Affiliate Marketing Publisher Guide for 2021 – All You Need to Know

Everything you’ll need to know from starting out as a publisher to the future of affiliate marketing.

Affiliate marketing’ is a term you’ll hear thrown around a lot in the digital space and yet you may not understand what it actually means. It’s been around for a long while online and has proven to stand the test of time. You may be asking yourself, what is it really? Is it for you? And most importantly, how can you do it well? 

In this Affiliate Marketing Publisher Guide, we’ll cover what affiliate marketing is, how it works, the differences between ‘affiliates’ and ‘merchants’ and the different ways to generate income as an affiliate. We’ll also discuss the future of affiliate marketing, how profitable it can be, and offer you some insider tips to get you started as an affiliate.

What is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a form of marketing whereby an affiliate  (also known as a publisher) generates awareness and sales for a merchant (also known as a brand or an advertiser) and is subsequently awarded commission for the sales they make.

The way in which they go about creating their sales differs, which we’ll cover later on, but the most important factor in affiliate marketing is that the publisher acts as a middle man between the product or service and the end consumer. 

A publisher may be able to reach audiences in a way that the advertiser couldn’t or wouldn’t achieve alone, generating more sales through the awareness they create. 

Some publishers consider affiliate marketing a passive income stream, as other than the initial set-up, they don’t have to change what they’re doing to begin generating revenue. This is certainly true in some cases, particularly if the publisher already has an engaged and dedicated audience. Having said this, at ShareASale we view affiliate marketing as something that is constantly evolving and therefore there are always new ways to adapt and improve your marketing program to maximize profit for yourself and the merchants you choose to work with.

Essentially, affiliate marketing is a digital form of traditional word of mouth marketing. A merchant creates a valuable product and a publisher tells their friends (followers, visitors, subscribers or email list) about it.

How does it work?

Depending on the type, publishers generally make a recommendation or promote a merchant’s product or service to their own audience, with a particular link to the product page or advertiser website. That link, also known as a deeplink, is specific to the publisher and can be used by the merchant to track the number of clicks and sales their link has generated. The publisher is then paid a fee by the retailer as a reward for creating awareness and assisting in the sale. This fee may be in the form of a fixed payment, or as a percentage of the final sale amount made.

As a first time publisher, you’ll have to join an affiliate network, request to join merchant programs on the network, select products or services to promote and create your own affiliate deeplinks. It may sound complicated, but we can help you with all of that. 

Who is a publisher in affiliate marketing?

In affiliate marketing, there are no restrictions on who a publisher can be. An individual or business of any size who wants to maximze their existing audience or create new revenue streams can become a publisher. Publishers may use a website, blog, social media and other digital networks to encourage sales or traffic to an advertiser’s service or product. 

Essentially, a publisher is running an advertisement for the advertiser, but this ad can be packaged in a range of different ways. 

Different publishers have diverse approaches to speaking with their audience and as such, an advertiser may need a variety of publishers to assist them in communicating to an array of market segments. 

What is a merchant in affiliate marketing?

A merchant is a brand or business with a transactional website, who are looking to reach new audiences through creating partnerships with publishers. Their goal is to create more brand reach and ultimately, sales for their business.

Affiliate marketing is often one very valuable part of a larger marketing strategy. Therefore, it’s important for retailers to find suitable and vetted publishers to promote their brand, service or product.

A merchant can also place parameters around how their desired offering can be promoted. For example, only certain images can be used, or selected words that should not be mentioned. Additionally, merchants are able to approve and invite publishers that they would like to work with to their affiliate program. This allows retailers the control to decide where their brand is featured and on which publisher platforms.

The difference between a merchant and a publisher?

Though they both wish to increase sales and maximise profit, the advertiser is the one who owns the brand, product or service. The publisher is a suitable promoter of the product, who creates traffic to the advertiser’s website through consumers clicking on their publisher-specific links. 

What is an affiliate advertiser?

An affiliate network is where all these things come together. You may also hear affiliate networks referred to as an affiliate marketplace. 

At ShareASale we connect driven publishers with relevant brands and businesses. Through our easy-to-use platform, both end users can come to suitable agreements, which in turn create long-standing and mutually beneficial partnerships.

Networks such as ours have a dedicated platform where advertisers can notify a wide range of publishers about their available affiliate programs. Publishers can review these programs and available products from many different retailers and decide which could be suitable for their audience.

We assist advertisers to create specific links for the publishers they’re working with and then track all the necessary data to enable both parties to review and analyse their performance in order to make informed decisions going forward.

