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The landscape for affiliate marketers has changed significantly over the past year.
From tighter legislation for affiliates, to Google cracking down on thin affiliate content, and a general increase in competition on the web, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for affiliate marketers to get ahead in the game.
Despite this, many smart individuals and companies continue to generate millions by staying one step ahead of the rest.
So, what is it that affiliate marketers need to do to succeed in 2017 and beyond?
1. Go one inch wide and one mile deep
Many first-time affiliate marketers make the mistake of going one mile wide and one inch deep: trying to dominate forty niches in their first few years.
When you hear about friends making millions from Clickbank products, and marketing products in emerging niches, it can be tough to stay focused.
The price for losing focus, though, is having a portfolio of 21 websites in random niches all with a pitiful domain authority generating next to nothing in sales.
By all means, experiment with different niches once you’ve achieved a level of success you’re happy with on your first website, but to begin with go one inch wide and a mile deep.
2. Create content that your competition can’t compete with
One of the biggest challenges facing affiliate marketers right now is the need to prove their value as middlemen in the value chain.
One of the biggest advantages affiliates have over established brands, and one of the greatest opportunities to add value, is the ability to be agile and act quickly with content marketing.
While brands spend months approving their content strategy and holding fruitless meetings, affiliates can be creating content of such a high standard, that competitors simply won’t have the resources to compete with, and Google would be foolish not to drive traffic to.
This is the strategy that we’ve adopted for most of our affiliate marketing sites at Venture Harbour.
Take Qosy for example. Every 4-6 weeks, Qosy publishes a 3,000 – 8,000 word guide educating readers on tough buying decisions, such as how to choose the best scotch or an engagement ring. While not all of these posts contain affiliate links, affiliate links are often added if a site we’d be recommending anyway has an affiliate program.
It’d be hard for Google to argue with this content not adding value. After all, some of the guides have received close to 10,000 shares and have been used by the brands themselves to educate their own customers. Generally speaking, each guide takes about 40-50 hours to produce, and is benchmarked to beat the best existing piece of content on the topic in virtually every aspect (from design and share-ability, to page speed and on-page SEO).
Over the next year I think we’ll see more and more affiliates adopt this kind of strategy.
3. Build a brand that adds value to the consumer
It’s no surprise that Google’s brand-bias is strengthening. For many affiliates, this is quite a concern, as affiliates haven’t traditionally had to concern themselves with building a strong brand.
When you look at the leading sites in insurance, travel, property, personal finance, and homeware, it’s interesting to note that many of these sites are affiliate sites. They’re also strong brands.
Moneysupermarket, Agoda, Houzz, Which, LastMinute.com, and Compare.com are all ultra-successful affiliate sites due to the strength of their brands, their editorial integrity, and the value they offer consumers.
Over time, affiliate marketers will find it increasingly difficult to succeed without a brand that user’s trust, so consider what you’re doing to develop the brand of your affiliate website.
4. Build a foundation of recurring affiliate revenue
With affiliate marketing, there is no assurance that your current strategy will work in a month’s time. Whether it’s due to Google updating their ranking algorithm, your favourite affiliate program shutting down, or media buying costs increasing, you’d be wise to mitigate against the possibility of major changes.
There are two very effective ways to do this: diversification and by building your recurring revenue.
I’ll talk about traffic diversification in a moment, but let’s first talk about recurring revenue.
Most affiliate marketers focus on one-time payouts, which is generally smart as, due to inflation and the ability to earn interest, $100 today is worth more than $10 per month over 10 months.
The problem is that one-time payouts don’t protect you against major changes in your strategy. That’s why I recommend building up a portion of your affiliate revenue in recurring revenue.
Obviously, the feasibility of this approach depends on your niche and what products are available to promote. If the option is available, I’d highly recommend building a foundation of recurring affiliate income so that you peace of mind that no matter what happens you still receive a certain amount per month for the foreseeable future.
5. Don’t rely on a single traffic source
In February 2011, many successful affiliate woke up to find that they’re probably going to go out of business in a matter of weeks or months, no thanks to Google releasing the initial panda update.
The same thing happened again when Google launched the Penguin update in April 2012.
It’s happening to brands who’ve built up organic Facebook Page audiences, and it’s going to happen time and time again across many third-party platforms whose business model revolves around selling eyeballs.
Some of the people hit by these updates were good friends and clients, which is why I’ve been preaching about diversification of traffic ever since.
Ideally, you should own your audience – not rent it. If you absolutely have to rent it, rent it from multiple sources.
6. Be prepared for mobile
In November 2014, mobile accounted for 46% of all affiliate clicks and 26% of all affiliate retail sales. How does this affect the individual affiliate?
For one, if you’re directing traffic to sites that aren’t mobile friendly, you’re probably losing a lot of potential commissions.
Google have also started to send some rather blatant nudges to webmasters that their websites should be mobile friendly. In November, they launched a mobile-friendliness checker and began experimenting with displaying whether a page is mobile-friendly or not in search results.
