How I Make Money as a Blogger: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Affiliate Marketing
Over the past five years, I’ve taken a personally inflicted crash course in making money blogging.
I’ve experimented with freelancing, self-publishing ebooks, creating online courses, offering coaching and selling digital products.
Everyone and their cousin seems to want to know the best way to make money blogging. And you want to know how to make money right away.
Can you get started if…
- you’re not an expert on a subject?
- you don’t have a massive audience?
- you don’t want to publish books, create products or run courses?
You can! Here’s a simple blueprint to make it happen.
Make Money Online Through Affiliate Marketing
“I like that I get to earn a bit of money just by pointing people toward stuff I genuinely think they'll want or need,” says Sophie Lizard, creator of BeAFreelanceBlogger.com.
“And I like introducing my readers to new resources and helpful experts they might not have heard about before.”
At BAFB, Lizard helps readers learn how to get paid to write blog posts and sells online courses, ebooks and coaching. And as an affiliate, she makes money recommending other people’s products to her readers, mostly by emailing her list of subscribers.
In its simplest terms, online affiliate marketing for bloggers means:
- You write about a product or service.
- You link to it with a special tracking link.
- When your readers click the link and make a purchase, you get a commission on the sale.
Imagine you just read the perfect how-to book on cooking Indian food, and you want to recommend it to others.
Write a blog post or email newsletter reviewing the book, and link to the book with your Amazon Associates link. If your review convinces a reader to buy, you’ll get a piece of that sale!
Affiliate marketing happens on a spectrum, from an average Joe sharing a link on his blog or social media to a massive publication making special advertising deals through marketing agencies.
So, how can you, as a new blogger, make money from affiliate marketing?
Why I Love Affiliate Marketing
Of all the ways I’ve tried to make money blogging, affiliate marketing is my favorite.
The number-one reason I’ve been more successful as an affiliate than as a publisher, coach or anything else is that it’s easier to sell someone else’s product than my own.
Self-promotion is challenging for the person doing it -- and it’s not too palatable for the person watching it.
Whether it’s a tweet about a blog post or an email promoting an online course, my readers are far more receptive to my promotion of someone other than of myself. And I’m much more comfortable touting someone else!
“There are always a few people who reply all excited, saying that what I just linked to is exactly what they needed -- that's a feel-good moment for me,” explains Lizard.
From the reader’s point of view, this is simple: When they see you bragging about someone else, that someone instantly has some social credit. They’re good enough for you to promote.
And it’s just plain less annoying for the reader when you share resources from other people than when you constantly tout your own wares.
Lizard also points out that “sometimes I'll get a grouchy email from someone who wants me to apologize for telling them about anything with a price tag.” But those are less common, and her readers overall have remained receptive to a promotional email “every month or two.”
Affiliate Marketing in 2016
Why talk about affiliate marketing in 2016? Isn’t that a thing of the past?
Back in the ancient times of blogging -- say, 10 to 15 years ago -- you could create a blog and litter it with ads and affiliate links and bring in decent money.
It was fairly easy: People were looking for things on the Internet, and there wasn’t much there.
In that landscape, your blog was like the one gas station on a dusty two-lane highway between Idaho and Utah.
It didn’t matter that the coffee has been burning for three days and the bathrooms have a permanent puddle of hopefully water on the floor -- people would stop, because it was the only business they’d seen for 75 miles.
Now, we live in more of a Starbucks-on-every-corner era of blogging. Readers have more choices online than they can comprehend, and they’ll likely stop somewhere familiar before even knowing what’s down the block.
You’re down the block, in the little artisan coffee shop. You don’t do nearly the volume of business as the nearest Starbucks.
But your regulars are die-hard fans who will try your latest Flavor of the Day even if it’s peppermint-caramel-raspberry, because they trust your taste. And this is the key to affiliate to marketing.
Making money as a small blogger in 2016 is less about being the only one in your niche and more about cultivating a community of fans around what you uniquely offer within that niche.
Making money online is less about being top of a niche and more about community.
How do you do that? Here’s a simple step-by-step guide I recommend to anyone just getting started blogging.
1. Build a Email List
There are endless ways to grow a blog and make money online.
Nothing’s guaranteed, and none are perfect, but I can tell you what works for me and what is highly recommended by most experts I’ve seen: Build an email list.
In a world where Buzzfeed screams louder than a hangry toddler and Google changes its algorithm faster than you can say “Panda,” being heard above the noise is your blog’s biggest challenge.
An email list cuts through that noise.
Readers subscribe to hear specifically from you, and your emails land in their inboxes. That elevates what you’ve written to a level of importance much higher than it would achieve on your blog alone.
2. Gain Subscribers Through Guest Blogging
Growing an email list, too, can be done in numerous ways. My favorite is through a combination of guest blogging and offering an enticing freebie. Here’s the simple formula:
A. Create a freebie your desired audience will love.
It could be a short PDF ebook, e-guide or worksheet; an audio or video recording; an infographic; or access to an exclusive group.
