Jonathan Volk is a self-described “make money online” guy. He’s president and CEO of Surge Marketing Inc., a company that helps generate millions of dollars in sales for companies annually using a model called affiliate marketing.
Affiliate marketing is a type of advertising by which a publisher (usually a blog or website) promotes a product, service or site in exchange for a referral fee and/or commission (generally a percentage of the sale). Promotion can come in the form of banner ads or buttons, product image hyperlinks, or a “store page” on the site with links to products related to the contents of the blog.
Depending on the business agreement, site owners are paid each time a person clicks the ad (pay-per-click), each time a person purchases the product (pay-per-sale), or each time a lead (pay-per-lead) is developed.
A variety of products can be promoted via affiliate marketing — everything from physical goods (clothing, accessories, tools, toys, appliances, etc.) to digital goods (e-books, software, etc.) to subscriptions.
Volk’s business roots began growing back in 7th grade when he’d buy candy bars in bulk and sell them to students for 25 cents cheaper then the school’s vending machine. He went from hawking candy to coding, which lead him into the web-hosting business, where he learned about SEO and affiliate marketing techniques.
Today, the 25-year-old is a highly successful affiliate marketer and runs a small group of e-commerce sites. We checked in with him to find out what it takes to make a good living off of affiliate marketing.
What do you do day-to-day?
As an affiliate, there is a lot of monitoring advertising campaigns, optimizing the ads, discovering new offers, etc.
When did you first learn about affiliate marketing?
It was roughly around age 11 that I began to learn to code: first in C and C++ and then website languages. I’ve been doing it ever since and it’s really what began this passion for everything internet related. It was then, in 2004, that my dad had called me into his office and told me that he was interested in starting another business with me: web hosting. This was my first venture into making actual money online. While attempting to get a successful hosting business up, my dad invested tens of thousands of dollars in learning SEO and other techniques.
For example, one conference with Brad Fallon and a few select others cost $10,000 for two days. While there was a lot of great information, the hosting business still failed. The business might have failed, but we did not fail. It really was this foundation that enabled me to reach the level that I have reached currently. Through that business failure, I had learned quite a bit about SEO and affiliate marketing.
Early in 2007, I really decided to get serious about affiliate marketing. I had been running some adsense websites and such for a while and had made up to $250 a day during the peak of my adsense days. The adsense income was very inconsistent and the profit margins were very very slim. I was essentially buying traffic and sending it to my heavily ad-ridden websites. As I began to apply my techniques to affiliate marketing, I began to learn how much potential affiliate marketing had. I researched everything I could about affiliate marketing through forums, friends, and my friend, Google.
What interested you in it?
Affiliate marketing to me was like cutting out the middle man a bit. I had websites with ads. How were those ads making money? Many of them were affiliates. It was really my quest to increase my profit margins that got me interested.
How successful have you been? (one blog said you were making more than $300,000 a month — is that true?)
I have been very blessed to have earned in the range of $5 million to $10 million as an affiliate. It’s not all gravy though; my best month I spent over $400,000 in paying for advertisements. While $5 million to $10 million might seem like a lot, there are a lot of costs involved when you get to that level. Let’s just say, my wife does not need to work but has a successful online business, too, that she enjoys. We enjoy a comfortably frugal lifestyle. I don’t drive a sports car or own a 20,000-square-foot mansion. I drive a sweet ’08 Honda CR-V (and maybe a motorcycle if I can market it well enough to my wife). Success to me is being able to do what I love: Work online with an awesome team of brilliant minds, be an active member of my church, enjoy some occasional free time with my beautiful wife, and not worry about paying for the grocery bill. With the remaining profits, I continually reinvest into other online ventures and further grow the business.
Who can try affiliate marketing?
Anyone. Really. The people who are generally successful are the ones who have a good understanding of the internet, creating websites, and are driven. I’ve met some 40- to 50-year-old affiliates, and I’ve met affiliates, like myself, who started before they were in their 20s.
What’s the best way to start?
The best way to start is to start now. Don’t go into it thinking about how you’ll be the next affiliate millionaire. Try being an affiliate for something you know something about first. Get the concept of selling, marketing, advertising, down with something you’re familiar with. Set a goal. $10 per day. $50 per day. $100 per day.
What expertise or skill-sets should someone have to get into affiliate marketing? Is there any sort of special training needed?
Being an affiliate is harder now then it once was. Really, you need to be able to create a website. If you can’t make a website, you’re going to need to hire someone and it will make starting out quite a bit more difficult.
Where do you find leads for businesses that want to work with affiliate marketers?
Mostly, I recommend people use affiliate networks when starting. You can contact companies directly, but affiliate networks cut the risk down and give you direct access to many more offers than you would have previously. There are hundreds of affiliate networks, so search around for one that fits you.
How much can you make?
It’s the old 90-10 rule. Ten percent of the affiliates are the ones pushing 90 percent of the volume. Most affiliates can make a little extra income here or there. But, if you’re willing to persist, take the time, and invest the resources, it can be a very lucrative business. I’m not the most successful publisher there is by far. I would say a VERY successful affiliate would earn around $1 million per year profit. That’s what the best individuals I know are making. But, really, you have big corporate sites that are making tens of millions or more that are essentially just affiliates. Think Expedia: an affiliate for hotels and airlines.
Where’s the best place to learn more about affiliate marketing? (Are there seminars, books, websites, etc. you’d recommend people check out?)
There are a lot of great blogs and free resources. You can check out my blog, www.JonathanVolk.com, where I give free advice on affiliate marketing. It has thousands of articles that are related to affiliate marketing and most are still relevant. Another great resource is Affbuzz.com. You can see all the other affiliate bloggers and keep up with fresh content for free.
What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned about affiliate marketing?
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Although focusing on one project is important, putting 100 percent of your time into one project can be deadly. One of the downsides of affiliate marketing is how quickly an advertiser can request you no longer send them traffic due to budget caps, quality, etc. There have been projects that I focused all my time and energy into, only to have them end and I was stuck dead in the water. That’s another reason why I have expanded from just affiliate marketing to running a group of e-commerce websites.
What’s the best advice you can give someone who’s looking to make a living in this business?
If you do not have a passion for online business, don’t let the potential income sway you … you’ll probably never earn those amounts without the passion to push you through the incredibly boring, tedious, and stressful late nights that can come. Also, you would not believe the amount of people who lost their jobs, have no money, and are looking to affiliate marketing to strike it rich and pay off all their debt. Seriously, I used to get several e-mails monthly.
Affiliate marketing is an online business, just like anything else. I would not recommend starting a new “business” without having some sort of income (read: a job). It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme.