Monday, May 23, 2016

The Basics of Blog Monetization: Using Affiliate Links on Your Blog

This blogger has an awesome post on ways you can use affiliate links to make money on your blog!  This is a great resource for all bloggers, from new to experienced.  She gives companies you can work with and methods on how to integrate links into posts!

Affiliate links used in this post.

The next addition to The Basics of Blog Monetization Series is all about affiliate links!

When used properly (and ethically), affiliate links can be a wonderful stream of revenue for your blog. Affiliate links account for about a third of my overall income. (It's interesting, no matter what I do, my income is almost perfectly split into thirds between affiliate links, sponsored posts, and ad revenue.  It's been like that for years!)

Pretty much any blog I can think of will eventually talk about a product, whether they are getting paid to do so or not.  It's just naturally part of conversation from time to time.  Why not get paid for what you would talk about on your blog anyway?

So what is an affiliate link?  

Simply put, it's a link that, when clicked by a reader, can make the blogger money.  This can be through a few different methods - for some companies, you make money automatically when the link is clicked (usually just a few cents per click).  For some, the reader must buy something from the website after they click through to that website from a blog post.

This is where affiliate links can get complicated.  Many times, when you click an affiliate link from a blogger, something called a cookie is installed on your browser.  That sounds kind of intimidating and possibly damaging to your computer, but it's not...cookies are installed in your browsers every day without you ever knowing it.  A cookie is just a piece of information that your browser remembers from your website visit.  In the case of affiliate links, it helps the browser remember that the reader visited a website by clicking on a blogger's link.

So for example, let's say I use an affiliate link from Nordstrom (by the way, that link is an affiliate link, just so you can see what I'm talking about).  If you click that, your browser is going to remember that I sent you to Nordstrom for the next 30 days (this amount of time can vary depending on the affiliate network or website).  So, for the next 30 days, anything you buy at Nordstrom's site will earn me a small commission.

It sounds complicated, but it's really not.  Think of it in terms of a salesman: when they recommend a product to you, they typically earn a commission from the sale of that product.  Bloggers using affiliate links are no different.  And don't worry - when you buy something through an affiliate link, no company that I know of shares your personal information!  So not even the blogger that gets the commission from your purchase knows that you're the one the earned it for them.

There are absolute essentials to using affiliate links without alienating readers (and inadvertently breaking the law).

1) Clearly disclose the use of affiliate links each. and. every. time.  This is huge.  One of my biggest pet peeves in blogging is when bloggers are obviously spraying their posts/social media feeds with tons of affiliate links and not disclosing (and there are so many bloggers that do this).  Not only is it not fair to readers when you don't let them know that a link is an affiliate, but it is technically against the law.  According to FTC guidelines, any link that makes you money (whether you get paid for each click or get paid if someone buys a product via that link) MUST be disclosed in an obvious place near the link (i.e. not hidden at the bottom of the page or on a sidebar).  It's typically recommended that the disclosure is at the top of a blog/social media post where you use those links, but many use the bottom of the post disclosures too (which isn't necessarily FTC-compliant, but is better than nothing at all).  The key is that it's an obvious message to your readers.  (And if you guys ever see a post on my blog that has an undisclosed affiliate link, please let me know...I try my best to disclose, but I do slip up sometimes!)

2) Don't include an affiliate link just because you make money.  I've said it a hundred times: when you're blogging just to make money, readers can smell it from a mile away.  The use of affiliate links is no different.  I typically always use an affiliate link if there's one out there when I'm discussing a product anyway, but I never discuss a product just to use the affiliate link.  It's inauthentic and you will almost always lose the trust of the reader if they figure you out.  Trust is absolutely crucial if you're establishing a blog with any kind of following. In the long run, you'll be the one that loses.  Why invest all of the time and energy in establishing a blog just to run readers off?

So, as a reader, how can you tell when a link is an affiliate link?

Even though all affiliate links are supposed to be disclosed, unfortunately, they're not always obvious.  However, there are usually ways to tell whether the link you're clicking is an affiliate link.

