Why Affiliate Marketing Will Save Free Online Content

Copywriting for Affiliate Marketing

Publishing online content is great… if you have something to sell.

Many people who publish online are still seeking that almighty advertising dollar, but the results for most are dismal. And there’s evidence that things will actually get worse, not better.

Why?

Well, maybe it’s because current online advertising is fundamentally flawed. Online, you can’t make people look at what they don’t want to see.

Content Goes Where the Reader Wants

Witness the recent uproar about Shyfter, an enterprising company attempting to bring content scraping into the mainstream. While things like this drive those of us who build authority sites crazy, the truth is you’ll have to assume that most of the real action won’t happen on your site no matter what, thanks to email, RSS, and other syndication methods.

So what good do those ads in the sidebar do? How do you make money when your content is where the reader wants it to be?

Plus, when you take into account ad-blocking software and the attitude of the Internet entitlement generation who doesn’t care about copyright or whether you make a living, you have little choice. If you want to make money online, be prepared to use your influence in ways that actually bring in revenue.

Web Ads Don’t Work – Jakob Nielsen, 1997

I don’t agree with everything Jakob Nielsen says, but he seems to have nailed the fact that traditional advertising strategies do not play well on the web—and he did it way back in 1997. While online ad spending has increased dramatically since, click-through rates continue to drop while eye-tracking studies show banner blindness is a devastatingly effective attention filter.

Now, in 2008 Advertising Age (of all sources) channels Nielsen and argues that maybe the web’s not a place for ads at all. The article points out that the best companies (like Apple) don’t buy ads online, and argues the same point I’ve been trying to hammer home—every online marketer is a media owner and every business that wants online exposure is a media company.

There is of course one giant exception… and that’s search engine advertising. This proves Nielson’s point that when it comes to commerce, the web is more like the Yellow Pages than a magazine. When a buyer is in search mode, search advertising such as AdWords works like a charm.

But as those eye-tracking studies show, content consumers are not in the mood to stop reading to look at banner ads or sponsor buttons. So how do you turn a reader into a buyer?

Easy… you periodically offer content that is the advertisement. But make sure you’ve got the reader’s interests firmly in mind… because the Internet is a buyer’s market.

It’s a Buyer’s Market… So Become the Buyer’s Trusted Advisor

It’s likely been hammered into your head by now—focus on the reader, build your subscriber list, earn trust, and establish authority. But for what?

If you don’t have a product or service to sell, and you don’t want to create content to sell, there’s only one other option… sell other people’s stuff for a commission (also known as affiliate marketing). And I don’t mean sticking affiliate ads in your sidebar until some “real” advertisers show up. I mean actively working to recommend quality offers to your readers.

Is it possible to do this without running off your audience? Absolutely… successful publishers have been making big money with permission marketing for well over a decade. If you want a bigger payoff for the time and effort it takes to create valuable niche content, smart affiliate marketing is the way to go.

Copywriting and Content Strategies for Affiliate Marketing

From here, I’ll be starting a series of posts on content and copywriting strategies for affiliate marketing. While I’ve got the series already planned, let me know in the comments if you have specific questions so I can work in specific areas of concern.

About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of Teaching Sells.

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Comments

  1. Daniel Foster :

    I agree that banner blindness is an epidemic…and I look forward to your continuing series.

    But I must take exception to the statement about Apple avoiding banner advertising.

    They just do it at a different level than everyone else, which means it gets noticed, talked about, and posted to YouTube.

    You’ve seen the “Get a Mac” Flash ads that involve interplay between the leaderboard and skyscraper areas? Brilliant way to dominate the page, if you ask me.

    http://snipurl.com/2563e [www_macdailynews_com]

  2. Thanks for the heads up, Daniel. It was Ad Age who said Apple doesn’t advertise online, but maybe they just meant they are unconventional about it as you point out.

  3. Your thesis works if every website out there is trying to sell something – but most news oriented sites are selling “page impressions”, not kitchen sinks.

    While it is possible that The Financial Times could chug along on the revenue from a few affiliate sales, the simple fact is that most serious news readers work in the industry they are reading about – so have no need for these affiliate services anyway.

    I write as well for a telecoms publication, and we are constantly getting emails from mobile phone affiliates begging to be our partner.

