What Are Affiliate Links And How Do They Work?

You’ve probably heard that becoming an affiliate marketer can be a great way to earn passive income from your blog, podcast, YouTube video tutorials, social media posts, or other quality content you create. Affiliate marketing allows you to get paid for selling someone else’s products. You refer a sale through one of your marketing channels, and the company pays you a commission. It can be quite lucrative for some business owners. 

In order to get paid, the company selling the product will need to be able to track where those sales came from. That’s where affiliate links come in. 

What Are Affiliate Links?

Affiliate links are URLs with specific tracking information that allows a referral to be tracked to a specific source. With affiliate marketing, a retailer or ecommerce business will pay bloggers, influencers and other content creators to refer business to them. An affiliate link allows them to track where those visitors come from, ultimately to pay for those referrals. 

For companies selling products through affiliate partnerships, it can be a relatively low-cost and efficient way to incentivize content creators to sell their products through product reviews, email marketing or other types of online marketing. Unlike paid advertising where the advertiser often pays for an ad regardless of whether a sale occurs, affiliate marketing typically pays only if a product is sold. 

For the online business owner, affiliate links can be an effective monetization strategy, especially when you don’t have your own products to sell. The affiliate marketer (often referred to as the “publisher”) can test a variety of marketing efforts in an attempt to earn a commission when someone buys a product through their link.

How Do Affiliate Links Work?

Affiliate links work just like any other link: you can embed them on a webpage, use them in email marketing, or include them in various marketing campaigns. (Companies may restrict certain types of activities, so make sure you understand how you can and cannot use them.)

What makes them unique is the tracking information that tracks an action (usually a sale) to a specific source. For the customer, there’s generally no practical difference, and they may not even know they are using an affiliate link. (Disclaimers may be required, and are always good practice, as we mention later in this article.) 

Typically there is a cookie duration associated with affiliate links. A 7-day cookie, for example, means that even if a user used the affiliate link to go to the company’s website but didn’t buy anything right away, the affiliate marketer would still get credit if they came back and buy something up to seven days later. However, if they don’t make a purchase until eight days later, the affiliate will not get a commission unless the customer has used their link again. 

Longer cookies are better for the affiliate marketer. 

How Do Affiliates Get Their Links?

Before getting affiliate links, one has to join an affiliate program, such as Amazon Associates, or an affiliate network, such as Clickbank, and then apply to specific affiliate partner programs.

Once approved, they will have access to “creatives,” which can include affiliate links as well ad copy or sample ads that can be used to help promote the product. The specific types of links or ads available will depend on what’s offered.  

Typically, in the affiliate program website or portal, there will be an area where users can generate links for specific products. The process tends to be very quick and easy. Some platforms have more sophisticated processes where the affiliate can create campaigns, name their links, write a description, etc.

Some affiliate marketers prefer to use plugins such as Pretty Links, which provide custom url shorteners. These allow you to customize the URLs you share, and more importantly make it easy to update links when they change. (Pretty Links is one of the most well-known tools, but there are others.) 

If you have an affiliate link for a product on multiple pages on your website and it changes, for example, you can update it once through Pretty Links then all those individual links will update throughout the site or wherever they are published. This is very helpful for keeping links current, and can be essential for sites with a lot of content or products. If a product is discontinued, you may also be able to quickly replace it with a link to a new product so you don’t lose a sale. 

Overall, no matter which company or affiliate network you work with, getting affiliate links tends to be a very easy and straightforward task. Tracking where you have published them and keeping them updated is the more time consuming task. 

How Do Affiliates Get Paid From Their Links?

Every affiliate link includes something that will track affiliate sales. It may be a tracking parameter such as a tag or a unique ID. It allows the company to track customers that use a specific link to ultimately purchase a product.

Earning affiliate income can be a little tricky, not because it is actually hard to get paid, but because there are a number of factors at play. The business whose products you sell will have its own set of terms and conditions that include commission rates, cookie duration, time until payout etc. You should review those carefully to make sure you understand them. 

Let’s take an example where there is a commission rate of 10% on all affiliate products, a 7-day cookie duration, and a monthly payout of all products sold at least 30 days prior (with time built in to allow for returns). 

Now let’s say you create an affiliate website product page on your site. Maybe it’s a page that reviews the top products in a specific category. Someone reads your article and clicks through to a seller’s website using affiliate links you’ve included. They then buy a $100 product. Ten dollars (10% of the sales price) would be credited to your account as an affiliate commission for that sale. You would get paid during the next payout period after 30 days had elapsed. 

If that person used your link to go to the website and didn’t make a purchase, but went back to the website three days later you would still get the commission. That’s generally true even if they buy a different product (as long as it is a commissionable purchase). 

Oftentimes the last cookie is the one that counts, which means that if someone visits using your link, doesn’t buy, but returns later through someone else’s affiliate link and then buys, that other affiliate gets the sale. 

For that reason, successful affiliate marketers may try to create extra value for their audience to get them to buy through them using unique landing pages with coupons or something free if they purchase through them (training or tutorials, for example). This is especially true for high-ticket products with good commission rates. The goal is to get buyers to use their link and not someone else’s. 

The best affiliate marketing programs will have long cookies, and will provide detailed insights into what’s working and what’s not. You’ll get key metrics on conversion rates, target audiences, etc. 

Tip: You must disclose affiliate links on your website and in your digital marketing efforts. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires this disclaimer and most platforms do as well. If you market outside the US, other rules will likely apply. Make sure you follow those rules or you may be barred from an affiliate program or even fined.


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