November 15, 2023
By Mike Mallazzo

The MVP Affiliate Playbook for eCommerce Founders

Affiliate marketing is needlessly complicated. We offer a simple, high-impact, two-part game plan for you to source the right tech and publisher partners to get your affiliate program off the ground.

Affiliate marketing, especially in the Amazon ecosystem, is a comically idiosyncratic and insular industry. While affiliate marketing should be the simplest business model there is, the specifics of how it all works are insanely complex, so much so that there is a (GREAT) book dedicated to Mastering Amazon Associates, written by Jesse Lakes, an OG who built Apple’s affiliate ecosystem.

Thus, almost all think pieces I see about the affiliate space are written for hardcore practitioners, many of whom have been in this space since Amazon was the first major entity to go all-in on affiliate back in 1997 (!)

This piece is written for the ultra-busy Amazon or Shopify founder or CMO who has to juggle affiliate with 100+ other priorities. If you’ve been saying “man, we really need to try and grow affiliate but where the hell do we start”, please read on.  

Before co-founding Brandable, affiliate partnerships fell under my broader remit at Forum Brands and by far the area where I spent the most time collaborating with founders on how to get started.

Below is a summary of the most common consultation call I had with many Amazon and Shopify sellers. In it, I propose a simple two part exercise that is essentially a “sprint” of the highest leverage activities you can do to get affiliate off the ground.

Part 1: Identify 5-10 high-quality publisher partners and seek direct relationships  

With thousands of websites that review products, here’s the process I recommend to find those most essential to your brand.  

For each of your hero ASINs/SKUs, think of about 5 or so non-branded google searches that could lead a shopper to discover this product and run that search on Google. For example, if I were in charge of a hard goods pet brand on Amazon, my searches might look like this:

  • Best collapsible dog bowl
  • Best dog bowl for long walks
  • Best pet brush for short-haired dogs  
  • Best gifts for dog-obsessed humans
  • Best eco-friendly pet products

Zero in on the publishers that most consistently appear on page one. With some luck, maybe they’ve discovered and featured your products already. For time’s sake, I’d max at 10 partners to engage directly. Note, that many of these entities may be owned by the same holding company. For example, publications as diverse as Good Housekeeping (which has very high SEO authority), Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Runner’s World and Popular Mechanics are all owned by Hearst. People, InStyle, The Spruce & Lifewire all roll up under one umbrella as well (Dotdash Meredith).

In general, I’m a fan of the best {X product} for {X} use case format as it generally yields a mix of large partners and niche vertical blogs that often have surprisingly high traffic. This isn’t glamorous work but it is the backbone of building partnerships that drive evergreen traffic and revenue.  

While the advent of LLMs may disrupt this dynamic somewhat, I still believe in this exercise for two reasons:

  • Search traffic to publishers isn’t going away overnight and this is still the best way to find the affiliates that matter to your business
  • There’s a decent chance the same media companies smart enough to win the first game (Google arbitrage) figure out the next one (gaming LLMs).

Once you’ve picked the partners, you’ll need to reach out to the correct contact. If it’s a blog or entity with <500K visits per month, that’s often a founder. For entities owned by larger publishing houses, generally you’re looking for a manager-VP of affiliate or commerce. By and large, these folks rock and tend to be pretty active on LinkedIn/responsive to well-crafted outreach.  

If their editorial teams like your products, expect to pay 10-20% of sales. If you can establish business terms, the name of the game here is consistency. Keep these folks apprised of sales, new product launches or anything else relevant to your catalog.

Part 2: Build a minimum viable tech / network partner stack

To reach the middle and longtail, you’ll need to find a partner that essentially acts as a middleman between brands and affiliates. Here’s where I’d lean in:

  • For your Amazon business, use Levanta: Levanta is a new player on the scene…and essentially everything I wished would come to pass in the Amazon affiliate ecosystem. They’ve sourced a network of generally high quality publishers and influencers and operate as a middleman where you can communicate with prospective partners, set commission rates and offer product samples. The best part is they leverage Amazon Attribution, which means sellers can see robust performance analytics on each placement and receive up to 10% (for now) of all sales back via Amazon’s brand referral bonus. They take a small SaaS fee and a percent of sale but it still backs into very strong efficiency.  
  • For your Shopify business, I recommend Impact: To run affiliate to your Shopify website, you’ll need a basic source of truth/tracking and a network to reach new partners. In the hyper- competitive world of affiliate platforms, Impact has established itself as a market leader among marketing professionals. For most of its existence, it was a premium priced platform that only made sense to graduate to once you ran a fairly sophisticated affiliate operation. However, last year Impact rolled out starter tier pricing that essentially matches that of the SMB incumbent, ShareASale. If you'd like to compare options, here's a great Buyer's Guide on affiliate platforms from Martech Record, an independent trade publication that provides incredible coverage of the ecosystem.
  • If you need an agency partner, consider Perch+: Run by an aggregator, Perch + is essentially an agency for placing high quality Amazon products with affiliate partners. Their fees are generally around 20% of sales, incredibly reasonable for the value. If you can spin up 5X ROAS, Amazon PPC campaigns consistently, please call me so we can go into business together :)

But what about all these other things I’ve heard about?  

Here are a few entities you may see large players working with that I’d recommend keeping out of scope in the early days.

  • Coupon/cashback partners: OK, this is a touch unfair. Coupon sites still represent the majority of GMV that flows through affiliates and have a clear role to play in highly sophisticated multi-touch marketing operations for large retailers and enterprise brands. That said, for smaller partners, understanding incrementality is going to be a time-sucking nightmare and you’ll likely end up with an ugly trail of leaked promo codes and a whole lot of confusion and over-attribution to discounters if you prioritize this channel.
  • Deal sites: Even with broader affiliate, this is an esoteric space. If you run a highly promotional brand, you likely already know more about the inner workings of Slickdeals, Dealmoon and others than I could ever hope to learn in a hundred lifetimes. If this doesn’t describe you, safely ignore.
  • Niche bloggers who cover my space: These entities can have incredible brand, evergreen SEO and performance value– heck, at one point the CEO of casper spent 10+ hours per week thirstily pleading with mattress bloggers to give him the top spot. But unless they consistently fall on page 1 of searches for your products, this is a wildly time sucking endeavor, best achieved through trying to work with a Levanta or one of the folks I mention above.  
  • Performance PR platforms: Headlined by Linkby, there is a class of vendors that offer placements in top publications that are charged on a CPC basis. In theory I LOVE this outlet as you can compare the apples to apples cost of incentivizing review content against your CAC on Meta and Amazon. In practice though, being disintermediated from partners carries a lot of risk once you move off of an affiliate model. If you’re going to think about paying on CPC, do so in direct partnership with publishers. Nik Sharma’s 1180 Media agency is also potentially worth a look here but is pretty selective with clients they work with, understandably favoring only very high AOV & consideration products.  
  • Sketchy content farms/made for advertising websites: C’mon, really?  

This is admittedly, a pretty quick and dirty framework. Dynamics of the affiliate space obviously vary a lot across verticals, margin profiles and length of the purchase funnel for different products. But I hope this helps break the abstract idea of “starting an affiliate program” into tangible activities.

Happy to chat about this stuff at any time– drop me a line at!