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Affiliate Marketing: The Ultimate 7-Step Guide to Making Passive Income

18 Mins read

It seems like a simple idea: Just write content to sell other people’s products, then sit back and watch the commissions pile up!

Maybe you dream about rolling out of bed at 10 am, checking your laptop to see that you’ve hit another all-time high in your net worth, and going straight back to bed…

You may even have secret fantasies about telling your boss that you don’t need that dead-end job anymore, because you’ve found a better way to make money!

Well, it’s wonderful to have dreams, but you have to back them up with reality. That’s why we wrote this 7-step affiliate marketing guide – because passive income doesn’t happen without a plan!

And if you’re wondering why you should listen to us? It’s because we’ve done it ourselves! You can see how we built a six-figure niche site right here.

Distilling the affiliate marketing business model down to a simple step-by-step process isn’t easy, but we hope this guide will help you discover how affiliate marketers make money online in an approachable and realistic way.


What is Affiliate Marketing and How Does It Work?

There are all kinds of ways to make passive income online, but anyone who’s just starting out should consider affiliate marketing!

Why? Because affiliate marketing is a low-cost, low-risk way to get familiar with the online business world, and it has huge potential upside once you get the hang of it!

First of all, let’s define what affiliate marketing is:

Affiliate marketing is a business model where you earn a commission by promoting other people’s products or brands. Every time you make an affiliate sale for a merchant, they share the revenue with you!

It might seem like a foreign concept at first, but you actually don’t have to look too far online to see affiliate marketing in action. In fact, most mainstream websites operate within the affiliate marketing business model!

One popular example of a dedicated affiliate marketing website is Wirecutter from the New York Times, a massive site dedicated to reviewing and recommending popular products in categories like electronics, home and garden, money, and more!

The NYTimes actually purchased Wirecutter back in 2016 for more than $30 million, having recognized the growing trend of “service journalism” – the type of journalism that provides a service in product recommendations and buying guides.

Other mainstream websites make money the same way. For example, there are websites in the technology niche – such as TechRadar – that offer buying advice on all things technology, from phones to cameras. When you read their latest review, click their affiliate link, and make a purchase, they make money!

This same thing applies to blogs of every topic, industry, and audience. For example, there are lifestyle blogs – such as SheKnows – that make affiliate commissions in products related to gift giving, parenting, home decor, food, and health.

What these sites all have in common is monetization through affiliate commissions. They use affiliate links to recommend products and get a piece of every sale when their readers click the special affiliate link and buy something!

The Key to Successful Affiliate Marketing

Now, all of this talk about big websites might be interesting, but you probably don’t own a huge magazine or blog publication – so how does any of this apply to you?

Well, if you don’t take away anything else from this guide, I hope you’ll remember this point:

The key to success in affiliate marketing is adding value.

Think about it: If you can personally go search on Amazon or another merchant’s website and find different products for sale to promote on your site, so can readers and Google searchers.

They don’t really need to use you as an intermediary. In fact, the ONLY reason they would check out your affiliate website is if they feel like you’re educating them or helping them make a good purchase decision. By doing this, you provide a valuable service.

On the other hand, if you’re just slapping together a list of products with some affiliate links and calling it a day, readers won’t be impressed – and neither will Google.

Keep this in mind as we reveal what it takes to become an affiliate marketer!

Overview of the Affiliate Marketing Process

Throughout this post, I’ll be talking about how you can make a successful business in the affiliate marketing space. But first, you need to understand all of the different parties who make affiliate marketing possible.

The Merchant (aka the vendor)

The merchant is the company selling its own product or service. One example of this is the web hosting service BlueHost, which will pay affiliate commissions to its affiliates (including us at We Are the Curious) who recommend them as a web host.

Any merchant can decide to create an affiliate program to get help selling their product. In a way, it might be helpful to think of affiliates as informal salespeople recruited to bring a company some new business.

These merchants can range from a solopreneur selling a simple ebook, all the way up to a massive corporation selling high-ticket items like gaming laptop graphics cards or industrial farm equipment.

If you are a merchant, you can either establish an affiliate program on your own or allow an affiliate network to handle the nuts and bolts (more on this a little later).

The Publisher (aka the affiliate)

The publisher is the business owner with a blog, website, social media page, or other content channel where they can promote affiliate products and earn commissions through their own affiliate links.

If you start your own blog, then you’re a publisher (or affiliate) that helps bring business to the merchants you’re promoting.

