I remember when affiliate marketing was THE big trend.
The early blogosphere felt like boomtown-era San Francisco. “Get rich quick” language was everywhere as marketers scrambled for a chance at affiliate marketing gold.
The shine of those early days has worn off. Does affiliate marketing still matter? Yes — but like many other aspects of content marketing, it’s changed. Affiliate marketing relies on authority. That’s no longer enough. With the advent of influencer marketing, if you want to sell to your audience, you need to build an authentic connection with your community.
What Affiliate Marketing Is
Let’s take a step back and consider the big picture.
As early as 2008, when we were still affiliated with Copyblogger, we were talking about placing ads on content that aligned with the audience’s needs, couldn’t be blocked, and made you money. The idea remains the same today. With affiliate marketing, you get paid to share a message with your audience on the behalf of an advertiser to generate sales. You get a commission based on actions taken by the people that click the link.
Affiliate links are often included in posts in a variety of different ways, including:
- Endorsements. Use a product or service on your site? Include an affiliate link.
- Reviews. Writing a review of a product or service gives you a natural place to include a link.
- Tutorials. Same as reviews, tutorials about a product or service are a perfect spot to drop an affiliate link in.
- Bonuses. Special deals with affiliate links can get better ROI.
- Articles. Content that’s valuable on its own, not just connected to the affiliate.
Affiliate marketing works on a simple principle: consistently provide value to your audience and they start to consider you an authority. Once you’re an authority, your audience will trust your recommendations. It’s a simple formula, and one that’s worked for a long time.
Is Affiliate Marketing Still Effective?
You can still use traditional affiliate marketing effectively; plenty of people do. Affiliate marketing has a market value of over $17 billion annually as of 2023. But it’s not a “get rich quick” scheme. Only 42% of affiliate marketers make over $10,000 a year. People are more choosy about who they trust.
The affiliate marketers who’ve stuck around have strong relationships with a couple of brands that they trust. They use these brands themselves, and their audience knows that. A great example is Pat Flynn, who literally walks through his whole streaming setup here with affiliate product links. Transparency is a smart way to build and keep trust with his audience.
In other words, successful affiliate marketers put their audience’s needs first. To remain an authority with your audience and keep their trust, you have to do things that help them. But that’s not enough anymore.
The brands which are most successful at monetizing their audiences in today’s landscape don’t just have authority. The blog, the RSS feed and the email all facilitated communication from a brand to their audience — but they weren’t as well equipped to build communication from the audience to the brand, or between audience members. With the advent of social media, smart marketers took the next step beyond affiliate marketing. They weren’t just authorities anymore. They built an authentic relationship with their community, creating influencer marketing.
Social Media: Affiliates Become Influencers
Influencer marketing is the 2020s version of affiliate marketing. Where blogs and email lists were the main tools of the trade for the affiliate marketer, influencers add social media to the mix.
Marketers always go where the attention is. When blogs were punching far above their weight class, affiliate programs flourished. Smart marketers jumped in and captured attention (and sales) by working Google’s system with good SEO.
Google got wise. So did other marketers. The landscape got crowded. Privacy and data access laws changed. And as things changed, social media rose to take the attention that previously came through Google and the email inbox. 4.8 billion people around the world now use social media, and the average social media user spends over 2 hours a day on it.
This is where affiliate marketing becomes influencer marketing.
Influencer marketing is an important new budget item for many advertisers. The core idea is for publishers with a significant social media following to partner with advertisers and market their products or services. It uses the same principles of building and monetizing an audience that affiliate marketing did, but the medium is different — because the way we engage with the Internet has changed.
Why Influencer Marketing Works
Internet users aren’t reading blogs as much anymore. Instead, they’re using curated social media to find content and products of interest to them.
I can attest to this personally. I spent my teenage and young adult years from around the age of 12 with a list of bookmarks (Slashdot, digg, Copyblogger, various forums) that I checked regularly to gather news and keep up with my interests. Today I’m 33 years old, and I now rely on curated social media on YouTube, Twitter, Discord and Reddit.
Email and websites are still important tools in this current media landscape, but social media brings something different to the table. It fosters community. As an example, I’m a big NBA fan (as you’re probably already aware if you regularly read the Dispatch), and I do get a couple of newsletters related to it. But I spend far more time interacting with the greater community on Reddit, Twitter and Discord than reading newsletters or going to specific websites. I follow specific creators and brands whose work I enjoy. I actually have the chance to interact with them via social media posts and DMs. And that builds a greater bond of trust than most old-school affiliate marketers could dream of — because it goes beyond just authority.
