What’s affiliate marketing?
Affiliate marketing is a type of performance-based advertising. Essentially, an advertiser will give you, the affiliate, various tools to promote or link back to their product or service. These links contain tracking codes, so that if someone makes a purchase, this purchase can be attributed to you. As an affiliate, you will then get a percentage of the sale price or margin.
Travel blogs can benefit hugely from affiliate marketing. As a so-called passive income source, it can keep generating income for your blog long after you’ve first set up the referral links. Many travel blogger focus on one-off income sources such as sponsored posts or work-for-hire, but affiliate marketing can provide a reliable additional income source that doesn’t require constant supervision or input.
My own blog, Indie Traveller, gets much of its revenue through affiliate programs. Prior to starting this blog, I also ran a video game related website for many years that was largely monetized through affiliate programs. (I’ve been an Amazon affiliate since 1998. Oof, I’m getting old!) While different things will work for different blogs, I’ll try to share some general insights with you on affiliate marketing for travel blogs.
Where to find affiliate programs
There are basically three ways to participate in affiliate programs:
1. Third-party affiliate marketplaces
This is an easy way to gain access to thousands of affiliate programs. Some of the popular marketplaces include CJ (Commission Junction), Affiliate Window, Shareasale, and Avantlink. These platforms act as a broker between publishers (that’s you!) and advertisers. You sign up to the marketplace first, then you can browse their directories of advertisers and apply to programs you believe are a fit for your blog. This is an excellent way to get started with affiliate marketing.
2. In-house affiliate programs
Some affiliates don’t work with an intermediary but have their own internal system for managing an affiliate program. Probably the most famous example of this is Amazon, though most travel booking sites also have their own internal affiliate system which you have to sign up for through their own website.
Sometimes a company might have their own affiliate system while also being part of one or more affiliate marketplaces—in this case, check the terms of each program and see which one might be most advantageous to you.
3. Automated affiliate links
Services such as Viglink or Skimlinks can automatically add affiliate links to your site. All you have to do is add a piece of code to your blog and then affiliate links will be inserted on the fly. While this means less manual work for you, these services often generate much less revenue. They take a significant cut of your commissions, and their links tend to be much less targeted or effective than ones you can create by hand.
Things to look for
Some affiliate programs may sound amazing at first but may be much less profitable in practice. There are a couple of things to look out for when evaluating their program terms:
– What’s the referral window? Many programs work with cookies. For instance, they might set a 30-day cookie, meaning that if someone clicks your affiliate link and makes a purchase within 30 days, it will still count as a referral. These are great programs because you’ll get credited even if the user doesn’t buy straight away! Some affiliates only set a 1-day cookie while others are even based on session only, meaning the user has to make a purchase only there-and-then for you to receive any commission. These are the trickiest programs to make money with. (Sadly, several hotel booking affiliates switched from cookie to session based tracking in recent years.)
– Are commissions flat or percentage-based? Some programs give you a flat commission for every sale. For example, Booking.com’s program on CJ typically awards a flat $15 per booking regardless of how much the user actually spent. Other programs give you a percentage of the total sale, or a percentage of the margin. Keep in mind the difference between these two! A 70% commission on the margin for a flight might sound like a lot but won’t amount to a hill of beans. (In practice it might be under 1% of the purchase price.) Many programs give you somewhere between 4 and 10% of the total purchase price as commission. Occasionally a program is much more generous: udemy gives you 50% of the purchase price on their video courses, for example.
– Are there any performance tiers? Some programs give you a higher commission if you send the more business. Amazon’s commissions for example range from 4% to 10% depending on how many purchases are made in a month.
– Is it PPC or CPS (cost per sale)? Most affiliate programs give you a commission only once a user has made a purchase (this is called CPA or CPS). A few, such as HotelsCombined, do so already when the user has clicked to their site (PPC).
Often the best way to assess the revenue potential of a program is to simply try things out. But it does help to be aware of some of these variables, as they can explain why some programs perform amazingly well for you while others might not be so hot.
Depending on your type of travel blog you might favor different programs. If you’re a budget-focused travel blog, Booking.com’s $15 flat commission probably sounds pretty good. If you’re a luxury-focused travel blog, you’d probably try to find a percentage-based program for hotel bookings, as your high-spending users could probably earn you much more that way!
How to place affiliate links
Affiliate programs typically provide you a range of linking methods. You might be offered banners that you can place anywhere on your site, search widgets, text links, or custom deep links (i.e. links to any page on the affiliate website, which will contain a special code to credit any purchases to you). How to exactly implement these is covered in the various help sections, so there’s no need to go into it too much here.
Suffice to say that often the easiest and most effective way is to create deep links. You can usually create these using the affiliate admin tools, then just copy the link and paste it into your WordPress site or other blog system.
How to increase conversions
Now comes the tricky part… how to get people to click those links and, of course, make a purchase (or in the words, make a conversion).
Firstly, make sure the thing you’re offering is what people actually want—and then offer it at the right time! This may sound obvious, but it’s absolutely key: the more contextually relevant your affiliate links are, the better they perform.
