As a part of an intro here - Kirsty McCubbin (also known as @AffiliateStuff over on "that Twitter") was an early joiner to NotAnotherSlack, and has managed to put up with many of my many daft affiliate questions in general, and as reward I decided to pester her to be my first interview here on the site!
Sadly my interview skills didn't quite live up to what I'd imagined. Whilst in my head I came across as a slightly younger, tech-savvy Michael Parkinson, I fear I actually came across as more of a Karl Pilkington.
Leaving that all to one side - it was great to have someone with Kirsty's affiliate marketing knowledge join the Slack, and I think it's clear to all our members that she's "all-in" on many of her projects.
On with the interview! 💪
Hey Kirsty! Great to speak with you today - thanks very much for giving up your time here!
At the risk of already sounding like a bit of a negative Nigel - do you find that in your line of work as an affiliate marketer it's a bit lonely at times, when you lack having someone to chat about the little things related to running your websites?
Do you feel that Twitter or Slack might help to avoid those feelings?
I think Twitter has been huge for me. I actually am probably a little bit more unique for being a pure affiliate marketing woman.
I found it really difficult coming back after I'd have kids - the levels of exhaustion and so on, and that's why I've ended up being a PPC affiliate because I just couldn't think!
I can always do PPC if I've had no sleep - I can make money doing PPC it's just it's an automatic thing.
It was hard coming back after having kids and if it hadn't been for Twitter just exposing me back to what everyone's up to and just trying to get that finger back in the pulse i don't know how i could have re-joined things because I had got completely disconnected.
It's great to keep you connected with what other people are doing even when it is only a really small snippet - that's all I need. Especially for things like the kind of processes that people use for for SEO and to judge what type of content they’ve been working on.
You just need that little little bit of inspiration really.
What I don't have is I don't have someone to talk out loud about this stuff with anymore so that's something that I would value but obviously being an introverted affiliate, joining some of these video call things is just the absolute last thing that's gonna happen!
You've mentioned that PPC is where most of your time is spent as an affiliate marketer. Is that typically using Google Ads - is that where most of your time is spent, or is it quite broad; using Facebook or even Bing?
At the moment I am pushing really hard to get back into SEO - so actually I'm producing content and manipulating all these hundreds of new websites I recently acquired. Normally PPC is where I spend most of my time and the good thing about PPC is that it supports the SEO efforts. Most of my money at the moment is actually coming from Bing PPC which is kind of my PPC super power these days!
I also do a little bit of direct to merchant PPC on Adwords and Bing, which some merchants will allow affiliates to do either by default or negotiation.
So for the inexperienced / noob affiliate marketers like me, when you say negotiate is that literally when you’re on an affiliate program already and you kind of try and negotiate a better rate?
Or is it trying to bring them onto an affiliate platform?
Usually it would be someone with an existing program and in my case it would tend to be someone that i had already had like a proven relationship with.
I might just say "have you got any opportunities?" and not many merchants do - it's not very common.
There can be really high volume opportunities and the affiliate pool can help them with their cash flow - those opportunities may come.
You generally have to be saying I see that you're doing this, I've gone and researched that you're doing this, I'll go over there and do that “thing” that is perhaps something that would not be worth your time but it will most certainly be worth my time.
The last thing I did was like "I've got a lot of data, I've been a content affiliate for you guys for a long time, and I've also got PPC data from this other place and I've found some areas where you're not really showing up, so I think that I can add some value here, so how about it?"
Is it ever a case of trying to convince them (the merchant) that you should be able to bid on their brand terms, or is it always a case that you're building a site which is a perfect fit for them in terms of target audience - you're getting all of these visits and they're interested in these types of products and you're sure that you could you could sell X at a good rate?
Sometimes it will include the ability to brand bid but they're very much going to want you to then be adding value back rather than walking away pocketing any of that brand bidding money.
Personally I wouldn't really include brand bidding in a pitch if I was going to ask to do that - I don't need to be getting money in from the brand.
I've done a bit of PPC management for some companies and I sometimes wonder here if it's the case that they might not actually have in-house PPC specialists available, or they might not work with agencies, so there could be a bit of a knowledge gap.
They might not realise the value of taking on PPC, or having someone external managing it for them?