The Consumer (aka the reader)

We can’t forget perhaps the most important party in this arrangement: the consumer! If the consumer isn’t buying, then the merchant and the publisher aren’t making any money.

That puts the consumer in a powerful position – they will determine how successful your business is. If you can provide sufficient value and help your blog readers solve their problems, this can come back to you in the form of affiliate commissions!

The Affiliate Network

There’s one more party to be aware of in this affiliate marketing business model: the affiliate network. Popular affiliate networks like ClickBank and ShareASale streamline this entire process for both merchants and publishers.

For merchants, it’s an easy way to get your affiliate offering in front of eager publishers, and it takes care of the logistics of managing an affiliate program. For publishers, an affiliate network gives you an easy way to find many products or services you can promote without starting over every time.

It also gives you a chance when you’re still new, when a direct affiliate relationship may not be possible yet.

How to Get Started in Affiliate Marketing

Now that we understand all of the players in affiliate marketing, it’s time to look at how to get started step-by-step.

First of all, we want to emphasize that this post is focused on making money as an affiliate marketer (publisher) who promotes other people’s products. If you’ve created your own product and want to find affiliates/publishers to help you sell, this is a great way to build your brand – but it’s not exactly passive income, and that’s what we’re focused on here.

With that said, let’s look at how to build your affiliate marketing business from scratch as a new publisher!

Step 1: Brainstorm a List of Niches

Your affiliate marketing journey should begin with you simply listing out any industries or topics where you could add value or enjoy a competitive advantage.

For example, a digital marketing expert might start an affiliate blog about SEO, while someone who tinkers with classic cars in their spare time might start a site covering car parts.

This process is equal parts art and science – to an extent, you’ll have to trust your gut in determining which niches are worth going after.

But there ARE two main factors to consider for any potential affiliate site:

  • Traffic potential. How much traffic can you realistically get in that niche?
  • Monetization potential. What kind of money can you make from that traffic?

Let’s take a quick look at both of these factors.

Getting Traffic

There are a lot of factors that can impact what kind of traffic you can get, but the first one is simply how popular a topic is.

People will always care about the following topics:

  • Health and medical
  • Personal finance
  • Business and marketing
  • Fashion and beauty
  • Fitness/weight loss

However, certain aspects of these topics can fall out of favor. For example, if your site is all about low-fat diets, but keto is trending, your site could still lose out, even though the broader weight loss industry is alive and well! (After a quick check on Google Trends, I found that “ketogenic diet” is a much more popular topic relative to “low-fat diet.”)

Also, note that the “best” niches usually come with stiff competition, which is why you need to be realistic. It’s not just about how much TOTAL traffic a particular niche gets, but about how much YOUR affiliate site can get in that niche!

Other traffic factors to think about include seasonality (whether your topic only gets traffic at certain times of the year) and trends (whether your topic is getting more popular, less popular, or staying about the same over time).

A simple look at Google Trends can help you see whether a specific niche is popular or not!

Making Money

The other important consideration in Step 1 is monetization. You don’t have to know exactly how you’ll monetize the site upfront, but you should be able to validate that you CAN make decent money in your chosen niche through affiliate marketing.

How do you do this?

There are a few quick ways! First, try searching for your topic in Google, check the top results, and visit a few of your potential competitors in this space. Can you discern how they are monetizing the site? Are there any obvious products they’re promoting?

Another quick way is to do a search for your topic on Amazon or in an affiliate network like ClickBank for your topic and see what kinds of products come up. If it’s a struggle to find anything you think you’d be able to promote, your niche might not be lucrative enough.

Step 1 Action Item: Write out a list of 15-20 niches that you might be interested in. Grade them by traffic potential, monetization potential, and your own experience/passion for the topic. Then, narrow it down until you have just a few decent options.

Step 2: Do Competitor Research

At the end of Step 1, I recommended that you search Google for potential competitor sites and see how they monetize to ensure your niche has room for profitability.

But there’s more to competitor research than that. If you build an affiliate site in a particular niche, you need to know who you’re up against.

Here are some things to look out for using an SEO tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush:

Domain Rating/Authority

Any leading SEO tool will provide a general score for a site’s domain authority relative to other websites in the same industry. If you’re seeing sites with domain scores of 30 or higher, that’s typically where you start finding strong competitors with a sizable presence online.


Backlinks tell the story about how popular a website is and where a lot of its traffic and authority come from. Generally, more backlinks means a higher domain score, which helps new content rank higher, and so on. These are valuable both for individual pages and for a site overall.

