How Affiliate Influencers Make Money Now
Seeking sponsor dollars for one’s content is now second nature to most influencers and content creators on big platforms like YouTube and Instagram. This is often their primary source of income. But affiliate marketing dollars can be another lucrative revenue stream, and they have been especially during the pandemic, in which most consumer shopping has shifted online. In this model, an influencer earns money by promoting products with links back to specific retailers, who in turn give the influencer a small cut of the proceeds of each purchase generated through those specific links.
Affiliate programs date back to the Web 1.0 days of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve—names that, if you even recognize them, conjure up images of grandparents on clunky PCs and the screeching sounds of early modems. It’s a commission-based model that is credited, in concept and first execution, to PC Flowers & Gifts and its founder William J. Tobin. As an early-days e-commerce company, PC Flowers & Gifts paid affiliate kick-backs to the Prodigy platform as early as 1989, since its sales were being generated by clicks from Prodigy users.
These days, there’s an entire industry of affiliate marketing firms and platforms that help connect influencers and content creators with like-minded brands, creating mutually beneficial relationships that can mean a steady income for the creator. The recent surge in online shopping (which we may see decline as the year goes on) has led to big paydays for some influencers, whose audiences have had even more time to consume their content. But very early on, back in April, Amazon and other platforms began cutting their affiliate commission rates for various types of products, signaling that the heyday for influencer revenue may already be on the wane.
The Big One: Amazon
Amazon recognized the advertising potential of all types of online content as early as 1996, two years after Jeff Bezos founded the company, and still runs one of the largest affiliate marketing programs (despite the recent rate cuts mentioned above). The countless blogs that flourished over the next decade resulted in a sea of online content—and platforms from which bloggers could become micro-influencers in their own right. The so-called Amazon Associates Program continues to this day, paying affiliates who drive sales on the platform through their web content. In 2017 the company launched the Amazon Influencer Program, allowing approved influencers to have their own hosted pages on Amazon with a curated list of promoted products for which they make affiliate commissions between 1% and 10% on all sales, depending on the product. This is especially helpful for niche influencers who don’t necessarily want to become shills for just one or two brands, but who genuinely want to recommend an array of products that they love.
Cocktail influencer Nick Fisher, whose website and Instagram offer how-to mixology videos, says that the Amazon Influencer Program is perfect for his purposes, allowing him to put all of his barware and booze recommendations in one spot. “It’s been great for giving me a supplemental income,” he says.
Kim Pratt, a skincare influencer, recently broke down how much affiliate income she’s been making from Amazon compared to the ad revenue she earns from YouTube, and during the pandemic the two revenue streams have nearly been on par. Speaking to Business Insider, Pratt says that the biggest benefit of being in the Amazon Influencer Program is that she earns a percentage of every purchase one of her followers makes for 24 hours after the initial click on a linked product. So even if the product she promotes only costs $8, if the person buys that and goes on to spend $200 on other Amazon products that day, she’ll get a kickback on that $200.
A new boon for influencers in the last year: Linktree, a platform that allows users to create one link to a page with a list of links, including monetizable ones like Amazon affiliate storefronts. The Linktree link solves, among other things, the challenge of best utilizing the one-line bio in Instagram profiles. Linktree even partnered with Amazon last fall to create Amazon-branded links and to encourage more influencers to set up storefronts under the Amazon Influencer Program.
“Having built up niche audiences that are incredibly engaged, this is a great way of off-setting the costs of running your blog, adding some extra spending money to the household budget, or saving for something big!” Linktree’s Katie Smith wrote in a blog post about the Amazon partnership. “We even know of influencers who have made this their full-time salary.”
Options for Fashionistas and Micro-Influencers
Some affiliate programs help influencers get a foot in the door when their audiences are too small to attract sponsors.
