How to Make Money with Affiliate Marketing: Lessons from 9 of the Most Innovative Affiliates Ever

Affiliate marketing is one of the most popular side hustle business ideas, and indeed it’s one of my favorites as well.

An affiliate business is an attractive one since you earn money by referring people to buy someone else’s products. You don’t have to process payments, carry inventory, or worry about order fulfillment. It’s a great model.

But a decade of over-zealous Internet pitchmen have turned affiliate marketing into something it never was (and never will be): an easy, simple, passive, get-rich-quick scheme.

Instead, it’s like any other business; it has to create some value in the world or else it will never make a dime. In fact, I would venture a guess that the vast majority of people who get started in affiliate marketing will never see their first dollar.

Why?

Because they’re not bringing any significant value to the table.

Earlier this year, Jeremy Palmer wrote an article called Stop Building Affiliate Sites. It got a lot of attention because it was published in the leading affiliate marketing magazine.

He closed with:

“Don’t build an affiliate site.

Build a brand.”

In that spirit, I want to show you 9 of the most innovative affiliate marketing companies. I’ll open the doors on their business models so you can see how each took a unique spin on the affiliate model and turned it into a viable, long-term business.

They didn’t set out to build affiliate sites, they set out to build helpful services and lasting brands. Some of these you’ll recognize as household names.

ebates1. Ebates

Claim to Fame: Ebates pioneered the cash-back shopping model in the late 1990s.

How it Works: Online retailers pay a commission to Ebates for each sale they refer. Ebates splits that commission with the customer.

For example, if you’re an Ebates member and remember to go through their site before completing a purchase at say, REI.com, you’ll earn 2.5% cash back. It may not sound like much, but enough people use the service to create a thriving affiliate business.

By the Numbers: Since 1998, Ebates members have earned more than $100 million in cash back rebates on their online shopping.

retail me not2. Retail Me Not

Claim to Fame: Retail Me Not is the world’s most popular coupon site. They’re also the greatest affiliate success story of all time.

How it Works: Online shoppers like to search for coupons to get the best deal (usually in the middle of checkout). I do it, you do it, everyone does. it.

And when we do, we’ll probably land on Retail Me Not. If we click on anything there, Retail Me Not’s affiliate tracking cookie will be set and they’ll earn the commission on the sale.

By the Numbers:  RetailMeNot.com generated revenue of $144 million last year, and has a market valuation of $1.4 billion.

tripadvisor3. TripAdvisor

Claim to Fame: TripAdvisor.com is the world’s largest travel site with more than 100 million user-generated reviews.

How it Works: Travelers visit TripAdvisor to research their upcoming trip. When it comes time to book that hotel, the site opens up a number of new windows for Expedia, Travelocity, and other affiliate advertisers.

Once you complete your reservation, TripAdvisor earns a commission for generating the sale.

By the Numbers: TripAdvisor earned revenue of more than $750 million in 2012.

myregistry4. MyRegistry

Claim to Fame: MyRegistry.com is the leading “universal registry service.” You can register for gifts from any store on the Internet.

How it Works: MyRegistry allows you to register for any number of gifts from any number of stores, and consolidates those items into a centralized list for gift-givers.

As you might have guessed, the company adds their affiliate link to each product and earns a commission on every sale.

According to the Huffington Post, the average wedding registry value is over $5000, and each year more than 2.1 million couples get married in the US alone. And that’s just for weddings…

By the Numbers: MyRegistry is privately held, but some estimates place annual revenue in the $7 million range.

viglink5. VigLink

Claim to Fame: VigLink is a technology service that turns non-affiliate links into affiliate links on your website.

How it Works: VigLink uses an easy-to-install snippet of javascript to “affiliate” all the applicable outbound links on a website. This is especially useful for large sites that can’t be bothered to join thousands of different individual affiliate programs and generate each and every link one at a time.

When someone makes a purchase through one of those links, VigLink earns the commission but passes along 75% of it to the website owner. That reminds me, I need to reinstall the script…

By the Numbers: VigLink has monetization relationships with more than 30,000 retailers and has raised $7.3 in venture capital.

redlaser6. RedLaser

Claim to Fame: RedLaser is bar-code scanning app that lets users compare prices at other stores locally and online.

How it Works: When you scan a barcode of an item in store, the RedLaser app will show you where you can find that item (often for less) online. If you complete the purchase through one of their links, they’ll earn a commission.

This is really useful mobile commerce app that I use every time I find something in a brick-and-mortar store that seems more expensive than it should be. It’s pretty empowering to have that technology in your pocket.

By the Numbers: The RedLaser app has been downloaded more than 27 million times and the company was acquired by eBay in 2010 for an undisclosed sum. Today it seems like they shut it down.

hukkster7. Hukkster

Claim to Fame: Hukkster lets you save the products you want, and notifies you when they go on sale.