Top Pages

If you want to cut to the chase, check out your competitors’ top pages. These will tell you at a glance which topics are most popular and which posts or pages are responsible for the bulk of a competing site’s organic traffic.

Organic Keywords

Take note of how many organic keywords each competitor is successfully ranking for. Then, peruse the list of organic keywords for each site to get a better idea about the kinds of topics you’ll probably have to cover for your affiliate site.

Brand Equity

This is a qualitative metric, but it’s important that you evaluate each competitor based on how valuable their brand is. Are these sites you’ve heard of before? Do you think your audience would know them by name? What kind of social presence do they have?

Strong brands can be hard to compete with – but they also prove that it’s possible to build a dedicated audience in the niche.

Narrow Down Your List of Niches

Okay, so what does all of this competitive research tell you? If you’ve collected data on each competitor, you’ll detect patterns. You’ll start to see which niches have entrenched competitors that will take a lot of effort to beat, and you’ll get a clear sense of what’s working already.

This will help you take the important step of picking a niche – or, if nothing in your initial list panned out, going back to Step 1 and brainstorming a new list of niches to research.

Step 2 Action Item: Evaluate 15-20 potential competitors across your target niches. Be prepared to validate your choice of niche.

Step 3: Find 20-30 Quality Keywords to Target

By this stage, you should either know your niche or be reasonably confident that there’s a place for your site in the niche you’re looking at. Either way, now is when you validate that you can succeed in your chosen niche by doing in-depth keyword research.

There’s a lot to know about keyword research, but one tried-and-true method is to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What do they really want or need to know that you can help them with?

You can use AnswerThePublic to discover common questions searched on Google for a certain topic. You can also search for a term in Google and check out the “Related Searches” or “People Also Ask” on the search result page for ideas.

Lastly, there’s nothing wrong with “borrowing” the keywords your competitors are using. This is a great method, as long as you’re confident you can create better content than they did for the same search terms.

How will you know if your search terms are “good?” It’s all about competitiveness and potential traffic.

A look at Keyword Difficulty and Search Volume metrics for keywords in Ahrefs.

Keyword Competitiveness: The top results should be lower domain authority and have only a handful of backlinks. Some on-page optimization tools like Surfer SEO also show a “content score” that approximates relevance – if other posts are below about 70, you have a good shot at beating them.

Potential Traffic: You generally want a search volume of at least 1K, if possible, but not at the expense of being competitive. Fortunately, even keywords with zero search volume can get results if you rank for enough long-tail keywords.

Step 3 Action Item: Use a few different methods above to evaluate keywords and create a list you can get started writing content for.

Step 4: Launch Your Website and Blog

The process of launching a website doesn’t have to be complicated. These days, it’s fairly straightforward:

Pick a host. We recommend Bluehost when you’re just starting out to keep costs down, but you’ll want to upgrade to a premium host like SiteGround or Kinsta as your site grows and you start bringing in revenue.

Install WordPress and a theme. With a host in place, you can usually do a one-click install of WordPress. Just follow the host’s instructions. From there, you’ll have to pick a WordPress theme. We recommend GeneratePress as a lightweight theme. If you’re planning an ecommerce-focused website, then Thrive Themes is also a good choice.

Create pages. Every new affiliate website should have at least the following pages:

  • A home page.
  • A blog page.
  • A privacy policy page.
  • About page (optional, but a good idea).

You can create and edit pages in the WordPress dashboard under Pages.

Don’t go overboard on the design at this stage. Some basic branding and copy will get the job done – your main goal needs to be creating content that will get your website visible in search engines as soon as possible.

Set up categories. Remember those keywords you found in the previous step? If you haven’t defined them already, put together a list of categories by going to Posts > Categories in the WordPress dashboard.

Set up Google Analytics and install plugins. Any new WordPress site should be connected to Google Analytics so you can track page views, clicks, and engagement. It’s also a good time to install any plugins you need. We recommend an SEO plugin like Yoast SEO or RankMath, a caching plugin like WP Rocket, and a page builder like Elementor (if this feature isn’t already included in your theme).

We also like the tool Pretty Links as a way to create nice-looking affiliate links in your content that you can easily track.

Once these are all set up, you’re ready to focus your efforts on content creation!

Step 4 Action Item: Set aside an afternoon and launch your new website by securing a web host, finding a WordPress theme, and getting your new site ready for publishing content.

