I don't sell advertising on this blog. Advertising may be right for you (just kidding, it's probably not), but I hate being advertised to when I read a blog. And I'll never do something in my business that I wouldn't want done to me. I use an intuitive business model. MeaningI only do things in my business that feed my soul and genuinely contribute to the majority of my readerships' lives and business. Ads don't. Advertising:

  • Weakens the integrity of the your brand
  • Sells your attention
  • Gives me that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I'm not doing something right.

So when I get emails from companies offering me money to throw an ad up on Unsettle or mention them in an article, they get trashed. A few hundred dollars is not worth my integrity. But there are many other ways of making money from your blog. And one of those ways allows you to monetize:

  • Without having to develop your own products
  • As passively as possible online
  • With integrity.

That monetization method?

Affiliate marketing.

Let's talk first about what affiliate marketing is, and then what it shouldn't be (and how to do it with integrity).

Affiliate marketing is when you promote another businesses' products or services and earn a commission for every sale you refer. If that sounds like advertising, it's not. There are a few main differences:

  1. Affiliate marketing gives you control over what you're promoting
  2. Affiliate marketing pays way more
  3. Advertising ruins the design and content of your site
  4. Affiliate marketing is a natural compliment to the content of your site.

But for every one person who does affiliate marketing with integrity, there are dozens of slimy, sleazy affiliate marketers. See, in the past affiliate marketing has been seen as a way to earn loads of passive income. People follow entrepreneurs who earn sometimes tens of thousands of dollars each month from affiliate sales. Affiliate marketing makes up a large portion of my online income (~20-25% — or thousands of dollars per month). Impressive numbers like that attract shady people. So affiliate marketing because the magic “get rich quickly” button of the 2010's – what sponsored content was before that, and Google Adsense was before that. But the thing is, when affiliate marketing is done right (read: with integrity), it's not passive at all. For every $75 commission I get from an affiliate sale, I spend at least 8-10 hours:

  • writing guides
  • building tutorials
  • answering emails and questions
  • building relationships
  • fostering that trust with my audience.

Affiliate marketing shouldn't and can't be passive. You don't make money with affiliate marketing – you earn money, and the only way to earn affiliate income is to burn the midnight oil building a community, fostering trust and integrity, and contributing to the lives of your audience. Affiliate marketing should be about giving your audience the tools they need to meet their goals. Nothing more, nothing less. As with almost everything I do in my business, I have set some guiding principals in place for affiliate marketing. This helps me make decisions, keeps me in check, and gives a backbone to my “why”.

1. Don't Sell Out

Most of you know I recommend Bluehost as a web hosting service. One of the first steps to starting your business is starting a website, so almost every Unsettler needs a host, and that means that web hosting is a natural fit for a recommendation from me. I love Bluehost for it's simplicity and support. Hostgator, which is another hosting service I've used, pays 25% more for a referral than Bluehost. I earn about $75 for a referral on Bluehost and would earn $100 for a referral to Hostgator. So, by referring you to Hostgator, I'd earn hundreds of dollars more each month in additional revenue.But I wouldn't do that. Hostgator is a fine host – almost all hosting is pretty much the same – but their dashboard system is confusing and complicated. If I referred you to Hostgator, I'd be selling out. And selling out for an additional $25 per referral is just gross.

2. Honesty is The Best Policy

 I remember getting an email from a reader asking why I disclose all affiliate links. He asked “do I have to tell people if my link is an affiliate link?”. The answer to this is “no”, but it's one of my guiding principals to do so. If you don't tell your readers your links are affiliate links, it feels sneaky. Transparency is important to me, my brand, and my integrity, and I see no reason why I wouldn't disclose affiliate links. I've found that when I disclose affiliate links, I feel a lot better about placing them, and certain members of the community actually go out of their way to use them. Not everybody knows what affiliate links are when they see them, and assuming you are contributing substance to your reader's lives, they want to support you.