-If a link to a company is shortened (either with a link or a beginning), it's typically an affiliate link.  Some bloggers also use something called Pretty Links to change their links (both affiliate and non-affiliate) to something that correlates with their website.  Let's say, for example, I have an affiliate link to a Dinglehopper that I want to sell.  I could use Pretty Links to make the url that directs to my affiliate link for that product.

-Pay attention to what sites load when you click on a link.  If you click it and it redirects you through a few different sites, I always assume that's an affiliate's not always, but most of the time that's a pretty good rule of thumb.  And if you go through an affiliate network to get to a site, that's a dead giveaway.

-If you look at a link and there's any reference to the blogger, it's probably an affiliate link.  For example, all of my Amazon links have lambelatel-20 somewhere in the link.  If you look through an Amazon link that hasn't been shortened to an link and it has something that looks similar to the blogger name, it's an affiliate link from Amazon.  There are many other companies that do this, but Amazon is the biggest example.

And, if you ever want to clear out a cookie so the blogger you clicked through doesn't make a profit off of your purchase, that's totally possible!  Just clear the cookies in your browser before you buy from a website.  But remember, readers are rarely paying more for an item because they clicked on an affiliate link.  The company is just paying that blogger to promote their product...your price is almost always going to be the same whether you use an affiliate link or not.  If I buy a product that was recommended by a blogger, I think it's fair that they get a commission off of that sale, so I try to make sure and use their link when doing so!

As a blogger, how can you start using these links?

There are SO many affiliate companies out there!  If you're just getting started in the affiliate world, here's what I'd do:

Sign up with Amazon Associates.  Seriously my favorite affiliate program ever (and it's probably the single most popular affiliate program in the world).  It's common knowledge that Amazon sells just about everything on the face of the planet.  So, if you're discussing a product, it's a pretty good bet that it's going to be on Amazon (and I'd say 99% of the products you can buy on Amazon can be affiliate linked).  This program usually takes just about bloggers (regardless of numbers or following) as long as you fall under their operating agreement.  Their cookie lasts for 24 hours, so once a reader clicks through that link, anything they buy from Amazon for 24 hours gets you a commission (as long as they don't click through somebody else's link after that)!  Amazon has kind of a complicated system to figure out your referral percentage, but it's typically somewhere between 4-10%.  It's an easy program to use and can make serious money if used properly.

If a product isn't on Amazon, you can definitely still attempt to affiliate link it.  When I'm discussing a product or company, I usually do a quick Google search to see if it has an affiliate program.  Sometimes they might run their own and sometimes they might contract it out through an outside network.  Here are a few bigger affiliate networks that I use:

RewardStyle: They are widely known for being a little bit more choosy in the bloggers they accept, so this is not one you want to apply for when you first start out.  If you have higher social media and/or blog numbers and you commonly discuss fashion, beauty, or home products, I'd encourage you to apply!  They cover a ton of different companies and have great payout rates (usually 4-10% of the total purchase).  This is one of the more popular affiliate link companies out there among bigger bloggers. (If you think you'd be a good candidate for this program, shoot me an email leslie at lambertslately dot com and I'll be glad to send you a link to sign up!)

ShopStyle Collective: Very similar to RewardStyle in that it focuses around fashion/beauty/home companies, but it is kind of a rarity among affiliate links these days; they pay per click instead of per sale.  If you see a blogger with a link that starts with, this is an affiliate link through this company.  Bloggers that use these links typically make a few cents per click on a link, whether the reader buys anything from that click or not.  It's an easier program to get into as well.

(And a sidenote: I can't tell you whether or not your blog would benefit more from a traditional per sale affiliate link or a per click affiliate link.  It really varies based on your reader base.  If you have a lot of "window shoppers" that might just be browsing instead of buying, go with the per click model! If you think your readers are taking your advice and actually buying the products, go with the traditional model.  This honestly varies even within individual posts on my blog, so my best advice is to test it out and see what works best for you!)

