Affiliate marketing is not a way to get rich quick – that was one of the biggest learning curves for successful affiliate marketer John Ellis.
John, who used to work in IT in the travel sector, was driven by a desire to be his own boss and to earn a bit of extra money each month when he decided to try affiliate marketing. Now he loves his affiliate lifestyle – earning a full-time income running several websites, mainly in the travel sector, promoting a variety of holiday types through multiple holiday providers.
John says his background in the IT industry has been invaluable in starting and running his business.
“I spent 22 years working in IT, in the travel sector before giving up my full-time job,” he said.
“Using technologies such as classic ASP, .Net, MS SQL Server and T-SQL gave me a good start when setting up my first website. I've always fancied working for myself, and as I was getting on a bit I decided that I'd just go for it and see what happened. The day before my 40th birthday was my last day at work.”
That decision was a birthday present to himself that John says he has never regretted.
Despite his experience, John (pictured, LEFT) found initially that affiliate marketing was a steep learning curve and it took him six months to achieve his first sale – a moment which, rightly, he is very proud of and still raises a glass to on occasion.
With travel being relatively seasonal, John finds that traffic to his sites is highly dependent on the time of year with December being very quiet. January, however, is often one of his busiest months – last January his travel websites had 85,000 unique visitors, all generated through organic methods.
“All traffic is driven by organic searches – ie, we don't use any pay-per-click (PPC),” he said.
“We have tried PPC a few times in the past, but have never got it to financially work for us. I know several people can generate an income with PPC, but it's a skillset I don't possess yet. Most affiliate programs also have lots of rules governing what keywords you can and can't bid on, so you have to be careful there.”
While it seems John is definitely passionate about his work in the travel sector – he and his family are keen travellers – he doesn't believe passion is essential to success in affiliate marketing. Knowledge, however, is.
Above all, John believes putting the time into your business, educating yourself and not giving up is the key to success.
“Keep trying… work out what you want from life and go for it.”
Here's the interview…
Hi John, and thanks for agreeing to speak with us today. Can you please start by telling me a bit about yourself and what you do?
I'm 41 and live by the coast in East Anglia in England with my wife and two children (8 and 12). I've been working in affiliate marketing for about 8 years, with the first 6 years working evenings and weekends, until finally making that big decision to give up my proper job and work full-time on my affiliate marketing. I work mainly in the travel sector, with my original site www.uk-holiday-shop.co.uk. I am now a joint director (with my wife) of our own limited company.
What led you to try affiliate marketing?
I first heard about affiliate marketing around 9 years ago and thought it sounded like a good idea to try, but having a 3-year-old at home took up a lot of time! After about a year of mulling things over, I decided to set up a website to promote holidays.
The key factor for me was that a site can be set up for £10 a year, so I figured what have I got to lose? I might spend several hours and achieve nothing – but at least I won't lose the house. It took 6 months to achieve my first sale. That first £60 gave me the hope that I might generate some income.
I never thought affiliate marketing would provide me with an income to support my family, just a couple of hundred quid a month to pay for a few extras.
Now you run UK-Holiday-Shop. Can you tell me about your site, please? How does it work in terms of generating income?
With UK-Holiday-Shop.co.uk I try to feature as many holiday types as possible, with “featured” holiday resorts, cottages, hotels, etc being written to generate that all important unique content.
All income is generated by the various affiliate programs… I think the travel sector is very accepting of affiliate marketing as in the olden days – before the internet – travel agents were used to generate a large percentage of bookings, so paying commission to get a booking has always been a way of life. As an affiliate we don't get anywhere near the commission that travel agents would get but we don't have the running costs either.
Why did you choose to work in the travel sector and how did you go about determining it was the right niche for you?
I went for the travel sector as it was an area I knew very well. I don't think I realized how much I knew about the sector until I started marketing holidays; I've always been in IT in the travel sector, so haven't had much to do with promoting holidays. But, I guess after 22 years of being around travel something must have sunk in.
I know this is a contentious issue within affiliate and internet marketing circles, but do you think it's important to be passionate about the niche you're working in?
I don't think you necessarily need to be passionate about your chosen niche, but you need to be knowledgeable. You also have to be interested in the niche, as that's what you're going to be living and breathing to make a good go of it. If you choose a niche which has absolutely no interest to you, you're going to struggle to write anything about your subject. Choose a niche which you find interesting, and has some affiliate programs. If you're interested in your niche, the knowledge will follow.
How many unique visitors do you get a month?
Traffic can fluctuate quite drastically in the travel sector, with January being the busiest month. Traffic gradually drops off as the year goes on, with December being particularly quiet. While everyone else gears up for that pre-Christmas shopping rush, all us travel people are thinking to January. Last January our travel websites had 85,000 unique hits.
What kind of income are you earning from affiliate programs?
We make enough to keep the bills paid and savings topped up – can't say fairer than that.
In terms of income, was there a particular point where it all fell into place? What did you do that was different from what you had been doing?
I'd been working for about 5 years at affiliate marketing, and during that time discovered what worked and what didn't – it's the kind of knowledge you can really only build up by experience. By the fifth year I was thinking I could make enough to live on. I decided to start saving with gusto so that when I decided to go it alone there would be some savings to fall back on.
How many affiliate programs do you use?
