How to Start an Affiliate Program for Your Online Course Business

How to Start an Affiliate Program for Your Business

While there are many ways to generate leads and sales for your online course business, affiliate marketing is one of the most effective.

Whether you want to acquire your first 100 students or scale your business, affiliate marketing can help you achieve your goals.

As the Partner Marketing at StationX, I manage the affiliate program for our training platform, have worked with hundreds of affiliates, and grown the program into a major sales channel for our business.

I have created this in-depth guide to show you step-by-step how to start an affiliate program for your business.

This guide is full of actionable strategies, proven frameworks, as well as copy-paste templates that will come in handy in creating and growing your affiliate program.

Let’s get started.

What is Affiliate Marketing and Why Use It?

Affiliate marketing is the process of getting others to promote your products on their websites, Youtube channels, emails, etc., in exchange for a financial incentive.

Affiliates use special links (affiliate links) in these promotions to drive traffic to your website and funnels. When someone clicks on one of these referral links, a cookie is applied so that their actions/conversions are tracked.

Ultimately, when someone buys a product (enrolls in a course) after clicking an affiliate link, the affiliate is paid a fixed amount or a certain percentage of the sale amount as commission.

Affiliate marketing is a type of performance marketing, so you need to pay your affiliates only after driving a successful sale.

What is affiliate marketing and how it works?

Having said that, launching and growing an affiliate program doesn’t require you to make a significant investment, making it ideal for small business owners with a low budget.

For instance, if you’re just starting out, running ads on Google and Facebook might be too expensive for you, especially if you’re in a competitive niche. In this case, affiliate marketing would be a better option.

Another great thing about affiliate promotions is that you can get results much quicker than any other organic marketing strategy.

You don’t need to build an audience from scratch; rather, the affiliates provide a “ready-made” audience for your online course promotions.

All this combined makes affiliate marketing one of the most scalable marketing strategies that exist. It allows you to scale your business at minimum cost and maximum speed.

Top reasons for starting an affiliate program for your online courses

So, you shouldn’t be surprised at all when I tell you that 81% of brands rely on the affiliate channel to market their products and services.

It makes even more sense to leverage affiliate marketing strategy as a course creator because you’re selling a digital product and don’t really need to ramp up your operations to meet greater demand.

Plus, there are little incremental costs involved in selling courses, so you can afford to pay higher commissions to get affiliates to promote your products harder.

Overall, affiliate marketing is the most effective way to market online courses. If you can establish a successful affiliate program, you can focus on course creation and delivery while someone else takes care of selling them.

In the following steps, I’ll show you exactly how to start an affiliate program for your business.

1. Set Up Your Affiliate Program

Setting up your affiliate program comes down to two steps: Choosing your affiliate platform and deciding on commissions. Let’s go over each in more detail below!

Choose an Affiliate Platform

The first option is joining an affiliate marketplace — a third-party platform where people who sell products and affiliates link up. The platform acts as a middleman between the two parties and takes care of everything involved in the process.

So, affiliate marketplaces usually offer all the features you need to:

  • Manage affiliate applications
  • Handle their tax forms
  • Track affiliate purchases
  • Calculate commissions
  • Make payments

More importantly, these platforms have a large network of affiliates registered on their platform, making it easy for you to find and recruit new affiliates.

For example, ClickBank has over 12,000 vendors and 100,000 affiliates registered on the platform and is one of the best affiliate networks for promoting digital products

You can create an affiliate program on a network like ClickBank

Similarly, ShareASale is another popular affiliate network with 15,000+ brands and 200,000+ affiliates. There are dozens of affiliate networks like these, and you can see a list of the best ones here.

While affiliate marketplaces make it easier for you to kickstart your affiliate program, the costs involved make it a not-so-feasible option for many online creators.

For example, ShareASale charges a one-time setup fee of $550 plus 20% of the commission you pay to your affiliates as a transaction fee.

ShareASale charges a one-time setup fee as well as a transaction fee.

Then, you must also consider the costs involved at your end in the complicated setup and integration process.

Another thing that bothers a lot of creators is the lack of control.

