In my recent post on how to research a niche one of the topics I glazed over was checking for the presence of multiple affiliate programs. Assuming you've found a niche idea that passed the research litmus test (or are already in a niche), it's time to dig deep to find the best affiliate programs for you to promote within it.
Below I'm going to cover…
- How to figure out what products your visitors want to buy
- How to figure out what products your competitors are marketing
- How to find affiliate programs in your niche
- How to compare affiliate programs when there are multiple options
- What to do when a merchant you want to promote declines your application
Figuring Out What Products Your Visitors Want to Buy
Don't overlook the obvious
Assuming you're actually “into” whatever niche you're marketing, the things you already use and love within that niche should be your first starting point. Promoting products you actually use is much easier than promoting products you're not familiar with.
If you own a recipe blog, chances are you have a preferred blender, slow cooker, pots and pan set, rice cooker, spatula, etc. for a reason. Start with those products. Not only will they be the easiest to write extremely detailed reviews for, but people want to use the same products, tools and services people they want to emulate do.
If I'm following your blog because you make amazing cupcakes, then I want to know what mixer, cooling racks, icing tips, etc you're using the make those amazing cupcakes. You're the expert. I'm the person trying to emulate your cupcakes. Tell me what will help me do it.
A simple and visible “favorite resources” or “tools of the trade” or “favorite products” page will help you do it (much like the toolbox page in my main navigation) without being obtrusive or pushing a “hard sell” if you have a fear of doing so.
Use Amazon to find in demand products in your niche
If only the largest online retailer in the world told you which products were their top sellers in any given category. Oh wait… they do.
The Amazon Best Sellers list will show you the top 100 selling items in any given category. And you can even drill down from there. Let's say you're in the pet niche. You can see a list of their top 100 selling products in pets. Focus on a specific type of pet? Then you can drill down further and see their top 100 selling dog related products.
(You can click on any image listed in this post to enlarge it.)
Still not specific enough? Then keep drilling to find their top 100 selling dog beds and furniture items. What's that? Still not specific enough? Keep drilling down to their top 100 selling dog bed pillows.
On top of being able to drill down into their best sellers, they'll also tell you the most wished for items are in each category (meaning the top items in that category people are adding to their Amazon wish lists). In the primary department categories, they'll also have a listing of “movers and shakers” (products that are seeing sales increases like this one for pet supplies) allowing you to see which products are getting hot sales wise.
And unlike expensive market research for what products consumers are buying in any given category, Amazon's information is updated hourly.
Solve problems or fulfill needs for your visitors
I mention this anytime I discuss making money with affiliate marketing, but I'm going to say it again. Showing a visitor how to solve a problem or fulfill a need is the easiest way to make an affiliate sale.
Let me give you an example. I own a Taurus 738 TCP .380 handgun. Every time I took it to the range, I'd get trigger bite (where the trigger would pinch my finger leaving painful marks). It never happened to my husband but it continually happened to me. So, I went online one night trying to figure out why. It turns out I wasn't alone.
But a blogger had done a post on it and mentioned they'd solved the problem by purchasing a certain trigger accessory – with pictures showing them installing it (AKA I believed their story). I had a problem, they showed me how they solved it and I bought the solution.
If you solve problems or fulfill needs, you'll make sales. Period. The only thing you have to do is figure out what problems or needs the people in your niche have. So how do you do that?
One way is via Uber Suggest. By taking your main topic and adding keywords like “how to” or “how do I” or “problem”, you'll get a lot of potential issues you can help people solve. Looking at the “g” results below showed me a search for “dog problem going up stairs”. A little research showed me it was a common problem with readily available (and buyable) solutions.
I also mine SEMRush for this same type of data. I'll try the same thing with a keyword based search (searching a keyword, viewing the organic keywords for that term and filtering it to show only those with “how to”, etc. in it).
This works well in some industries and not so well in others. But when it works well, it gives me a new list of tools, products and services to look into promoting. Your results will vary.
Recommend solid products that you know other people love
Not everyone has the time or money to try every product they would like to recommend to their readers. On the Sugarrae blog, I wouldn't recommend anything I hadn't tried myself. But, if you're in a niche where there are hundreds or thousands of products you can use, it's not really feasible to try each and every product – and you want people to have options. This is where intel regarding top rated products comes in handy.
Most online stores that have rating systems allow you to sort their products based on those ratings. Amazon being the most obvious. But tons of big players in niche areas do as well. Going back to the dog example, Petco, which is a large pet product retailer in the United States, has a top rated dog products list.
Maybe your dog doesn't like to play fetch, but as we all know, plenty of dogs do. Near the top of their best sellers list is the Chuckit Tennis Ball Launcher. With 100% of the reviews saying they'd recommend it, it seems like it is probably a decent product. But for all I know, Petco could moderate their reviews. But a quick search on Amazon confirms the product value, having a five star rating from 267 reviews.