I think sometimes more commonly you will see it being smaller companies that are allowing it because if you go and look through the networks you will find some and they will allow direct.
The pitfall as an affiliate is if you do too well because as soon as you're sitting at the top of their affiliate list they go "What are we paying her 3 000 pounds a month for?! Let’s watch this girl" - and they think to themselves - "Three thousand pounds a month, we could do it ourselves for that!" and you get kicked off.
I tend to really cherry-pick bits that I can do for the most possible profit and not expand it and kind of fly under the radar, just quietly add my value, because I have been removed so many times from programs because I've just not been able to resist absolutely reeling it in!
That’s the pitfall where you don't have a a property (a website) and that's why I need to get back to building these SEO sites where I've got the control and if somebody says “Oh you're doing too well we're dropping your commission” you can turn around and say "OK fine, I'm not going to work with you anymore, I'll work with your competitor over there and this won't affect you too much".
That's the weakness of being a sole PPC affiliate.
Questions from the NotAnotherSlack group
Dean Cruddace asked:
How much paid search budget do you initially set aside for brand new niche sites?
I don't really set aside a formal budget for anything like that.
For any niche site I've got where I think that I can land a bit traffic - where I've got a chance of making some money, I'll say I'm going to chuck a couple hundred quid at this and I'm gonna see how it goes.
If it's neutral I'll just keep it running at a low level until I find those little revenue streams that are going to let me scale it or direct more content.
If it goes well I limit it to a couple thousand pounds and then I’ll reassess the situation.
The issue as an affiliate is you’re always at risk of not being paid to you need to limit your losses.
So I’ll then slowly start to drip feed more money in until the money from the merchant starts to come back out, so then I can start to seed it using the profit from the campaign.
I’ll always build these campaigns slowly so I’ll limit that initial budget to protect my businesses’ cash flow - and then if I end up losing something it’s essentially their money.
That makes sense - it was something else I was curious about, because I imagine cash flow can be a tricky one for some affiliates to manage.
There’s quite often a fairly big delay between earning a commission and the payout, is that right?
I guess they all have different terms but yeah and that's one of the reasons why I would feed money in slowly because it lets me get a sense of their business.
If I don't already have that relationship with them it helps me to see how trustworthy are these people with the payments.
I would scale slowly because I have had issues in the past where people have been really reliable with payments right up until the point where they owed me five grand and then they didn't pay me!
They hadn't been paying attention to the program and they logged in one time and went “we owe this person how much?!” - and presumably not just me but some others as well where they went “that's a really big bill” and so you need to exercise your own risk management system ultimately.
Even when you've got a really good relationship with people it can be that you’re still waiting two months for payment. And if you let it slip you can end up funding their business to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds and you can be sitting there waiting to get paid.
So there’s a lot of fear there. So if you ever see me on Twitter talking about "having my big girl knickers on" [edit - this is not a reference to one of Kirsty's side projects] that tends to be the clue that I'm into something for that kind of money!
Maybe I’m just more cautious than some others.
It almost feels like there's always going to be this element of risk when you're doing affiliate marketing that it's hard to avoid completely.
You just have to try and limit your exposure like you say - otherwise unless you give it a try, and take that first step, then you're never going to achieve anything really.
You've got to commit something to it otherwise nothing will happen.
Definitely. There has to be an element of bravery involved.
I probably do still overthink it but I do believe that if you prepare for the worst at all times you're always going to be in a good position as long as you don't let that interfere with your ability to make money.
You have to strike that balance between the fear and a genuine great opportunity.
You have to get the big girl knickers on and go for it to a certain extent!
Another Question from the NotAnotherSlack group
Mark Porter asked a nice one - When it comes to niches do you follow passion or profit?
Well money does drive interest so I can soon get interested in a topic when it has been proven that this is really really high value and low competition.
Generally speaking to really scale something I'll need to to have an enthusiasm of some kind for it, or be able to create some kind of resonance personally with the content.
At the end of the day you're trying to put yourself in the position of the buyer and trying to add value to them at the right point in their purchase journey.
So you need to have at least some resonance and if you can't get your head around it you're just not going to do a terrific job.
Do you tend to do a lot of content writing yourself or is it something that you always look to outsource?
