Tips and Insights on Starting and Growing Your Affiliate Marketing with Shawn Collins
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In Episode 64, we continue with our series on  Affiliate Marketing and Affiliate Programs with Shawn Collins.

In the third show we are diving back into affiliate marketing. If you are considering taking the plunge, or if you are looking to grow your existing efforts, you’ll want to listen to these tips and insights from Shawn Collins. He has been an affiliate marketer for 20 years and is also co-founder of the largest affiliate marketing conference in the world, Affiliate Summit. Shawn brings a ton of knowledge to today’s show.

We chatted about:

  • Shawn’s top two tips for people who are just starting with affiliate marketing or simply trying to monetize their site
  • Perceptions around affiliate marketing
  • The know-trust-use factor for the products you are an affiliate for
  • Why niche affiliate sites work and where people should start when searching for the niche that will work for them and their audience
  • Shawn’s top three tips that were not covered in our questions

Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost


Bob Dunn: Hey, everyone. Bob Dunn here, known as BobWP on the web. Thanks for tuning in for our third show in our four-part series of affiliate marketing and affiliate programs. On today’s show, we are flipping back to affiliate marketing with our guest, Shawn Collins, long-time affiliate marketer and founder of the Affiliate Summit.

Hey, Shawn. Welcome to the show.

Shawn Collins: Now I gave the quick intro, Shawn.: Affiliate Summit. Affiliate marketer. But in a nutshell, can you tell us more about your experience in affiliate marketing and also for those who don’t know, what is the Affiliate Summit?

Meet Shawn Collins, affiliate marketer and co-founder of Affiliate Summit

Shawn Collins: Yeah, sure thing. This year marks the 20th year I’ve been an affiliate consistently. I spent about 10 years as an affiliate manager. Since 2003, we started up Affiliate Summit, myself and my partner, Missy Ward. At this point, it’s the biggest trade show and conference in the world for affiliate marketing. We’ve broadened the tent so it really includes all of marketing. Affiliates are doing everything social and search, content marketing, email, across the board, so the topics cover all of the general marketing and ways to monetize it.

In addition to the conference, we have a magazine called Feed Front that’s free in the U.S. You can get it at It comes out four times a year. It’s all people who are practitioners of all these different types of marketing that write all the content.

Bob Dunn: Cool. You know, I just have to say, I went to my first Affiliate Summit,  at the beginning of the year and what amazed me is I’ve been in the WordPress arena. That’s where my affiliates are, but going to it, it was like, “My God, I didn’t realize there were affiliates for this many things.”

Shawn Collins: Yeah, it’s a pretty much any possible vertical and eCommerce. Affiliates and just any services out there as well, all the different hosts for WordPress, all the other companies that support businesses like the domain registration and emailers and then really just anything that gathers leads for, say, insurance or education. Pretty much any company out there with a product or service can leverage affiliate marketing.

Bob Dunn: I actually sat with somebody, I believe it was during lunch, that is an affiliate marketer of credit cards. I’m like, “Oh, wow. Credit cards?” He explained the whole thing. I didn’t even know there were affiliate programs for those kind of things, so it was a real eye-opener for me.

Shawn Collins: Yeah. Not surprisingly, since it’s so prevalent across so many sites, but our site at and all our other sites are in WordPress and I guess almost across the board for affiliate marketers, it’s pretty much the only platform that people are using these days.

Shawn’s best tips for someone considering monetizing their site through affiliate marketing

Bob Dunn: Okay. Let’s dive into these questions. I’m going to start from the very beginning. Somebody may be on the brink of stepping into affiliate marketing, they understand the concept of affiliate marketing. They have their dreams. Can you give me your top two tips you have for someone considering monetizing their site through affiliate marketing?

Focus on creating quality content

Shawn Collins: This is maybe for people getting their site started, but it can apply to anybody. I’d say to focus on creating quality unique content for people, not for Google or anything or whatever. Then just reach out to your audience where they want to consume that content. Not the full content, but just a teaser on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram. Just have a lot of different entry points for people to get back to your site with that content. A lot of people aren’t going to subscribe to your email newsletter, so you want to have a lot of doors to your content.

Focus on building a list first

Then  just be patient and focus on building a list and followers before you try to monetize because if you just try to monetize out of the gate, then there’s nobody to read it, and nobody’s going to react to it and you’ll think that it doesn’t work, but it’s just because you need to have that critical mass at first.

Think contextual links, not banner ads

Finally, focus on native ads. A lot of people just think they should put banners up there, but they just have such a poor performance rate compared to having a contextually, in the content, so if you’re writing about, say, Bluehost, just highlight the word Bluehost and make that your affiliate link instead of having a big banner on the side.