I've never touched this product, or used it, but I have found some data and feedback that would make me feel comfortable recommending it. This allows me to find products with value that may not have necessarily done enough volume to end up on the top 100 selling items list in a department of the world's largest online retailer (Amazon).
Figuring Out What Your Competitors Are Marketing
While there's a ton of smart research you can do to figure out what products will sell in your niche (via methods like the ones listed above), watching what you're competitors are marketing can also be very telling. Unfortunately, for this to be fully accurate, your competitors have to be actively marketing with intention driven by results vs. merely throwing things against the wall.
But, when looking at a competitor (be they another blogger or a larger retailer), there are a few things you can stalk to get some intel.
Pay attention to what is shown above the fold
When marketers say “above the fold” they are referring to what is visible on your screen without having to scroll. Typically, revenue driving products or pages that “attention to revenue” retailers (or bloggers) want you to access are listed above the fold. If the competitor is another blogger, also check to see if they have a “reviews” section.
Follow the paid keywords
If a blogger or affiliate competitor is running PPC, pay attention to which landing pages they're spending the most money to get people to land on – and check out what it is they're promoting on said page. With SEMRush, you can do this via the Ads keywords report.
Research sites with decent keyword overlap of your site
One cool thing that SEMRush does is that it will show you sites that are similar to yours. By similar, they mean that they've determined there is a fair amount of overlap in the keywords you and the sites listed there are ranking for.
Sometimes checking out the sites listed there can present you with new site expansion topics, products, services, affiliate programs, etc.
Competitor income reports
So, there's this thing where some bloggers post an income report each month telling you exactly what they made from their blog and via what affiliate programs and revenue drivers. The most notable I know of that does this is Pat Flynn.
Most explain the reasoning behind doing so is to keep themselves accountable and to motivate others. These reports can have a lot of great intel if you're in a niche where your competitors publish them.
Just head over to Google and do a search for “[topic] blog income report” without the quotes. For instance “recipe blog income report” pulls up income reports from over ten different blogs in the top 20 results with almost all of them being recently published. Not every niche has people that do it, but it's certainly worth a look to see if any bloggers in yours does.
How to Find Affiliate Programs in Your Niche
You've likely already found a few decent affiliate programs while researching products to promote and what your competition is marketing. But, there are many more ways to find a great affiliate program to work with.
Brands use networks
If you're looking to affiliate for a big brand, be aware that they are almost always with a network. I say almost always despite never having seen a large brand NOT use a network for their affiliate program, but it could happen. And brands are almost always with an “A List” network (I covered what those are here).
In short, if you're looking for an affiliate program of a big brand, you'll likely find it at one of the networks below (if the brand has an affiliate program).
If you're looking for things like eBooks or digital downloads (including software), some of the larger e-Product networks include (but are certainly not limited to):
I gave some information about selling digital products in the same post as I did the “A-List” networks.
The “Indie” stands for independent. These are retailers that aren't with a network and run their own program using an affiliate program software hosted on their own servers.
The easiest way to find these programs is to do a search in google for “[your topic] affiliate” and “[your topic] associate” (which is what some companies refer to affiliates as). Once again, you can find more about the pros and cons of an indie program here.
Checking the site footers of products you'd like to promote
Whether they're with a network or running an indie program, a lot of sites will link to their affiliate program in their footer (less often they may also be linked to in the header). So if there is a specific merchant you want to work with or product you want to promote, look for an affiliate program or associates program link on their website.
Searching the networks for affiliate programs
The networks have a ton of affiliate programs you can search through to find cool items and merchants to promote. In my opinion, CJ wins the award for being the easiest to navigate when you have no idea what you're looking for.
Linkshare is unequivocally the worst in my opinion. To be honest, I avoid using Linkshare because of that and typically only utilize them if forced (because they have a merchant I specifically want to affiliate for).
Because CJ is the largest affiliate network, I'll use that in my example research below. Once you've signed up for an affiliate account, login and go to the Advertisers tab. There you'll find over 3,000 merchants listed uselessly in alphabetical order. But never fear, at the top right you'll find options to sort the list by EPC or network earnings.
Near the top left of that screen, you'll see two search boxes. One says “Advertiser(s)” and the other says “Keyword(s)”. If you know the name of the merchant you're looking for, you can type it into the “Advertiser(s)” box and click search. If you see no results, then that merchant doesn't have a program with CJ.
If you're not exactly sure what you're looking for, then you can do a keyword based search – and add in additional filters to ensure you get programs that are actually applicable to you. The additional filters you can use with a keyword search include:
- Mobile certified advertisers only (more on that here)
- New advertisers only – limits your search to show only those advertisers that have joined the network within the last 30 days.