A few people were asking me how to get started on their side projects and I usually nudge them in the direction of things that they are interested in or they have some kind of knowledge of, otherwise they're making life harder for themselves.
They have to research all this stuff, and then if you suddenly decide to do a site [eg about carpets] - and it's a topic that’s really boring, you've got to actually create that content yourself (as you may not have any budget to go and hire writers).
So it's not going to be much fun - you might lose a lot of interest if it doesn't work out fast enough.
I'm not getting the time that I want to at the moment to do that.
The projects that I'm trying to get off the ground that I know will make the most money, I have to write that myself because I know already that I'm not gonna be able to afford the writer that's going to do a decent job.
These niches are things that I've worked in for decades so I've got that product knowledge and I just know that it needs to be me and that's why you need to do it like that, at least for your first niche site until you get your processes laid down and you understand how you're going to make money personally from these websites.
If you don't have that insight into the consumer motivation behind it then you're going to struggle.
I'm not going to say that people won't manage it because there are people that will but if if you have an interest in it you're going to understand why people would want to to buy it and you're going to understand the information that they would value about the product.
So really I think if you're not interested in it it really reduces your chances of success.
I feel like on Twitter especially with regard to affiliates there’s a lot of gurus on there, and a bit of a hustle culture - with many of them promoting their own tools (or affiliate links!) which will supposedly skyrocket your own affiliate sites.
There’s also a lot of motivational, fairly vague (or empty) talk too.
So - it’s nice to see someone such as yourself who has a more refreshing or honest approach - real talk!
I’ve thought about this before - I think people only like to hear positive things on social.
I know that if I talk about stuff that’s going really wrong for me as an affiliate, there's absolutely zero engagement, and people don't want to hear about how I've had this massive problem and it's all going wrong!
My head’s on the backside because of this stuff but you know - if I go and post about how I’ve just had this huge affiliate payment, the engagement is through the roof!
I think there are these kind of empty platitudes that resonate with people because it sounds like it’s not difficult to achieve. And these people buy these platitudes - which are all quite general - and it’s all terribly easy.
I think you need a healthy dose of scepticism when you’re browsing these feeds.
Since working on my side projects a bit more I’ve fallen into the trap of being tempted by these new tools on the market - and it now feels like my side projects aren’t about making me money, they’re just about earning enough to cover the costs of all these tools!
Do you struggle with this too - bit of a magpie effect?
I think that's bought me back on my heels about when I started to to look closely at SEO processes again.
Back in my day - when the internet was driven by steam - we had spreadsheets and the Overture keyword suggestion, and that was it.
We didn't even have Google Analytics as it didn't exist - nobody had invented it and then when you come back in that's a big leap forward, and it just feels like "wait a minute I need to spend £500 a month on tools just to even be moderately competent at this...what?!"
It immediately feels like a barrier though and i don't think it's a barrier that needs to be there because the basics do remain the same.
You don't need the tools you can use Google Search Console and various free tools to get keywords. Okay you won't maybe have the same level of insight but there's still a lot you can do without needing all of these tools.
Working in what is quite a male dominated industry - is it something that bothers you, and why do you think there aren't more females involved? Or are there, I’m just not so aware of them?
I usually answer I don't know why more women aren’t involved in affiliate marketing but I think the real answer these days is I don't know why there aren't more women who are pure affiliates because I think there's a lot of women now who are monetizing using various flavours of affiliate marketing.
So there might be content creators, and social media influencers using affiliate links, so I think that affiliate marketing is creeping in there and that for those people it’s increasingly becoming a really valuable revenue stream.
I suppose those are still female affiliate marketers but they're just a different thing now - I genuinely don't know why there aren't more pure female affiliates.
I'm sure they’re around and that some of them just aren’t visible but I've never really understood it because it seems like the perfect job to combine with having children in terms of the flexibility.
I suppose one answer might be that I'm probably one of the only women that was trained in an agency years ago so maybe it comes down to that imbalance that's it's in the SEO industry as well.
I genuinely don’t know why more females aren’t involved.
Affiliate marketing on a full-time basis - some people think it's living the dream! Would you say yes, or do you think it's not quite as glamorous as people might imagine?