Different types of affiliate publishers

As previously mentioned, there are different ways for a publisher to approach their affiliate marketing. Often, but not always, a publisher requires a website to begin working with affiliate programs. However, there are now other digital spaces and platforms where affiliate marketing is not only possible but can see a great return on investment. By investment here, we don’t just mean money, it can also mean the time and effort put into creating clickable content. 

Website owners 

This is the most general overall type of affiliate publisher. Webmasters are quite simply website owners. This term can also be used to refer to website creators, who may assist a publisher in creating a site they can use for their marketing efforts. They may place deeplinks on their websites in the form of banner ads, create content and blog pages or form subsequent websites that lead through to an advertiser’s website. 

Search affiliates 

Search affiliates will often employ a further step in their affiliate marketing strategy to garner leads. This can mean using Search Engine Optimization (SEO), creating Google Ads, Facebook Ads and other paid advertising to push their audience into a sales funnel, leading to the advertiser’s product. This method can be very beneficial; however, there are some factors to remember. 

It’s important to note that as a search affiliate, you’ll often incur the advertising cost yourself. Here you’ll need to calculate your Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) to ensure you’ll still be making a profit on the payment made to you from the advertiser per sale you create. Don’t get confused with Cost Per Click (CPC) on your ads, as a click may not necessarily convert into a sale and you could lose money if that consumer purchase is not actually made. You should also be aware that some advertisers don’t allow paid ads to their products, as they may compete with their own marketing strategies. 


Blogging is an excellent and very popular style of affiliate marketing. These days blogs can take many forms and bloggers often have niche audiences who are very dedicated to their content. This is where affiliate marketing can thrive. 

Bloggers create content in which they share their thoughts and opinions. Though over the past few years there has been a large-scale awareness of audiences’ understanding that they are being ‘sold to’, blogging is still seen as a sincere form of online communication. There is a level of trust between a blogger and their audience, which can flow through to an advertiser and their product, given the correct placement. 

As is true across all walks of life, trust is something that is difficult but rewarding to build. This is especially true for brands who are trying to market to an audience who have a level of marketing awareness scarcely seen before. Consumers now want to feel a level of authenticity from the companies they choose to purchase from and having someone they already trust advocate for a brand can bridge that gap toward trust a lot sooner than the advertiser may have been able to achieve alone. 

Voucher Sites 

Vouchers have always been a popular form of marketing. A large portion of consumers are driven by price points and the knowledge that they are receiving an offer or discount can encourage them further to make that all-important sale. 

Voucher sites work with multiple advertisers and consumers to create or push discount codes. Some sites work with their passionate user base providing the site with voucher codes they know work, whereas other sites work with the advertisers directly to use their chosen codes. Some do a combination of both. Most importantly the links the publisher uses to push the consumer through to the site are affiliate links and are tracked. 

This can be very beneficial to an advertiser as some consumers will make purchases from sites over others purely for a financial benefit and having their brand placed on a platform such as this exposes it to these consumers. 

Some advertisers attempt to separate themselves from this style of marketing as they view it as devaluing their brand, which it has the ability to do. Having said this, in some instances using voucher site publishers still increases traffic and awareness as well as pushing up their profit further than it would have been without it. Direction on brand alignment and profitability assessment is something that is very important to think about when working with or as a voucher site. 

Review Sites 

A popular way to become a publisher is to create a review site that is purely focused on reviewing products and brands. As previously mentioned, consumers now have a level of awareness about brands marketing directly to them and instead will look to have their peers provide advice on where they should be spending their money. 

Consumers don’t necessarily need to know the person giving the reviews to view them as valuable in their purchasing decision, though that level of trust certainly does help. Platforms like TripAdvisor and Yelp use this model to power their entire business, so it can be a valuable way to market products. 

As a publisher, creating a review site or simply contributing to a review site can be an extremely profitable way to promote your links to a market that is already willing to make a purchase. If a person is researching reviews for a product or service they’re primed to buy, they are already towards the bottom of the sales funnel and are just hoping for someone to send them in the right direction. 

Email Marketing 

Email marketing has existed for almost as long as email has existed. When Ray Tomlinson invented the email in 1971, we’re sure he didn’t intend for it to be used as a mass marketing system. However, the first-ever email marketing style message was sent out in 1978 and due to the sheer novelty of this type of message, it is said to have subsequently generated $13 million. The rest is history. 

These days consumers are used to being advertised to via email marketing. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. Though people are open to receiving email advertising, it can be difficult to make a cut through the noise. Some publishers and other marketers spend great time and energy building a great email list and nurturing those readers into becoming valuable customers. 

Advertisers may have their own email marketing list already, but accessing a publisher who has developed their own unique list can mean exposing their brand to new customers and potential buyers. 

