Affiliate networks: what newbies should know

The best way to think about an affiliate network is that it acts like a Tindr for the world of affiliate marketing. Although each network has its own niche or variation on the business model, all of them are in the business of pairing vendors with affiliates so that more affiliate sales get made.

So here’s the standard model for how it works:

  1. A vendor pays the network to be added to their database and to list products that the vendor chooses, along with commission rates for each product and any marketing tools that the affiliates might use (like ad banners). The vendor can pay the network a flat monthly rate, although there are many other types of payment structures.
  2. Affiliates join the network for free, although they are often vetted for other things, such as how much volume they’ve sold recently, or how much traffic one of their websites has. By the way, networks often refer to affiliates as “publishers,” because it has become so common for bloggers and other online publications to use affiliate ads to generate revenue.
  3. Any affiliate can request to advertise any vendor’s products; the vendor is entitled to say yes or no. Similarly, the vendor can contact specific affiliates and ask them to advertise the vendor’s products: again, the affiliates can say yes or no.
  4. When a vendor and affiliate have mutually agreed to market a product, the network automatically generates a link to identify the affiliate, vendor, and product (all encoded, of course). Whenever a potential customer clicks on that link and later purchases the product, the network records the sale and transfers the commission from the vendor to the affiliate.

And now here’s why it works:

  1. The vendor wins because the cost of belonging to a network is less than the cost of developing and maintaining the vendor’s own affiliate program. And of course, both are less expensive than the vendor paying directly for ads in order to bring in more clients.
  2. The affiliate wins because the network is a convenient one-stop shop to find vendors who want to work with them. Also, a good network has vetted its vendors, so there is less risk of the affiliate not being paid the agreed commission.
  3. The network wins because it’s the type of business that can scale extremely well. There’s no limit to the number of paying vendors it can sign on, and no significant increase in overhead when more vendors join.

Should you join a network?

That depends on whether the kind of vendors they feature would be a good fit for your own goals. In any case, it doesn’t do any harm to belong to a network. You certainly don’t have to be exclusive to them.

Myths About Affiliate Marketing

There is no shortage of misinformation about affiliate marketing, and believing it could easily cost you money. Here’s the truth behind some of the most common myths that are making the rounds.

Myth 1: Affiliate marketing is Multilevel marketing.

Not even close. It’s worth mentioning that network marketing (aka multilevel marketing) CAN be an honest, ethical business, but it tends not to perform well for entrepreneurs who buy into it. As a result, a handful of unscrupulous individuals who promote these business models try to conceal them by calling them “affiliate marketing.” Fortunately, there are some easy ways to tell them apart:

The Brand Overlord

Amway. MonaVie. Herbalife. In multilevel marketing, you’re tied to one company, or even to only one product that the one company sells. And if the company collapses (as they often do), guess what: you’re out of work.

In true affiliate marketing, you are never tied to any brand. You are completely free to enter into affiliate agreements with any merchant on the planet that has decided to support an affiliate program. Not all of them will accept you, but many will, even when you’re just starting out.

Uplines, Downlines

Commissions are handled very differently, and in network/multilevel marketing, some of the payout systems are mind-bogglingly complex. You’re required to share your commission with various people in your “upline” (who haven’t done anything to advance your business), and are promised wealth beyond your wildest dreams from commissions earned by your “downline.” I think we all know where this kind of ‘model’ ends up.

In actual affiliate marketing, there is exactly one level: you, and the merchant whose affiliate program you’re part of. And the entire commission is yours, period. If you’re not sure about something that’s labeled affiliate marketing, this is the best smell-test you can use.

Myth 2: Affiliate marketing is complicated.

Many of those marketing ‘gurus’ out there love to make this claim, because it makes it easier to sell their course or webinar, along with the attendant upsells. (Big surprise, right?) A few of these courses might even have useful information, but nothing that you truly need. The same goes for a number of software vendors who hawk expensive tools to solve all your problems as an affiliate. Again, some of them may be useful, but are far from necessary.

The reality is that the concept of affiliate marketing is about the simplest working business model in the world today. And there are really only two software tools you genuinely need: an email autoresponder for building trust in your audience, and a system for hosting the web pages that you use for capturing signups and doing ‘handshakes.’ Some marketers use a funnel building tool for that purpose; others use a web host and write the HTML themselves. There’s not much difference in cost between the two. True, there are plenty of other software products and subscriptions that can be helpful. They just aren’t necessary to keep your business going.

Myth 3: Affiliate marketing is passive income.

Many marketers who are actually honest will mistakenly use this term because it’s a cool marketing buzzword. Unfortunately, they’re not using it right.

In finance-speak, there are only two kinds of income: “earned income” and “passive income.” Anything you get paid for as a result of taking some action is earned income. That includes selling your time for a job that comes with a paycheck, along with income from a business you run, whether you’re the owner of a taco stand or the CEO of Apple.

True PASSIVE income, on the other hand, comes to you for no reason other than that you own a particular asset. This includes interest on a bank account, dividends from owning a stock, rent you collect from owning property, or royalties from owning the rights to a patent or a work of art.

So the bottom line is: there is no such thing as a business opportunity that provides passive income. Only certain kinds of investments can do that.

Final thoughts

I apologize for not blowing anything up like the Mythbusters, but hopefully I was able to clear up some of your confusion.