With affiliate networks, you don’t own the platform, so you have to abide by their terms, conditions, and guidelines for content, and new offers and creatives generally need to be approved before they can go live.

Is there an alternative?

The other option is to create an affiliate program on your own terms using an affiliate software.

Firstly, all online course platforms offer inbuilt affiliate tools.

Whether you are using an all-in-one platform like Kajabi or a standalone course platform like Thinkific, they have inbuilt tools to help you set up and manage your affiliate program.

Secondly, if you use sales funnel software like Kartra or ThriveCart, it also has inbuilt affiliate marketing tools.

Otherwise, if you want more powerful affiliate tracking and reporting features, go with a specialized affiliate marketing tool like Rewardful.

Rewardful is one of the most popular affiliate software

Starting an affiliate program outside a marketplace is better for most people. Having the freedom to go by your terms and conditions generally means more profit and no third-party commissions.

Decide Your Commission Structure

Once you determine the approach and platform for your affiliate program, you need to decide what percentage commission to offer your affiliates.

The affiliate commission rates vary depending on your niche and the type of program you’re selling. Consider these factors when deciding affiliate commission rates:

  • Your competitors’ affiliate rates: How much are your competitors paying in affiliate commissions? You should always match or exceed your competitors’ commission rates.
  • The product type: Are you selling a low-cost frontend offer to build your customer list, or are you selling a signature course to generate revenue?
  • Your gross profit margin: Your affiliate commission should not exceed this.
  • The promotions & discounts you offer: Take your current and future promotions into account while deciding your affiliate commission rate.

I’ve seen creators offering affiliate commissions as low as 10% for online courses, but I would recommend giving a higher commission.

You’re selling a digital product (an online course), and you have no cost of replication, so I recommend setting a minimum affiliate commission of 30%.

At StationX, we offer a 40% commission on everything, even though the industry average would be around 20%. This has been one of the main reasons behind the success of our affiliate program.

And if you want to stand out from the competition, you can even set your affiliate commission rate as high as 50%.

For instance, Amy Porterfield offers a 50% commission to all affiliates for promoting Digital Course Academy. As a result, she attracts some of the top affiliates in the industry to promote the program.

Amy Porterfield offers 50% commission for Digital Course Academy

Another important decision you need to make is whether your affiliate program should be open for all or an invite-only program.

I like opening the invite to all more as it makes it easy for the potential affiliates to come to you, allowing you to reach a wider audience of affiliates.

I would just have some sort of a vetting process to determine if someone is a right fit for the program or not.

You should make sure that your affiliate:

  • Operates in the same niche or a related niche as yours
  • Has sort of an online presence (website, Youtube channel, social media, etc.)
  • Doesn’t look spammy or isn’t unnecessarily controversial

Finally, you need to create a public affiliate page to share all the information about your affiliate program. From there, affiliates can enter their details on a signup page.

Example of an affiliate sign up form from StationX

Once you set up your affiliate program, it’s time to move on to the next and most critical step of your affiliate marketing journey, a.k.a finding affiliate partners who actually have an audience and can help you drive results.

2. Find and Recruit Affiliates

The success of your affiliate program depends on your ability to find true advocates for your brand — people who believe in your product and are ready to put in the effort to drive sales.

Unless you have an established company, it’s not very likely that people will reach out regarding your affiliate program on their own. So you’ll have to find potential affiliates, reach out to them, and get them to work with you.

Let’s look at how to find new affiliates for your online course effectively.

Identify Your Competitors’ Affiliates

This is my favorite strategy. The idea is to find affiliates currently promoting the competition’s products and convince them to promote yours (a.k.a, steal your competitor’s affiliates).

I’ll show you how to do this in three easy steps.

Step 1: Make a list of competitors with an affiliate marketing program. You’ll need to use your niche knowledge as well as do some research.

Step 2: Figure out how each competitor’s affiliate link looks like. You can do this by finding a couple of affiliates and analyzing their affiliate links.

For example, one of StationX’s competitors is a popular learning platform called Pluralsight.