3. Treat Readers Like You Want to Be Treated

I remember the first time I ever used an affiliate link from a blogger, I then found out that there was an equivalent available for free. Maybe I misinterpreted the situation, but it seemed as if they left the free one out intentionally because they wanted to earn the commission. The product was the exact same – same brand, same version, everything. I see my community as an extension of myself, and I know that I want options. I don't want to spend money on things I could get for free (and I do want to spend money on things that contribute to my life in some way). That's why I mention Mailchimp if I'm talking about email service providers. Is Mailchimp the provider I recommend? No. I recommend ConvertKit, because I've used both and far prefer the latter. But Mailchimp has a limited version of their service for free under 2,000 subscribers, and ConvertKit only offers a free month. Granted, you're very limited with what you can do with the free version of Mailchimp, so that's why I recommend ConvertKit, but I don't want you to be ill-informed of options.

4. Don't Hawk Wares You Haven't Used

Perhaps this point should be first, because it's so crucial. If somebody approaches me to be an affiliate for their product and I've never used it, I'll immediately tell them “no”. If it seems like a great fit, I'll insist upon not only seeing the content of the product, but also trying it out first. How can I recommend something I know nothing about? The only time it's okay to be an affiliate for products you haven't used is if it's clear you haven't used it. Do not write product reviews or sing the praises for products you know nothing about.

5. Share Products You Love (Whether or Not They Have an Affiliate Program)

I love the 5-Minute Journal. It helps me set my day up for positivity and success, express gratitude, and set my most important missions for the day. Unfortunately, the 5-Minute Journal didn't have an affiliate program when I began to use it. Even so, the journal has contributed so much to my daily routine that it wouldn't feel right to not share it. There are some products I've used that I have loved but don't have affiliate programs, and that doesn't mean anything to me. Value to you comes first, and the commission is a small bonus.

6. Choose Your Audience Over Money Every Time

 If I have to choose between a benefit to you and a commission to line my own pockets, I always choose the benefit to you. Sometimes, as a business owner, you have to choose between the greater good of your audience and earning more. In this case, I always will choose the former. Let's use the 5-Minute Journal as an example. I have an account with Amazon Associates, which for physical products has an affiliate program even if the company who produces the product doesn't. So,  I could use Amazon affiliates for the 5-Minute Journal. However, the folks behind the journal have generously offered me a discount code for my readers who want to buy the journal (it's Unsettle if you're wondering :)). You wouldn't be able to use the discount code on Amazon, and I'd prefer you get the discount than me earn the commission. Ultimately, when you choose your audience over money, you earn more money (because your audience trusts you more, and people buy from people they know, like, and trust).

7. People Are People, Not Dollar Signs

There's some force at work that makes the universe protect people. If you approach your business with integrity and view your audience as what it is: a group of people conspiring to support you and learn from you and grow with you, rather than a money making opportunity, you'll make far more money in the long run. I know this is true, and I hope you agree, because we'll all live with far more abundance if we stop acting like crooked CEOs and start acting like human beings.

Affiliate Marketing is a Great Way to Earn Money…

If you go with your gut. I strongly believe that if you go with your gut – if you act with integrity and keep the best interests of your audience at heart – you will build a more sustainable, profitable and authentic business. If you are approached to act as an affiliate for a product you don't know or believe in, go with your gut. And always remember: the products and services you endorse are a direct reflection of you. Even one shady recommendation breaks the trust of your readers and weakens your bond with your audience. The stakes are high. So only back products you truly love. And the money will keep coming to you.]]>

18 thoughts on “An Intuitive Guide to Earning Money Affiliate Marketing (Without Selling Out)

  1. Bharat Jhala says:

    Very informative and transparent article Sarah. Being one of your unsettlers, I know you are a person of high integrity and I really appreciate you sharing this. Not only this article provided the information on how affiliate marketing can be useful for bloggers but also it lays out the way to do it effectively and efficiently. Thanks for the post, Sarah!

