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How to succeed at affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing is a tough way to make a living these days. The competition is fierce, the commissions are slimmer than ever, and the marketing costs higher than ever. All this was brought to mind for me when someone sent me a question on affiliate marketing. This question was from someone with a lot of experience in Internet marketing who is tired of working for other people and wants a business of her own, in an area that she knows about, such as fashion or beauty. But she knows this is a tough business, so she wants to know what she should do differently.


It wasn’t too many years ago that just about anyone who knew how to code a link to a Web site could be a successful affiliate marketer. You drop a few pennies on paid search or banner ads, you gin up a Web site where you dump your affiliate links, and presto! It was a cash machine. Unfortunately, there are now tens of millions of affiliates with the same dream, selling the same products, and sales seem a bit more meager than before. What can you do to succeed at affiliate marketing today?
It has become borderline unaffordable for most affiliate marketers to use paid media, whether it is banner ads, paid search, or something else, especially when they are first starting out. To take advantage of free forms of marketing, such as organic search or social media, you need to start sinking your time into building unique, interesting content. In competitive fields such as fashion and beauty, that means an awful lot of content, and your first impulse might be be one-stop shopping, to have the biggest catalog, with the most products, with the widest selection, and that idea couldn’t be worse. It’s incredibly hard to compete with Amazon.com and other large companies—you’ll never stand out with so many products.
Instead, specialize! Fashion or beauty are still way too broad. I’d pick something super-specialized, such as:

  • Clothing for women with thick waists
  • Hair styles for over-40 women who have always wore their hair long
  • Styles for women to wear to work at casual firms
  • Piercings that can be easily removed for work
  • Skin care for African American women with uneven complexions
  • Tips for women who must get ready in 30 minutes or less each day
  • Clothing for women who like Goth styles
  • Alternatives to permanent tattoos for teenagers whose parents won’t say “yes”
  • Hair coloring tips for senior citizens

There are a lot of ideas here, and you can probably think of hundreds more. Pick one of them. Pick one that you know something about and are willing to devote lots of time into researching so you can write about this problem endlessly.
I know zero about fashion or beauty, so none of these ideas might be any good. (And certainly I would not expect them to dovetail with your specific interests.) But I use them as examples of what you might consider so that you see how specific you should start out and you notice three things about each idea:

  • It is about a specific audience
  • It solves a very specific problem
  • There can be many different suggestions (read: products) for the problem

So, you need to be a lot more focused on what your expertise is within fashion and beauty and construct a narrow site that you can write very good content for. Start small with this kind of very specific focus. You can always add more sites later. If they are similar enough, someday you might have the big catalog that you dreamed of at first. You just need to get there a step at a time.
The successful affiliates that I know spend a lot of time on their businesses. They create unique and compelling content with deep information that attracts the audience for the products they sell. It’s not enough to warm over the product catalog. Not only will Google not show you in the results, but they won’t even allow paid search ads for such duplicate content. The successful affiliates know a lot about subjects that interest their customers. The real secret to affiliate success is to write content that solves problems and attracts customers to your expertise. If you start small and grow, you can succeed, too.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in internet marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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