With some research using Google, we could identify a couple of their affiliates, and when we analyzed their affiliate links, we noticed that all the affiliate URLs started with pluralsight.pxf.io.

Step 3: Put this URL in an SEO tool like Ahrefs to see a list of websites that link to your competitor using the affiliate links.

Find sites linking using the affiliate link using Ahrefs

This approach works exceptionally well because you know these affiliates are already involved in your niche, making your courses much more relevant to their audience.

Find Popular Blogs in Your Niche

Another effective way to recruit affiliates for your program is to find top blogs in your niche, and you can do that by simply researching.

Let’s say I want to find affiliates for our cybersecurity training platform. I would search for keywords like:

  • How to start a career in cybersecurity
  • How to learn ethical hacking
  • Top cybersecurity certifications
Find top blogs using Google for affiliate outreach

These are the websites ranking on the first page for your keyword, so we know that they’re popular blogs and get traffic.

You should spend time analyzing these websites to make sure they are right for your affiliate program. Here are some simple questions for qualifying the websites:

  • Does the website get traffic?
  • Does the website promote any products in the same niche?
  • Does the website already monetize using affiliate marketing?
  • Is the website not monetized at all?

You can also use this strategy to find popular Youtube channels, Facebook Groups, niche forums, etc., basically, any platform with an audience.

For instance, to find Youtube channels in your niche, go to Youtube.com and search using the same keywords. Then, again, go through the list and similarly qualify the channels.

Find affiliates through Youtube

You should have a list of potential affiliates for your online course. Now, it’s time to do some outreach!

Reach Out to Potential Affiliates

The best way to reach affiliates is via email. In a short and sweet email, introduce yourself, pitch your online course, and simply ask them if they want to partner.

But how do you find affiliates’ emails?

You have three options:

Option #1: Many websites mention a contact email address on the homepage, “Contact Us” page, or even the “About Us” page. If you find an email on one of these pages, you can use that email for your outreach.

Option #2: If there is no email address on the contact page, you can use a tool like Hunter.io to find it.

Hunter.io can help you find email contact for potential affiliates

Hunter.io gives you 50 free searches before moving you to a paid plan. It doesn’t always come up with an email address, though.

And sometimes, it gives you the email of someone in the company that can’t help you with affiliate program stuff. In this case, ask them to direct you to someone who can.

Option #3: If the contact page doesn’t have an email address, and you can’t find anything on Hunter.io, leave your message in the contact form.

This isn’t as effective as sending an email directly as they probably have a folder where all inquiries from the contact page go, and you can get lost in the many inquiries they receive.

However, it’s still worth a shot.

Sample contact form on Neil Patel's website

Now, it’s time for you to write your outreach email and press the send button.

The key is to keep the message simple and stay to the point. Plus, create a pitch to

For example, if you’re reaching out to your competitors’ affiliates, you can use a template like this:

Sample email template for affiliate outreach

On the other hand, if you’re just reaching out to bloggers/content creators, you can use a more generic pitch:

Generic pitch email template for affiliate outreach

If you would like access to these templates, you can download them here.

Keep in mind that these are just sample templates, and remember to always personalize emails by using their name and making sure what you’re sending is relevant to them.

Also, make sure to use a clear subject line so that the potential affiliate can recognize the purpose of your email.

The subject line could say “Affiliate Name <> Your Brand Name” or “Idea for Business Collaboration,” something along those lines.

Finally, you must always follow up on your outreach emails. People are busy and may save your email for later, then forget. Sometimes they may need a small push.

If you’re a part of an affiliate marketplace like ClickBank or ShareASale, searching your network is the best place to start. Then, you can analyze the top affiliates in a specific category and invite them to join your program. Most marketplaces have some sort of inbuilt messaging system which you can use to reach out to your target affiliates.

Tap Into Your Customer Base

An existing customer base is a place many marketers overlook. However, people who have already taken your courses know your product best and can be great ambassadors for your brand.

So, you should take the opportunity to hire them as affiliates and tap into their networks.

According to a study, 93% of people trust recommendations from friends and family. Therefore, encouraging your customers to spread the word can be a highly effective strategy.

