Affiliate marketing: it’s easy to do—and easy to do wrong. Anyone can grab a link and promote it from behind the scenes. But successful affiliate marketing that delivers value for you and your audience in the long term? That takes work.
It also means knowing what not to do.
Now, I’d like to give you some insight into what to avoid when it comes to affiliate marketing.
I’ll start by sharing with you what happened to me the first time I ever tried affiliate marketing—and what I learned when I fell flat on my face. Then, I’ll give you the four main affiliate marketing mistakes and traps you need to look out for as you’re getting started on your journey.
Here’s what to expect in this chapter:
- My $300 Affiliate Marketing Mistake
- A Wake-Up Call for Doing Affiliate Marketing the Right Way
- The Four Biggest Affiliate Marketing Mistakes
- Serve First to Succeed with Affiliate Marketing
My $300 Affiliate Marketing Mistake
First, let me tell you the story of my $300 affiliate marketing mistake.
It was 2008. I had just been laid off from my job in the architecture industry. In the months leading up to my layoff, I had been experimenting in online business with my very first effort, GreenExamAcademy.com.
As I was building Green Exam Academy to help others in the architecture industry pass the LEED Exam, I discovered affiliate marketing and learned how others were making money with it.
So I signed up for an affiliate network and I picked a product I felt would be okay for my audience and got an affiliate link. (I didn’t really know if it would be okay—unfortunately, that wouldn’t become clear until later.) I set up a Google AdWords account to start advertising it, and created my first ad. In the ad, I drove people to click on the affiliate link for the product I was advertising.
A couple hours after publishing the ad, I saw that it already had a few hundred impressions—i.e., views by a visitor. Not bad! After a few more hours, it was over a thousand impressions. But how many clicks had the ad gotten? Zilch, nada, none. I waited and waited until I finally got my first click, but that person didn’t end up buying the product.
I had spent $300 on a couple dozen clicks, and those clicks had amounted to zero sales.
I began thinking about those clicks, and the people on the other end of them. Who were they? What compelled them to click?
At that time, I was a terrible marketer and copywriter—but that wasn’t the biggest issue. What I realized after a short while was that there was really no way for me to know the answer to those questions about who was clicking on my ad or why. I had created an ad based on a product I didn’t understand inside and out. I hadn’t spent the time getting to know the product and understanding how it could serve my audience. And by failing to do that, I was failing myself and my audience (small, at the time) who counted on me. I had left them behind while I panned for gold in the wrong place.
A Wake-Up Call for Doing Affiliate Marketing the Right Way
My $300 mistake was a wake-up call. I decided right then and there I wasn’t going to do that ever again. I learned how integral relationship building is to effective affiliate marketing. My learning process would continue from there, of course, but the building blocks were set.
Affiliate marketing isn’t a quick, impersonal thing. It’s the exact opposite. You need to start from an authentic place. Affiliate marketing is about fostering genuine long-term relationships with people you trust, products you love, and companies that align with you and your philosophies. And unless you truly know the product, have used it successfully for yourself, and can prove that to your audience, you can’t expect others to just take your word for it.
Any healthy relationship takes time to build and a great deal of trust. And that’s what we need to focus on in our affiliate marketing relationships. Too often, I see people wasting time and energy promoting products under the guise of affiliate marketing while ignoring the relationship aspect of things. But affiliate marketing should be a natural extension of your authentic efforts to build and serve an audience—not a tack-on just to make a little extra money.
The Four Biggest Affiliate Marketing Mistakes
On the spectrum of affiliate marketing mistakes, my $300 mistake wasn’t too serious. You can chalk that one up to a beginner’s lack of good judgment or experience.
But there’s a bigger picture here we need to talk about too. Like everything, affiliate marketing has its positive and negative sides. And in fact, for a long time—and especially when I first started out in online business back in 2008—affiliate marketing has had a negative connotation. I’ve made it part of my mission to show that affiliate marketing can be done in a legit way, one where everybody can be a winner. But at the same time, because affiliate marketing is technically easy to do, it’s easy to fall into an aggressive, income-first approach rather than one centered around serving your audience.
I want you to be aware of how affiliate marketing can be abused, or how your efforts can be derailed. My intent isn’t to worry or scare you from going down the affiliate marketing route, because it can be a fantastic opportunity if done the right way—but I do want to arm you with knowledge about the traps to look out for as you build your affiliate marketing business.
I feel it’s my responsibility to show you how to do affiliate marketing right—and that includes knowing how not to do it.
