What Is The Affiliate Business Model? The Affiliate Business Model In A Nutshell

Affiliation business models are an evolution of advertising business models. Instead of making money based on a user action, like an impression or a click, they make money based on conversion. Under the affiliate business model, a business pays commissions to affiliates who promote and sell products on its behalf. Therefore, if the user converts through the link provided by the affiliate, it will generate a commission. That is why affiliate business models often have a completely different logic than advertising business models. Advertisers make money from bot impressions and clicks. The affiliate mostly makes money if there is a conversion (even though affiliate schemes also include pay-per-impression and pay-per-click campaigns).

Understanding the affiliate business model

While affiliate marketing and the concept of revenue sharing predates the internet, the strategy has become a staple for many online businesses and has played a significant part in the success of eCommerce itself. 

Entrepreneur and inventor William J. Tobin was the first person to implement affiliate marketing in an online business. The online flower retailer was founded in 1994 and had amassed almost three thousand affiliate partners before it was sold to Federated Department Stores six years later. Tobin was encouraged to patent his technology in 1996, but the patent itself was not issued until 2000.

This opened the door for Amazon who, after witnessing Tobin’s success, launched its own affiliate program in 1996. The Amazon Associates affiliate program was the first such program made available to the general public. Webmasters could display custom banners that linked back to the Amazon website with a unique tracking ID and receive a percentage-based commission on any resultant sales. 

Today, approximately 2.3% of all websites using advertising networks are Amazon Associates members. The model remains popular because it is a relatively passive source of income for merchants. For the affiliate, the business model allows them to promote products and earn an income without the hassle of shipping and customer service.

The essential elements of the affiliate business model

The affiliate business model relies on the interaction between two or more of the following elements:

The affiliate (publisher)

The affiliate is the entity that promotes a third-party product to its target audience in exchange for a commission on every successful sale. The first affiliates promoted products by reviewing them in blog posts, but products are now promoted on social media accounts and in videos.

The merchant (advertiser)

The seller of the product who may also be the product manufacturer. The merchant can be a large retail conglomerate such as Amazon or an individual craftsperson on Etsy. 

The network (middleman)

In some cases, there is also a network that connects merchants with affiliates and handles product payment and delivery for a fee. Many affiliate networks rely on the affiliate business model to generate all their revenue. 

The customer

Or the individual who buys the product after being referred by the affiliate. Historically, the customer was unaware that their purchase was part of affiliate marketing. But recent legislative changes made by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now stipulate that the affiliate must disclose its relationship to the merchant when promoting products and services.

Payment methods under the affiliate business model

There are five main ways an affiliate can be paid under the affiliate business model, although usually affiliates are mostly paid through pay-per-sale:

  1. Pay-per-click (PPC) – where the affiliate is paid whenever their links are clicked. Note that in most cases, the affiliate must create and manage ad campaigns at their own expense and are only paid once a conversion (sale) takes place.
  2. Pay-per-impression (PPI) – where the affiliate is paid when a consumer visits the merchant’s site. In some cases, pay-per-impression also encompasses revenue based on how many times consumers view display or text ads.
  3. Pay-per-lead (PPL) – here, the affiliate is paid when an individual clicks on an affiliate link and completes some desired action such as filling out an online form. Payroll software company Gusto pays $25 to affiliates for every lead that signs up for a free trial of its product.
  4. Pay-per-call – where affiliates are paid for each call they make to a potential customer. This approach is favored by service companies such as home-improvement contractors and real estate agents. 
  5. Pay-per-sale (PPS) – the most common form of payment where the affiliate receives a percentage commission from every sale they facilitate. Merchants set the exact percentage, with rates varying according to the product category. For example, Amazon offers a 1% commission on baby products but 3% on headphones, musical instruments, pet products, and furniture.

Key takeaways:

  • Under the affiliate business model, a business pays commissions to affiliates who promote and sell products on its behalf. The Amazon Associates affiliate program was the first such program to be made available to the general public.
  • The affiliate business model may have up to four essential elements: the affiliate, the merchant, the network, and the customer. Many customers were unaware they were participating in the model until an FTC ruling forced affiliates to disclose their position.
  • The affiliate can earn money in five core ways: pay-per-click, pay-per-impression, pay-per-lead, pay-per-call, and pay-per-sale. In each case, the merchant dictates how much the affiliate will be paid for completing a certain action.