It is living the dream! when I was first an affiliate marketer my not quite husband and I went on an around the world trip in 2006.
We went to Thailand through to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York and that took us a year, and then we went back home and we arranged to get married.
Then we went to Australia and bought a house and that was living the dream!
Now living the dream is just having flexibility. Things have become a lot more mundane.
Children have come into the mix but I can always be there for my children and if my kids need a day off school because they're not well, I can just say just stay home and I can look after them - that's what I'm valuing about it now.
It gives me the flexibility to be with my kids and to not have an employer pressure me to come to work or to have that perception that I've had too many days off because my children are ill or because I want to have a family break or something like that so it's the flexibility for me.
Do you ever feel like people assume that you're not really working because you're working from home - friends might imagine that you're free to go out and play, or do you think it does get a bit more respect now, because of what's happened with Covid?
I think people are a bit more aware that if you're working at home that it is definitely something now.
You get people saying things like “oh it must be it must be great working at home with your children” - because you'll totally be able to put on a full day's work and have your kids there wouldn’t you?!
Would you bring your kids in here to to work with you? - no, no you wouldn't because you don't have super powers, that's right!
But I think now people do realise a bit more that it's actually a serious role in that you're not just being handed money by Nigerian princes.
As an affiliate you probably need to be a bit of an all-rounder, kind of a “T-Shaped Marketer” to borrow a phrase that all the cool kids are using.
Do you think being a good allrounder might give you a good head start if you wanted to be an affiliate marketer?
I do think you have to be an all-rounder and that might be part of the reason why there's not more people in the affiliate market.
It might be a barrier because there's a lot of stuff you need to do.
For me I sometimes get frustrated at the lack of ability to really focus in on some aspects of it because I don't have the time.
I can't get myself lost in this niche aspect of SEO because I've got stuff to get on with - I've got to do everything.
At the same time I've got a terrible attention span as I said before so I guess it works because it also gives you the ability to jump around and to pursue whatever's interesting you that day and still be productive rather than just getting distracted and staring into space.
Do you tend to make a schedule for the week when you're working? Do you say that tomorrow I'm gonna be working on this and this, or are you quite flexible?
I do tend to have to write a schedule down for myself.
Sometimes if I don't have that list there I write a list at the end of the day before.
I'm not silly enough to try and do a schedule for the whole week because I end up having a meltdown by Wednesday!
Every day if I don't have that list I can just sit there going there's just so much I could be doing right now, I'll tell you what I'll do sit and do nothing!
So yeah I need a list definitely, especially with social media as well there's lots of rabbit holes, you have to stay off there.
Sometimes I need to get my head down and be able to work from that list.
Are you surprised there aren't more people doing affiliate marketing? We touched upon this but do you think that it surprises you or do you think there are lots more people doing it nowadays?
I'm just going to say no it doesn't surprise me because there are so many people who come into it who are not really going to have the skill set or be able to obtain the skill set to to actually successfully execute it.
There are a lot of skills that you have to teach yourself so I'm not really surprised.
Actually contrary to all these people with their motivational posts on Twitter it's actually really difficult.
It's not an easy way to make money but it is advertised as an easy way to make money so it does suffer as a career with a little bit of misdirection.
I think that you do need to have quite a broad range of skills.
It always surprised me that people with really good SEO knowledge couldn't just go, “I'm going to be an affiliate”.
I could never understand why you would be generating all this traffic for different businesses and not be able to just make the jump - but now that I'm speaking to people more I understand where the the barriers between the skill sets actually lie.
I've realised that some of the skills that I've got, I take for granted as they’re not actually intuitive.
It’s kind of difficult to explain but they are intuitive skills - like putting together landing pages and understanding what to target to actually make money as an affiliate, because it's different making money as an affiliate than it is as an e-commerce site.
We talked a bit about dodgy affiliates or dodgy merchants earlier on. Do you have any tips for spotting a merchant that might be a dodgy?
Generally not really. Actually it's important to say that it really doesn't happen very often and that example that I gave you earlier, I did actually get paid in the end - it just took a year, but it worked out in the end.
I don't think that there has been a time where I have not been paid a really large amount of money but it will happen.
One thing you can do is if you're going to get into somebody for a lot of volume, start poking around in their finances.
