How to Survive the Affiliate Evolution

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for a while. If you’re new or just starting out in affiliate marketing, this post is not for you. I understand that you won’t neccessarily have the resources to pull this strategy off in it’s entirety. If you’re an affiliate who’s career is less than a year old, you’d likely be best served by building a defensible site in a competitive category and starting your expansion fund as quickly as possible with the profits.

This post is also not aimed at affiliates on the top end of the earning spectrum – you already know what I’m about to say and like me, have probably already had it in action for at least a year or more.

Additionally, I also am not talking to “enthusiast” affiliates… also known as those who have one to two core flagship sites they love with no intentions to ever own more and instead focus on devoting all their individual attentions to the ones currently in place for whatever reason.

This post is aimed at the more “seasoned” mid-earnings level affiliates who have been earning their full respectable income each year online for the last two years at minimum through a variety of sites… and those who are still one man bands for the most part and are following the same basic strategy they’ve been using for the last few years.

Whether or not you know it, or maybe in some cases, allow yourself to accept it, the online arena is going through an evolution as a whole. But, affiliates, especially the mid-level guys, will see one of the largest evolutions as an industry online in the next three years as it’s likely seen in the entire history of the affiliate space before this combined.

This evolution will not be technology based, nor will it be “fundamentals” based. It will be strategy based. And if you don’t accept the existence of the evolution and start to prepare, strategize and execute based on it, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll be polishing your resumes and accepting a corporate position within the next three years.

The concept that site building and promotion on the web is changing is something I’ve personally been alluding too – no, I’ve damn straight been saying it – for well over a year via posts about how the concepts of things like creating unique content and link development have been evolving.

My opinions on content creation and link development are really only parts of my strong opinions on the larger “whole” – which for me and many other entreprenuers on the web is owning “affiliate based sites”.

The way you currently build, monetize and promote an affiliate site all need to adapt to the evolution if you want to survive. I’m going to tackle each of these segments below, while trying not to be too long winded. We all know how that usually works with me though don’t we? ;-)

Some things that should go into building a successful affiliate site to survive the evolution…

– Start buying brandable and not keyword laden domains. If you can include a keyword, great, but branding is important and neccessary. Better yet, start buying existing brandable domain names and give yourself a headstart on the aging and trust process.

– Learn what unique content really is and start creating it and whether or not you’re blogging, top bloggers can teach you a thing or two about creating great content for any site. And while the ranking war is still mainly about links, don’t think for a second that you should be ignoring on-page factors when creating your site content.

– Give your site the ability to create a dialogue instead of a monologue. What I mean by that is that commercial and a lot of informational websites were originally someone publishing content and visitors reading it. We, as surfers and shoppers, simply listened to their voice. But, web 2.0 turned the monologue of the net into a dialogue. People publish content and the web 2.0 evolution allowed users to speak back – creating a visible and published dialogue. AKA user generated content. It is not only good as a source of free content and as a tactic to keep visitors returning, but it is going to be a vital part of site strategy from this point forward for almost all sites on the web. If you don’t give users a voice on your site, they’ll eventually go somewhere that will in most cases.

– What I’ve found over the last year or two is that design matters. I’m not saying an ugly site can’t survive. And I’m not saying ugly sites don’t convert. What I am saying is ugly sites can make it hard to get serious high level partnerships (more when we talk about monetizing), to be bought, develop quality links and to be taken seriously by users (they’ve evolved too – in sophistication and expectations). I’m not saying the design needs to be elaborate or busy. I’m simply saying that the design (keep in mind, this also includes a clear navigation structure that doesn’t make the user think) could give you a competitive advantage, however small. So why not take it?

– Plan for expansion before you need to. By this, I mean don’t lock yourself into a small hole you may later wish you could climb out of. Think of potential site expansion from the day you start planning the site. Just because you’re not building Rome today doesn’t mean you may not want to build it over time.

– Differentiate yourself and add value. Let’s get one thing straight. Google doesn’t hate affiliate sites. Google hates shit affiliate sites. Treat your affiliate site like any “real business” and develop a point of difference. Sorry guys, it’s up to you to figure out how to do this. But, I can promise you that spending some time on doing this, on creating a POD, will be the single biggest thing you can do to keep your resume dusty and on your hard drive.

There is definitely more you can add to the list, but those are my core starting points when I’m in the process of site development. And the POD is always the foremost thought in my mind.

When I first started out in this business, we built sites around affiliate programs. What that means is that we heard the blue widget affiliate program was successful for friends, so we went and registered buybluewidgets.com and put up a site that talked about blue widgets and sent people to bluewidgets.com. The whole point of the site was to be a sales vehicle for bluewidgets.com.

Since then, my strategy for that has changed. Instead of developing a site around one affiliate program or revenue stream, a site is developed around a topic where we can create a large and rich site covering everything you ever wanted to know about widgets, and promote bluewidgets.com along with redwidgets.com, yellowwidgets.com, widgetgadgets.com, widgetaccessories.com, widgetcovers.com and where we know there is a strong presence of advertisers bidding on widget keywords and doing widget ad buys.

In other words, your monetization possibilities have expanded and – well, there’s no easy way to say this – you’re an idiot if you don’t take advantage of it.

Some things that should go into monetizing a successful affiliate site to survive the evolution…

– Having multiple affiliate programs for not only different types of items (widget covers as well as blue widgets) that make sense for the core topic, but also having different suppliers for blue widgets themselves. If you have programming knowledge (if you don’t, you should hire someone who does, but more on that later) you can even create some very neat combinations of feeds available from affiliate suppliers custom to how you can envision using them. The sky is the limit.