Whether you’ve just started learning about affiliate marketing, or you’re already promoting other people’s products via affiliate links and want to make sure you’re going about it the right way, I’m going to share with you four rules to keep in mind in avoiding the dark side of affiliate marketing.
These are the four biggest traps to look out for, so that you have an even greater chance to succeed with this powerful tool that can help you better serve your audience, generate an income, and build relationships with the owners of the products you’re promoting.
The four biggest affiliate marketing mistakes:
- Promoting a product that doesn’t make sense for your audience.
- Not keeping an eye on the quality of your audience’s experience.
- Not being honest about a product or promotion.
- Earning all of your income from affiliate marketing.
Okay. Let’s talk about these four dangers you need to look out for on your affiliate marketing journey.
1. PROMOTING A PRODUCT THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE FOR YOUR AUDIENCE.
Perhaps the biggest affiliate marketing mistake people make is not promoting a product that actually makes sense for their audience. This often happens when someone takes an income-first approach rather than a serving-first one. You should look for solutions that can help your audience—whether there’s an affiliate opportunity there or not. If there happens to be one, great. That’s a bonus. If there isn’t, but you know the product could still be helpful to your audience, it’s your responsibility to share it with them.
Since my brand is focused on helping people build successful online businesses ethically, the products and services I promote are all things that support this focus: I recommend services that help people host their website (Bluehost), start an email list (ConvertKit), plan their editorial calendar (CoSchedule); audio and video gear to create great content; and books and courses, both mine and others, to help people learn and improve their skills. Most of these are things I recommend as an affiliate—but a good number of them are not. Even if I can’t form an affiliate relationship with a company, if their product is the best one for my audience, I’m going to recommend it.
As your brand grows and you start to build an audience, you’re going to get noticed. The affiliate marketing opportunities will start to trickle in, as companies see the traffic you’re getting and the trust people are putting in your brand.
These companies will also know you’re a human being who can potentially be swayed by a commission.
Sometimes, they’ll offer you payments for simply sending them leads, because it’s basically easy advertising for them. They know how much money they need to spend, and how many leads they need to collect, to convert a certain percentage of them to customers. Either way, as you grow, you’re going to notice an increased number of those kinds of inquiries—many from companies you’ve never even heard of before.
At the start of my online business journey, every couple months I’d get an offer from a different company saying, “Hey, we have this new product. We think your audience would really like it. Promote it to your audience and we’ll give you $75 for every person you send our way.”
I implore you, please: do not be persuaded by the dollar value of the commissions you’ll be offered.
Sometimes when a new company reaches out to me with an affiliate offer, I’ll look at the product and realize it’s obviously not a fit for my audience. In those cases, it’s easy to say, “No, thanks.” But when you’re just starting out, the promise of a commission can make it hard to see things clearly. You might think, “Wow, this opportunity is in front of me right now. Maybe I should say yes. What damage could it do?”
The damage it could do is potentially huge: the destruction of the trust you’ve worked hard to build with your audience.
That’s why my recommendation is to stay on the safe side by always offering and recommending products you’ve used before and understand, so you know exactly the kind of experience people will have with them. You should also get to know the company itself, and ideally have a personal relationship with someone in a leadership role there. That way, you can be certain that the company behind the product you’re promoting is one that will take care of your people.
Again, be careful. Often companies will reach out to you based on a simple algorithm—if you’ve reached a certain threshold of social media followers, for instance, they’ll send you a message asking if they can pay to get in front of your audience. You may have even heard of these products, and know they have a good reputation. Sometimes those products may actually be a great fit. Still, don’t immediately say yes to the opportunity. You need to be aware of this, because the vultures start to come out at a certain point once you start to gain some notoriety in a space.
In the early days, I’d get affiliate inquiries from companies every couple months. Now, almost every day, I get emails from companies I’ve never heard of that want to get in front of my audience. The nature of these offers also ranges more broadly now, probably because my audience is much larger.
For instance, I sometimes get offers from financial planning companies to get in front of my audience for tens of thousands of dollars. But it’s not in my best interest to say yes, because even though those services might help my audience, financial planning isn’t what my brand is about. Bombarding my audience and saturating my brand with stuff that doesn’t fit would dilute the brand and confuse people’s perception of what I stand for. I don’t need to give my audience financial planning assistance to help them the best way I possibly can. There are plenty of great brands out there that focus on financial planning, but it’s not my realm.
So, realize you have a choice, and that it’s okay to say no. Opportunities will come your way, but your priority should be to protect your brand and your reputation. Choose wisely.
2. NOT KEEPING YOUR EYE ON THE QUALITY OF YOUR AUDIENCE’S EXPERIENCE.
This next one is similar to #1, but it has more to do with how things can change after you start promoting what seems to be a great product that you know is a good fit for your audience.
