Beginner Guides / Monetization

Is Affiliate Marketing Hard? It Doesn’t Have to Be

Gene Schleeter April 8, 2022
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On its surface, there’s nothing difficult about affiliate marketing. You write about a product, rank in Google, your readers buy the product, and you get paid.

If that were all it took, we’d all be millionaires. Unfortunately, digital marketing is a bit more complicated than that. But, it doesn’t have to be as complex as some people make it out to be.

Don’t get me wrong; affiliate marketing is hard work. But we’re going to work smarter, take a thoughtful approach, and simplify whatever we can.

I will walk you through some of the biggest challenges I’ve seen affiliate marketers face and some ways to overcome them.

Where can I learn about affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a straightforward form of advertising, and it’s not difficult to learn. What is a bit tricky is learning how to do it. And more importantly, you want to learn to do it right. That’s the hard part.

Many people who teach affiliate marketing are not affiliate marketers themselves.

“Those who can’t do, teach.” That quote exists for a reason. If someone is swearing that they have made millions of dollars through affiliate marketing, and they’ll teach you everything for $49.99, do you really think they know what they’re talking about?

If your answer is yes, then I have a boat to sell you.

There’s a lot of gatekeeping in affiliate marketing. No real marketers want to create competition for themselves, so they keep their strategies secret. When successful marketers aren’t willing to share how it works, the social media gurus fill the void.

I don’t want to be overly cynical. There are a lot of marketers out there offering legit courses. But it’s hard to tell who’s talking and who’s walking.

If you find someone teaching fundamental, actionable online marketing strategies, then no, affiliate marketing isn’t hard to learn. You create content, drive traffic to your content, and monetize your content.

The good news for you is that the team at Lasso knows what we’re talking about. We’ve build large, successful affiliate websites, and we’re happy to share what we know.

If you want to learn more about affiliate marketing, check out our affiliate marketing beginners guide.

Benefits of affiliate marketing

When you learn affiliate marketing the right way, you’ll find this is a very rewarding industry.

Here are some of the great things affiliate marketing can give you.

It’s semi-passive income

There’s no better financial dream than passive income. Do some work now, make money forever. Who would say no to that?

Earlier I mentioned that Google wiped out 90% of my traffic overnight; I abandoned that site over a year ago. But it’s still running in the background, making me money. It’s not a lot of money, but it makes more than it costs to keep the site running.

I say affiliate marketing is semi-passive because it won’t make money forever if you don’t put work into it. The lion’s share of the work is in the beginning, but you still need to do some upkeep and stay relevant if you want to continue getting traffic from search engines.

Most “passive income” streams are semi-passive, except for investing in stocks, mutual funds, etc. Those income streams are completely passive but will be a low-risk, low-reward investment. And if you know anything about risk evaluation, you know the holy grail is low-risk, high-reward investment.

Affiliate marketing is hard, but it’s low-risk, high reward

Affiliate marketing is a low-risk income strategy with the potential to yield high rewards. But it will always require some sort of investment.

For most affiliate marketing beginners, the investment will be their time. The risk to them is that their time investment doesn’t pay off. It takes time to stand up a site, optimize it, write content, and promote affiliate products. That’s not a lot of risk.

Now, there are ways to introduce additional risk to an affiliate marketing model, like buying more expensive tools upfront and using paid traffic. Those things add to the amount of money you’ll stand to lose if your online business isn’t successful.

The good news is that if you do everything right, your business should succeed. Affiliate marketing is a proven business model, and there’s a reason so many people swear by it.

It’s lucrative

Why do you think so many people are “teaching” others how to start an affiliate marketing business? It’s because a lot of people want to learn. And the reason a lot of people want to learn about affiliate marketing is that there’s a lot of money to be made.

According to Supermetrics, brands are expected to spend over eight billion dollars on affiliate marketing commissions in 2022. That’s a lot of money up for grabs.

Now, there’s a lot of competition out there. Google Trends shows affiliate marketing interest has doubled in the last five years. However, I wouldn’t worry too much about competition.

In my personal experience, 99% of affiliate marketers will give up before making any money. Most bloggers who sign up for our affiliate program never put our referral link on their site.

It feels good to sign up for things and tell yourself you will be rich. But once that dopamine hit goes away and it’s time to go to work, most people call it quits.

The good news for you is that you know that’s the case, and you can hold yourself to a higher standard. You won’t quit in the first 12 months. You will stick it out and keep publishing content until you start making affiliate sales.

I believe you can do it. And the easiest way to succeed in anything is to find a way to enjoy it.

You can have a lot of fun

Affiliate marketing is hard, but it can also be enjoyable.

