Affiliate Marketing: how does it work and is it worth it?

Imagine if you could write about products and services you have a genuine interest in and get paid to do so. Well through the art of affiliate marketing, you can do just that.

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Affiliate marketing is a popular way to earn additional income for many copywriters, freelancers, marketers, and everyday folk seeking that sweet side hustle income.

But, before you start writing articles about the ‘top ten toasters for Gen Z’ and linking left, right, and centre, it is vital you consider whether getting into affiliate marketing is a worthy return on investment.

This article will give you honest answers to common concerns including, is affiliate marketing worth it? Can you make a comfortable income? And how much of your time will you have to invest to make it worthwhile?

And what’s more, Startups has no ulterior motive to sign you up for an affiliate market training course that is “guaranteed to make you a millionaire in just six months!!!” (cue eye roll).

All we have is a keen interest in helping our readers make the right choices. So for now, let's cover the basics…

How does affiliate marketing work?

To put it simply, affiliate marketing is the promotion of someone else’s product by yourself, in return for a small commission on each sale made.

It is a common method of monetisation in the digital world, growing ever-popular in correlation with the rise of ecommerce and the move to online purchasing by consumers.

In fact, according to data from Kinsta, affiliate marketing is ranked in the top three customer acquisition channels for 54% of brand marketers. That’s higher than both organic search (16%) and display ads (15%).

Here’s a (brief) step-by-step explanation of how affiliate marketing typically works:

  1. Create a website, YouTube channel, or social media account
  2. Produce engaging, relevant content that appeals to your target audience – this could be in the form of video reviews, blog posts, or entertaining social content
  3. Consider which products will appeal most to your target audience. You want to maximise sales opportunities – there's no point selling chocolate to Oompa Loompas
  4. Create an affiliate account using an affiliate platform – we will go into further detail about which platforms to use, further down
  5. Set up your affiliate links and begin earning commission on sales as your audience clicks on them – and of course, celebrate when you make your first commission!

We’ve kept our explanation short and sweet, but would highly recommend you watch the video below by Shopify for a comprehensive guide to getting started with affiliate marketing.

Examples of affiliate marketing

We’ve highlighted a few interesting examples of how content creators make money through affiliate links, below. The principles of how you monetise remain the same, it’s mainly a question of where you’re reaching out to an audience.

Through blogging

Jack Smith runs a highly successful kitchen appliance reviews blog. He loves nothing more than to test out and write about microwaves, and is currently working on a review of ‘the top ten microwaves for people on a budget’.

Russell Hobbs is a kitchen appliance juggernaut. They supply microwaves and one particular model ranks highly on Jack’s list. By forging an affiliate relationship, Jack will be able to directly link to the Russell Hobbs website throughout his review article, and receive payment from Russell Hobbs every time the business makes a sale via one of Jack’s links.

Alternatively, Jack can work with Amazon’s affiliate platform to link to Russell Hobbs microwaves on sale there.

Through social media – influencer #ads

Many influencers make money through affiliate deals with brands. They advertise products to their followers and earn a commission on any sale, usually via using a specific code that the influencer will share with their followers.

instagram influencer ad example

Through price comparison websites

An area that has really excelled in the affiliate marketing space is comparison websites such as USwitch, and MoneySavingExpert.

By offering consumers the chance to compare costs in relation to energy, car insurance, and other highly common commodities, these websites are able to provide vast amounts of affiliate links directly to the providers, all whilst drawing in a huge amount of traffic from audiences that want one thing and one thing only – to save money.

Through video content

Many influencers use YouTube or TikTok to Livestream, and video blogs to promote products and brands. A very common, but very effective, way to affiliate market through YouTube is through ‘try on hauls’. This is when a content creator/influencer will try on a series of outfits from different brands, and review each item.

Links to the products will be included either in the description, or throughout the video, and the content creator will earn a percentage of a sale whenever someone viewing the video clicks through and makes a purchase.

Influencer Tanya Burr has become incredibly successful using this method of affiliate marketing.

tanya burr youtube affiliate


Affiliate marketing platforms

To get started setting up affiliate links, you’ll need to get yourself set up on an affiliate platform. There are many available, and Tom Bourlet, Marketing Manager at Fizzbox and an aff marketing pro, advises the following:

“When setting up an affiliate programme, you can either run it through a big affiliate system, such as Commission Junction, or through a cheaper option, such as a basic plugin.

