How to Set Up an Affiliate Program for Your Online Courses

How to Set Up an Affiliate Program for Your Online Courses

We’re fortunate to have conversations, either through email or our support desk, with hundreds of WP Courseware customers every week. It’s a very good thing for us as we’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about what our customers are teaching, how they deliver training, how they price and market their courses, and what processes they’re using to automate the delivery of courses.

I’ve written about this before, but we also hear from customers who are in a different position. They have a great idea for course content in a viable niche and they’ve purchased WP Courseware, but they’re reluctant to get started with investing time in creating their content because they aren’t sure if they will be able to successfully market their course.

We’ve presented a number of tactics for marketing online courses on our blog before. However, today we’re going to take a closer look at one approach to marketing which can not only help you boost sales for an existing course, but it can even help you ensure that the launch of a new course is a smashing success.

So what is this tactic?

An Introduction to Affiliate Marketing

Many of you are already familiar with affiliate marketing and how it works. I know that quite a few of our WP Courseware customers are already using affiliate marketing to boost sales of their courses.

But if you don’t know much about affiliate marketing, it’s pretty simple to explain. You allow other entrepreneurs, website owners, or bloggers in your niche to sign up to start selling your course for you. In exchange, when they deliver a visitor to your site and that visitor purchases your course, you pay the affiliate a percentage of the sale.

The commission percentage is entirely up to you, but it varies from one niche to the next, depends on the price of your product, and also depends on how badly you want to entice affiliates to really work at selling your course for you.

Why Create an Affiliate Program for Your Course?

There are a few reasons to consider adding an affiliate program to increase sales of your online courses:

1. They’re simple to set up and are largely automated.

We’ll get into the two different ways to get started with an affiliate program shortly, but one of the main benefits is that it’s very easy to get them off the ground. Furthermore, after an affiliate program is set up and you have affiliates singing up to sell your course, the program will almost entirely run on its own.

If you choose to use an affiliate marketplace, the process will be completely automated…you don’t even have to handle paying affiliates yourself. If you choose to host your own affiliate program, you’ll only spend a small amount of time each month reconciling your affiliates’ transactions and getting them paid. But, again, more on those options shortly.

2. You can start with almost no audience or list.

One of the biggest benefits of using an affiliate program to market your course is that you don’t need a huge pre-launch following to start selling from day one.

I recently very closely followed the launch of a course which was created by a successful online marketing and business consultant. This is someone who was charging $10,000 to $20,000 a week for comprehensive business consulting. And although he did already have a list to market his new $3,000 online course to, he crafted a brilliant strategy to ensure that on launch day he was going to absolutely kill it.

He reached out to other online business strategists and authorities, explained his course to them and why it would benefit their audience (while also giving them access to it), and then he offered a 50% commission if they would announce the upcoming course to their own lists. Since each sale would net an affiliate $1,500, he had close to 100 other marketers emailing their lists about the course in the two weeks leading up to launch. And he crushed it.

Sure, you may not be selling a $3,000 training course or know of 100 other authorities in your niche to offer your affiliate program to, but even on a smaller scale it’s a very successful strategy to market your course even if you don’t have a massive list or audience.

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3. They reward quality content.

One of the best aspects of affiliate programs for marketing your online course is this: the better your course content quality is, the more people you’ll have wanting to promote your product. If you invest the time and effort necessary to create a valuable course which truly helps people, your course can sell itself. Not to mention, the folks out there who are placing affiliate offers on their own sites or emailing their lists about them want to promote products which will continue to sell over time. If you have high-quality course content, affiliates will keep promoting your course month after month.

Here’s an example for you. One of our most successful WP Courseware customers provides training on how to work from home doing a very specific task and how to grow that income to full-time. She had done it herself and using the methods she teaches, she was making over $40,000 a year with just a few hours a week as a “part-time” job. So she knew what she was talking about and kenw that if people followed the steps they would make money.

And it worked. After her first round of students started completing the course and changing their lives with this strategy, they couldn’t stop talking about it online. They began signing up as affiliates and selling her course for her to everyone they knew. Additionally, the authority bloggers in the “work from home” space started getting wind of the course’s success and began promoting it heavily to their own audiences. It’s now become her primary source of traffic, helping her reach over $1 million in sales of her course in the first 18 months after launch.

