Once upon a time, Bill sold flowers on the internet. Big blooms of roses and lavender. It was sometime in 1989, the earliest days of the World Wide Web, back when people referred to it as that. Bill called his website PC Flowers, Inc. The media called it an “electronic floral service,” the first of its kind on the planet. Flowers in red, orange, and yellow. Pixels on a computer screen.
By 1993, Bill was making $6 million a year.
“Bill” is William J. Tobin, and he’s the world’s first affiliate marketer. Perhaps he’s the first internet marketer. Bill invented Prodigy, what you’d call an affiliate network today. He’d earn a cent or two every time someone clicked an outbound link on PC Flowers and purchased something on the linked website. That meant a commission for every sale. Amazon claims it invented affiliate marketing. But it was Bill and his little online flower shop.
Thirty-two years later, and affiliate marketing’s about to overtake email marketing, 81 percent of brands have adopted it, and it drives 16 percent of e-commerce. It’s possibly the most powerful marketing method in the world.
But finding affiliates is a struggle. When searching for affiliates in 2021, look to 1989 for inspiration. Here’s how Bill made his millions.
#1. Find People in Your Niche
Bill quickly found people to advertise on his website, and you can do the same. You just need to know where to look. The internet’s a much bigger place than in 1989, but locating affiliates online doesn’t have to be a struggle.
- Start with Facebook. With 2.7 billion monthly active users, you’ll likely find people willing to work with you. Search for industry-specific Facebook groups and share your affiliate offerings with its members. Be polite, be clear, and check in on members regularly. It might take a while but, with so many users, Facebook’s a great place to kick-start your affiliate marketing adventure.
- Then head over to Reddit. It’s easier to discover like-minded people on this social platform than Facebook, thanks to “subreddits” — online communities based around a particular topic or interest. You can engage with members publicly in a subreddit or discuss business via the private message feature.
- Finally, check out industry-specific forums with people who have products to promote and people who are looking for people with products to promote. This method is probably the easiest because members should know the concept of affiliate marketing. So less time explaining and more time marketing.
#2. Work With Bloggers and YouTubers
Blogs and YouTube are probably the most popular way to find affiliates in 2021 but not necessarily the smartest. (That’s #5.) Bill didn’t have access to either of these, but he reached out to what you’d call “influencers” today. Back then, these people didn’t have a name, just the power to expose products to thousands, or millions, of consumers at one time. So the concept is the same.
Working with famous bloggers and YouTubers is a sure-fire way to target an enormous audience, but you’ll have to pay for the privilege. Popular blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable and the most subscribed-to YouTube channels — at the time of writing, MrBeast, Dude Perfect, and Vlad and Nikki — generate millions of views, so you’ll have to hand over the big bucks to reach their ever-growing support bases.
So try “micro-influencers” instead — bloggers and YouTubers with 1,000-1 million highly engaged subscribers that might advertise your product for as little as a couple of hundred dollars. That’s cheaper than TV, radio, or print advertising. If the price is right, micro-influencers could mention your product in one of their blogs or videos, and they’ll certainly include your affiliate link in a post or video description.
Something Bill didn’t have to deal with: Strict rules from the FCC about product placement mean there are limits to what bloggers and YouTubers can do for you. But good luck if you go down this route. Alternatively, create a blog or YouTube channel and include as many affiliate links in your content as you like.
#3. Give Instagram a Shot
Instagram seems super-supportive of affiliate marketing, even though it never explicitly mentions it. You can monetize content or ask someone to monetize their content. Yep, affiliate marketing on Insta works in the same way as blogs and YouTube:
- Include affiliate links in Insta posts.
- Ask influencers (or, if you’re broke, micro-influencers) to include affiliate links in their Insta posts.
Bill didn’t have Insta, but he built his empire from the bottom-up by reaching out to smaller companies before developing a bigger base. Your Instagram success story will have the same beginning, where you target micro-influencers, then macro-influencers, then the Kylie Jenners.
Using Insta for affiliate marketing is straightforward enough. Reach out, agree on commission, and wait for your influencer to post content.
Lots of affiliate marketers love this method. It can be insanely effective:
“Instagram is the No.1 influencer marketing platform. And social stars are moving from Snapchat and Twitter to Instagram,” says Mark Fidelman, CMO of Fanatics Media. “Why? Because influencers follow the money, and where is the money? Instagram. Why? Because they make it easiest for digital marketers to succeed.”
Coupon websites are smart places to market products. While platforms like Coupons.com and RetailMeNot skew older than Instagram and YouTube, you’re actively targeting the most desirable demographic on coupon sites: Shoppers.
All the major coupon portals have affiliate programs. And all of them take a cut of your earnings, of course. There’s no harm in trying this method, though, and then adjusting your affiliate marketing strategy if it doesn’t work. Like Bill, you’ll soon realize that some techniques work, while others don’t. But he took a risk, and it paid off.
#5. Invest in Software
The smartest way to find affiliates, hands down. Bill didn’t have the luxury of fancy software in the ’80s, but you do. And the latest programs like iDevAffiliate provide you with the ultimate solution to your affiliate marketing woes. Good software locates affiliates across multiple sources, often automating the entire process. Think of it0 as a LinkedIn for affiliate marketers, where you connect with brands that want to work with people like you.
The greatest affiliate marketing software goes much deeper than affiliate-finding. It optimizes all your affiliate sources in one centralized hub and generates real-time insights into which techniques work and which don’t. Plus, you can execute A/B tests, plan future campaigns, and manage referrals.
Research suggests affiliate tracking software is about to experience explosive growth by 2026, thanks in part to the exceptional insights it typically provides. This software also lets marketers track affiliate campaigns after a volatile year where the COVID-19 pandemic redefined e-commerce habits.
Not all affiliate marketing tools are the same, mind. Choose one that lets you track the broadest range of metrics such as
- CPS (Cost per sale).
- CPI (Cost per install).
- CPA (Cost per acquisition).
- CPM (Cost per impression).
- Market characteristics.
- Market predictions.
- Regional trends.
- Breakdowns by niche.
- And other insights.
Also, choose a tool that comes as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) rather than on-premises. You’ll need to upgrade the latter and invest in expensive hardware. SaaS is the easier option.
Before You Go
32 years after Bill created his online flower shop and affiliate marketing is more effective than it’s ever been. The problem is getting started and finding high-quality affiliates, but there are various ways you can overcome this hurdle.
You might start with industry-specific groups and forums, then reach out to YouTubers or Instagram’ers, then advertise with coupon websites. But by far, the most effective method for finding and tracking affiliates is to invest in the right software. Choose software like iDevAffiliate that monitors your campaigns from start to finish and provides unparalleled campaign insights. It could be the best investment you make as an affiliate marketer.
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Jim Webster is the founder and CEO of iDevAffiliate, Inc. As one of the original developers of iDevAffiliate, he has been involved in the affiliate/influencer industry since the late ’90s. Yes, just about 25 years now! He still maintains an active role in the development, support and management of the iDevAffiliate platform and continues to contribute to the industry via tradeshows, affiliate conferences, speaking engagements, etc.
As an editor and author for our blog, Jim hopes to educate and advise people with more in-depth information & guidance on creating, building and managing profitable affiliate tracking programs.
Jim and his wife Robyn reside in Southern California and enjoy mountain bike riding, snowboarding and relaxing on the beach.