It’s a rookie mistake to just to add generic affiliate widgets to your blog’s sidebar. This rarely works well. Users will probably ignore a generic flight search widget in your blog’s frame for instance, either because they’re not quite looking to book a flight at that moment, or because their attention is focused on the content area of your blog. But placing a search widget within a post with tips about how to find good flight deals? Now that’s relevant!
It’s always a good idea to track your conversion rate. This tells you how many people who clicked actually converted. If your link has a CR of 0.01% it’s definitely not working. If it’s got a CR of 5%, it’s on fire! Experiment with different links in different places to see what converts. Try out different placements and different ways of presenting the links. (The conversion rate is usually shown within the admin section of an affiliate program.)
To give a real-world example, on my own blog Indie Traveller I used to have a hostel search widget at the top of my guide to places to see in Thailand. But it hardly converted at all.
If you look at that page now, you’ll see I created a table about halfway down where I show a few hand-picked hostels that I think the readers might like. These links perform extremely well. This is likely because I’m not yet bothering the user too early on the page, the links are more specific than just a generic search widget, and the links don’t look like ads.
The more your affiliate links are a part of your site in an organic way, and serve a user’s need at the right time, the more revenue you’ll generate.
Use tracking codes if you can. Most affiliate systems let you set up something called a click reference or tracking ID when making deep links. This is simply a name you can give to the link, which you can then look up in your click or conversion reporting.
So using the Thailand guide as example again, I might use tracking IDs like ‘thailand_top’, ‘thailand_sidebar’ and ‘thailand_recommended’ to easily see which type of links perform well. If you want to get really granular, you can even tag each and every link individually. The more you track, the more you know!
Affiliate programs for travel blogs
When you join an affiliate marketplace you’ll no doubt be amazed by the sheer number of products and services you can earn commission for—anything from dog food to stamps to auto parts. Not all of this will be relevant to you of course, so here are a few product or service categories you should consider for your travel blog:
This can be a good earner especially when coupled with packing lists or gear reviews. Amazon is an obvious choice, and REI in the US is another good one. Generic Amazon banner ads rarely get much revenue, but specific product recommendations tend to work well. So if your blog is specifically about Thailand, consider doing a ‘top 10 things you should pack for Thailand’ and link this to online retailers.
Consider affiliate programs from Booking.com, Agoda, Expedia, and other hotel booking sites. They tend to be session-based and not cookie-based though, so they can be tricky to earn with. They may work especially well for you if you review hotels, blog specifically about hotel deals, or operate a hotel search or comparison engine. Adding hotel affiliate links to a regular blog post about a destination may still work, but you might need a lot of traffic to see meaningful results.
The Hostelworld program will be interesting if you run a budget or backpacking blog as it offers a 30-day cookie window. This makes Hostelworld extremely fair when it comes to paying out commissions, and potentially more profitable to you than other programs such as Booking or Agoda.
Many tour operators have affiliate programs, though keep in mind that people usually take a while before they decide to book. When I worked for a tour company, the window was up to 90 days after a user first visited. So for tour operators, look for a long referral window, to ensure you get credited for your sales!
This can be a good source of affiliate income, as insurance is often something people forget or neglect to buy themselves, but a travel blog can remind them of why it’s useful. World Nomads runs by far the most popular program, though there are others.
Both search engines and providers (such as Hertz) have excellent affiliate programs. Great in particular if you cover fly-and-drive or self-drive destinations.
Search engines like Momondo and Skyscanner, and many airlines themselves, have affiliate programs. Margins do tend to be slim, and flights are arguably the most difficult category on this list to drive revenue with, but this list also wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it!
Courses or books
This can be anything from travel guides to language learning to travel photography resources. Relevant programs in this category include Amazon (of course), Lonely Planet, Udemy (for video courses) and e-junkie (a huge platform particularly for selling ebooks). This can be very lucrative especially for digital products, which sometimes have a rev share of up to 50%.
Of course, you may find there are many other niches relevant to your particular travel blog.
Trial and error
Experimentation is the key to success with affiliate marketing. Some bloggers just insert a few affiliate links without much thought, then end up disappointed. To make significant revenue with affiliate program, you need a good level of traffic to your site, and find ways of implementing affiliate links that is effective.
Try out different linking methods and different places for your links. If some of your affiliate links are not converting, it’s best to eventually just kill them. As an example from my own blog, I had some links to Lonely Planet that appeared to be highly successful, as they generated many thousands of clicks every month. But… no one bought anything! (I suspect people were expecting the link to lead to a free PDF download of a Lonely Planet guide, and not an ecommerce shop.) I removed those links because if people are leaving your blog but not converting, it could have a large opportunity cost to you.
Be sure to disclosure!
Finally, make sure you mention there may be affiliate links on your site. It’s a good idea to be transparent about it—and it may even be a legal requirement depending on where you are based. In your disclaimer, you may wish to explain the difference with sponsored content (i.e. you’ve not been paid for the links) and that any commissions come at no additional cost to the reader.