You’ve heard or read the word affiliate, but what does affiliate mean?

The definition according to dictionary.com is “to bring into close association or connection”, but what does this actually mean? Well, it can mean variations of this basic definition, depending on the context. One of the meanings can be when a larger company owns a minority stake in another company. In this scenario, you may have heard that company A is affiliated with company B. There are various forms of this type of affiliate relationship in the business world, such as corporate affiliates, retail affiliates, international affiliates, and more. 

What Does Affiliate Mean?

The reason you’re probably reading this article is to learn more about affiliate marketers (aka publishers), and what affiliate means in the context of affiliate marketing. In this context, it refers to a separate, independent company or individual that has an agreement to market the products or services of another company in return for a reward or commission. Let’s use a simple example. We have a company called Super Gadgets, which sells gadgets. Super Gadgets decides to allow independent people (affiliates) to promote and refer potential sales leads to them. If the leads sent by an affiliate make a purchase, Super Gadgets awards the affiliate with a referral fee (commission). Simple enough, no?

Okay, so let’s explore the concept of affiliate marketing further and what it means to be an affiliate. 

Affiliate Marketing 101

Affiliate Marketing 101

Affiliate marketing involves an agreement between 2 parties, where the one party has a product or service (often referred to as the merchant or advertiser) and the second party performs marketing activities to refer leads (potential new customers) to the merchant in return for a reward. The agreement is typically a legally binding contract that outlines exactly each party’s roles and responsibilities in the relationship (affiliation). The agreement also defines how the leads will be tracked, what criteria the leads must meet to qualify for a commission, the commission amount, and when it will be paid. 

Affiliate marketing existed long before the internet; a typical example would be a real estate agent. In this case, the owner of the property agrees for a real estate agent to promote their property, and if the agent brings a buyer that results in a sale, the agent gets a sales commission. It’s worth noting that the affiliate never actually owns the item being sold, nor are they an employee of the merchant. 

With the advent of the internet and companies selling their goods and services online, it introduced an era where independent people (affiliates) could promote these online companies. Technology allows for each and every visitor to be tracked and assigned to the respective affiliate, so when a sale occurs, the company knows exactly which affiliate made the referral, and in turn, they can award them a commission.   

Affiliate Programs and Affiliate Networks

To be an affiliate marketer, you would need to join an affiliate program or affiliate network. The difference between an affiliate program and a network is that an ‘affiliate program’ is generally owned or managed by the merchant (it could be a separate company or division), and the program typically only focuses on the products or services offered by the merchant. An affiliate network, on the other hand, is an independent company that works with multiple merchants as an intermediary and can offer many diverse products for affiliates to promote. Essentially with the network approach, the merchant is outsourcing the management of their affiliate program. Irrespective of which business model the merchant chooses the basic flow and how everything works are very similar.

The Affiliate Platform 

The Affiliate Platform 

At the heart of any affiliate program or network is an affiliate management platform. In some cases, it may be referred to as the affiliate portal or back-office. The affiliate platform is software that provides a host of features for both the affiliate and the management of the affiliates. The platform allows for affiliates to sign-up/register for an account. Once logged in, this is where you will find things like your unique tracking links and marketing creatives, such as banners, landing pages, email templates, and more. There is also reporting and analytics, so you can track your performance. Some of the other features include managing your personal information, payment details, and often access to support or your affiliate manager. 


As mentioned, the affiliate platform ensures that every referral you send to the merchant is tracked and associated with your account. In order to track your referrals, you will need your unique tracking links. These links look like a website URL, but they have unique identifiers in them. The links could be basic text links, or in most cases, you will download banners from the portal, and these have unique links associated with them.

When you post a link on your site, or social media, or anywhere that you are promoting, when the user clicks on this link, they get redirected to the relevant page. For the user, this is entirely seamless, and in most cases, they don’t even know they are clicking on an affiliate link. Once the referral is assigned to your account, you can then track things like clicks, signups, sales, or whatever other parameters the platform offers. This tracking is vital, and the accuracy is of the utmost importance. 

The most common form of tracking is via internet cookies. Cookies are small files that the visitor’s web browser accepts, and holds information about the visitor, such as when they first clicked on a link. The cookie usually includes an expiry date, which is very valid for affiliates because often buyers don’t make a purchase immediately, and if they return to the merchant days later, you will still receive compensation for these sales. The expiry can be from as little as the first session up to years and varies from network to network or even the induvial offer. There are other types of tracking, and again this varies for each network and offer. 

Marketing Creative

When it comes time to start promoting an offer, you will want to use some form of marketing materials that entice the visitor to click and be redirected to take up the offer. Banners are one of the most common types of creative and you have surely seen these on websites you have visited.

The banners can be static images, animated gifs, or even videos. Other types of creatives can be a simple text link that redirects to the sales page, data feeds, email templates (for email marketing), SMS templates, videos, landing pages, forms, and more. You will often find variations of the creative for the same offer, and these are intended to help you find what works best with your marketing and audience. If an offer is available in multiple languages, there are usually variations of translated creative to suit the respective market.

One of the most important elements to get visitors to click through is the CTA (call to action), this is things like “buy now”, “click to learn more”, etc. Whatever creative you choose, be sure to check that you have implemented it correctly with your affiliate link, because you don’t want to lose out on commissions. If you’re unsure, reach out to your affiliate manager. 


The only way to know how well your marketing campaigns are performing is through reporting, which is offered on the platform. Reports can include various metrics such as:

  • Impressions – This is the number of times a creative was loaded on a page. It doesn’t necessarily mean the visitor looked at it. 
  • Clicks – This is how many times a visitor actually clicked on a link or banner etc. 
  • Signups / Leads – The number of visitors who completed some kind of action like registering or completing an inquiry form.
  • Sales / Conversions – The number of visitors that went on to complete the required action to be considered a sale or took a particular action to be converted. 

Depending on the network and the offer, there may be many more metrics. Reporting is vital for success because you need to know what is working, what is not, and where you can optimize. In the world of performance marketing, small changes or tweaks can result in massive improvements. Without accurate and detailed reporting, it is near impossible to build successful campaigns. 

Affiliate Commissions


In the words of Jerry Maguire: “Show me the money!”. Like any other business, being an affiliate marketer is about making money, and hopefully plenty of it. The amount of commission you can make can vary from a few dollars up to millions and depends on many factors. There are many different commission/earnings models, and it varies from offer to offer and network. 

Some of the most common commissions offered are: 

  • CPL (Cost per Lead) – You earn a fixed fee for every new lead you refer. To qualify as a lead the visitor may need to complete a form or open an account. 
  • CPA (Cost per Action) – Here the lead needs to complete a particular action which could be to spend or deposit a certain amount of money first for you to receive a commission. A CPA commission is generally a fixed flat fee. 
  • CPS (Cost per Sale) – As the name implies, when a sale occurs, you get paid. It can be a flat fee or a percentage of the sale or a hybrid. 
  • Revenue Share – Similar to the CPS, you earn a percentage of the revenue generated by the merchant. With some offers, you may even continue earning a share of the revenues for as long as the customer is spending, which means you could be earning from the same referral years into the future. 

Once you are generating a commission, you will want to receive your money, and depending on the network or program, they may make payments weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. You will usually also have the option to choose how you wish to be paid, for example, check, PayPal, wire transfer, eWallets, cryptocurrencies, and many more options. 

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts

By now you should have a fairly clear idea of “What affiliate means” in the context of affiliate marketing.

We also briefly covered what affiliate marketing involves, the affiliate platform, marketing creative, reporting,  commissions, and more.

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