So, why not reach out to them and see if they’d be willing to join your referral program?

For example, if you teach a florist design course, most of your students are likely part of some sort of a network of florists (e.g., a Facebook Group, a niche community, etc.). And some may have an active presence on social media and even a blog of their own.

A lot of top marketers use this strategy for recruiting affiliates. So, I enrolled in the Pinterest Traffic Avalanche course, and at the end of the course, the authors invited everyone to join their affiliate marketing program.

Alex and Lauren tap into their customer base for recruiting affiliates

With this strategy, the idea is to recruit someone genuinely happy with your product and looking to make some money. These people can be your biggest brand advocates who trust your product, believe in your brand, and are happy to share it with others.

There are many other ways to recruit affiliates for your brand and this video lists a few of them.

3. Get Affiliates to Promote Your Course

Recruiting affiliate marketers is only half the battle. The other half is getting them to promote your online courses actively.

A typical affiliate marketer promotes several different products, so it’s important to keep them engaged and communicate constantly.

Onboard Your Affiliates Properly 

This is where affiliates get acquainted with your program. An effective affiliate onboarding includes communication, guidance, and support from the moment they sign up to their last sale involving your online course.

Onboarding is a crucial part of every affiliate program because how you onboard affiliates will directly impact their success with the program.

To start with, you should send your affiliates a welcome email with details on how they can access their affiliate dashboard, find their affiliate links, and access the swipe and graphics.

Moreover, you should communicate all the program details, including commissions, cookie length, payouts, and terms of service.

Here’s the welcome email we send to our affiliates at StationX:

Sample onboarding email for StationX affiliates

However, onboarding is more than just sending a welcome email.

You should schedule regular follow-up emails to check in from time to time about their progress and if they need anything.

You can also send them congratulations emails or give a little bonus when they reach a certain milestone. This is a good way to show your appreciation for their work and motivates affiliate marketers to prioritize your product promotion.

It’s also the time to set up a communication channel so affiliates know exactly who and where to chat about topics related to the program.

Finally, it’s important to personalize your affiliate program. Each affiliate will be at a different level. Some are influencers, while others are brand new to this. Amateurs may need hand-holding support, while more experienced affiliates can be a part of the brainstorming.

Provide Affiliates With the Right Materials

Giving affiliates promotional materials to work with can boost the program’s overall performance.

Below are a few things you should provide your affiliates:

Pre-Written Content

Content mostly involves product descriptions and approved copy for emails and social media.

Writing a good copy is one of the most challenging things, so providing pre-written content is important. This is super handy for affiliates who don’t have the experience or resources to craft convincing copy.

Plus, this will make sure that your affiliates speak to your brand always. If you have many different promotional materials out there with different voices and information, you risk not being true to your brand.

Here’s the swipe copy we received for Digital Course Academy. It has pre-written emails for every campaign, making it super easy for us to promote the course.

Email swipe file for Digital Course Academy affiliate promotion

With ready-to-go templates, you choose how you want everything, and affiliates can literally copy, paste, personalize, and voilà!

Creative Assets

Another great way to get your affiliates to promote your products is to have creative assets for your top-selling products, categories, or your best-performing affiliates.

These creative assets generally include done-for-you graphics and videos for your marketing campaigns. The idea is to allow the affiliates to use them on their website, social media, and emails.

For example, if you want your affiliates to promote a webinar you’re hosting, you can provide them with pre-made banners of various dimensions.

Masterclass Graphics from Amy Porterfield

Amy Porterfield gives the affiliates graphic assets for promoting her masterclass.

This makes it easy for your affiliates to promote your products quickly and thus increases the likelihood of them actively promoting you.

Brand Guide

Your brand guidelines clearly define how affiliates can advertise your brand and products on their website.

You may touch on specifications like:

  • Brand colors, including RGB and CMYK codes
  • Logo usage
  • Fonts
  • Sizing
  • Language
  • Formatting
  • Usage permissions

And more! This is also a great way to keep everything related to your brand consistent.

Sample brand guide to share with your affiliates

You can mention information about your brand’s history, mission, values, and vision so that affiliates get to know your business better.