– Sell advertising. You can do this via the obvious methods on a cost per click basis or once you get your site to some impressive traffic levels, you can also sell advertising in the form of traditional banners based on a CPM basis. A good affiliate site will do both – because just as with your affiliate programs, you don’t want all of your ad revenue coming from one supplier either.

– Learn about all the lovely benefits of cost per action and figure out how to apply it to your site.

– Start creating methods to contact users without them having to visit your site. Develop email lists (I have had a good experience utilizing Constant Contact) and give your site a blog (note: that is actually competently written for on a regular basis) and start obtaining rss subscribers.

– Consider becoming a merchant if your site is successful enough that the reward for the effort is there. This is particularly useful for sites that target areas where products are very commonly offered as downloads – think software, but expand your mind and realize the possibilities in your market through some research.

– If you see a merchant you’d love to be an affiliate for, approach them. You’d be surprised how many merchants simply didn’t know affiliate marketing was available or already have private invite only programs you won’t see advertised on their site.

– Collect and analyze demographics and statistics and leverage them. Use them to properly price, and increase price when relevant, your advertising.

Affiliates have to learn to become publishers of valuable web properties and then leverage those web properties to the max to create earnings. Now, if you have a great site and have a strategy to monetize that site, you’ll need to get it traffic in order to go through the effort to put those monetization strategies in place (and have the leverage to get the bigger deals).

Things you absolutely need to know to market an affiliate site to its maximum potential during and after the evolution…

– Learn how to develop site traffic without the search engines. And then sit back and take note about how actually promoting your site outside the search engines actually helps you spank ranks within them. You can not only notify users of special offers via affiliate programs, but you can also use rss as another available advertising option for advertisers.

– Understand social media optimization and personalized search as seperate entities, as well as the effect that social media optimization has on SEO and the potential effects it will have on personalized search.

– Learn to market a site through more “traditional online channels”. Think press releases and media intros (Rand recently coined the phrase Linkerati to perfectly describe what I have always called the “media” I refer to with “media intros”). If you’ve built a site to have a unique point of difference as instructed above, you definitely have a site that can create newsworthy press release opportunities and one that is worth taking the time to do media intros and catch a reporter’s or blogger’s eye.

– There is still a place for the tried and true methods of link development providing you update your execution and strategy in relation to them to keep up with the current times.

– Developing relationships within your niche can be vital. Look to the SEO Sphere for proof of that. Certain SEO bloggers have spent years building contacts and respect in the industry and as a result, you’re likely to see them more often cited on the bigger SEO outlets than you will the “average” SEO blogger.

So, there you have it. The way I feel affiliates need to start building sites to not only thrive, but to survive. But, that’s a hell of a lot of work. So, there is one more huge – and I do mean huge – piece to this puzzle. Learning to run a real business…

I’m as guilty as the next person of starting as a one man band, being a horrid “traditional business person” as far as flowcharts and creating a traditional business plan – and leaving it that way for many years. But, the bottom line is that in order to survive as an affiliate, you need to become a publisher in the general sense of the word, and the only way to do that to a maximum on more than one or two sites is to scale.

So, learn to not only outsource, but also – when you can afford it – start to hire in house staff. Learn to make every aspect of building, monetizing and marketing your sites a process. Learn to make their upkeep a process. And then create a process for training people to do those processes. If I’ve lost you, then what you need to do, right this moment, is to get a copy of The E-Myth Revisited.

Seriously, that is all I’m going to say about scale and processes or why you need them. They’re absolutely vital to avoid your extinction as an affiliate and you need to read that book, right now. And then read it again. The book changed my entire thought process and you need to read it with an open mind and allow it to open your mind to the possibilities for yourself and for your business.

And also get yourself incorporated or become an LLC. My top recommendation is to find a lawyer to do this for you so he can advise you on the best options in your state for what your business encompasses (both now and what you hope to have it encompass in the future). If you can’t do that, then look into either using an online incorporation service or by doing it yourself. But, again, use a lawyer (and accountant for that matter for tax purposes) whenever possible for those types of items.

Additionally, get your ass to SCORE or the SBA if you’re an American (feel free to drop links to the equivalents in any other countries in the comments below) and take advantage of the free business training and mentor programs they have. These organizations are falling all over themselves to make you knowledgeable as a business owner. Take advantage of it.

Of course, all of this is only my two cents… for what it’s worth…

Edited three+ years later to add…

Would this really work if you implemented it? Sure as hell will.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Sugarrae runs on the Genesis Framework

Genesis Framework

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The theme is not only highly customizable, but it has allowed me to run Sugarrae more professionally, with a much more targeted focus on monetization than it ever has been able to achieve before.

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Comments

  1. Hi Rae;
    I found your blog through PRWeb and enjoy reading few articles so far. I have been working with some musicians as manager and recently working with a studio based new age musician and it is kind of hard to find affiliate programs for musicians and for this specific genre (New Age), it has been even harder (at least for me).

    I wonder if you have some ideas of how to find the right affiliate websites to promote/sell some more CD/MP3 s through them.

    Thanks for your help and great blog posts.

    Best regards;
    Marian

  2. Mart Shark says:

    Fancy missing an affiliate opportunity off your Amazon Don’t Make Me Think link. Tut tut :-)

  3. Matthew Martell says:

    Rae, It’s 7 years later. It seems this advice is still industry standard. Do you see the next shift happening? All I’m seeing are tools that make doing all of the above even easier.

    Perhaps engaging in a teaching conversation with customers is the root of great sales.
    Besides having better and better tools, have we “arrived”?

    Thanks,
    Matthew Martell

    • Ha, yeah, every year or so I come back to this post to see if I can update it and it pretty much hasn’t needed it yet. :) I think solving problems is the root of most affiliate sales – especially those from a personal brand perspective. :)

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