Connection and Community, Not Just Authority
Affiliate marketers rely on authority to create audience trust. You buy from them because you trust their recommendation comes from expertise and knowledge.
Influencers may have authority too, but social media also allows them to build an authentic connection with their community. They tap into a deeper motivation: not just “this person knows what they’re talking about,” but “I like this person.” And as any good marketer or advertiser can tell you, that’s the secret sauce that makes sales.
Affiliate marketers could get away with keeping their audience at a bit of a distance. That’s not possible for an influencer. For influencers, content has to feel more authentic, and this often results in the audience building a parasocial relationship with them.
Once that relationship is built, it’s far stronger than an authority-only brand relationship. On the flip side, it’s far more brittle. An influencer’s audience can react vehemently to any business deal they perceive as a betrayal of that personal brand’s values — take the Kendall Jenner Pepsi partnership a few years ago as an example.
Just like a traditional affiliate marketer, you can build relationships with other brands to offer their products and services to your audience. But you have to be far more careful to not abuse your audience’s trust — you’re not just an authority now. You’re an authentic friend, a part of the community. There are incredible rewards, but there’s also more risk.
Let’s ground this in some real-world context.
How Kenny Beats Became an Influencer
Kenneth Charles Blume III, known professionally as Kenny Beats, is a music producer who’s worked with many hot young music artists. He’s been studying music since the age of 9, went to school at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music and has producer credits with music artists from Ed Sheeran to Vince Staples to FKA twigs. He has authority in spades.
If Blume followed the traditional affiliate marketing track, he would have created a blog, sharing tips from his music production experience and building a newsletter list, reviewing microphones and Ableton plugins and including affiliate links to reach his audience. He didn’t. Blume’s website barely exists; it consists of tour dates and a merch page.
Instead, he started a YouTube channel in 2019, then a Twitch channel a couple of years after that. And as he kept streaming, his community grew. He was no longer just an authority — he had a community built around an authentic love of music production. Beats himself shared input on younger artists’ work; other experienced producers came to his Discord server and Twitch channel to pass on their knowledge. Kenny Beats today is one of the most prominent influencers in his space, with a connection to his audience based in not just authority, but authentic, regular interaction.
So when he says “Hey, I think Auto-Tune Unlimited is a great product,” the aspiring 19-year-old DJ on his Discord server doesn’t just say, “Oh, this guy produced for Joji, he knows what he’s talking about. I should buy that.” That young audience member says “Oh, this guy produced for Joji. AND because of him passing on his knowledge and building this community, I’ve learned how to be a better music producer. I appreciate this guy. I’m definitely buying that.”
See the difference? Affiliate marketing has its place still, but you can see how much deeper the relationship is when you get into influencer marketing.
How to Go from Affiliate Marketer to Influencer
If you’ve already built up the authority to be an affiliate marketer, you’re already part of the way to being an influencer. You or your brand can become an influencer if you’re willing to commit to a few key points:
- Frequent updates. Daily, often multiple times a day updates are key for influencers. Gary Vaynerchuk is the poster child for this; not everybody is (or should be) Gary Vee, but high frequency keeps you visible and feels organic. Bonus points for video, extra bonus points if you yourself are on camera.
- Transparency. Let the audience see a little bit of the person or people behind the brand, not just the party line. Blooper reels from longer, more-produced content and other behind-the-scenes content can make your audience feel closer to you or your brand and trust you more.
- A variety of production values. There’s a place for slick, polished, cherry-on-top content. But that can’t be all of your content. Fill in the gaps with candid moments or uncut video/audio.
- Regularly offering value to your audience. Coupon codes for affiliate products or member deals for better/more content — like the recently-revamped Smosh offering YouTube-unfriendly versions of their sketches to members, or game streamers like Datto offering deals on quality headphones.
- Clear indication of sponsored content. Laws are more stringent and audiences are more skeptical. Every piece of content that is sponsored by someone else must contain an explicit statement of that fact.
Build these authentic communication improvements onto your authority foundation to move to the next level.
Affiliate Marketing Isn’t Dead. It’s Evolved.
As long as there’s been something to sell, brands have used other people’s influence to push their products. Influencer marketing is just the latest iteration.
Traditional affiliate marketing isn’t dead; $17 billion doesn’t lie. But as the Internet continues to evolve, adding influencer marketing to your quiver will help you tap into new audiences, strengthen your bond with them and make sales.
Keep creating great content and serving your audience’s needs and you’ll succeed not just as an affiliate marketer, but as an influencer. Need a hand? We can help. Just drop us a line, anytime.
Rainmaker Digital Services