Or anything you can imagine -- get creative.
Before even launching her blog, Lizard grew her email list by offering a free ebook of blogs that pay freelancers at least $50 per blog post -- an irresistible resource for her target audience!
She still offers the freebie, though over the years it’s grown to a list of 75 blogs that pay $50 to $2,000 per post, plus additional resources.
B. Set up a free email list.
The easiest way to start an email list is through Mailchimp, because it’s free up to 2,000 subscribers -- and really easy to use.
C. Pitch and Write Guest Blog Posts
The process for pitching guest blog posts is the same as pitching an article as a freelance writer.
The only difference is you’re usually looking for compensation in the way of a link rather than money -- but that shouldn’t be part of your pitch, anyway.
D. Link to Your Email Sign-Up from Guest Posts
For this promotional step, focus on blogs that give you a bio with a link from your guest post. Use a line of that bio to promote your freebie and link to your email sign-up page.
This can be as simple as the sign-up page automatically created by Mailchimp, if you don’t want to create your own landing page.
Do this for a while before even starting your blog. Focus on building your email list, so when you do start blogging, you’ll have an audience already built in.
Set a target number of subscribers you want to reach before you’ll launch your blog. Most sources I’ve seen recommend hitting at least 1,000 subscribers to make affiliate marketing worth your while.
I like the number, because it’s feasible for new bloggers, even though it may seem daunting if you’re brand new. It’s also enough to start making money, even though it’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of the Internet.
Once you hit your target threshold of subscribers, you can get to the fun part: making money!
3. Become an Amazon Associate
A simple way to start affiliate sales is by becoming an Amazon Associate. Because Amazon sells just about anything, this will fit regardless of your field of interest.
Whether it’s an e-guide on self-publishing or the best blender for green smoothies, you can make money from Amazon by recommending the resources you love to others.
Amazon affiliate sales don’t usually bring in a lot of income, because Amazon is known for its low prices, and your cut is typically around only 7%. But it’s easy to sign up and get links, and a way to hone your blogging and promotional skills.
4. Promote the Products and Services You Use
When you’re comfortable with promotion and understand which kinds of products your readers will purchase, look into better affiliate programs. A commission of around 50% for higher-priced products or packages is not uncommon.
But you probably don’t want to just pick random products. I’ve found the best affiliate opportunities to be the products I’m already using.
“My golden rule,” says Lizard, “is to only share an affiliate link for things that I would've shared anyway, even if there were no affiliate program and no potential income in it for me.”
As you learn more about your niche, you’ll probably read books, follow blogs, participate in courses and join a membership community or two. Can you make a commission for recommending these to others trying to learn the same things?
Often, the person selling these products will make it easy for you to sign up as affiliate. Who better to promote their offer than someone who already uses (and, hopefully, enjoys) it?
As Lizard puts it, “The fact that I could earn a little money from the promotion is just a nice bonus.”
5. Find Affiliate Opportunities in Your Network
Once you gain some traction, affiliate opportunities could start to find you.
For higher-priced offers like member programs or online courses, the creators will often reach out to recruit affiliate partners directly, rather than make their program open to anyone. This helps ensure higher payouts for each affiliate.
The guest blogging you did to build your email list should go a long way in building connections with influential bloggers. Stay in touch and stay on their radar, and next time they’re preparing for a launch, they may come to you.
These offers are the ones that help me make a few hundred dollars each month just from sending a few emails. For bloggers with larger email lists, these launches mean thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All of this without ever selling anything of your own!
Affiliate Marketing Can Help You Earn Passive Income
After years of experimenting, I now look back and wish I would have started affiliate marketing through my blog sooner. It’s proven my best bet to make extra money without directly trading hours to earn it, as I would with freelancing or coaching.
“Creating products and courses takes time upfront that you can't always be sure will pay off,” Lizard explains.
The same goes for coaching and other income you have trade your time to earn. “...the time and energy you'll spend … is much more than what it takes to write and send a couple of emails about an affiliate product.”
Affiliate marketing is less stable than other ways to make money blogging, though, Lizard cautions.
“Affiliate marketing takes no greater effort than freelance blogging,” she says, “but the big difference is that you don't know how much you'll earn from an affiliate campaign until the sales figures come in.”
Lizard points out that freelancing is “one of the most straightforward ways for bloggers to make a reasonably predictable income month after month,” and it remains her main source.
Affiliate marketing is a smart addition to your other blogging efforts.
Even as I’ve shifted my focus away from running my blog, the website still sees traffic daily. That means even when I’m not directly working on the blog, I can still earn money from affiliate sales.
That’s a pretty cool way to make some extra money to save for future projects!
Your Turn: Have you tried affiliate marketing at your blog? What tips do you have to add?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more.