Affiliate marketing in a nutshell involves promoting a product you know (and ideally use yourself) to an audience that trusts you and has a need for that product.
If you read through the previous chapter, you should have a solid understanding of how affiliate marketing works!
In a moment, we’ll break down the process of creating and running an affiliate marketing program into executable steps.
But before we do that, I want to revisit a crucial element of affiliate marketing we touched on in the first chapter: trust.
Here’s an overview of what we’ll cover in this chapter:
- Put Your Audience First (Build Trust)
- The Soft Pitch Pipeline
- Segment 1: Relationships
- Segment 2: Products
- Segment 3: Experience
- Segment 4: Proof
- Segment 5: Pitch
Put Your Audience First (Build Trust)
Affiliate marketing helps me generate over $60,000 in affiliate commissions each month. My affiliate income has grown because I follow two major rules:
- I only recommend products that I’m very familiar with. Preferably, these are products I’ve used before and that have helped me achieve something. If I’m not confident in the product and I don’t feel it will help people, I will not promote it.
- I never directly tell anyone to buy a product. I always recommend products based on my experience and in the context of what I’ve done or what I’m doing with it.
What does following these two rules achieve? Trust. By doing these two things, my audience knows that I only want them to buy the tools that they need, at the time they need them. They know that I’ve used and believe in the products I recommend. And they know there’s no pressure, because I’m only looking out for their best interests.
Many affiliate marketers choose not to follow these rules—and I think that’s why affiliate marketing has a bad reputation. We can do better, and so I hope you’ll join me in following these rules.
Every affiliate marketer needs to understand the importance of establishing and maintaining trust with their audience before they get started with affiliate marketing. Thankfully, my system for getting started has trust baked into the entire process. Let’s dive into it now!
The Soft Pitch Pipeline
My approach to affiliate marketing is built around something I call the soft pitch pipeline. This approach is designed to do two main things: build trust, and reduce the amount of “hard selling” needed to promote your affiliate products (hence the “soft pitch” part).
Imagine a series of pipes. These pipes represent the experience or “flow” people go through when they visit your site or are introduced to you and your brand. On one end is traffic entering the pipeline, and on the other “exit” end of the pipeline is the sale or conversion.
Between these two points, there are five segments that combine to make up the total experience of your brand:
- The Relationships you cultivate with your audience
- The Products you decide to promote
- The Experience you have with those products
- The Proof you share that those products work
- The Pitch or “sell” of those products to your audience
These segments can vary in strength and size. For example, if you have an amazing relationship with someone, it doesn’t take much to convince that person to do something for you. In this case, the relationship segment is extremely long, so the pitch segment doesn’t have to be long at all. For example, say your wife is pregnant. It’s two in the morning and she wants you to go to the store and buy a Little Debbie’s Fudge Brownie. Well, you’re probably off to the store to buy a Little Debbie’s Fudge Brownie—there’s not much pitch or convincing needed at all.
Now take the other extreme: a company you’ve never heard of before. Since you hardly have any relationship with this company, they’re going to have to work a lot harder to pitch you—to convince you to try them out. And many companies pitch really aggressively, which can backfire and make people uncomfortable or even annoyed.
That’s exactly what we try to avoid with the soft pitch pipeline. By focusing on the first four segments of the pipeline—the relationships you cultivate with your audience, the products you promote, the experience you have with those products, and the proof you can share with your audience that the products work—you can make the pitch phase shorter and less aggressive.
If you set up the first four segments of the pipeline the right way, hardly any pitch will be needed to get your audience to click through your affiliate links and make a purchase.
Let’s go over each of those segments now!
Segment 1: Relationships
Relationships are everything. Having a relationship with your audience is the foundation of trust. It also allows you to get to know your audience in depth, so you can understand their needs and pain points. That way, you can identify potential products that can help meet those needs and pain points.
Not too long ago, a lot of people were trying to do affiliate marketing by finding a product that offered an attractive commission, then building a site around it and selling it by driving traffic using Facebook ads and Google Adwords. That tactic used to work, but Google and Facebook have caught on and started clamping down on those ads, making it much harder to pull off.
But more importantly, on a strategic level, it’s just not the right way to do things if you’re interested in building a lasting business. Instead, you need to take a longer-term approach, one centered around relationship building.
What does that look like?
First, you need to identify a target audience that has a specific pain, issue, problem, or goal. By homing in on that target market and understanding exactly what they’re going through, you can discover ways to help them achieve their goals and overcome their problems.