Create a Funnel for Your Affiliates to Promote

One of the things that we highly recommend is to allow your affiliates to promote your free offer.

First, you need to create a funnel where someone can download a lead magnet and then follow up with emails.

Then, you need to enable affiliate tracking for that funnel so the affiliates can drive traffic to the funnel and not just to your sales pages.

At StationX, we have a cyber security career guide as our lead magnet. Our affiliates can also send traffic to it, and when one of their referrals converts into a paying customer, the affiliate is rewarded for the sale.

StationX uses a lead magnet and allows affiliates to send traffic directly to it

So, if you have a free book or any other lead magnet, your affiliates can email their audience and get them to sign up for your email list, and then you do the selling on your end. You’ll see higher conversion rates in this case because of the subtle marketing.

Host an Affiliate Contest

There’s so much promotion that can come from hosting contests, and that’s the reason why top affiliate programs regularly do contests.

Affiliates will be working hard to drive sales to win that prize! And they actively help you make more sales, so why not compensate them and have a little fun?

You can hold a contest for the higher conversion rate percentage or simply tweak your ongoing affiliate program to offer more incentives and gifts to affiliates who hit certain milestones.

I participated in a contest hosted by Stu McLaren for his course affiliates. He did multiple contests during the launch period and offered thousands of dollars in incentives, and that’s one of the main reasons for the success of his affiliate launch.

Hosting a contest can be a great way to motivate your affiliates.

Here’s a checklist that you should perform before the contest’s launch:

  • Create terms and conditions for your contest that determine the eligibility of an affiliate commission.
  • Create emails and visual assets for internal purposes like landing pages or visual themes and external assets like banners, special URLs, etc.
  • Create a calendar to mark when you need to notify affiliates about upcoming milestones or submissions, when you will announce the winners, when prizes you will award prizes, etc.
  • Allow 30 days of preparation for the contest. Anything less or more than this can often drag on and potentially cause the affiliates to lose interest.

These events are excellent for thanking your affiliates and motivating them to keep doing business with you.

BONUS TIP: Track Your Affiliate Program’s Success

It’s all worth nothing if you’re unsure of whether the affiliate program you’ve created is driving results or not. That’s why it’s crucial to track the program performance regularly.

To start with, I recommend you track a few important metrics:

  1. Affiliate clicks
  2. Number of affiliate sales actions
  3. Conversion rate
  4. Incremental revenue
  5. Cost per click and cost per sale
  6. Percent of active affiliates
  7. Top affiliates and their total sales
  8. Reversed sales rate or chargeback rate

Tracking these metrics will make sure everything aligns with your goals, and you’re on the right path to growing your affiliate program to be as large and profitable as you want.

For example, if you see you have many inactive affiliates, you can check in on them and ask if they’re missing anything (could be more materials).

The good thing is that you don’t have to track everything on your own. Your affiliate program platform should have a dashboard where you can see all the data in one place and, if required, even export it.

This is what Kajabi’s top affiliates report looks like:

Kajabi’s top affiliates report

Here you can see how much revenue they’ve brought in, their last sale, how many conversions, their commission, etc.

When you track your affiliate program’s performance, you will obviously point out some aspects that aren’t working in your favor. It’s normal to make adjustments to your program, but your affiliates must be aware of the changes.

Conclusion

We’ve covered step-by-step how to start an affiliate program for your online course business in this guide. There’s no doubt affiliate marketing can help you attract your target customers and expand your business.

To run a successful affiliate program, you need to follow your steps carefully and check your progress along the way. Here’s a quick recap of what we learned in this article:

  • Choose the right platform to set up an affiliate program for your business.
  • Recruit affiliates who are genuinely interested in selling your courses.
  • Offer exciting offers and bonuses, run contests, etc.
  • Always check your program’s progress.

If you’re new to selling online courses, we hope this information will help you make the most powerful affiliate program and drive sales for your business.

Have you ever used affiliate marketing for promoting your business? What strategies did you use for hiring new affiliates? Please let us know in the comments section below.

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