    It’s pointless – our readers get their phone from their employer, so why would they buy from us? They don’t – I’ve tried it.

    If the online world ends up dumping CPM/CPC advertising in favour of CPA, then an awful lot of serious news sites will go bust, or cease to be free to access.

  4. Ian, I agree that news sites are in a tough spot, but then again, larger sites like The Financial Times will likely be able to draw plenty of ad revenue (until advertisers decide online ads not worth paying for).

    But that doesn’t change the facts (and it’s not my thesis, see the citations above). Online news sites can either get creative and find ways to deliver value to sponsors and advertisers, or they can go out of business.

  5. Can’t wait for the series to continue. This is exactly what I have been looking at and doing on http://homeofficewarrior.com Recently, I have been doing some product and book reviews with my affiliate links. Just dipping my toe in right now. But, I want to get in the full swing of affiliate marketing as you suggest.

  6. Interesting post Brian..

    How is Copyblogger holding up to this thesis? (had to come sooner or later ;)

    Concering Apple, another factor could be lots of people chose NOT to ignore them because they care about Apple, a privilege few companies enjoy.

  7. Hi Brian. I own a web hosting company. You typically don’t see affiliate marketing execution through content on other web hosting sites.

    Our site is a little different, though – it’s more Web 2.0 oriented. In my blog, for example, I talk about growing as an entrepreneur. I make references to Seth Godin books, Trump, etc. and have been thinking if I’m recommending these books I might as well turn their links into an affiliate sale.

    My main area of concern and questions I have revolve around starting the whole process. I understand the idea of affiliate sales and marketing but I have questions like:

    – where do I start?
    – what sites do I sign up with (like conjunction junction)?
    – are there any fees?
    – if I create an eBook, how do I offer commissions?
    – how much time out of my day will I have to give attention to this (variable I’m sure)?

    Thanks bro. Looking forward to the posts and I’m sure I’ll have future questions during the series.

  8. Awesome idea. AdSense was great for a bit, and will remain as part of the revenue generating model, but my payouts keep dropping as fewer people click on the ads.

    I dipped my toe is using PPC and sending traffic to a blog that had an affiliate offer and was successful for some time.

    My recommendation would be to include some of the more technical aspects, maybe refer good resources. Tracking, hiding links, etc are all things I am interested in along with how to write great copy.

  9. After I visited Vegas for the first time I realized that you can place advertising anywhere.

    Web 2.0 is going to test the creativity of affilates. Although the medium has changed, the objectives remain the same.

  10. How is Copyblogger holding up to this thesis? (had to come sooner or later ;)

    Copyblogger has made more from affiliate and JV promotions in the last 3 months than it made from ad sales for all of last year.

  11. Apple is running web ads. I didn’t read the adage.com article (lengthy registrations scare me), but I’ve noticed banner ads from Apple running on the New York Times website over the last few weeks. They were quite good, too.

  12. @Troy – I live in Las Vegas and yes, I have a wealth of advertisements to evaluate. Right now there’s a big topic going on in our city council about those mobile billboards (billboards on trucks that drive up and down the Las Vegas Strip).

    Most companies that use them are the escort industries – sex sells! But our community is getting tired of seeing it.

    The advertising is interesting. The girls many times aren’t even cute on the sign but they are in lingerie and it’s the “idea” that they are selling.

  13. Brian you are 100% correct. Placing ads on a blog is pretty close to worthless.

    I am really looking forward to your posts on this subject. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

    Live From Las Vegas
    The Masked Millionaire

  14. @Brian
    “Copyblogger has made more from affiliate and JV promotions in the last 3 months than it made from ad sales for all of last year.”

    Somehow this doesn’t surprise me (you tend to walk the talk). And I guess if some advertisers still want to pay you money for some pixels in your sidebar most people seem to ignore anyways you could (at least to some extent) care less if they actually get a positive return on investment.

    Thanks for sharing this info, it’s pretty interesting stuff.

  15. Hi Brian,

    This is perfect timing for me. I’m about to launch my first blog and want to include affiliate marketing to earn income from it.

    It is in the eldercare field, and I don’t want to come across as “sales-y” in my writing.