Let’s say you recently started promoting a new product, and it’s working out well. Everybody’s happy—you, your audience, and the company. But then the company gets bought out, and new management takes over. This creates a ripple through the entire company, affecting your audience’s customer support experience with the product.
Sound unlikely? It’s happened to me before, with the web hosting company Bluehost.
I still recommend Bluehost, and in fact, they’ve been one of my top affiliates over the years. But it hasn’t always been a smooth road.
I began recommending Bluehost in 2009, and was soon making a few thousand dollars a month from affiliate promotions. Even better, the company was taking great care of my audience. Everyone was happy. The next year, my monthly income continued to grow into the five-digit range. Things were looking good.
But then in 2013, I started getting a few emails from people who weren’t too happy with Bluehost’s customer support, especially when they had issues with the service.
The following year, things got a little better—the negative emails dropped off—but then they got worse again.
At that point, I started to really pay attention. I decided to fly out to Utah to meet with the company and share my concerns with them directly. I met with the founders and told them, “Hey, this is not okay. This can’t happen.”
The Bluehost team told me they were aware of the issues, and that they were making changes to address them. I said, “Okay, but these changes need to happen now.” Of course, with a big company like that, I understood changes can take time, but I wanted to do as much as I could to move them along.
Thankfully, the Bluehost team took my words to heart and put together an action plan to address the issues. They also agreed to let me offer my audience a special connection to a customer support person who could take care of them more quickly than the company’s traditional support channel.
During my visit to Bluehost headquarters, I also kept in touch with my audience about how my meeting was going, and what the Bluehost team was doing to improve things. I sent an email to my list about what was happening during my visit, and wrote about the experience in my May 2016 Income Report.
Although this kind of situation may not occur with every company you partner with as an affiliate, you have to be open to it. Companies grow and evolve, and people come and go. You can’t assume that if things are going well, they always will.
The lesson here, especially for affiliate relationships you’d like to maintain for the long term, is to keep close tabs on your audience’s experience with the product. In addition, you should cultivate relationships with the product owners, so they know how important your audience’s experience with the product is to everyone involved. In an ideal world, your audience’s experience with a product should only improve over time—but if it’s going in the opposite direction, you’ll have to act to make things right, and having a direct line to the company leadership makes it easier to do that.
You also need to have a backup plan. Right now, I’m really comfortable promoting Bluehost, especially knowing they have a customer support person I can send people to when things go wrong. But there’s a point at which, if things were to go badly again, I’d consider promoting a different hosting provider. Most of my audience is still having an amazing experience with Bluehost, but it’s important to stay aware and be prepared if things need to change.
3. NOT BEING HONEST ABOUT A PRODUCT OR PROMOTION.
When I recommend products, I’m always very honest about what the product can and can’t do. But I’ve been on the other end of this before—and not in a good way. I won’t name names or products, but let’s just say I’ve been recommended products that came with certain promises, promises that didn’t come to fruition. These were products that, shortly after I started using them, I realized they weren’t at all what I‘d expected.
When you’re promoting your affiliate products, you need to make sure you set the right expectations for your audience. Otherwise, what happens? You lose the trust of the person to whom you recommended that product.
In one case, someone I knew and looked up to recommended a software tool to me. His recommendation also came with some lofty claims of how the tool could help me. I ended up buying the software based on his recommendation. But what I quickly found was that in order to take advantage of the capabilities I was promised, I would have had to pay more—more than five times the price I was paying already.
Needless to say, I wasn’t happy about this. I shared my frustration with the person who’d recommended the tool to me, and he apologized. It was an oversight on his part, and we’re still on good terms today.
Our story turned out okay—but this won’t always be the case if you’re not totally honest and upfront with your audience about the affiliate products you promote.
You have to be careful, because if you make a mistake that skews your audience’s expectations, you might lose them for good. You need to be totally honest about what a product can and can’t do, and make sure you’re not recommending it to someone who’s not a good fit for it.
What if you find yourself in a tricky situation where you’ve promoted a product to your audience, then realized later that it wasn’t what you thought it was? Thankfully, I have a special “rule” that comes in handy here. I call it the 8 Mile Rule.
[SPOILER ALERT] If you’ve never seen the movie 8 Mile, Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem), plays the main character, a rapper named B-Rabbit. In the finale, B-Rabbit faces off against another rapper in a huge rap battle. B-Rabbit decides to rap about all the weird things about himself, things his opponent would likely call him out for in his rap. Why does he do this? By calling himself out first, he leaves his opponent without any ammunition to use against him.