The key is to not go into it with the aim of finding an affiliate product, but to get to know your audience and find solutions they can use.
Start with the pain, not the product.
How do you learn what your audience needs? You need to become friends with the people who visit your site and interact with you on social media. Without that relationship, it’s much less likely that meaningful transactions will ever occur. By meaningful transactions, I’m not just talking sales transactions—I’m talking about email list subscriptions, comments, clicks, likes, follows, shares, and retweets.
The hard part is, a relationship takes time to build. Thankfully, there are ways to speed up the process of building a relationship with your audience without compromising the quality of that relationship. So how can you connect with your audience more quickly? Here are three ways:
1. BE PERSONABLE
What would make YOU buy something from someone you didn’t know, especially if they were selling a product they didn’t even make themselves?
In a lot of my content, be it blog posts, podcast episodes, and even in-person presentations at large conferences, I try to share aspects of my personality and my personal life. As a result, most of my audience knows a lot about me—that I’m a family man, that I love Back to the Future, that I’m still working toward my goal to touch a regulation-height basketball rim…
The point is, they know me as a real person, someone just like them. They can relate to me. And as a result, they’re much more connected to me than if I were to spend all my time telling them about the strategies and tactics that will help them build a successful online business.
What do my kids or my favorite movies have to do with affiliate marketing? Nothing, at least directly. But what do those things have to do with my brand? Everything, because building a brand is the equivalent of building relationships. People connect with people, and the more you can become a person in the eyes of your audience, the easier it is for them to connect with you—it’s as simple as that.
2. TELL STORIES
People are programmed to love stories. Think about the last time you were engrossed by someone’s tale around the dinner table, or just watched a movie or read a book. When you tell a story, it’s easy for your audience to put themselves into that story; stories put things in context and make them relatable. Stories are an easy and personable way to relate to your audience.
Now, you don’t have to dedicate entire posts to stories about random things to create a meaningful connection. Instead, be creative and share little anecdotes and examples here and there to illustrate concepts, honest stories that relate to the message you’re trying to get across. Doing this helps you convey information and build those important relationships with your audience at the same time.
3. PRACTICE RAOK
RAOK is short for “random acts of kindness,” and it’s one of my all-time favorite things to do. Why? Because when you do something unexpected and generous for someone, it leaves an amazing impression.
It can be as simple as replying to comments on your blog and social media. I do this, and it helps people see I’m a real person. If someone has a question, I answer it. It saves them time, and helps them remember who I am. Sometimes I even take it a step further and leave comments on the blogs of people who’ve left comments on my posts.
It’s small things like these that can help you quickly form a deeper relationship with your audience.
And you can do the same thing. So ask yourself, what kinds of RAOK can I do for my audience? What unexpected favors can I perform that will help me build a positive, lasting relationship with them?
Segment 2: Products
Once you’ve started to build your audience and develop a relationship with them, you’ll start to learn what that audience needs. The next step is to identify products you can recommend to meet your audience’s needs and help them in their journey.
First, keep in mind that sometimes the products will be ones that allow you to generate an affiliate income—and sometimes they won’t. You never want to start with a product or commission in mind. You want to start with the problem, then find solutions for it. And if the best solution for a particular problem is not an affiliate product, well, that’s what you should promote to your audience. Remember, trust and relationships come first, always.
With that in mind, once you’ve gotten to know your audience and its needs and pain points, how do you select a specific product?
To help you get in the right frame of mind here, think about a brand new visitor who comes to your site for the first time—what is it you want that person to ultimately achieve? This might be a tough question to answer, but you need to know what you want your visitors to do, because if you don’t, then everything you recommend is going to seem random. You need your recommendations to be precise and targeted, so your audience can get what they need from you to reach their goals.
Once you’ve identified what you want to help your new visitor to achieve, think about how they’re going to get there. What’s their roadmap or path to success? Defining the steps on this path will help you determine exactly what kinds of products will help your audience at different points along the path.
Next, you need to think about the products that will help your audience along this path. One of the best places to start identifying these products is through ones you’ve used yourself. Whatever niche you’re in, spend a little time making a list of the tools and services you use. Those things that you used to help you achieve your goals can help your audience achieve their goals too. Just about any product or service can work, including:
- Physical products
- Coaching services
Often, you’ll need to look beyond the products and services you already know and use to find things that will be a good fit for your audience—which means doing some research! Thankfully, there are plenty of great places and resources to find new affiliate products, including:
- Word of mouth—your professional network, including masterminds, Facebook groups, etc.
