The Ethical Way to Earn Money Online (Even If You Have Nothing to Sell)

Don’t worry. You can admit it.

You secretly wish your blog was more than just a hobby.

But it’s costing you more than it earns. And that’s the hallmark of a hobby, not a serious endeavor.

Even if you have no desire to transform your blog into a business, you’d like it to at least pay its way, right?

Because starting a blog costs money — web hosting, email lists, domain renewals, social media tools.

Of course, you already know one popular option for monetizing your blog — you could create a product. But you just don’t feel ready yet. And besides, creating and promoting a product takes time.

What you need right now is a way to earn a little money from your blog without a ton of work.

Fortunately, a way exists that’s highly effective, requires little ramp-up time, and is used by some of the most respected names on the web.

Many bloggers have heard of it, but for a silly reason completely ignore it…

Why Most Bloggers Ignore the Easiest Way to Earn Money from Their Blogs

If you don’t have a product to sell, one of the best ways to earn money from your blog is to sell products that other people have created.

It’s usually referred to as affiliate marketing. Here’s how it works…

You introduce your readers to a product, and if they happen to make a purchase as a result of your introduction, you get a commission as a thank you.

It’s pretty simple, but you’d be hard pressed to find a topic that inspires as many strong opinions.

Some revere it; some despise it.

Some use it; some abuse it.

But you don’t consider it because hawking someone else’s products has always felt, well…

A little bit sleazy.

You see some other bloggers doing it, and you can’t help but feel they’re just in it to make some fast cash and couldn’t give a damn about their audiences.

But here’s the straight-up truth:

When done the right way, affiliate marketing is one of the most powerful ways to earn some money from your blog and actually help your audience.

The Living Proof That Affiliate Marketing Doesn’t Have to be Sleazy

Do some people abuse affiliate marketing for their own gain? People who will do — and say — anything for a quick sale? Sure.

But for as long as people having been selling things to other people, unscrupulous operators have always lurked on the fringes.

And you won’t have to look far to find such operators in the world of affiliate marketing.

That said, affiliate marketing is also used by some of the most ethical people you’ll find in blogging and online marketing.

People like Pat Flynn. John Lee Dumas. Even, yup, you already knew it — Jon Morrow, the man behind this very blog.

All three of these massively popular and respected bloggers promote affiliate products as a way of earning more revenue from their blogs.

How are they able to do so, while also maintaining an enviably close relationship with their audiences?

After interviewing both Pat Flynn and Jon Lee Dumas, and carefully dissecting one of Jon Morrow’s finely crafted promotional affiliate emails, I’ve put together five golden rules for earning money from affiliate marketing and staying squeaky clean.

Not only do these five rules give you an ethical blueprint for affiliate marketing, but they also provide a system for building long-term trust with your audience.

Rule #1: Start with the Right Question

Here’s the number one question most bloggers ask themselves when they start exploring affiliate marketing.

“What product should I promote?”

Unfortunately, it’s totally the wrong question. It will either:

  1. Freeze you in your tracks, or
  2. Lead you down a slow road to ruin.

The question you should ask instead is this: “What is my audience trying to accomplish?”

Answering that question will point you toward the products, tools, and resources that will help your audience accomplish what they desire.

If you don’t already know the answer, finding out is much simpler than it sounds. All you have to do is come right out and ask them.

The first time I ever built an email list, I added a simple P.S. to the auto-response email they received right after signing up:

P.S. I’d love to hear more about you and your business! What do you do, and how can I help? Hit “Reply” to this email and let’s chat. Your response will go to my personal inbox instead of a robot. 🙂

Simple, conversational — and a surprisingly large percentage of people took the time to write back and tell me exactly what they needed help with. You can incorporate this type of P.S. into any email you send to your list, or you can even send them a dedicated email.

Once you understand the needs your audience has, ask yourself: “What products will help them achieve that?”

Rule #2: Never Promote a Product You Don’t Use

One of the worst dinner parties I’ve ever been to centered around a pork belly dish the host had never tried making before.

Rather than going with a recipe he loved and had cooked before, he went with something brand new from a random blog he’d only just found.

The party itself wasn’t bad, but the food most definitely was. Fortunately, everyone was able to laugh about it.

Offering a product to your audience sight unseen, risks a similar catastrophe. And your readers might not be as forgiving as those dinner party guests.

Think about it — would you recommend to a friend a restaurant you’ve never visited? Would you put your in-laws up in a hotel in a strange part of town you don’t know? (Well, depending on your in-laws, maybe you would! But you get the picture.)

Just as you normally wouldn’t do those things, you should never promote a product you haven’t used.