Share A Sale: This is another bigger affiliate company that has a lot of well-known companies' links.  I use this one a lot for companies that aren't fashion/beauty/home related.  You won't necessarily have any issues applying to Share a Sale if you're a smaller blog, but once you set up your account, the companies accept you to their program on an individual basis, so you might run into issues there if you're a smaller blogger.  I applied to many of these programs years ago when my following was much smaller though, so definitely at least try if you see a company that you commonly discuss.

Commission Junction: Similar to Share a Sale, just hosts different companies.  I have a lot more success with Share a Sale for some reason, but there are some great companies in this one!  Same concept: easy to apply to Commission Junction, but you'll need to apply for individual programs once you register with the company.

Individual Companies: Not all affiliate programs are through the big networks.  Many companies actually run their own affiliate program.  Ebates is a big example of one that I make a lot of money from, and there are many other ones out there.  I usually find these by Googling the company + "affiliate program"'ll find so much info through a simple search!  Also look for any mention of affiliate or referral on the company's website (usually in the menu or towards the bottom of the page).

How do you use these links?

Super easy...just link to the product when you're discussing it anyway!  You usually make the links by going to the affiliate network's site and putting in your product (either a link to it or the name of it).  They'll give you a personalized link that you'll put on your blog.  If you do this through an affiliate network (like the ones I've mentioned above), you typically get analytics on your links that let you know how many clicks they've gotten and how many sales they've generated.

A few easy ways to include affiliate links in your content:

-Product Round-Ups
-Gift Guides
-Product Reviews
-Home Tours
-Craft Tutorials (sidenote: I find it kind of sketchy to affiliate link recipe ingredients, unless you're mentioning a very specific product or it's required in a sponsored post.  I'll discuss that a little more in my upcoming post on sponsored content...but I wouldn't recommend affiliate linking every single item in a recipe.)
-Sales/Coupons (Just make sure to update your content if a sale or coupon expires.)
-Fashion/Outfit Posts

I'd recommend monitoring your affiliate links closely.  If they aren't generating income, what's the point in taking the time to make them and integrate them into your blog?  Like I mentioned above, use a little bit of trial and error to see whether pay per click or pay per sale links work best for you.

I've had the most success with integrating affiliate links into posts that do well on social media (like Pinterest) & search engines.  My stocking stuffer posts have done incredibly well and have generated a lot of income for me over the years!  If I notice a post getting a lot of hits, I usually go through it and make sure any products I mention are affiliate linked.  I also make sure and promote posts that are rich in affiliate links from time to time.  You can see more info on how I promote posts here!

Let me also say this: if you do mention a product and discover there's no affiliate link available for it, don't take it out of your post!  That goes back to being authentic and truly valuing a product enough to mention it on your blog.  You'll find a hodgepodge of products mentioned on this site...sometimes they're affiliate linked, sometimes they're not.  Even within this actual post there are companies mentioned with and without affiliate links.  Do not lose authenticity just because you're not getting paid for a mention!

And another note on the Blogger/Wordpress debate (sick of me talking about that yet? ;)) : some affiliate links (and really most forms of blog monetization) aren't allowed if you're using a blog. Text links are allowed (as long as they aren't the primary content of the post), but image links aren't.  Confused? Me too.  I wouldn't recommend going with blogs if you're looking to monetize.  Self-hosted blogs and Blogger blogs are both affiliate/monetization friendly though!

So...phew...again with the information overload, Leslie! :) I guess I just have more to say than I ever imagined about blog monetization.  It really is such a complex field with a huge learning curve, but so worth it if you're willing to invest the time and energy in learning how to make money from a blog.

What info am I missing in this one, bloggers?  Comment with your questions/additions below!

Want to catch up on previous posts in The Basics of Blog Monetization series?  Check out these posts!

The Basics of Blog Monetization: An Introduction
The Basics of Blog Monetization: How to (Frugally) Start a Money-Making Blog
The Basics of Blog Monetization: Using Ads on Your Blog
The Basics of Blog Monetization: Creating Sponsored Content

(I am not a lawyer, so nothing in this post is intended to be taken as legal advice.  I am just sharing my personal experience!  Please consult a legal professional if you have questions about the laws governing affiliate marketing.)