Affiliate marketing – what is it and what can it do for your business?

Not just reserved for large brands - affiliate marketing is the online channel you’re missing out on

When it comes to digital marketing the options can seem overwhelming, making it difficult to know which channels are most suited to your business and target audience. One channel that you might be overlooking is affiliate marketing, which is not just reserved for large brands.

As an SME, you’re focused on maximising an often tight marketing budget’s return on investment. At Awin, we understand these challenges from our experience in supporting over 25,000 growing online brands worldwide. We have seen first-hand how taking the step into this exciting channel can reap huge benefits for SMEs In this guide, we’ll demystify affiliate marketing, show you the benefits for your business, and walk you through some practical steps to get started.

What is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is what’s known as “performance-based marketing”. An ecommerce website – known as an “advertiser” – will reward a chosen partner – known as a “publisher” – for successfully driving an agreed action on their website. This action is typically a sale but can also include other valuable interactions, like completing an online form or submitting an email address.

‘Affiliate marketing is an effective and accessible online channel that can bring consistent revenue streams for small businesses’

For small businesses, reaching new audiences can be challenging. Affiliate marketing offers an effective solution by partnering with influencers, price comparison sites, voucher code sites, cashback sites, bloggers and more. It helps online ecommerce stores reach vast new customers in a way that they often can’t alone, or through costly digital ad platforms.

These online partners act as intermediaries, connecting your online store with potential new customers. They are rewarded for enticing those customers to buy your products or service. What sets affiliate marketing apart, is that you only pay for confirmed results generated by your chosen partners. This makes it a cost-efficient channel for online businesses looking to grow online sales and reach new audiences.

Want to know more about how to supercharge your online sales? Download the full Awin webinar for free here

How does affiliate marketing work?

Your chosen partners will promote your product or service to their own audience using a specific link to your product page or website. They can promote this link through various channels such as blog posts, social media, review videos, or display ads on their website.

This specific link is unique to each partner and is tracked. By using an affiliate marketing platform like Awin, you can easily monitor the number of clicks and sales generated in a simple dashboard. You’ll be able to easily report and measure ROI against your marketing spend.  

When your partners drive successful actions you reward them with a fee, known as a commission.

How much does it cost?

An affiliate platform will take a monthly membership fee to securely track these valuable relationships. With Awin, that’s only £75+VAT per month.

Once you’ve discovered your partners, you’re control of setting the commission that you pay them. For example, if you chose to reward your partner 5 per cent for each completed sale and they successfully drive a sale of £100, you pay them £5.

The affiliate platform will take a small fee for connecting, tracking and managing the sale, which is 2.5 per cent of the sale value at Awin.   In summary, on top of your monthly fee to use the platform, a tracked sale of £100 would cost you £7.50, offering great ROI for your marketing budget. It can even be more cost-effective than some of the large ad platforms.

Why should I use affiliate marketing?

Challenging economic times call for trusted solutions. A recent study by the Influencer Marketing Hub said that more than 80 per cent of marketers use affiliate marketing at the earliest stage of the customer journey; when trying to build awareness with brand new customers. For small online stores, affiliate marketing presents a sustainable way to grow your online presence and find new customers in new places. We’ve cherry-picked the best reasons affiliate marketing will help you do this.

Positive ROI

According to a 2023 study by Affilimate, the average return on ad spend for affiliate marketing globally is 12:1. This means for every £1 spent on affiliate advertising, businesses are getting £12 back. Small businesses who start affiliate marketing with Awin see an above-average return on their spend of £14 for every £1. Hear from real businesses growing online and seeing tangible results from affiliate marketing.

Control costs

Some bidding systems on digital ad platforms, such as social ads or Google ads, use complex algorithms to determine the cost of an ad placement.

With affiliate marketing, you have full control of the costs, avoiding skyrocketing marketing expenses and the need for extensive digital marketing knowledge.

You can choose to pay for sales, per download, per call (or call duration), per lead or per impression based on your strategy, providing flexibility and alignment with your goals.

Simple setup

Setting your business up on an affiliate marketing platform is simple, even without experience or a full-time marketing team.  You’ll get lots of information about how to navigate the platform, tips and tricks for success and access to resources like webinars.   

Awin’s self-managed solution for SMEs, Awin Access, offers simple integration with your website, email support and guidance, and has just a three-month initial term to let you test affiliate marketing out with low risk. After that, you can cancel easily with 14 days’ notice.

Grow together

With a great affiliate marketing platform, you have the freedom to choose partners who align with your brand values to represent you. You should be able to filter the partner directory by sector to find your perfect match.

You can opt to work with partners who have widespread audiences or select nano or micro-influencers with a smaller, loyal following to suit niche or luxury products. Your agility as a smaller brand allows for building strong relationships and growing with your partners.


Changes in consumer behaviour have affected how small online businesses interact with their customers.

With affiliate marketing you’ll be confident that you’re hanging out where your customers are. Whether this is by being visible on a website they trust, recommended by an influencer they love, or having a feature on a blog that feels comfortable to them, they’ll trust this more than a Google ad.

Diversifying and testing new channels will protect marketing investment, build a suite of performing channels ready for busy periods, and keep you adaptable for market changes.

When should I use affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing offers a year-round revenue stream for your business, so you can start a programme anytime and get the benefits.

While certain periods such as Mother’s Day, Valentines Day, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas witness increased online sales, you can optimise their performance by cultivating strong relationships during less busy times. This enables you to gather data on fruitful partnerships and determine who to do more with.

Planning ahead means you can be ready to take advantage of specific seasonal campaigns that partners may be running. This way, your affiliate partnerships are doing the heavy lifting for you in this busy period.

Online businesses are now starting their winter sales as early as October.  Read our guide to preparing for peak season to ensure you’re ahead of even the most organised of retailers.

How do I get started?

Affiliate marketing is an effective and accessible online channel that can bring consistent revenue streams for small businesses. It’s important for advertisers to find secure and vetted partners through an experienced platform to promote their service or product effectively.

Awin’s affiliate marketing solution, Awin Access, setup specifically to support small online businesses has generated over £200m in sales for SMEs. It is the perfect first step to reach new customers and grow online sales.

Michelle O’Sullivan is the global customer success director for Awin’s exciting entry-level SME affiliate solution, Awin Access. With over 21 years’ experience in digital marketing Michelle is passionate about supporting SMEs and independent businesses in accessing and benefitting from great digital marketing opportunities

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Michelle O'Sullivan

Michelle O’Sullivan is the global customer success director for affiliate marketing platform Awin.

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Affiliate marketing