How to Set Up an Affiliate or Referral Program on Your WordPress Site

Wouldn’t it be nice if a WordPress site could be something more than just the digital face of one’s brand? That’s why you develop websites in the first place–to help companies do more with their digital presence. In other words, to generate more leads and conversions for their business.

But is that enough? Is the revenue that comes from direct efforts to sell a service or product on the site the only thing you should be focused on?

There are many ways in which a person could make money on a WordPress website besides adding a payment gateway and collecting payments from goods sold. You could also go the route of equipping your WordPress site (for your clients or your own site) with passive income streams. Like affiliate marketing.

There are two ways in which you can use affiliate marketing to your advantage in WordPress. Today, we’re going to focus on the method by which you develop your own affiliate or referral program.

The Basics of an Affiliate or Referral Program

Okay, so there are two ways to do affiliate marketing in WordPress. The first is to use your website to work as a sort of evangelist/unofficial salesperson for someone else’s site, service, or product. An example of this would be to create an affiliate WordPress site and then promote products found on Amazon (as well as Amazon’s own digital services). You would do this by planting affiliate links within relevant content.

As a consumer, you’re probably most familiar with this type of affiliate marketing from product review websites, like this one from Digital Trends:

Digital Trends Affiliate Link

This is a review of the best headphones on the market. When someone clicks on the Amazon or Jet links to the product page, Digital Trends then attaches a tag (which you can see in the URL) that lets Amazon or Jet know that this referral came from them.

As a registered affiliate for Amazon, Digital Trends will then make a commission on any sale generated from that referred visit.

But this isn’t the kind of affiliate or referral marketing we’re talking about today. Instead, we want to look at how you can set up this type of program on a WordPress website, so you can put others to work for you.

Affiliate vs. Referral Programs

An affiliate or referral marketing program will indeed help WordPress sites make money. But you can also use non-monetary offers (like a free security audit, for instance, if you’re a WordPress developer) for new business referred. You just need to remember that the exchange needs to be valuable enough to motivate customers to bring you that new source of revenue.

In exchange for the referral and payout, you will:

  • Increase traffic to your site.
  • Generate basic awareness of a brand new site.
  • Capture more email leads.
  • Get more plugin or theme downloads (for your WordPress business).
  • Get more downloads of your free PDF.
  • Make more sales.
  • Register more members.

There are two options you have if you’re interested in this type of marketing.

The first is the traditional affiliate marketing program.

If you have a website, service, product, ebook, or something else you know others would be interested in (if only they knew about it!), your affiliate marketing program would enable others to promote it on their website. You would simply need to create a landing page dedicated to the affiliate program, lay out the terms of use, and break down the commission payment structure based on successful sales that result from those affiliate links.

The other option is to have a referral program. Whereas affiliate programs rely on users to share links to your site that would earn them a commission on each sale, referral programs are more like refer-a-friend type deals.

Here is an example from the Leesa website:

As you can see, this type of program rewards loyal customers with money back on their own purchase or membership. You could also compensate referrers with discounts on future services, a free gift, etc. But whatever the revenue is that you generate from that referral, the reward to the customer should be of a proportionate value in order to even make it worth referring in the first place.

I realize the examples I’ve provided above make it seem like a commission or other type of payment is the only way to run an affiliate or referral program. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Think about what your customers would value most. Then create a rewards system that caters to that.

WordPress Plugins to Run an Affiliate or Referral Program

With regards to setting up an affiliate or referral program on your site, there’s the manual way of doing it (which doesn’t make much sense at all) or the plugin route (which makes all the sense in the world). Since our goal here is to create a streamlined and automated new source of revenue for your site, let’s review the WordPress plugins you can use to start your own affiliate or referral program.

  • Affiliates Plugin

    If you’re already using WPMU DEV’s plugins to develop ecommerce sites, blog networks, memberships, and more, then consider this your go-to affiliate marketing plugin as it already integrates nicely with your other WPMU DEV plugins.

    Simply install the plugin, enter your PayPal address to make payments from, and enable affiliate links. You’ll then have a special link you can share with your affiliates. And it’s just as easy for them. All they need to do is give you their PayPal address. As they send referrals to your business–and you make money off of them–the system automatically issues payments based on the terms you’ve set.

    You can also use this plugin to track engagements on your URLs around the web; not necessarily for conversions, but just to measure the effectiveness of those marketing campaigns.

    Interested in Affiliates Plugin?

  • Affiliates Manager Plugin

    Looking to give affiliate marketing a try, but aren’t ready to commit to paying for it just yet? You can try the Affiliates Manager plugin in that case. It does what you need it to do: help you recruit, register, and manage your affiliates. You can then track all referrals and issue commission payouts based on the guidelines you set within your program.

    This plugin also integrates with most major ecommerce plugins, which is great since you can leverage your customers’ trust and loyalty to motivate them to join the program.

    Interested in Affiliates Manager Plugin?

  • Ultimate Affiliate Pro WordPress Plugin

    This premium affiliate program plugin is a great choice if you want to add a lot of variety to how the affiliate or referral program runs on your website.

    For instance, you can set up different payment methods: direct with PayPal or Stripe, via a coupon code to be used at checkout, or to spend on a future purchase. You can also create different commission tiers depending on what the referral is for as well as the affiliate’s rank. And, for long-standing affiliates, you can pay out lifetime commissions, recurring referral payments, and even bonuses.

    This is really the ideal plugin if you want to create a membership system around affiliate marketing.

    Interested in Ultimate Affiliate Pro WordPress Plugin?

  • AffiliateWP Plugin

    This is the plugin that is suggested by WooCommerce in its list of extensions, so I would recommend using this if WooCommerce is your ecommerce plugin of choice. (Note: it does work with other ecommerce, payment gateway, and contact form plugins, so you’re free to use it with other WordPress plugins, too.)