How it Works: You can be sure that the link in the notification you get will be an affiliate link, so they earn a commission in exchange for tracking the price drops for you.

By the Numbers: Founded in 2012, Hukkster has raised $5.5 in venture capital so far.

trialpay8. TrialPay

Claim to Fame: TrialPay allows customers to get certain products and services for “free”, in exchange for completing an offer with a 3rd party advertiser.

How it Works: Businesses contract with TrialPay to be a free payment option in their shopping cart. Instead of whipping out their credit card to pay for the purchase, customers can opt to complete an offer from a separate advertiser to get the item for free.

For example, instead of paying the $29.95 for some software product, a customer might complete a credit card application or sign up for a Netflix trial through TrialPay. TrialPay earns the affiliate commission on that offer and passes along part of the proceeds to the original seller, enough to cover the original $29.95.

By the Numbers: Since 2007, TrialPay has fueled more than 200 million of these “free” transactions.

amazon filler item9. Amazon Filler Item

Claim to Fame: Amazon Filler Item helps shoppers reach the $25 free shipping threshold by finding inexpensive items to top off their cart.

How it Works: You input your current cart total, and Filler Item queries the Amazon product catalog to find an item you can add to your cart to reach the $25 minimum for free shipping.

As long as the item you add is less than the cost of shipping, it’s a win!

When you click on the product you’d like to add, Filler Item’s affiliate cookie is set and they’ll earn commission not just on the cheap filler item, but on your entire cart.

By the Numbers: Filler Item has helped more than a million Amazon customers qualify for free shipping.

Takeaways

Each of these companies has a unique spin on the affiliate relationship and delivering big value for users.

There is still money to be made in affiliate marketing, but throwing up a crappy blog and a couple affiliate links is not going to do it.

It takes a real business model and real unique selling proposition to succeed in this game. But it’s a lucrative game to play; growing to an estimated $4.5 billion globally by 2016.

What do you think? Did you know these companies were affiliate marketing businesses?

Is affiliate marketing still a viable side hustle?

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10 thoughts on “How to Make Money with Affiliate Marketing: Lessons from 9 of the Most Innovative Affiliates Ever

    • Great example. They’ve built an entire virtual currency ecosystem, though the browser toolbar is a always a little troublesome since it can help overwrite other affiliate’s cookies (like mine!).

  1. I use MySaleSpy.com. I can track items from any store I want and mysalespy will email me when the price drops. On average price drops 4x in 30 days. I’ve save $380 this month. Awesome.

  2. i am a newbie in affiliate marketing an i am looking if some on can tell me how to build a good cashback website.. are there any plugins which can track what users buy after redirectiong from my website and add some fixed percentage of commission in their account automatically..?

  3. I am just starting out, my plan is to rehab or re-imagine salvage and vintage items I have found or purchased and do a blog with how-to’s on each project. This is something I have been doing since I was a teenager but now I will share what I do. I have many products and tools etc, that I routinely use and I would like to include affiliate links in the blog posts but I am not sure how to set that up. Do I need permission from the selling web site? Where do I begin? I also own a nice storefront and I plan to open a vintage store to sell the things I find and create. Thank you!

    • Hey Brigitte — cool idea. Three main ways I see to get started:

      1. Join Amazon Associates and create affiliate links to Amazon. They probably sell most products and it’s only 1 program to manage so pretty easy.

      2. Join the individual stores’ affiliate programs. Most ecommerce stores will have a link in their footer that says “affiliates” or “partners” and then you can learn more about their specific terms and what network they use. (Most will use a 3rd-party network for tracking and convenience, such as Commission Junction, Rakuten Linkshare, or Shareasale.) You’ll have to create an account on the network first, and then apply to the programs individually.

      3. The third option is to use use an affiliate linking service like VigLink or Skimlinks. Both of these are a simple solution that you install on your site (basically one line of javascript) and they automatically affiliate any outbound link for stores they have a partnership with (thousands of stores). They take a 25% fee (or something like that), but save you the headache of searching for, applying for, and generating individual product links for what could be a wide variety of merchants.

      Hope that helps!

  4. Nice post. But is trial pay really an opportunity for affiliates? It is good for product owners. Would love to understand how it can benefit affiliate marketers.

  5. I had started using digidip that was originally covering all Europe but is now also covering USA and it works amazing. The only problem is that it takes publisher applications very seriously so it takes while to get approved but it has almost ALL possible merchants from fashion to tech to wearable. Team responds to e-mails within minutes and takes care of its customers.

  6. Hi! Looking for advice…I have a cleaning service. I am wanting to gain more clients and hire hard workers to clean homes and commercial spaces etc. This is a legitimate service I really believe in. Do you think a web-site or blog would help promote a cleaning service?

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