There are countless methods for generating leads and sales for your online course. However, affiliate marketing is one of the most effective marketing strategies for course creators. 

An affiliate program enables others to do the marketing for you. And since these programs are largely performance-based, aside from a small financial investment upfront, you only pay whenever a sale is made. 

Many e-learning websites, like Thinkific and Skillshare, have increased traffic and enrollment because of their successful affiliate programs – and your online course site could be next.

This step-by-step guide walks you through how to set up a successful affiliate program for your online course and increase your customer base.

What is an online course affiliate program?

Affiliate marketing programs involve getting other people to promote your products or services on their blogs, websites, and social platforms. In return, they get a financial incentive for every successful sale. 

Some common affiliate partners for online courses include vloggers, bloggers, and other content creators. These content creators promote and place affiliate links to your course landing page in their content, with the goal of driving traffic to your website and encouraging sales. 

When someone enrolls in your digital course through a unique affiliate link, you pay the affiliate a commission on that sale. The commission is usually cash-based, either a fixed amount or percentage of the sale, and motivates affiliates to continuously promote your course. 

In this type of program, an affiliate can earn passive income from their own channels, and your online course will get increased promotion. It’s a win-win situation. 

To set up an online course affiliate program, you need a strategy for how to get affiliates, competitive affiliate commission rates, an agreement with terms and conditions, and all other relevant information. We’re here to help you set this up. 

But first, let’s cover how your online course business can benefit from an affiliate program.

How do affiliate programs benefit online courses?

Statistics show almost 90% of advertisers find affiliate programs important to their overall marketing strategy, with affiliates driving more than 20% of annual revenue.

Here are some other benefits of using affiliate marketing for your online course.

  • Quickly builds brand awareness among a targeted audience: Affiliate marketing allows you to harness recommendations from affiliates already in your niche. This quickly exposes your brand to new groups that match your own target audience. 
  • Boosts traffic, leads, and sales: The more affiliates you have, the more links to your course will be spread across your market. This increased visibility leads to excellent results – better SEO rankings, increased traffic, and eventually, more course enrollment and revenue.
  • Harnesses earned trust: An affiliate’s audience already trusts what they say. This increases the chances more people will consider – and buy – your course if they see it mentioned on the affiliate’s site. 
  • Returns better results than ads because of the power of social proof: Most consumers are pretty skeptical about paid advertising. Affiliate marketing harnesses social proof and builds trust around your online course. 
  • Gives audiences authentic insights into your online courses: Potential consumers are more inclined to engage with your course when they see the highlights, benefits, and reviews from people who have already taken your course. If your affiliates have also taken your course, their reviews will be even more effective in converting potential consumers.
  • Works well even if your course involves a significant time or money investment: Most customers will do their research before making significant investments in an online course. Affiliate marketing helps them make an informed decision, as the affiliate – someone they trust – is personally recommending the course to them. 
  • Is more cost-effective than PPC (search engine ads): Affiliate marketing doesn’t require substantial financial investments, yet produces excellent results. It’s a performance-based form of marketing. You only pay affiliates when an affiliate link click results in a paid online course enrollment, which reduces the risk of wasting money on campaigns that don’t convert. 
  • Makes it easy to track affiliate sales and ROI: You can easily track affiliate program metrics using affiliate marketing software.

Is your online course platform ready for an affiliate program?

While affiliate programs work well for online courses, not every online course business is ready to start an affiliate program. Your online course business should meet some requirements in order to get the most success from a affiliate program:

  • Most of the courses you offer should be paid, not free. After all, affiliate marketing depends on paying affiliates a commission when they convince someone to enroll.
  • Have a library of courses that appeals to a broad audience.
  • Be willing and able to pay cash commission on every affiliate sale.
  • Know your profit margins, which will help determine how much you can afford to spend on commissions.
  • Know some content creators with audiences that match your own business audience. (It helps if the content creator has already taken your online course. All your affiliates should eventually take a course to promote it properly.)

Referral programs: An effective alternative to affiliate programs

If your online course business isn’t ready for an affiliate program, a referral program will most likely work instead.

Referral programs encourage your existing customers to recommend your courses to people they know. 

You still enjoy the benefits of word-of-mouth  referrals from people who have already taken your courses.

But you’ll also be able to offer rewards other than cash, such as course credits or discounts. This flexibility makes referral programs particularly cost-effective.

Referral Rock software can run both referral and affiliate programs, which gives you the flexibility to adapt as your online course business grows.