4. Why wouldn’t you start an affiliate program?

Ok, so this is not a benefit of starting your own affiliate program, but to convince you that you’re losing out on sales if you don’t. Most of the affiliates who end up sending traffic to your site in order to try to earn commissions from your course would not have sent traffic your way just out of the kindness of their own hearts. Sure, some of them might have eventually written about your course on their blog or it could be someone you provided a guest post for to gain some traffic.

But despite the fact that you might be giving up anywhere from 10-60% of each sale as a commission, think of it this way…this is traffic (and sales) you probably never would have gotten otherwise.

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So You’re Ready to Get Started…What Next?

If you decide you’re going to try out an affiliate program to boost sales of your course, you’ll have a couple of options for setting one up. Each one has its pros and cons, so let’s take a look.

Using an Affiliate Marketplace

The easiest way to get started with an affiliate program is to list your course in an affiliate “marketplace”. These are sites where product owners can list a product, provide a description, and set a commission and webmasters who are searching for ways to monetize their site can search for products to promote and earn some money.

I’ve had extensive experience with both sides of these marketplaces….I’ve listed my own products within them and I have been an affiliate who has used products from these marketplaces to monetize websites. And they have their ups and downs.

Assuming you already have a course hosted on your WordPress site with WP Courseware, a sales page for that course, and a way to process payments, here are a few of the affiliate marketplaces you might consider listing your course with:

Of these, Clickbank and E-junkie are marketplaces with the least stringent application requirements for sellers and both are very well know to publishers who are seeking to promote digital products, such as e-books, software, or online courses. Some of the others are highly selective on which merchants they will accept (such as Commission Junction).

Once you apply for an account and are accepted as a merchant to promote your course, you’ll start creating your listing for the marketplace so that website owners can determine if promoting your course is a good fit for their audience. You’ll provide the title of your course, a description, set a price, upload any images or creatives you want to provide to affiliates (such as banners), and choose the commission level you will pay affiliates on each sale.

After the product listing for your course is submitted and approved, it is placed in the marketplace and will be live and available for publishers to begin promoting. The rest is really almost entirely handled by the marketplace. They will record visits from your affiliates, track any conversions (sales), provide reporting, and at the end of each month they’ll pay you for your percentage of each sale and pay the affiliate for their share. It’s pretty darn simple actually.

However, again, there are pros and cons to using one of these marketplaces:

Pros

  • Simple to set up
  • Broad exposure to thousands of potential affiliates
  • No tracking required on your part
  • No need to process affiliate payments

Cons

  • Affiliate networks often deliver low-quality traffic
  • The network keeps a percentage of each sale
  • You typically only get paid for sales through affiliates once per month

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Running Your Own Affiliate Program

If you plan on setting up an affiliate program for your course, you can also host it yourself right on your WordPress site. By doing not much more than installing and configuring a plugin and having a way to pay your affiliates (such as PayPal), you can have complete control over all aspects of your affiliate program.

You set the commissions, choose the product pricing, decide what creative assets you want to make available, and even choose which affiliates you approve. Around two years ago, we moved from listing our plugins in various affiliate marketplaces to running our own affiliate program. And it’s been very beneficial. It does require a bit of work each month, but we can now ensure that the traffic sent to our site is high-quality and from site publishers who are creating useful and thoughtful content.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to detail all of the steps involved in setting up an affiliate program for your courses right within your site. However, once again most of it simply involves finding the right plugin to assist you with this, following their configuration steps, announcing your program, and then sending payments to your affiliates each month. Although that lest step might sound quite involved, it’s actually made very simple by the fantastic WordPress affiliate plugins on the market. In most cases, it’s as simple as exporting a “payout” file and then uploading that to a payment processor such as PayPal.

If you’re interested in taking a look at some of the plugin options available to help you set up your own affiliate program, there are a few:

This is not an exhaustive list, but by reviewing some of these plugins you’ll be able to get a feel for what features are available and determine which might meet your requirements.

Pros

  • Avoid fees charged by marketplaces
  • You control the quality of your affiliates
  • Complete flexibility over commissions, creative assets, product prices

Cons

  • Requires some time to manage
  • Requires an additional software expense
  • By not listing in a marketplace, you have to find your own affiliates

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How Do I Find Affiliates for My Program?