I’ve always said that no matter what your job is, there are two ways to trick your brain into enjoying the work. Focus on the fun parts, and convince yourself you’re doing something that matters.

If you’re working in fast food, focus on the little breaks in the day when you crack jokes with your coworkers and feel good about the fact that you’re feeding your community.

Affiliate marketing is the same way. I like keyword research and coming up with a plan. I also enjoy writing. So I try to focus on those things. When I’m optimizing an article or trying to build links, I look ahead to when I can do the things I like again. You need to figure out what you enjoy most about building an affiliate business to keep you pushing forward.

8 ways to make affiliate marketing easier

Now let’s look at some ways to make affiliate marketing easier. If you follow these strategies and learn from some of my mistakes, you’ll have a much better chance of success.

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” – Otto von Bismarck

1. Pick a good host

I started my first blog on Tumblr, which probably had three readers ever. The next two sites I started were hosted by Godaddy, using a $12/year hosting deal that I found on Groupon.

One of the sites took off and was somewhat successful, which was a problem because the hosting was terrible.

I was constantly moving resources, talking to support, navigating Cpanel, and dealing with awful site speed issues. I took the money the site was making and used it to move to SiteGround.

The change was night and day. The support was fantastic, and many of my site problems went away.

I realized from this that I wasted months dealing with technical issues on my site that money could fix in a snap. That time could have been spent writing more content and serving my target audience.

If I hadn’t gone for the cheapest option right away, I could have been successful much faster and avoided a lot of headaches.

2. Do things right the first time

A typical example of this same concept is site structure. Most new affiliate marketers are in a rush to publish a lot of content very fast, so they just publish all their blog posts uncategorized. They’ll worry about site structure, SEO, and user experience later.

I did that, and it took forever to fix. When I had 50+ articles, I stripped all the categories and tags on my posts and fixed the structure. If that didn’t take enough time and effort, I then had to redirect and deindex my old categories and tags.

If I had taken an hour when I was starting my site to think about site structure and content hubs, all of that could have been avoided.

Take an hour now to set things up correctly, and you could save yourself weeks of work in the future.

3. Copy your competitors

I’ve seen online business owners banging their heads against the wall, trying to think of new, helpful content that they could publish for their audience. All you have to do is take a few minutes and see what your competitors have done that you haven’t.

Tip: If your competition is doing something, there’s probably a reason.

I’m not talking about stealing their articles word for word. But your competition doesn’t have a patent on the topics they write about. And if Google is sending them traffic, it means people are searching for those target keywords.

I like to use Ahrefs “Content Gap” tool for this, but there are probably similar functions with other tools.

Ahrefs-content-gap-1

All you do is put in some of your competitors and click the search button. Ahrefs will find the keywords your competitors rank for, but your site doesn’t.

Ahrefs-content-gap-2

This isn’t only an incredible time saver. In recent years, Google has dialed in their algorithm to show precisely what they want for each query. That has led to less diversity in the search results. This means you have to write similar content to the sites that rank for that keyword.

Once I’ve found a keyword I want to write about, the first place I go to is Google. I search for my keyword and open the first four or five results. I write down their headings and note anything that stands out on their pages.

After that, I consolidate the headings they all share and re-write them to fit my editorial style. I’m not ripping anyone off, but I’m putting together a structure that I know Google wants me to have.

So use your competitors to save time with keyword research, then use your competitors to help craft your article. You can still put your own spin on things and be creative, but you need the proper foundation to increase your chances of success.

4. Use the right tools

Using the right tools will save you time and set you up for future success. Once your site is established, it’s harder to implement tools, so you’re better off using the right tools from the jump.

Here are a few tools that affiliate marketing entrepreneurs should invest in:

Hosting

I talked about it earlier, but I’m bringing it up again because it’s that important.

Use a good website hosting service from day one. Dedicated hosting is the best because you’re the only site owner on that server, but it’s much more expensive. There are some excellent shared hosting services that offer quality tech and support. Here are a few I’d recommend (I’ve tried all of these):

  • Digital Ocean
  • SiteGround
  • Kinsta
  • BlueHost

Keyword research

Keyword research is often the most critical step in an affiliate marketing strategy. You’ll never get your site out of the sandbox if you don’t do quality research.

I’ve used many keyword research tools, and Ahrefs is my favorite. It’s the most intuitive and offers the most features. It’s also the most expensive.

Here are a few other keyword research tools I’ve used and liked:

  • Ubersuggest
  • SemRush
  • SERanking

On-page SEO tools

So, when I say on-page SEO tools, you might be thinking of SEO plugins like Yoast, RankMath, and SEOPress. In my experience, these plugins are interchangeable. And while they can be helpful, getting a bunch of green lights doesn’t mean much.