So, having a mobile-friendly site could become a good strategy for outranking your non-mobile friendly competitors in the search results.
Another consideration is that with more people using and purchasing from mobile devices, certain niches, products, and search criteria will rise in popularity, and can be capitalised on by forward-thinking affiliates.
Needless to say, if you’re not prepared for mobile, you’re preparing to be left behind.
7. Get in front of breakout and seasonal trends
Affiliate marketers have been taking advantage of trends for a long time. Yet, new trends continue to breakout, creating hundreds of new weird and wonderful multi-million dollar niches every year.
So, how can you find out what trends are likely to emerge this year?
The first differentiation to make is between seasonal and breakout trends. Seasonal trends are recurring, and often predictable, peaks in popularity that you can prepare for in advance.
Google Trends is your best friend for identifying seasonal trends. While you can just type in a keyword to see how it’s search volume fluctuates throughout the year, you can also use the category functionality to find seasonal trends in specific industries.
Breakout trends are much harder to predict. From electronic cigarettes and online TV, to selfie sticks and cinnamon flavoured whisky, even the most experienced industry experts often have a hard time predicting as far as six months into the future of their industry.
Regardless, reading the predictions of experts in your industry is a good place to start. If you want to know what products might be worth promoting in the travel industry this year, for example, you might want to experiment with search queries like:
You could even try to predict which countries are about to increase in popularity, and begin promoting hotels, flights, and other products that might help people traveling to that area.
Finally, there are a lot of great websites like TrendWatching.com that can help you estimate where the World is heading. Ultimately, though, knowing what’s around the corner comes down to having an acute awareness of what’s being talked about and piquing people’s curiosity in your industry.
8. Promote products that raise your affiliate income by an order of magnitude
When I began affiliate marketing, I promoted products ranging from $0.10 commissions to $100 commissions. It soon became clear that, while having a large volume of low commission sales can create a solid foundation for your affiliate revenue, true growth comes from high commission sales.
My strategy for growing affiliate sites has always been to find products that add value to the site’s readers, and that also have the potential to increase the site’s revenue by an order of magnitude.
If you’re currently generating $1k per month, what products will get you to $10k? If you’re at $10k, what do you need to do to get to $100k?
The answer is usually quite simple: you have to add an extra zero onto the size of your commissions or the amount of traffic you send to publishers. More often than not, this requires a refocus on which products you promote.
9. Focus on topic targeting, not keyword targeting
Google’s attempt to reduce the SEO community’s focus on keyword targeting hasn’t exactly been subtle.
From removing keyword data in Google Analytics and exact-match keyword targeting in Google Adwords, to improving their understanding of similar terms, it’s becoming harder for digital marketers to target individual keywords.
While on the surface this may seem like bad news, it’s arguably a blessing in disguise as it encourages a shift towards topic-targeting, and a focus on capturing long tail traffic.
Instead of trying to rank your content for ‘best gardening tools’, you might instead focus on creating an in-depth piece of content on the topic of gardening tools that helped gardeners choose the right tools for their garden.
By taking this approach, it doesn’t matter whether you rank for ‘best gardening tools’. What matters is the aggregate amount of relevant long-tail traffic you receive to the content.
10. Experiment with unusual content formats for recommending products
A few years ago I heard the story of how an app developer tried to download the Amazon app to make a purchase from his phone, only to realise Amazon didn’t have an app.
He developed an unofficial Amazon app, which was effectively just an app that displayed their website in an iframe. Of course, every single product included his affiliate link – so he earned 5-8% of every sale bought through the app.
Because Amazon didn’t have an official app, his app became extremely popular, making him a very, very, rich man.
I wanted to end on this point to get your creative juices flowing. Most affiliate marketers do the same old thing in a different niche, when the biggest rewards are usually reserved for those doing the exact opposite.
In 2012, I created WhatIsMyComfortZone.com (a calculator that measures the size of a persons comfort zone). Essentially, it works by filling out a survey on what challenges you’d be willing to overcome, and then it spits out a breakdown of how your score compares with other users, along with a few recommendations.
If a user said they wanted to skydive, their results page would include a link to book a skydive. While I never expected to earn anything from these (what’s the likelihood of someone impulse booking a skydive?), I decided there was no harm in making these links affiliate links.
To my surprise, I checked my AffiliateWindow account after 12 months, and what do you know, a bunch of people did impulse buy a skydive, earning a $40 commission per sale.
While a few skydiving referrals hardly made me rich, these two stories will hopefully give you some ideas about alternative formats for affiliate marketing.
Imagine if, instead of writing another 1,000-word review on the top 10 products in your niche, you developed a calculator or a quiz that used a series of criteria to automatically redirect them to the product that’s best suited for them?
Above all else, 2017 is going to be a year where affiliates need to get creative, out-think the competition, and really prove their worth in the value chain. If you have an idea you want to test, you can now get it live for less than $3 – so what are you waiting for? Make it happen.