I haven't counted all the programs we use, but I try to promote all the available travel programs out there. Some programs may only generate a couple of sales a year but, in my opinion, it's still worth promoting them.
If, for example, I promote a package holiday and get two sales in a year, that would be about £100 commission. Assuming it takes a couple of hours to get the page created to promote that package holiday, that's an income of £50 per hour. That's the principle I always work to. And, if I'm wrong and there's no commission generated, at least we haven't lost any money!
How do you go about finding affiliate programs? Have you had any problems in this area? For example, signing up for programs that turned out to be a flop? Any advice for newcomers about this?
The affiliate companies (Trade Doubler, Affiliate Window, etc) send out emails with their new travel companies, so that's how I find out about the new programs. I don't like to think of any programs being a flop, although I don't make commission from all the programs I've signed up to. This could be because I haven't promoted them very well, or it could be the program doesn't track sales very well. I always spend a few hours setting up content about the new program, and see whether any sales are generated. If I get a sale or two I'll put more effort into promoting them. If no sales are forthcoming, I probably won't go too much further. As I've said before, all it costs is time; that's the lovely thing about affiliate marketing.
Was there anything you wish you knew before you got started in affiliate marketing?
It's a steep learning curve. Depending on your current knowledge you'll need to learn how to create a web page, promote that page (using SEO), use the various applications needed (like image design tools), and when you become successful there's the tax and VAT (or whatever sales tax applies to your country of operation) to think about. If I had to pick one thing I wished I'd known about, it would be the advantages of owning a limited company rather than being a partnership.
What were the three most important things you learned along the way?
Affiliate marketing is not a get-rich scheme.
It takes hours (and hours) of work to start making money.
Working from home is as good as I thought it would be!
Tell me a bit about your other websites.
We have several websites featuring specific holiday types. http://www.villa-choice.co.uk/ to promote villas and http://www.cottage-choice.co.uk/ to promote cottages. We try to generate income from various holiday types, websites and holiday providers.
What do you do in terms of marketing? Can you share your top three marketing tips with us?
Marketing is always a tricky one. I have a natural tendency to not spend any money so I stay away from PPC. In the past I've written articles for article publishing sites, but I'm not sure this has any great benefit. I think it's more a case of what not to do – don't spam. I don't like it, you don't like it, Google doesn't like it. Try to add content to websites in your niche – although this isn't always easy. In my opinion marketing is one of the trickiest things to master. And I certainly haven't mastered it yet.
I've noticed on your site you've got a lot of places and holidays featured from all over the UK. How do you find the places to feature and keep up with the deals to promote on your site?
I write about the places we go on holiday ourselves, and the towns and attractions near where we live. For me, this affiliate marketing lark is a 7 day a week job. It's not like I have to work from 9 to 5 every day, but I do some work every day.
So, on holiday, I'll take photos and write about the attraction we've just been to with the kids. This could be seen as a downside to the business, but I never switch off from it. After all, it's my company – if I didn't do it there's no one else who would.
Do you have any particular programs or tools that you couldn't work without? Why are they so useful?
I use .Net as my programming tool. Although most of the pages are static, which means the content isn't retrieved from a database online, there is an awful lot of work going on behind the scenes to process the data. I'm a programmer by trade and love getting stuck into some coding to process some offers or interrogate my content management system.
I use GIMP for my image processing tool.
All the HTML is written by hand too (part of programming upbringing – I don't want a machine creating my code), and for this I use HAPedit. It's all about keeping costs down, so Visual Studio Express can be used for free, GIMP is free too and so is HAPedit.
Do you have any products of your own and if not is this something you're planning to do in the future? Why/why not?
We don't have our own products, although I wouldn't rule this out. The joy of affiliate marketing is that you don't have to carry stock, deal with complaints, process payments etc.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in affiliate marketing?
Keep trying. It may take months before that first commission is earned, but what a feeling it is. I still remember my first commission and often have a little toast to it!
Take on as much information as you can about your niche and about website promotion. Make use of all the free stuff out there – you can't necessarily directly influence the sales you'll get, but you can directly control your expenses.
How has your life changed since you made the change to affiliate marketing as a full-time career?
I love what I do for a living now. When I had a proper job I was blessed with having a short commute to work, but I still had those formal hours to keep.
Nowadays I can come and go as I please, although that doesn't mean I spend my afternoons watching daytime TV. I still get up early to help get the nippers out of the door and then I can get a good few miles on the bike. I can also pick the youngest child up from school when needed.
This flexibility means I can work longer hours in the winter and shorter hours in the summer. I can also take a day off when we want to go out for the day, and I'm here when one of the children has a day off school.
It's all about doing as I please and fitting round family life. The computer gets switched on at 6am and doesn't get switched off again until 10pm – that kind of working day may not be to everyone's tastes, but it certainly suits me.
Is there anything else you would like to add/say?
Work out what you want from life – then go for it. I decided I wanted to spend more time cooking for my family, being here when the kids came home from school, and riding my bike (I love starting the day with a bike ride). That's not to say it's an easy option, I would guess I work 50 hours a week now – but, crucially, I love it!
- Use knowledge you already have.
- It takes time to earn a decent income.
- Build up savings before you go full-time.
- Create your own company.
- Save money by using free tools.
- If something works, do more of it.
- Keep trying. Keep learning.
- The affiliate lifestyle rewards make it all worth it.