February 10, 2015
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.)
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 withaffiliate 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.
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
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?
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,…