I’m talking about are tools that help you edit your content to match what Google is looking for.

Remember when I said you should steal your competitors’ article structures? These tools do that and take it a step further. They will tell you which buzzwords should be in your article and how many times they should appear. They also help you audit article length, headings, subheadings, and keyword variations.

The two tools I’ve used for this are SurferSEO and Clearscope. They both work well and are pretty interchangeable, in my opinion. They aren’t cheap, but they will save you a lot of time editing and testing things later.

Link Management

No product is available forever. The new version comes out, and people move on. Are you going to monitor every affiliate link on your site manually? Will you check them every day to ensure the affiliate products are still available? Probably not. That’s why you need a link management plugin.

With a link management plugin, if you need to change a product on your site, you can change a link once, and it will update everywhere. Think of how powerful that is.

Obviously, I’m biased, and I think Lasso is the best link management plugin on the planet, but there are others out there. Whichever one you choose to start with, it’s essential to have something in place right away.

Believe me; it’s easier to move from one link management plugin to another than adding one to an established site for the first time.

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Product Display Plugins

It’s no secret that we love conversions; all full-time affiliate marketers should. There is probably no single thing that you can add to a blog post that will increase conversions more than good product display boxes.

Now, you can use page builders to create your own product displays. Then you can copy and paste and edit them every time you need a new one. That might be fine for a few posts, but trust me, it gets old after a few hundred posts.

This is another area Lasso truly shines. All of your displays are handled in one dashboard, and you can insert them anywhere you want from the WordPress post editor. We’ve already done the work to optimize the displays, so you can get back to creating high-quality content.

There are other tools that do some of the things Lasso does, but none that do everything Lasso does. That’s why I recommend any affiliate marketer skip the guessing game, use Lasso displays, and optimize their content the easy way.

5. Reinvest your earnings

If you start with the right tools and use the right strategy, the money should eventually start coming in. And that’s when the hard part begins.

There’s nothing more tempting than to take your $200 commission check and head out to the bar to celebrate. I started a business, and it’s working! I’ll celebrate this month and make more next month.

To paraphrase Sean Parker, “You know what’s better than two hundred dollars? Two thousand dollars.”

If instead of spending the money you made, you spent it on two more articles for your site, you’ve just increased your output for the month. You write four articles, pay someone to write two, and have 50% more content published.

If you keep reinvesting every month, your traffic should increase exponentially, and your earnings will follow.

That’s not what I did. When my first site started making money, I spent it on bills. I wrote more content, made more money, and spent more money on bills. When Google cut my traffic, I didn’t have anything saved to show for it, and I lost the money I’d become dependent upon.

Before you take money out of your business, use that money to grow your business. Do whatever you need to do to scale your business. Buy content, better tools, hire help. Then, when the real money starts coming in, you can clean up shop.

6. Build Links

Link building is the WORST. I hate it more than I hate wet socks in the winter.

Everyone I find who links to worse content than mine wants $500 to link to me instead. People have found out that link building is a game, and they are all trying to cash in.

But, you have to do it. It will make your life so much easier.

You might find people who have built successful sites and have never built any links. Good for them. That doesn’t mean it will work for you. Ask the 99% of people who quit and go back to their day jobs.

We could write an entire hub of content on link building. It can be expensive and time-consuming, but you can get lucky and get links for free.

But if you’re struggling with your affiliate marketing efforts and know your content is solid, then building a few links to your site will save you a lot of time trying to rank for keywords that you just can’t until you get some link juice flowing.

7. Outsource content

This may be a controversial point. Here at Lasso, we don’t like outsourcing content. However, I have no problem outsourcing my content on my personal sites.

I don’t have enough time to write ten articles per month for my affiliate websites. I have enough money coming in to pay someone else to write my content.

You can go through a content broker like Crowd Content or TextBroker, but I don’t like using them. I prefer to find freelancers directly using Problogger.

Problogger is a freelance writing job board for companies to post openings. Freelancers apply to write for you, and usually, you’ll pay them by the word. I think you can find decent writers on Problogger for five cents per word.

I like to have applicants fill out a short Google Form about their pay expectations and their experience. You can also opt for them to apply directly through Problogger.

Outsourcing content can be expensive. So, I like to wait until my site makes enough money to pay the freelancers. You can also choose to invest upfront, but I recommend writing your first ten articles yourself. That way, you can set an editorial standard for your writers to meet.

Outsourcing your content production will save you an insane amount of time. Even if you’re still writing some content yourself, it makes affiliate marketing much easier.