- Amazon, to find books and products
Remember: don’t start with the products; start with your audience’s goals and pain points. Then find the products to help them get where they want to be.
It’s also important to realize that by not promoting products and services that will help your audience along their “success path,” you’ll actually be holding them back. Remember, your knowledge and your relationship with your audience can help them filter through all the noise and find the right solutions, because you’ve put in the work to understand what’s best for them.
Finally, it should go without saying, but if a product doesn’t make sense to promote—if it’s not a part of the audience’s success path—then you shouldn’t promote it, no matter how generous the affiliate commissions may be.
Segment 3: Experience
Okay. You’ve found a product that will help your audience achieve their goals. Now what? Do you immediately start promoting it to them with your affiliate link?
Not yet. The next important element in decreasing how much you need to pitch is the experience YOU have with those products.
I have two words for you: Experience sells.
On Amazon, we read other people’s reviews—people we’ve never met!—to help us make a purchase decision. That’s powerful stuff, so imagine how much more powerful your real-life experience with a particular product can be, combined with the relationship you have with someone in your audience already.
So, before you start promoting your product to your audience, you need to get to know it yourself, inside and out. Affiliate marketing works best when you treat the products you’re promoting as your own. You need to know firsthand the experience your audience will have using this product.
Obviously, if you learn that the product is a dud, it’s not going to make sense to promote it to your audience! And if it’s great, then you’ll be reassured that your audience is going to find it useful.
As a result, I really encourage you to use and test a product thoroughly before you promote it, for three main reasons:
1. FOR YOUR PROTECTION
You have to understand what it’s like to use any product you promote, because your audience’s trust is the most important thing in the world. Anything you promote directly reflects on you and your brand, whether it’s your product or somebody else’s. If you’re promoting it, your reputation is on the line.
2. TO BECOME A RESOURCE
By using and experiencing a product, you’ll be able to answer specific questions about it much better, and become a helpful resource for an interested person in your audience who could become a buyer.
3. (MOST IMPORTANTLY) TO GET RID OF THE MYSTERY
By showing your audience exactly how a product is used, they’ll be able to imagine themselves using it. You make that product a known quantity, and make it easier for your audience to imagine buying it and benefiting from it.
So, how exactly do you show your audience how a product is used? The key is to show the product in action—to show yourself physically using it. Why is this important? Science, and little things in our brains called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a special set of brain cells that respond when we see other people do stuff; they let us understand what it feels like to do something by watching other people do it.
As an example, take all the “unboxing videos” on YouTube—the ones where someone buys something like an iPad and records themselves unwrapping the plastic and taking out all the parts and firing it up—those video are extremely popular!
Check out this example, where I unbox three podcasting mic options for under $75:
People like to see exactly what they’re going to buy, so do yourself and your audience a favor and “unbox” the products you’re promoting as an affiliate. Write extensive blog posts about products and everything there is to know about them. Record videos and podcast sessions with the products’ owners with questions to popular questions about the product. You can even host live webinars with real questions from the audience about the product.
So, show them what it looks like, how to use it, and how not to use it. Share the good, the bad, the tips, the tricks, everything. Make it easy for them to picture themselves using it. In every case, be honest and thorough. Give your audience enough accurate information to make a qualified decision about whether the product will work for them.
Segment 4: Proof
Next in the pipeline is proof. People want to see how a product can help them be successful at achieving their goals. I’m talking about real, tangible proof—undeniable results you can feel, taste, smell, and touch. You can’t just say something will help your audience—you have to show them.
Proof is similar to experience, but it’s about focusing on the positive outcomes of using a product. If experience is about seeing the product in action, proof is about seeing it work.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary called Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. It’s about a man named Joe Cross who was going through a tough time: he was really overweight and had a lot of skin problems, things he attributed to the food he was eating. The documentary covered his ninety-day juicing journey. That’s right—all he consumed for ninety days straight was juice.
His transformation was remarkable, and you saw it happen over the course of the documentary. By the end of the ninety days, he was completely healthy—off his medication, no more skin rashes, happy and healthy and thin.
Only thirty minutes after watching that documentary, I had a receipt from Amazon in my inbox for my new Breville Juicer. All thanks to Joe Cross, whose documentary showed his remarkable transformation in a bold, personal way.