Do you see where I’m going with this? When you’re promoting an affiliate product, take the 8 Mile approach. If something goes wrong, be the first one to say something. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Perhaps you recommended a product you realized wasn’t a good fit for your audience. The quicker you can say, “I’m sorry. That product wasn’t the right fit for you. I hope you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt and stick around,” the more likely your audience will be to do that.
This rule is handy for a lot of other areas of your business, too. It’s all about taking ownership and being honest and forthright. This is not always easy to do, but always the right thing to do.
Being honest fosters trust, even if the circumstances aren’t totally favorable. And if you’re being honest and serving your audience in a way that’s valuable to them, they’ll often jump at the chance to help you back. This is where the law of reciprocity comes in—when you do something helpful for someone, they often feel compelled to do something for you in return—and affiliate marketing can be an amazing way to give your audience a way to pay you back.
So when you tell people upfront, “Hey, you know what? This is a product I’m promoting as an affiliate, so I get a commission if you go through that link,” I guarantee some of those people will be excited by the opportunity to click on that link. There are people out there you’ve served who are looking for ways to pay you back. So make it easy for them.
4. EARNING ALL OF YOUR INCOME FROM AFFILIATE MARKETING OR TREATING IT LIKE A GET-RICH-QUICK SCHEME.
This leads me to my final point related to the dark side of affiliate marketing. That is, you don’t want all of your income to come from affiliate marketing. Back when I started out—and this is still true today in some spaces—a lot people were doing affiliate marketing by running promotions, not through a brand they’d created or trust they’d earned from an audience, but by using copywriting, targeting, and advertising techniques to get people to click on affiliate links.
Remember my $300 mistake?
Before I ran that fated ad, I signed up with an affiliate marketing network (more on those in Chapter 7). This is essentially a site that allows you to sign up and choose from a huge number of products you can promote. Once you pick a product, you get a link you can share with as many people as possible. Because most people who go this route don’t already have a brand established, they have to resort to advertising—things like Google Adwords—to get their link in front of people.
Unfortunately, there are several things wrong with this model. As you learned from my $300 mistake, if you just throw a link up there hoping it’ll do all the work for you—well, it won’t. That’s not to say that you can’t make money with this kind of affiliate marketing. You can, if you go about it smartly.
But there are still two main ways you can go wrong with this model. First, as soon as you stop putting effort into it, the income stops flowing. It’s not passive. Second, because it doesn’t require you to build a brand, it means it’s not unique to you. Just about anyone could leapfrog you if they master the copywriting and targeting required to be successful with it.
As a result, this kind of affiliate marketing can become a very scary game to play.
That’s why I recommend instead that you take the time to build your own brand and grow an audience you can serve. Build that audience’s trust in you as the go-to resource in your area of expertise, not just someone they don’t know who’s only serving them ads.
This is at the heart of how I teach online business: to help people become recognized for their efforts in serving an audience, whether that’s through creating their own products, blogging, podcasting, building physical products, or affiliate marketing.
Focus on building your brand and serving an audience. When you make this your primary aim, you’ll find you have plenty of options to make money—with affiliate marketing being just one of those options.
Think about it this way: With whatever path you choose to generate an income, make sure you give the people you serve a way to thank you. If you’re not thanked for the products you’re promoting, you’re doing affiliate marketing wrong.
In episode 9 of the Smart Passive Income Podcast, author and online business consultant Nicole Dean shared one of the most memorable quotes from the hundreds of interviews I’ve done. She told me the motto of her business was “to make the web and the world a better place.” And when you approach your business like that, it trickles down to everything you do. It affects how you advertise and promote. It affects how you interact with people. It helps you look beyond strategies and tactics, like affiliate marketing, and stay focused on the most important thing: making things better for others. So give your audience a reason to thank you, and the (affiliate) income will flow in.
Serve First to Succeed with Affiliate Marketing
As you’ve seen in this chapter, there is a darker side to affiliate marketing. But if you know what to look out for, you can avoid falling into the common traps and mistakes that befall so many aspiring affiliate marketers. As a reminder, here are the four keys to staying in the “plus” column with your affiliate marketing:
- Being careful to promote only products that make sense for your audience
- Keeping tabs on your audience’s experience with your affiliate products
- Being honest and forthright about the products you promote
- Not relying solely on affiliate marketing or using it as an impersonal, get-rich-quick scheme
Use these four keys as your guiding light, and you’ll be able to make the most of this powerful tool that allows you to tap into the incredible array products, services, and tools out there that can help your audience succeed.