The bigger option will help to put your brand in front of plenty of potential affiliates, therefore skipping some of the steps in reaching out to relevant potential affiliates. At the same time, the larger affiliate platforms can be costly, so I suggest you opt for cheaper options that still have some great affiliate partnerships.”

Some of the UK’s top affiliate platforms include:

  • Commission Junction (CJ Affiliate): one of the world’s largest affiliate networks, with programmes and aff partners available in many regions around the world
  • Amazon Associates: Amazon needs no introduction, which is why a lot of people trust it and why its affiliate programme is top-rated
  • Shopify affiliate programme: as one of the world’s largest ecommerce platforms, Shopify has countless small businesses on its books with that you can set up partnerships. The only downside is that you will be limited to brands selling only on Shopify.

Offering his guidance on affiliate marketing programmes, serial entrepreneur and marketer Sully Tyler says:

Do your research. Find reputable programs that align with your goals and interests. It's important to choose a program that has good customer service, offers fair commission rates, and provides ample resources so that you can succeed in the market.

Do affiliate marketers make money?

The short answer is yes. But, the long answer involves a lot of ifs, buts, and maybes.

The money can be big

You can make a lot of money through affiliate marketing. In fact, there arguably is no ceiling to how much you can earn through affiliate revenue, provided you can reach a big enough audience. Although Glassdoor data suggests that UK affiliates earn roughly £34,000 per year.

Marketing and business guru Pat Flynn has openly documented his successes in the affiliate marketing sector. From making earnings of $8,000 to $100,000 per month.

And the great news is affiliate marketing revenue is increasing by 10% every year, according to stats by the advertising group Streamline.

But it takes time and effort

Similar to dropshipping, affiliate marketing can too easily be perceived as a get-rich-quick scheme. But this really is not the case.

To begin reaping the benefits of any affiliate partnerships you strike up, you’ll need to have an audience to sell to.

Building that audience and increasing traffic takes time, effort, and consistency, and there is no easy way around this. You need to understand the importance of SEO and marketing effectively, both of which can get expensive. And, all it takes is a change to Google or YouTube’s algorithm, and you can see months of progress lost in an instance.

Maybe you won’t succeed

You should be aware of the sobering fact that around 95% of affiliate marketers fail. Typically this is because of a lack of effort, product knowledge, and marketing expertise.

You should be aware of the sobering fact that around 95% of affiliate marketers fail. Typically this is because of a lack of effort, product knowledge, and marketing expertise.

But even if you have all of those things, it is still a tough cookie to crack. You need resilience, determination, and most of all you need to focus on creating genuine, useful, and entertaining content that people will actually engage with before you start slapping links all over the place.
What kind of commissions can you get?

The commission you receive depends on the affiliate platform you are using, and the brand you have partnered with. Some brands, such as Shopify, pay 100% commission on a specific number of payments.

For example, if you converted a customer towards a Shopify plan (worth £49) you would receive a commission of £49 for the first two payments of anyone that has purchased the plan through your referral.

On other platforms like Amazon, affiliates can receive up to 10% commission on any qualifying product purchase. But, it can be a lot less than this, depending on the product type – some Amazon commissions are as low as 1.5%. Amazon has a huge consumer market (the largest in the world) but you’ll need to sell a serious amount of products before you begin to see the benefits.

What kind of commissions can you get?

The commission you receive depends on the affiliate platform you are using, and the brand you have partnered with. Some brands, such as Shopify, pay 100% commission on a specific number of payments.

For example, if you converted a customer towards a Shopify plan (worth £49) you would receive a commission of £49 for the first two payments of anyone that has purchased the plan through your referral.

On other platforms like Amazon, affiliates can receive up to 10% commission on any qualifying product purchase. But, it can be a lot less than this, depending on the product type – some Amazon commissions are as low as 1.5%. Amazon has a huge consumer market (the largest in the world) but you’ll need to sell a serious amount of products before you begin to see the benefits.

Did you know that if you are using Amazon’s affiliate programme, whatever someone buys within 24 hours after clicking your affiliate links, you will receive a commission from the sale? Regardless of whether the product they purchase is the original one they clicked through to from your site.

Amazon commission rates

To be more specific about the rates involved with Amazon, we have created a small table below so you can work out what you could earn depending on the items you are promoting.