    I also don’t know whether I should state up front (somewhere in my blog — maybe on the About page?) that I would be making a commission should someone click on the links — if that would come across as too commercial in a service-oriented niche.

    Thanks,
    Linda

  16. You are getting into dangerous territory, and I love it! The sleazebag stink is so high around this stuff that it taints nearly everything associated with it.

    I have to give you credit, Brian, for being a great example of how to do this without selling out or selling your soul with Teaching Sells and other projects.

    How I feel about internet marketing sleazebags is clear: I think they’re “polluting the pond.” Maybe there are more good ones who behave ethically than we realize, and maybe we just don’t hear about them as much.

    I look forward to the next article in the series.

  17. I love your blog Brian and agree with 99% of what you write. I learn from you and respect you – but think you’re dead wrong here.

    Affiliate marketing is a blight on the entire online marketplace. From affiliate who lie about sales to those who just don’t pay, the affiliate marketspace is full of bad deals. Add to that the fact that most affiliate deals are always GREAT deals for the person offering the affiliate commissions because they get mindshare for free. Every time someone sees an Amazon banner linking to Amazon affiliate space, whether or not there is a click, Amazon’s brand gets advanced – and it costs them nothing.

    I think online marketers should generally avoid affiliate deals and instead work at building content that attracts true fans – then selling the RELATIONSHIP between the content and the fans – – NOT the page views or downloads – will make money.

  18. Brian, great topic. I’d like to get your take on the separation of church and state when it comes to affiliate links; there are fine lines that need to be drawn between editorial content and paid advertising in order to earn and keep the trust of your audience.

    When I recognize a paid recommendation, I may not discount it, especially when the relationship is disclosed. But if I suspect there is something going on “behind the scenes”, not only do I mistrust the recommendation, but I learn to be suspicious of the source. Simply dropping affiliate links into editorialized content without any form of disclosure erodes away the foundation of trust we attempt to build with our readers.

    Any thoughts on practical approaches? Perhaps more specifically, what strategies should we consider to help us keep the trust of our communities? If we start to cross the lines between what we recommend because it benefits the community, as opposed to our “selfish” interests, are there strategies you recommend to keep that line from getting blurry?

  19. Brian, I think you’re hinting at something that goes deeper than the difference in revenue between advertising and affiliate sales. And I think that the reason people get confused about Apple is related.

    On the web, good content IS good marketing.

    When you add value for users, they don’t see it as advertising. They see it as something beneficial, whether it’s information or entertainment. Apple’s ads, wherever they go (and they do run banners), are typically entertaining content in and of themselves. Most online advertising, on the other hand, is annoying and intrusive, which detracts value from the overall experience of a page.

    I think that people are increasingly making the connection between content and marketing (as the article marketing phenomenon has shown). People who survive off clicks–be they from affiliate sales or AdSense–will therefore need to compete with better and better content.

    General interest sites such as news sites, however, already have content. But because it’s general information, they can’t survive off clicks, since it’s hard to target ads to an article about, say, Barak Obama, and relevant ads always out-click unrelated. To survive, these sites must go after big brands who need constant exposure to keep their brand top of mind. These companies often care less about immediate sales (for better or worse) than brand recall at the retail level.

    Regarding specific questions, one key issue I hope you address is CREDIBILITY. I have seen very few people do affiliate marketing without selling their soul or appearing to. As soon as you leverage your authority to make money, everything you say is suspect. There are ways to balance this out, but it’s always risky to cross the line between advertising and editorial!

    • Simon, I’m one of your grateful New students and as I see it you and Brian are 100% correct! I’m a Traditional Naturopathy student turned Natural Health & Wellness Publisher (needed a way to pay for schooling).

      “When you add value for users, they don’t see it as advertising. They see it as something beneficial, whether it’s information or entertainment.” (at least I do) and I’m hoping that this will work for me. And I would have to believe that authority/credibility will be my keys to success (along with GREAT Content )!

      Thanks for the great content that you all share for free!

  20. Hey Brian,

    I didn’t read the Ad Age article either, but a quick Google of “Apple” will show you that the company is using Google Adwords for its online Apple store (in Canada, anyway…) I would think that Google is the epitome of Internet advertising.