As Pat Flynn says, “Before deciding to actually promote it as an affiliate, it’s always best to use that product first so you can understand the user experience that THEIR PRODUCT will provide for YOUR AUDIENCE. You have to understand what that’s like because the trust that you have with your audience is the most important thing in the world.”

Using a product that you recommend also opens the door for a better way to promote that product, according to John Lee Dumas:

The most effective way to promote affiliate products is to have genuine success USING the affiliate products. Recently, I was the number 2 affiliate for the launch of Easy Webinar. The reason I was able to have such a successful launch is because my audience saw me using their platform to run streaming webinars 7 days a week and report the results via our income reports. Fire Nation trusts us and the results we have, and it turned out to be a total win win!

The results you’ve personally achieved with a product speak louder than anything else and can save you from having to be too “salesy” with your audience.

At LeadPages, we’ve found that the best affiliates are always the ones who truly love using the product and believe in its value, which is one of the reasons why the affiliate program is exclusive to customers.

No sales pitch in the world can outperform a story of personal success from a person the audience trusts.

Rule #3: Pick a Product That Builds Their Trust

Many bloggers choose a product based on the commission structure — how much it pays, whether it’s recurring, etc.

It might sound like greed, but more likely whenever they ask their readers to buy something, they feel like they’re asking for a favor. And since you can’t ask favors too often, they figure they might as well make as much money as they can when they do.

But that’s totally the wrong way to look at it. Promoting a product is not a withdrawal from the “trust bank.” It’s a deposit — if you choose the right product.

According to Pat Flynn, commission levels shouldn’t factor into the decision you make to promote a product as an affiliate:

It’s not about the commission… it’s whether or not that product will completely help your target audience. You’ll have more click-throughs, more conversions, and more trust with your audience.

Pat’s answer hints at an often-overlooked benefit of making a successful affiliate sale — if your audience buys the product through you and has a great experience with the product, their purchasing trust in you increases.

To put it simply, they’ll more likely buy from you in the future, whether you’re recommending another affiliate product or launching your own.

And even if they don’t buy from you again, you’ll have strengthened the relationship by introducing them to a product they love.

So when analyzing affiliate opportunities, consider more than just the amount you’ll make off each sale. Consider how many outstanding experiences you can create and, ultimately, how much trust you can build.

If you get a sizeable commission — great. If the commissions are recurring — even better. But consider these details bonuses or cherries on top rather than key factors that guide your decision-making.

Rule #4: Promote Valuable Free Content, Not the Product

Even when a product is outstanding and you’ve achieved great results with it, directly asking your audience to purchase it can sometimes be daunting.

Luckily, many product creators also develop high-value free resources for you to promote instead — resources that ultimately tie into an offer to buy one of their products.

Usually, they work like this:

  1. You send your audience (via a unique link) to a free resource created by a second party that will teach them something valuable (a free video course, for example).
  2. After going through the free resource, they will be sent an offer to purchase a more expansive, related product.
  3. If they purchase that product, you receive a commission.

Recently, John Lee Dumas made his affiliates very happy by offering exactly this type of free resource. As he said:

It may seem to go against the grain, but free is proving to be incredibly valuable for our affiliates in 2015. With the launch of and, our affilates are now able to offer their audience a completely free and very valuable product that doesn’t require an intial investment. Both of the courses are great funnels into our paid communities, but only after delivering massive value.
If you’ve been following Smart Blogger for a while, you’ve even occasionally seen these offers for yourself.

Back in January 2015, Jon Morrow sent out an email recommending a new free video series from Danny Iny of Mirasee about building online courses.

The video series had tons of value for anyone interested in building a product, but it also acted as an on-ramp for people to register an interest in Danny’s paid product.

Jon’s email to his list is an excellent example of how to promote this kind of offer in a way that is 100% transparent and keeps your audience’s best interests in mind.

So let’s take a look at a few of the finer points…

First, Jon introduced Danny as one of the best online course experts he knows:

Danny has made almost as much money as me from online courses. And to be frank, I’m intensely jealous of his Superman T-shirt (watch the videos, and you’ll see what I mean).

What’s more, he’s a smart dude, a great teacher, and a standup guy. I have absolutely zero problem recommending him.

In lieu of me, he’s the absolute best guy you can go to for this information. Maybe the only guy.

So, go watch the videos.

This segment of the email does something very important — it tells Jon’s audience, “I know Danny. I trust Danny. He will add value to what you do.”

Jon is letting us know that he follows and trusts Danny’s advice, and we can too. In a sense, Danny is the product, and Jon’s recommendation is based on his personal experience with Danny.