To clarify the subsets of standard commission income:

  • Direct qualifying purchases are those that you have provided direct affiliate links to from your website/social account/video – the rates typically range from 6%-20%
  • Indirect qualifying purchases are those that a user will make on Amazon as a result of visiting the website through one of your links – although you won’t be promoting the product directly
Product CategoryDirect Qualifying PurchasesIndirect Qualifying Purchases
Amazon Games20%1.5%
Amazon Fashion (Apparel, Shoes, Jewelry, Watches)10%1.5%
Handmade10%1.5%
Home (Furniture, Home Improvement, Kitchen & Dining)7%1.5%
Consumables (Beer Wine & Spirits, Grocery, Beauty)6%1.5%
Digital and media (Books, Music, DVD & Blu-ray, software)6%1.5%
Hobbies and Auto (Outdoor Recreation, Toys & Games, Sports & Fitness)6%1.5%

Can you succeed at affiliate marketing?

For sure, you can. But as we mentioned above, you need to understand that there is plenty of work to be done before you begin to see the fruits of your labour.

Beatriz Repiso, CEO of Otternative Marketing, believes that the issue resides in the fact affiliate marketing is so misunderstood, and often underestimated and mis-sold by ‘social media gurus’.

“‘Gurus’ teach you that if you set up a nice website and make a couple of videos on Instagram or TikTok people will flood your website with sales. That is NOT true, and I hope you do not fall for it, as it will cost you valuable time and money.

“Instead, the formula to be successful is: traffic + good conversions = sales. For you to create enough revenue to live off that website, it needs to have a lot of traffic, and for ANY website to have a lot of traffic you either need organic or paid traffic.”

Let’s look at some top tips you should follow to increase your chances of success.

'Gurus' teach you that if you set up a nice website and make a couple of videos on Instagram or TikTok people will flood your website with sales. That is NOT true, and I hope you do not fall for it, as it will cost you valuable time and money.

Take full advantage of affiliate partnerships and networking

As Tom Bourlet, Marketing Manager of fizzbox notes, “affiliate partnerships are a great way to work with brands and offer something mutually beneficial, as they send you a free product and you get a percentage of any sale off the back of you posting about it.”

“If you are a blog writer, work alongside others in the industry and share each other’s articles or content. This is a great way to boost traffic and promote each other’s niches.”

Content first, links second

It is easy to get bogged down in capitalising on links. But first and foremost you need to create content brimming with E-A-T. If your audience is engaged and trusts your expertise in a certain area, then they are more likely to trust in your recommendations and sign up or purchase the products or services you are promoting.

Avoid ‘salesy’ language, as this will put readers off and have them questioning the authenticity of your content. The same can be said for links – don’t bombard people with them, use them strategically and try different visual elements to attract clicks and improve conversions.

To find out more about E-A-T, visit our article on digital marketing trends.

How much work is all of this going to be?

As we touched on earlier, the average success rate stands at around 5%. This figure might put some off, but the reason for many failures is simply that wannabe affiliate marketers are not patient enough.

In order to earn some real money from affiliate marketing, you’ll need to put in the time and effort in order to gain valuable experience, and forge affiliate relationships with some of the top brands. This sort of relationship-building can be key to securing more generous payouts than standard partners would get, for example.

Your site needs to gain traction, and you need to build expertise and authority in the space you are promoting products. One big tip from us would be to perhaps write about/promote products that you already have plenty of experience with. If you were an accountant in a previous role, for example, then writing authoritatively about accounting software is a surefire way to already be one step ahead of other marketers, because you know exactly what makes good software, and can back this up with your previous experience.

How long might it take to start making money?

For the first few months – and even your entire first year, potentially – you need to be aware that you will be making very little. We wouldn’t suggest you quit work and start affiliate marketing full time. Rather, start with affiliate marketing on the side, until you begin gaining traction with traffic or followers, then begin working alongside brands that are paying you some high commissions for your links.

You also need to invest time in your content, and growing a following. This doesn’t happen overnight.

The only affiliate platform that you could earn money on straight away would be Amazon, and even then the commission is very low in some cases, so you won’t be earning the big bucks.

Is it all worth it? Well, high-level affiliates with over two years of experience could be earning up to £2,500 per day. This is because their site may be very popular and see a lot of traffic, and feature highly on search engine results. The top-earning affiliates also are more likely to promote very high-value products, and receive higher commissions for links.


