How to Make Money with Affiliate Marketing: Merchant and Program Selection

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In my early days as an affiliate marketer, my focus was on joining programs that I felt had high marketability and appeal. I was less concerned about a program’s overall structure, but more interested in the financial outcomes that hadn’t yet occurred. For example, I joined Julep’s affiliate program, which paid a commission rate of 3 percent. A couple of months later, I revisited Julep’s program and thought more about its commission structure. To earn $3,000, I would need to sell $100,000. Knowing how difficult it is to sell $10,000 of merchandise, never mind $100,000, left me scratching my head. I came to the realization that you make money in affiliate marketing by partnering with fantastic merchants and joining profitable programs.

As I thought more about my affiliate partnerships and what made sense to promote, I created a document called “Affiliate Program Guidelines,” which addressed attributes I sought. For instance, a program should have a minimum referral period/cookie length of thirty days and a commission rate of 30 percent. Below is a list of factors that guide what affiliate programs I join. Additionally, you should promote products/services that you understand and align with your target market to increase conversion rates.

How to Choose Affiliate Programs
  1. The company
  2. Commission
  3. Cookie length
  4. Payout threshold
  5. Deep linking
  6. Reporting and activity data
  7. Affiliate tracking software
  8. Affiliate manager
  9. Free trial and return policies
  10. Marketing material and creative assets
  11. Program terms and policies


  • The company

I want to promote companies that offer unique value propositions and dominate their markets. Case in point, Shopify is an excellent company that leaves in competitors, like BigCommerce, in the dust. Shopify does so many things right that thousands of users flock to try its online store software. It’s well reviewed and has an excellent business reputation. It’s the type of company I want to market. Alternatively, Udemy is not a company I desire to promote. It’s one of many e-learning companies and competes in a saturated marketplace. There isn’t anything unique about Udemy and the company has a bad reputation regarding transparency and fairness.

  • Commission

The best advertisers pay commission rates of 30 percent or more. Affiliate managers who are serious about their programs offer excellent compensation and incentives to heighten affiliate engagement. A minimum of 30 percent yields a win-win scenario. On the other hand, merchants who pay less than 30 percent don’t grab my attention and active participation. Secondly, merchants that pay bonuses and volume sales incentives are on point.

  • Cookie length

A minimum conversion window of 30 days benefits advertisers and publishers. I like advertisers that give me time to receive credit for my promotional efforts. For example, someone clicks on my affiliate link, purchases 27 days later, and I earn a commission. I like it, even more, when I have 60, 90, and 120 days to convert. For instance, Thrive Themes and Bluehost offer generous referral periods of more than 100 days. By contrast, some programs have insufficient 24-hour cookie windows such as Amazon Associates and the eBay Partner Network. They offer win-lose scenarios.

  • Payout threshold

Affiliates want to get PAID! I understand that merchants must wait for their return policies to expire and so on. However, that has nothing to do with payment thresholds. A payout threshold specifies how much must accrue before a payment is processed, for example, twenty dollars. Fifty to one hundred dollars is standard while anything above $100 is ridiculous. Even if a merchant sells a product for hundreds of dollars, a $100 threshold would ensure payment after one sale. I’ve skipped and quit programs over bogus payment minimums.

  • Deep linking

Deep linking is beneficial and produces options. Deep linking is the practice by which an affiliate creates a link to a specific page on the merchant’s site. For example, instead of using a generic homepage affiliate link, I deep link to an article that relates to my post. Most affiliate networks offer deep linking, but it’s up to advertisers to enable. It’s easy to understand which affiliate managers are competent by their approach to deep linking.

  • Reporting and activity data

Data is a must. Reporting and activity data such as impressions, clicks, conversions, and commissions are standard. Therefore, you shouldn’t have a problem with that unless you deal with substandard merchants, affiliate programs, software, or networks. Avoid merchants and software that keep you in the dark or don’t seem legit like ClickFunnels.

  • Affiliate program tracking software

Affiliate program software must be able to generate and track links, attribute sales, and disburse payments efficiently. Tracking software via an affiliate network is convenient because of the variety of merchants, categories, and items available in one place. Self-hosted and hosted tracking applications can be promising too. However, inferior and dated affiliate tracking solutions are in the market, for example, Ambassador and LeadDyno. Also, you should avoid developers/applications that don’t make software updates regularly to tackle market disruptions like Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP 2.0) update. I know at least one network that hasn’t addressed the issue.

  • Affiliate manager

Affiliate managers make or break programs. I could write a novel about how many boneheads work as affiliate managers. These types of individuals cause bottlenecks and inefficiencies that lessen the prospects of making money. From slow approval/decline turnaround times to poor/zero communication to spite and egotism, be on the lookout for managers that work against you (they exist!). By contrast, excellent managers exist too. They’re efficient, responsive, respectful, and care about their companies whether they’re entrepreneurs or employees. They embrace win-win outcomes and succeeding together.

  • Trial period and free plan

I like merchants that offer trial periods and free plans. The longer the trial period, the better. A minimum period of thirty days is sufficient to get leads immersed in a product/service whereas fewer days might not do the trick. Free plans are even better to create user stickiness. For example, MailerLite offers a free email marketing plan whereas AWeber does not. All else being equal, the more time a prospect invests, the higher the chance of converting.

  • Marketing materials and creative assets

Advertising materials can help increase brand awareness and conversion rates. I’ve gotten excited about programs only to be disappointed by their marketing materials, creative assets, and banners. Savvy affiliate managers design marketing materials that are useful and appealing. They also conduct A/B tests to assess which creative assets convert higher. In the words of Jerry Maguire, “Help me, help you.”

  • Program terms and policies

A program’s terms and policies are worth reading because you want to ensure they align with your marketing ideas, goals, and activities. Also, you want to abide by the merchant’s rules to avoid disciplinary action. For instance, most affiliate programs don’t allow publishers to use specific keywords for search engine marketing (SEM).

Final Word

In a righteous world, affiliates would have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, the prevailing human experiment leads to a lot of undermining and questionable practices. As a publisher, you must think long and hard about which merchants you want to partner with and promote. If you don’t, you’ll likely end up on in the category of losing money online, not making money online.


Chad Tennant

Chad is an affiliate program consultant, online marketer, and content creator. His primary goals are to help businesses and individuals achieve growth and financial success. Learn more at

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