Next, and perhaps most importantly, Jon is 100% transparent in acting as an affiliate for the course that will be coming out:

To be totally transparent, I’m also partnering with Danny, so if you buy anything, it benefits me. That’s just another sign of how much I believe in him, though. I only partner with the best of the best.

This leaves no questions in the audience’s minds about Jon’s motivation for promoting the course. He takes control of the conversation and let’s them know that, yes, he will make some money if they buy, but that’s not his primary motivation for sharing the series with them.

Last but not least, Jon signs off with a sentence that takes any remaining pressure off:

If you’re interested, take a look at the free videos and then decide for yourself. And if not, I’ll be back with another great blog post for you shortly.

This leaves the decision entirely in the reader’s hands, with no pushiness. It’s the opposite of that word that makes so many bloggers cringe: salesy.

In fact, Jon’s subtly saying: “Whether you buy Danny’s product or not, it’s not going to affect your relationship with me.”

So if you’re looking for a way to ease into promoting affiliate offers, take a cue from Jon and find out if the product you’d like to sell as an affiliate has relevant free resources you can promote instead.

Rule #5: Create Your Own Collateral

Of course, promoting free resources isn’t the only way to promote affiliate products without being salesy.

Let’s take Pat Flynn as an example. He’s been wildly successful promoting paid products on his website,

In fact, a quick look at his latest income report shows that Pat made just under $60,000 in affiliate earnings during February 2015. The month before that he made over $70,000.

If you didn’t know Pat, you’d probably think he’d have to be pushing other people’s products pretty damn hard to make that kind of money. Maybe even engaging in a few unscrupulous tactics to squeeze every last dollar.

And yet Pat is widely considered one of the most ethical bloggers out there — he’d be the last person to shove a sales pitch down your throat. So how in the world is he earning so much affiliate income month after month?

By providing his own content, not sales pitches. As he puts it:

Don’t just talk about [the product] a little bit, include a call to action, and then a link. Get into the insides of that product, and show people what it’s like. Like those popular unboxing videos on YouTube, share every part of it and how to use it, what’s cool about it, what’s not cool about it, and let these potential customers understand what they’re going to get when they get it.

Creating walk-through YouTube videos which provide massive value on their own even without a hard sell at the end always perform best for me. You’re giving a tutorial on a hot topic, and you just happen to be using that product to either make things easier or faster, or become the solution they need.

For example, the $37,650 in commissions he earned from (check out his income report) came from a video he put together called “How to Create a Blog in Less Than 4 Minutes.” In the video, he doesn’t just pitch Bluehost; he teaches viewers how to do something valuable (create a blog) and shows off a product that makes it easier (Bluehost).

Another effective strategy is to create a “Resources” page on your website so visitors can see the tools you personally use and recommend. As a matter of fact, Smart Blogger implements this strategy in the form of a “Tools We Recommend” post.

To give another example, networking expert and Smart Blogger contributor John Corcoran wrote a post on his blog featuring this video showing how to use the relationship management tool Contactually to handle email follow-ups:

Not only is the video genuinely useful, but it subtly signposts the fact that this is a tool John personally uses. And under the video there’s a clearly marked affiliate link to use if readers do want to find out more.


Regardless of the content format you choose to go with, the formula is simple:

  1. Determine something your audience wants to learn to accomplish.
  2. If you don’t already know, learn how to successfully accomplish that thing.
  3. Give your audience a piece of content that takes them step-by-step through accomplishing that thing, and show them the products you use to do it.

Additionally, if you really want to go above and beyond (and you should), Pat Flynn recommends offering support for the products you recommend:

Offer support. Ask for questions. Yes, you’d need to know the product well in order to do that (remember, I said treat it as if it were your own, so would you sell something of your own you didn’t know much about?), but those people who will take you up on that offer are the ones who are on the fence, and you and your reply could be the little nudge they need to feel secure and comfortable with their purchase.

It’s Time Your Blog Became More Than Just a Hobby

Let’s face it.

It’s about time your blog stopped freeloading and started paying its way.

And if you don’t have your own product to offer, affiliate products are the perfect solution.

But promoting them isn’t about pushy sales pitches and sky-high commissions.

It’s about understanding what your readers need.

It’s about finding products that can help them get it.

And it’s about supporting them so they can reach their goals.

When you do it right, you’ll further enhance the trust you’re building with your blog.

So let’s shift your blog from being just a hobby to something a little more serious.

Go out and find a product your readers will genuinely love. And they’ll love you a little more too.

About the Author: Will Hoekenga is a copywriter at LeadPages™. Ready to get started with affiliate marketing? Grab their entire free 11-part “Affiliate Marketing System” course here. It will walk you through the complete process of earning affiliate income while also adding massive value to your audience.