- Content advertisers only – Honestly, I'm not sure what this option is and wasn't able to find any documentation – within CJ or outside of it – that explained it.
- Status – this allows you to filter our programs based on their status within the network. This helps you exclude merchants such as those with (for the time being) inactive programs.
- Category – This will limit the search results to programs within a specific category. Additionally, if you check off a specific category but don't enter an advertiser name or keyword and click search, it will show you a full list of programs in that category in alphabetical order.
- Serviceable area – this allows you to filter out companies that may not offer products or services to your core country market. For example, by checking off United States in this section, you limit the results to merchants who sell to or provide service to US customers.
- Language – allows you to specify programs with product offerings in the language you need (for those of us in the US, that would be English).
Below is a search I ran for the keyword “fishing” and then sorted by network earnings, high to low. Following that is a screenshot of a search I did in the recreation and leisure category, limited specifically to outdoors without specifying an advertiser or keyword so that I could see all advertisers in that subcategory.
Once you find an advertiser (or several) that you'd like to work with, just click the join program button under the advertiser's name.
Using the above methods you'll no doubt be able to find a lot of merchants, products and services that are applicable to your niche. And sometimes by a lot, you find a LOT – many selling the same products or services. So how do you choose which programs to promote?
Comparing Affiliate Programs When There are Multiple Options
Not all affiliate programs are created equal. So how do you choose between similar programs? If you answered “choose the one with the highest commission per sale” then you'd be wrong.
A lot more goes into determining which affiliate program will be the most profitable for you to promote. Some relative comparison factors include:
Product & merchant quality
This should go without saying, but you want to ensure the products you recommend are good products and that the merchant selling them has a decent reputation. Every product or merchant will have it's haters. But you want to ensure that most of their customer base doesn't fall into that category. This is where personal experience with the product or merchant can come in handy.
The merchant website
A few merchants will tell you what their average conversion rate is (for all visitors, not affiliate specific). But even if they're not sharing that data, their website can tell you a thing or two about how well they may or may not convert.
I usually hit the site and look for a few key features. Do I see what I'm looking for easily? Is the site easy to navigate? Is the buying process enjoyable? Would I feel comfortable buying from them?
I also take a look at shipping fees. More than once I've seen a merchant offering significantly lower “prices” that get considerably jacked when you head to through the checkout process with higher than average and expected shipping and handling fees. I know I personally see that as a type of bait and switch and it immediately makes me uncomfortable with the merchant as a consumer.
By saying the above items are relative, I mean that they're all open to interpretation. However, there are also a lot of “hard factors” you can compare programs against. Some of those hard factors include:
This is how much the merchant plans to pay you per whatever action it is they're paying for (usually a sale). Sometimes these numbers are fixed. Other times these numbers are a % of the sale you generate.
Some programs also have something known as “recurring commissions”. Most common with subscription like services (like Raven Tools for example), recurring commissions pay you a commission each month for as long as the person you referred with an affiliate link pays for the service.
These aren't super common, but they are nice if whatever you're going to be selling is the type of product or service people will continue to use for a long time.
Even rarer are lifetime commissions, which is where a merchant pays you on any sale from a customer you initially generated for life, whether or not they use your affiliate link on future purchases.
So why did I say that you can't base your decision solely off commissions? If merchant A pays $10 per sale and merchant B pays $20 per sale, why wouldn't that be an obvious decision? Because conversion rates make all the difference in regards to your bottom line.
Let's say merchant A converts at 4% and merchant B converts at 1%. If you send 100 visitors to merchant A, then in theory 4 of those clicks would convert to sales, paying you $40 in commissions. If you send 100 visitors to merchant B, then in theory 1 of those clicks would convert into sales, paying you $20 in commissions. What appears at first look to be “higher commissions” doesn't always turn out to be true.
But let's say you have no idea what the conversion rate is for the program. That's where EPC can come in handy.
In most affiliate programs, a merchant will show you an EPC for the program. EPC stands for earnings per click. The EPC is how much the an affiliate earns on average per click on traffic they send to the merchant. The formula is simple. Commissions received divided by the number of clicks sent equals the EPC.
Let's use the scenario for merchant B above. You send 100 visitors, 1 of them turn into a sale and you're paid $20 in commission by the merchant.
$20 (commission) / 100 (clicks sent) = $0.20 EPC
With merchant A you'd come up with the following EPC:
$40 (commission) / 100 (clicks sent) = $0.40 EPC
Because the EPC shown for the program based on the number of commissions all affiliates using the program are paid divided by the number of clicks all affiliates using the program sent, it's an extremely handy number to have – especially when comparing programs. It's what every affiliate in the program earns per click sent to the merchant, on average.
