Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

How to Start an Affiliate Marketing Program for Your Ecommerce Brand Today

When Ben Francis was starting up his small sportswear brand, he didn’t have the budget of Nike or Under Armour. He couldn’t sponsor top athletes or even get a meeting with top influencers.

Instead, he sent some products and an affiliate link to a small YouTuber named Lex Griffin to do a review. Francis couldn’t offer Griffin any money upfront, so he offered a commission for a percentage of the sales referred.

An early GymShark outfit review from Lex Fitness.

Five years later, Lex Fitness has over 1 million subscribers. He is one of many Gymshark Athletes, content creators who also serve as brand ambassadors. And Ben Francis has built Gymshark into a billion-dollar D2C brand.

That’s the power of affiliate marketing.

Wanna know more? Let’s go through how you can use affiliate marketing to get more customers for your ecommerce brand.

First up, what is affiliate marketing?

Chances are you’ve already been exposed to affiliate marketing on the internet; maybe even today.

Remember the podcast you listened to with an ad in the middle? Or the last YouTube video you watched with a sponsor? That unique discount code or the special link is likely from an affiliate marketing program. When you make a purchase with the code or via the link, the affiliate will earn some commission.

An affiliate marketing program is a marketing strategy where a brand works with affiliates to drive sales.

Wait. How is that different from a referral program or influencer marketing?

Good question! Here’s how we distinguish them:

  • Affiliate marketing: Affiliates create videos, publish review articles, or post on social media about your products in exchange for a commission for the sales they generate. Think of your affiliates like a combination between a sales team and your spokespersons.
  • Referral program: Referrers like your products and want to share them with their friends. They are your most loyal customers, and maybe even super-fans. They want more of your products or a discount on their next purchase.
  • Influencer marketing: Influencers are usually paid to post promotional content for their followers to see. These days, influencers are more like human billboards.

Of course, in reality, the lines are a little blurry. Your affiliates can be influencers or ordinary folks like me who recommend products to friends.

The biggest difference is who is doing the posting. Your friend posting about their new Evolve Skateboard is likely to be a customer referral program. If your friend is Selena Gomez, posting a selfie with Coca-Cola to 200 million followers, that’s influencer marketing. If you watch Nikki Blackketter’s YouTube channel and see a Gymshark review, that’s affiliate marketing.

Doesn’t matter if it’s Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube – it’s about who is doing the posting.

Affiliate marketing is a powerful channel. It is estimated that 4 out of 5 brands use affiliate marketing, while in the United States alone, affiliate marketing is a $7.4 billion industry.

The key characteristic of affiliate marketing is that you only pay affiliates for the sales they generate for you – which means that affiliates are incentivized to create content that generates sales or present your product in the best light.

As you research more on affiliate marketing, you will likely come across affiliate agencies or affiliate networks. In general, they are more suited for big brands with huge budgets. For example, CJ Affiliate charges about $6,500 to set up an affiliate program and takes 30% of sales through their affiliates.

If you’re running your own ecommerce store, an affiliate marketing app is usually all you need. And it is a lot more affordable. (ReferralCandy starts at $49 per month.)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how to start an affiliate marketing program.

How to start an affiliate marketing program that works

You can get your affiliate marketing program up in just three steps:

1. Decide the terms of the program

The important things to think through are:

  • Affiliate commission: The amount of commission your affiliates will receive from sales they generate
  • Offer value: The discount your affiliates can offer to their audience
  • Payment terms: The timing of your payment to the affiliates
  • Validity & exclusions: Any other details to consider. For example, sale items or discount items may not be eligible for commission

You can make your affiliate commission and offer value more attractive by using the Rule of 100. If your product costs more than $100, offer a flat discount amount (e.g. $30 off). If your product costs less than $100, offer a percentage discount amount (e.g. 15% off). For more details, you can also check out our handy guide on referral program incentives.

Calculate the affiliate commission and offer value carefully to avoid making a loss on products sold. You can also experiment with different amounts to see which is most effective in driving affiliate sales.