Do you have to disclose that you do affiliate marketing?

When it comes to advertising, there are rules and regulations that must be followed in the UK. These are set by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), and follow guidelines set by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

The rules are in place in order to protect consumers and customers from being mis-sold to, or falsely misinformed, about a product or service.

And the important thing to know before you venture into affiliate marketing, is that the rules also apply to you.

What do I have to do?

The CAP code applies to affiliate marketing, because it is:

“Advertisements and other marketing communications by or from companies, organisations or sole traders on their own websites, or in other non-paid-for space online under their control, that are directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, services, opportunities, and gifts, or which consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of their own fund-raising activities.”

In order to adhere to the CAP code, and ensure you aren’t subject to any criminal penalties or complaints to the ASA, you must ensure you are transparent about any affiliate relationships with the products/services you are marketing throughout your content.

By transparency, this would mean you specify clearly throughout a blog post on your website, that you have an affiliate relationship with the brand that owns a product you are reviewing.

At Startups, we include such notices (seen below) when we are reviewing products, at the top, and bottom, of our pages.

screenshot of aff marketing notice

It is important you are clear when content is funded through affiliate relationships, as failure to do so could result in criminal penalties for any website owners who violate the CAP code.

What about social posts?

The ASA also keeps tabs on a brand or influencer’s social posts, which must adhere to the same CAP code principles as a blog post or other content. Whenever you are promoting a product or service, you must make it clear that the post is an advertisement, whether that is through the form of a simple ‘#advertisement’ or a clearer sentence explaining this at the bottom of your post.


Conclusion – is affiliate marketing worth it?

By now, through the help of this article, you should have a view of whether or not affiliate marketing is worth it for you.

Because that is the most important point, whether affiliate marketing works for the type of person you are. As you need to be:

  • Patient: growing traffic and building an audience that trusts your judgement and recommendations doesn’t happen overnight, you need to work hard and give this venture time before it begins to work out
  • Knowledgeable and insightful: if you haven’t got expert knowledge in a certain niche yet, you need to start developing this. Only then will you be able to confidently recommend products to your audience, and only then will they confidently listen to your recommendations
  • Determined: affiliate marketing involves a LOT of networking and building relationships with brands. You need to be enthusiastic and determined, and be able to form solid partnerships
  • Creative: content is at the heart of successful affiliate marketing, so being creative and producing standout, original blog posts that are going to attract attention, is a must

If you have all of the above attributes, and a part or full time job to help you keep on top of outgoings when first starting out with affiliate marketing, then we would say it is definitely worth it.

What we advise though is to not quit your full time position elsewhere and have no other income. It takes time to start earning as an affiliate marketer, and you don’t want to be stuck in a tough situation with minimal incomings, particularly not during a cost of living crisis.

If you fancy giving affiliate marketing a try, but need some additional income to help support you, you could also try your hand at dropshipping. To find out everything you need to know, visit our dropshipping guide.

FAQs
  • Is it hard to get into affiliate marketing?
    Not at all, in fact it is super easy! All you need to do is have a device to create content on (such as a laptop for blogging), a reliable internet connection, and a competent level of product knowledge (preferably in a niche).
  • How do I start in affiliate marketing?
    To start in affiliate marketing, we would suggest you research the affiliate programmes you want to sign up for. Amazon is a great place to start because there are a vast number of products to promote, and they do a lot of the hard work (back end stuff) for you. Once you’ve signed up, you can begin creating content and receiving commission on any affiliate links you have made and that convert!
  • Which platform is best for affiliate marketing?
    Awin is highly regarded as a great platform for affiliate marketing. Not only because there are over 1,000 companies on their books that include Tesco and Boots, but also because Awin comes with a useful feature that allows you to advertise your services on the platform to prospective companies. So if you are a website builder wizz and you can efficiently promote ecommerce platforms, these types of companies can see your profile and get in contact if they want to work with you.
Written by:
Ross has been writing for Startups since 2021, specialising in telephone systems, digital marketing, payroll, and sustainable business. He also runs the successful entrepreneur section of the website. Having graduated with a Masters in Journalism, Ross went on to write for Condé Nast Traveller and the NME, before moving in to the world of business journalism. Ross has been involved in startups from a young age, and has a keen eye for exciting, innovative new businesses. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.

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