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How Small Blogs Can Earn Big Affiliate Sales (Without Being Sleazy)

Many new bloggers think affiliate sales are the magical answer to earning online.

They grab some random offers off ClickBank or slather their blog with automated ad banners, dream of making a fortune… and then wonder why they’re earning $1.50 a month. I recently reviewed more than 100 startup blogs and saw this over and over.

small blog big salesI also know about the failed affiliate sales problem from firsthand experience—I put up an Amazon book cart widget in my sidebar when I first launched my blog, thinking that would be a cash cow. Um, no.

Why doesn’t this work? Without huge volumes of traffic, you simply don’t have enough readers to earn well when a small percentage of them clicks your ad. That’s partly because the portion of people willing to click on ads is going down—it’s now less than 2 percent of viewers overall, a Doubleclick survey in April showed. Also, nearly 200 million people block ads now, a PageFair/Adobe study found.

Worse, you’re sending any readers who do click away from your blog to buy somewhere else. That doesn’t help you build relationships with readers and gain their trust—and that’s the key to earning well as a low-traffic blogger.

Affiliate sales have to be done in a careful, selective way on a small blog, to avoid damaging your reputation and to keep your audience growing. The popular bloggers may send you a new affiliate offer each week, but that’s unlikely to work for you.

Fortunately, with a bit of care in choosing what and how you affiliate sell, low-traffic blogs can earn well—and far from being considered sleazy, you’ll get thank-you notes from your readers.

I’ve earned $1,200 a year or more per affiliate offer using this method, and with virtually no marketing.

How? Here are the basic elements of how low-traffic blogs can earn big affiliate selling—without coming off like a sleazebag:

1. Find Out What Your Readers Really Need

The first step to affiliate sales success as a newbie blogger is to start talking to your readers. Yes, even if there are only 15 of them.

Find out: Why are they reading you? What are their problems? What are they struggling with?

You may think you know what readers of your blog topic would like to buy, but trust me, you’ll be surprised.

For instance, I run a blog for freelance writers. But my biggest early affiliate-sales win was for a blogger community membership.

fill a needIt turned out there was a lot of crossover between writers who freelance for clients, and writers who want to earn from their own blog! I only discovered that by talking to readers and learning what their dreams encompassed.

The better the “match” is between your subscriber needs and the affiliate offer the easier it will be to sell.

I thought freelance writers would just want to buy books on copywriting or writing craft from me, but my research proved that wrong.

Another unexpected discovery was that many new freelance writers needed tools for setting up their freelance business. These included accounting software, writer website setup help, web hosting, and mailing-list software—so these are the things I affiliate sell.

Your market research will help you discover possible affiliate offers that will be well-received by your readers—and that may be totally off your radar.

The plus here: If you offer something your readers really need, they won’t be offended, even if they don’t want to buy it right now. It feels like you care and want to help their business succeed, rather than that you’re just out to make a buck.

2. Sample the Wares

Once you’ve figured out the types of products your people need, investigate possible solution providers, and sample their offers yourself. Use it, test it, ask questions about it.

The ideal situation is where the solution you want to affiliate sell is a key part of your own business model, you use it extensively and know a lot about it.

Whether it’s a billing program that helps you track payments or a blogging community that gives you answers, document the positives of the offer and—also key—what makes it a great value for the money.

3. Testify

Once you’ve road-tested a product or service your readers have said they need and confirmed that it’s terrific, it’s time to tell your readers about it. Not in a salesy way, though. Simply start reporting on your experience.

For instance, I created a series of blog posts about my experience in the paid blogging community and documented how it was helping me improve my headlines, attract subscribers, and solve technical blogging struggles.

These posts aren’t just a chance to educate your readers about this affiliate offer—they also humanize you and make you more relatable by showing how you’ve struggled to solve problems your readers may also be grappling with.

This builds rapport and sets the stage for you to sell. Here’s the top of one of my testimony posts:



testimonials

Another popular approach that works great once you have several affiliate offers is to do a post that’s a list of the tools you use in your business—tools you affiliate sell.

Here’s the top of an affiliate-sales oriented roundup post from Simplicity Small Business that lists nearly two dozen products and solutions they use (note the full disclosure at the top that they are using affiliate links):

affiliate linksReaders view these more as a “peek behind the curtain” opportunity, to see how the sausage is made at your online business than as an obnoxious sales pitch.

It feels natural to have affiliate links on posts like these, not spammy. This is light years away from using AdSense. This is posting a hand-curated offer for items you have vetted. Readers can feel the difference.

One note: Don’t go dropping sly affiliate links into posts without disclosure.

If you’re going to pop affiliate links into all your blog posts routinely, you’ll need a global disclosure at the top of your blog. But my recommendation is to save the affiliate plugs for select situations, where you make a point of disclosing it. Either way, be refreshingly honest—readers will respect that.

Once you’ve identified reader needs, found some solutions, tested them out, and written about your experiences, you’re set to make some serious affiliate sales to your small audience. You won’t have to send a single marketing email, either.

How do you do that without slapping up a lot of banner ads all over your blog, or making every blog post about the offers you affiliate sell?

There’s a low-key way to present them that’s inoffensive, persistent, and effective.

4. Inside the Ideal Affiliate Sales Page

A “Products I Love” page is a subpage of your blog, where you can sell affiliate offers in perpetuity with links back to those testimonial or roundup posts that document your success with the solution.

Having these sales items under a subpage is a less aggressive way to sell than ads all over your Home page. Marketing pros call this “selling in the background.”

You’re not actively emailing out about these products. They just sit on your site for readers to discover. I’ve never had a single complaint about my Products I Love page! And your person­al testimony that it’s truly a worthwhile product or service counts for a lot.

There are a few key elements to a good Products I Love page:

Your story

Before you list your affiliate offers, you’ll need to get readers oriented. What’s this page all about? Why are these the items you recommend?

Don’t just throw your offers on a page. Lead readers down the path of understanding why you are turning them on to these particular solutions. You’ll want to tell a bit of your personal experience with each solution as well, so you can get into more detail.

For instance, because I came out of journalism, mine begins, “This is a funny page for me to be writing. I never thought I’d sell anything to anyone!”

Be a live human being with a real story on this page, and readers will be willing to check out your offers.

Your inclusion policy and affiliate disclosure

At the top, specify what your policy is for featuring affiliate offers on your blog. For instance, here’s a succinct disclosure policy and a snapshot of what to expect of the page over time, at Smart Blogger:


Smart Blogger tool list

Another way is to build your policy about your affiliate choices right into the headline and subhead of the page, as you see the home and lifestyle blog Full of Days doing here:

lifestyle blogIf you’re a product or course junkie who’s always surfing around for the latest-and-greatest, you might also curate a “Products I Love” page of the things you discover each quarter or month.

This feels almost like community service—you’re doing the research and helping readers by finding fresh deals, thereby saving them time. That’s the angle you see here on the site Total Women’s Cycling:


products we loveWhatever your criteria for choosing your affiliate products, make sure your disclosure complies with FTC rules. It needs to be clear, prominent on any page with affiliate offers, and require no action by the reader (mousing over or clicking) in order to view the disclosure language.

Your listings

Your listings also give you a chance to provide a brief thumbnail on your personal experience, and how you came to recommend the solution, as Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income does here with one of the biggest affiliate products on his “Resources” page, BlueHost:

BlueHostYour deals

One final twist that can boost your affiliate sales is to solicit special discounts or deals for your audience from the companies whose offers you affiliate sell.

You see Pat doing that above with his BlueHost deal. If you see you’re doing well selling a particular offer, contact the seller and see if you can get your readers an exclusive—they will love you for it!

2 Tips for Earning Big in Affiliate Sales as a New Blogger

If your audience responds well to your Products I Love page, it’s a sign that you might also move up and actively sell higher-priced affiliate offers via full-blown email marketing campaigns, co-hosting Webinars, and other more aggressive sales tactics.

There are two things to look for in an affiliate offer that will help your sales pitch come off more friendly and less obnoxious, even if you don’t have a huge list:

Start with free and cheap

If you’re just starting out in affiliate sales, don’t clobber your readers over the head with a $1,000 offer. Start slow and test the waters, so you don’t annoy your subscribers and make them leave.

The ideal is to find products that have a free trial for an affordable product or service where your people can start without paying, at no obligation.

For me, the free trial Freshbooks offers helped make me into one of their top affiliates! My people love to try before they buy.

Barring a free trial, a low-cost item is a good starter. The blogging community I affiliate sold was $20 a month, no obligation—pretty low-risk to take a flier on that.

It’s a basic law of marketing that cheaper things are easier to sell, so choosing affordable offers means you won’t need to sell as hard and can avoid alienating your audience.

Look for recurring revenue

One of the best ways to earn well in affiliate sales is to sell a recurring monthly or annual membership product, where commissions continue to be generated as long as your people stay on the program. That way, you sign your people up once and keep earning commissions for as long as they stay in.

As you sign up more people over time, your monthly earnings from that affiliate offer will keep compounding.

Keep It Real

When you share an affiliate link to something you’ve used yourself, you can authentically recommend it. And that’s the easiest and most ethical way to affiliate sell.

Yes, that means turning down a lot of potential opportunities. But remember, offering your list a product that turns out to be low quality isn’t worth the unsubscribes you’ll see and the hit to your reputation.

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