Step 5: Create Affiliate Content

The most important step for success in affiliate marketing is creating top-tier content. There’s a ton I could say about this, but I’ll try to boil it down to a few key principles:

  • Add incredible value. It’s easy to write content that simply restates the same information as every other article on a topic – but that won’t help your content rise to the top. Instead, try to find a new angle, or dig deeper, or provide custom graphics and images, or do a case study based on your experience. Generally, longer word counts do better, as long as everything you write adds value to the post.
  • Pick one primary keyword/topic. When you write with a search engine in mind, you need to focus on a specific keyword for each post. Google doesn’t “get” epic posts that cover a lot of different topics at once – even your longest posts should all target one keyword and one specific topic.
  • Tailor content to search intent. Every search term tends to have an intent behind it. “Best exhaust systems for Ford Mustangs” is a term indicating buyer intent, because if you find out which system is best, you may buy it. On the other hand, “how to” topics are usually more informational. “How to install a water heater” doesn’t imply that you’re ready to buy, but it’s still a good search term for a blog about water heaters or household appliances. Checking out what the top articles for a specific term are saying can help you tease out search intent.

With all that in mind, let’s look at the main types of articles you’ll want to produce for your niche site.

Informational Articles

Generally, articles are broken down into either “money” articles – posts intended to generate revenue from affiliate commissions – and informational articles, or pillar posts that tend to have a wider reach and can establish credibility in your space. This post you’re reading right now is a good example of an informational article, with the topic of affiliate marketing.

The exact content and length of your informational articles will vary, but a good rule of thumb is about 2500-3000 words for an in-depth post. Try to answer questions that come up in the “related questions” box in Google. Be thorough in explaining the topic so that the reader leaves the post knowing everything they need to know about the topic.

As a general rule, you’ll want at least one epic informational article for each of your blog categories. For example, if you have a “business” category, you might have an informational article called “how to start a small business” that takes a broad look at the topic.

Buying Guides/Roundup Posts

The bread-and-butter of an affiliate website is the buying guide (sometimes called a roundup post). In these posts, you pick a specific type of product in your niche and share products that are the best fit.

In this way, you’re helping people make a purchase decision, so when they click through your affiliate link for any of the products you review, they’re likely to buy and earn you a commission.

Here’s an example from us here at We Are the Curious: We put together a buying guide for grammar checking tools called Free Alternatives to Grammarly that covers a number of quality tools someone who produces content online might want to know about.

Here are a few other example buying guide post ideas:

  • 5 Best iPhone Cases Under 50 Dollars
  • 6 Top Kites for Kids
  • The Best Potting Soils for Trees
  • 10 Best Burger Joints in Chicago
  • 6 Cheapest Pop-up Tents for Camping

In many cases, you can give your buying guides a better shot at ranking by identifying both the type of product and the audience looking for it in your primary keyword.

Ultimately, you’ll be a successful affiliate when your content ranks at the top for your target keywords, which often means writing about very niche topics until your site is big enough to compete for bigger ones.

Product Reviews

For some of your favorite affiliate products or services, it’s a good idea to create a dedicated review just for them. Product reviews average around 2000 words, but can be much longer depending on the competition and how much there is to say about the product.

As an example, we wrote an in-depth product review for a great WordPress theme called GeneratePress.

When you write a product review, you want to cover your own experience with the product. Try to be as unbiased as possible, even if you really like the product – create a pros and cons list, discuss alternatives, and summarize all of its notable features.

By the end of a product review, your reader should be able to tell whether the product is a good fit for them. Never throw away your credibility as an affiliate by lying or misleading your audience. Honesty is always the best policy here.

Product Comparisons

In many industries, there are a few top choices that people will try to decide between. For example, we did a product comparison about MailChimp vs Convertkit here at We Are the Curious.

mailchimp vs convertkit

Your job is to cover things like product history, features, pros and cons, pricing, and how these products compare. Again, you need to be neutral and focus on adding value for the reader – in the end, the reader trusts you to make a recommendation based on your expertise, not your financial stake. Your brand credibility is more important than making any affiliate sales today.

Step 5 Action Item: Start creating content in each of these categories, with an emphasis on “money” content like product reviews and buying guides. The ratio should be roughly 5-10 affiliate content posts for every 1 info post.

Step 6: Join Affiliate Programs to Promote Products

The process of joining affiliate programs isn’t difficult, but your success with them may depend on how far along your website is.