Average order value (AOV)
Some merchants will promote this, others wont. The average order value is the average amount someone spends in their store when making a purchase. If merchant C has an average order value of $80 dollars and merchant D has an average order value of $120, that means you'll make more money with merchant D if all other things are equal.
I'll also check out the creatives being offered by the merchant prior to making a decision. Are their creatives well designed and something I'd want to see on my website? Are the sizes I'd need available? How up to date are they? Do I see special creatives for specific holidays (this usually implies the program is very actively managed)?
I also want to ensure that deep linking is available. If a program doesn't allow deep linking, then that means you can only send visitors through an affiliate link to the specific pages they've designated (like the homepage or a very high level category page).
In my experience, the inability to deep link hinders my ability to make sales as an affiliate. Could you imagine recommending a specific blender and then only being able to send the user to the Amazon homepage with your affiliate link to buy it? I want to send them to the actual sales page for the blender.
Deep linking allows me to send affiliated traffic to any internal pages on the site I decide to send it to.
The cookie is what is placed on the users computer when they click on your affiliate link to let them merchant know that person was referred by you. Cookie duration is usually 30, 60 or 90 days in length.
Let's say an affiliate advertisement here on Sugarrae is for a program with a 30 day cookie duration. If you click on that affiliate link, then the merchant will pay me a commission if you convert for them within the next 30 days.
Let's say you click on my link and then bookmark it. You come back 28 days later via your bookmark and purchase something. I would be paid commission on that sale. If you came back 31 days later via your bookmark and purchase something, I would receive zero commission on that sale.
Typically I won't work with a company that offers less than a 30 day cookie duration. 60 days seems to be a popular number offered by merchants with 90 days not being unheard of, but also not being the most common option. There's also a few merchants who offer lifetime cookies – but I haven't come across one in years LOL.
Some networks offer this information, some don't. This is not to be confused with EPC. Network earnings are how much in commissions are being earned from a program, regardless of its EPC. You can have a low EPC and still have a high network earning tally.
If a merchant has a $4 EPC but is super niche, it may be a low earner within the network overall whereas merchant with a $0.40 EPC but who carries a popular, mainstream product might drive more overall commission despite making less money per click because more people are looking for – and buying – their product.
Comparing all the data
Now, the above is obviously a lot of information to digest. Especially if you're comparing multiple programs against each other vs. doing a one to one comparison. Putting this information in a spreadsheet you can filter based on different factors sometimes makes for an easier comparison.
Download a free Affiliate Merchant Comparison spreadsheet template.
What to Do When Your Application Gets Declined
So you've decided which programs you want to promote and apply to them. And then it happens. You get declined by a merchant you really wanted to work with. It happens. It's common. And you shouldn't take it personally.
Merchants have a ton of weird reasons they turn down publishers (affiliates) and it's definitely not code for “we think your site sucks”. Ok, sometimes it is, but in most cases it has more to do with your traffic levels, standing in the network, etc.
But if you're really serious about working with the merchant, you do have a few options.
Talk with the affiliate manager
Most programs have the contact information of their affiliate manager visible to all. Send the affiliate manager an email and state your case. Explain you were denied from the program and why you want to promote their products.
- DO be polite. This is not the time to get all indignant that you were denied. If you can't represent your own brand in a good light, then why the hell would they want you promoting theirs?
- DON'T make insane sales promises. Don't tell a merchant you'll flood them with sales – especially if you're not 100% sure you will.
- DO explain to the affiliate manager that you plan to work hard and ethically to promote their program.
- DO explain why you believe your site is a good fit for their program, even if it might not meet all of their typical acceptance requirements.
If the affiliate manager replies and the answer is still no, follow up to thank them for taking the time to reply and ask them (if they didn't already tell you) what qualifications you need to have so you can re-apply to the program in the future once you meet them.
The master affiliate network workaround
I call companies like Viglink and Skimlinks master affiliate networks. Basically, they're a middle man between you and affiliate programs. They have a huge network of sub affiliates and acceptance into almost every network affiliate program there is.
You can promote those merchants as a sub affiliate of theirs, earning a commission, but they get a cut of those commissions. I explained in depth how these networks work here.
The short story is that if you were denied for being “too small a fish” by the affiliate program directly, you can still promote their products and earn commissions through a master affiliate network.
You'll make a little less promoting the program than if you did it directly, but it can be a great workaround to use while you work on meeting the minimum requirements for being accepted into the merchant program directly.
Have Anything to Add?
The above should give you a good blueprint to begin working through to find the top affiliate programs for your niche. If you have any tips to add or share, be sure to drop them in the comments below.