9 steps to start an online course affiliate program

Starting a thriving online course affiliate program depends on following several best practices. Some apply to all businesses who want to utilize affiliates. But we’re also sharing expert tips specific to online course affiliate programs. Learn from our insider info below, and set your program up for success. 

Know who would make the ideal affiliate for your courses

Your ideal affiliates should have:

  • An audience that matches yours
  • A consistent stream of content 
  • High and positive engagement from their audience, which shows their authority and earned trust
  • Personality, tone, and style that align well with your brand
  • Ethical behavior (no spammy linking or other suspicious conduct)
  • Experience using some of your online courses
  • A clear idea of the course benefits and how to communicate these benefits

The best affiliates for online courses are:

  • Existing students who have taken multiple courses from you and who create content regularly
  • Experts in the field your courses cover, as they can vouch for the quality of your courses based on their knowledge and opinions
  • Instructors of related but non-competing courses (online or in-person) who are also content creators

Stay away from affiliate networks

Affiliate networks are marketplaces that host many affiliate programs and assemble a pool of affiliates. Although these affiliate platforms can seem attractive as they find affiliates for you, their drawbacks significantly outweigh their benefits. 

Here are some disadvantages of affiliate networks:

  • Networks are expensive. The platforms take a cut from your sales (on top of the commission you pay affiliates) and often charge other extra fees.
  • You don’t control the relationship with your affiliates.
  • You’re forced to compete with other brands in the network for the same affiliates.
  • The network owns all affiliate data, which prevents you from accessing and using it to improve your program.

Use affiliate software to set up and track your program

Using affiliate marketing software makes setting up your own affiliate program easy. It has many benefits, including these:

  • It allows you to track affiliate sales and helps you compensate them automatically upon a sale.
  • It gives you full control over your affiliate data.
  • You have complete freedom to customize and run your affiliate program the way you want.
  • It costs much less than signing up for an affiliate network, as you won’t have to pay the network a cut of your sales.

Affiliate software is key for tracking your affiliate sales and making informed decisions based on the collected data. You can easily check if your affiliate program meets the goals you set, and then refine your program as needed.

Find the right affiliates

Your affiliate program’s success lies in your ability to find affiliates best suited for your online course platform. 

Here’s what you can do to find the right affiliates:

  • Take your time to search out and screen content creators in your niche.
    • Manually search for niche keywords on social media channels or use brand-mention software.
    • Look for affiliates in niche social media groups related to your course topics.
  • Reach out to the content creators who meet your needs.
  • Open an application on your website and let the affiliates come to you. Then, screen those who apply until you have your course’s best fit. 

The best affiliates are those familiar with your online courses, especially those who have already promoted you before for free.

If a potential affiliate hasn’t taken your courses, that’s okay. You’ll need to enroll them in one of your courses before they officially start as an affiliate. This allows their promotion to be more detailed and authentic. 

Also, consider smaller content creators – their communities are close-knit and may foster higher engagement than their bigger counterparts. Bigger names have a wider reach, but most of these larger creators ask for higher commissions.

Pro tip: Regardless of their history as customers, you will need to familiarize all creators who pass your screening with your current course offerings, through tutorials or webinars.

Set program goals

The SMART method is the most effective way to set goals. Your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. 

For example, you can set SMART goals on the expected revenue, enrollment numbers, or conversion rates in a specific time frame. These types of goals will make affiliate management easy.

Example goals:

  • How much revenue do you want affiliates to bring in per quarter or year?
  • How many newly enrolled customers do you want to bring in through your program, within specific time frames?
  • What’s your ideal conversion rate per quarter or per year? (Out of all the people who click affiliate links, what’s the percentage of people who pay for a course)?

Choose the right commission

Set affiliate commission rates strategically, so they will draw more affiliates. The commission you offer should be in cash or a cash equivalent (like a PayPal payment). It could be a flat fee or a percentage of each sale. 

You will attract more affiliates if you offer better commission than your competitors. However, no matter what the commission, ensure your course platform can afford to make consistent payouts.

Make sure to clearly state that commissions are paid when a customer enrolls in and pays for your course – not just for a click or a qualified lead. 

Think about varying your commission structure 

Varying your commission structure will keep your affiliates motivated to keep selling your courses. For example, you could permanently increase commission rates as affiliates make more lifetime sales, or award the month’s or year’s  top-performing affiliates with additional incentives. 

You could also offer higher commission for the courses you want to promote the most, or create limited periods where you temporarily increase all commission rates.