No matter whether you choose to list your course in an affiliate marketplace or host your own program, there are several ways to start building your promotional army. And you’ll find thousands of articles online written by successful affiliate “gurus” who offer questionable techniques for getting people to promote your product.

But at the end of the day, you’re looking for quality traffic…not quantity. You want people coming to your site who are likely to buy your course and at the same time, you want to protect your reputation and not become known for being promoted on questionable, low-quality sites.

There are a couple of very effective ways of doing this…

The “Flattery” Approach

The best method of attracting high-quality affiliates who are going to deliver you sales is reaching out to authorities in your chosen niche. This is the single most effective way of promoting your course through a new affiliate program. And as I mentioned in the example above, it can also help you “pre-sell” your course by leveraging the email lists of those authorities in your niche when it comes time to launch.

I’m not going to sugar coat things here…this method takes work, patience, and time. However, using this strategy can result in long-term traffic to your site.

You’re basically going to spend time developing “relationships” with anyone in your niche who has an authoritative presence online. I call this the “flattery” approach but it can be done many different ways, including the following:

  • Follow and interact with them through social media
  • Interact in the comments of their blog posts
  • Subscribe to their newsletter
  • Link to them in one of your own blog posts
  • Mention them in one of your own social media posts

Over time, the authoritative blogger is going to recognize your name. You might even send them an email thanking them for the information provided in one of their recent posts or to ask them a clarifying question regarding something they wrote about.

Eventually, once you have developed a virtual rapport with authorities in your niche, you can contact them to let them know about your course, mention how it might benefit their audience members, and let them know that you’d be willing to provide a generous commission through your affiliate program should they see fit to promote your course.

Please, please, please don’t read this as advocating that you stalk this person on social media, spam their blog posts with comments, or hound them with constant emails. That would be a great way to convince them not to have anything to do with you or your course. Be courteous, respectful, grateful, and remember that you’re attempting to eventually present a mutually beneficial business agreement.

Create Raving Fans

Another great way to start building a team of affiliates to deliver high-quality referrals is by promoting your affiliate program to your customers. Remember the customer I mentioned above? She would not have achieved anywhere near the level of success she has experienced were it not for her paying customers who were so satisfied by her offering that they can’t help but share it.

In fact, here at Fly Plugins we only accept affiliate applications from customers who are using our products. It may seem like we’re giving up a lot of potential exposure. But while we have fewer overall affiliates than most WordPress plugin developers, the traffic that our customer/affiliates do send comes from someone who can provide an honest and thoughtful opinion of our products. And that traffic results in very high conversion rates for our affiliates and a nice monthly commission payment. We’ve been fortunate to have a number of “high-profile” customers, so it certainly doesn’t hurt that when they write about us on their site we’re getting exposure to sometimes hundreds of thousands of audience members. But any happy customer/student can become an ambassador for your course, mentioning you to friends, family, and their social media connections.

You might choose to mention your affiliate program in a purchase confirmation email when someone buys your course. You may advertise it right on your site. Or you could even send an email to your customer list outlining the program.

Get Creative!

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to find affiliates to help you sell your course. Get involved in social media groups within your niche. Interact in forums and private message other folks who you feel could earn some money by promoting your course. The sky is the limit…be creative!

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Getting the Most From Your Affiliate Program

Once you have your affiliate program in place and begin finding people to help you promote your course, the work isn’t over yet. It’s a continual process of refinement and fine-tuning your affiliate program to ensure that you continue to reward those who are trusting your product enough to promote it.

1. Consider your commission level carefully and adjust it when needed. 

It’s ok to make occasional changes to your commission percentage. After all, you want to make your course worth someone else’s time to promote, but you also need to be rewarded for the hard work you’ve put into creating your course.

Take some time once per quarter or so to see how your affiliates are converting, who is at the top of the list, and make sure you’re offering the right commission to keep them sending traffic your way. Additionally, it’s fine to tweak your commission level for someone you feel is a huge influencer in your niche. You don’t want to announce it publicly, of course, but you can always provide a bit more incentive if you have someone interested who could send significant traffic your way.