Pepperjam is an example of a platform that accepts influencers at all levels, giving them the opportunity to earn affiliate dollars from beauty and lifestyle brands like Tarte Cosmetics and Nordstrom. They also have some big publishing partners, like BuzzFeed and The Daily Beast. Pepperjam dates back to the early affiliate marketing days of 1999, and lately they offer insights about the field of affiliate marketing, including from a survey of their clients that they conducted in April to understand how the pandemic was affecting marketing budgets. The survey found that 50 percent of their clients were looking to expand and diversify their affiliate programs, recognizing the tidal shift to online shopping.
Fashion and beauty influencers have an entire ecosystem of affiliate programs to choose from, some of which actively court new influencers with bonus gifts and more. Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten prefers micro-influencers and has created a web of intersecting businesses, including the “cash back” rebate platform formerly known as Ebates, which it acquired in 2014, and the influencer marketing platform ShopStyle Collective, which it acquired in 2017. (In Japan Rakuten is more akin to Amazon, offering a popular points-based loyalty program to consumers in order to compete with the online retailing giant.) You still need to apply to join the affiliate program, but the company offers “bonus boxes” of fashion and beauty products as rewards to key influencers.
Other fashion-focused affiliate programs include RewardStyle—which has its own influencer-focused, own-the-look shopping app called LikeToKnow.it—and Shopify, which partners with the drop-shipping platform Oberlo to help influencers earn income from online stores selling other brands’ and makers’ products. Even before the pandemic, Shopify had been gearing up to compete with Amazon and it is now proving to be a credible threat, following a partnership with Walmart.com that was announced in June.
Making Bank Across Bigger Platforms
If your ambitions for affiliate income are bigger and you already have a large and monetizable audience, you likely want to branch out with multiple affiliate programs—or choose one that is going to connect you with the most lucrative brand partnerships.
That is the value proposition of Sovrn and its Sovrn Commerce platform for publishers (formerly known as VigLink). The company maintains a select army of around 1,800 influencers which it helps to groom as internet sellers, while pointing them to brands that pay the biggest dividends for links.
Sovrn product marketing manager Aleah King says the key to success is to diversify the merchants that one partners with. ”For example, during COVID-19, we’ve seen Amazon reduce rates and stop shipping products for many verticals,” King says. “For influencers who traditionally relied on Amazon as a sole source of revenue, this is a major hit to their bottom line.”
For those who are new to affiliate marketing, King has another bit of advice: Remember your audience. “Don’t dilute your content to try to push a product, because that breaks the trust of your followers,” she says. “That’s why broad affiliate partnerships are so valuable: with tens of thousands of merchants and brands available, you can test which products produce the best response.”
Venice, California-based MagicLinks specializes in monetizing content for video creators on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. The company also has a blog that helps coach budding influencers on how to boost affiliate sales. A recent column offers tips on how to connect with audiences during the pandemic (with a view, of course, toward making them buy more stuff).
There are also several long-standing affiliate marketing platforms—Impact (founded in 2008), CJ Affiliate (founded in 1998), and Awin—that provide lucrative opportunities for publishers and creators of all stripes to partner with a slew of global brands. Awin provides kickbacks for clicks that don’t lead immediately to sales, which can make for a significant revenue stream for influencers with big, engaged audiences; and CJ Affiliate has a pay-for-performance model that also pays out for traffic metrics in addition to actual sales.
Some influencers with good entrepreneurial instincts have harnessed the versatility of affiliate marketing to create multiple income streams. Mega-influencer Jason Stone, a.k.a. Millionaire Mentor, claims to have made $7 million in one year through affiliate links on his Instagram account alone, but obviously that’s not going to be possible for every influencer. (Stone boasts an account with over 6 million followers, mainly people focused on finding new business opportunities—and lately he mostly just posts generic motivational quotes, so who knows the current status of that business.)
Working as a spokesmodel for one or two brands is not the only road to earning an income as an influencer. And if it’s your taste or specific knowledge that an audience comes to you for, you could likely be turning that trust into affiliate commissions that will eventually add up.