  2. Janis Knight says:

    Intriguing. I am dimly beginning to see my way although it still seems improbable. At least it’s no longer impossible!

    • Sarah says:

      Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. Says Henry Ford 🙂 He was a smart dude, that Henry.

  3. Corina says:

    Sarah – you are an inspiration! May you be repaid a thousandfold for the thoughtfulness and respect you show to your readers. Great instruction and encouragement too for new bloggers.

    • Sarah says:

      Corina, thank you so much for the kind words. I’m so glad you think so. Hope you’re doing well!!

  4. Robyn Williams says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I would like to second the comments made by Bharat Jhala. Your work always so thoughtful and considerate of your readership.
    This post supports my personal views on this type of income stream, so knowing that it is still possible to make money while maintaining personal integrity is very encouraging.
    I hope to be able to make this all happen for us one day. 🙂
    Thanks again for all you wonderful work.

    • Sarah says:

      Aw, you guys are just the best <3 I'm sure you can make it work for you - can't wait to see you succeed!

  5. Don says:

    Hi Sarah–
    Love your article!
    I’ve seen that affiliate marketing might be a good starting point for me from a couple of years ago, so I developed a 5 point plan then.
    Since I am providing online self-care as an alternative for those caught up in the mental health mill, one of the most important criteria is direct support. I always test this out before making a recommendation.
    Another is the volume of free material offered so I can get a real good taste before consuming the meal. I now am contemplating your number four, as I have little money on my social security retirement budget, so read all the free stuff first to get a good idea. But you are probably right about buying. One can’t exist on appetizers forever.
    Its important to note that while affiliate marketing can be helpful, it’s not the cat’s meow. The cat says that there is more juice in original work offered. So do I.
    Here’s to ya’ and affiliate marketing!

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Don,
      I would never build my entire business on affiliate marketing – that would be, in my view, “bad business” 🙂 But I’m not going to go start a web-hosting company or domain name service, so there’s really no original work there to be had. Just make sure you’re always looking at how best to help your audience.

  6. Marissa says:

    You have very good insights on this article. We are starting an affiliate marketing website and we are making sure that we only do things that we believe in and products that we know that work

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Marissa – I’m glad you’re committing to that. IT’s really, really important – it feels bad on your soul when you’re not promoting things that will be in the best interest of your community.

  7. Elia says:

    I appreciate anyone doing business online with integrity. Although I’m not currently involved with affiliates, it’s something that I’d like to explore, but I’ve always felt a little icky about it. Your article echoes a lot of my own values, and I see that there is a “clean” way to do it. Thanks

  8. Jim Neville says:

    I’m such a newbie. No blog, no affiliates, no business plan. Yet I have know-how, gumption and abundance. My challenge is getting going with a tangible transition to share my gifts and explore the planet and universe. Your ideology is appealing. I’ll keep reading and responding, albeit so far, without a clue for how to get started.

  9. Dimitar says:

    Great piece, Sarah. Very well put, clean and straightforward.
    “Honesty is the best policy” should perhaps become the motto of every blogger out there. Cleansing the net from the tons of lifeless content, written for Google just to attract potential buyers, is already a process in progress I believe. Like every human made system, the Internet had to pass through its “dark ages” marked by ignorance and low-level information, as a natural step on the way to its own Renaissance.

  10. Amanda says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Just wondering if you have any experience with Amazon Affiliates. I recently had my first purchase made, and afterwards received an email from Amazon Affiliates stating that I was removed from the program. The purchase was made through a post titled “9 Inexpensive Travel Gift Ideas” and Amazon claimed that I could not be an affiliate because without the advertisements there was no article? I had linked to them on other articles in my site as well, but I don’t think they looked much further than the one post. I read that this is not uncommon, but I am wondering if you are aware of how to set your site up to be “acceptable” for Amazon Associates? Thank you in advance!

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