2. Create a system for paying your affiliates and stick to it.

Once you start an affiliate program and people start promoting your course, you need to figure out how you’re going to pay your affiliates, when you’ll pay them (more on that below), and stick to it!

It doesn’t have to be a complicated or completely automated process. It may be that you put it on your calendar on the first of each month to reconcile your affiliate referrals (ensuring that they are accurate and that you got paid for the sales) and manually send out payments via PayPal. Or you could utilize the “mass payout” file feature found in many affiliate plugins.

Just remember…these affiliates are associating your course with their reputation and they’ve put their trust in you. Pay them on time, every time so that you don’t risk losing them.

3. Choose or modify payout periods to eliminate risk on your end.

When an affiliate sends traffic to your site, the visitor purchases your course, and a commission is recorded for the affiliate, that’s not always the end of the story. We occasionally have customers make payments through e-checks that don’t clear. Someone may not recognize the business listed on their credit card statement as being associated with your course and they might file a chargeback.

Any number of things can happen in the 30 days after a sale is made which cause you not to keep money in your bank account once the transaction is complete. Since this is the case, it may be wise to continually evaluate when you are paying affiliates for a certain month’s referrals. For example, here at Fly Plugins we pay affiliates on the first of the month in the second month after a sale was made. So on October 1st, we sent affiliate payments for August, and so on.

4. Provide the right resources for your affiliates and keep it interesting.

There are a number of things you can do to keep affiliates interested in promoting your course and to help them succeed.

One of the most important is affiliate education. You’ll want to keep your affiliates updated with any changes you’ve made to your course offerings or new content you’ve added. This might give them an opportunity to write a fresh blog post on everything that’s been going on lately with your course. You can also provide them with any recent reviews of your course or testimonials you’ve received. This information can help them send you more sales.

It’s also a good idea to update any creative assets every now and then. If you’re providing your affiliates with images in addition to a basic referral URL, over time visitors to their site become “ad blind” to those. Keep generating a few new creative assets along the way to give affiliates a chance to freshen up their site.

Finally, one of the most effective and rewarding periodic tasks you can implement for your affiliate program is to create contests or incentives. This strategy has been around as long as affiliate marketing has, but it’s a great way to get affiliates who haven’t done much to promote your course more engaged while also rewarding those who have been actively promoting it. You might choose to hold a monthly contest for the highest conversion rate percentage or just an ongoing reward program to offer gifts to affiliates who reach certain dollar milestones.

Are you currently using an affiliate program to help sell your WP Courseware course? If so, we’d love to hear your feedback as well as any tips or tricks you might have for a successful implementation!

Last Updated August 23, 2017

About Nate Johnson

Nate Johnson is one of the co-founders of Fly Plugins, creators of the first and most widely-implemented learning management system for WordPress, WP Courseware. Since 2012, he has helped thousands of entrepreneurs, corporate training departments, and higher education institutions develop and deploy online training courses from their WordPress websites.

16 Comments

  1. Moses on April 13, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    This is an Awesome post, I have been struggling with choosing an affiliate system for my new course – Rapid Income Skills. And I think I know what’s best for me now.
    Thanks! Keep Rocking!

  2. Nishat Mahmud on July 13, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    I have been looking for this article for a very long time finally, I got it. This is one of the best articles I have ever read about increasing affiliate sales. 🙂
    Brother thanks for sharing with us.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. Sasha on September 17, 2018 at 1:51 am

    Just came across this well-written article! Wish I had done that earlier though haha, would have avoided some mistakes but I guess now I know for sure which strategies and platforms works best for me. The best way to learn I guess is to learn from the examples of other affiliate merchants;)

  4. Ginger Howard on December 28, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    Hi, this is good information for anyone who want to learn more and helpful. Can’t wait to be to learn more and have my brand out their.

  5. Nina on February 1, 2019 at 1:26 am

    Can you PLEASE add an affiliate program within your plugin? That would be so amazing. None of these affiliate plugins work with your plugin and it’s very frustrating!!

    • Ben Arellano on February 25, 2019 at 7:34 am

      Hi Nina,
      WP Affiliate Manager just released an affiliate plugin integration for WP Courseware. Check it out here.