Key Highlights

  • Evolution from Advertising Models: Affiliate business models differ from traditional advertising models. Instead of revenue from user actions like impressions or clicks, affiliates earn money based on conversions generated through their promotions.
  • Conversion-Centric: Affiliates earn commissions when users convert through their referral links, setting it apart from advertising models that focus on impressions and clicks.
  • Affiliate Marketing Origins: Affiliate marketing’s history predates the internet, but it became prominent online. William J. Tobin implemented it in 1994, followed by Amazon’s launch of the Amazon Associates affiliate program in 1996.
  • Amazon Associates: Amazon’s affiliate program was the first available to the general public, enabling website owners to promote Amazon products and earn commissions on sales.
  • Popular and Passive Income: Around 2.3% of websites using advertising networks are Amazon Associates, showcasing the model’s popularity. It’s a relatively passive income source for merchants, and affiliates can earn without dealing with shipping and customer service.
  • Key Elements:
    • Affiliate: Promotes third-party products for commissions, using various platforms like blogs, social media, and videos.
    • Merchant: Seller or manufacturer of the product being promoted, such as Amazon or individual craftspersons.
    • Network: Acts as a middleman connecting affiliates and merchants, often handling payment and delivery for a fee.
    • Customer: Purchases the product referred by the affiliate, and recent regulations require disclosing the affiliate’s relationship to the merchant.
  • Payment Methods:
    • Pay-per-Click (PPC): Affiliates earn when their links are clicked, but actual earnings come from conversions (sales).
    • Pay-per-Impression (PPI): Payment when consumers visit the merchant’s site, potentially based on ad views.
    • Pay-per-Lead (PPL): Affiliates earn for each desired action, like filling out forms.
    • Pay-per-Call: Payment for each call made to potential customers, commonly used by service companies.
    • Pay-per-Sale (PPS): Most common method, affiliates earn a percentage commission from each facilitated sale, with rates varying based on product categories.

Read Next: Google Business ModelFacebook Business ModelAsymmetric Business ModelsAttention-Based Business Models.

Connected Business Model Types And Frameworks

What’s A Business Model

An effective business model has to focus on two dimensions: the people dimension and the financial dimension. The people dimension will allow you to build a product or service that is 10X better than existing ones and a solid brand. The financial dimension will help you develop proper distribution channels by identifying the people that are willing to pay for your product or service and make it financially sustainable in the long run.

Business Model Innovation

Business model innovation is about increasing the success of an organization with existing products and technologies by crafting a compelling value proposition able to propel a new business model to scale up customers and create a lasting competitive advantage. And it all starts by mastering the key customers.

Level of Digitalization

Digital and tech business models can be classified according to four levels of transformation into digitally-enabled, digitally-enhanced, tech or platform business models, and business platforms/ecosystems.

Digital Business Model

A digital business model might be defined as a model that leverages digital technologies to improve several aspects of an organization. From how the company acquires customers, to what product/service it provides. A digital business model is such when digital technology helps enhance its value proposition.

Tech Business Model

A tech business model is made of four main components: value model (value propositions, mission, vision), technological model (R&D management), distribution model (sales and marketing organizational structure), and financial model (revenue modeling, cost structure, profitability and cash generation/management). Those elements coming together can serve as the basis to build a solid tech business model.

Platform Business Model

A platform business model generates value by enabling interactions between people, groups, and users by leveraging network effects. Platform business models usually comprise two sides: supply and demand. Kicking off the interactions between those two sides is one of the crucial elements for a platform business model success.

AI Business Model


Blockchain Business Model

A Blockchain Business Model is made of four main components: Value Model (Core Philosophy, Core Value and Value Propositions for the key stakeholders), Blockchain Model (Protocol Rules, Network Shape and Applications Layer/Ecosystem), Distribution Model (the key channels amplifying the protocol and its communities), and the Economic Model (the dynamics through which protocol players make money). Those elements coming together can serve as the basis to build and analyze a solid Blockchain Business Model.

Asymmetric Business Models

In an asymmetric business model, the organization doesn’t monetize the user directly, but it leverages the data users provide coupled with technology, thus have a key customer pay to sustain the core asset. For example, Google makes money by leveraging users’ data, combined with its algorithms sold to advertisers for visibility.

Attention Merchant Business Model

In an asymmetric business model, the organization doesn’t monetize the user directly, but it leverages the data users provide coupled with technology, thus having a key customer pay to sustain the core asset. For example, Google makes money by leveraging users’ data, combined with its algorithms sold to advertisers for visibility. This is how attention merchants make monetize their business models.

Open-Core Business Model

While the term has been coined by Andrew Lampitt, open-core is an evolution of open-source. Where a core part of the software/platform is offered for free, while on top of it are built premium features or add-ons, which get monetized by the corporation who developed the software/platform. An example of the GitLab open core model, where the hosted service is free and open, while the software is closed.