    One of the nicest things about this plugin is that you can set up affiliate programs or referral programs with it–it differentiates between the two (among many other things) within the dashboard. I would say this solution is ideal for WordPress developers who build ecommerce and membership sites on a regular basis for clients. It’s also a good choice if you happen to manage one really massive online store that would benefit from referral revenue.

    Interested in AffiliateWP Plugin?

How to Set Up Affiliate or Referral Program on Your WordPress Site

To show you how painless it is to get an affiliate or referral program up and running on your website, I’m going to use the free Affiliate Managers plugin to walk you through the steps.

Step 1: Install the Plugin

Locate the plugin in your WordPress Plugins menu:

Affiliates Manager in WP

Install and Activate it.

Step 2: Define Your Settings

Your new Affiliates menu will now be on the sidebar. Click the Settings tab.

The General Settings tab allows you to set rules for things like:

  • The minimum amount you pay out to affiliates.
  • Cookie duration. Typically, affiliate payouts only apply to the current session of the referred visitor. However, if you want to give your affiliates a longer time period to be rewarded for referrals, you can update this.
  • The amount of commission you want to pay per sale (or percentage, if you prefer).
  • Default currency.
  • Affiliate notification upon commission payout.

The Affiliate Registration tab is where you’ll decide by which means you want to pay out affiliates as well as what sort of information you need from them in order to register to your system.

At the bottom of this page is also a spot where you can write a custom greeting for affiliates that tells them where to sign up or log in. As you can see, there isn’t much to this message at all, so take some time to personalize the greeting. Let affiliates and wannabe affiliates know how much you appreciate their help and what you would like to offer them in exchange for their patronage and assistance. You may just want to write the greeting from the Affiliates Home Page (more on that below).

If you would like to streamline the notification process, create custom messages under this settings tab.

If you want to pay your affiliates by PayPal, you will need to enable PayPal Mass Pay first.

Under the Pages/Forms Settings, you’ll be given the opportunity to define which URLs to place the necessary affiliate program pages at. These include:

The homepage:

The registration page:

The login page:

FYI: this is just the default login “page” affiliates will see. You can use the developer’s suggestion to create a custom Affiliates Login widget instead.

The Terms and Conditions page:

Once everything is configured and you’ve defined your pages, your affiliate program will be live on the site. You can use the other tabs under the Affiliates menu in the sidebar to track affiliate signups and referrals. You can also add them manually if you have a need to do so.

Step 3: Finish Setting Up Your Pages

As you can see in the previews above, the default messaging for your affiliates pages aren’t great.

So, be sure to go to your Pages and build out meaningful messages to your affiliates, encouraging them to join. This especially pertains to the home page that should provide them with all the information they need about what the program entails, what sort of commissions they will receive in exchange for their participation, payment schedules, and so on.

You can’t assume that your customers or clients know what an affiliate or referral program is — or what you are going to do in exchange for their help — so, be as thorough as possible.

Step 4: Integrate with Your Other Plugins

The next thing to do is go to the Add-ons tab. This is where you will find the built-in integration that matches up with whatever membership, contact form, or e-commerce plugin you are using.

By using these, you can create custom commission payouts and offers to your customers rather than rely on the system default percentage or flat rate you defined in the Settings page.

Step 5: Create Your Affiliate Links or Ads

Affiliate or referral links won’t be automatically created, so you’ll need to take care of this yourself.

Under the My Creatives tab, you’ll find this:

If you want to promote your referral program with a custom-designed button, you can upload it here. Or you can just create a text link for affiliates to use.

Give it a clear name so your affiliates know what they’re referring visitors to. For example, this is how it will show up on the affiliates side:

They’ll be given a bit of HTML for easy embedding of either a text or image link on their site.

Next, define the landing page (the page you want referrals to be driven to on your website).

For images, upload your creative. For links, write out the text you want to be embedded on your affiliate’s web page. Alt text is what will appear when someone hovers over the link.

For your reference, this is how they will appear once embedded on your affiliates’ websites:

Granted, the image affiliate link should actually promote your affiliate or referral program. I haven’t created any sort of creative ad for my own affiliate program and so this cute coffee mug will serve as a stand-in for now. But you get the point.

Be sure to share these links with your affiliates or let them know where to go in the dashboard under their profiles to retrieve them. You may also want to regularly blog and send out newsletters about ongoing affiliate promotions (being sure to reference the label you’ve assigned to them in the dashboard) so as to encourage affiliates to share more.

Step 6: Acquaint Yourself with the Dashboard and Start Paying

The final step is to settle in and watch as your affiliates start making money for you. Within the Affiliates dashboard, you’ll be able to track all of that activity.

If you’ve chosen to issue payment by check to your affiliates, you will, of course, have to be mindful of this and issue those payments on the promised timeline (which you should define with the main program’s homepage). If you’ve chosen to use PayPal Mass Pay, once that’s configured, you should be able to automate these payments and take some of the load off of your shoulders.

Of course, this is just one solution for creating an affiliate or referral program for your website using a plugin. As I mentioned above, there are premium WordPress plugins that allow you to do more, integrate with more WordPress solutions, and streamline the workflow even further. But this is a good place to start.

Wrapping Up

As you’re just starting a business or working on scaling and growing your brand’s reputation, affiliate programs can do a lot to help you reach a broader audience. It may also be more effective than trying to go it on your own–as we’ve seen how powerful user-generated content and referrals are in winning the favor of other customers. After all, consumers won’t necessarily know to trust you, but they will know to trust those close to them.

Brenda Barron
Over to you: After reading this, is affiliate marketing something you would consider using to get the word out about your own WordPress site and business?