaits the next person, or that it will even be a good fit. Nothing is for everyone and upon further research I suspect SEO isn’t a good fit for me. I am curious on what you pay for freelance writing. Thanks for your time.

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