Requesting to join an affiliate program is kind of like applying for a job. You’ll put in your basic information, and you’ll usually do a little bit of selling about why you and your site would make a worthy affiliate for the merchant’s brand or product.

Affiliate marketing program - Amazon Associates

Just don’t be surprised if you’re rejected by some at first. They’ll expect decent traffic and engagement on your affiliate site, and you may not have this for some time.

As far as what to join, remember you can either apply for an affiliate program directly with a company or join an affiliate network and find products through it.

Popular affiliate networks include:

  • ShareASale
  • Amazon Associates
  • ClickBank
  • CJ
  • Rakuten Marketing
  • FlexOffers

As for direct affiliate programs, this depends on your niche. It might help to do some research on major brands and vendors in your industry – some of them will advertise their own affiliate program, while others may not have one at all, but would be open to a direct relationship with you as an affiliate.

In those cases, you should reach out to companies and propose an affiliate relationship directly. If you’re a good salesperson, you may be able to get much better terms as an affiliate through this approach.

Step 6 Action Item: Apply to 2-3 affiliate programs so you can start promoting a quality product or service on your site.

Step 7: Grow Your Brand

At this point, you have the infrastructure in place for success with affiliate marketing. If you simply stopped here and just created quality content centered around buyer-intent keywords from now on, you’d still be in business!

But there’s a lot more you can do to spread the word about your website – and ultimately, you want your blog to be a brand. To do that, you need to think bigger!

Here are some ways to build your brand beyond blog posts.

Social Media

These days, social media can be a mixed bag. Popular social algorithms tend to favor posts that KEEP people on these platforms, rather than content that sends traffic to your website.

But there ARE some cases where social media is helpful:

LinkedIn is an excellent choice if your niche is in the realm of professional services, such as marketing, accounting, business development, law, leadership, or career.

Pinterest is a great choice if your business is targeting women or is a visually-appealing medium like food, travel, home decor, fashion, fitness, or DIY crafts. Find out more about affiliate marketing on Pinterest here.

Facebook is good because it’s universal. However, rather than just creating an official business page, consider starting a Facebook group around your business or niche instead. Engagement is usually much higher and the posts have a better chance of reaching your audience organically.

Other social media like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat may be a good choice for growing your affiliate marketing brand as well. It just depends on your audience and the kind of content you produce.

Email List

It’s often said in online marketing circles that “the money is in the list.”

What this means is, your most valuable business asset is the list of contacts who opt in to receive emails from you. They’re the ones who have essentially raised their hand and said, “I’m interested in what you have to say – please tell me more!”

A good email list means repeat customers, and a reliable source of traffic for your latest affiliate blog posts too!

Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to set up a basic email list – we have plenty of articles to help you evaluate the best email marketing tools.

When you build an email list, you’re telegraphing that your affiliate site isn’t just a blog – it’s a brand!


Another huge avenue for growing your new affiliate site is outreach. I feel like this takes two main forms:

Guest blogs/PR. Do outreach and find complementary blogs, podcasts, websites, YouTube channels, social influencers, and publications that you can use to promote your site. This can even include competitors!

Community engagement. Find places where your target audience congregates. This may include LinkedIn, Facebook Groups, subreddits on Reddit, Medium, Quora, Slack channels… Get creative!

Once you find a spot where you know your ideal readers live, get active in these forums so they come to know and trust you. You’ll earn faithful blog readers by establishing your credibility and developing those relationships.

Pay Per Click Advertising

Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising is best reserved for once you have a product to sell, because spending money on ads is a serious endeavor. If you have an affiliate product that you’ve seen proven success with, that’s when it might be time to set up a landing page and start pushing people to it from pay per click ad platforms like Facebook Ads, Google Ads, and so on.

If you can continue to grow a strong website with quality content while incorporating these brand-building methods, your affiliate site is sure to prosper!

Step 7 Action Item: Execute one of the above brand-building approaches for your affiliate site.

Affiliate Marketing Wrap-up

I hope this step-by-step affiliate marketing guide has pointed you in the right direction for your online business. There’s a lot to learn, but it’s definitely a journey worth taking.

Conceptually, it’s not too difficult to wrap your mind around affiliate marketing, but let’s be real: you’ll have to work both hard AND smart to be one of the few who makes a substantial passive income. Hopefully, you now have the tools you need to make it happen!

If you’re interested in learning more, we have plenty of additional content about blogging and affiliate marketing right here on We Are the Curious!

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