Go and look at the publicly available information and Companies House.
Have a Google around because if someone else has problems with payment, you're probably going to find a court case or something.
Speak to them - actually send them some questions and if they respond and you can build up a better relationship then that's a green flag.
If I find talking to them and dealing with them is a little bit difficult or impossible then that's that's going to be something that weighs against them.
You have to try and weigh up the risk as much as possible but at the end of the day being an affiliate is an inherently risky occupation in terms of not getting paid.
We are disposable to some people and a lot of merchants don't see you as an individual - they look at an affiliate program and say, “Here is a homogenous mass of money for us and it is ours to manipulate in whatever way we please” and they see it as an automated process.
They don't see that there are humans involved, at least that's how it can feel.
Do you normally tend to use bigger affiliate networks or smaller niche, private ones?
The issue with private ones is unless you're doing really good volume with them then it starts to become a little bit of a fiddle to do all your invoices and stuff and it tends to be a little bit more difficult to to get paid.
If they're a smaller business most of them are good but again you're a little bit more at risk of not being prioritized in the payment list.
One of the good things about networks is although it sometimes maybe doesn't feel like it to affiliates, they will be chasing for your money and they will be chasing from the viewpoint of being a large business who's not wanting to develop a reputation for letting people get away without paying them.
That's one of the benefits of a bigger network but I tend to go with smaller ones.
Do you ever see a product - a retailer or someone, and you’re really keen to promote their stuff but they don't appear to have an affiliate program.
Is there ever a way that you could just reach out to them and say “I'd love to sell your stuff, is there any way we could do something on a private basis” or even try and bring them onto an affiliate network?
I personally wouldn't try and draw somebody into to that kind of arrangement.
Maybe that says more about me than anything else, it just feels a little bit too much work.
It feels an extra layer of responsibility. It feels like there's an extra risk there if they then lose interest in the idea after you put in a lot of work.
If I was going to do that it would need to be with someone that I had a pre-existing relationship with. I would be concerned otherwise.
Perhaps this is a female cautious trait, I don't know. For me it's a little extra admin that I just don't want.
If I already had lots and lots of other things monetised and those other things were going to pay me for that admin and I thought, "Well, I can probably make a buck or two or at least, I can try to enhance this", then I might give it a try.
Do you have a defined list of things that you go through when deciding on a good niche to enter when starting a side project, or is it just a bit of a gut feeling?
I've usually already tested things using PPC before I build a project around it but usually I'll start over looking at the network stats - that again is where networks can be quite handy, so that'll give you an idea of any conversion rates.
Obviously discount codes and cashback merchants do skew that data but if you have a bit of a look and just get a feel then you start to spot things that could be worth giving a better trial.
It might be that high order value or nice commissions so you can start to work out the numbers that could be involved, so knock 30 off the conversion rate because you know that they're working with coupon affiliates.
I need to figure out how much i think that average order value is going to be, this is what i think the conversion rate is, and that's what my commission would be, and so for every 100 clicks i sent these people i would get this.
Are these numbers stacking up so this either is not worth an investment of time or yeah it's worth invest my time and just build a bit of a landing page.
Spend £50 on a bit of PPC traffic and see if my guesses on this are are anywhere near accurate and then take it from there.
Is it literally just a one pager when you typically do PPC to an affiliate site?
Yeah, just a two or three page site, a basic landing page, just make sure your calls to action are really strong and just shovel the people off to the merchant.
You can get a level of their performance and if that merchant doesn't work then you can recycle the same landing page and try somebody else with the same traffic, or switch it off for a while and have a think about it find somebody else.
It's not a quick process and it can take me a couple of years to ponderously decide if that would be worth a content site and then subsequently you know don't do it.
We alluded to this earlier but what’s a typical day in the life of an affiliate? Or is it always changing based on what’s highest priority at that moment?
It always varies according to what's highest priority at that time. I think it just depends at that moment.
Most affiliate marketers I know have got a degree of flexibility somewhere in the working day, so you know they'll be working for this amount of time.
With me I stop at 3 o'clock when the children come home, get them settled in, solve any problems that they've had that day, make notes for angry phone calls with teachers!