But note that affiliates take payment terms seriously because it is revenue for their work. If you miss a payment or pay late, they may warn other affiliates away from you.

Once you’ve figured out the mechanics of your program, you can set this up in an affiliate marketing app.

2. Pick an affiliate marketing app

Affiliate marketing apps help you set up and automate your affiliate program. In general, you want to look for apps that do the following:

  • Allow affiliates to register and enter their own details
  • Give each affiliate their unique affiliate link or discount code
  • Track the sales of each affiliate (and let the affiliates check their own performance)
  • Pay the commissions at regular intervals

There are many affiliate marketing apps out there, and we hope ReferralCandy suits you.

Here’s how you would set up the affiliate commission in ReferralCandy.

With an affiliate marketing app in place, all you’ll need to do is recruit and manage the affiliates.

3. Recruit your affiliates

Ideally, affiliates should have an audience that fits into your target customer base. Gymshark first reached out to weightlifting YouTubers, and then slowly expanded to Instagram stars and athletes from other disciplines like CrossFit and gymnastics.

MiaoMiao is a medical-technology company making continuous glucose monitors for people living with diabetes. MiaoMiao’s affiliates are a diverse bunch, from a support group for parents of children with diabetes, to people sharing their journey with diabetes. Their target audience is the same: people managing their condition while living healthier lives.

@t1d.leonor can do it! Via Instagram

You don’t have to start with a large number of affiliates; you can even just start with five. One of the advantages of an affiliate marketing program is how easy it is to scale. Once you start seeing results, you can simply scale up the program by reaching out and recruiting more affiliates.

How to find affiliates for your program is a big topic on its own. So let’s go through that in the next section.

How to find affiliates for your program

Identifying the right affiliate means you can reach a ready pool of potential new customers. For example, if you’re selling beauty and wellness products, then you’ll want to work with affiliates who create make-up tutorials and healthy lifestyle videos. Their audience is your perfect customer base: people who are invested in looking and feeling better.

Here are the key things to look out for when you’re looking out for an affiliate:

  • An existing audience: It doesn’t matter if they only have 1,000 subscribers or followers for now. Your affiliates will grow as they publish more content.
  • A regular publishing schedule: Ultimately, you want content creators who can publish regularly to reach out to new audiences for your brand
  • A business email: That shows that they have a level of professionalism and are ready to work with businesses.

Generally speaking, there are three groups of people who make great affiliates:

1. Content creators

These are affiliates who are focused on creating content for their niche audience. Revenue from affiliate marketing helps to support their content business. This also lends them credibility, since they won’t risk losing their audience to recommend a product just for money.

Cazzy Magennis writes about her travels and adventures on Dream Big, Travel Far. Cazzy also has Type 1 Diabetes and shares her advice and experiences on how she keeps herself healthy while traveling, and one of her recommendations is for Miao Miao’s smart glucose reader, which she uses herself to keep track of her blood sugar level.

Cazzy, via her blog, Dream Big Travel Far

The focus of Cazzy’s content is on her travel, adventures, and the equipment she uses for blogging and traveling. Cazzy’s affiliate link only shows up in posts about diabetes, and even then she’s careful to disclose the incentives she gets from the affiliate link. She is professional, transparent, and creates good content – an example of a great affiliate, and it’s no wonder that Miao Miao recruited her to be part of their Global Ambassadors affiliate program.

Read more about how Miao Miao runs their Global Ambassadors affiliate programs with ReferralCandy.

2. Reviewers

Dedicated review sites and channels can also be affiliates for your brand. I recently bought a backpack after checking out the review on Packhacker, a review site for—you guessed it—backpacks.

At the end of each review, there are helpful links for you to compare prices on different sites, but if you examine the links, they are all redirected through AvantLink – an affiliate network.

PackHacker also created a YouTube review, with affiliate links, of course.

Often, review sites will point to multiple products or brands in the same article. They may even point to different sales platforms (like in the example above).