  6. Tiffany Jackson on February 24, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    This article is just what i needed to get my 5 week Natural Medicine Now course off the ground! Thank you for writing it! Who would I seek out to launch and manage a successful affiliate program? All the marketing firms i have spoken with do not do affiliate marketing? If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

    • Ben Arellano on February 25, 2019 at 7:33 am

      Great question Tiffany. We recently heard that WP Affiliate Manger has developed an integration with WP Courseware. Check it out here.

  7. Eva on November 28, 2019 at 6:08 am

    Hi Nate, great info!!!
    I have a question… which is the best plug in, if you want to have your affiliates send you leads through a sales funnel, so first to a free webinar, that leads to a course sell. I want to make sure to keep an eye on who send me the leads who end up signing up to my course. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Ben Arellano on April 16, 2020 at 1:48 pm

      Hi Eva,
      This is a great question. The funnel doesn’t need to be complex. You can even use Facebook ads to create a funnel by taking advantage of retargeting. Simply create a video in relation to a pain point that you address in the webinar. Setup a Facebook ad, but make sure the ad is set for video views and not clicks and target pages in your industry. Then create a custom audience and target visitors that have viewed 50% of the video. Then create an ad (video or image) marketing the webinar, this ad will be for clicks and will target the custom audience you’ve built. Then on your landing page, have you sign up form ready. This is just one idea, but there are many ideas for creating funnels. This funnel is simple and efficient, as well as budget friendly. You will pay less for video views than for clicks. Also, you will pay less for advertising your custom built audience which is why goal shouldn’t be clicks on the first level of the funnel.

  8. Josh MIlko on April 21, 2020 at 4:19 am

    Hey Guys!

    Came across your agent / company through a google search and feel confident in your abilities to help us set up an affiliate program based on what ive read. We have a course that is going virtual. Its normally a program that kids fly in for all around the world and stay at UCLA for about 2 weeks, but now we are going virtual. The course Was $4000 but now we are selling it for $450 because of so much less overhead. The thing is, we always had a limited number of scholarship and applications to get in but now we want to open it up to all the schools, and everyone for that matter. Its educational and gives kids a 7 year head start with the skills taught. We need emailing lists to get the word out, possible even some ads, but we feel we know a lot of people who will be on board just because it’s educating kids who cant be at school . If you would help us put together an affiliate program that would, I feel, make this even better! I will put the website below of the program but please contact me through my email. Thanks

    • Ben Arellano on April 21, 2020 at 1:59 pm

      Hi Josh!
      Currently WP Courseware does have integration with WP Affiliate Manager which means you can setup an affiliate program right on your site and offer commissions based on the courses you sell with WP Courseware.

  9. Dave on April 24, 2020 at 4:57 am

    Hi!

    Great article!

    I have a question from the other end of the stick, being an affiliate/publisher. We’d like to make our site a central resource for courses in a certain industry, so are looking to attract course providers to use us as affiliates. Few of these course providers have affiliate programs, so I was keen to learn how to set up an affiliate scheme from the publishers end – i.e. attract course providers to use as as an affiliate for their courses, and we set up the affiliate link/payment etc from our end. Do you know of any good examples of doing this or where to learn more about doing so?

    Cheers!

    • Ben Arellano on April 27, 2020 at 5:23 pm

      Hi Dave,
      This is a great question. The only thing that would really attract course creators to use you and your affiliate program would be to create a site that receives a lot of traffic. There are many ways to drive traffic, everything from organic traffic by ensuring your site is search engine optimized to using PCP advertising. Once you have proof of traffic, you can use that as leverage to attract course creators. I don’t have any case studies or step by step methods, but as an internet marketer, traffic is likely your biggest motivating factor.

  10. Carolyn Dubose on June 20, 2020 at 8:33 am

    Affiliate marketing is one of the best way to make money. There are several affiliate platform out there and many marketers working successfully.

    Thank you for the post, love this.

  11. Andrew German on April 13, 2021 at 1:01 am

    Hi Nate,
    Thanks for the information, this is very useful article who are looking to earn money through online. Thanks for posting this best affiliate sites.
    One more app I would prefer to suggest is Skeddy.
    If you want to organize grow the passive income you have a great chance to earn 20% from each involved driver.
    Keep Posting,
    Thanks and regards.

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