    And I’ve seen those Apple “Mac/PC” ads all over — the Christmas one was the best use of a header and side banner combo.

    Something has been taken out of context here!

    ~Graham

  21. Your absolutely right about advertising not producing the same results as it did back in 1997. Times change, and when times change, everything else changes with it. That, of course, is why we have to constantly keep up with and research trends. A lot of people are use to sticking with the way things were instead of changing their habits with the new trends, and I think this is why many of those people fail. You have to change with the times. Does that make sense?

    I’m looking forward to your series!

  22. I’m looking forward to your series as well. I think that affiliate marketing is very effective when you take the time to build a relationship with your audience, as you’ve implied, and choose your programs carefully. The “just slap up a link and you’ll make money” trend has left a bad taste in a lot of mouths when it comes to affiliate marketing. No one likes to be pitched to. But if you take time to connect with your audience and show you care, it can be very effective as long as it’s not overused. Everything in moderation!

  23. Great post Brian.

    Looking forward to the strategies and lines to be aware of to make sure we stay on the up-and-up with our readers, yet still profit from our efforts.

    Writing for writing’s sake might be a good pastime, but if it’s not monetized, it’s a hobby, not a business.

    Steve

  24. Apple doesn’t buy online ads?

    They must’ve stopped recently because the “I’m A Mac I’m A PC” ads were all over my favorite websites, very distractingly, for months.

    Thanks for Copyblogger, I always look forward to the posts.

  25. I do web development work and a client just paid $3,000 to some web marketing company to have them buy a bunch of ads on various sites. They paid for impressions, not conversions or leads, etc. They got zero clicks from the ad impressions.

    So there will always be suckers buying something because they lack common sense. Long live the sucker, they make the world go round.

  26. Once there was a market place, once there were shops and malls, and elegant roads, and big stores, once there were marketing companies and advertisements on the road, and fancy shops, and light and glamour and busy days on the shopping centres.

    Soon, sooner than what we expect, all this will change.

    E-commerce will eat ALL.
    A computer will be our car, an internet connection the freeway, the Backbone the gasoline.
    We will shop in China, in India, in Europe, in the USA.
    We will shop where it is more convenient and where we find what we are looking for and, most of all, we will shop where the good advertisement will bring us.

    It won’t be a fancy banner or a blinking ad, or the promise of saving money, or pay one and get three.
    It will be: “Hey buddy, I know what you like, I know what you need and I am good in telling jokes or making small and funny videos, or writing an interesting story.
    Hey buddy, bookmark my blog, or my page and come back, I promise I will have something good to entertain you, for free of course.”
    And it will be: If by any chance you are looking for a new computer, or a new phone, or the latest music, or whatever I have to sell, ask me, or read what I am saying about it.
    Just read. And if I am good I will sell, if I am not, I will sell to someone else.

    Once there was the middle man, now there is the blogger, the writer, the video maker, the webmaster, the entertainer.

    But believe me, it will be the same story with different clothes…

  27. Hi Brian,

    Great post. I have to give you credit, I like your writing style. Teaching Sells sales letter is a true study in great copywriting. You were quite successful in creating Joe Sugarman’s slippery slide! Kudos!

    While I’ve read books, websites, & articles on affiliate marketing/copywriting, it is not yet clear to me the best strategy for affiliate marketing. According to Affiliate Millions by Anthony Borelli, search engine marketing requires no content or landing page. Marketers simply create search engine links to advertisers’ pages. But then conversion is in the hands of the advertiser, and much of our hard work and advertising dollar (ROI) is wasted.

    Then we could create landing pages but this seems too shallow and transparent. Not really the stuff that long-term relationships can be built upon. So then there’s full blown websites revolving around one category. How many of those can one affiliate marketer manage, and do a great job?

    Here are a few Series Content Suggestions:
    1. Explain and compare affiliate marketing strategies and their features and benefits.
    a. Ex. Search engine links to advertiser’s page or landing page.
    2. Provide a step-by-step process for writing successful search engine links and content copy.
    a. So many resources give general information, i.e. be sure to do this or avoid doing that. You could provide a simple step 1. Blah, blah, blah. Step 2. “ “,…. when you finish step 10 you will have your content. Now begin the editing process. Step. 1. Blah blah blah….
    3. Explain how web copy differs from traditional “Joe Sugarman” print copy?
    4. Which affiliate companies are really great to work with and which ones should be avoided?

    Hope this helps,
    Angela

  28. I am sure this will be a great series.

    To start with, I think my major concern is the restrictions of the affiliate banners.

    Is there a regulated “law” in using a picture or logo in making such banners?

    I am really concern about the “attractive” banners but it in reality, the products are for adults only.

    I hope you can tackle this, for our child bloggers.

    Just a concern parent blogger. Thanks.

  29. Hey Brian –

    Does the Ad Age article distinguish between brand marketing and direct marketing?

    I understand how someone can look at a banner ad and determine that its ROI is poor from a direct marketing perspective, but what evidence would be used to suggest banner advertisements have poor value from a branding perspective?

    Is banner blindness a misnomer? Could the issue be that people see the ads, they just don’t click on them?

  30. Very good material! Affiliate marketing that paid even a little bit was that ‘taste of blood’ that I needed to let me know that I wanted more internet marketing. I affiliate with items that I really like and believe in; buy myself. And, slowly but surely , it is working.

  31. I totally agree that there is banner blindness going on as it relates to the reader. For 11 months now, my banners have not gotten many clicks, however when I write a post about a product as write it as content, I get clicks. Great post.

  32. Brian,
    Psychic. I spent time yesterday making a list of potential affiliate topics/areas to look into. As the list grew, my underlying concern did become one of finesse : how to choose wisely, how to not appear as selling so much as using my influence to direct my clients/ readers to something that enhanced , gave them value as it develops income streams for me. Sort of like someone asking which tailor do you use, oh here this one… more spheres of influence positioning.
    Isn’t that how the tie in to quality content works? Or will people forgive a direct and obvious sales pitch?

  33. It’s about time we got some clarity as to which things work online and which methods do not- and, what people respond to most.

    As many have said, the ad masters “would have loved” the internet, which, I think, is true. But in many ways it seems like we are starting all over again from scratch.

    New ways to advertise, new markets to try, new learning methods to retain- I bet Ogilvy would have stumbled a bit in the dark, just like the rest of us.

  34. Affiliate marketing actually saves ORIGINAL content because each affiliate is able to come up with their own content promoting the affiliate product which is better for the reader because it gives them more deciding info … no two viewpoints are exactly alike.

  35. I’d like to see some information on how to choose a niche in which to market affiliate products to.

    Also to know how to write copy to get a response but not sound like I’m just trying to get someone to buy something.

    Great post as usual Brian.

  36. Thanks for the thought provoking post! I think you’ve gotten a lot of good points to address from the comments above, and I’d just like to add to the voices regarding clarifying a good balance to strike in keeping the trust of your readers. Because I blog in a very ethics-driven area I’m aware of the fact that affiliate links are considered a “bad word” by some. Examples of wordings for affiliate disclosures would be a great add, and something I’m planning on researching myself as well.

  37. Hope: This is why having some form of affiliate disclosure is now becoming “standard operating procedure”.

    Also, when a reader is searching info especially on affiliate/internet marketing its expected that there will be links to other sites. There’s nothing wrong with affiliate links as long as the info contained therein is helpful to that particular reader.

    Of course,it never hurts to make your aff links more transparent using white-hat masking/cloaking techniques along with some type of visible disclosure statement saying you’re compensated for certain recommendations and that you’d NEVER reccomend garbage.

  38. Brian, As always I appreciate the quality content that has a valid point and a lesson to learn. Your voice is being heard and those of us who fail to listen and heed will be left as the owners of ghostsites. Thanks

  39. Hi,

    Excellent blog – I really appreciate your blog about “Why Affiliate Marketing Will Save
    Free Online Content”, I have bookmarked it for later viewing and forwarded it on.

    Cheers.

  40. I have drifted away from recommending specific products on my web site, because it doesn’t seem cost effective. It is very very hard to get people to click on any paying links, even relevant ones. They don’t even like to click on non-paying links.

    I am baffled as to why Google AdSense/AdWords ads do so poorly, because it costs nothing for a user to clock on them.

  41. I have looked at many sites and not come across such a site as yours that tells you what you really need to know about affiliate marketing.