How to Build a High-Performing Affiliate Business from Scratch with Doug Cunnington [EP. 52]
Affiliate sites are a fantastic way to boost your passive income, but how do you start and scale an affiliate site from nothing?
Doug Cunnington is an expert affiliate marketer and the founder of Niche Site Project, where he empowers people with systems and templates to create and scale their own affiliate sites. He is also the host of The Doug Show and a self-titled YouTube channel where he talks about his affiliate marketing journey so far.
In this episode, Doug shares a behind-the-scenes look into what works and what doesn’t in affiliate marketing. He talks candidly about the Amazon affiliate program, when and how to scale an affiliate marketing business, and his top tips for driving traffic to your site.
Listen to The Opportunity Podcast Episode #52
Topics Discussed in this episode:
- Diversifying an affiliate marketing portfolio
- The love/hate relationship with Amazon Affiliates
- Why scaling too early could be problematic
- How to implement the Keyword Golden Ratio
- How a gap analysis can help you get unstuck
- The benefits of outsourcing to build a team
- How to retain and scale freelancer roles within your business
- Doug’s top three productivity hacks
- What it takes to stay ahead in affiliate marketing
Affiliate Marketing: Getting Started
Doug’s entrepreneurship story is a classic. His sink or swim moment came in 2015, when, after two years of dabbling in blogging and affiliate marketing part-time, he took his “side hustle” full time. Since then, Doug has immersed himself in all things affiliate, and become a thought leader in the space.
When he first set out on his own, he relied on free resources (including an Empire Flippers ebook!) to help guide his way. Doug also found that the Amazon affiliate model worked well for his business. Between these reputable tools and ever-increasing experience, Doug experimented with his business model – continually iterating and growing his business into something bigger and better.
While Doug has stuck primarily to affiliate marketing, he’s also diversified by offering products, growing an email list, starting a podcast, and YouTube channel along the way. Doug says that although it slowed down his overall progress, working within a more diverse model made his business feel more secure.
The Problem with Amazon Affiliates
Amazon has such a huge market share, it’s almost impossible not to work with them – even if you don’t want to. Doug calls it a “no-brainer” but states that many affiliate marketers have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with Amazon.
So firstly, why is it a “no-brainer”?
Doug says because the friction is so low. It’s easy for people to hop onto a site they know, likely already have an account with, and order a product to be there the very next day. Convenience is key, and when it’s convenient, more people are more likely to buy. This is why Doug believes it’s an obvious option to have Amazon as part of your monetization strategy. The only caveat is that it has to fit with your niche.
Then, why do people not want to work with Amazon?
The issue many affiliate marketers have with Amazon is that you have no leverage, let alone control, over your commission rates. In 2017 and again in 2020, Amazon drastically cut commission rates by up to 50%. This is, of course, a huge knock-back for affiliate sites and there’s very little the owners can do about it.
Doug’s advice is to work as best as you can within the Amazon Affiliates program, and even suggests looking into the Amazon international affiliates program, where you may get a more favorable commission rate. But ultimately, as long as you have traffic, you can find ways to leverage that and find out how to monetize it – even if it’s not as lucrative as it once was.
How to Scale Your Affiliate Sites
Scaling and growing a company are prime concerns for any business owner, but how do you scale an affiliate site? Doug’s advice is simple: do more of what works well.
It sounds clichéd, but Doug points out that leaning into what’s working will do you more favors than trying to experiment with less successful avenues. The key is to really dial into what is working and replicate that.
However, Doug’s previous experience with scaling his affiliate site means he issues a word of warning. Trying to scale before you’re experienced enough, or your business is mature enough to handle it can result in some road bumps.
Early on in his business journey, Doug made some mistakes and in his haste to scale, copied those mistakes across multiple sites. Now his advice is:
“Don’t try to expand until you’ve figured out how to launch and run a successful affiliate site or you’re just going to amplify your inefficiency, you’re going to amplify any mistakes that you’re making.”
Instead of scaling, Doug suggests being really granular about all parts of your site and fully understanding what works and what doesn’t, before you go applying it elsewhere.
Implementing the Keyword Golden Ratio
Doug recalls his biggest challenge in growing his affiliate marketing sites eventually led to his biggest success: developing the Keyword Golden Ratio.
When Doug first started creating affiliate sites in 2013, he says it was much easier to get pages and sites to rank highly for keywords. However, his tactics weren’t always Google-approved, and overnight his site traffic (and revenue) would drop a drastic 99% as the sites were penalized.
This happened multiple times and taught Doug two vital business lessons. You have to be flexible, and you have to adapt.
It also encouraged Doug to innovate, and so he created the Keyword Golden Ratio (KGR). Doug describes this as “a data driven way to find keywords that are underserved on the internet”.
First, you use an advanced Google Search command called allintitle (simply start your google search with allintitle, followed by a colon, and immediately enter your keyword, no spaces except within your keyword and don’t include punctuation).
You use this function to search for your keyword, for example “allintitle:wireless mouse”. Then, take the number of results and divide it by the monthly search volume, where the search volume is under 250.
If the ratio is below 0.2, that essentially means that there are more people looking for that type of content than there is information about it. This can help you to uncover those low competition, high-performing longtail keywords that can help your site rank fast.
In fact, Doug says that while this KGR method isn’t bulletproof, it’s helped some brand new sites rank in the top 20, or even the top 10, in less than 24 hours.
If you want to use the KGR to help your site rank, Doug advises paying attention to the kinds of results your search returns. For example, if Google is returning videos, and you’re searching because you want to write a blog on that topic, it might not be worth pursuing.
He also suggests taking a volume approach and trying the KGR method with multiple long-tail keywords (like 20-30). As with most SEO practices, some pages will exceed your expectations, and others may not perform as well as you’d hoped, but with the KGR, your pages stand a much better chance of ranking.
How to get Unstuck with a Gap Analysis
A lot of problems that affiliate marketers struggle with are about creating such high volumes of content. Often, they can hit a wall with production, and their business can plateau.
Doug says that if this sounds like your business, you can do a simple gap analysis. This is where you analyze where your site is currently, think about where you want it to be in future, and make a plan to close that gap.
In doing a thorough analysis of your site, you may also discover areas of your site that you’ve neglected. This could be content publishing, link building, promotion, or something else you might have missed on your journey so far. Doug recommends taking stock of this and, if need be, hiring experts to help you start bridging the gap.
Doug is a big believer in outsourcing in order to scale. He suggests that when your business is ready, hiring freelancers, agencies, or other experts, can enable you to do more of what you’re good at, grow faster, and bypass that plateau.
But when it comes to growing your affiliate business, Doug returns to his mantra: do more of what’s working and optimize before you scale.
It’s simple. It’s effective. And it’s certainly worked for Doug.
To learn more about how Doug runs his affiliate site empire, including how he manages and grows teams of freelancers, his top productivity tips, and more, listen to the full podcast episode. Hit play on the player at the top of this page or check it out on your favorite podcast app. The Opportunity Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and more.
How much is your affiliate site worth? Find out and learn if an affiliate site could be the next best investment for you, here.