Affiliate links: how bloggers make money from your purchases
If you've ever found yourself wondering what exactly affiliate links are, you're not alone. I've started using the hashtag #af on tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts so that my associations will be clear – but still, I get questions about what those hashtags mean and now exactly affiliate links work. So I thought I'd lay it all bare and, at the very least, try to make it as clear as possible.
What is an affiliate program?
Affiliate programs allow bloggers to get links – like any other – that lead to another website or URL. However, the difference with these affiliate links is that they contain the ID or username of the person who "created" (for want of a more technological term!) the link.
Let's take this link*, for example. It leads to a deadly pair of black and gold Nike Air Max trainers – but I used RewardStyle, an affiliate program that allows you to make affiliate links and earn a percentage on every sale made using those links, to make it. When you use it to click through to the Nike* site, my RewardStyle user ID is attached to that link.
If you buy those runners (please do!), I'll make a commission on the sale. In this instance, I'd make €15.33 for each pair that gets bought. Neat, right?
RewardStyle isn't the only affiliate program on the block; it's just the main one I use. There are also affiliate programs like Amazon Associates (if you're shopping from Amazon, using my link would be awesome), eBay Partner Network, there's an Etsy affiliate program and there are more shopping affiliate programs like ShopStyle, ShareASale and AWin, to name but a few. Affiliate marketing is big business.
How does affiliate marketing affect the reader?
Ideally, affiliate programs should make little to no difference to your experience reading a blogger's site or following their social media. That being said, since I signed up with RewardStyle, I've definitely prioritised sharing links and doing the odd fashion-focused blog post. I'd go so far as to say that, for a while there, I was definitely posting a few too many links on Facebook. (Sorry about that!)
RewardStyle is now one of my revenue streams – if I had a "content plan" (which I don't, I kind of just wing it!), it would be in the plan – but it's not the only way I make money (see more on that here!).
Pic credit: My Domaine
However, from a purchasing point of view, my use of affiliate marketing makes absolutely no difference to you as the reader or buyer. It doesn't increase the price of your purchase; it just means that the company involved (River Island*, say, or Asos*) has to pay a percentage to RewardStyle, which then pays a percentage to me.
The only way it might change your experience, as I explained above, is that bloggers are incentivised to do more sharing of the "omg love this gorgeous bag!" variety, which may get annoying. But you don't have to click – it's entirely your choice.
What do bloggers get paid for?
In the case of RewardStyle, bloggers get paid for any and all purchases made via the affiliate link they shared – and, on most sites, this link will "stick" for 30 days.
First example: say I share a pic of an incredible faux leather jacket from Free People*. You click through and you think, hmmm that's nice but pretty expensive for vegan leather (true story). But, while you're there, you start looking around the site and, before you know it, you've put a pair of boots and a wallet in your cart and clicked "buy". I'll make a percentage of those sales. Conclusion: you don't have to buy the item I linked to.
Second example: I post about this gingham shirt dress by Lavish Alice*. You click through and, while you like it, payday isn't until Friday week. So you save it in your bookmarks and, 13 days later, you go back to the site and buy it. I'll make a commission on the sale. The take-home: you don't have to buy anything right then and there.
The site keeps a record (using cookies) of where you came from and it knows that my link sent you there; that recommendation stays good for around 30 days (on most sites).
Do bloggers get paid for clicks?
Right, here's where I'm slightly in the dark – because, as far as I know, some affiliate programs do pay for clicks. RewardStyle – which is pretty much the most common one among fashion/beauty bloggers – doesn't pay for clicks, just purchases. But some others do pay per click, so if you even click through to look at an item, the blogger in question may make a few cent. (It won't be as much as €15 per click, as above with the Nikes; that's a purchase-only deal.)
So – are all links affiliate links?
In short, no: there are certain companies that have affiliate programs and others that don't. I'm not sure there's anywhere that you can view a list of every single brand that uses affiliate links, but it's a good idea to keep an eye on your search bar; as you click through an affiliate link, it'll usually morph from a bit.ly (or other shortcode) to the affiliate's own URL (for example, re.style) before jumping on to the final website URL.
Watch what happens when you click this link*. You'll get taken to a hideous pair of copper cycling shorts, but not before the URL goes through several iterations. That's the "tell" when someone's using affiliate links – with a "regular" link, the URL is what it says it is, and usually goes straight through to the destination site.
What if you don't want to use affiliate links?
There are people out there who just hate the idea of affiliate links. They don't want bloggers to make money from their purchases and they don't think it's fair that these women are making money (in some cases, a lot) from encouraging other people to buy things.
Ultimately, I would strongly urge those people to chill out and accept it – bloggers work really hard, whether you see that side of it or not, building their audience and creating content that they think that audience will enjoy, and if they can make a little cash from your online shopping then, why not let them?
But if you really, really hate the idea, then (a) don't click on the links or (b) clear your cookies after clicking. (And, y'know, maybe unfollow bloggers who you feel overuse affiliate marketing – because there's no point in being unhappy over something when you have the power to change how or if you experience that thing!)
And, finally, how much do bloggers make?
This, obviously, is a really difficult question to answer. As I previously mentioned, I earned €1,770 between October 2016 and January 2017 using RewardStyle. However, I've only made €500-odd since then – so it really depends. I've also chilled out a lot on posting links (like I said, I got a bit too into them there for a while) which may explain why my commission has slowed.
This piece on Who What Wear sheds some light on the top RewardStyle earners (the ones you see at the RewardStyle conferences, where they invite their top influencers). I once read that Instagrammers who use LiketoKnow.it (Instagram-only affiliate links which post directly to your inbox and, honestly, I find a bit irritating and so rarely use) make around $1 per follower per year. If that was true, I'd be netting €39,000 a year from my affiliate links alone. (I am not.)
So, like I said, it's a tough question to answer.
At the end of the day, if top bloggers are influencing consumers to part with their hard-earned cash to buy clothing, accessories or, hell, anything they see on their fave influencer, then I see no harm in said influencer making commission on those purchases. But I do think it's important that we all know what's going on when someone says, "I've shared a link on Twitter!" in response to "Where'd you get that bag?"
Main pic credit: Paul Aidan Perry
*This is an affiliate link. What does that mean? If you click through and buy something as a result, I’ll get a small percentage of the sale (even if it’s not the exact thing I linked to). The site will keep my “referral” on file for 30 days – so, even if you don’t buy something immediately, I may still get a cut. It won’t cost you anything extra, but it will help me continue to create content on rosemarymaccabe.com and beyond. I will always disclose if a post is sponsored or contains affiliate links; for more, check out my disclaimer.