Bob Dunn: It’s interesting because all three of those were something that I have experienced. I’ve been doing this probably for three, four years and then the last couple years being seriously getting into it more and more and that audience is huge. That’s one thing, which I’d already built out of prior, several years before I started doing anything. That other one, as far as contextual links, I’ve tested so many times banners and stuff and it’s just like, “Ugh.” Those contextual links are what does it, for sure. That’s huge.

Shawn Collins: Yeah, the nice thing, too, is in the event that somebody steals your content and republishes, a lot of times they don’t bother to change the links out, so they’re helping you even when they steal from you.

Done right, with white hat content, affiliate marketers are part of a reputable industry

Bob Dunn: Now, let’s talk about the affiliate marketer. Sometimes people will say, “Ohh, you’re an affiliate marketer.” They think you’re slimy. They almost put you in the same pocket with the SEO scammers and they think, “All you are after are the big bucks. That’s it.” Any thoughts?  When somebody says that, how do you respond?

Shawn Collins: I guess any area of marketing or business in general has some rogue players in there, but they’re a minority. In the case of Affiliate Summit, we have all white hat content. There are some other … I wouldn’t even say they’re conferences. just meetups or groups that get together,  that focus on black hat, but we’re all about white hat and we’re by far the biggest in the world with that. We have a lot of people focused on FTC rules and regulations and lawyers and things.

I think people notice the dirt bags that are out there who are cheating, but I would say it’s not representative in any way of the general industry.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, I think that you’re right. In any industry, you find that and stuff.  I don’t know if you watch Saturday Night Live in the old days, but they had this skit called “People Who Ruin It For Everybody Else.”

Shawn Collins: Yeah.

Should affiliate marketers only promote products they use themselves?

Bob Dunn: It was pretty funny, pretty crazy stuff. Now I know in the WordPress sector, a lot of people … I am going to stand behind every product I’m an affiliate of and they say I need to know the product, I need to trust the product, and some of them even go as far as saying they will only promote products that they use themselves. I think for the new person, they’re thinking, “Wow, do I have to use every product that I actually put on as an affiliate to stand behind it?” Big question: is this realistic?

Shawn Collins: That’s the approach that I’ve taken all these years and I think it’s the best for any kind of person who’s publishing something in their voice, like a blogger or v-logger or podcaster. I think it works best to endorse the products or services that you truly like and so then you’re building trust with the audience versus just being a mercenary for whatever the item has the biggest commission. I guess that in general you should just test things and see what performs best for you, but your audience, if you engender their trust, it’s going to sell a lot better than if you just pop up some random stuff on there.

Really, the only sites that are using the mass marketing effectively are maybe like the coupon sites where they just have every single retailer on there, but to me, it’s most effective to push the things that you like and use and oftentimes there’s tons of them. I belong to hundreds of affiliate programs, but I only actively push and make money from a dozen or so.

Bob Dunn: Okay. I’m thinking in my case, I write a lot about … Let’s say there’s a WordPress theme marketplace and I pretty much have had a great experience throughout that, working with clients and stuff, but maybe every time I mention a theme and I decide to put in an affiliate, I have not really used that theme, but I trust that company or that marketplace as a whole. Is that the same thing?

Shawn Collins: Yeah, because I guess if you’re really familiar with them and you’ve seen those themes in action, then you can speak to it. I’ve done that in the past with different theme companies and paid plugins. I’ve promoted the ones I was using and over the years, I like certain themes and I’ve moved away from them to go to other ones.

These days I’m using mostly Genesis themes, but I used Thesis and a bunch of other things in the past. At any given time, I have a favorite that I have promoted and I have all of this legacy content so somebody might go and buy a Thesis from me, one of their themes that I posted about eight years ago, so it was true at the time when I wrote about it.

Niche sites: go with what you are most passionate about

Bob Dunn: Okay. That makes sense.

Now one of the other things I noticed when I was at the Affiliate Summit, I was aware of it, but I didn’t realize the scope of it. Niche sites and affiliate marketers. Some of them that I talked to had like 100, 200 niche sites with all this affiliate marketing going on. Any tips around a starting niche site, why they work, and how people should start doing researching for their own niche? It seems to be such a huge thing in the affiliate marketing realm.

Shawn Collins: Yeah, it can certainly be lucrative if you’re trying to go massive like that, but to me I’ve always been more about focusing on the niches that I generally have an interest in. There have been so many times in the past where I would chase different fade and trends with niche sites, but I’d ultimately abandon them because they didn’t interest me. I guess a lot of these people who do a lot of landing pages without a whole lot of content behind them just to … I guess with that you can just do paid search and drive a lot of activity, but if you really want to have something that’s going to be there for the long run, I think to do this for 50 or 100 or 200 sites, it seems like a short-term play.

Bob Dunn: Let’s say somebody’s saying, “Okay, I want to do a niche site,” and they really are struggling because maybe they enjoy several different areas and they don’t want to run several different ones. Is it just boiled down to that, okay, what am I the most passionate about? What do I want to write about most or is there any other method to the madness as far as selecting your niche site?