3. Social media influencers

Technically, influencers are publishers of social media content. You just have to find a match between their audience and your target customers.

Dave Rich is a fitness model on Instagram with a sizable following. While he mostly posts photos of himself topless, he also shares affiliate codes for products his audiences might be interested in – sportswear, swimwear, or healthy food to fuel their fitness from Love Yourself.

Dave Rich, via Instagram.

Love Yourself runs its affiliate program using ReferralCandy. Read more here.

How to drive affiliate sales

Finally, you want to set up your affiliates for success and help them help you get affiliate sales.

You should be able to share the details of your affiliate program upfront, detail the terms and conditions somewhere, and be ready to answer questions.

Your affiliates will need a few things to get started. At the very least, they need their custom affiliate link or code to share with their audience. They will also need some marketing collateral—either copy for a podcast ad read or product images to post on their blog. Some may ask for free products or samples.

For example, Goli Nutrition, a health supplement brand, has a comprehensive dashboard for its affiliates. There is not just information about the affiliate program but also educational materials on promoting the products and ready-crafted content that can be shared immediately.

Goli makes it easy to join as an affiliate

Once your affiliate program gets going, you want to use your affiliate marketing app to keep track of your affiliate sales and adjust your program accordingly. Optimizing your affiliate program is an entire topic that we will get to next time.

How Gymshark uses affiliate marketing to drive new customers to their brand

We can’t end this article without finishing the story of Gymshark and its affiliate program. What started as a small experiment has become a massive affiliate marketing success.

Gymshark Athletes are treated like celebrities and spokespeople for the brand, being sponsored with Gymshark apparel and flown to attend offline events and meetups.

The roster continues to grow, with Gymshark naming their first Crossfit athlete and welcoming Beyant Kaur, who describes herself as a powerlifting, turban-wearing Sikh woman and mother. This helps the brand reach broader audiences, across different demographics.

Beyant Kaur announcing her appointment on Instagram

It’s reported that Gymshark is looking at expansion into the United States, so look out for more Americans being named as Gymshark Athletes.

On that note, many people aspire to become Gymshark Athletes because of their celebrity status. So much so that Ben Francis created a video detailing how he selects Gymshark athletes. He doesn’t state his criteria outright, but he coyly suggests that you stand a better chance of being selected if you wear Gymshark gear, attend Gymshark events, and post regularly in Gymshark.

It’s a savvy bit of marketing that ensures that everybody is posing and posting in Gymshark – not just official affiliates, but aspiring wannabes and fans as well. And it seems to be working, with over 10 million Instagram posts tagged with #gymshark.

A sampling of images tagged #Gymshark. None of them are Gymshark Affiliates…yet

The program has also changed and evolved over time. In 2015, using a Gymshark affiliate link would give you a 10% discount; today, using an affiliate link simply brings you to the store, and doesn’t offer any discount at all.

My guess is that Gymshark decided that the brand is now established and recognizable, and they no longer need to offer a discount to incentivize you to try the brand. Instead, you’re using the affiliate link to support the affiliates for the content they create. And the affiliate program is still driving sales and new customers to the brand.

Gymshark Athlete Nikki Blackketter sharing her affiliate link on YouTube – even on a video that has nothing to do with fitness or Gymshark!

Get started with an affiliate marketing program today!

Affiliate marketing is a fantastic channel to add to your marketing strategy. You can focus on running your business while letting affiliates grow their audience and help your brand reach new customers.

If you are looking for more examples for inspiration, check out our list of affiliate programs by top ecommerce brands. and some examples of WooCommerce brands with affiliate programs powered by ReferralCandy. And here’s a help article for how you can use ReferralCandy for your affiliate marketing program.

P.S. If you enjoyed reading this article and want to grow your ecommerce store, subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles and roundups.

Darren Foong

Darren works on Growth at ReferralCandy. He spends too much time reading fiction, performing improv, and doing things that don't scale. One day he hopes to be quite interesting.

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