8. Test everything and repeat what works

Testing your approach is probably the affiliate marketing step that most people skip. I did all the work to get a post published, and I just want to move on to the next one.

If you aren’t testing anything, then you aren’t learning anything. And if you aren’t learning anything, you’re going to repeat your mistakes, and eventually, your site will fall off.

One of my favorite things to test is clickthrough optimization because it’s easy to control. My conversion rate increased by 20% on one of my sites because I changed my CTA button color. That’s hundreds of dollars by changing one item.

Another test I ran was putting a product display right after the intro paragraph. That increased conversions by another 10%.

You should be running simple tests like this, isolating what works, and repeating those things. That’s what separates successful affiliate marketers from dropouts.

Drawbacks to affiliate marketing

Even though there are a lot of things you can do to make affiliate marketing easier, it definitely has some downsides. You need to know about these things, so you can be prepared to overcome them.

It takes time

When I tell people I work in affiliate marketing, I often hear some version of

“Oh, I tried that for a few months, but I didn’t make any money.”

Affiliate marketing is a long game. My first successful site didn’t make a dollar for nine months. Then, in my tenth month, I made $200, which was more than I’d spent on the entire site. By the end of the first year, I was making $800 per month.

I’ve talked to affiliate marketers who wrote content for 18 months before they started making money. It takes a long time for search engines to notice your site.

Before you start affiliate marketing, you should ask yourself if you’re willing to work, possibly for years, before you begin to see a return for your efforts. If the answer is no, maybe affiliate marketing isn’t for you.

Sites fail

Your site should succeed if you can stick it out and put in the work. But it might not.

NOTE: Whoever said “failure is not an option” was kidding themselves. Failure is always an option, and it’s the easiest option. There’s nothing easier than giving up and choosing to cut your losses.

If you opened a restaurant in your town, you could create extraordinary food at reasonable prices and still have trouble bringing customers in the door. You could advertise on the tv and radio, and it still might not be enough.

Affiliate marketing is the same way. You can do everything right and still fail. If you’re going to pursue this industry, you need to be prepared for that potential outcome. If you’re ready to fail, you’ll be prepared to change your approach and try again.

You have to deal with retailers

In the traditional affiliate marketing game, you are beholden to at least two types of big players. The first one is retailers.

You may have heard people get upset the past couple of years when Amazon Associates cut its affiliate commission rates. Before that, people were upset when Amazon went from a 30-day cookie to a 24-hour cookie.

When you’re an affiliate for large companies like Amazon, Walmart, eBay, etc., you’re playing by their rules. If they decide to switch to a 1% commission rate with a 6-hour cookie, they can, and you have absolutely no recourse.

TIP: Even the best affiliate programs will do things that frustrate you. A good affiliate marketer learns to roll with the punches.

You’re at the whim of search engines

The other big players you’re beholden to are the search engines. Primarily we’re talking about Google, but YouTube, Bing, Yahoo, and Pinterest can all be placed in this category.

If you’re going to rely on organic traffic, you will be at the mercy of our (hopefully) friendly overlords at Google. And if they decide one day that your site doesn’t provide enough value, they will cut you off without telling you why.

I’ve had that happen, and it sucks. I had a site go from 1,000 visitors per day to 200 overnight. My income was slashed, and I never got an explanation. That’s a constant possibility affiliate marketers need to prepare for.

Of course, you could ignore organic traffic and use paid traffic instead. You still exist at the whim of your traffic provider, but they have a profit incentive to treat you well.

However, with paid traffic, you’ll constantly be trying to balance your cost per click against your CTR, conversion rate, and AOV. If I lost you there, it should demonstrate what a pain-in-the-ass affiliate marketing with paid traffic can be.

So, why is affiliate marketing hard?

Part of why affiliate marketing is so difficult is because we’re gatekeeping the industry. We’re so afraid of competition that we hide our successes and discourage newbies. I’m not sure that’s good for anyone.

More affiliate marketers means that potentially we’ll have a better ability to discern the experts from the charlatans. It also means more revenue for the retailers, making publishers a more critical part of their business.

Amazon doesn’t mind hurting affiliate marketers because they really don’t need us anymore. But if even 5% of a brand’s revenue comes from their affiliates, they’ll be incentivized to make them happy.

The other reason affiliate marketing is hard is that it’s a slog. There’s a lot to learn and a lot of work to be done before anyone makes money. It’s hard to work your ass off and not get paid upfront.

I believe affiliate marketing can be easier than it is now. If you follow what I’ve outlined in this article, you’ll have a much easier time prioritizing your work and focusing on what’s important. That way, affiliate marketing won’t be so hard. It might even be enjoyable.

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