Shawn Collins: I think, to me, the best approach is just going with whatever you’re most passionate about and when I talk to so many different advertisers and merchants, their biggest affiliates aren’t these niche sites. They’re people that are really putting so much focus on that one advertiser or merchant and the other one’s like … I’ve talked to some people who are big affiliates for a hosting companies and they’ll go out there and they’ll do a lot of professional videos on just the process of getting set up with the hosting and different techniques and tips and things. They invest a good amount of time in producing this quality content versus just trying to go mass. And they make out really well.

I think if you put out tons and tons of sites you don’t really care about, you can get a bunch of nickels and dimes, but if you want to really make the bigger money, I think it’s really best to make a quality site that you feel you want to invest in for the long term.

Shawn’s last piece of advice

Bob Dunn: Okay. We’ve touched on a few things that were on the top of my mind and I thought that people would be interested in learning more about. But since you been in this field for so long, are there any tips, anything that we haven’t talked about that is very critical, especially for those people whot are just starting to dive into affiliate marketing?

Shawn Collins: The one thing that I see that bothers me is that some people sell some kind of system or whatever on a click bank where they talk about how you can get rich quick if you just buy into their thing for $500 or $1,000. That kind of thing is just total vapor. It’s not a way to get rich quick. You might get rich slowly, but unless you have a bunch of money to invest in paid search or other ads, there’s a lot of risk—unless you already know what you’re doing. I think, if you want to be around in the future,  the key is to work on building sites organically. It takes a while to create a site that’s going to make some money.

Ultimately, persistence is the best attribute to have if you want to make some money with affiliate marketing. A bunch of years ago, a book publisher wanted me to write a book about it and I was close to doing it, but then they wanted to push it as being a get-rich-quick thing. That bothered me because, doing it myself, it took me over a year to make money back in ’97, but partly it was because I was promoting Amazon and they only had quarterly reporting. It was only by email and I was messing around, doing things wrong for half of a year before I was even seeing data about it. It can be a grind with a learning curve at first, but if you stick with it, it can really turn out to be something.

Bob Dunn: I used to put a slide up in one of my presentations that I can make money in my sleep—if I sleep three hours and work 21 hours because, although it’s great with affiliates. You do make money in your sleep in the sense that sometimes you wake up and you have received a payment.  But, on the other hand, it takes a lot of work. It takes time and it’s an ongoing thing of, okay, now I have this new product. I go back and look at previous posts. How can I incorporate that in there where it makes sense, it’s a good flow, and it adds value to that particular post? But there is a lot of strategy to it and it isn’t just … Yeah, here I’m just going to put these in and expect everybody to start clicking on ’em.

Shawn Collins: Yeah. We’ve seen a big surge over the last five years of bloggers moving over to affiliate marketing where in the past they were working with big brands and just doing the paid content stuff. They were realizing that they would get like $50 or $100 for a post from Coast Soap or something where they could monetize a lot more effectively if they were just using their own affiliate links. The same goes with AdSense. Some sites can do well with AdSense, but you can make a whole lot more if you’re catering your ads to the audience and making them contextual instead of having a box on the sidebar or something.

Bob Dunn: Well, cool. I know this is, like I said, a huge topic. I would recommend anybody who is diving into it to go to Affiliate Summit because you’ll be submerged in that subject and there are so many people there with so many experiences. I know people can find you at the upcoming Affiliate Summit, which you can tell us when that is, but also where else can people connect with you on the web?

Find Shawn on the web and learn more about Affiliate Summit

Shawn Collins: On both Facebook and Twitter I’m just Shawn Collins. S-H-A-W-N. Collins, C-O-L-L-I-N-S. Also on LinkedIn, but I don’t really spend any time there. Affiliate Summit’s going to be on July 30th to August 1st in New York City. It’s at the Marriott Marquee in Times Square. There will be about 5,500 people there from just all the players, the networks that do all the tracking and reporting, the advertisers, the affiliates, and then a lot of vendors that cater to the space. So it’s three days of all kinds of networking and information.

One thing is for anybody that’s new to it, if they’re a little bit skittish about committing money towards it, we have a scholarship program. If you go to our site in the Affiliate Summit East 2017 area, there’s a link for a scholarship. You just have to write an essay that’s about 300 words and you’ll get a pass. That gives you access to the sessions, the meals and all that.

Bob Dunn: Very cool. I think, definitely people need to check into that because if anything, at least experience it once just to see what’s going on in the field of affiliate marketing. That’s it. Some great tips from Shawn that you can take away and go on your own adventure into affiliate marketing or continue your adventure in affiliate marketing.

Thank you, Shawn, for taking the time today to join us.

Shawn Collins: Thanks a lot, Bob. I appreciate it.

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