Pro tip: Consider awarding recurring commissions, which are commissions paid to affiliates when someone they bring in returns and enrolls in more courses. This will incentivize affiliates for bringing in customers who end up with a higher customer lifetime value.

Create an affiliate marketing agreement

Always create a written affiliate marketing agreement for all new affiliates to read, understand, and sign before posting their affiliate links. The agreement includes a set of expectations for your program, and protects your brand from fraudulent or unethical activity. 

It also outlines how affiliates can and can’t promote your online courses, and shares commission conditions, like when affiliates are eligible to earn a commission, and how long tracking cookies last after someone clicks an affiliate link.

Communicate well with affiliates

Train your affiliates on key aspects of promoting your online courses, including what they can and can’t say about your brand. It helps if you let them take a more recent course for free, regardless of their familiarity with your courses. Taking a recent course ensures they are best equipped to promote your courses authentically.

It’s also important to regularly update affiliates on any changes to your course or affiliate program. Give them any assets to help with their content, including banners, images, and videos, to showcase your courses in a more attractive way.

Have reliable communication channels for them to contact you whenever they have concerns. This could be through phone, email, or feedback form, or even in an affiliate-only online group.

Online course affiliate program examples

Now that you know how to run a thriving online course affiliate program, check out these inspiring program examples from course businesses that closely follow our best practices.

Prep Expert

Prep Expert closely follows our best practices for a successful affiliate program, including:

  • Setting a commission structure that is one of the best in the industry, with a generous 120-day tracking cookie. In addition, they offer different commission levels for different courses
  • Highlighting its ideal affiliates, i.e., content creators whose audience are high school students, teachers, and parents
  • Asking affiliate applicants to give details on how they plan to promote their courses
  • Allowing affiliates to test their course for free
  • Upon approval, giving affiliates a $300 coupon to share with their audience
  • Providing custom marketing materials
  • Welcoming new ideas from their affiliates to make their affiliate program successful

As an online business, having a competitive commission structure motivates your affiliates to promote your online courses. 

In addition, providing affiliates with custom marketing tools makes their work easier and allows them to focus on promoting your courses.

Prep expert online course affiliate program 1
Prep expert online course affiliate program 2
Prep expert online course affiliate program 3

Skillshare

Skillshare is another e-learning platform with one of the most well-known affiliate programs. It offers affiliates a flat fee of $7 as commission, and an attractive 30-day cookie length. 

The platform works with content creators on at least one channel and audience aligned with Skillshare’s brand, and gives them the opportunity to share exclusive offers with their audience as another sales driver. 

Skillshare also offers a platform for affiliates to track their traffic, referrals, and payouts in real-time. Such best practices ensure your online course affiliates remain motivated so they promote your courses more.

skillshare affiliates

Coursera

Coursera offers its affiliates a 10–45% baseline commission, with bonuses available for the best performance. These types of affiliate commissions attract many affiliates, leading to massive exposure of your brand around the internet.

Joining their affiliate program is fast and easy. Once someone is accepted to the program, they gain access to a wealth of promotional banners for their website.

Affiliates also receive an exclusive weekly newsletter to keep them in the loop. 

Coursera has a variety of courses to choose from and allows affiliates to track the traffic they are sending to its website. 

coursera affiliates

Teachable

Teachable offers an affiliate commission of up to 50%, increasing as affiliates drive more conversions. Commissions can be earned within a 90-day cookie window. 

Notably, the program pays its affiliates a recurring commission, as long as their referees remain with Teachable. 

Plus, the platform provides affiliates with a site to easily track their referrals and payouts.

Online businesses can benefit immensely from offering irresistible recurring commissions, as Teachable does. Timely payouts also show your commitment to affiliates and motivate them to continuously promote your courses.

teachable affiliates

Conclusion

An online course affiliate program will eliminate any unnecessary marketing costs and provide remarkable course sales. It’s the best option for entrepreneurs, small businesses, or established platforms to market their online courses.

A successful affiliate program has many benefits for your platform. Once you determine whether your course platform is ready for an affiliate program, do the following:

  • Find ideal affiliates
  • Avoid affiliate networks
  • Use affiliate software to set up your program
  • Set goals for your program
  • Set the right commissions
  • Have a varying commission structure
  • Create an affiliate marketing agreement
  • Create a reliable communication platform
  • Track affiliate sales

Once you observe these affiliate marketing best practices, you will have set up your program for success.

Referral Rock affiliate software will help you design and promote your affiliate program, then track and optimize it once it’s launched. Learn how our affiliate software works well for any business, including online course platforms. Or, click here to schedule a demo.