Then if appropriate I'll resume or there'll be a walk in the middle of the day to blow away a few cobwebs, but there's not a typical day no. That's what's good about it
So apart from NotAnotherSlack which is obviously your favourite community, are there other places you like to hang out? I know we said twitter but are there other places for that side of things?
I don't really, I don't have time for the distraction.
That is one of the good things about Twitter, a lot of the interactions are really digestible.
It's a bit of back and forth and then you can just kind of skip out.
It stops you from getting distracted, which you might be starting to realise is a bit of a problem for me.
So you're at a social function and your husband introduces you to a new acquaintance and they ask what you do for a living.
Do you use the words affiliate marketing - or what do you say normally!?
I just say I market people's businesses on the internet because I've got fed up over the years trying to explain what affiliate marketing is.
Watching the disinterest creep across their face.
If pushed, if people show an interest I tell them that I am like the Avon lady on the internet so that they can understand.
Instead of coming around your house with a catalogue bothering you I've got a website that does the same thing.
You'll be looking for it you won't be buying this stuff just to please me so that I stopped coming around.
It’s a little bit different but that's how I explain it.
I also realised the other day my mother was one of the first affiliate marketers because she did Party Plan.
That was in the 80s where a lady came around to your house and you had a party and she had like a reel of clothes and she would say look at these lovely clothes and she would go through each item clothing and say look at these lovely clothes these want these ladies look at them and then she would take the orders send it away get the order back and she would get a commission.
That is what my Mum did when I was a little girl and I realized that actually I am a second generation affiliate marketer.
My Mum used to take me to all the parties and it obviously was to train me.
There’s a bit of a reputation affiliate marketers have, I suppose there might be a few bad apples. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I think that there will always be people on the fringes who will be trying to make money by doing the wrong thing.
I also think that if you have an effectively managed affiliate program that you'll spot them really quickly, so the solution is for people to manage their affiliate programs actively rather than being passive and only analyzing it every few months.
I think there is some responsibility on the part of people running affiliate programs to make sure that those people aren't there - because they are super super easy to spot.
I was an affiliate manager for quite a few years at the same time as being an affiliate and they are so, so achingly easy to spot for the most part.
Some of them are very very clever but the vast majority will be easy to weed out.
And what kind of thing would you be looking out for as an affiliate manager? Is it things like cookie stuffing?
Cookie stuffing might be a little bit hard to spot if you weren't really able to go and look at their site and get in the code and run some tests.
Generally speaking if you go through and analyse your affiliate pool - will you look at that they're converting at 20%, what could they possibly be doing?!
This is great news potentially for us if they're converting at 20% this could be my new best mate - so I'm just going to look at what they're actually doing and nine and a half times out of 10 your new best mate is doing something properly dodgy.
So it is quite easy, the signs are there because they can't help themselves. They'll be absolutely killing it and they will get carried away.
Do you think as an affiliate manager, being on the other side of the fence, it allowed you to pick up some good ideas based on what was working for other affiliates?
The reason that i became an affiliate is that i got a little bit frustrated at the pool of affiliates that i had.
I could see what they were doing and I thought well, there's what they're doing, and here's what I know about SEO - and I think that I can do better than all of these people that we have at the moment.
So I went to my boss and I said would it be unethical if I promoted this merchant we worked for and he said no go ahead and of course the answer should have been no don't do that
So I just went on ahead and about three months later I was their top performing affiliate.
That could have been very very awkward indeed but fortunately they took it quite well
They were quite happy about it - they did catch me because they were analyzing their affiliate pool, like good merchants do, but the gentleman that owned the business did go to my boss and say i could have been very very annoyed about this but i'm actually very very pleased.
So - I think I've just “outed” myself as one of the first dodgy affiliates! So yeah don’t say anything!
But I mean this would have been in 2000-2002, so a long long time ago.
I'll be trying to interview as many members of the NotAnotherSlack group as I can, diving deep into the nitty gritty of their side projects and side hustles, to reluctantly coin a Gary Vee phrase.
We've got some great little interviews lined up, with some other well known side projects. Check back over on our Member Interviews page to catch the latest one!
If you'd like to add any other questions or comments - feel free to leave one below. I'm sure Kirsty wouldn't mind answering a few more, if they catch her eye(s).
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