This documentary is almost the perfect example of proof—showing your audience the remarkable outcomes that are possible for them. After watching Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, I didn’t need to hear a pitch. The proof of Joe Cross’s transformation did it all for me. If there had been an affiliate link mentioned at the end of that documentary, I would have been more than happy to use it. I was on the fence initially, but showing that proof sealed the deal and moved me firmly into the “buyer” camp.
If you can show the success you’ve had with a product, your audience will be excited about the possibility of achieving the same success. Joe’s platform for showing his proof was a documentary—maybe yours is your blog, or a podcast, or video, or all of the above. Whatever it is, give your audience tangible proof—data and demonstration—that the products you’re promoting can change their lives for the better.
Segment 5: Pitch
The last part of the pipeline, before you get to a conversion or sale, is the actual pitch or sell. There’s a reason this comes last—because, as we’ve discussed throughout these first two chapters so far, trust is key. You shouldn’t start directly promoting a product until you’ve earned your audience’s trust and know the product is something they will benefit from.
Here’s the great part: If you’ve done things correctly to this point, the pitch phase should be the shortest and least aggressive part of the pipeline. The more you focus on building a relationship with your audience, recommending products that align with their success path, sharing your experience using that product, and providing tangible proof of that product’s benefits, the less important it becomes to actually pitch the product directly.
So yes, you can reduce the amount of pitching you have to do by focusing on the first four stages of the pipeline. But at a minimum, you’ll still need to enable the sale. You need to make sure people have a way to click on your affiliate link to buy the product! This means creating a point of sale where you insert one or more calls to action (CTAs) to click on the affiliate link and purchase the product. You have lots of options in terms of where to put these links and CTAs:
- Blog posts
- Landing pages
- Podcast show notes
- Social media messages
So is it as simple as just adding your link to an email or blog post and watching the commissions roll in? Not so fast. There are a few crucial tips to keep in mind when it comes to adding your affiliate links at the point of sale.
1. BE HONEST
When you provide a link, always be clear that it’s an affiliate link that will earn you a commission for each sale. In fact, if you do everything in the pipeline leading up to this point, this will actually help you, because people will want to pay you back for everything you’re doing for them. Some people may not know about affiliate links and commissions, and will sometimes open a new window to buy a product. By being honest and upfront that you’re using affiliate links, you’ll help ensure you’re getting all the affiliate commissions you deserve.
2. OFFER SUPPORT
In addition to telling them it’s an affiliate link, offer to answer questions and provide support if needed. This is a great way to show your audience, right at the point of sale, that there’s someone there to help them if they need it. Yes, this also means someone to blame if things don’t go well—but since you’ve already vetted the product and learned how to use it, you shouldn’t have any problem taking on that responsibility.
3. PROVIDE MULTIPLE OPPORTUNITIES
Give people more than one chance to click through your affiliate link. Take blog posts, for instance, since they’re probably the most popular way to share affiliate links. A lot of times, business owners will just link the first mention of an affiliate product in a post. If their reader misses it—or keeps scrolling, intends to return, then forgets to scroll back up—well, you’ve lost your potential commission. Instead, add a link near the beginning, middle and end of a post.
Also remember that, beyond just blog posts, there are lots of ways and places to share your affiliate links, including:
- YouTube videos
- A “resources” page—in fact, my resources page here on smartpassiveincome.com is my most profitable page.
4. OFFER A BONUS
Offering a bonus with an affiliate product is a great way to make sure your audience goes through your link and not someone else’s.
Lots of people use the bonus technique, but many don’t use it to its greatest potential. They’ll throw in random things that aren’t something the potential buyer needs. If you really want to knock bonuses out of the park, create a bonus that truly complements the product you’re promoting. This could be something like:
- A quick-start PDF guide on how to use the product
- Access to something you have that complements the product—if you’re selling a juicer, you can provide a recipe guide to go along with it.
- A coupon code or discount on a related product or service.
5: REMEMBER WHY
Finally, remember why you got into affiliate marketing. It’s not for the commissions. It’s for your audience—to help them achieve something. It’s your responsibility, as someone with a platform and an audience that trusts you, to give them the products they need to achieve success.
Your commissions are ultimately a byproduct of how helpful you are to your audience. So aim to be incredibly helpful, and you will earn more in the long run. When you approach affiliate marketing in a way that keeps people around and doesn’t rely on the pitch, but rather everything that happens before that—the relationship, the product, the experience, and the proof—you’ll set yourself up for maximum success.
Remember: Use affiliate marketing as a tool to help your audience, and the commissions will come!
In the next chapter, we’ll dive deep into some tips for affiliate marketing that’ll help you take your success to the next level.