Cloud Business Models

Cloud business models are all built on top of cloud computing, a concept that took over around 2006 when former Google’s CEO Eric Schmit mentioned it. Most cloud-based business models can be classified as IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service), PaaS (Platform as a Service), or SaaS (Software as a Service). While those models are primarily monetized via subscriptions, they are monetized via pay-as-you-go revenue models and hybrid models (subscriptions + pay-as-you-go).

Open Source Business Model

Open source is licensed and usually developed and maintained by a community of independent developers. While the freemium is developed in-house. Thus the freemium give the company that developed it, full control over its distribution. In an open-source model, the for-profit company has to distribute its premium version per its open-source licensing model.

Freemium Business Model

The freemium – unless the whole organization is aligned around it – is a growth strategy rather than a business model. A free service is provided to a majority of users, while a small percentage of those users convert into paying customers through the sales funnel. Free users will help spread the brand through word of mouth.

Freeterprise Business Model

A freeterprise is a combination of free and enterprise where free professional accounts are driven into the funnel through the free product. As the opportunity is identified the company assigns the free account to a salesperson within the organization (inside sales or fields sales) to convert that into a B2B/enterprise account.

Marketplace Business Models

A marketplace is a platform where buyers and sellers interact and transact. The platform acts as a marketplace that will generate revenues in fees from one or all the parties involved in the transaction. Usually, marketplaces can be classified in several ways, like those selling services vs. products or those connecting buyers and sellers at B2B, B2C, or C2C level. And those marketplaces connecting two core players, or more.

B2B vs B2C Business Model

B2B, which stands for business-to-business, is a process for selling products or services to other businesses. On the other hand, a B2C sells directly to its consumers.

B2B2C Business Model

A B2B2C is a particular kind of business model where a company, rather than accessing the consumer market directly, it does that via another business. Yet the final consumers will recognize the brand or the service provided by the B2B2C. The company offering the service might gain direct access to consumers over time.

D2C Business Model

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) is a business model where companies sell their products directly to the consumer without the assistance of a third-party wholesaler or retailer. In this way, the company can cut through intermediaries and increase its margins. However, to be successful the direct-to-consumers company needs to build its own distribution, which in the short term can be more expensive. Yet in the long-term creates a competitive advantage.

C2C Business Model

The C2C business model describes a market environment where one customer purchases from another on a third-party platform that may also handle the transaction. Under the C2C model, both the seller and the buyer are considered consumers. Customer to customer (C2C) is, therefore, a business model where consumers buy and sell directly between themselves. Consumer-to-consumer has become a prevalent business model especially as the web helped disintermediate various industries.

Retail Business Model

A retail business model follows a direct-to-consumer approach, also called B2C, where the company sells directly to final customers a processed/finished product. This implies a business model that is mostly local-based, it carries higher margins, but also higher costs and distribution risks.

Wholesale Business Model

The wholesale model is a selling model where wholesalers sell their products in bulk to a retailer at a discounted price. The retailer then on-sells the products to consumers at a higher price. In the wholesale model, a wholesaler sells products in bulk to retail outlets for onward sale. Occasionally, the wholesaler sells direct to the consumer, with supermarket giant Costco the most obvious example.

Crowdsourcing Business Model

The term “crowdsourcing” was first coined by Wired Magazine editor Jeff Howe in a 2006 article titled Rise of Crowdsourcing. Though the practice has existed in some form or another for centuries, it rose to prominence when eCommerce, social media, and smartphone culture began to emerge. Crowdsourcing is the act of obtaining knowledge, goods, services, or opinions from a group of people. These people submit information via social media, smartphone apps, or dedicated crowdsourcing platforms.

Franchising Business Model

In a franchained business model (a short-term chain, long-term franchise) model, the company deliberately launched its operations by keeping tight ownership on the main assets, while those are established, thus choosing a chain model. Once operations are running and established, the company divests its ownership and opts instead for a franchising model.

Brokerage Business Model

Businesses employing the brokerage business model make money via brokerage services. This means they are involved with the facilitation, negotiation, or arbitration of a transaction between a buyer and a seller. The brokerage business model involves a business connecting buyers with sellers to collect a commission on the resultant transaction. Therefore, acting as a middleman within a transaction.

Dropshipping Business Model

Dropshipping is a retail business model where the dropshipper externalizes the manufacturing and logistics and focuses only on distribution and customer acquisition. Therefore, the dropshipper collects final customers’ sales orders, sending them over to third-party suppliers, who ship directly to those customers. In this way, through dropshipping, it is possible to run a business without operational costs and logistics management.

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