The Changing Landscape of Affiliate Marketing

Travis Bliffen
by Travis Bliffen 27 Sep, 2016


Affiliate marketing isn't what it used to be. This strategy has gone through significant changes over the past year, forcing online marketers and website owners to change the way they approach it. Google led the way, changing its webmaster guidelines for affiliate programs and clamping down on low quality content. Throw in an ever-evolving and growing competitive landscape, and affiliate marketing can be a tough beast to master.


There are still ways to tame this potentially lucrative marketing strategy, despite such a hostile online environment. Affiliate marketing presents an interesting challenge for website owners in 2016 and beyond, and a refined approach can lead to big things. Let's take a look at ways you can turn your affiliate marketing strategy into an effective income stream and a positive user experience.


Know and Value Your Audience


The purpose of affiliate programs is to service your readers with content and products that they're interested in. Forcing products or content down the reader's throat isn't going to turn into a very good sale conversion rate. Knowing and understanding why the audience is on your website will go a long way to being able to create an effective affiliate marketing strategy. Ask the question: "What is the visitor's problem, and am I providing a solution?"


The key is ultimately to provide a solution for the reader: they visit your site for a reason, and they know what you and your content are about. There's no excuse for running an affiliate program about sports gear when your website is about young adult fiction novels, even if that program pays well. If someone comes to your site to read up about the latest romance novel from their favorite author, chances are they don't care about the latest Titleist, and probably aren't going to buy it.


The more relevant your affiliate content is with the interests of your audience, the more likely they are to engage with it.


Establish Trust


Regardless of how good your content is, if your reader doesn't actually trust your brand and content, they're far less likely to engage with your affiliate strategy. Consumer trust is incredibly important online, and webmasters are in a constant tug-of-war with the industry and readers in balancing out revenue goals with valuable and informative content. Establishing trust is easier said than done: it takes time to build a strong content strategy, one that attracts a valuable audience with a high purchase intent. Interestingly, only 0.6 percent of affiliate marketers have been engaged with the strategy since 2013, which suggests a high turnover rate and a distinctive lack of patience.


You might see immediate success with your affiliate marketing strategy, but online user experience and reader trust is pivotal in formulating a successful advertising campaign: the most lucrative marketing strategies are those that demand a high level of audience trust. There's no question about it: the longer it takes you to establish a trustworthy brand, the harder it will be for you to earn the user's trust. How does that tie into your branding of the affiliate website? If a visitor doesn't trust your website, why would they trust a product that you're promoting?


There are a few ways you could address this dilemma. For one, don't simply create content for the sake of linking to your affiliate: create content that genuinely serves the needs of the visitor. You can broaden the approach a bit. For example, if your affiliate is an online gaming site, you could write a guide about how important it is to only visit regulated sites with safe deposit and withdrawal options. That solves an issue for the reader, and they're more likely to engage with your affiliate once you've earned their trust.


Be Transparent About Your Affiliates


This ties into the above point but expands beyond your content strategy, tying into your obligations as a content maker and affiliate marketer. Trust is earned, not given, and while a reader may trust the brand you're promoting, they're likely to be savvy enough to actively bypass your affiliate link simply because they don't like the way you've promoted the product.


Disclosure isn't a bad thing: it lets the reader know that you're confident enough to admit that the piece is sponsored or an affiliate ad, and that you still have faith in the content and information to persuade the reader to consider the product. Most readers know that when they click a link and land on a purchase page, that the webmaster is going to benefit from that sale. Being up front about that not only improves the user experience, but it puts all of your cards on the table and paints your brand as a transparent and honest one.


Stay Focused On Your Niche


Forcing your affiliate marketing strategy across 20 or 30 different niches isn't going to generate millions for you. It's far too easy to lose focus when you're spread thin across multiple websites, all with "thin" affiliate content that lacks authority and information. You'll see far better results simply by focusing on one or two niches, and using them to experiment with different content strategies and approaches. Slowly but surely you'll start to see results, and from there you can start expanding into other areas you feel can be well-serviced by your approach.


As the old saying goes, "go one inch wide and one mile deep." Stay firmly focused on the topics you know about, and find ways to service that niche by providing the reader with informative content. If the reader feels their solution has been solved, they're far more likely to trust your brand and the product you're promoting. This is really Affiliate Marketing 101: the more focused you are on a specific niche, the more efficient and effective your strategy is.


Create Evergreen Content


The Internet moves at an incredibly fast pace, and information becomes dated fairly quickly. Some of your content might be generating really good organic traffic, but if the information is outdated, it may not service the visitor's requirements. If the problem hasn't been solved, why would they buy the product? If, for example, you've written an article about why one specific MMO game is the greatest in the genre, yet many new updates have been added to the game since the article was written, someone that's landing on the page probably wants to know more about the latest iteration. Once they see the article is outdated, they're probably not going to read through and then click on an affiliate link.


Information moves forward, and content that is relevant one day may be irrelevant the next. It is of course important to provide timely information, and you would be crazy not to take advantage of the latest game and its contribution to the genre. However, focusing your affiliate strategy primarily on "evergreen" content -- content that is timeless -- will drive traffic and affiliate sales for many years. Not only is evergreen content a smart SEO strategy to help build and attract organic traffic, it's also a proven affiliate approach that can be extremely beneficial for your marketing plans.


Invest The Time to Create Spectacular Content


Not only will good quality, well-researched content help with your organic traffic and affiliate marketing conversions, but it will direct traffic away from your competitors and to your site. Affiliate marketers are essentially acting as the middleman in the value chain, and can prove to be incredibly valuable to a specific brand if the content fits within their marketing vision. A great affiliate marketing strategy might take a good 30-40 hours to plan and create, but it's still not as long as it would take the brand to plan, confirm and create one itself. Often you'll see brands share articles from websites, and this is ultimately where you want your affiliate marketing content to be: valued enough to be shared by the brand itself.


If the people engaged with the brand trust it enough to value the content you've created, they're far more likely to directly engage with the product through your own affiliate channels. It might take time, and you may find yourself focusing on one specific product for a majority of your work week, but if you're focused on a specific niche anyway, this ties in to your affiliate marketing strategy and will ultimately lead to positive results.


Diversify Traffic Sources


Having a good Google standing is incredibly important, but the search engine's ever-evolving search algorithm can make it tough to keep your content at the top of rankings. Facebook is raising the cost of promoting posts on Facebook, and reaching your audience is harder than ever. On other social networks, it's easy to get lost in the noise.


This is why you need a varied approach to traffic sources, and why you need to build trust and establish a returning audience. If you're going to "rent" your audience, and if you anticipate that the reader won't stay for long, you need to find ways to bring in traffic from multiple sources, not just Google. Social networks are important, but so are email campaigns, PPC ads, and forums.


Link building continues to be a great means of diversification when properly executed. For some, links are simply a means to an end - rank higher in Google. If you take that approach, you can certainly generate a lot of traffic but, what if Google decides to target affiliate sites again?


Building links on niche relevant and trusted sites can send steady traffic to your website, regardless of whether or not Google makes a change to their algorithms. Even after the latest iteration of Penguin (4.0 - running in "real-time") the approach of building links through strategies like guest posting still prove incredibly valuable and profitable.