Social Media 

There is much conversation around affiliate marketing on social media. As the term ‘influencer marketing’ has arisen over the last few years, we have seen growth in the value that this type of publisher can add to the affiliate marketing industry. 

Though in a traditional sense the two differ, this is still a great way for a publisher, influencer or otherwise, to get their affiliate links out in front of their followers. Some social media platforms don’t allow for clickable links to be placed in their content in order to reduce users from leaving their platform. However, there are some social media platforms where publishers can create their own posts or recommend their links on the popular posts of others. We’ve put together this handy guide on where affiliate links can be used across different social media 

Is affiliate marketing profitable for publishers?

In short, there’s no limit to what you can potentially earn as a publisher. However, this doesn’t mean that all publishers will be profitable. 

Some affiliate networks will lead you to believe it’s incredibly simple to be an affiliate marketer. That you’ll simply sign up and be able to quit your day job and make six figures annually, very quickly. While this is certainly possible, at ShareASale we believe there is an art to affiliate marketing, which involves long term strategies.

Although we provide a platform that completely simplifies the affiliate process for publishers and merchants alike, marketing is a skill, which takes time to develop. This is something you should consider when deciding whether or not to become a publisher.

Building an engaged audience takes consideration too, but it’s certainly possible to achieve. Of course, if you already have some form of an established audience, the world is your oyster when it comes to affiliate marketing. With so many advertisers looking to promote their products and work with profitable publishers, there’s bound to be products that will suit your niche. You just have to use an affiliate network like ours to find the right one. 

A great publisher needs to understand their audience and create partnerships that truly benefit the end-user. There’s no point in being a vegan blogger and attempting to partner with a fast-food burger company, it doesn’t align with your intended audience and they will see straight through this. Trust will be lost on all fronts and this benefits no one. 

Will affiliate marketing still work in 2021?

It won’t just work, it’ll thrive. 

In the US alone, affiliate marketing was estimated to be a $6.8 billion industry in 2020. Though the market is constantly evolving and changing, there’s certainly no sign of it slowing down into 2021 and beyond. As the ability to track specific aspects of online transactions is further developed, the industry is set to become even more targeted and the possibilities to turn data into profit will increase. 

We have seen a steadying of users implementing ad blockers in their online behavior lately. However, this does not necessarily mean that cookie disabling, which can impact vital tracking within affiliate marketing, is coming to an end. Instead, we need to find solutions to the ever-changing rules and regulations that browsers subject upon their users.

It’s almost a certainty that we’ll see an increase in voice search. Google, Amazon and other tech giants are focusing on these areas. As such, marketers and publishers creating content compatible with this type of search could see an upturn in sales. To differentiate your content in this space, it’s valuable to consider how people speak a question as opposed to how people type a question. 

Even with popular social media platforms moving toward hiding likes and followers in an effort to remove the perceived social pressures surrounding them, influencer marketing is still on the rise. This shows that consumers are still looking for the kind of advice and guidance when making a purchase that affiliate marketing can provide. 

This also ties into where a particular publisher falls within the customer’s journey. Though in the past the final click in the sale process was rewarded, the future will see affiliates who fit into the earlier stages of the buying process, such as the awareness stage, rewarded more fairly for their efforts. Having said this, it’s important that this influence can be tracked and backed up with data – a section of the industry we’re sure to see developed in 2021 and beyond. 

How to start as an affiliate marketing publisher

To get yourself started it’s best to join an affiliate marketing network, such as ShareASale. Navigating the world of merchants alone can be overwhelming, but with platforms like ours the whole process is completely simplified for you, with plenty of support resources

It’s important to consider whether you’ll be building your audience from the ground up or whether you already have an audience you can utilize. If you are starting from scratch, you have a great opportunity to research which niche best suits you and your knowledge base. We advise that you look for areas that are evergreen, rather than trendy topics that might be a flash in the pan. 

Affiliate networks, especially good quality ones, like to see that you are communicating with a specific target audience and in doing so are building an online community. Quality leads are more beneficial as affiliate marketing isn’t only about reaching every corner of the internet. 

If you already have an established audience, then focus on searching for the affiliate programs that best suit you and your readers or viewers. This is a relatively simple process when using a professional platform. For example, ShareASale has a merchant search tool that allows its publishers to filter and search for relevant brands to partner.

Once you have applied to become a publisher and received your approval, this is when the exciting part starts. Through an experienced and supportive affiliate network, you can really hone your craft in the affiliate marketing world; creating exponential growth and passive income for yourself and your chosen advertisers. At ShareASale we try to continuously provide value and feedback to our publishers to help everyone succeed together and we hope to partner with you on this journey.

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